Beware of Formulaic Gospelism

One of the beautiful things about Christianity is that it often look so different; it comes with great freedom. One of the most difficult things about Christianity can be when we expect everyone to look the same.

American Christianity has a long history of diminishing the good news of Jesus. Americans like to simplify. Boil it down to practical, sellable bits and bytes. Though Christianity has had a tremendous cultural presence in America but it often finds itself watered down. As Alan Wolfe notes in his informative book The Transformation of American Religion:

“in every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture – and American culture has triumphed. Whether or not the faithful ever were a people apart, they are so no longer”

The basic premise of Wolfe’s book is that, though Christians in America talk a big talk, they’re not all that different from the rest of us, so don’t worry.

Christianity in America has often had a rocky road. We often add to it, making it more difficult than it need be. We often take away from it, making it more simple than it really is. We attach certain behaviors and codes and tell people that if they don’t meet them, they can never be saved. Or we tell people that all they have to do is believe a certain set of propositions without any change in heart.

One of the American mistreatments of the Good News of Jesus’ life, obedience, substitutionary death, ascension and intercession is sometimes known as “easy believism”. The problem with this approach, for many is that it simply requires nothing but belief. No heart change, much less lifestyle change. This approach teaches that we should not even expect behavioral change or repentance, just belief. The result is often people who claim to be Christians with no discernible difference in life, heart or conduct before or after “salvation”. Belief with no requirement of sacrifice.

At the heart of this discussion, among other things, is the question of how salvation is related to our actions. The Bible seems clear that our actions cannot produce salvation but that salvation will always affect our actions. Our behaviors will change.

How people change has been a keen question for pastors, counselors and all Christians for years. This is at the heart of many approaches to what we call “discipleship”: the process of becoming more like Jesus and helping others to do the same.

There has been a helpful trajectory over the past few years to regain the centrality of the Gospel in the life of the Believer. The Gospel is not simply how someone “gets in to heaven” when they die, it is the answer to ongoing transformation (leaving sin behind) in this life; for the here and now. But as is sometimes the case in matters such like this, many Christians have begun to turn this reliance into a formula.

Christianity has had a tenuous relationship in America with the self-help movement, often forgetting that Christianity is not, in fact about just becoming better people. It has always been about more than “your best life now”. But we love to boil things down. We love alitteration and simple steps. We love formulas that can be distilled and packaged.

We are in danger of trying to reduce the transformative power of the Gospel in to simple, easy-to-follow steps. Where we once had easy believism, we now face formulaic gospelism. We sometimes expect Christian growth to look the same for everyone and instead of urging one another on to holiness, we judge each other based on how much they do things the way we think they should be done.

The Bible is clear that Christian growth comes through the repeated process of faith and repentance. But this doesn’t always look the same for every one. That’s part of the beauty of Christianity, it meets each one where we we’re at and takes us each to the destination of Christ-likeness. But it moves us at different paces through different scenery, struggles, strains and trials. It works within every unique personality in unique but universal ways.

We must fight the urge to expect everyone to look the same. We must resist the notion that Gospel transformation can be boiled down to a few simple steps. The Gospel is deep and powerful and moves us all in the same direction but it cannot be controlled. As we journey together, let’s not believe that a common destination requires that we walk in lock-step. Formulas are great for math but not necessarily for holiness.