The Tragedy of a Perverted Gospel
Dick was a man in his late thirties whose wife had recently left him, plunging him into depression. He had come to me because he needed the Lord’s help and he didn’t seem to be getting it. Dick had enough sense to know that genuine faith in the Lord Jesus Christ should, in crisis circumstances, be marked by some degree of strength and victory. He had none. His salvation wasn’t working. “What could be wrong?” he wanted to know.
So I asked Dick to tell me his spiritual history. He spoke of responding to an invitation and being baptized in a large church in Philadelphia. And he said he had been baptized in the Spirit among a group of charismatics in Reno. These were the outstanding details, and while there was more to his story, I never did hear what I was listening for. Finally, I asked Dick if he was sure that he had ever been converted to begin with. That, he acknowledged, had always been a haunting doubt.
I dug deeper and asked if he believed in the Atonement — had he asked God to remove his sin by the Blood of Jesus Christ? Yes, he thought he had. Well, then, had he submitted to Jesus Christ as his Lord — the controlling authority of his life? And with that I struck a nerve.
Dick, without hesitation, answered, “No.”
It was a familiar scene. It had happened so many times before in my counseling: people, groping after spiritual reality, suddenly admitting that they were trying to know Jesus as Savior while avoiding Him as Lord. As I began to explain the scriptural conditions for salvation based on a relationship with the Lord, Dick interrupted, “I never heard this before.” And it is a sad fact that so many people have not heard it. They have been offered a gospel that sounds promising, but that leaves out the essential ingredient of saving faith: they have never really understood that Jesus Christ is Lord.
“As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him.” There is no scripture anywhere that says we are to receive Jesus as Savior. He comes — when He comes at all — as Lord, and in His Lordship saves us from ourselves and our sin. It is no wonder that many so-called Christians in the best evangelical churches are leading joyless, defeated lives; they have tried to come into salvation through a formula, a plan of salvation, a prayer, a raised hand — or whatever. But the Lord Jesus Christ Himself is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. His name is above every name. He has all power in heaven and in earth. We embrace a deception unless we embrace the One whose authority conquers the very self-will that has damned us.
People who try to have a salvation without submission have bought, as it were, a tree without roots — a Christmas tree that will look green and beautiful for a while, and that will display a quantity of light and ornament, but will wither and die in time. Only what is rooted and built up in Christ Jesus the Lord will last. Christmas-tree Christianity is the result of a gospel that deletes conditions set down by Jesus Himself: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” An expurgated gospel says, “If you want to be a Christian, just ask God to forgive you and everything will be fine; you will have happiness and remarkable answers to prayer and all things will work together for good. And, best of all, you will get to go to heaven instead of hell.”
This gospel is accompanied by sentimental pleading and popular-style music; it is promoted by attractive and articulate religious salesmen who offer a congenial Jesus who accepts all corners. The real Jesus is kept out of sight because His message is too strong and it is feared He will discourage people.
The real Jesus separates the human race into two categories: those who want to follow Him, and those who would rather not. There are those who hear the call to the Kingdom and draw near with true hearts in full assurance of faith. They count the cost and receive the promise. They endure as seeing Him who is invisible. They know that following the Lord Jesus Christ is the highest calling and the deepest fulfillment.
As they say in the investment business, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” And a gospel that costs believers nothing is not only too good to be true, it is an insult to the Lord Jesus. He is the obedient Son who became the author of eternal salvation to them that, in turn, obey Him. The confession of the lips that Jesus is Lord, together with the heart-belief that God has raised Him from the dead, is necessary to salvation. But if we confess that Jesus is Lord, and continue to do as we please, we will be challenged by Jesus Himself: “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things which I say?”
There is no way around it. The real Jesus offers a real gospel rooted in His authority. Jesus warned that the day of judgment will expose many who say “Lord, Lord,” but who will have this sentence handed down: “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.”
A great deal of attention is given to the doctrine of salvation by grace, rather than works, as though the two did not go together. Writing to Titus, Paul says, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age.” Far from de-emphasizing or postponing obedience, the grace of God insists upon it. Obedience is what salvation is all about, as the famous passage in Ephesians actually goes on to say: “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. For we are His workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works....”
If the gospel makes plain that we are not saved by good works, it makes equally plain that we are saved for good works. Philippians 2 warns, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” The meaning is clear: we do not work up our salvation, but God works it in — and we had best work it out! Otherwise we will be like those in Titus who “profess to know God, but in works deny Him.”
It is high time for Christians who hold to the authority of the Bible and the personal experience of salvation as taught in the Bible to take a hard look at what we are offering to a lost world. An easy gospel may gain us more professions, and may fill our churches, but we will find after all that we have attracted the half-hearted, the uncommitted, and, to tell the truth, the patently unconverted. In a world characterized by compromise and infected with the quest for self-fulfillment, instant immortality claimed through a painless cross has its appeal. But the expediency will damn the very sinners it promises to save and will corrupt the Church it hopes to build.
Our passion for souls must never outweigh either our passion for the truth or our confidence in Jesus Christ as Someone who knows what He is talking about. A gospel modified so as to soften the conditions of Lordship, attempting to win more souls for Christ, will in reality win none at all. It is better to face the facts that the gate is narrow, the road difficult, and the followers few, than to pretend that by tinkering with the truth we can somehow improve the disappointing odds.
I say with Paul, let the real Gospel be foolishness to the clever and a stumbling block to the religious, that in its severity it will have the power to save those who believe it.