Pop Gospel V – How Are We Saved?


Part V:

How Are We Saved?

Kevin Simington

So far in this series, we have seen that the post-modern “pop gospel” differs from the biblical gospel in the way it offers alternate answers to the questions, “What is our intrinsic worth?” and “What are we saved from?”  A third question that provokes a divergent answer is, “How are we saved?

Initially, the pop gospel seems to align with the teaching of the Bible in answering this question; we are saved by God’s grace (Eph 2:8-9), made possible by the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus (1 Pet 3:18). A major divergence, however, occurs in the pop gospel’s answer to a secondary question, What must we do to receive this grace?”

The Bible’s answer to this secondary question is clear; faith and repentance are the means by which we receive the free gift of God’s grace. These dual elements are inseparable and indisputable in the teaching of the Bible. In fact, faith without repentance appears to have been unthinkable to the biblical writers, constituting mere belief rather than true faith. The essential nature of repentance, in particular, is evident throughout the New Testament. Peter, for example, when asked by the deeply convicted crowd on the Day of Pentecost, “What must we do to be saved?”, responded, Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:37-38). This single passage perfectly illustrates two crucial concepts regarding repentance; it’s essential role in the salvation process (“must”), and its precise nature – turning from sin (“for the forgiveness of your sins”).

This absolute necessity to turn from our sins in order to be saved is evident in many other scriptures:

 “From that time on, Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand’.” (Matt 4:17)

Jesus said, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance”  (Matt 3:8)

Jesus said “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance  (Luke 5:31-32)

“Godly sorrow brings about repentance which leads to salvation” (2 Cor 7:10)

Jesus said “The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations”  (Luke 24:46-47)

Significantly, this last statement by Jesus (Luke 24:46-47, quoted above) indicates both the means by which grace is made available (his death and resurrection) and the means by which we procure it (repentance). Furthermore, the New Testament provides us with a picture of the robust nature of the repentance that must accompany true saving faith. It involves more than the mere recitation of a simple prayer. True repentance is a radical realignment of one’s life to bring it under the Lordship of Christ. It means changing the way we live in order to begin to live in obedience to the teachings and commandments of Christ. This will always involve making profound and practical changes to stop sinning and start living in submission to Christ as King. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey my commands” (Jn 14:15).  In fact, so essential is repentance to true faith that Jesus cannot conceive of one without the other: “Anyone who loves me will obey my commands. Whoever does not love me does not keep my commands” (Jn 14:23-24)

According to the New Testament, one of the key motivations for repentance is to avoid the terrible wrath of God at the coming judgment. Jesus declared to the Pharisees, Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance!” (Matt 3:7). Similarly, the Apostle Paul warned some of his readers, “Because of your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourselves for the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom 2:5)

It is this fundamental doctrine of repentance that is either entirely lacking or significantly obfuscated by a haze of sugar-coated language in the post-modern pop gospel. Diluted language is often employed, such as emphasising the fact that God gives us grace to make a fresh start, and that through the power of the cross we can leave our past mistakes behind and start again. The effect of this softer language subtly, yet profoundly, dilutes the message of the gospel. Christ is now viewed as the one who offers us a product; the ability to realign our lives so that we can achieve the fulfilment and purpose that has been missing so far. Our need to turn from our sins and make profound changes in our life in order to avoid the wrath of God is almost completely missing in pop gospel preaching.

An example of this kind of diluted gospel appears in Rick Warren’s best-selling book, “The Purpose Driven Life”[1]. In his only explanation of the gospel within the entire book, he states, “First believe, believe God loves you and made you for His purposes. Believe you’re not an accident. Believe you were made to last forever. Believe God has chosen you to have a relationship with Jesus who died on the cross for you. Believe that no matter what you’ve done, God wants to forgive you. Second, receive Jesus into your life as your Lord and Savior. Receive His forgiveness for your sins. Receive his Spirit, who will give you the power to fulfill your life purpose. The Bible says “Whoever believes and trusts the Son gets in on everything, life complete and forever.” Wherever you are reading this I invite you to bow your head and quietly whisper the prayer that will change your eternity: “Jesus, I believe in You and I receive You.” If you sincerely meant that prayer, congratulations! Welcome to the family of God!”[2]

Did you notice a glaring omission in that outline of the gospel? Repentance is completely missing! He speaks of receiving God’s offer of forgiveness, but fails to mention what God demands of us in order to receive that forgiveness; repentance! According to Warren, all we have to do is believe in Jesus in order to receive all the goodies that he offers. We then “get in on everything” (an appalling translation of John 3:36), including a life of purpose and fulfilment.

This self-focused, diluted gospel is typical of the preaching of Rick Warren, Bill Hybels and other promoters of this pop gospel.[3] Warren’s consistently diluted messages, in particular, have received scathing criticism from many evangelical conservatives. For example, John Macarthur, commenting on Warren’s watered-down articulation of the gospel, states, “That is an INADEQUATE GOSPEL. That is a gospel that will contribute to APOSTASY.”[4] Macarthur’s point is that people who are not brought to repentance, will inevitably exhibit the shallow-rooted kind of commitment that Jesus described in the Parable of the Sower, and will eventually fall away.

 Sadly, the ubiquitous influence of this watered-down pop gospel is evident in many conservative evangelical churches, as seen by the disproportionate preponderance of sermons focusing on positive aspects of faith, compared to the paucity of messages which refer, in any significant way, to repentance from sin. Repentance isn’t easy to sell to a generation who want everything on their own terms – even salvation. This lack of any significant teaching about the need for repentance is reflected in the growing problem of sexual immorality which is in epidemic proportions in many youth groups and churches.

Acclaimed theologian, J.I. Packer, lamented this watering-down of the Gospel, when he stated that we have “lost our grip on the biblical gospel. Without realising it, we have during the past century bartered that gospel for a substitute product which, though it looks enough in points of detail, is as a whole a decidedly different thing. Hence our troubles; for the substitute product does not answer the ends for which the authentic gospel has in past days proved itself so mighty…. One way of stating the difference between it and the old gospel is to say that it is too exclusively concerned to be ‘helpful’ to man – to bring peace, comfort, happiness, satisfaction – and too little concerned to glorify God.” [5]

By seeking to make the gospel less offensive, purveyors of the pop gospel have promoted a brand of easy-believism, whereby what you believe makes few demands upon how you live. It asks for very little and promises much. This sugar-coated message may well have drawn more bees to the honey pot, but it has done so at the cost of the integrity of the gospel and, in all probability, at the cost of many people’s true salvation.


[1] Rick Warren is lauded by many as one of the most influential preachers in the world today. His book, “The Purpose Driven Life”, has sold more than 40 million copies.

[2] Rick Warren, “The Purpose Driven Life”, p.74.

[3] Significantly, when Rick Warren is interviewed and asked to explain his understanding of the gospel, he articulates a conservative evangelical viewpoint. His preaching, however, regularly downplays the negative aspects of the gospel, in order to make it more appealing to his listeners.

[4] John Macarthur, “Apostates Be Warned: Part 2”, on his “Grace To You” website, (gty.org).

[5] J.I. Packer, in his Introduction to John Owen’s book, “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ”. See the Appendix for the full text.



J.I Packer wrote:

“There is no doubt that evangelicalism today is in a state of perplexity and unsettlement. In such matters as the practice of evangelism, the teaching of holiness, the building up of local church life, the pastor’s dealing with souls and the exercise of discipline, there is evidence of widespread dissatisfaction with things as they are and of equally widespread uncertainty as to the road ahead. This is a complex phenomenon, to which many factors have contributed; but, if we go to the root of the matter, we shall find that these perplexities are all ultimately due to our having lost our grip on the biblical gospel. Without realising it, we have during the past century bartered that gospel for a substitute product which, though it looks enough in points of detail, is as a whole a decidedly different thing. Hence our troubles; for the substitute product does not answer the ends for which the authentic gospel has in past days proved itself so mighty. The new gospel conspicuously fails to produce deep reverence, deep repentance, deep humility, a spirit of worship, a concern for the church. Why?

We would suggest that the reason lies in its own character and content. It fails to make men God-centred in their thoughts and God-fearing in their hearts because this is not primarily what it is trying to do. One way of stating the difference between it and the old gospel is to say that it is too exclusively concerned to be ‘helpful’ to man – to bring peace, comfort, happiness, satisfaction – and too little concerned to glorify God. The old gospel was ‘helpful’, too – more so, indeed, than is the new – but (so to speak) incidentally, for its first concern was always to give glory to God. It was always and essentially a proclamation of divine sovereignty in mercy and judgement, a summons to bow down and worship the mighty Lord on whom man depends for all good, both in nature and in grace. Its centre of reference was unambiguously God. But in the new gospel the centre of reference is man. This is just to say that the old gospel was religious in a way that the new gospel is not. Whereas the chief aim of the old was to teach people to worship God, the concern of the new seems limited to making them feel better. The subject of the old gospel was God and his ways with men; the subject of the new is man and the help God gives him. There is a world of difference. The whole perspective and emphasis of gospel preaching has changed.”


2 Replies to “Pop Gospel V – How Are We Saved?”

  1. Thanks for another insightful blog Kev. I have found this series to be challenging and thought provoking. Can you recommend any good preachers that in your opinion are not falling into this pop gospel trap? I tend to listen to pod casts and actually have subscribed to Rick Warren’s, so any suggestions would be appreciated 🙂

  2. Hi Leila. I like John Macarthur, John Stott and Don Carson for their solid Biblical exegesis. For apologetics, I recommend William Lane Craig and Timothy Keller. These are all very theologically sound teachers.