Book Review – Counterfeit Gospels
There are a lot of books written on the topic of the gospel. Most of them get it wrong; and they get it wrong in one of the six ways Trevin Wax describes in Counterfeit Gospels.
Wax begin his book by contrasting the six counterfeit gospels with the real thing. The real gospel, Wax argues, consists of three legs. The first leg is the gospel story which contains the narrative from creation to redemption and sets the context for the second leg. The second leg is the gospel announcement which proclaims the good news of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and exaltation. The third and final leg is the gospel community which is the expression of how the good news has transformed a chosen people. The community (the church) according to Wax embodies the gospel, incorporates us into a community of faith, is made up of kingdom people, and is the place where we are sanctified.
Each of these three legs (the gospel story, announcement, and community) have two corresponding counterfeit gospels which threaten then true gospel with their errors.
The gospel story leg is threatened by both the therapeutic gospel and the judgementless gospel. The gospel story as you may recall is the metanarrative in which we find our place in salvation history. It is the grand narrative of history which began at creation and will end when all things are restored unto God. It’s no wonder then, that the metanarrative has been replaced with each one’s personal narrative. When this happens, the crisis in life is no longer that we have rebelled against a holy God, but it becomes a crisis of individuality and self-absorbed authenticity. When this happens life’s many inconveniences (such as sickness, poverty, feelings of inadequacy, etc) replace sin as our greatest barrier to eternal happiness. The gospel that flows out of this is both therapeutic (salvation is a rescue from life’s troubles) and judgementless. It is therapeutic because the fall and resulting sin are virtually non existent, leaving my personal happiness as the greatest need. It is judgementless because, if the only narrative that exists is my own narrative then no one can judge me for my choices. God will not judge me because he just wants me to find my true self and be happy.
The gospel announcement leg is threatened by the counterfeit gospels of moralism and quietism. The gospel announcement as you may recall is the proclamation of what God has done in Christ: his life, death, resurrection, and exaltation to glory. The moralistic gospel threatens this announcement by replacing grace with our own efforts. It does this by exalting both our good works and lack of sin to a meritorious status rather than being a gift of grace. This can be seen in many evangelistic methodologies in which sinners are called to “get right with God” without ever being told who God is and why we need to get right with him. Perhaps even more common is the modern fascination with, as Wax puts it, “preaching good advice instead of good news”. Wax goes on to say,
The emphasis should always be on what God has done for us in Christ. Yet sometimes we replace this with an emphasis on rules and other things Christians should do to be ‘good Christians’. When morality becomes the essence of Christianity, we change the god news into good advice.
This is in fact what Paul scolded the Galatian church for in Galatians 3 when he said, “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you . . . are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit are you no being perfected by the flesh?” This is what the moralistic gospel does: It convinces us that even though we began with grace, we must turn back to the law to find the power to obey.
The second attack on the gospel announcement is the quietist gospel which takes the gospel out of the public sphere by making it a personal message. This has the effect of extinguishing the gospel proclamation.
The final leg of the true gospel is the leg of gospel community. This leg shows the church as the embodiment of the gospel and is the incorporation of kingdom people into a community in which they can be sanctified. The gospel community is threatened by the counterfeit gospels of activism and churchlessness. The activist gospel can be seen in what Wax refers to as the Culture Warriors. The culture warrior confuses the church with the culture. While he clearly sees the sin of the culture around him, he misses that this same sin exists within the church; perhaps even within himself. The activist gospel replaces the good news with cultural transformation. The gospel community is also threatened by a growing sense of the irrelevance of the church. This view sees the church as optional at best and a hindrance to spiritual growth at worst.
So what are my thoughts on Counterfeit Gospels? I think Trevin Wax nails it. He starts by clearly defining what the gospel is. But he doesn’t make the common mistake of limiting its scope to one aspect of the gospel. He takes a comprehensive view of the gospel and includes not only the gospel story, but also the gospel announcement and community. This may seem like he is taking an expansive view of the gospel to those who insist that the gospel is only one of these, but the reality is that Wax is simply being faithful to the entire testimony of scripture in speaking of the gospel.
When I saw Wax’s definition of the gospel I knew right a way that I would like the book. He avoids narrow definitions and yet is honest with the danger of defining the gospel in too broad of strokes. While he identifies the numerous counterfeit gospels available today as inadequate, he also recognizes that each of these exist because there are truths within them that need to be included in the entirety of the gospel message. What he avoids so well is the elevation of any of these to the extent of excluding the others. He does this by masterfully exposing the errors of the counterfeits, but also by revealing the good things in them that make them attractive. Those things about the counterfeits which closely resemble truth but may ever so slightly miss the mark. The result is a book that not only clarifies the gospel, but will also expand it for many people who have been too narrowly focused on their definition of the good news. This makes Gospel Counterfeits an invaluable book for those who desire to be faithful to the gospel as presented in scripture. This is a book that you will want to read and keep nearby for reference. Read it, set it aside, and come back to it often to make sure that you are still calibrated to the biblical view of the gospel.
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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Moody Publishers in exchange for an online review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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.
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