There are a number of ways that the Gospel can be distorted but we might divide them into three rough categories. First, there are distorted Gospels that completely miss the point of what the Good News is by offering a solution to the wrong problem, they fail to treat the problem of sin. Secondly, there are distorted Gospels which recognise the problem of sin but fail to take us to the true solution of Christ’s death and resurrection, they reject Grace. Thirdly, there are false Gospels which add to grace, they recognise Christ’s death but then require something extra of us.
Failing to treat the right problem
These Gospels offer salvation but from what? The answer is that they see the problem as being our circumstances, particular around suffering, poverty and oppression. These Gospels offer freedom from such things.
Obvious examples include, social gospels and liberation theology where the emphasis is on lifting people out of poverty and challenging power structures. Of course, it is true that poverty and oppression is part of the Fall and we often see power exercised corruptly and unjustly because of sin. So, Christians will have a concern for these things. The danger comes when they take central place.
Then there is the prosperity Gospel. Now, as with the social Gospel, its danger comes because there is a kernel of truth there which this false Gospel takes out of context and then corrupts. Yes, the ultimate vision of the Gospel is that we are being raised up with Christ as conquerors and so we look forward to sharing the abundance of the inheritance in the New Creation. God’s people will prosper. However, the Prosperity Gospel takes those promises that are for all God’s people, in eternity, through grace and says that you or I can enjoy them now, in isolation on our own, in return for a specific expression of faith. My view is that Prosperity Teaching actually sells us short. It’s like settling for the instant coffee instead of the good quality that comes when you take freshly ground beans and percolate them.
We may not fall for the more overt and obvious examples of such false, distorted gospels but there are other ways that we can be taken in. I think we see this particularly with things that can draw us into prosperity teaching. We would immediately recognise it with the promises of some faith healers but what about when we assume that no-one with true faith should suffer from depression or what about the way that purity culture seemed to guarantee young people a great marriage to come? I think too that this thinking can creep into conversations about fertility.
A different solution
Some “Gospels” do see the problem as sin. However, they fail to point to us as saviour. These approaches arise out of Pelagianism which taught that we all have the potential within us to live morally good lives that please God. Such Gospels will treat Jesus as a wise moral teacher to listen to, an example to follow and/or one who demonstrated God’s love to us in his death. However, these Gospels fail to recognise that we cannot save ourselves.
Again, it is important to remember that Jesus did offer us an example in his life and death which was truly a demonstration of love. Furthermore, Jesus was a good teacher and his Great Commission requires us to pass on his teaching and call disciples to obey him. However, Jesus is more than example, teacher and demonstration.
Whilst we would not accept such views and tend to associate them with liberalism, we can allow our preaching to drift into moralising and sadly I’ve seen a lot of kids ministry stuff that leans into that kind of emphasis. It’s important that we remember to apply the Gospel to each and every situation.
A distorted solution
Some “gospels” recognise Jesus’ sacrificial death but add to it in such a way that it becomes distorted. Traditional Catholic thought, for example teaches that Christ’s sacrifice motivates God to look on us with favour and accept our works, prayers and sacraments. This is in effect “semi-Pelagian”.
We can distort the Gospel when we speak and act as though Christ’s death gave us a second chance but after that, it’s up to us. That’s why teaching on assurance and security is so important. Another distortion can be when we create two-tier forms of Christianity which distinguish between believers and disciples, between those who have accepted Jesus as Saviour and those who are going deeply, learning to obey him as Lord. The Gospel calls us all to submit to the Lordship of Christ from the off.
It’s important to be aware to these potential distortions and dangers. In particular, we need to be alert to how they can subtly creep in.