Trevin Wax. Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2011. 240 pp. $13.99.
Despite the numerous attacks on the church from without, Trevin Wax believes that the greatest threat comes from within. “Could it be that we are unwittingly participating in ‘printing’ the counterfeit gospel? What if we are manufacturing counterfeit currency by the way we think and speak about the gospel?” (13). In Counterfeit Gospels, Wax presents the church with a highly accessible and enjoyable book that both teaches us about the marks of the true gospel and reveals to us the marks of various counterfeits so that we can identify and counter the counterfeits.
Non-Christians and Christians alike (and even very “seasoned” Christians) are often drawn to counterfeit gospels because they are easy, less costly, and make us popular. But in the end, counterfeit gospels will always leave our souls impoverished. Wax identifies a threefold crisis in the church that makes a renewal by the biblical gospel difficult: 1) a lack of gospel confidence (we have lost faith in the power of the gospel for salvation, often acting as if the power is in the presentation); 2) a lack of gospel clarity (some are convinced we need to tweak the gospel message itself; there is confusion as to what the gospel actually is); and 3) a lack of gospel community (because of the first two lacks, our churches look for other things to unite around, such as social activism).
Wax then introduces his proposal of seeing the gospel like a three-legged stool, which forms the framework for the rest of the book. One leg is the gospel story – the overarching grand narrative found in the Scriptures that takes us from creation to new creation. The second leg is the gospel announcement, which centers upon Christ and what He has done to reconcile us to God. Third is the gospel community – the church which God has commissioned to be the embodiment of the message of the gospel. “Each leg of the stool is important because each relates to the other two. The gospel story provides the biblical narrative necessary for us to understand the nature of the gospel announcement. Likewise, the gospel announcement births the gospel community that centers its common life upon the transformative truth of Jesus Christ” (17, emphases original). Cut off any one of these three legs, and the stool tips over.
The book is divided into three sections, each of which contains three chapters. Each section begins with a chapter that looks at one leg of the stool; the subsequent two chapters look at two counterfeit gospels that target that particular leg. Every chapter ends with Scripture references for the themes addressed in that chapter, for “[t]he best way to recognize the genuine and the counterfeit is to look through the lens of the Scriptures” (18).
In Chapter 1, “The Gospel Story”, Wax expounds upon four main movements of the gospel story: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. These movements answer key questions about humanity, tell us something about God’s character, and highlight theological truths that we can state in propositional form. The counterfeits targeting the gospel story are the therapeutic gospel (chapter 2) and the judgmentless gospel (chapter 3).
Chapter 4 looks at “The Gospel Announcement”. “We need the gospel announcement in order to know how to escape the storm of God’s wrath. You can’t tell the gospel story without making the announcement of good news; neither can you properly make the announcement without telling the story” (88-89). In this chapter, Wax takes a closer look at Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and exaltation as Lord. This announcement provokes a response from us – repentance and faith. The counterfeits that target this leg are the moralistic gospel (chapter 5) and the quietist gospel (chapter 6).
Chapter 7 is concerns “The Gospel Community. Here, Wax makes the case for community and church. “God’s plan from the very beginning has been to spotlight His glory by redeeming a people who submit to His rule. Our lives together make the gospel visible (157). Counterfeits targeting the gospel community are the activist gospel (chapter 8) and the churchless gospel (chapter 9). Every chapter addressing a counterfeit follows the same structure of an introduction, manifestations of the counterfeit, why it’s attractive, and how to counter it. There is also a chart for each summarizing how to spot the counterfeit.
I found this book to be a very easy, enjoyable and helpful read. I just have a few small quibbles with an overall strong book. The first is that at times I found it difficult to elucidate the distinctions between Wax’s categories of gospel story and gospel announcement. There were times when I felt his definition of one included elements of the other, and I had a hard time seeing the clear demarcations he seemed to intend. My second minor quibble concerns the last section, “The Gospel Community”. Both in chapters 7 and 9 Wax makes a good case for community, but he doesn’t really present a case for the local/organized/institutional church. Our generation does not in general have a problem with the former; it’s the latter that is being rejected. Community is hip and desired and pursued; I haven’t heard of many Christians with an entirely privatized faith. But I have heard of many (and know quite a few personally) that have rejected the local church and see no problem with having their “church community” elsewhere – e.g. house church, informal meetings with other believers, etc.
Minor quibbles aside, this is a great general/popular-level book on the gospel that can both help clarify a believer’s understanding of the true gospel, as well as point out areas where we might be believing or proclaiming a counterfeit gospel (or in danger of doing so). Wax does a really good job of presenting balanced views – for each counterfeit, he not only critiques what is wrong but also points out the nuances about it that are right. Sometimes the errors are subtle; there were even a few times in reading this book when I realized that certain areas of my thinking had been slightly affected by aspects of counterfeit gospels. Don’t think you’re immune to the counterfeits just because you read the “good books” by “the dead guys” and go to a faithful church where the preacher has good theology and preaches expository sermons. You might need this book as a “check”. I highly recommend this book to all lay Christians passionate about the gospel and passionate about being faithful to the biblical gospel.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a free copy of this book from Moody Publishers to review. I was not obligated to provide a favorable review, and the views expressed here are entirely my own.