Drugs, junk food and habitual behaviours have something in common. They are addictive. We turn to them for satisfaction, we look to them to fill a need, meet an appetite and we get pleasure from them. However, the pleasure wears off and we return for more. The Law of diminishing returns then kicks in. Not only do I have to go back again but I find that each time the satisfaction/high that I get is less and less, so I have to go back more frequently and get more of it.
Sadly, people often end up feeding on spiritual junk food or become religious junkies. This happens when they are offered a false Gospel instead of the true Gospel. Here are 4 examples of false Gospels.
As we will see below, These false Gospels fail because at root they come back to the same problem that we have seen again and again. Instead of being “Grace Driven”, they bring us into a Guilt Driven relationship with our “god”, church and its leaders (note small g for god -the gods of these Gospels are false gods). They offer legalism, licence and magic.
- The Social Gospel
This identifies the problem as socio-political. The biggest problems are suffering and poverty. These are caused by injustice. The social Gospel sees salvation in two forms
– Practical help and mercy missions – food banks, financial aid, debt counselling, return to work schemes
– Challenging structural causes of injustice through political campaigning.
Now there are some half -truths here. What we would want to say positively is that
– Yes suffering and poverty are bad -they are results of the Fall. We look forward to a day when they will be completely removed. In the meantime, seeking to alleviate suffering and to help the poor and vulnerable are good things.
– Yes, that means that Christians should want to help those in need and yes, some Christians will have a particular interest in challenging things at a systemic level by engagement in politics.
However, the Social Gospel fails because it treats symptoms as the cause. It does not get deep enough to the heart of the problem. The Social Gospel only sees sin in terms of the system and elites and perhaps to the corruption of an elite few.
The Social Gospel therefore cannot offer a true redemption narrative. It takes us away from the Cross of Christ and makes human efforts the saviour. The Social Gospel is therefore legalistic f you are Western, Middle class or rich as it asks you to atone for your sin by doing food works. If you are poor or from the two thirds’ world then it offers “licence.” You are the victim and your sin has no part in the cause.
The Social Gospel is Guilt Driven. Western people are driven by guilt at their own prosperity and the sins of their ancestors to make atonement.
- The Prosperity Gospel
This identifies the need in terms of personal well-being, the individual’s ability to enjoy the physical fruits of creation in terms of life, health and wealth. Salvation comes when the individual is lifted out of sickness and poverty into a life of health and prosperity. Salvation comes when the individual exercises the right level of faith through the right person, church or process to obtain what they seek. This will usually mean a combination of the below:
-Using the right form of words in prayer to claim what you desire
-Getting the right person to pray over you -a pastor, prophet or apostle with special gifts. Again, the expectation is that they will use the right form of words
-Paying the right amount of money in tithes to the church and individual who you are looking to bestow this blessing on you.
Your prayers and tithes must be accompanied by enough faith. This suggests that our faith is a kind of quantifiable substance. However, no-one seems really able to define or measure the right quantity in advance. Rather, we can only say in retrospect that either there was enough or not enough faith.
This approach is legalistic in that the individual is expected to attain to a level of belief and to perform certain religious rites. Blessings are exchanged for money. Prosperity teaching also encourages licence. Providing you fulfil the obligations relating to prayer, tithing and church attendance, there is little concern for how you live the rest of your life. Prosperity teaching depends upon “magic” or superstition. If the right person says the right prayer then everything comes to pass in a mystical kind of way.
The Prosperity Gospel uses guilt to manipulate people into bringing their tithes and produces guilt as people blame their own lack of faith for not achieving their desires.
- The Experience Gospel
This one is a little more subtle because no-one would overtly claim to believe in it or proclaim it. Yet it is sadly very common. This gospel identifies the problem as being in our emotions. We don’t feel close to God, forgiven, holy, spiritual. Therefore, what we need is an experience that will transform our emotions. In the Evangelical world, the experience is often provided by a major event such as a special preaching rally, convert, festival or conference. The experience is dependent upon the ability of the speaker or musicians to create an atmosphere. It may also include things like laying on of hands, prayers, physical manifestations (though these are not necessary and a conservative preaching event can be as much at risk of creating salvation by experience as can a charismatic ministry time).
The Experience Gospel can be both legalistic and licentious. It is obviously licentious in that the message is that you passively receive blessing from others and “magic” based in that you look to something special to happen at the event that transforms things. It can be legalistic if people ritually and obsessively attend events looking for the experience. It causes guilt for attendees when the effect fails or wears off and in church leaders who feel guilty that they cannot produce the same effects week in week out at the local church so that members go looking elsewhere for the experience.
- The Intellectual Gospel
This is the belief that our problem is ignorance. We primarily need to be educated in matters of faith and religion. This will help us to live better lives. I would primarily associate this with liberalism but some aspects of conservative evangelicalism can also end up with an emphasis on intellectualism.
If this is the dominant Gospel, then I got to church to learn about facts and concepts.
It is legalistic in that it puts the emphasis on how much I should learn and because it can drift into moralism. It can also produce licence when head knowledge is never moved into willed obedience. It can also have an element of magical superstition. This is seen in Evangelicalism when an individual feels unable to commit to serving, belief or baptism until they have learnt more from the Bible. It is seen in both liberalism and evangelicalism when an individual effectively puts their trust in the preacher or scholar’s ability to magically reveal the hidden meaning in the text.
The intellectual Gospel produces guilt because engagement with God’s word feels less like relationship and food and more like homework. The intellectual gospel makes us feel guilty when we are unable to keep up with the knowledge or logic of those we regard as setting the intellectual standard in church.
Each of these gospels fail to recognise the true nature of sin and why we need a saviour. For those reasons, they fall short and will never truly satisfy and can never offer real hope. Only the true gospel which tells us that we are sinners who need Christ and brings us to the one who died in our place on the Cross and rose again can deal with the problem of sin and offer real new life.
 I would include Liberation Theology as an aspect of this.