14 Favorite Ways to Twist the Gospel

14 Favorite Ways to Twist the Gospel

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 1. Interpret the gospel primarily through Romans.

Biblical writers, including Paul, tell us to study the whole of Scripture and interpret it through that wholeness. But the persistent tendency to see Romans as the key to all Scripture persists. So the church and the world suffer. (See my Seedbed blog, “Misplacing Romans.”)

2. Focus solely on “personal salvation.”

The Bible does not teach “personal salvation” in the private, individualistic way that phrase has come to mean. Rather it teaches in multiple ways and through many metaphors the reconciliation of all things (e.g., Eph. 1, Col. 1)—though not without judgment.

3. Make heaven the goal.

The Bible and the early Christian creeds say nothing about “going to heaven” Yet that phrase has become virtually synonymous with salvation in many minds. The Bible focuses on God’s will being done on earth as in heaven, and the ultimate redemption of all creation, not some cosmic eternal split between earth and heaven.

4. The clergy/laity split.

This is one of the earliest signs of the “mystery of iniquity” in the church. Once Satan has convinced us that only a few (and mainly men of a certain sort) are called into “the ministry,” he has reduced the church’s effectiveness by ninety percent. The clergy/laity split is thus more debilitating than any other prejudice in the church. It undermines the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of believers, the gifts of the Spirit, and the universal call to diakonia (ministry, service).

5. Thinking economics and politics are not directly gospel concerns.

Walling off economics and politics from the gospel, placing them outside our discipleship, is unbiblical dualism. The gospel is an economic and political reality, so by definition the church is both economic and political. But economics and politics are to be understood in light of the gospel, not the other way round. The kingdom of God is the comprehensive framework.

6. De-prioritize community.

New Testament writers focus much more on community—the body of Christ, our membership in Jesus Christ and thus in one another—than any other topic. The less genuine the community in the mutually-sharing biblical sense of koinonia, the more doctrinal disputes become central and the church focuses on everything else but community. This is why I deal so much with this in Community of the King and other books.

7. Neglect the Old Testament.

The two most common mistakes here: Neglecting the wholism of God’s salvific purposes as revealed in the Old Testament, and buying the myth that all important truths in the Old Testament get “spiritualized” in the New. So “promised land,” for example, comes to mean “heaven” or some inner spiritual experience. When that happens, preachers mine the Old Testament looking for “spiritual” nuggets that often have little to do with the biblical historical context and meaning.

8. Limit justice to personal righteousness.

The Old Testament—Psalms, Prophets, Law, Wisdom—constantly pair justice and righteousness as two sides of the same comprehensive reality. Notice for instance how frequently justice and righteousness are coupled and used almost interchangeably in Hebrew poetry.

Yet the church often separates them in various ways—for instance making righteousness mean personal morality and justice something God takes care of by himself through the atonement and/or final judgment. This is flatly unbiblical.

9. Neglect intercession.

The more I read of prayer in the Bible—Moses, David, the Prophets, Job, Jesus’ life and example, the Epistles—the more I am convinced that I and the church generally have neglected the essential ministry of intercession. Through the mystery of prayer and God’s Spirit, persistent intercession by God’s people can (and often does) change the course of history and relations among nations and peoples and religions—as well as meeting our more immediate and personal needs.

Intercessory prayer is a primary means of seeking first the kingdom of God.

10. “Believers” instead of disciples.

Jesus calls and forms disciples so that the body of Christ becomes a community of kingdom-of-God disciples. The New Testament rarely uses the word “believers.” Today this fact is distorted by the tendency in modern translations to use “believers” in place of “brothers” (in order to be more inclusive) or in place of pronouns such as “them.”

What counts is not the number of believers but the number of disciples, and thus the ministry of disciple-making.

11. Substitute heaven for the kingdom of God.

In the Bible, the kingdom of God is as comprehensive as the reality, sovereignty, and love of God. No spirit/matter dualism. Most people in Jesus’ days understood this; they knew that “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew, for example, was just another way of saying “kingdom of God.”

In the Bible we see the kingdom of God as both now/future, heavenly/earthly, personal/social, sudden/gradual, inward/outward, in a mysterious dialectic with the church which itself is neither the kingdom of God nor divorceable from God’s kingdom.

12. Faith just a part of life.

We compartmentalize. Our Christian walk gets reduced to just one part of our lives, and that one part is often reduced to simply what we believe.

But now abide faith, hope, and love—and the Bible makes clear which is the “greatest” and most comprehensive. According to the gospel, faith is not the ultimate reality; it is the means to the end of loving God and others and all God’s creation with our whole being. And that 24/7, as the saying goes.

The biblical picture is faith working by love; love enabled by faith and powered by hope—full confidence in God’s amazing full-salvation-for-all-creation promises.

13. Disregard Genesis 9.

There is a huge literature on “covenant” or “federal” theology (from the Latin for “covenant”). Yet oddly, such theology almost always begins with God’s covenant with Abraham (perhaps with a passing reference to Genesis 3:15). Yet the first explicit biblical covenant is found in Genesis 9, where God establishes his “covenant between me and the earth” (Gen. 9:13).

The emphasis is explicit and repeated: A covenant with humans and all living creatures of every kind. If our understanding of salvation skips from Genesis 3 to Genesis 12, we miss essential biblical teachings about the created order and distort everything else in the Bible.

14. Divorce discipleship from creation care.

When we neglect or distort biblical revelation about the created order, we shrink the gospel to something much less than the Bible promises. We do this to our own loss; we impoverish the church; we over-spiritualize Christian experience and reduce the dynamic of Christian mission.

When we see how discipleship and creation care are inseparably connected in God’s plan, the church becomes patiently and humbly powerful “to the pulling down of strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4).

There are many other ways to twist the gospel, of course. Anytime we get our focus off Jesus Christ and interpret the gospel through other lenses, we are in trouble.

Use whatever verb you wish—twist, distort, warp, undermine, neutralize, neuter, emasculate, cancel out, undercut—the problem persists and calls for careful Bible-based, Jesus-centered discipleship.

The Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, yet already in the New Testament we see the Apostles battling emerging distortions.

And yet sovereignly, strangely, God’s Spirit is at work and will still fulfill the promises and guide the body of Christ into “all truth” (John 16:13) until “the earth [is] full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9).


29 Responses

  1. Great article – thank you! I would ad 15) Diminish, Remove or Restrict the Power of the Holy Spirit in the world today. We do so much of this, with absolutely no Biblical or experiential basis. The testimony of a renewed ministry of God in these days is a focus of writing, study and practice within every major world denomination. Catholic repentance about the removal of the Holy Spirit (see Raniero Catalamessa) is particularly compelling, as is the worldwide spread of resources like The Alpha Course. Blessings, Rev Graham Singh (Anglican Pastor)

    1. Thanks, Graham. Yes, I would agree with your #15. I was inspired by an address Rainero Cantalamessa gave at Asbury Seminary a couple of years ago. And I am encouraged by the growing impact of the Alpha Course.

  2. What a wonderful and deep reflection! This kind of massage must be taken seriously by every preacher, teacher into the church now a days.

  3. I enjoyed the article and agree for the most part. I especially liked points 2, 7, 10, 12. However, I take issue with points 3 and 4, and think you sort of stretched point 14. I don’t agree that it is un-Biblical and to distort the Gospel to argue that the early Christian most certainly looked forward to the second coming of Christ with great anticipation…and we can be fairly sure that they thought that included Heaven.
    Also, I see a very early and clear understanding in the Scriptures that the laity/clergy split is indeed a split but not one out of prestige, power or human prejudice. It begins with Moses and Aaron and continues all through Scripture. God specifically calls some people for certain tasks. Jesus called 12 to a certain task, not 502 (though all are called to the cross), and it seems to me that God does indeed (to this day) call certain people to be his “clergy”. However, I don’t believe for one second that that means that the laity is without purpose, point or value. On the contrary, it is just a matter of order and purpose. The laity has , throughout church history, proved to be just as important as the the clergy and currently it is the laity that holds many churches to the Biblical faith in a time of progressive pastors trying on the suits of post-modern age.

    Again, thank you for your stimulating post!

    /Andreas (UMC pastor in Norway and married to the granddaughter of the late Dr. Robert Traina)

    1. Thanks, Andreas. Robert Traina was one of my heroes. On pt. 3, I do not mean to exclude heaven; just to avoid unbiblical dualism. On pt. 4, again I am focusing on the NT itself; the distinction in the NT is not between clergy & laity (since in the NT “laity” means ALL the people). I deal with this in “Community of the King.” It is unbiblical the take “laity” to mean something less than 100% of all people. Biblical Greek does not support that (as I am sure Dr. Traina would affirm). On pt. 14, I devote a whole book to that.

      1. Thank you for your response. Yes, Dr. Traina was a great man. I never had the privilege of taking his classes but I still remember visiting him one year while in seminary and asking him about an assignment on Romans and IBS. Priceless.
        I see what you were trying to do on point three and agree. On point 4 I don’t know what “Community of King” means, but if the people of God are the laity then surely there is no distinction between what we today would call clergy and laity. However, the point then seems to be that out of the people of God, the laity, God calls certain people to certain tasks (and equips them accordingly). Paul, Timothy and the rest seems to fit that description.
        As I am sure you are aware, it is the people of God (the laity) in the UMC that determine and validate the calling of God on certain persons today…and then set them apart for the task they are called for. Those people then make up the called ones, or the clergy. It seems to me that that fits with the Biblical story…although in the Scripture God often called people directly.

        1. Andreas, yes, I can agree with that formulation. Clearly there are “varieties of ministries” and God raises of “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.”
          Community of the King refers to my book by that title, which has been translated into a number of languages.
          I never had Dr. Traina as a teacher, but know of his background in the Free Methodist Italian Mission in Chicago.
          Shalom, Howard

  4. I really like this! Especially since it’s really not specific t any particular brand of Christianity (i.e. Evangelical, progressive, etc.), but rather applies to all believers. Many of these are ideas I’ve been trying to get across to people. Excellent read! I am certainly a fan of adopting a Christological hermeneutic.

  5. Paul did not know Jesus, nor hear his words as written by Matthew. Paul leads many down the path to iniquity through his false teachings regarding salvation. Anyone who reads Matthew and Paul can understand how Paul perverts the teachings of Jesus. Never underestimate the power of evil in the world. Paul was/is a tool of the devil… beware of those who come in the clothing of sheep to scatter the flock…

    1. Paul was not a tool of the Devil, but rather one of the greatest of the apostles having met Jesus on the road to Damascus. The point is that Paul’s writing must be read and interpreted within the context of the whole of scripture. To eliminate Paul ‘ writings would be more damaging to the church than to over-emphasize them.

  6. I am using this article as a series of studies. Just the first one, has caused a storm in FB. I am translating it into Spanish, bit by bit.
    You can find it here,

  7. This is an interesting list, with which I have much agreement. As for adding a 15th on the Holy Spirit, it would need to also include the opposite of restriction et al, as there are parts of the Church that overemphasize the H.S. in twisted ways.

    I would, however, put #7 ‘Neglect of the Old Testament’ at the the very top, as this affects to some degree half of the entire list. Torah (the Pentateuch) is foundational—it tells us about our beginnings, and gives us the community blueprint for a just and righteous society. It should not be read and studied as though it was only relevant for a tribal Mid-eastern nation thousands of years ago. The books of the Prophets build on this base, defining and refining the understanding of the Torah as it was worked out in the centuries following. The Writings are the artistic renderings and elaborations on the Torah and the Prophets. These all provide the foundation upon which the N.T. commences to integrate the Gentiles into God’s Covenant Community.

    A thorough understanding of the O.T. would clear up quite a few of the imbalances that you listed. For example, the N.T. emphasis on community is based on the Mosaic Law; since Exodus through Deuteronomy lay out the structure of the Israelite society—its religious, moral, social, economic, environmental, disease prevention, and criminal and tort law are spelled out, and the principles that the Talmud draws out of them are still applicable, and form the basis of a great deal of our own legal system today. This has direct ramifications for #s 4, 5, 6, 8, 12, 13, and 14.

    As for the idea of “personal salvation,” the Exodus from Egypt is our model, but it is in fact interwoven with both individual/family and national salvation. Paul and the writer of Hebrews reference the Exodus in those terms, and it was/is re-enacted by Jews worldwide in a way that includes that emphasis. Yom Kippur provides another look at that whole cloth of salvation, with the emphasis more on the national than the individual accounting.

    You are absolutely right about Romans, and there are 2 reasons. First, the Church has failed to heed Paul’s warning in Chapters 9–11 (especially 11), thereby cutting herself off from the spiritual root of the faith that was being brought to the Gentiles by the Jews. And second, because of that, the Church has not interpreted Paul’s writings in their natural context. Paul was trained by the greatest Rabbi in his day (Rabbi Gamliel), and should be—indeed needs to be understood through a first century rabbinic lens. It explains why he was God’s chosen vessel to bring the gospel to the Gentiles—only he had the necessary training of all the Apostles to be able to integrate Gentile god-fearers and Jewish believers in Jesus the Messiah into congregational communities without destroying the national and historic identities of each group. That is why Paul always went to the synagogue first in every town and city—because there were many Gentiles already learning in the synagogues about the One true God, the God of Abraham (the father of all converts).

  8. Nailed it! Thanks so much for writing this, it really knocks it out of the park and articulates many problems I see.

  9. Only one thing I would add…”Equate discipleship with unquestioned acceptance.” Mathetai are, at the root, students — those who are co-learning about the Way.

  10. One of the very best books on the Church I have ever read is Howard Snyder’s “Liberating the Church.” Magnificent. And these observations here are equally important. I only wish his colleagues at Asbury, in Orlando as well as Wilmore, would share his convictions.

  11. I would like you to say more about using Romans as the theological lens for the rest of Scripture, and do we blame Karl Barth for that, or does it go back to Luther and/or Calvin? As to much of the rest, including discipleship rather than believers and the Kingdom of God rather than heaven, it seems as if you are reading my blog 😉 Perhaps we can include in the topic of salvation, Luke the Evangelist’s understanding that salvation has some practical, tangible reality — it is the dead being raised, the sick being healed, rich thieves making restitution and changing their lives. I could go on all day, so I’ll just stop with saying thanks for this piece.

  12. OK – I’m thinking out loud here, (and trying not to get defensive!) so feel free to correct me but Is it fair to say that the gospel will (unfortunately) always be twisted in someway in human hands? Whenever one is teaching and explaining the Gospel we will somehow limit the whole wonderful awesome, complex, simpleness of the Gospel; after all it is the ‘power of God’ that defies human categorisation (1 Cor. 18-31).
    Also context should not limit the Gospel but it will effect our presentation of it. Paul’s preaching in Psidian Antioch (Acts 13) is very different to Paul’s preaching in Athens (Acts 17). As a lay minister at my church I have just preached a short sermon series on prayer (Abraham, Jacob and Moses) which did not mention God’s covenant with Noah (point 13). Does that mean I have twisted the gospel? Perhaps if I were preaching on Noah, or a series on stewardship or creation maybe I would refer to that while leaving other parts out.
    I would also add that we are all works in progress. “But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:8-12) In the meantime, I confess my weakness and limitations and ‘twisting’ and look forward to the day when Jesus will fully reveal the full glory of his gospel to me.

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