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 never could 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.
In my late 20s, still plugging along in what I now call the goodness gospel, I opened the book of Galatians. The words absolutely came alive. God opened my eyes instantly to a lack of understanding about what Christ had done for me, and he began that day 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, I heard 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 four subtle messages I continued to hear mirrored exactly what Paul addressed in Galatians.
1. The goodness gospel preaches that unity means uniformity.
In churches I've heard persuasive people hold out their preferences and passions rather than holding out the gospel and trusting that God will use that gospel to affect preferences and passions. They pushed for external 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 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 people are more important than others based upon their behaviors; thus, it 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 gospel is clear: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15). We all become new creatures in the same way, so we are equally needy and are equally saved in Christ. The gospel brings genuine unity.
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 maturity and right behavior of others; it causes us to depend on ourselves.
We see evidence of this perspective in Galatians 2 when Peter huddled up with the group he aimed to please. He unwittingly encouraged others to turn to their flesh. How many of our churches likewise 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 fulfilled them for us. It also speaks to life after salvation. We cannot love God and others in the way Christ commanded (love your enemies, forgive those who hurt you, be joyful always) without the power of Christ's resurrected life working in us through 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: either 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. Churches that follow the goodness gospel teach either 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 the good works he has planned for us. Its foundation is God-rule, not self-rule, and his generosity toward us 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 and counsel. 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.
Editors’ note: Christine Hoover has written more extensively on the “goodness gospel” in her new book, From Good to Grace: Letting Go of the Goodness Gospel (Baker, 2015).