December 17, 2017

IM Book Review: Counterfeit Gospels

By Chaplain Mike

In my opinion, Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope, by Trevin Wax, represents the best kind of thinking and presentation that evangelicalism has to offer the broader church today at a level that pastors and serious laypeople can appreciate and find useful.

It is written in simple, clear language, yet represents solid, informed thinking.

It is well-organized into a presentation that is readily understandable, logical, sensible, and easy to teach.

It communicates a clear perspective and strong convictions, yet does so in a gracious and winsome manner.

It interacts well, not only with the New Reformed doctrinal positions that the author clearly sympathizes with, but also with many ideas and trends in other contemporary evangelical movements.

It remains tightly focused on problems inherent in today’s evangelicalism. It does not deal with other questions that might be asked regarding corruptions of the Gospel in the broader Christian family, but this allows Wax keep his diagnostic and prescriptive energies pinpointed on his target audience without trying to do too much.

• • •

The Threefold Nature of the Gospel
The foundation of Counterfeit Gospels is an explication of the true Gospel. Using the illustration of a three-legged stool, Trevin Wax asserts that the Gospel must be viewed as having a threefold nature.

  • The Gospel as Story
  • The Gospel as Announcement
  • The Gospel as Community

The gospel is a three-legged stool. There is an overarching story, which recounts our history from first creation to new creation and demonstrates how God will be magnified as our all in all. Then there is an announcement about Jesus Christ — His obedient life, His substitutionary death for sinners, and His resurrection and exaltation as king of the world. This announcement finds meaning within the story. The announcement elicits a response that then births the gospel community, the church that puts on display the gospel announcement by holy living that provides a foretaste of heaven here on earth. (p. 26)

I find this to be quite helpful, and a welcome corrective to the truncated Gospel found in many evangelical circles, where there is at best an unclear connection between the story of Jesus and the bigger story of God’s creative and redemptive purposes, and a sense that belonging to the church is an optional, personal matter of subsequent obedience after conversion rather than an organic part of what it means to trust in Christ.

This three-part definition forms the basic structure for the book. Then, under each facet of the Gospel, Trevin Wax discusses two counterfeit forms of “gospel” that are corruptions of the true one.

  • The Gospel as Story becomes counterfeit when we turn it into (1) The Therapeutic Gospel, or (2) The Judgmentless Gospel.
  • The Gospel as Announcement is corrupted when we practice (1) The Moralistic Gospel, or (2) The Quietist Gospel.
  • The Gospel as Community has as its counterfeits (1) The Activist Gospel, or (2) The Churchless Gospel.

I have read reviews of Counterfeit Gospels that argue with Wax’s logic in using the stool illustration or whether one type of counterfeit more properly belongs under one of the other headings. Frankly, I think that’s kind of silly and borders on nit-picking. By and large, his categories make sense, and he is sufficiently humble about the limits of his organizational scheme. As I said before, Wax’s presentation is simplified in order that he might more precisely hit his targets. It is one of the strengths of the book.

  • The “therapeutic gospel” corrupts the Gospel Story by redefining the problem the Gospel solves, making it about me and my felt needs rather than about God’s remedy to restore a fallen creation.
  • The “judgmentless gospel” corrupts the Gospel Story by redefining the Story’s conclusion, downplaying the seriousness of sin and evil and God’s commitment to put the world to rights.
  • The “moralistic gospel” corrupts the Gospel Announcement by replacing Good News with good advice and making it about the works we do rather than about what Christ did in our stead and on our behalf.
  • The “quietist gospel” corrupts the Gospel Announcement, which is a public announcement of Christ’s triumph over all the powers of sin, evil, and death, by turning it into privatized religious experience.
  • The “activist gospel” corrupts the Gospel Community by turning the church into a mission that is more concerned about causes than about Christ, confusing the effects of the Gospel with the Gospel itself.
  • The “churchless gospel” corrupts the Gospel Community by making membership and involvement in a community of believers optional or even by viewing participation in a church as detrimental to my own personal spiritual formation.

In each chapter, Wax gives reasons as to why each counterfeit is so attractive to people, and some suggestions as to how we might “counter the counterfeit” by living in the light of the true Gospel.

Here are a few good quotes from Trevin Wax:

Christ has not come to help you find satisfaction in a pain-free life here and now. He has come to give you satisfaction in Him. The therapeutic gospel makes salvation about you and your happiness apart from God’s glory. The biblical gospel makes salvation about God’s glory, and it is in seeking that glory that we find true and lasting happiness. (p. 56f)

When morality becomes the essence of Christianity, we change the good news into good advice. Giving people good advice about how to live is easy to do. Not only that, it’s popular with the audience. (p. 111)

The Old Testament is a story in search of an ending. The final pages show the people of God as scattered, waiting for redemption, hoping that God will act again to save them. The world continues to cry and groan under the weight of God’s divine curse. The plan of redemption cannot go forward. God’s reign — his kingdom — cannot be reestablished in the way He first intended unless a faithful, sinless human being was to offer the obedience required, pay the necessary penalty for sin (death), and be exalted as king over creation.

Enter Jesus. At just the right time and in just the right place, God comes to His people…

…In the Person of Jesus Christ, God Himself comes to renew the world and restore His people. (p. 37)

• • •

Within its context and in terms of its intended audience, this is a helpful and much-needed book. I can’t stress enough how much I appreciate the clarity of Trevin Wax’s organization and style. It is the work of a good teacher, and furthermore, Counterfeit Gospels manifests a gracious, conversational spirit not always found among those who “contend for the truth.”

The primary problems I have with Wax’s analysis are not reflections on Trevin or the book itself, but on the broader world of evangelicalism and the weaknesses that are inherent to the system itself. So, while I rejoice in any and every attempt to make the Gospel message itself more clear, I seem to always long for something more when I read even the best writing from evangelical authors (and this is definitely an example of that).

So I read this book, I rejoice in its targeted message, and yet I think:

  • The story evangelicalism tells, and thus its context for the Gospel announcement, still seems too small. This reflects evangelicalism’s lack of respect for history and tradition, its tendencies toward world-denying dualism and gnosticism, its literalistic biblicism, its lack of imagination, and its commitment to prose at the expense of poetry.
  • The announcement evangelicalism proclaims still needs to be better informed by and to incorporate “the good news of the Kingdom,” the story and lessons of Israel and the OT writings, the life and ministry of Jesus before the Cross as portrayed in the Gospels, a more robust view and practice of the sacraments, a more Gospel-shaped form of corporate worship, and a better eschatology.
  • The community in evangelicalism remains a voluntary organization, and thus, in the final analysis (though I’m sure Wax and others would disagree), it is still ultimately optional in the proclamation of evangelicalism’s gospel. Free-church, revivalistic evangelicalism continues to have an impoverished ecclesiology that remains subject to the corrosive winds of culture and counterfeit gospels.

But I digress — all of that is part of a much broader discussion. I say it here only because when I read something as good as Counterfeit Gospels, I wish we could then build upon this foundation by learning to appreciate and adopt perspectives and practices from our brothers and sisters in the historic churches. In my view this would help us live much more fully in the Gospel as Jesus’ church.

Bottom line: Read Trevin Wax’s book. It can stimulate our minds and hearts toward a clearer understanding of the Gospel message. It can help us guard against some of the more deadly substitutes that are tempting to us in our contemporary battles with the world, the flesh, and the devil. If it can help us embrace the Gospel as “a story to be entered, an announcement to be proclaimed, and [that which] births a community to be entered,” then by all means it will have served a worthwhile purpose in our lives and churches.

Recommended.

• • •

Disclaimer: Trevin Wax was kind enough to ask if I would review his book, and he sent me a free copy to read and consider. This happens occasionally, and I am grateful when it does (so is my accountant, uh, my wife). Whether I purchase a book or not, I try my best to give an honest appraisal of everything reviewed on Internet Monk. (Chaplain Mike)

Comments

  1. I had a sneaking suspicion that this was a good book. I’ll add it to the cue after Capon.

  2. Clay Knick says:

    Thanks for this, Mike. I think this will be a good read right along with Scot McKnight’s new book coming out soon.
    Thanks again for a great review.

  3. David Cornwell says:

    ..”evangelicalism’s lack of respect for history and tradition, its tendencies toward world-denying dualism and gnosticism, its literalistic biblicism, its lack of imagination, and its commitment to prose at the expense of poetry.”

    All pet peeves of mine. What are the chances of change? I have no idea, but I believe in the true winds of the Spirit.

    • The work of the Holy Spirit IS the chance of change, I would wager.

      • The Holy Spirit will DO to us what it will DO to us.

        You can take that to the bank!

        Just because we may not always see it, doesn’t mean that it’s not happening.

        It is.

        A surefire way to know if the Holy Spirit is at work in you is to check your pulse. If you still have one then He is still at work in you.

        .

  4. Hmmm. It sounds good. But this is how it works in real-life:

    Preach the gospel as comfort for the bruised reed, and you will be accused of antinomianism and promoting a therapeutic gospel.

    Preach the gospel as new life in Christ and sanctification as a work of grace, and you will be accused of moralism and law-after-gospel.

    Preach justice for those bullied and oppressed by those who abuse power and trust and you will be accused of promoting a liberal, social gospel.

    Again, sometimes the biggest antagonists against the gospel are those who are convinced that they are defending it the most.

  5. I think it kind of funny how the word “substitutionary” has become the new litmus test for the neo-Reformed to weed out those who are proclaiming the real gospel from those are peddling a false one. Perhaps I’m too much of a cynic, but I have a hard time respecting someone like Wax who’s willing to throw large portions of Christendom under the bus simply because they aren’t Calvinists.

    • So… now only Calvinists believe in substitutionary atonement?

      You’re not being fair to Wax here, none of the doctrines of Calvinism are even mentionned in the book.
      I don’t know if you have read it, but nowhere in the book does he “throw large portions of Christendom” because of some secondary Reformed distinctive.

      It sounds like some ad hominem attack, simply because the guy is Reformed…

      • It’s true, I’m not commenting on this particular book, per se. I’m mainly reacting to the stuff Wax posts on his blog where he throws large portions of Christendom under the bus. Regarding the substitutionary atonement, I’d say no, it’s not just a Calvinist doctrine, but a particular type of understanding of it has become a litmus test in Calvinist circles.

        Honestly, I will admit my bias. I have a hard time taking anything from the Reformed side of things seriously. I just don’t consider it an intellectually honest movement.

        • Phil,

          Thanks for your comment.

          I’m curious about your charge that I throw large portions of Christendom under the bus on my blog. Just today, I posted a link to an article criticizing those who find their identity in their theological position, and another link to the president of a United Methodist seminary. In the past few days, I’ve quoted from a Catholic (Chesterton) and I’ve posted a prayer from one of the church fathers.

          I’m sure there are times when I’ve been needlessly critical of other religious traditions, but I try to refrain from criticism of other believers, unless I hope to offer something of biblical value to conversation between traditions.

        • In my review, I expressed my gratitude for Trevin’s irenic and winsome spirit. I stand by that. Simply having strong convictions on a particular position does not make one intolerant. That is a matter of attitude and relational approachability, and I admire his ability to be gracious while standing firm on what he believes.

        • As someone who is has rather mixed feelings toward many parts of the neo-Reformed movement, I’ve always found Trevin to be kind and charitable when I’ve read him.