By JOHN CROTTS
Faith Bible Church
I recently heard a comedian teasing the butter substitute called "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter." He went on and on about how he could not even fathom that this wasn't butter.
Far more important than getting your sandwich spread correct, is getting the gospel right. There are many gospel substitutes around us that have fooled people into thinking they have the real thing. Let me suggest a few of them, and then show how they are different than the real gospel -- even if only slightly.
The first gospel substitute is living like Jesus. Many popular speakers and authors have been downplaying Jesus' bloody death on the cross in favor of following his life. The worst of them called the cross cosmic child abuse.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with following the example of Jesus. It is very good to read the stories of Jesus and study his sayings. Jesus' life is the perfect pattern for you to follow.
But the big question is how are you doing in tracing his pattern for yourself? If I put you in a wood shop with a master carpenter to watch him for one day, and then handed you some wood and said, "Go for it," how would you do?
The second gospel substitute is religious ritual. By that I mean everything from candles and liturgy at church to baptism and communion. Rituals are literal things you can do, touch or smell associated with churches. Experiencing religious art, music and drama can also be emotionally moving.
Of course, there is nothing necessarily wrong with rituals, traditions or the arts in and of themselves.
The big question is how many rituals can a non-Christian do and still be a non-Christian? Or how moved can an unbeliever become at an artistic encounter and yet have his or her heart remain in unbelief? No amount of art or tradition can save a soul, no matter how good it may be.
The trouble with ritual and art, however, is because they can be so stirring, they can become a religious substitute for the gospel.
Another gospel replacement is goodness and sincerity. As we look around us we find good people doing plenty of well meaning things. Thank the Lord for his common grace, and that everyone isn't as bad as they could be.
I realize that the Bible says all people are sinners. We have a corrupt core, and it produces sinful thoughts, attitudes, words, and actions. If you are honest, you will admit that you are guilty of those kinds of sins. Everyone is.
The big questions here are: Why are some people better than others? And will your goodness be good enough for God? If I mean well and I'm not as bad as others, won't God accept me?
The final gospel substitute is a past decision for Christ.
This could have occurred at the front of a church you grew up in, a prayer you said at the end of a Christian event, in a tent meeting or after watching a movie about Jesus. You may think back to that time your family used to go to church -- perhaps you were baptized and joined the church.
Did you have a Christian grandparent or uncle who told you about the Bible and Jesus? Maybe you didn't mind hearing about it back then, and maybe you even made some sort of decision.
The big question is did it take? Was it enough? Are you counting on that past decision to determine your future destination?
By calling these things gospel substitutes I am not saying that any of them are bad. What I am saying is that they are not the gospel. If you are counting on anything in the list of alternatives above to be right with God, you may wonder in amazement, "I can't believe it's not the gospel."
The gospel is the good news that God poured out his wrath on Jesus on the cross in the place of sinners. On the third day God raised Jesus from the dead -- proving that everything Jesus said and did was true.
The reason why that is good news is that you are a sinner.
You deserve God's wrath to punish you for your sins forever. In his incredible mercy, God made a way for you to be cleansed. So now, God calls everyone to repent of his or her sins and put their trust in Jesus and what Jesus did for them. When a sinner does that, God strikes the great deal -- trading your all of you sins for Jesus' righteousness.
While following the lifestyle and words of Jesus is a wonderful practice, as a sinner you can never perfectly pull it off. Your best efforts are not good enough. So focusing on Jesus' life and ignoring or minimizing his death and resurrection is not good news, if only because you can never do Jesus' life like Jesus did.
Rituals and the arts may stir your heart and give you warm religious feelings, but they really don't change you. Your sins are still staring you in the face. You will still face God's wrath. You certainly can't appease God's wrath by your religious efforts.
Regular goodness and sincerity also can never make up for your badness and insincerity. When you are honest, don't you see that you have not lived completely for the glory of God? Aren't there idols that have more of your heart than God?
I don't mean metal statues, as much as just the stuff of the world or even personal fulfillment.
I don't know about your past prayers, decisions, or religious experiences for Jesus. But I can say with confidence that the Bible NEVER points us to our past to determine present religious reality. You don't go look for a birth certificate to see if you are alive.
The vital signs to look for to see if the gospel is real in your life are an incurable love for Jesus, a love for Jesus' people (church involvement), a love for the Bible along with a desire and ability to obey it, and the fruits of godly character becoming increasingly evident. If you aren't able to easily see these kinds of spiritual vital signs you probably are not a Christian.
You may be the most religious person on your street or even the best behaved guy you know. But if you've never seen your horrible state of sinfulness before God and turned your life over to Jesus by faith, you are still under God's wrath.
Don't settle for substitutes when you can have the real thing. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.