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The subtle goodness gospel and the truth that sets us free

For many of my formative years, the overarching and consistent message I received at church was, “Be good”. It’s quite possible that I didn’t have ears to hear the message of grace or a heart to embrace that I was actually loved by God, but this idea that Christianity was about being good became a detrimental foundation for my spiritual life.

I attempted—with everything in me—to be good, but my efforts only reinforced what I knew deep inside: I wasn’t good enough and could never be. Sin was forever crouching at my door, and none of my attempts to “be better” had much value against the indulgences of my flesh.

The subtle goodness gospel vs the true gospel

In my late 20s, still plugging along in what I now call the goodness gospel, I opened the book of Galatians and began to read. It felt like an appointed time. The words absolutely came alive, God opened my eyes instantly to my lack of understanding about what Christ has done for me, and He began the long and arduous process of unraveling my grip on the goodness gospel and replacing it with the true gospel.

The goodness gospel preached salvation by faith but sanctification through self-effort. Through Galatians, God preached the true gospel, which is that I received my justification by faith in Christ, and I also receive my sanctification by the work of the Holy Spirit. All along, I had tried to take the responsibility for producing spiritual fruit in my own heart, but I learned that my responsibility is to respond in obedience and surrender to God’s work in me.

The shame, pride, and self-condemnation I’d struggled with all my life turned into freedom and joy. But something else happened. Because of my experience with the destruction of the goodness gospel, I became acutely attuned to its subtle message and realized that I was hearing it everywhere: through the counsel of other believers, from pulpits, and in Christian books. Do more, try harder. In fact, the subtle messages I continued to hear mirrored exactly what Paul addressed in Galatians:

1. The goodness gospel preaches that unity means uniformity.

I've heard persuasive people in our churches hold out their preferences and passions rather than holding out the gospel and trusting God will use that gospel to affect preferences and passions. There is a push for uniformity as evidence of unity.

In Galatians 2, Paul and Peter came together to ensure they were preaching the same gospel, they attested to their unity, and then they dispersed to engage two different groups of people with Christ’s message. They were unified, but their ministries and gifts were distinct.

The true gospel draws us to unity in Christ and then calls us to serve one another according to our unique spiritual gifts, personhood and circumstances as God has portioned them.

2. The goodness gospel implies that some are more important than others based upon their behaviors and thus causes division.

Division in a church according to race, preferences such as homeschooling or public education, or even life stage is a symptom of the goodness gospel. One group holds sway over another; inclusion in the “right” group comes only with uniformity.

In Galatians 2, Peter, after his great show of unity with Paul, cordoned himself off with other Jews and refused to eat with the converted Gentiles. Why? Paul said Peter was afraid of a damaged reputation. He valued the opinions of those he considered more important, those “of the circumcision”, and, as a result, caused heartache, confusion and unnecessary pain.

The true gospel is clear: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15). We all become new creations in the same way, therefore we are  equally in need and equally saved in Christ. The gospel never leads to division.

3. The goodness gospel perpetuates attempts at sanctification by works.

The mantra of the goodness gospel is “Do more, try harder, be better.” It skips to the right responses and behaviors without dwelling on the love of God as the reason and motivation for those responses and behaviors. According to the goodness gospel, we are responsible for our own spiritual growth and the growth and right behaviors of others; it causes us to depend on ourselves.

We see evidence of this in Galatians 2 when Peter huddled up with the group he aimed to please. He unwittingly encouraged others to turn to their flesh. He perpetuated the idea that we must fulfill commands without Christ. How many of our churches lay out commands but neglect the work of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to fulfill those commands?

The true gospel proclaims loudly that we cannot fulfill commands in order to be righteous before God, but that Christ did it for us. It also speaks to life after salvation. We cannot love God and others in the way Christ commanded without the power of Christ's resurrected life working in us, the Holy Spirit. The Christian life is received in faithful surrender from start to finish.

4. The goodness gospel elevates secondary priorities.

The goodness gospel swings like a pendulum to two extremes: personal freedom elevated over love and righteousness (Gal. 5:13) or behavior elevated above faith and love (Gal. 5:6). In essence, it elevates self-rule above God-rule. The message in churches who teach in accordance with the goodness gospel is that Christ's grace elicits no worshipful response or, on the other extreme, that external behaviors are capable of creating internal change.

The true gospel is that God works in our internal being through his grace. His kindness leads to our repentance and our taking up of the good works he has planned for us. Its foundation is God-rule, not self-rule, and his generosity toward us is what leads to our joyful response. We love because he first loved us.

Believers, we must clear about the gospel, both for ourselves and for those we teach, counsel and share our lives with. The goodness gospel is an unbearable burden to place on others, but the true gospel leads to the abundant life Jesus promised us. Let's not give the goodness gospel. Let's give grace as freely as God does.

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