What are today's counterfeit gospels masquerading as the real thing and giving people false hope?
Author, Trevin Wax, discusses this vital issue, urging believers to avoid subtle drifts in their thinking
and to be captured by the biblical gospel.
[Editor's note: The following excerpt is taken from chapter 7 of Trevin Wax's book, counterfeit gospels: rediscovering the good news in a world of false hope , (Moody, 2011)] [In previous chapters of Counterfeit Gospels,] we've looked at the first two legs of the three-legged stool that represents the gospel. We've seen how the gospel story is the context in which we make the gospel announcement. But we must not neglect the third leg of this stool, the gospel community that the announcement births.
Too many times, we evangelicals miss the full picture of the gospel by telling a story that goes something like this: God loves you, but you have sinned against Him. You need redemption, which is provided by Jesus Christ, who died for your sins. If you accept Jesus, your relationship with God will be restored and you will live in heaven with Him after you die.
There is nothing untrue about any of these statements. But this presentation has reduced the great story of the Bible to a message about me and God. And that message simply doesn't do justice to what we see in the Bible. Ask yourself, Why does the Bible tell us the story of Israel? Why are there so many letters given to the church? Why do we have all the laws that were to govern God's people in their common life together? Why does God make a covenant with David? Why does the Bible contain the prophets' messages to the people of God?
The answer is this: God desires to care for and mature a chosen community of people. The story of the Bible tracks the journey of God's covenant community, a people commissioned to be salt and light for the good of this world and the glory of God's name. The focus of the Bible (and the focus of God's saving work) is His beloved community: ethnic Israel in the Old Testament and the true Israel (Jew and Gentile alike who profess faith in Christ) in the New Testament. Joshua Harris writes:
God's plan for glorifying himself in the world has always been a group plan. He has always planned to redeem a people. And he's always revealed himself to the world through a nation. That was the past perfection in the first pages of the book of Genesis. That is the future described in the closing pages of Revelation—God dwelling among his people.3
The gospel story and the gospel announcement lead to the formation of the gospel community. The church is not an afterthought in the purposes of God. Pastors Tim Chester and Steve Timmis are right: "The church . . . is not something additional or optional. It is at the very heart of God's purposes. Jesus came to create a people who would model what it means to live under His rule. It would be a glorious outpost of the kingdom of God, an embassy of heaven. This is where the world can see what it means to be truly human."4 The gospel announcement births people into God's kingdom, and God makes His kingdom visible through the formation of His church.
What Is the Church?
Sometimes you'll hear people use the term "universal church." The universal church refers to all the redeemed of all the ages. But most of the time, the Scriptures speak of the church as a "local church." The local church is a visible manifestation of the invisible, universal church.
The actual word "church" can be translated as "assembly." A local church is a group of believers in Jesus Christ who gather together to fulfill the functions of the church, which include worship, prayer, fellowship, evangelism, service, and discipleship.
The church's corporate identity witnesses to the coming kingdom of God. You may have heard the phrase, "Stake out the land." This goes back to explorers who had come across lands yet undiscovered. By putting a stake in the ground, the explorers were claiming the land for the kingdom they represented. A church is like a stake in the ground, an outpost that by its very existence declares, "God is king here."
As witnesses to the kingdom of God, church members proclaim the gospel. We proclaim the gospel individually by engaging in personal evangelism and calling others to repentance. We proclaim the gospel corporately by gathering to hear the Word of God preached in our midst.
Churches also proclaim the gospel by observing the sacraments: baptism and the Lord's Supper. When churches baptize believers, we proclaim (in signs) the gospel of Christ's burial and resurrection. When churches partake of the Lord's Supper, we are putting on display the gospel of Christ's broken body for sinners' redemption. As we serve one another, others know we are Christians by our love.
J. I. Packer has summed up our mission this way: "The task of the church is to make the invisible kingdom visible through faithful Christian living and witness-bearing."5
So how do we rightly understand the gospel community? How do we keep from leading people to believe a gospel announcement that fails to incorporate them into a local congregation? There are four truths related to the church that we should consider.
Truth 1: The Church Embodies the Gospel
The church is an embodiment of the gospel message. God's plan from the very beginning has been to spotlight His glory by redeeming a people who submit to His rule. Our lives together make the gospel visible.
Joining a church is not an optional good work for some Christians. The local church is the place where we put into action all that we believe. Our beliefs about God, about ourselves, about Jesus Christ, and about repentance and faith—these beliefs are fleshed out and made visible by our life in the church. Mark Dever says: "God is displaying, lighting up His gospel, through our churches."6
The Witness of Our Life Together
How do unbelievers know we are Christians? By the fish symbols on our car? By our bumper stickers? By our voting patterns? By our church attendance? No, Jesus tells us that the outside world will know we are Christians by the way we love one another (see John 13:34; 1 John 1:12). When we submit to one another in love, we bolster our evangelistic witness by showing the world that love and authority don't have to be separated. God's rule is life-giving. He rules us for our good and for His glory, and the church reflects that loving rule.
If you want to witness effectively to the gospel, invite people to observe the community of faith. Let them witness our common life together. Let them see the basic themes of the gospel announcement by the way we treat one another.
Since God has forgiven us through the costly blood of His Son, so must we pour ourselves out to others in love and forgiveness. As we have received forgiveness, we grant forgiveness. As God keeps His promises to us, so we keep our promises to those in our church. Remembering that God has laid down His life for His enemies, we commit to telling the truth no matter the personal cost. Since God has cared for us, we care for each other. Since God has conquered evil on our behalf, we stand for the oppressed and the persecuted. And those outside the community watch and know there is a genuine difference.
A Community Birthed by the Gospel
When I use the term "gospel community," I mean "the community birthed by the gospel announcement." The church is not the good news. We announce the gospel within the context of its story. But we are only witnesses to the gospel, not the gospel itself.
Our good deeds are a sweet fragrance to the God who has redeemed us, but our works are not the gospel. So when Christian activists tell us, "We are the ones we've been waiting for," we must respectfully disagree. The church is not the gospel, but the gospel does form the church. Our communal life together is intended to be a display of the good news for a watching world.
Truth 2: The Gospel Incorporates Us into a Community of Faith
The New Testament uses many metaphors when describing the gospel community. We are called a "flock" (Acts 20:28). We are said to be the body of Christ with Christ as the head (1 Corinthians 1:12). There is also a picture of the church as a building (1 Peter 1:5). Notice how these metaphors incorporate us as individuals into the congregation as a whole. Each of us takes our place within the community, as a sheep in the flock, as a member of the body, as a living stone in the house.
When we rightly understand the story being told in the Scriptures, we see how much God invests in forming communities that reflect His glory. In the Old Testament, God calls out the people of Israel. In the New Testament, He sets about calling people from every tribe, tongue, and nation to believe in His Son. The gospel announcement is intended to incorporate us into a community of faith.
Baptized into one Body
Remember God's promise to deliver the children of Israel out of the hands of an oppressive Egyptian pharaoh? God tells them, "I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians" (Exodus 6:7). God promises rescue in order to prove His love for them. They will be His people. In Deuteronomy 4:20, Moses says, "The Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of His own inheritance, as you are this day." God saved every single Hebrew from slavery in order that they might together be the people of His own inheritance.
The same theme runs through the New Testament. In the Gospels, we see that during the week of Passover, Jesus went to the cross to pay the price for our sins. If the purpose of Christ's atoning death was merely to make atonement for individuals, He might have chosen the Day of the Atonement, Yom Kippur, the day when the priest made atonement for sin. Instead, it appears that Jesus chose Passover because of its corporate significance. The atoning death (the blood of the lamb smeared on the doorposts) leads to the rescue of the community (the Exodus), in order that the people may freely worship God and reflect His glory.7
In one of Paul's letters, we read, "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:12). We are not baptized as individual Christians out there in the world. We are baptized into a community.
John Stott reminds us of the Holy Spirit's work in the early church: "He ‘added to their number . . . those who were being saved.' He didn't add them to the church without saving them, and he didn't save them without adding them to the church. Salvation and church membership went together; they still do."8
The gospel incorporates us into a family. Justification by faith has two dimensions: a saving dimension (in which we are declared righteous because of Christ's obedient life and sacrificial death in our place) and a corporate dimension (in which we are united to those whose faith in Christ becomes their primary identity). Joseph Hellerman puts it this way: We are justified and then "familified"—adopted into God's family.9 There is a vertical aspect to our justification (we are reconciled to God), which then leads to a horizontal dimension (we are reconciled to one another).
For Me, for Us, for God
A few years ago, I volunteered to be a counselor at a youth camp. During the bus ride to camp, I had a conversation with one of the other counselors. She told me the story of how she came to faith in Christ. "I grew up going to Catholic school and church," she said. "I knew who Jesus was. I had an awe and fear of God instilled in me. I believed that Jesus Christ died on the cross for the sins of the world."
Then she stopped, her lip quivering, "But I never really understood that Jesus died for me." She went on to tell me about how she attended a Christian concert where she heard the message of the gospel. All of her Christian knowledge about Jesus became personal. Her heart was captured by the glorious truth that Christ died for her. Martin Luther made much of the phrase "for me," and rightly so. That phrase is at the heart of the Reformation, for God's personal love for us penetrates our hard hearts and brings lasting change.
Interestingly enough, the summer in which I listened to this woman's testimony was the summer in which I was having an epiphany that went the opposite way. Having grown up in evangelical churches all my life, I had always taken for granted the truth that Christ died for me. That truth was emphasized again and again, and it had gripped my heart long ago. What was becoming more glorious to me was the truth that Christ died for us. I was beginning to see in Scripture how Christ's death purchased His church as a bride. Furthermore, this action for us was ultimately for God and His glory. My epiphany was grasping the truth that Christ's death for me was bigger and better than I had ever dreamed: it was also for us and for God.
I'm afraid we often take the glorious for me of the gospel and separate it from the for us and the for God. We shrink the gospel down until it is a message about the individual standing before God that no longer contains the gospel community at the heart of God's plan. Instead, we need to see the for me wrapped up in the for us, which is wrapped up in the for God. It all goes back to God and His glory being made manifest through the church that he has bought with the blood of His Son.
Emphasize the for me to the exclusion of everything else, and you wind up with an individualistic message about personal salvation; the church becomes an optional side-effect of the gospel message. Emphasize the for us and for God aspects of the message and you never bring the good news down to the personal level; you don't challenge someone to trust in Christ. But put them together, and you have the biblical understanding of the gospel—both individual and corporate. Once you grasp all three aspects, your personal salvation story is given eternal significance because it is caught up in the great, unfolding drama dreamed up in the heart of our good and loving Creator.
Truth 3: The Gospel Community Is Made Up of Kingdom People
Picture an old church building. The church's steeple stands against a blue sky. Worn from years of wind and rain, the building's exterior reveals its age. The doors are open, but only for tourists interested in the architecture. Floors creak; dust sits on the pews. Once the platform for Bible preaching, the altar is only a museum curiosity, untouchable in a glass case.
The most unusual aspect of this museum-church is the cemetery outside. You think to yourself, Surely, we twenty-first-century Christians are too sophisticated to pass by a graveyard on our way into church every Sunday. Only morbid fascination could have led Christian saints to bury their dead so close to the house of worship.
Yet the gravestones tell another story. "With Jesus, I shall rise," says one. "The grave cannot confine me here. When Christ doth call, I must appear!" says another. "I know that my Redeemer lives," affirms a third. Preoccupation with death doesn't explain the cemetery's strange location. Instead, it was the church's anticipation of new life. The tombstones reveal the joyous truth: Resurrection is coming! Death has lost its sting. God's promises of new heaven and earth will soon be fulfilled.
Teaching on the final resurrection "passed away" long ago in most evangelical circles. Whenever we mention rising from the dead, we almost always reference Jesus' resurrection. Sadly, we forget the link that connects Jesus' rising to our own. When we lose sight of our future resurrection, the Easter message loses power and relevance. We also lose our understanding of the power of the church's presence on earth right now.
When the disciples saw the risen Jesus, they sensed He was in a position to initiate His earthly kingdom—though as Acts 1:6 shows, they were confused about when that would come to pass. Jesus' resurrection was the event that marked the beginning of God's new world and gave them hope that God would one day vindicate all His chosen people by reversing the curse of death, raising them bodily from the dead, and giving them eternal, incorruptible, and transformed bodies. Though the old age of sin and decay continued on, the new age had begun.
The Bible teaches that the Messiah's past is our future. Jesus' resurrection is the foretaste—the firstfruits—of the resurrection in which all Christians will one day share (1 Corinthians 1:20). What is true of our Messiah will be true of us (2 Timothy 2:11).
The final resurrection reminds us that the Christian's hope is much richer than a disembodied heavenly experience after death. What we usually call "heaven" is what the New Testament writers would have considered an intermediary state—a holding place for the saved until the resurrection of the Last Day.10 Don't think, though, that this "paradise" was just a place for "soul sleep." Paul proclaimed that to be "absent from the body [was] to be present with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 2:8 KJV). Nonetheless, as nice as the temporary afterlife may be, the apostles saw it as simply a stop on the way to the glorious new heaven and earth that God had promised to bring about.
We often miss the big picture because we gloss over the Bible passages that speak continually about life after the afterlife—the promised new heaven and earth. We are like travelers on our way to the Grand Canyon, giving all our attention to the Hilton we'll be resting at overnight on the journey. As nice as the Hilton may be, it is only a stop on the path to the splendor ahead.
The biblical view of the afterlife is not about escaping earth to get to heaven. It's about heaven coming on earth—the New Jerusalem coming from God's dimension onto a physical newly created and transformed earth (Revelation 21:2). It's not about shedding our bodies; it's about God transforming them into an incorruptible state (2 Corinthians 5:2). The final dwelling place of man is not to go to heaven to be with God; the final dwelling place of God is to come from heaven to be with man (Revelation 21:3).
Cemeteries once surrounded churches because the saints knew that the coffins they nailed shut would one day be thrown open. The decayed and dusty remains of a once-vibrant body would be transformed into a new type of physical reality—one that will never know death. Believers wanted to be near their church house when the trumpet sounds.
The tombstones continue to speak: "My flesh shall slumber in the ground, 'till the last of trumpets joyful sound. Then burst the chains with sweet surprise, and in my Savior's image rise!" Another simply says, "Waiting." Curiously, the more recent the gravestones, the fewer the references to the Christian's glorious hope. The church must have moved away from speaking on the resurrection. Suddenly, you begin to wonder, Maybe that's what turned the church into a museum.
The church on earth agrees with the apostle Peter's confession that Jesus Christ is the messiah king. The apostle Paul says that we are citizens of heaven. Many times we think of our heavenly citizenship in terms of how our home is elsewhere. But this is not the proper understanding of a colony.
We often hear phrases like, "Heaven is my home; this earth is just a temporary stopping point." Biblically, that picture is backwards. Christians who die go to heaven with a round-trip ticket. Our final destination is a new earth—the place where righteousness dwells (2 Peter 2:13). Those who have gone before us are already in the presence of the Lord, but even they wait with anticipation for the resurrection of their bodies and the final restoration of all things.
We were not made for heaven; we were made for earth. Specifically, we were made for heaven on earth. The church is a colony of the coming kingdom. When the pilgrims came to the new world and established (eventually) thirteen colonies, they had no intention of staying here for a long time and then returning to England, their true home. They realized that the new world was their home, and they did everything they could to make sure that the best of British culture made it here. They colonized America for the motherland.
Likewise, we live according to the gospel announcement as ambassadors for the true King. Our faithful presence here on earth should provide a glimpse of what the life of heaven is like. We are to be a fragrance of the new world that is coming and a warning of the accompanying judgment. The church is the society where the kingdom of Jesus Christ is manifested and extended.
Let's say that you live in a town that is in a desert. One day, someone shows up and says, "Get ready for snowfall! A north wind will come and bring snow that will cover this land. The world will be like new, but you must be prepared for the day it snows!" Even though you live in a town that has never seen snow, people believe the strange message that snow will fall and blanket the town.
The people who believe in the coming snow begin to prepare the town for Christmas. Some put up Christmas lights. Others design snow plows. Still others cover their plants. Even if most people scoff at the snow-watchers, the group maintains their belief that everything will be made new. And mysteriously, whenever the snow people come together, a cool breeze begins to blow and it flurries just a bit, giving them just a taste of the glory that's coming.
The church of Jesus Christ is like a flurry before the great snow. Christians live in light of the coming reality. When we gather together, we sense the Spirit of God blowing through our midst, changing us and renewing the world around us. We also warn people of the judgment that will accompany the presence of God on that day. We are a colony of heaven, and our life together makes the announcement: Repent, trust in the Messiah-King who has died for your sins, and be ready for the coming kingdom!
United at the Foot of the Cross
During the Rwandan genocide in the mid 1990s, there was a school that had teenage students from both the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. One day, three men burst into the school with guns and a machete. The students were terrified. One of the men shouted: "I want you to separate yourselves between Hutu and Tutsi."
One of the boys in the room, Phanuel, worried about what might take place. Catherine Claire Larson, author of As We Forgive, described what happened next. Phanuel:
"felt like his heart would beat out of his chest. As a Hutu, he knew that he could say something and perhaps spare his life, but he couldn't imagine betraying his own friends. He knew also that as a Christian he didn't have that option. He prayed, "Lord, help us." It couldn't have been more than a few moments that the rebel waited for an answer, but to Phanuel it seemed like time had slowed. And then there was a voice. Phanuel winced.
"All of us are Rwandans here," said Chantal from the front of the classroom. A shot rang out in reply. The students gasped— the bullet hit Chantal squarely in the forehead.
"Hutu here! Tutsi there!" yelled the man. . . "This is your last chance. You will separate or you will all die."
Just then Emmanuel said in a steady, low voice, "We are all Rwandans." Shots punctuated Emmanuel's statement as the men moved their guns systematically across the room.11
Many of the students perished. But none of them betrayed the others.
The solidarity of the Hutu and Tutsi students reflects the kind of solidarity that should be ours in the church. We are not black or white, rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. We are one in Christ Jesus. Our gatherings should boldly proclaim, "All of us are Christians here!"
Our life together as a community should reflect the coming kingdom. As much as possible, we should seek to unite races and social classes, nationalities and ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds—all around the cross of Christ and our common desire to remain faithful to him.
John Newton, the composer of "Amazing Grace," held a high social status in his day. But the grace of God that changed him from a slave-trader to a pastor was the same grace that caused him to bridge class divisions in his church ministry. "Preferring his old blue captain's jacket over ‘proper' clerical garb, he hobnobbed with spiritually alive folks wherever he found them, regardless of their social status. He once wrote, ‘I get more warmth and light sometimes by a letter from a plain person who loves the Lord Jesus, though perhaps a servant maid, than from some whole volumes put forth by learned doctors.'"12
This kind of unity among Christians is one way that the church can reflect the centrality of the cross. By uniting around the death and resurrection of Jesus, we show the world the power of the gospel announcement displayed through the gospel community.
Truth 4. The Gospel Community Is the Place Where We Are Sanctified
While I was in seminary, I worked at a local restaurant. On one occasion, I invited a co-worker to come to church with me. She waved me off, saying, "The church is full of hypocrites!"
To her surprise, I agreed. "Yes, it is," I said, and then added with a smile, "so you'd fit right in with us. We're all hypocrites to some extent, aren't we?"
She had never thought of herself as a hypocrite, but she started to nod and then said, "I think you're right."
Then I asked, "Is there anyone you've known who really did walk the walk?" She started to talk about her grandmother and the godly testimony she had. Pretty soon, she was no longer comparing herself to the hypocritical church members she looked down on; she was comparing herself to a godly woman.
It's become fashionable lately to make fun of the church. I understand that the church has major flaws and deficiencies. It's been said that the church of Jesus Christ is like Noah's ark. The stench inside would be unbearable if it weren't for the storm outside! But my question to those who want to leave it is this: Where else will you be able to submit to loving authority? Where else will God sanctify you? The church, for all its failures, is where we love one another, bear with one another, and stir up each other's affections for good deeds.
The good news of the gospel is not merely that God saves us by grace; it's that this saving grace transforms our lives in the context of a community. We bind ourselves to other Christians in faithfulness to a common confession of faith in our Lord. We affirm the truth of the gospel together. We commit to one another: comforting, rebuking, challenging, and loving.
The church exists primarily for God's glory, but it also exists for our good. We need the church to help us discover our gifts so we can best serve the body of believers. We need the church to affirm the evidence in our lives that Christ has saved us through His grace. We need the church to re-present the gospel through baptism and the Lord's Supper. We need the church to rebuke and challenge us when we are wandering from the narrow path.
Discipleship is like a rock in a rock tumbler. The rock is shined the more it bumps up against all the other rocks and water. Over time, the process turns a rock into a gem. Discipleship requires community. The church is the place where we are shaped by the living water of Jesus and the presence of other Christians (living stones) until we turn into beautiful gems that reflect the glory of our King.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about community:
When God had mercy on us, when God revealed Jesus Christ to us as our brother, when God won our hearts by God's own love, our instruction in Christian love began at the same time. When God was merciful to us, we learned to be merciful with one another. When we received forgiveness instead of judgment, we too were made ready to forgive each other. What God did to us, we then owed to others. The more we received, the more we were able to give; and the more meager our love for one another, the less we were living by God's mercy and love. Thus God taught us to encounter one another as God has encountered us in Christ. "Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God" (Romans 15:7).13
For the Glory of God and the Good of the World
God chooses to funnel His grace and mercy through us to the wider community of faith, and through the community's witness to the outer world. The church does not exist for itself; it exists for the mission of God. Our life together magnifies the glory of God.
Once we are gripped by the gospel of grace, we are filled with gratitude for the Son of God who made Himself nothing, took the form of a servant, and humbled Himself even to death on a cross. Our lives take on the fragrance of forgiveness. Pride is replaced by humility. Our rush to the front of the line is turned into a rush to find a place to serve. Our brashness is replaced by gentleness. The cross shapes us into the image of the Crucified One.
The gospel community is empowered by the Holy Spirit to be a blessing to the nations by bringing the good news of salvation and living distinctly from the world for the good of the world.
On sanctification: John 14:15; Romans 6:4; Romans 8:13; Romans 12:1; Romans 13:4; Romans 12:1; 2 Corinthians 2:18; 2 Corinthians 2:17; Galatians 5:16; Colossians 3:8; Philippians 2:12; 1 Peter 1:15; 1 John 1:2
Trevin Wax is the editor of TGM - Theology, Gospel, Mission, a gospel-centered small group curriculum developed by LifeWay Christian Resources. He blogs at www.trevinwax.com and is also the author of Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals. He has served in pastoral roles in churches in the United States and in Romania. His wife is Corina and they have two children.
3. Joshua Harris, Dug Down Deep (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2010), 200.
4. Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, Total Church (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2008), 50.
5. J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale, 2001), 194.
6. Mark Dever's address "The Church Is the Gospel Made Visible," Together for the Gospel conference, 15 April 2010, Louisville, Kentucky.
7. Scot McKnight makes this point in A Community Called Atonement (Abingdon: 2007), 86.
8. John Stott, The Living Church (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2007), 32.
9. Joseph Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family (Nashville: B&H Group, 2009), 132.
10. Jesus speaks of heaven as the Father's house with many rooms in John 14. The Greek indicates that this is a rest stop for weary travelers on their way to a greater destination.
11. Catherine Claire Larson, As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 213-14.
12. Chris Armstrong, Patron Saints for Postmoderns (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2009), 123.
13. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: HarperOne, 1978), 34.