My recent claims that the gospel is confused have not been without criticism. I want to try to explain just how confused the gospel is among evangelicals today. Every time I make a claim about the gospel, someone is quick to offer a definition of the gospel. However, before looking at those definitions, consider Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. That is a term for what researcher Christian Smith has given the dominant religion of the United States.

A quick look at the five tenets that are most common among American teenagers will not surprise anyone. It is easy to see that many people (teens and adults) believe:

1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

What should concern Christians is this question: How dominant is MTD in our churches? After all, Smith found that these tenets are common among the churched and unchurched alike. Michael Horton claims that MTD is dominant among evangelicals as a majority believe that people are basically good, that the purpose of church is to make one a better person, and that the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves” is from the Bible.

Lately, my reading, studying, preaching, and some blogging has been centered on the need to better understand the gospel. My critics have taken it upon themselves to prove that my concern is valid. In just a short while, I have heard the gospel defined in a few different ways:

1. The gospel is essentially found in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution
2. The gospel is “who gets what and why”
3. The gospel is taking care of the poor
4. The gospel is a command to be obeyed.

The apostle Paul defined the Gospel this way:

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, (1 Corinthians 15:3, 4, NKJV).

Notice that Paul’s definition has no place within the five tenets of MTD. Now notice that definitions which suggest working for a better world, obeying certain commands, or affirming patriotic values fit better within MTD than in the biblical definition of the Gospel? It appears that many Christians have simply let the world, and not scripture, define the gospel.

Some might argue that I am making too large an issue of something that is nothing more than a difference in semantics. It is more than that. Once the definition of the gospel is lost, even for good things, everything begins to fail. Pastors stop proclaiming the good news of Christ, and instead preach self-help instructions. Christians stop studying God’s word and instead buy up books on having “your best life now.” Churches stop holding members accountable and instead allow everyone to move away from Christ together. All in all, the church stops being the bride of Christ and becomes nothing more than a social club.

Clearly, it is not enough to simply encourage people to do good. That theology is heartily embraced. It is the theology of the cross that is neglected. For a pastor to preach anything but the cross is to preach to the choir.