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).