Discerning A False Gospel
by Rob Armstrong
Several years ago, I worked with agents and technical specialists in the U.S. Secret Service whose job it was to investigate counterfeit currency. These personnel would spend hours and hours comparing potentially counterfeit bills with the legitimate counterparts. Often they used microscopes and sophisticated test and analysis equipment to detect slight flaws in the appearance of the false currency or to discover minute variations in the chemical consistency of the ink or paper. Of course the most difficult form of counterfeiting to identify is that which most closely resembles the real thing. This principle also applies to a counterfeit gospel. Typically, the most insidious distortions of the gospel are those that look good, feel right, and sound plausible. It is a well known fact that a lie that contains at least some element of the truth is usually the most effective in its deception.
Galatians 1:6-9 “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 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! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (NIV)
In the verses above, the apostle Paul accuses the believers living in the region of Galatia of “deserting” God and His Gospel by turning to a “a different gospel” which is really “no gospel at all”. These Christians had abandoned the true gospel (the gospel that Paul preached) and had fallen for a counterfeit version that they were hearing from false teachers in their churches. Paul says that these teachers were trying to “pervert” the gospel of Christ.
Whenever someone changes the message of the gospel in any way, whether intentionally or unintentionally, they are guilty of tampering with and distorting God’s message of salvation by grace through faith alone. Paul condemns those who do so by using some of the harshest language in the entire Bible. He says “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!”. When transliterated into English, the Greek word that Paul uses here is ‘anathama’ (which means devoted to judgment or damnation). In other words, Paul is expressing in the strongest possible terms God’s disdain for anyone who adds to, takes away from, or changes in any way, the Gospel of Christ as found in the Scriptures.
Understanding the True Gospel
The Key to Detecting Error
In order to recognize counterfeit currency, Secret Service investigators must become intimately familiar with the real currency. The same is true when it comes to recognizing a counterfeit gospel. In order to detect a false gospel, we must first be sure that we know and understand the true gospel. The true Gospel is the message that Christ’s appointed representatives, the 12 Apostles, proclaimed and wrote about on the pages of the New Testament as guided by the Holy Spirit. Their message may be be summed up as follows.
Christ died for our sins and He rose again the third day. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, anyone who puts their faith (simple childlike trust) in Him receives forgiveness of sins and will be pronounced ‘perfectly righteous’ in God’s sight.
In the New Testament, the word “Gospel” means good tidings or good news. The good news of the Gospel is that because Jesus Christ paid the full penalty for our sins on the cross, as our substitute and sacrifice, God offers each one of us eternal life as a free gift. We receive this gift by simply believing in Jesus alone totally apart from keeping the 10 Commandments, doing good deeds, or by being obedient to Christ, etc. According to the Bible, things like human effort, personal dedication, and moral or spiritual commitment are not acceptable to God as means for receiving salvation. This is the case because of the fact that anything we can do for God, or offer to Him, is tainted by our inherent sinfulness. The Scriptures declare that “no one is righteous [in God’s sight] not even one...there is no one who does good...for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and “all our righteousness is like filthy rags [in God’s sight].” “It is not by works of righteousness which we have done but according to his mercy that he saved us” (Romans 3:10, Romans 3:23, Isaiah 64:6, Titus 3:5).
Offering and surrendering ourselves fully to God, or relying on our own good deeds and devotion, or depending on sacraments like baptism and communion are faulty and dangerous substitutes for the true gospel of grace. To rely on any of these things to make us right with God (no matter how good they may seem) could be compared to walking on thin ice over a boiling cauldron. Our only hope is to come to God as hopeless and desperate sinners in need of a savior. "To the person who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited to him as righteousness... This is the work of God that you believe on the one whom he has sent... As for you, you were dead in your sins... He who believes in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live... Do you believe this?” (Romans 4:5, John 6:29, Ephesians 2:1, John 11:25)
Symptoms of a False Gospel
Word Games & Adding Conditions
I have often observed that those who distort the true Gospel usually do so in one of two ways. Either they attempt to change the meaning of certain key words associated with the Gospel like “faith”, "free", “gift" and "grace” (etc.). Or, they insist, or imply, that there are additional conditions or requirements, besides faith in Christ alone, that must be met in order for a person to be made right with God. Most of the time the changes they make, they make subtly. In order not to be deceived or caught off guard, I have found it helpful to always keep the following three guidelines in mind.
1. Those who distort the true gospel often resort to redefining saving faith to mean something other than simple childlike trust in Jesus Christ alone.
Because it is so difficult for false teachers to deny that the Bible clearly states that salvation is the gift of God received only through faith in Christ, they attempt to change the definition of the word faith to make it fit their own theological system. Typically the way they do this is to imply that faith in Jesus Christ actually means doing your best, or living a life of obedience, or being fully committed to Christ, etc. The result is that they completely nullify the actual and intended meaning of the word faith and redefine it so that essentially it means the very opposite of faith.
Note: In the Scriptures when the word faith is used as a verb it means to have faith in, trust in, or rely on someone other than yourself. Whenever it is used in the context of how a person receives salvation, it means to have faith in, trust in, or rely on Jesus Christ and what he did for you on the cross, totally apart from anything that you do on your own.
2. Those who distort the true gospel usually add something to faith as a condition or requirement for receiving salvation.
In this case, these false teachers imply (directly or indirectly) that faith in Jesus Christ alone is simply not enough in and and of itself. They insist that there are additional conditions that must be met before someone can receive salvation. As mentioned previously, these conditions may include keeping God’s Law, getting baptized, or dedicating yourself fully to Christ, etc.
3. Those who distort the true gospel typically place the emphasis on what you must do, instead of on what Christ has already done for you on the cross.
Although they may talk about Christ and the cross, and even use words like grace and faith, they will almost always default to a call for human devotion, religious observance, or personal sacrifice. Their message always comes down to what you have to do (i.e., you must stop sinning, or do good deeds, or dedicate your life, etc.), rather than on what Christ has done once and for all on the cross on your behalf.
All three of the approaches described above are very similar to one another in that they add to, or change, the simple truth of the Gospel message. When these modifications are made, the implications are so critical they serve to make the true gospel of no effect. As pastor and author Tim Keller says, “Any change to the gospel makes it null and void...When you add anything to faith alone as a condition for receiving the gospel you reverse the gospel”.
In the Bible the good news of the Gospel is that Christ died in our place and as our substitute, offering Himself as a perfect sacrifice for sins. His is the only sacrifice that is acceptable to, and endorsed by, God Himself. Our part is to simply receive by faith (simple child like trust) the free gift that Christ offers to us without cost.
“...to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding” (Ephesians 1:6-7).
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins...and were by nature children of wrath...But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved...so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:1-9).
John 3:15-18 “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believes on him is not condemned: but he that does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
John 3:36 “He who believes on the Son has everlasting life: and he that does not believe the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abides on him.”
John 6:40 “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Revelation 22:17 “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.”
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