6 False Gospels in the Bible Belt

I've spent my whole life growing up in the Bible Belt. I grew up in the home of a pastor and listening to sermons from countless teachers and Christians. The Bible Belt gets its name because there tends to be a lot of conservative Christian people and you can find churches on every street corner. Although the Bible Belt seems to be disappearing slowly, there are remnants of a culture that assumes everyone is a Christian and that expects everyone should be going to church. Although I am thankful for a culture in which I had such ready access to the true Gospel, over the years I have been exposed to a number of pseudo-gospels trying to pretend to be the real deal. These false gospels are often unknowingly proclaimed by pastors and churches in the bible belt. Some of the most dangerous lies we believe are not elaborate teachings of heresy but a subtle twisting of the truth. The false gospels run deep in the Bible Belt and makes pastoring in this area of our country quite difficult.

1. "My Baptism Saves Me"

Many people are confused about their salvation. There are many who think of salvation as some sort of ritualistic tradition where you walk down an aisle, sign a card, and get baptized. Many in the Bible Belt have done this often at a very young age before they really understood what they were doing. As a result there are many people who call themselves Christians who could care less about Jesus. They find assurance in their baptism or their church membership. They feel security in their salvation because they are on the rolls of a church they haven't attended in decades.

Many of these people cling to "Once Saved, Always Saved" which is a twisted distortion of the perseverance of the saints. The perseverance of the saints is not "Once Saved, Always Saved", but "Once Saved, Always Persevering". If you became a Christian at 8 years old and then spend your entire life disconnected from God and the church and think you have salvation, chances are you are fooling yourself. Those who are truly in Christ will persevere in following Christ until he calls us home. All of this is by God's grace and an indicator of a truly converted heart.

2. "I go to church and I'm a good person"

Moralism is the rampant poison in Bible Belt culture. If you listen carefully you can hear it taught from many pulpits across the south. It is the great distorting of the Gospel in which all God wants from you is to be a good boy or girl.  God then becomes the great Santa Clause in the sky where heaven becomes beautifully wrapped presents and hell becomes a stocking of coal.  So many have twisted the Gospel into a moral check list to complete. You hear the lie of moralism at funerals, bible studies, and even in sermons. Moralism teaches "Be Good and Work Harder". The Gospel says "You're not Good and you need the atoning work of Christ".

The true Gospel is not one in which we work to earn God's favor, but a Gospel in which we receive God's favor through Jesus Christ. Salvation is all by grace. Yes, God wants us to live lives of holiness, but our morality does not save us. We are saved only through the blood of Christ.

3. "God wants me to be happy, healthy, and wealthy"

The prosperity gospel runs wild and free in the Bible Belt, and unfortunately remains unchallenged. The lie of the prosperity gospel can be found in our Christian Book stores, Facebook statuses, and again from pulpits throughout the Bible Belt. More often it is a Christianized package of American consumerism. Rather than loving the giver of all gifts we idolize the gifts God gives us. We expect God to give us our best life now filled with a great salary, great car, and perfect health.

Yes, God does give us great gifts, but the problem with the prosperity Gospel is that it imposes that God MUST give us those things. The path of true discipleship is often not one of roses and ease. It is often difficult to follow Jesus and it may mean we suffer in this life as our savior did. Jesus tells us to pick up our cross and follow him. God does not exist to give us all creature comforts, but he calls us to lay down our lives for his glory.

4. "God is my Therapist"

Pop Psychology has crept into the church. We often think that God just wants me to feel good about myself. He is there to affirm my feelings and my life style. Those who believe this false gospel often highly value emotional experiences that make them feel better about themselves. Often times there is an over emphasis on God's love and a de-emphasis on his justice and wrath towards our sin. The idea of the sinfulness of humanity is largely avoided in the Bible belt and instead we hear about a God of acceptance and affirmation.

Yes, God is our healer. Yes, he is our refuge and strength and help in trouble. Yes he is our great counselor. Yet, God is also serious about our sin. This is why he sent Jesus to die, to pay the penalty for our sin. Jesus' death was a death of substitution. He died in our place. God is not interested in increasing our self-esteem but transforming us into new creations. God is making us new and conforming us into the image of Jesus Christ. We are sinners in need of new hearts. We must be born again. We must change, and the power of change does not come through self-actualization but through spiritual regeneration. This means that we must turn from our sin and live lives transformed by God's radical grace empowered and initiated by the Spirit of God.

5. "God Doesn't Care About My Heart"

The Bible Belt is often cloaked in a veil of legalism. Many think that God simply cares about their external actions. Many think to be a Christian is to be but a moral, good person. If I put on the church mask and make everyone believe I've got it all together, that is all God cares about. So they put on their nice suits and their fake Christian smile and act out this role of a faithful Christian. Yes, God does care that we do the right thing, but he also cares about our motives. This is what Jesus was getting at in the Sermon on the Mount.  God does not want us to commit adultery, but Jesus says that even the lust of the heart is just as sinful as the act of adultery. God also cares about our motivations behind our actions. Yet, many in the bible belt are religious shells, externally doing the right thing without their hearts transformed and renewed by grace.

6. "God Doesn't Expect Me to Serve Him"

Many think that God has called them to a simple, cozy, easy life. Many do not believe that God has called them to serve or sacrifice at any cost to themselves or their life style. Giving of our money or giving up our time or moving to an uncomfortable location for the Gospel all seems ridiculous. We often think that God is here to serve us, not us to serve him. So we come into our churches as Christian consumers ready to take from others but never to serve our church, our community, or our world. Every Christian has been given the mandate of the Great Commission. Every Christian has been given the calling of taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. God has not called us to a leisurely self-serving Christianity, but a costly self-denying faith that risks anything and everything for the greater joy of knowing and savoring Jesus.

A Recovery of the True Gospel

Have you identified any of these six false gospels that get thrown around the Bible Belt and across much of evangelical Christianity? More than anything in the Bible Belt and across the world we need a revival and a renewal of the true Gospel:

A Gospel that proclaims a great holy God.

A Gospel that proclaims the wretchedness of our estate in our sin.

A Gospel that proclaims the great love of God in sending a savior.

A Gospel that accentuates the cross as the ultimate display of God's love and wrath as Jesus dies in our place.

A Gospel that calls all people to turn from sin and have faith in jesus.

A Gospel that expects followers of Christ to actually follow him.

Be sure to check out the sequel to this post: How to Share the Gospel with Cultural Christians

Truth is Revealed Both Gradually and Dramatically

when-was-saul-convertedJesus is one with the Father. Jesus invites us to examine his life, because he and the Father are one. As Jesus speaks, it is God who speaks. As Jesus shows love, it is God who shows love. As Jesus stoops down to wash his disciples feet, it is God who humbles himself for this most menial of tasks. From Jesus' conversations, actions, and character we are able to see God himself. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. When we learn of Jesus we learn of God himself. How amazing it must have been to be one of those disciples; to walk the streets of Jerusalem with God; to recline at the table eating with the creator of the universe; to laugh and joke with the great Almighty; to be served and loved by the Son of Man.

Yet, even though God was incarnate in front of them, these men were not able to see fully who Jesus was. Indeed, they would not fully discern the glory of Jesus until after his resurrection. Even still, how blinded we are to the reality in front of us until God reveals it to us in power. Truth never changes, but our awareness of that truth either grows or diminishes with our hardened hearts. Jesus was God whether the disciples discerned his true identity or not, but they slowly over time began to understand who Jesus is.

God works this same way in our own lives as well. Often God's drawing of us to Christ is a slow and gradual experience. It is over the course of many months and many years, as God slowly reveals to us the glory of truth. The fog of falsehood disperses ever so slowly. God is truth and our understanding of him often increases with the passage of time.

Sometimes this truth will be revealed dramatically with a cataclysmic conversion event. Saul of Tarsus as he was on the road to Damascus was on his way to kill more Christians. However when truth was revealed as Jesus blinded him with his glory, God was revealed to wretched old Saul. After that life shattering event, Saul was no longer Saul. He was Paul. No longer a enemy of Christ, Paul was now an ally to him.

Truth can be revealed suddenly. God never ceases to do the miraculous by showing truth, instantaneously transforming a life. These are the people with the far more interesting testimonies. However these sorts of stories are rare for a reason. They are out of the ordinary. It is not the normal story of conversion. For most people who come to realize the truth of the Gospel of Christ, it is not one of these interesting stories like Saul of Tarsus, but much more like the disciples testimony. It has come from the gradual, slow, unexciting awakening to the truth. Then all of the sudden one day the message of the Gospel clicks.

We have heard it time and time again. We have had so many long dialogues about faith and Christ with our friends, but now all of the sudden it makes sense. The fog of falsehood has been lifted completely and you are gloriously aware of the majesty and power of Jesus. You understand why Jesus died, who did not die just a martyrs death, but a substitutionary death in your place. You begin to see that Jesus willingly went to the cross to die the death that you deserved because he lived the life you could not live. The Gospel makes since and you see its glory and bank your life on its truth. You go all in, not holding anything back. Jesus is Lord, and you cannot help but submit your whole life to him.

So which testimony is better? The instantaneous conversion of Saul or the slow conversion of the disciples? I suggest both are equally miraculous works done by God. Anytime a sinner repents and trusts in Christ is a miraculous thing. Although our conversion stories might look very different, it is God who saves us in our sin. It is God who removes the fog whether instantaneously or gradually, but either way he gets all the praise. The glory is His, in the conversion of the detestable persecutor or the church kid who spends his whole life surrounded in truth.

How did your conversion happen? Was it dramatic or slow and gradual? Love to hear your story in the comments!

Book Recommendation: "Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart"

I just finished reading J.D. Greear's latest book, Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved.  The book does something very few authors can pull off.  The book is deeply theological, extremely practical, easily readable, and concise! The book attempts to provide a pastoral discussion on assurance.  How can we know that we are truly saved? What does it mean to be a converted? This book seems to follow the current trend in Christian book publishing dealing with conversion and discipleship.  However our of those books I've had experience with and a few sitting on my shelf waiting to be read, this book here seems to be the most helpful and lastingly beneficial to the church.

Greear did such a good job with this little book that I think I'm going to pick up a few extra copies to keep around just to be able to pass out to people who might be struggling with assurance.  The book is helpful for anyone, especially those who might struggle with the question, "Am I really saved?"  If you ever asked yourself that question (and what honest Christian hasn't?) be sure to pick this book up and give it a read.  It is well worth your time.  You can pick it up at Amazon by clicking here.

Here is a video of J.D. Greear discussing some of the issues dealt with in the book


Conversion in Les Miserables

Conversion in Les MIsLes Miserables is a work of art that has greatly moved my soul over the past month and a half. To be honest, the first time I was exposed to it was the movie/musical version that came out this past December. It has been a long time since a movie has struck such an emotional core in my soul. What moved me so much isn't the amazing acting or the captivating song writing, but the incredible story written by Victo Hugo. I started reading the book in January, but with all the school reading I doubt I will be able to get too much into the massive 2000 pages of Les Miserables.  However I hope to maybe read it through this year. The story is filled with Gospel and Christian themes. The story addresses hope in the midst of suffering, tension between Gospel and the Law, conversion as seen in the life change of Jean Valjean as a result of the bishops grace, fatherly love and sacrifice. and forgiveness and mercy to the worst of enemies. This whole work is filled with those amazing themes that draw me to the true story of the whole world, the story of God.

It is a work that continues to flood my mind as I think about the emotions of the story and listen to the sound track over and over again. It is a story that I have yet to wear out. The wonderful themes come back and resonate my heart time and time again.

The character that amazes me the most in Jean Valjean. Here is a man who was thrown into prison just for stealing a mouth full of bread. His young life was taken from him, just for trying to survive. As he “looked down” in the chains of his slavery he grew embittered and hatred in his heart spread to the depth of his soul until the man has a conversion experience. A kind and compassionate Bishop shows mercy to this ex convict and invites him in for dinner and rest. Jean Valjean is amazed that the bishop would do this, but his heart had become so dark and bitter that he stole the precious silver of the bishop and escaped in the middle of the night. He stole from the only man who showed him kindness.

Jean Valjean gets caught and brought back before the Bishop with the silver in his hand. Valjean came up with the excuse that the Bishop “gave it to him”. When the Bishop is told the story, the Bishop does the most astonishing thing. He shows Jean Valjean compassion and he goes along with his story saying that not only did he give him the silver, but forgot the most valuable pieces. Jean Valjean, by an act of the Bishops sacrificial generosity,  is spared from the return to the pit of imprisonment.

This incredible unimaginable act of mercy stands in stark contrast to the life Jean Valjean has come to know. The bishops generosity is out of place in the suffering of revolutionary France. This incredible grace shown to Valjean has a born-again experience in his life. He is converted in response to the grace given to him by the bishop.

This leads to my favorite song in the musical, Jean-Valjean's soliloquy. I've yet to read this in the book, but the song's lyrics and melody captures the emotional intensity of his conversion. He begins as a man hardened by the suffering and injustice of the cruel world. He hates the man that this world has turned him into. He is swimming in the whirl pool of his own sin, and it disgusts him. Jean Valjean gets up and declares “Jean Valjean is nothing now, another story must begin!” Jean Valjean has been “born-again”. He is a new man who has been given a new life/

This moment sets up the whole rest of the story and powerfully communicates the beauty of the Gospel. For the rest of the movie we see Jean Valjean who extends mercy to others because he first was extended mercy by the bishop. He shows compassion on the suffering Fantine, adopts the helpless and abused Cossette as his own daughter, has mercy on his archenemy Javiar, and saves Marius from the lonely barricade. The whole movie is one man who responds to mercy with extravagant mercy himself.

Valjean's transformation is foiled by the law keeping Javair. The themes are made complete at the end of the tale. When Jean Valjean shows Javair the same underserved mercy that the Bishop showed him, Javair experience despair rather than conversion. Javiar cannot accept mercy in his world of justice, rules, and legalism. Rather than accepting the mercy given to him, he hardens his heart and spits back Valjean's mercy by taking his own life.

Two men and two different responses to grace. Humanity has those same two same responses to God's grace. We either humble accept the forgiveness given to us in Christ or we reject it and harden our calloused hearts. Grace can melt our hearts our stiffen them with pride. When the Gospel is presented we have those same two options. We can respond like Jean Valjean or we can respond like Javair. Accepting God's mercy and forgiveness frees us from our past and empowers to live lives of extreme compassion. Rejecting God's mercy leads to hardness, intolerance, and hatred. Accepting God's mercy leads to life. Rejecting God's mercy leads to destruction.

What Gospel themes have you seen in the story of Les Miserables? Why do books and movies so often point us to the true story of the whole world? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

9 Marks Conference at SEBTS

A little over a week ago I had the privilege of attending the 9 Marks conference at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.  It was an amazing conference of solid preaching that encouraged me greatly.  The theme for the conference this year is the doctrine of conversion. If you've got some time during the next few days you should watch some of the messages below.  SEBTS has posted all the videos free of charge.  You can also subscribe to their podcast here and listen from your iPhone or iPod. [vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/50424716 w=500&h=281]

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/50425886 w=500&h=281]

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/50431892 w=500&h=281]

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/50490234 w=500&h=281]

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/50490129 w=500&h=281]

[vimeo https://vimeo.com/50489978 w=500&h=281]