Trevin Wax’s “Counterfeit Gospels”: A Must-Read Book for Thoughtful Christians

Here’s a tip: If Trevin Wax writes a book, you’ll find it well worth your time and money to buy the book and read it. Wax is the author of Holy Subversion, a blogger at Kingdom People, and an editor at LifeWay Christian Resources. His most recent publication, Counterfeit Gospels, is a clear articulation of the Christian gospel and an effective revelation and refutation of six counterfeit gospels. It is at once theological, devotional, and polemical. I will provide a concise summary of the book followed by three interactions with its content.

Counterfeit Gospels is divided into three parts. In Part One, the author begins by treating the gospel story, which he delineates in four plot movements (creation, fall, redemption, and restoration). He rightly argues that the gospel story is the necessary backdrop for the gospel announcement. The story answers key questions-where did we come from? What went wrong? How can it be made right? What is the future? Further, it defines the God of the gospel-Creator, Redeemer, Judge, King, etc. Finally, it highlights theological truths that the gospel announcement makes in propositional form-God is king, we have sinned by usurping his kingship, we cannot save ourselves, and so forth. After having treated the gospel story, the author exposes two counterfeit gospels which alter elements of the biblical story. The therapeutic gospel sees the Fall as essentially a failure of human potential and happiness, and therefore sees the gospel merely or essentially as therapy for humans who are looking for fulfillment and happiness. The judgmentless gospel removes or minimizes the biblical teaching on God’s judgment from the story of his final Restoration of the cosmos, and therefore preaches a reductionist gospel of a God who doesn’t judge and of humans who do not need to be judged.

In Part Two, the author begins by treating the gospel announcement, which includes the life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ, and which demands a response of repentance and faith. In a nutshell, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, was raised on the third day, and is now Lord of the world” (104). After having elucidated the gospel announcement, Wax exposes two counterfeit gospels which alter elements of the biblical announcement. The moralistic gospel reduces humanity’s sinful condition by ignoring our deeply sinful condition and focusing on certain specific sins. Once “sin” has been reduced to “sins,” the gospel is reduced to spiritual instruction about how we can win God’s favor by curtailing our bad actions. The quietist gospel reduces the gospel by making it applicable to the personal and immaterial aspects of our lives, but not to the public and material aspects. Once the gospel has been tamed in this manner, Christians will care about their morning devotions and their personal feelings about God, but not about their vocation, their leisure, or their social and cultural contexts.

In Part Three, Wax begins by treating the gospel community: “The gospel announcement births people into God’s kingdom, and God makes His kingdom visible through the formation of His church” (155). The gospel incorporates us into a community of faith, makes us Kingdom people, and creates a place where we are sanctified. God does this both for his glory and for the good of the world: “God chooses to funnel his grace and mercy through us to the wider community of faith, and through the community’s witness to the outer world. The church does not exist for itself; it exists for the mission of God. Our life together magnifies the glory of God” (170). After having described the gospel community, the author exposes two counterfeit gospels which corrupt that community. The activist gospel reduces the gospel community by finding its greatest unity not around Christ, but around political causes or social projects. As a result, activists warp the biblical testimony by seeing the gospel as being primarily about political, social, and cultural transformation in the here and now. The churchless gospel warps the biblical teaching by focusing on individuals to the exclusion of the community. In so, doing the church becomes an optional aid to one’s personal spiritual formation, or perhaps even an obstacle to one’s personal pursuit of God.

Wax concludes the book by urging us to tell the gospel story, make the gospel announcement, and invite people into the gospel community. Story, announcement, and community should be seamlessly woven together in the life of God’s people as they set forth to fulfill God’s mission.

I want to mention three aspects of Counterfeit Gospels that I find particularly helpful. First, the author gets the storyline correct. Often, theologians and preachers distort the biblical storyline by beginning at the four gospels (thereby leaving out Creation and the Fall), by ending at the cross (thereby leaving out the resurrection of Christ, of believers, and of the cosmos; in other words, by leaving out Restoration), or by some other means. But to do so is to render the biblical message incomplete and incoherent. For example, without a sufficient understanding of Creation and Restoration, we will minimize both the goodness of the creational realm thereby ignoring the necessity for Christians to bring the cultural dimensions of life under the Lordship of Christ. If creation is not inherently good, and if God is not going to restore his creation one day, then why would we care about anything other than our personal devotional lives? Why would we seek to bring our work and leisure under Christ’s lordship? Why would we care deeply about the social and political issues of our day? A further example: without a sufficient understanding of the Fall, we will minimize humanity’s inherently idolatrous and rebellious nature, thereby opening the door for universalism, various types of works-salvation, and superficial preaching.

Second, the author rightly positions the gospel announcement in relation to the gospel story and the gospel community. He argues that the gospel announcement is not understood except in relation to the gospel story. This truth is often lost on those who grow up in church, and especially on those who grow up in culturally Christian context. But for Wax and others who have predominantly non- or post-Christian contexts, it becomes immediately clear that all of the words we use in declaring the gospel announcement (words such as God, sin, and salvation) need to be filled with proper meaning. When we utter words such as “God,” “sin,” or “salvation,” the hearer hears those words within the framework of their own worldview, and within their own cultural and existential contexts. Therefore, we must fill those words with the proper meaning by using them within the framework created by the biblical narrative.

Third, the author demonstrates how to make a theological argument, whether one is preaching a sermon, writing a book, or having a conversation. In each of the counterfeit gospel chapters, he gives an accurate exposition of the counterfeit and manages to do so without spewing bile toward those with whom he has a problem. In other words, he is gracious and fair-minded. Further, in each chapter he tries to show why each counterfeit gospel is attractive, why it is wrong, and how to counter the counterfeit. In a nutshell, he is thorough. Finally, he manages to do so in a truly pastoral manner. The book is written in a lucid and compelling manner, filled with helpful stories and illustrations, is will be found interesting and challenging for a wide variety of readers, including pastors, seminary students, and lay people.

Counterfeit Gospels is highly recommended.

Trevin Wax, Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope (Chicago: Moody, 2011). 226 pp. Ppbk.