A few months ago my wife had plans on a Saturday morning, meaning it was my responsibility alone to take care of the kids. I was asking her about what we had in the fridge for breakfast and as she walked out the door she said to me “we have bacon in the fridge. Well, turkey bacon.” You can imagine my roller coaster of emotion as in a matter of a few seconds I experienced the anticipatory high of feasting on bacon and then the heart crushing crash of being told that the bacon we had was nothing more than an impostor posing as bacon. Turkey bacon leaves much to be desired and simply does not satisfy my palate as the real deal. We experience this “impostor” principle a lot as we go about our lives. Food, clothing, jewelry, cars, etc. You name it; it has an counterfeit that does not live up to the real thing. It’s no surprise then to learn that when it comes to salvation there can also be knockoffs. The Bible even warns of false Christs and false gospels (Matt. 24:24; Mark 13:22; 2 Cor. 11:4; Gal. 1:6-7). There is only one way to salvation and that is the gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). The gospel has many impostors and one of them is man-made religion. In order to spot impostors like this, though, it is vital to know what the genuine gospel is. You don’t have to know every impostor; you just have to know the real thing as well as possible so that when you are confronted with an fraud, alarm bells will go off in your head and in your heart. Hopefully what follows will help in understanding what the gospel is and how to receive it so you are not fooled by a counterfeit.
I am going to present the gospel from two different types of Scriptures which represent a principle a friend described to me as “the classroom and laboratory”. The “classroom” just means that these texts will illustrate what the gospel is. The “laboratory” refers to texts that simply describe what the gospel looks like especially when receiving it. So, off to the classroom.
The Gospel in the Class Room
Very simply the gospel means “good news”. The reason it is good news is because there exists very bad news, namely that all people everywhere and at every time are sinners and are on their way to experience the wrath of God for their rebellion against Him (Rom 1:18, 3:23, 5:12). This means everyone is unrighteous and has a big problem. But it’s one that God Himself is dedicated to solve. God’s solution is to save sinners through the atonement of Jesus Christ (Rom 3:21-26). When we look at this text we see that the atonement of Christ is defined as his death in place of ours. In the Old Testament, a lamb was slaughtered on the Day of Atonement for payment of Israel’s sin. However, in the New Testament, Christ is our lamb and is put forward as a “propitiation by his blood” (Romans 3:25). A propitiation is a something which makes someone favorable toward a person they were previously opposed to. What that means in this context is that Christ’s death fully satisfied the wrath of God against sinful people (which is all of the human race). This problem of the wrath of God, which we earned through our rebellion and unrighteousness, is solved in Christ coming to this earth to live a perfect life, die the death we deserved in our place on the cross, and being raised up from the dead, defeating death to ascend to heaven where he now reigns (1 Cor. 15:1-5; Mark 16:19). That all leads us to ask, “How does the gospel get applied to us sinners who badly need it?”
You may have already noticed this but it is necessary to take some time on. Romans 3:24 says that we are justified, or declared not guilty of our sin and deserving of God’s wrath, as a free gift of grace. The gospel is worked out in its entirety by grace. This is demonstrated in how this gift is received, which we see in verse 25 is by faith. We see this again in Romans 4:5 where Paul writes “And to the one who does not work, but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” So, faith in Christ is the reason anyone is declared righteous before God as opposed to guilty. This is very important to understand when spotting the “impostor” gospel, or man-made religion.
Spotting the Impostor
When you read through the first big chunk of the book of Romans you can’t miss the fact that Paul is going to great lengths to distinguish between “works” and “faith” when it comes to justification. In these passages, Paul makes it very clear that justification (or forgiveness and acceptance) is not obtained by works (or obedience), but by faith, as we discussed above (Rom. 3:20, 3:27, 3:28, 4:2, 4:4, 4:6, 9:32, 11:6). Where this becomes important in spotting the “impostor” is in understanding that any way of salvation that leans on obedience to God’s commandments as a means to forgiveness and acceptance by God is fraudulent, impotent, and ultimately damning. This is not simply a Scriptural issue. As we have seen, Scripture is clear that salvation comes by grace through faith. But it is also a logical issue when it comes to the issue of who gets the glory in salvation, or who gets to take credit for (or boast in) it. In Romans 4:2 Paul makes the argument that if Abraham was forgiven and accepted by works he would have something to boast about, since he played a role. He makes the same argument for all of us in Ephesians 2:8-9. However, the only one who gets the glory in the work of redemption, and the only one who gets to boast in saving sinners is God. Why? Because God alone is able to work out our salvation, and so he alone is worthy to take credit for it. It simply does not make logical sense that sinners could do anything to earn salvation in part or in whole when considering who we are as sinful creatures, and who God is as the holy and righteous Creator. The very thing we would do to obey would require more forgiveness since we ourselves are only capable of sinning. We must rest entirely on God’s grace because we have nothing to offer but our need for it. Let’s look at a “laboratory” text to see all of these principles illustrated for us to see.
Putting it All Together
9 “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This is an astonishing passage in that it very clearly illustrates that salvation (the good news of the gospel – forgiveness, acceptance by God, etc.) is not received by works (or obedience) but by faith, even if they are works that we attribute in some part to God’s grace. In this passage, the Pharisee is actually thanking God for the good works that he does. By doing so he is acknowledging that he at least needs God’s grace to obey. This is certainly true. We do need God’s grace to do any good work. But we are not to trust in works, even works we attribute to God, as the means to our forgiveness. Why? Because, as above, it robs God of glory and gives us something to boast about. A works-based salvation is one in which obedience to commandments plays a role in us receiving the forgiveness and acceptance of God, along with entrance into Heaven. Any such religion is an impostor, man-made, fraudulent way of salvation.
Did you notice the attitude of the tax collector, though? He knows he is unrighteous and has no works worthy to merit forgiveness and heaven from a holy and righteous God. He simply asks for mercy and trusts in God’s grace. The result is good news for any sinner: He “went down to his house justified.” The result of the Pharisee trusting in his obedience for forgiveness was terrifying, and the result is the same for anyone who trusts an impostor to the gospel: He did not go to his house justified. This is a frightening prospect, for without justification through the blood of Christ you will spend eternity in hell, paying yourself for the sins Christ offered to pay in your place. Do not trust in a fraud like the Pharisee did. Do as the tax collector did. Understand that you are an unrighteous sinner, but also understand that God is a God of love who has provided all that you lack in Jesus Christ. Come to and trust in Christ; believe the gospel. His gospel of grace is no impostor.