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In this post, and the next two or three posts, I want to look at popular distortions of the gospel. The dictionary defines “distort” as “to twist awry or out of shape; make crooked or deformed.” Therefore to distort the gospel is to twist it out of its proper shape.

Before I begin looking at gospel distortions, it may be helpful to see what the true shape of the gospel looks like. One of the best summaries of the gospel I can think of can be found in Paul’s epistle to the Romans where he writes the following words: 

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17; ESV)

This is the theme that Paul unpacks throughout the rest of the book of Romans. The gospel in a nutshell: 
  1. Is the power of God
  2. It is for salvation
  3. It is for everyone who believes whether Jew or Greek
  4. It contains the righteousness of God
  5. It reveals the righteousness of God
  6. It begins and ends in faith

As Paul details this truth throughout the letter, we see that: 

  • All men have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23)
  • The wages of our sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ (Romans 6:23)
  • God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Jesus died for us (Romans 5:8)
  • That if we confess Jesus as Lord and believe that he has been raised from the dead we shall be saved (Romans 10:9)

So, based on the above analysis, I would define the gospel as: An act of God’s pure grace whereby he reconciles sinners to himself.

Now the first distortion of the gospel I want to look at is that the gospel is about obtaining a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. I call this a distortion because it takes the truth of the gospel and twists is to present a distorted view of gospel truth. In other words, there is a grain of truth in this statement, but it is not the whole truth.
How this distortion is typically presented is in the phrase “Christianity is all about relationship, not religion.” I’ve heard this phrase numerous times in church and on Christian radio. Now as I said earlier, there is a grain of truth in this. Jesus critiques the Jewish leaders when he says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8). In other words, Christianity is more than paying lip service to Jesus (e.g., going to church, reading your bible, engaging in outreach, etc.). It may be more than simply doing these things, but it certainly isn’t less than doing these things.
This mentality distorts the gospel by downplaying how a relationship with God is established through Jesus Christ. People who go around saying “Christianity is all about relationship, not religion” are also the same people who tend to downplay the severity of sin and the need for true repentance. In other words, they tend to emphasize God’s love at the expense of God’s holiness. By emphasizing my relationship with Jesus, the impression is made that me and Jesus are “best friends forever.” In other words, it trivializes the details of what makes a relationship with Jesus possible.
The gospel is a solution to a problem, and unless you know what the problem is, you won’t appreciate the solution. The problem we all have, as members of the human race, is we are “sinners in the hands of an angry God” (to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Edwards). We have all sinned and our sin offends a holy God. Unless something is done, we will all spend an eternity in hell. The bad news is we can’t do anything to change this situation. The good news is that God did do something to change this situation; he offered his Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the penalty our sin incurred. The offer of the gospel is that you can be reconciled to God if you repent of your sin and place your trust in Jesus Christ alone for your salvation. The result of this reconciliation is that you now seek to serve the One who has saved you and you do so out of love and gratitude. You can’t have the relationship until you recognize your “sin and misery” (as the old Heidelberg Catechism puts it).
So while Christianity is “a relationship, not a religion,” we need to balance this platitude with a biblical view of what a relationship with God entails; and I would submit that until we have a proper biblical balance of this truth, our Christianity will be shallow and ineffective.