The Christmas season is one of the few times of the year when people who ordinarily would not be seen dead in a church will go and sing some carols because, hey, it's Christmas! Sadly, such are the times that we live in that it is likely that they will go to a church that does not preach the gospel; or rather they will preach a gospel but it will not be the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ but a false gospel that instead of pointing them in the direction of salvation will usher people towards hell.
This is a great evil, as Paul writes: "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!" (Galatians 1v8) It matters not if the intentions were good or if the church has the most noble of purposes, if a false gospel is preached then the speaker heaps condemnation on himself.
What follows are some of the common false gospels that will be preached in churches this Christmas. I probably should add from the start that most are fairly subtle but that makes them all the worse for they are more likely to be believed. It must be of great delight to Satan that even when people do go into a church they only hear a corrupted gospel that does not proclaim the truth has is found in the Bible.
The Jesus Came to Make the World a Better Place Gospel
This gospel usually picks up on the biblical theme of renewal and restoration along with verses about joy to all the nations and completely misapplies it by asserting that Jesus came to make the world a better place. It sounds such a lovely idea and its true that Jesus came teaching us to 'be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect' and it also true that Christians should abound in good works but it misses a vital point.
The mission statement of Jesus was to seek and save those who were lost, he came for sinners not the righteous, he came to save to himself a people, he did not come to make the world a better place. This false gospel gets the order wrong, the better place, the world without sin, is yet to come. And it will only come when this present world has passed away for this present world is under the curse of sin and it will not be better until it is remade. As John writes: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away." (Revelation 21v1)
The gospel is divisive, it causes conflict between the world and the church, as Jesus said about the effect of the gospel on families: ""Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." (Matthew 10v34) This false gospel minimises the corrupting influence of sin. It minimises the evil of flesh and the struggle for holiness Christians face, it is a gospel that is at heart a weak form of the health, wealth, prosperity gospel where being a Christians will somehow make everything 'better'. Moreover, very easily does it lead to salvation becoming nothing more than works and good deeds rather than a complete turning away from self and to Jesus in repentance.
It is a small step from this false gospel to the social gospel where the focus is on doing social good not on the spiritual condition of people. Such a gospel cannot save - for all social problems stem from spiritual problems. Salvation is the only lasting solution to social problems. And salvation only comes through repentance and the lost being saved.
The Jesus Will Make You Happy Gospel
Once again this takes a truth: that part of a fruitful Christian life is joy and uses to paint a false picture of the gospel. Jesus did not come to make you happy. He came calling you to repentance, he came to die for your sins, he came to win you to him and present you righteous before God. Jesus came to make you holy not happy. Happiness is a by-product of holiness not the beginning of it.
Holiness leads to happiness; happiness starts only with holiness but often holiness only comes through pain and trouble. It is though many trials and tribulations that we enter the kingdom of God. The fact is, and I speak from experience, being a Christian is really hard. Sure, I find joy and happiness in my salvation but there's a lot of struggle and pain to endure too. The fight for holiness is no easy matter. If I made the aim of my Christian life happiness then I would never find it; it is only when holiness is my main pursuit that I will be happy for I will be happy when I do as God commands.
The Sin is Bad Things People Do To You Gospel
I've heard this one a few times, usually at CU carol services, and its the gospel where sin is presented as being all the rubbish things that people do to hurt you. And yes, technically, when people don't love you as they should then that is a sin. But this type of gospel loses sight of David's great psalm of repentance where he writes in a prayer to God: "Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge." (Psalm 51v4).
First and foremost sin is an offense to God, the manifestation of sin in doing ill to others it just one form of our rebellion against the Almighty. As a church we need to be strong on the sinfulness of sin and the holiness of the holiness, we need to tell others that God is wrath against sin, his perfect holiness is totally at odds with our wickedness. It is not the sin of others you should be concerned about but the sin within your own heart.
As it is written: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17v9) Our problem is not the evil others do us but the evil within our own hearts. The problem with this false gospel is that it preaches the need for repentance for others but not the need for own repentance! It makes out sin to be less than it.
The God Shaped Hole in Your Heart Gospel
I'd count myself guilty as falling for this one. The problem with it is that it very easily sounds as though we are doing God a favour by repenting, it makes salvation me centred not God centred. The primary message of the gospel is not about my emptiness as a sinner (though that is part of it) but God's righteous anger at my sin! The gospel should be preached in relation to God's problem with us not our problem with God. The latter is only a problem because of the former. If God did not have a problem with us as sinners then we would not have a problem with God. In the age of self then we must fight not to preach a self-centred gospel!
The Mis-Priority Gospel
This is another gospel where the emphasis on sin is misplaced. This type of gospel will go on about the fact that we do not have the right priorities, our jobs, relationships, pleasures, hobbies have all become too much and this destabilizes our lives as we make too much of something, usually a good thing, that should not be made so much of.
Once again, this is all true and useful but if this is our only depiction of sin then we have a problem. Sin is putting ourselves in the place of God, making too much of a career is just a particular manifestation of the cosmic treason of sin. Unhealthy priorities is a symptom of a deeper problem, the problem of our rebellion against God and the desperate wickedness of not loving God will everything that we are. Too easily does this false gospel lose sight that sin is primary a God-centred problem not a man-centred problem.
The Morality Gospel
Bah, this gospel is an evil one, well, all false gospels are evil but this is a burden beyond measure for it tells us that we may win salvation with good deeds. Fundamentally, we're all good people and we just need to give to charity regularly, appear in church at Christmas, try not to lie too much, try to be kind, try not to get angry too often, and God will overlook our little character flaws and let us into heaven because hey, we're good people right?
No, lies, lies and wickedness. The Bible says: "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3v23). In comparison to the perfect holiness God's law demands of us then there is no one who can be justified before God by his works.
Oh, naturally we all love ourselves a gospel of works because we want to be able to justify ourselves before God, we want to save ourselves and we do not want to admit to the depths of evil in our hearts. But consider that even one sin is an infinite offense against God.
The whole reason Jesus had to die on the cross and take the punishment for our sins was because we cannot do it ourselves! We must claim the righteousness of another, the perfect righteousness of Christ if we are to stand before God and be justified. "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast." (Ephesians 2v8-9). We get to heaven, not through our works, but by repentance and faith, a turning away from self-righteousness and a turning to the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
The Sinless/Repentanceless Gospel
There is a common theme running through the false gospels above and that is that they are all sinless and repentanceless. They are gospels built upon a fear of man rather than the fear of God. They are gospels to please the ears of sinful men rather than challenge the hearts to seek God. Worse, these gospels do not save but send their listeners hellward, obscuring the true gospel and earning their speaker a rightful condemnation.
The true message of the gospel majors on the desperate need of mankind to be right with God because of the evils of our hearts and the insult and offense of that evil to a holy God. We cannot shy away from the wrath of God set against sin, the reality of judgement, heaven and hell and the command of God to all men to repent and turn away from their sins. Sin is a big deal in the Bible and so it should be a big deal in our gospel message. It is only when people are convicted of their sin that they can be convicted of their need for salvation from that sin.
We cannot skip straight to the 'nice part' of the gospel. It doesn't work. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, that means we need to convict people of their lostness, the futility of their thinking and the sinfulness of their sin. Sweet is the name of Jesus to the ears of a sinner but only when they are aware of their complete inability to save themselves.
False gospels big up man, makes sin me-centred and minimises God, sin and Hell. The true gospel puts man in his proper place, as a creature rebelling against his Creator and magnifies the grace of God, the love which compelled Christ to die for us while we were still his enemies and his holy loving justice in punishing sinners in hell.
To close let me quote the words of Jesus: "But unless you repent, you too will all perish." (Luke 13v3) This is our gospel and we must preach it!