On the Cost of Getting the Gospel Wrong…

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been studying up on the book of Romans for the teaching series I kicked off on Sunday at the church where I serve as pastor: Roots Covenant Church. We’re calling the series: “Subversive Peace: Reading Romans Backwards.” And I’ve been reading some fantastic new books about Romans like:

  • Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice by Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh;
  • Reading Romans in Context: Paul and Second Temple Judaism, edited by Ben Blackwell, John Goodrich, and Jason Maston;
  • Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes: Honor and Shame in Paul’s Message and Mission by Jackson W.;
  • Conformed to the Image of His Son: Reconsidering Paul’s Theology of Glory in Romans by Haley Goranson Jacob; and
  • Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire by Scot McKnight.

I’ve also recently read and reviewed Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives, edited by McKnight and Joseph Modica.

But, Osheta and I have a problem in our house: We don’t have enough shelf space for all our books! So, a few days ago Osheta went out and found two free bookshelves someone was giving away and brought them home. This gave me the opportunity to do a bit of reorganizing of all the stacks of books that have been on the floor near my solitary book shelf. And this led to me discovering my old textbook from “Romans and Galatians” class when I was in Bible college, nearly 20 years ago. The title is Encountering the Book of Romans: A Theological Exposition by Douglas J. Moo. Since I have an extra day off this week due to Labor Day, I decided to open my old textbook and refresh my memory on what I was taught as an undergraduate in biblical studies. So, I sat on my back deck, cracked it open and in no time flat I encountered misunderstandings of the Gospel that are both pervasive and harmful.

Doug Moo’s Gospel

Moo writes, “The gospel… is basically about the restoration of the individual sinner’s relationship to God.” (p.28) And in case anyone thinks that was merely a bit of unfortunate phrasing, Moo elaborates:

…Romans has become a critical battleground in the war between a more individualist reading of Paul, inherited from the Reformation, and a more corporate reading, the dominant scholarly approach in our own day. Both perspectives, I argued, have something to teach us about Paul and about Romans. Paul is concerned to explain how God’s new work in Christ can integrate both Jews and Gentiles into one new people. Critical as this theme is in Romans, however, it is not the dominate note. That note is sounded, I suggested, in the word ‘gospel.’ In Romans, Paul sets forth the good news of Jesus Christ. That good news is first of all a message direct to each one of us… (p.40)

So that there’s no confusion whatsoever, Moo directly contrasts his approach to the Gospel in Romans from the theme of God creating one new people in Christ, and specifically sides with what he calls the “individualist reading of Paul, inherited from the Reformation.” (Let no one accuse me of creating a Straw Man!) Moo has boldly proclaimed that the Gospel is a message for individuals, about the restoration of their personal relationship to God. By staking this claim, he has made himself a prime example of how modern Westerners distort the Gospel.

Distorting the Gospel

When we modern Westerners (particularly Americans) hear the word “Gospel,” we think first of ourselves. For us, this word has become synonymous with our pathway to salvation, the way we can be rid of guilt for sin, or how God “unconditionally” accepts us. This betrays the modern Westerner’s distortion of the Gospel. As Moo so readily acknowledges, this is a hangover from the Protestant Reformation. In fact, the very philosophy of Individualism is a modern invention, having much to do with the inventions of the Printing Press and Capitalism that coincided with the Reformation. [1]

This now seemingly intuitive association of the Gospel with the salvation of people is a distortion. The Gospel is not first about us, but is first about God. How ironic it is when the heirs of the Reformation chastise others about their impiety for not making God glorious enough, while simultaneously reducing God’s glorious Gospel to something centered on human beings.

In his book, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard points out that in the modern American imagination the Gospel has been reduced to “sin-management”,

If you ask anyone from that 74 percent of Americans who say they have made a commitment to Jesus Christ what the Christian gospel is, you will probably be told that Jesus died to pay for our sins, and that if we will only believe he did this, we will go to heaven when we die.

In this way what is only one theory of the ‘atonement’ is made out to be the whole of the essential message of Jesus [the gospel].

But for some time now the belief required to be saved has increasingly been regarded as a totally private act, ‘just between you and the Lord.’ Only the ‘scanner’ would know.

What must be emphasized in all of this is the difference between trusting Christ, the real person Jesus, with all that that naturally involves, versus trusting some arrangement for sin-remission set up through him—trusting only his role as guilt remover. [2]

Willard’s point is absolutely incisive. There is a world of difference between trusting a Person and trusting a System. What most modern Western Christians regard as the Gospel is little more than a method of having their sins forgiven and going to heaven. But this isn’t the Gospel that is presented in the New Testament. The New Testament doesn’t present a program for sin-removal as the Gospel, but instead the Announcement of a Person: The Lord Jesus Christ. That is, Jesus of Nazareth is the Jewish Messiah and the True Lord of all peoples.

N. T. Wright, further explains the difference in his book, Simply Good News:

In many churches, the good news has subtly changed into good advice. Here’s how to live, they say. Here’s how to pray. Here are techniques for helping you become a better Christian, a better person, a better wife or husband. And in particular, here’s how to make sure you’re on the right track for what happens after death. Take this advice: say this prayer and you’ll be saved. You won’t go to hell; you’ll go to heaven. Here’s how to do it. This is advice, not news. The whole point of advice is to make you do something to get a desired result. Now, there’s nothing wrong with good advice. We all need it. But it isn’t the same thing as news. New is an announcement that something significant has happened. And good news is what Jesus and his first followers were all about. [3]

Ironically, by reducing the Gospel to a system of sin management or a method by which our guilt is taken away, the heirs of the Reformation have violated their own prime doctrine: that salvation comes from God by grace, not by “works.” [4]

Recently, Matthew Bates has put an even finer point on the distinction between the Gospel and the so-called “plan of salvation” in his book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone:

…the gospel is the power-releasing story of Jesus’s life, death for sins, resurrection, and installation as king, but that story only makes sense in the wider framework of the stories of Israel and creation. The gospel is not in the first instance a story about heaven, hell, making a decision, raising your hand after praying a certain prayer, justification by faith alone, trusting that Jesus’s righteousness is sufficient, or any putative human tendencies toward self-salvation through good works. It is, in the final analysis, most succinctly good news about the enthronement of Jesus the atoning king as he brings these wider stories to a climax. [5]

(Read my review of Salvation by Allegiance Alone)

Neither Wright, nor McKnight, nor Bates deny that Paul and the other apostles teach that people are in need of God’s grace or that Jesus saves sinners. That is not the point. The point is that those doctrines are themselves not The Gospel.

The Gospel is the royal announcement that the Crucified and Risen Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, is the true King of Kings and Lord of lords, for all peoples.

When the message of how to have one’s sins forgiven, or guilt removed, is substituted for the Announcement of the True King: Jesus Christ our Lord, the Gospel becomes all about the individual and this solipsistic worldview has dire consequences for the church and the world.

Getting the Gospel Wrong is Costly

So what? What difference does it make if someone thinks the Gospel is about them individually and about their own sin management or guilt versus believing the Good News that Jesus Christ is Lord?

I’m glad you asked.

When Westerners (particularly Americans) place ourselves at the center of the Gospel, we distort the message of Scripture and no longer reflect the values of the Kingdom of God, but the values of Western culture. This creates a type of syncretism, an American-ized form of Christianity that is hardly recognizable as the Way of Jesus.

In his book, The Next Evangelicalism, Soong-Chan Rah points out that for the church in America to embrace an individualistic Gospel, it has to forsake biblical values for those of Western culture:

The American church, in taking its cues from Western, white culture, has placed at the center of its theology and ecclesiology the primacy of the individual. The cultural captivity of the church has meant that the church is more likely to reflect the individualism of Western philosophy than the value of community found in Scripture. The individualistic philosophy that has shaped Western society, and consequently shaped the American church, reduces Christian faith to a personal, private and individual faith. [6]

This rejection of biblical community in favor of Western individualism has contributed to the erosion of bonds between sisters and brothers in Christ. Christians in American are more likely to identify with non-Christian Americans who share their views on gun rights, gender roles, and Nationalism than with fellow baptized followers of Jesus Christ from Palestine or Ethiopia. Christians in American are hardly distinguishable from other Americans when it comes to partisan political polarization. How is it that Christians can claim that they are saved by God’s grace and yet not live out that grace in community with other Christians? The answer: An individualistic view of the Gospel.

In fact, an Individualistic view of the Gospel has led to division in the American church over racism. Christians formed by Western Individualism reject claims of systemic racial injustice or reject their own culpability through participation in racist systems. An individualistic Gospel has taught them the only sins that matter are personal ones and those are forgiven. Case closed. Black and brown Christians in America have pleaded with white Christians to see the reality of racism and many white Christians cannot because they are blinded by individualism.

This has costly effects for the church’s witness to the rulers and authorities. The church that is divided along the same lines as those outside the church has no beautiful alternative to demonstrate, no alluring sense of belonging and spiritual family. The church cannot even speak out with an authentic sounding voice due to this hypocrisy. Individualism destroys our collective witness.

There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are. [7]

Not only does the church forfeit its authority to speak truth to power when it is divided due to the individualistic distortion of the Gospel, it also forfeits its calling to be an agent of healing in the world. As Richard Twiss writes in his book, One Church, Many Tribes:

As the family of God, we are being called to bring healing to these divisions among cultures and people groups and to demonstrate to the world a power and grace to walk with one another in true honor and respect, declaring that there is a better way—the Jesus Way. [8]

By reducing the Gospel to a “plan of salvation” for individuals, a method for getting rid of personal guilt, the church has walked away from the true Gospel and has left a hurting world abandoned. The world needs its rightful King to be rescued; it needs the Gospel declared about Jesus Christ our Lord!

The King Jesus Gospel and Reconciliation

The Gospel that Jesus Christ is Lord of all is not advice on how to get “saved,” nor the system that rids us of guilt; no, the Gospel is the announcement of the truth that the world is now fundamentally different because of Jesus. The powers of evil have been principally defeated through the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus has principally defeated those forces which drive people apart, create the fear of scarcity, and breed sinful ignorance, hatred, and violence. Jesus has principally defeated all the powers that enslave and oppress people. The true King who brings peace and justice is not any Emperor or President, but the Jewish Messiah who was crucified and raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This has implications not just for individuals, but for whole communities, whole nations, the whole world!

This means that the principalities and powers which create divisions between people groups no longer have power over us. We are free to join together in one new human family united in Christ—a new way of being human community together. This new community is not defined by gender or wealth or culture or ethnicity or race or social status. This new community is united by one thing: The Gospel. Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, is Lord of all people groups. His story has brought to a climax the story of Israel, the people of God, and points the way forward to New Creation.

The King Jesus Gospel has Cosmic implications! The Risen Lord is not just one’s “personal lord and savior,” but is the One who is making all things new. The whole creation groans in anticipation of the revelation of the sons of God, the adoption of sonship, the Resurrection of the bodies. (Romans 8.18-25) Paul’s Gospel is that Jesus Christ isn’t merely a personal lord, but the Lord of all Creation! Paul’s Gospel is that Jesus Christ isn’t merely a means to our ends, but the End itself. Jesus is Lord means that being joined with Christ is salvation, not getting something from Christ. Paul’s Gospel is a Person and his name is Jesus:

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel

— II Tim. 2.8


  1. Examples include: The Unintentional Reformation by Brad Gregory, and Capitalism and Individualism by Tibor Machan
  2. Dallas Willard, quoted in The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited by Scot McKnight, p.75.
  3. N. T. Wright, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good, p.4.
  4. The Reformers misunderstood what “works” meant in the context of Paul’s letters such as Romans and Galatians, and superimposed upon his teaching their view of the legalism of medieval Catholicism.
  5. Matthew Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King, p.30.
  6. Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity, p.29-30.
  7. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
  8. Richard Twiss, One Church, Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You, p.175.

*Banner photo by Jon Tyson from Unsplash