First, think about how you react to suffering and pain. How do you view God when you pass through a terrible trial?
Moralists immediately think, What have I done to deserve this? Doesn’t God see all the good I’ve done? Because you see God as a sort of cosmic employer, you have certain expectations of him. When God doesn’t meet these expectations, you become angry. Eventually, your disillusionment leads to despair. You think that all your efforts at pleasing God must be useless.
The second diagnostic is to check your heart whenever you see someone else benefiting from God’s grace.
Not too long ago, I found out that an acquaintance had recently been given a new ministry opportunity and a promotion. How did my heart respond to this news? By sinking into jealousy rather than leaping for joy. The thoughts that raced through my mind (Why did God do that for him and not me? Am I not deserving?) stood in opposition to grace. I had to repent again and ask God to so change my heart that I would rejoice in His grace being showered on others.
The moralistic gospel resembles the famous Bob Newhart skit, in which his counsel to broken people seeking change is to continually yell, “Stop it!” To be sure, the New Testament contains many commands. In fact, there are times when you could paraphrase Paul as saying, “Stop it!” But notice that God’s commands are always grounded in God’s past actions. The imperatives (commands) are based in indicatives (statements about what God has done).
Tullian Tchividjian puts it this way: “Imperatives divorced from indicatives become impossibilities.” This is the logic of the gospel. You can see the journey from indicative to imperative running throughout Paul’s letters, most often turning on the word “therefore.”
“You are not under law but under grace” and you “have been brought from death to life (indicatives Romans 6:14, 13), therefore “let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body. . . . Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (imperatives Romans 6:12-13).
The first three chapters of Ephesians explain the gospel in terms of God’s redemptive plan, our powerlessness to save ourselves, and God’s bringing together Jew and Gentile alike. Then in chapter 4, Paul begins to list ways to apply the gospel message. “Therefore,” he says and proceeds to give us commands that are grounded in the gospel.
Or take a look at Galatians 5:24 and 16: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (indicative), therefore, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (imperative).
If we focus our attention on what we are to do without grounding our lives in what Christ has done, we will become disillusioned. That’s why so many people who never seem to get any traction in the Christian life walk the aisle again and again. They recommit their lives to Christ, saying, “I’ll try harder this time! I’ll be more serious!” only to become deflated and disappointed that they feel no power in their Christian life.
The result of the moralistic gospel is despair. But that despair is what can and should lead us to the biblical gospel of grace – the true gospel that exposes the counterfeit and brings lasting behavioral change, precisely because it’s not first about outward change but inward transformation by the cross of Jesus Christ.
- excerpt from Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope, pgs 123-5.