Trevin Wax, Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a Word of False Hope (Moody Publishers, 2011), 226 pages.
As I sit to write this review, it is the day after we all stayed up late to listen to President Barack Obama announce the death of Osama bin Laden. The announcement stirred afresh discussions amongst Christians on judgment, hell, and whether Christians should rejoice over the death of the wicked. But it was also the same day I, and many of my friends, received word that a close and cherished Christian brother had died of cancer. Trevin Wax, author of Counterfeit Gospels, and I have a few things in common that relates these two deaths. One, we both knew the Christian brother who died in Christ. Second, we both believe in the same gospel that informs how we can mourn the death of a faithful Christian, yet rejoice in that he is forever in the presence of Christ. At the same time we mourn that Osama bin Laden has died without Christ and faces an eternity of judgment, yet rejoice in that God’s honor and glory is upheld in the defeat of evil.
Sometimes the commonality between an author and reviewer can turn into awkward pat on the backs, where the reviewer glibly summarizes the book, gleefully recommends it to Christians at every stage of life, and categorizes the books as a necessary read. But it can also be an occasion for back-and-forth between Christians who want to push each other for precision and clarity. Isn’t it true that those who are more closely aligned theologically and ecclesiologically can sharpen and press each other further than those who don’t even hold the same theological assumptions? So my aim is not to question Wax’s assumptions behind his book. They’re good assumptions, and I hope you have the same ones. But I want to challenge some of his conclusions that come from our common assumptions.
Counterfeits Are Not Appealing Without a Little Bit of Truth
Counterfeit gospels can be appealing to Christians. We may not come out and call ourselves “moralistic” or “therapeutic” Christians, but we may act, make decisions, or respond to others with assumptions that align more with a counterfeit gospel than the biblical one. Why is this?
Wax helpfully points out that counterfeits are attractive because they have some form of truth in them. For example, the moralistic gospel emphasizes a transformed character, something the Bible commends as the result of being born again with a desire to love God and honor Christ. However, as Wax helpfully points out, the moralistic gospel fails to root any behavioral change in the grace of God and the finished work of God in Christ. Following the same pattern of recognizing a counterfeit gospel by what it is, why it’s attractive, and why it fails to be a biblical gospel, Wax covers a number of counterfeits: the therapeutic gospel, the judgmentless gospel, the moralistic gospel, the quietist gospel, the activist gospel, and the churchless gospel.
The Gospel Is Like a Three-Legged Stool
Every Christian benefits from knowing what the gospel is not, but we will have no shape to our faith unless we labor to know what it is. And it’s here where the debates begin. Articles, books, and tweets rage over these questions: What is the gospel? How wide or narrow is the gospel? What is the actual gospel, and what are it’s implications? Do some confuse the gospel for the gospel’s implications? Or do some define the gospel too narrowly, as to keep out necessary elements? The debates can be frustrating and, as Wax notes, many talk past one another. So he offers a solution that attempts to get at the heart of the gospel while including where competing definitions overlap. Not an easy feat.
Wax presents the illustration of a three-legged stool to explain what he calls the “threefold sense of the gospel.” If you lose one leg of a three-legged stool, the whole thing tips over. The three legs are (1) the gospel story, (2) the gospel announcement, and (3) the gospel community.
The gospel story is the narrative of God saving a people from the fall of Adam and Eve to the death of Christ to the final culmination of history in the return of Christ, renewing all things. Wax explains that we need context to understand the announcement. Without context, the announcement doesn’t carry the same urgency or importance.
The gospel announcement is the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ as the plan of God for the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation of all things in Christ, through faith and repentance.
And finally, the gospel community. We are not saved into a life of lonely introspection, but into a church, a community that gathers together to encourage one another along in the truth of the gospel, where God’s glory is most prominently displayed.
The gospel, as Wax explains it, is like a three-legged stool. If you lose one of these legs, so goes the gospel, making way for a counterfeit.
Does the Solution Stick?
Wax’s solution is a slight counter to some who want to define the gospel as God-Man-Christ-Response or Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration. However, I wonder if the illustration works. It certainly helps us recognize that if we abandon certain elements of God’s plan (the story, the announcement, the community) we lose significant aspects of the gospel. With the obvious benefits of Wax’s suggestion, I do think there are some difficulties.
For example, it’s confusing as to why Wax uses “community” as a third leg and not “holiness.” Certainly we aren’t saved by our holiness, just as we are not saved by our involvement in a local church. But aren’t we expected to be Christians bearing fruit in holiness as much as we are to not neglect gathering with one another (and can’t stools have four legs)? Maybe Wax would respond that holiness is best pursued in community. That’s true, but holiness can be pursued at personal levels (living according to the Spirit, plucking out eyes) when the community lacks in its faithfulness towards the individual.
But, at a strictly pedagogical level, does the illustration make us think that the story and community of the gospel is just as critical as the announcement? Does it seem to indicate that the story and community of the gospel are part of the definition of the gospel itself? I posed this concern to Wax himself, and he certainly wanted to maintain that the gospel community is an implication of the gospel. But, he noted, it is a necessary one. My concern is, as necessary as local church membership is (and truly, it is necessary), is there not at least a level in which we lose much more if we abandon the announcement than if we abandon community? Even more, can we not say that we preserve an element of the saving gospel even when community is forsaken or neglected? We certainly do lose something important when we abandon fellowship. But we lose everything with no announcement.
The same could be said of the story of the gospel. The fact that we must know the story of the gospel to understand the announcement seems like a slight overstatement. In fact, isn’t it the case that most Christians who actually have a saving knowledge of the gospel may not know or have a good understanding of the narrative structure of the Bible? It seems that most people, in fact, have a sense of their sin problem with God and need of redemption, which is the reason why personal evangelism works! Christians must grow in their knowledge of the narrative of Scripture so that they understand the gospel and its implications. But when it comes down to definitions—indeed, what is a saving definition—Christians can bank on the fact that announcing the gospel to unbelievers still cuts to their heart and leads to life.
A Counter-Solution that Keeps the Stool
The danger I see in Wax’s solution is that the gospel community and story carry the same weight as the announcement. I don’t think Wax wants to leave this impression, but it is at the very least confusing. And we seem to lose the necessity of holiness as well when it’s all worked out.
So here is my counter-solution to Wax’s “three-legged stool.” In keeping with the “stool” illustration, let’s say the the gospel (its saving powerful announcement and definition) is the stool itself, not just one of the legs, but the entire support system. The legs that support the gospel are the (1) the story, since it gives the gospel its context; (2) the community of a local church that encourages us to preserve the gospel and live in accordance with it; and (3) good works and holiness as the fruit of new birth and a life that is empowered by the Spirit. Some of these legs will be weaker than others at times, but it is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ that we are saved.
My hope that this review signifies that Trevin Wax’s book is a worthy guide to think and live in light of the biblical gospel, not counterfeit ones. And as Wax attempts to stretch and lead us to better ways to express how this works out biblically, my hope is that my counter-proposal carries the discussion forward and honors Wax’s faithfulness.