In their excellent book How People Change (which I’ve reviewed here), Timothy Lane & Paul Tripp make the point that Christians often fail to live out the gospel in their daily lives. This is because we suffer from three blindnesses: 1) Our identity as sinners; 2) The all-sufficient provision God has made for us in Jesus; 3) God’s processes of change. We are blind to these three crucial realities, and they create a gap in our understanding of the gospel. We inevitably seek to fill this gap with a gospel substitute.
If we do not live with a gospel-shaped, Christ-confident, and change-committed Christianity, that [gap] will get filled with other things. …The most dangerous pretensions are those that masquerade as true Christianity but are missing the identity-provision-process core of the gospel. They have their roots in the truth, but they are incomplete. The result is a Christianity that is mere externalism. Whenever we are missing the message of Christ’s indwelling work to progressively transform us, the [gap] will be filled by a Christian lifestyle that focuses more on externals than on the heart.
These gospel substitutes often look and feel like Christianity, but they are a perversion of it. “The lies that capture us as Christians usually seem to fit well within the borders of our Christianity.” We are often at a loss for how the gospel works in our lives because we are living one of these gospel substitutes, rather than the good news of Jesus Christ.
As sinners, we like to be at the center of the universe. We like being the ones who control the agenda. Yet the gospel makes it clear that the only way to really live is first to die, and that those who strive to live, end up dying as a result. When the gospel is reduced to a catalog of isms where I choose the one most attractive and comfortable for me, I can participate extensively in Christianity without much personal sacrifice, and with my self, unchallenged, at the center of it all.
Tripp & Lane list seven gospel substitutes that plague Christians. I’ll post two here and the other five in another post. Perhaps you’ll find that you have been living a gospel substitute rather than the true good news of Jesus.
1. Formalism (Volunteerism)
If you want to know the church calendar, just look at Jim’s schedule. Whatever the meeting or ministry, Jim is there, Bible in hand. He’s done his stint as a Sunday school teacher and regularly volunteers for short-term missions trips. He is faithful in giving and a willing volunteer when work needs to be done around the church. But Jim’s world and God’s world never meet. All of his church activities have little impact on his heart and how he lives his life.
God railed against the formalism of the Israelites (see Isa. 1), and Christ condemned the formalism of the Pharisees (see Matt. 23:23-28). Why? Because formalism allows me to retain control of my life, my time, and my agenda. Formalism is blind to the seriousness of my spiritual condition and my constant need for God’s grace to rescue me. Jim sees his church participation simply as one healthy aspect of a good life. He has no noticeable hunger for God’s help in any other area. For him, the gospel is reduced to participation in the meetings and ministries of the church.
Formalism is more than just staying busy for Jesus; it’s substituting church activity for Jesus himself. It seems innocent on the outside, but it’s a false way of making yourself look spiritual while keeping your heart safe from the power of Jesus. The gospel goes far beyond mere participation in various church ministries or committees.
Sally is a walking list of dos and don’ts. She has a set of rules for everything. They are her way of evaluating herself and everyone around her. Her children live under the crushing weight of her legalism. To them, God is a harsh judge who places unreasonable standards on them and then condemns them when they can’t keep them. There is no joy in Sally’s home because there is no grace to be celebrated. Sally thinks that performing her list gives her standing with God. She has no appreciation for the grace given her in Christ Jesus.
Legalism completely misses the fact that no one can satisfy God’s requirements. While Sally rigidly keeps her rules, her pride, impatience, and judgmental spirit go untouched. Legalism ignores the depth of our inability to earn God’s favor. It forgets the need for our hearts to be transformed by God’s grace. Legalism is not just a reduction of the gospel, it is another gospel altogether (see Galatians), where salvation is earned by keeping the rules we have established.
Legalism is familiar to far too many of us. It is nothing more than the futile effort to live an externally moral life. It’s all about the things you don’t do. Legalists frown a lot. Like the authors said, it’s not simply a reduction of the gospel, it’s another gospel altogether.