I’ve been posting on the seven ways that we falsely live out the gospel, as Lane & Tripp have written in their excellent book How People Change. If you haven’t gotten the hint yet…READ THIS BOOK! In the first post I wrote about Formalism (Volunteerism) and Legalism. In the second post I covered Mysticism, Activism, and Biblicism. In this post we’ll cover the last two gospel substitutes.
Jen always has a group of people ministering to her. She talks a lot about how many ‘hurting’ people are in her congregation, and how the church isn’t doing enough to help them. An avid reader of Christian self-help books, she is always recommending the latest one to someone. She often says that Christianity is the only place to find real help and healing, yet she doesn’t seem to find that healing herself. Jen spends much of her time discouraged and often leaves church meetings in tears.
Jen is right that our deepest needs are met in Christ, but she sees Christ more as a therapist than as the Savior. Jen is convinced that her deepest needs come out of her experience of neglect and rejection, and so she sees herself more in need of healing than redemption. She is blind to how demanding, critical, and self-absorbed she actually is.
Without realizing it, Jen has redefined the problem that the gospel addresses. Rather than seeing our problem as moral and relational—the result of our willingness to worship and serve ourselves and the things of this world instead of worshipping and serving our Creator (Romans 1)—she sees our problem as a whole catalog of unmet needs. But whenever you view the sin of another against you as a greater problem than your own sin, you will tend to seek Christ as your therapist more than you seek him as your Savior. Christianity becomes more a pursuit of healing than a pursuit of godliness. The gospel is reduced to the healing of emotional needs.
God wants to heal us. But the healing of our emotional wounds is not the end God has in mind for us. God wants to take us through healing and out the other side, toward godliness. Our fundamental problem is not our personal catalogue of unmet needs or emotional wounds–it is the sin of our hearts. All the sins committed against us are exacerbated by our sinful, unforgiving responses. The gospel of Jesus goes beyond psychology in that it both offers and demands forgiveness of sin.
George was so thankful for the relationships he had found in the body of Christ. They were unlike any friendships he had experienced before. He was so full of joy for his Christian family that he participated in any activity that put him in contact with other believers. George loved his twenty-something Bible study, but he particularly enjoyed going out with the gang afterward. He loved the retreats, the camping trips, and the short-term missionary projects. For the first time in his life, George felt alive and connected.
George’s trouble started when one of his closest friends was transferred out of state and another friend got married. Then his church called a new pastor who decided to de-emphasize ministry to singles. When the small groups at his church were reorganized, George felt that he was stuck with a group of older married people with whom he couldn’t relate. Church wasn’t the same anymore, so he quit going to his small group. Before long his attendance on Sunday began to wane. Going to church, he said, was like going to someone else’s family reunion.
George didn’t realize it, but fellowship, acceptance, respect, and position in the body of Christ had replaced his dependence on communion with Christ. The church had become his spiritual social club, and when the club began to break up, he lost his motivation to continue. For George, the grace of friendship replaced Christ as the thing that gave him identity, purpose, and hope. The gospel had been reduced to a network of fulfilling Christian relationships.
God has called us to live out our faith in the community of other believers. This is often where we see the gospel happen, but the fellowship of believers is not itself the gospel. Neither friendships nor community are an acceptable substitute for Christ himself. As a community of Christ-followers, it is our responsibility to point one another to Jesus, orienting our hearts toward him, rather than pointing each other back to the community. The Church exists for Jesus, not for herself.
These are the seven ways we get the gospel wrong. They are external, behavior-oriented systems of living out your faith. They do nothing to invite the power and presence of the Holy Spirit into our deep hearts, where the truth of the gospel of grace is worked out at the deep level of what we think, what we want, and how we remember. Only the gospel can change our hearts at the level of desire. To attempt to live out the good news of Jesus through any of these false, external-oriented systems is to completely fail to live out the power of the gospel.