Therapeutic vs. True Gospel

 

The word gospel refers to good news about what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. But when the gospel is shaped by a therapeutic emphasis, it turns out to be so much less than the true gospel. The therapeutic gospel emphasizes a Jesus who meets my felt needs in a way that keeps me at the center of life? It’s a kind of Jesus who is there to serve you. I wrote about this in my previous post.

 

The true gospel will not reach us until we see the “me at the center” life as our effort to take the place that belongs to God. I must acknowledge how I want the glory that belongs to God when I focus on myself — on my feelings and desires as the most important issues of life. 

Jesus Christ died for my sin and the most vivid expression of my sin is my willful preoccupation with myself. A gospel message that invites me to stay at the center is not the true gospel.

Listen closely to the emphasis when you hear someone invite people to follow Jesus. If the emphasis is on a Jesus who gives you peace and meaning; who gives you better relationships and takes away your feelings of guilt, you’re hearing a distortion of the gospel. Worse yet, you’re hearing a sales pitch rather than the true gospel.

But doesn’t Jesus give peace, meaning and forgiveness? Doesn’t Scripture emphasize God’s love for us? “Yes” to both questions. These however are the benefits of the gospel not the gospel. God’s love is so amazing because it’s demonstrated toward sinners. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He died for undeserving, self-centered people like you and me.

“The emphasis of scripture is on the godless self-centeredness of sin. Every sin is a breach of what Jesus called ‘the first and great commandment,’ not just by failing to love God with all our being, but by actively refusing to acknowledge and obey him as our Creator and Lord. We have rejected the position of dependence which our createdness inevitably involves, and made a bid for independence. Worse still, we have dared to proclaim our self-dependence, or autonomy, which is to claim the position occupied by God alone. Sin is not a regrettable lapse from conventional standards; its essence is hostility to God (Rom. 8:7), issuing in active rebellion against him” (John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 90).

If I don’t accept the verdict of Scripture about my sin and the judgment it deserves, I cannot hope to experience benefits of the gospel such as peace, meaning and forgiveness. 

If the bad news is muted or left out, the good news of the gospel is also removed. For the gospel to be good news, I must fully acknowledge the following verdicts:

  1. I stand condemned before God – guilty of sin and deserving God’s judgment (Romans 3:10,23:6:23a; James 2:10)
  2. I cannot by any effort of my own improve my standing before God (Romans 4:5; 5:6;Galatians 2:16, 21; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).
  3. Apart from the mercy and grace of God, I remain forever under God’s just condemnation (Titus 3:5-7).
  4. What I cannot do, God did for me when Jesus Christ bore the judgment my sin deserved (Galatians 3:13;Romans 5:8; 8:3-4;II Corinthians 5:17,18,21).
  5. There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1, 32-39;John 1:12;3:16-18,36; 10:27-28).

The only grounds for acceptance with God is faith in Christ alone.

Centuries ago, Thomas Aquinas exposed the error behind the therapeutic gospel. 

“We confuse two similar yet different human actions. We see people searching desperately for peace of mind, relief from guilt, meaning, and purpose to their lives, and loving acceptance. We know that ultimately these things can only be found in God. Therefore, we conclude that since people are seeking these things they must be seeking after God. People do not seek God. They seek after the benefits that only God can give them. The sin of fallen man is this: Man seeks the benefits of God while at the same time fleeing from God himself. We are, by nature, fugitives.”

People do not seek God unless His Spirit works in their hearts and Jesus revealed the kind of work the Spirit would accomplish. Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit came, he would convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (see: John 16:8).

All of this emphasis fits with the way Jesus repeatedly called people to deny themselves to follow him. “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me'” (Matthew 16:24).

Steve Cornell

The therapeutic gospel

When you hear a pastor or teacher invite people to come to Jesus, listen carefully to the emphasis on what Jesus will do for the person who comes to him.

There is a subtle but dangerous distortion of the gospel that has become popular in many Churches.

A growing number of pastors are inviting people to come to Jesus on terms that are not consistent with our Lord’s own invitations to follow him.

Question: Are we bending and twisting the gospel around the felt needs and expectations of a self-absorbed culture?

The therapeutic gospel leaves one with the distinct impression that, “Jesus and the church exist to make you feel loved, significant, validated, entertained, and charged up. This gospel ameliorates distressing symptoms. It makes you feel better. The logic of this therapeutic gospel is a jesus-for-Me who meets individual desires and assuages psychic aches” (David Powlison).

Most pressing felt needs?

Dr. Powlison summarizes the felt needs that the therapeutic gospel addresses. 

  • I want to feel loved for who I am, to be pitied for what I’ve gone through, to feel intimately understood, to be accepted unconditionally;
  • I want to experience a sense of personal significance and meaningfulness, to be successful in my career, to know my life matters, to have an impact;
  • I want to gain self-esteem, to affirm that I am okay, to be able to assert my opinions and desires;
  • I want to be entertained, to feel pleasure in the endless stream of performances that delight my eyes and tickle my ears;
  • I want a sense of adventure, excitement, action, and passion so that I experience life as thrilling and moving. 

“In this new gospel, the great ‘evils’ to be redressed do not call for any fundamental change of direction in the human heart. Instead, the problem lies in my sense of rejection from others; in my corrosive experience of life’s vanity; in my nervous sense of self-condemnation and diffidence; in the imminent threat of boredom if my music is turned off; in my fussy complaints when a long, hard road lies ahead. These are today’s significant felt needs that the gospel is bent to serve.”

These felt needs “are defined just like a medical problem. You feel bad; the therapy makes you feel better. The definition of the disease bypasses the sinful human heart. You are not the agent of your deepest problems, but merely a sufferer and victim of unmet needs. The offer of a cure skips over the sin-bearing Savior. Repentance from unbelief, willfulness, and wickedness is not the issue. Sinners are not called to a U-turn and to a new life that is life indeed. Such a gospel massages self-love. There is nothing in its inner logic to make you love God and love any other person besides yourself. This therapeutic gospel may often mention the word ‘Jesus,’ but he has morphed into the meeter-of-your-needs, not the Savior from your sins. It corrects Jesus’ work. The therapeutic gospel unhinges the gospel.” (David Powlison).

Questions

  • Isn’t Jesus the greatest therapist one could ask for?
  • Does the Savior do any therapeutic work in our lives when we turn to him?
  • How does the therapeutic gospel differ from the true gospel?
  • What are the primary needs met in the gospel of Jesus Christ?

I’ll address these matters in my next post.

Steve Cornell

 

 

What kind of Savior do you want?

83327-truth_in_loveOur songs of praise and worship often focus on God’s power to help us and the fact that there is nothing that He cannot do.

A possible danger in this emphasis is that (like the Palm Sunday crowd) we will connect these songs to a God who is primarily interested in delivering us from difficult circumstances rather than from the power of sin and death. 

This is the emphasis found in a therapeutic gospel promising that God will heal your damaged emotions and broken relationships. Certainly God is gracious to work in every area of our lives but the greatest display of His love and deliverance is what Christ did to free us from the curse of the Law and the power of death (Galatians 3:13; Romans 3:19-25; II Corinthians 5:17-21). 

Let’s not set people up with false expectations about the Christian life being one of boundless triumph over all obstacles. While it’s true that there’s nothing that God cannot do, we must honor His timing.

One day God will restore us to a place where there is “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” but this will not happen until “the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4). And the possibility of such restoration is solely based on what God has done for us “when the set time had fully come,” and “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Galatians 4:4-5).

We live in the time of history when Jesus calls his followers to take up the cross and follow him. We are not called (at this time of history) to take up our scepter and rule with him. It’s so easy in a fallen world to want a Savior who offers temporal deliverance from difficult circumstances more than one who offers eternal deliverance from sin and death.

Loss of focus

Is it possible to become so consumed with wanting God to solve our temporal problems (a broken relationship or a physical limitation) that we no longer joyfully celebrate what God has done to remove our greatest enemy, sin and death? Don’t allow the temporary things of this life to diminish your grateful worship of the God who, “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32).  

Steve Cornell

God will not be mocked

Many years ago, Reinhold Niebuhr warned against proclaiming, “a God without wrath who brings men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

His words have a sad prophetic feel to them as I look at the landscape not merely of mainline protestant denominations, but of popular evangelicalism.

The subtlety of how this often begins is captured in the following advice. 

“We shall do well to play down the picture of God or Christ as Judge. A range of alternative models, the healer, the therapist, the patient lover, the counselor, all seem more appropriate for bringing out the primary interest of divine judgment, namely, the restoration of the creature to integrity and the winning of his love, despite what he has done or made of himself in the past” (B. Hebblethwaite, The Christian Hope [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984], 215). 

I suspect that this counsel would be heard by many (even among evangelical leaders) as wise. But it’s actually very dangerous in that it risks a therapeutic gospel where a Savior from sin might feel unnecessary — or at least not the most pressing concern. 

Ultimately, we must see that this kind of counsel mocks God by proposing man-centered philosophy in the place of the word of God, the cross of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. Those who faithfully proclaim a God of righteous judgment will increasingly find themselves on the outside if this counsel prevails. 

God’s servants in Old Testament times faced similar challenges:

  • II Chronicles 36:16 – “But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy.”
  • Ezekiel 8:17-18 – “Have you seen this, son of man?” he asked. “Is it nothing to the people of Judah that they commit these detestable sins, leading the whole nation into violence, thumbing their noses at me, and provoking my anger? Therefore, I will respond in fury. I will neither pity nor spare them. And though they cry for mercy, I will not listen.” 

Let us heed the warning, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).

Let us also remind ourselves of the ministry of the Holy Spirit as taught by Jesus himself, “…when he (the Holy Spirit) comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment concerning sin, because they do not believe in me” (John 16:8-9).

The apostle Paul closed his message to the philosophers of Athens declaring that, “God commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

Salvation occurs in connection with a series of experiences that trace to judgment and guilt. Four sequential elements are involved – conviction, contrition, confession and conversion.

Steve Cornell

Questions for every church leader

Many church leaders look to mega-churches for guidance. The more notable of these Churches are Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek Community in Chicago, Illinois, Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California and Andy Stanley’ North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia. Leaders are often drawn to these mega-churches out of fear that their own approaches to ministry are ineffective.

The fast and frightening pace of change in our culture causes many traditional churches to feel as if they’ve lost touch. When ministries are ineffective, leaders who care about the Church ask questions about how to better “do” Church. 

Unwilling to become stagnant or to accept status quo, these leaders pursue new models for their ministries. Since mega-churches give an appearance of success, leaders fill church vans and hit the highways in search of new more effective ways to do church.

The churches attracting these leaders are usually mega-churches with uniquely gifted mega-leaders. These mega-churches have some great ideas for effective ministry and the desire of their leaders to help other pastors do a better job is commendable. 

However, after years of offering conferences and seminars, these leaders have sensed a need to warn participants not to mimic their methods. Those who try to duplicate the ministry of  uniquely situated mega-churches are often disappointed with the outcomes. Though well-intentioned to revitalize their own churches, in many cases their efforts create more problems than they solve.

 Allow me to suggest a better plan that will save the gas money and costs of the conferences. Consider Jesus words in Matthew 16:18 and ask the questions below it. 

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Jesus said, “I will build my Church….” Matthew 16:18

  • Did He do it?
  • Is He doing it today?
  • Does a pattern emerge as to how He built His Church?
  • Is there a plan that transcends time and place?
  • Is every Church today being built by Christ?
  • How do we know if Christ is building a Church?  
  • What should Church structure look like?
  • What should Church life look like?

Worth considering

There is a more serious concern possibly related to this pursuit of new ways to do Church. Is it an indication of much deeper identity crises? Although not always the case, often leaders who attend these conferences lack confidence in ministry because they lack a solid Scriptural understanding of the church. A superficial ecclesiology inevitably makes leadership susceptible to insecurity and faulty understandings of ministry.

Leaders must develop and teach a biblical theology of church. When God’s people are secure in their understanding of what scripture teaches about the church, they will be more flexible about changing methods.

Revisit important New Testament texts like Acts 20; Ephesians 2:14-22; 4:11-16; Hebrews 3:12-14;10:25-26; 13:17 and I Peter 5:1-4. An investigative study of these passages will save you the money spent on a trip to the mega-Church.

Helpful resources:

Steve Cornell

Did you encounter God in Church?

When one speaks on behalf of God, there should be a God-encounter.

This was expected for Church gatherings.

When God’s people assemble in His name. “…if the whole church comes together and ….an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” (I Corinthians 14:23-25).

Nothing seeker-friendly about this kind of experience! Yet it is what we desperately need in our Churches.

When truth about God is declared it should jolt those who live outside of His truth. I don’t want such people walking out of Church saying, “That was pretty cool.” “It didn’t even feel like Church.”  

I want them to be reeling a little — jolted mentally, emotionally and volitionally as they encounter God. Imagine a seeker greeting the pastor at the door and saying, “Being in your Church today made me feel like I was a sinner. I felt a little judged. I felt like my anonymity was violated, like the secrets of my heart were exposed.”

Good!

If the seeker is “an unbeliever or someone who does not understand,” this is what should happen.

I delight to see this type of response week after week at our Church. I can almost read it in their faces. But this doesn’t make it easier to speak for God. The one who speaks is himself a sinner and must deal with the secrets of his own heart. I don’t want to make the mistake of Job’s three friends who were rebuked by God  ”because you have not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7,8). 

Misrepresenting God can happen in what is not said as well as what is said. 

Reflect on a distinction made centuries ago by St. Thomas Aquinas. 

“We confuse two similar yet different human actions. We see people searching desperately for peace of mind, relief from guilt, meaning, and purpose to their lives, and loving acceptance. We know that ultimately these things can only be found in God. Therefore, we conclude that since people are seeking these things they must be seeking after God.  People do not seek God. They seek after the benefits that only God can give them. The sin of fallen man is this: Man seeks the benefits of God while at the same time fleeing from God himself. We are, by nature, fugitives.”

According to the New Testament, people do not seek God unless His Spirit works in their hearts. Jesus told us what kind of inner work the Spirit would accomplish. He said the Holy Spirit would convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment — three unlikely themes for seeker-services. (see: John 16:8)

Steve Cornell

When the Church markets the gospel

“Does the gospel of the market-driven church redeem the lost or reinforce trends, deliver from sin or affirm the self, reconcile people to God or appeal to religious consumers?”

“Tailoring the gospel to fit the consumer distorts the gospel, discounts the work of the Holy Spirit and dehumanizes men and women made in the image of God.”

“It’s one thing to understand cultural trends and attitudes in order to discover appropriate starting points for reaching a culture with the gospel. It’s quite another thing to mold the gospel to fit the expectations, aspirations and dreams of those in it” (Douglas Webster, Selling Jesus).

“We must never confuse our desire for people to accept the Gospel,” warned the late Oswald Chambers, “with creating a Gospel that is acceptable to people.”