Book Review: Counterfeit Gospels

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Counterfeit Gospels by Trevin Wax is one of a plethora of so-called “gospel centered” books that have become popular over the last several years. Wax has hit upon popular conceptions of the gospel in American Christianity that fall short of the real gospel and thus become manifestations of a counterfeit gospel. They have many of the trappings, language and features that mark the real gospel, but when examined more carefully they fall short.

The book is well organized around a threefold definition of the gospel and how two counterfeit versions distort or deny each of these key components. Thus, the book is divided into three sections of three chapters each (9 chapters altogether). The first chapter of each section explains one of the the principal components of the gospel while the remaining two chapters of the section expose counterfeits that focus on that particular component. What is useful here is how Wax summarizes how each counterfeit actually distorts or denies all three of the components using memorable graphs. The whole book is clearly written and well illustrated. Wax is also careful to make practical application of the principles he conveys throughout the book.

The threefold definition of the gospel Wax uses is what he calls Story, Announcement and Community. I think this is a useful way to frame the gospel although I feel it is a little artificially constructed in order to make the contents of the book fit together in a more cohesive and memorable fashion. In either case, it works well enough. The Story component is the context for the Announcement, the latter being what we might typically call the gospel message proper. The Story in the meta-narrative of Scripture commonly divided in theological parlance as Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. I thought this was the best chapter of the book. Understanding the gospel in the context of the larger story-line of the Bible has become very important in our post-Christian environment as Wax has made clear. The Announcement refers to the culmination of the Bible’s story-line and focuses upon the meaning of the life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Christ. The Community refers to the corporate dimension of the gospel. In other words, the gospel is not merely about individual redemption, but God gathering together a people for Himself – the Church.

Chapter 2 deals with the Therapeutic counterfeit. Here Wax indicates that many confuse symptoms of the Fall (e.g. bad marriages, anger, drugs, etc.) with the underlying disease which is sin. As a result a psychologized gospel is constructed which treats these symptoms instead of the cause. In this regard, sin (i.e. bad stuff that happens to us) is an obstacle to finding fulfillment or happiness. Wax says in this view, God is like Ronald MacDonald who wants to give us a Happy Meal instead of redeem us from the root causes of human misery, our corrupted hearts. This is the gospel of self-esteem in which God wants us to feel better about ourselves. Wax is pointed when he says that our problem is not that we ‘feel’ guilty but that we ‘are’ guilty. Furthermore, Jesus is not an addition to our lives as we already exist in order to make life better. He came to radically alter our lives from what they are. Nor is Jesus like a vending machine (think prosperity gospel/ Joel Osteen) where if we put in a token out comes a prize. This sort of false gospel leads to disillusionment when the reality of life’s difficulties sets in. The reason why is because sin is not treated as rebellion against God but as obstacles to unfulfilled desires and those things that act against what we determine is in our own best interest (i.e. felt needs). I thought this was the most insightful chapter of the book and exposes a lot of what passes today as the gospel in many pseudo-evangelical churches.

Chapter 3 is the Judgmentless gospel. This gospel leaves out the important reality that sin incurs God’s wrath. Proponents of this false gospel focus on God’s goodness at the expense of His holiness. Salvation is an expression of God’s goodness (true) but at the expense of His judgment (not true). This sort of gospel typically embraces universalism of the Rob Bell variety. Hell is unjust, therefore all will eventually make it to heaven. Wax indicates that when we take away judgment we lose the gravity of sin and I would add that you also lose the magnanimity of grace by which God averts His rightful judgment to save ‘ill-deserving’ (HT: J. I. Packer) sinners.

Chapter 5 deals with the Moralistic gospel. This is a common conception of Christianity practiced by many in America. It is the idea that salvation is overcoming sin by sheer willpower and a little help from God. A person wins God’s favor and help by their own moral efforts. The church is where people gather to affirm one another in their co-belligerence against moral challenges to themselves and society. The problem here is that it denies the impact of the Fall. Moralism sees mankind as basically good with an occasional moral miscue here and there. Thus, this is a gospel of self-justification in which we seek to prove that we are good enough to make it to heaven. Wax says the moralistic gospel has us turning to Christ for “help” while the true gospel has us turning to Christ for “rescue.” There is a vast difference between the two.

At this point I need to explain my less than stellar review. There are two shortcomings to this book that kept me from giving it my unequivocal recommendation. First of all, I felt Wax did not make adequate use of Scripture to make his arguments. He quotes scripture from time to time, but largely his points are made without appeal to specific texts. To be fair, he gives a list of Scriptures at the end of each chapter as a sort of supplement to the chapter’s content. But I wouldn’t expect too many readers to consult these passages. Furthermore, to be effective they would require explanation. Having said that, for the most part I believe Wax’s arguments were in fact Biblical. However, the power of Scripture to make one’s case is far better than to simply state it without reference to God’s words. Show us the connection to what divine Scripture actually says.

The second shortcoming of the book was chapter 6 on the Quietist gospel. First of all, the term quietist is misleading. One thinks of the Quietism movement of the late 17th century that focused on a kind of inner spiritual contemplation that is akin to mysticism. I also was thinking perhaps he was referring to something along the lines of the Keswick movement or the Higher Life spirituality promoted in the late 19th century. This is a passive sort of approach to sanctification that is captured in the popular phrase, “Let go and let God.” However, that is not exactly what Wax means in this chapter. The fact is, I was unclear what precisely he means by quietism. He says this sort counterfeit gospel is something private and personal as opposed to public. I am still not sure what he really means here. He suggests that the gospel is not isolationist but requires a public manifestation. By this, Wax seems to indicate that the gospel involves acts of public (civic?) good such as showing concern for the poor and needy and addressing injustices in the world.

However, chapter 8 specifically identifies this notion as the Activist gospel if I understand Wax correctly. In this case, the gospel is conceived as a means of advancing the kingdom of God via efforts by Christians to build a just society. This manifests itself in more conservative circles by political activism that seeks to fight things like gay marriage and the pro-abortion movement. On the more liberal end of the spectrum it might mean championing things like environmentalism and feeding the poor (i.e. the old social gospel movement). Wax does not deny such things are important, but he says these activist agendas confuse the “effects” of the gospel with the gospel itself. Yet that seems to be what he is subtly advocating as a proper dimension of the gospel in the Quiestist chapter. At the very least, what he says in that chapter is unclear. Certainly the gospel requires public proclamation and often activist pursuits like meeting the needs of the poor can be a tool of evangelism. He quotes a passage like James 2:16 (in chapter 6) as if helping the poor is part of the gospel. Thus, chapter 6 and chapter 8 appear to contradict one another. The bottom line is Wax needs to clarify more precisely what he means by the Quiestist gospel and how the antidote to that counterfeit is not the error he points out in chapter 8 as the Activist gospel.

In some ways the counterfeit he exposes in chapter 9, the Churchless gospel, sheds some light on perhaps what he is concerned about in chapter 6. The Churchless gospel champions individualism in which the gospel becomes privatized. Often those that privatize their faith not only shun the local church as a place to express one’s faith publicly and in community, but they also shun any expression of their faith period and thus avoid evangelism or openly identifying themselves as believers. I think where Wax tends to lack clarity is that he seems to confuse issues of ecclessiology and sanctification with the gospel. Many Christians fail to express their faith through engagement with their communities as opportunities for evangelism, but this is a failure of evangelistic methodology not a false gospel. Furthermore, passages like James 2:16 are dealing with the fruit (i.e. “effects”) of the gospel, something Wax makes more clear in chapter 8. In other words, sanctification expressed in good works naturally follows genuine gospel transformation but this must be distinguished from the gospel itself. That is not made clear in the chapter on Quietism (chapter 6) and I think it may have a tendency to confuse readers.

Let me say a few more things about chapter 9 on the Churchless gospel. I think Wax targets an increasingly important matter here. Not only does the Churchless gospel champion individualism and the privatization of one’s salvation experience (whatever that looks like), but it also stems from a distrust of authority that is pandemic in our society as well has disdain for tradition and associating the organized church with corporate corruption. Those who eschew the church tend to have a naive idealism where the simplicity of having no ecclesiastical structures is somehow good. The fact is, the gospel is not just about personal and individual redemption, it is about the redemption of a community of people called the body of Christ. As such, the gospel reconciles us not only to an estranged God but also to estranged human beings, a dual breech the Fall created. The individual believer needs to see himself as part of this larger community of believers (thru the local church) because it is here that he finds the nourishment of the gospel and its after-effects for the Christian life.

Aside from the two caveats I detailed, this is otherwise an excellent antidote to many prevailing false notions of the gospel and of what Christianity itself looks like. Trevin Wax covers most of the bases that afflict people’s wrong conceptions in America and elsewhere. For that reason, this is a good book to sort through these counterfeit versions of the true gospel.

I received a copy of the book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.

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