A friend of mine worked in a bank overseas for about a year, handling large amounts of money. During training, she studied various bills and learned their details, so she could easily discern counterfeits if they came along.
She studied the real thing so she could identify distortions.
The same goes for the gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to know the true gospel so we can identify counterfeit “gospels” and grasp how the truth applies to our lives.
But where do we start?
What Is the True Gospel?
Romans 5 answers three questions that we can use as a framework to help us grasp the true gospel:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand…God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Romans 5:1-2, 8-9)
Saved from what? The wrath of God.
There is no gospel apart from the wrath of God and his righteous judgment against sinners (v. 9). This is an uncomfortable reality, but one we must hold to because ignoring or belittling sin does not mean sin goes away. Jesus is the standard—each one of us has fallen short and sinned against him.
Saved by whom? Jesus Christ.
Christians are saved from the wrath of God by the righteous blood of Jesus, the spotless sacrificial Lamb who absorbed the wrath on our behalf (v. 8). Only Jesus has the power to save desperate, dead sinners from God’s wrath by giving them eternal life in his Name, accomplishing what we never could.
Saved how? By grace through faith.
True faith says, “I bring nothing to the table. I come empty-handed, but Christ gladly gives himself to me.” For, faith is trusting that when I was dead in sin, Jesus did everything to purchase eternal life for me by his death on the cross and his resurrection to new life. And faith is trusting that Jesus did this apart from anything I have done.
Seven Counterfeit Gospels
As we seek to believe and proclaim the true gospel, we should be aware of these seven counterfeit gospels about sin, Jesus, and faith:
1. The Good-People Gospel
This one says, “We’re all basically good people. We make mistakes – nobody’s perfect – but we’re good people at heart.”
This claim is wrong and dangerous. Ignoring sin does not make it disappear. Recognizing sin means there is Someone to whom we will be held responsible. Even though our pride doesn’t roll with that idea, sin is real, and it’s a power we need rescuing from. No one is good, not one (see Psalm 14:3).
2. The Self-Esteem Gospel
This distortion claims, “Believe in yourself! You might have some struggles and issues, but you’re resilient. There’s a Savior who will give all you need to solve your problems.”
This dangerous false gospel masquerades sin as “insecurity” or “negative self-image,” rather than calling it what it is. Remember, belittling sin does not make it go away. When we belittle sin, we lose the gospel. For Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
3. The Expressive-Individualism Gospel
This one claims that Christianity is all about “being true to yourself,” “following your heart,” and “living authentically.”
But this idea runs counter to everything the gospel says. We’re sinners who can’t trust our hearts because they’re deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9). Apart from Christ, we’re slaves to sin, not free in ourselves (Romans 6:17). And our sin darkens our minds and blinds us to God’s reality so we’re unable to discover what’s authentic and true (2 Corinthians 4:4).
4. The Optional-Jesus Gospel
This belief says, “Jesus is a way, not the way. A person can find their way to God through a number of different spiritual experiences.”
To say that Jesus is optional not only goes against the Bible’s teaching about who Jesus is (John 14:6; Acts 4:12), but it thwarts the gospel. For if Jesus is not really the holy, righteous Son of God, who came to bear sin, absorb God’s wrath, and make peace with God through reconciliation so I wouldn’t be condemned forever, there is no good news to believe.
Think about this: If Jesus is only “a way” to God, he’s either a lunatic or a liar for the divine claims he made, and his sacrifice on the cross was for nothing. It was a waste of a life. And if this is true, then “our faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
5. The Prosperity Gospel
This distorted view of Jesus says that he guarantees his followers a happy, healthy life with no troubles.
But the truth is this: Jesus suffered. Those who believe in him will suffer too. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
We must guard against the belief that Jesus is here to cozy up our lives and make everything easy for us. If we’re deceived into believing this, we won’t follow Jesus for long, for we will be disappointed, bitter, even hardened to God when things don’t go our way. The truth is, we follow a Suffering Savior in a fallen world affected by sin. Our Jesus did not avoid suffering, but entered into it to bring us salvation.
6. The Faith-And Gospel
This distortion claims that “faith and” something else is sufficient to save me: Faith and my good works; faith and enough self-loathing; faith and a right understanding of God.
It’s hard to believe that God would give salvation as a free gift without requiring that we earn it. Because our sin-nature screams for independence and control, we want to have something to do with our salvation. But we cannot add one thing to the work and person of Jesus Christ. “It is finished” (John 19:30); death is defeated; evil is overcome.
7. The Faith-So Gospel
This opposite end of the spectrum is what theologians call “cheap grace,” which says, “Jesus is my righteousness and perfection, so I can live however I want because in the end, I’m saved!”
Yes, it is for freedom that Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1), but we are set free from sin’s power to live for Christ, not to remain in our sin and live any way we want. To take wrong advantage of God’s grace and forgiveness that “sin may abound” belittles what Christ did and cheapens his free gift of grace. Faith does not give us the freedom to stay in sin; it frees us from sin so our lives increasingly point to Jesus.
Grasping the Gospel
Friends, though we need to know the truth of the gospel from its counterfeits, we must know that the gospel is about the person of Jesus Christ and his grasp on us. You can intellectually assent to the gospel—you can “know it”—without ever grasping it, without ever marveling at what a miracle Christ has accomplished, without it ever transforming your heart.
But Jesus came so you would love him, walk closely with him, worship him, and see him at work in the realest moments and seasons of your life.