August 27, 2017

COUNTERFEIT GOSPELS    Galatians 1:1-9

The occasion for writing to the Galatians becomes clear in the opening verses of the letter.  The Galatian believers are deserting the true God and turning to a different gospel.  We find out further that the source of this different gospel is not an enemy outside the church but false teachers within the church.  John Stott observes:

“Indeed, the church’s greatest troublemakers (now as then) are not those outside who oppose, ridicule and persecute it, but those inside who try to change the gospel.”  (John Stott, The Message of Galatians, p.23)

We will hear more clues as to the nature of this false gospel later in the letter.  This week I want to consider some of the false or counterfeit gospels that exist within the church of our day.

Here are three counterfeit gospels in our day:

#1 The Bootstrap Gospel

When someone overcomes overwhelming odds, we frequently say they “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.”  This idiom imagines the impossible task of  lifting yourself into the air by tugging on your own bootstraps.  This saying might apply in the realm of certain economic or social circumstances but it never applies in the spiritual realm.

The “bootstrap gospel” says that if you try hard enough, if you apply enough effort, you can pull yourself all the way into heaven.  This counterfeit gospel is very appealing because it honors human effort.  It maximizes human ability and minimizes human sin.

The bootstrap gospel certainly can produce morally, upright, “nice” people.  There is nothing wrong with these things in themselves.  The danger lies in the fact that these things can blind us from seeing our real need.  C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

“‘Niceness’ … is an excellent thing. But we must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world — and might even be more difficult to save.”   C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 183-84

So the bootstrap gospel is dangerous because it produces a false contentment with our spiritual state.  And it is actually a form of rebellion against God.  There are two ways we can walk away from God.  The first way is obvious, like the prodigal son in Luke 15, we can break all the rules and run away.  The other way is follow all of the rules and be a good person in an attempt to be our own savior.  We see this in the prodigal son’s older brother. On the outside he appears to be a good and upright man — honoring God, doing good deeds.  But ironically, this itself can be a form of rebellion against God if we refuse to accept God as savior.

This was the counterfeit gospel that Martin Luther was trusting in before his conversion. He explains the zeal he had for following all of the rules:

“I was a good monk, and I kept the rules of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.”  Martin Luther (quoted in Holiness of God, R.C. Sproul, p.84-85)

Paul tells us in Galatians that Jesus “gave himself for our sins.”  He will later tell us that if we could overcome our sin through following the law, Jesus died for nothing.  The cross points to the seriousness of our sin.  No amount of good works will ever atone for the offense of our sin.

#2 The Hole-In-Your-Heart Gospel

This counterfeit gospel goes something like this:  You have a hole in your heart that only Jesus can fill.  Come to Jesus and let him fill the emptiness in your heart.

This counterfeit is dangerous because it so close to the true gospel.  We do indeed have a “hole” in our heart.  I believe Augustine was correct when he observed in his Confessions that “Our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you.”

If it is emptiness or a lack of purpose that drives us to the Lord – Praise God!  But once we come to the Lord we must understand that Jesus has come to do more than fill the emptiness in our hearts.  He wants more than to boost our self-esteem.

At it’s worst this counterfeit gospel emerges as a path to self- fulfillment or self-actualization.  We are lured into believing that God’s greatest purpose for us is to be happy.  If we would but come to him or have enough faith in him, he will fill our hearts, he will make us healthy and wealthy — we will be happy.  Of course faith in Christ is accompanied with blessing.  The problem is that certain forms of this counterfeit gospel reduce that blessing to only the material — health and wealth.  The blessing of the true gospel goes beyond temporary comfort.

The ultimate problem with this counterfeit gospel is that our hearts aren’t exactly empty. They are empty of holiness — empty of righteousness.  But they are quite full of sin.  They are quite full of rebellion.   We need for our Jesus to do more than fill the hole in our hearts.

We’ve seen this counterfeit gospel before.  In our study of the Gospel of Mark earlier this year we read Jesus’ parables in Mark 2:21-22:

No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”

What we need is not for Jesus to fill the hole in our heart, we need Jesus to give us a new heart.  We need a new garment.  We need new wineskins.  We don’t need a new coat of wax for our rusty broken down car, we need a new car!  In his chapter titled “Is Christianity Hard or Easy” C.S. Lewis writes:

If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.

A new heart is exactly what Jesus earned for us on the cross.   When Paul writes in these opening verses of Galatians that Jesus “gave himself for our sins,” what he means is that Jesus was given over to face the judgment that should be ours for our sin.  He was condemned because our sin is serious.  In his death he dealt with the wickedness of our hearts.  Because he was perfectly righteous, he was able to give us a new heart.  We are made new by his grace.  The true gospel is much more compelling than this counterfeit.

#3 The God-Without-Wrath Gospel

This counterfeit is appealing because it avoids the increasingly touchy subject of hell.  In an earlier period of history, theologians defended the magnificent grace of God which was given to undeserving sinners.  That judgment, hell and wrath existed was accepted without question.   What was unbelievable was the grace extended to those clearly deserving of wrath.  Today, we have the opposite issue.  Grace is accepted without question.  What is unbelievable to us is that there could be a God of wrath and judgment.

This counterfeit gospel minimizes the severity of sin.  Sin is not seen as an offense committed against a holy God.  No, sin is viewed as a disease or as a disfunction.  This is a distortion of the true gospel.  Without a right understanding of sin we lose a sense of God’s wrath and ultimately the cross itself is robbed of it’s significance.  The “post-liberal” theologian Richard Niebuhr describes this false gospel well:

“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” (The Kingdom of God in America, Richard Niebuhr)

We could cite many examples of this God-Without-Wrath Gospel.  Here is one example from a blog I wrote earlier this year:

A few years ago the hymn committee of a mainline denomination sought to add the modern hymn “In Christ Alone” to their new hymnal but wanted to exchange the line “the wrath of God was satisfied” for “the love of God was magnified.”   The song’s writers Keith Getty and Stuart Townend refused to grant permission and the song was promptly removed from the new hymnal. Mary Louise Bringle who sat on the committee explained in an article that “the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger” would do a “disservice” in forming the faith of coming generations.


It’s hard to wrap your head around why singing such a clear doctrine from the Bible would be a “disservice” to future generations.  Some will say they find a God of wrath antiquated unpalatable.  They would prefer instead a God of love.  To this we would respond that the perfect love of God actually demands wrath.  What kind of father would I be if I sat by while my children were kidnapped and abused?  Perfect love requires, at times, anger and justice and even wrath.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit the “Killing Fields” in Cambodia which was just one of many mass burial sites used in the late 1970’s during the reign of Pol Pol.  It is estimated that between 1.5 and 3 million people were brutally murdered during his reign of terror.  Today the Killing Fields have been turned into a museum so that this evil will not be forgotten.  Fragments of human bone and bits of clothing can still be seen coming up from the mass graves which long since been excavated.  I felt sick to my stomach as we were shown the tree where babies were dashed to pieces and then discarded.

God’s perfect love demands justice.   He created the world to be good and perfect but it is being destroyed by sin.  His love demands that justice be done.  Many young people rightly work to see justice done in many different areas.  Sociologist have coined the term the “justice generation” to describe this generation.  We all want justice.  However,  few seem to have a place for judgment.  Yet it is God’s perfect judgment that allows for true justice.

Once again, in the opening verses of Galatians we hear the true gospel.  It is because the world is being destroyed by sin that Jesus has come.  He gave himself over to face the wrath of God, the judgment that should be ours.  It is swallowed up at the cross.  The true gospel does not minimize sin or the wrath of God.  Quite the opposite.  The horror of the cross reveals to us the depth of the justice of God for sin and at the same time the love of God extended to us.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think Paul begins this letter emphasizing that he is an apostle and that his apostleship does not come from man?  What confidence does this give us as we study his letter?
  2. In Paul’s greeting to the Galatians he says “grace to you and peace.”  Why is this order important?  What are some ways we are tempted to obtain peace apart from grace?
  3. What do we learn about the true gospel in verses 4 and 5?  Is there anything that Paul emphasizes here that might be a timely reminder for you?
  4. Describe the problem the Galatians had in vv. 6-9.  What does it mean to desert someone?  Why do you think Paul uses such strong language in his section?
  5. When it comes to false or counterfeit gospels, why are they so dangerous to the church?
  6. Discuss the three counterfeit gospels — 1) The Bootstrap Gospel, 2) The Hole-In-Your-Heart Gospel, 3) The God-Without-Wrath Gospel presented in the sermon.  Have you seen evidence of these counterfeits in  your own life?  Which one are you most tempted to believe?  How so?  How does the true gospel shine amongst these counterfeits?


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