The New Testament is full of warnings for Christians to beware false teachers–those who proclaim a distorted gospel that leads others away from the gospel of Christ (Matthew 7:15, Acts 20:28-30, 2 Timothy 4:3-4, 2 Peter 2:1).
We might imagine that false teachers are easy to pinpoint, but they slither their way into local congregations slowly and subtly. They slide through the front doors of the church unnoticed– comfortably situated in the minds of many who claim Christ but have been inundated with falsities wrapped in a Christian guise. False teachers proclaim their message everywhere we turn–from social media to billboards, blogs, and bestselling books–and it’s not difficult to see why many in the church have become their disciples.
False teaching can sound so right. It’s popular and self-affirming— wrapped in punchy cliches that tickle the ears and make us feel warm and fuzzy inside. Instead of heralding the good news of God’s undeserved grace for sinners, false teachers herald the “good news” of you and me and them. At first blush, their message sounds delightful and full of hope, but it actually isn’t good news at all. In fact, it’s damning news.
The gospel of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, doesn’t appeal to anyone apart from the divine intervention of the Holy Spirit. Grace–the good news that God has provided for us in his Son what we neither deserve nor can provide for ourselves– brings us low before it lifts us high. Grace rips the rug of self-righteousness out from under our feet. It brings us to our knees in painful acknowledgment of our own inadequacy before it raises us in Christ. But the gospel of grace is humanity’s only hope. It’s the only truly good news for sinners.
As believers living in a world overrun with the gospel of self, how do we guard ourselves (and others) from subtly believing this falsehood? Simplistic as it may sound, the way to battle the lie is to know, believe, and proclaim the truth. We must discern and clearly articulate how the gospel of grace differs from the gospel of self and speaks a better word. Here are three primary ways:
You (Don’t) Have a Good Heart
Have you ever heard someone say, “She made a mistake, but that’s not really who she is. Deep down she has a good heart.” The gospel of self promises that, despite our sins, we can rest in the fact that we are basically good people. While we naturally want to believe this about ourselves, grace debunks the prevalent myth that human beings are born with a fundamentally good nature.
The Bible is clear that all of us are born into this world with deceitful, sin-sick hearts (Jeremiah 17:9) inherited from our first parents Adam and Eve (Romans 5:12,19). The way we live flows from the condition of our hearts (Proverbs 4:23). In other words, we aren’t sinners because we sin; rather, we sin because we are sinners. Any outward morality we have is polluted by inward desires (often unrecognized even by ourselves) for our own autonomy and glory (Isaiah 64:6-7). We come into this world with no desire for our Creator or his glory.
This is far cry from the warm fuzzy messages of self-goodness we are saturated with at every turn. But grace is only good news when juxtaposed with the bad news of our utter depravity. Basically good folks don’t need a bloody, substitutionary, atoning Savior (Galatians 2:21). Jesus Christ was the only human born into the world with a truly good heart, and the forgiveness God extends to us through him becomes precious only when we see just how desperately we need it. As the puritan Thomas Watson said, “Until sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.”
(Don’t) Believe in Yourself
Almost nothing sounds better to us than this oft quoted mantra of the American way: “Believe in yourself! You can accomplish anything!” It’s a positive word of empowerment that tells us we’re self-sufficient and able–a word we love to hear and are naturally prone to believe about ourselves. But, the truth is, we are not self-sufficient. We were created to live in joyful dependence on our Creator, the one who gives and sustains our very life and breath (Acts 17:28).
Grace reveals to us that we enter this world as spiritually dead slaves to sin (Ephesians 2:1) who exchange the truth of our dependence on an all sufficient Creator for the lie of creaturely self-sufficiency. Blinded to our need, we worship and believe in ourselves rather than in God (Romans 1:25). We strive in our own strength to clean up our behavior and achieve goals the world applauds, and, from the outside, it may look as though we’ve achieved success. But self-sufficiency is a lie.
Not only are we dependent on God for our physical needs, we are completely dependent on him to meet our ultimate spiritual need as well. Spiritually dead people are powerless and needy when it comes to our real problem. No amount of self-belief can resurrect a dead heart, but the gospel of grace has the power to save those who believe, not in themselves, but in Christ (Romans 1:16). Why? Because Christ is the perfect and powerful one who conquered sin and death. He’s been and done what we cannot be and do for ourselves. Self-belief will eventually crush us under impossible expectations, constant striving, and ultimate failure. But belief in Christ leads us to a hope that won’t disappoint (Romans 5:2-5).
(Don’t) Be True to Yourself
Humanity is obsessed with the concept of personal identity, and we often go to great lengths to figure out who we truly are. Discovering and remaining true to one’s unique identity are key virtues of the gospel of self, but the Bible simplifies our identity quest by showing us there are only two underlying identities for all human beings made in the image of God: Dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1) or alive in Christ (Ephesians 2:5).
Grace beckons us to come to Christ as we are in our sin, but it never leaves us as we are. Christ called those who would follow him, not to be true to themselves, but to deny themselves and prepare to die to the sinful nature that had defined and shaped every part of them until that point (Matthew 16:24). By faith, we share with Jesus in his death as our old identity is crucified, and we share with him in his resurrection as we are raised to a brand new nature and identity in him (2 Corinthians 5:17). When we trust Jesus for salvation, his sinless identity becomes ours!
In Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit who enables us to put off the deeds that were characteristic of our former identity and put on Christ-like living that matches our new identity (Romans 8:13, Ephesians 4:22). In other words, grace frees us to stop striving so hard to be true to ourselves and, instead, devote ourselves to lives of good works that are true to Christ.
The Only Good News
Beware the gospel of self–a message that falsely affirms us and is radically at odds with the biblical gospel of grace. Grace exposes the truth of our sin, powerlessness, and misplaced identity. It tells us we are not enough in order to freely offer us Christ, the one who is more than enough for us. He alone is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). May we turn away from trusting ourselves and say with the apostle Peter, “Lord, to whom [else] shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).