Growing up in a Baptist church doesn’t make for an attitude that is high on tradition—at least not capital “T” Tradition. Tradition, for many Baptists, is something “those Catholics” are all about. Baptists, we tell ourselves, we’re all about the Bible.

It sounds good. But the problem, as anyone who has been in any church for any length of time can tell you, is that we all create traditions. Some of them are codified and officially protected. But most of our traditions are subconscious, just under the surface. We don’t know we have them until someone comes in messing with them.

Religious traditions aren’t all bad. It’s important, even necessary, to respect our past. But religious traditions can go wrong. The biggest danger is this: our traditions are always at risk of losing the thread of the grace of God.

For Baptists, that tradition usually emphasizes standards of behavior. Christians are supposed to live a certain way, do certain things, and (this is important) avoid certain things. So read your Bible, tell people about Jesus, give money to the church. Don’t cuss, don’t watch R-rated movies, don’t drink beer. Follow the rules and you can feel pretty good about yourself.

For many Catholics, the important thing is ritual. Avoiding sin matters, of course: you’ll do your best to keep from lying, not to hurt others, and to be a faithful spouse. But to get God on your side, the rituals are crucial. So go to mass, light the candles, say the prayers, confess your sins. You’ve got to do these things exactly right…but if you do, chances are God is smiling.

For all of their differences, both groups can fall into the same error: assuming that God accepts us based on the way we keep certain rules. It’s actually good to attend church, to pray, and to share your faith. But when our tradition changes those practices from gospel-infused responses to a law-based way of justifying us, we’ve lost the thread.

It’s not just Baptists and Catholics, though. We all do this. So if you come out of a prosperity gospel tradition, it’s all about realizing your potential. If people could just understand their potential and see how God could help them achieve it, they’d be set. But it’s not the thought of your “best life now” that will truly transform you. It’s the understanding that the best life ever lived was given for you.

For those from a Pentecostal tradition, the danger is elevating Spirit baptism to the central spot. I’m all for fullness of the Spirit (I wrote a book on it), but the Spirit of God is there to point you to the beauty of the gospel. Lose the gospel and you’ve lost the Spirit, no matter how charismatic you act.

For those in the Reformed tradition, it’s all about learning. I call this, “transformation by education.” This group always wants more classes, more Bible knowledge. Again, I’m for it. The Bible is indispensible. It is our life. But transformation doesn’t come by education; it comes by revelation of God’s beauty. And we see that beauty in the gospel.

For those in a theologically liberal tradition (and, ironically, many in the conservative stream as well), the watchword is activism. Support this political movement, rally behind this agenda, and you can be assured that you’re fighting on God’s side. God cares about our activism. He cares about the movements that focus on the disenfranchised and the poor. But he wants our activism to arise from beholding him, not as a way of behaving for him.

It’s not what I do, what I learn, what I experience, that brings the power of the new life. It’s beholding what Jesus Christ did for me. As we sang in my church growing up, “Come for a cleansing to Calvary’s tide. There’s power in the blood.” Satan actually loves to promote religion, as long as it’s divested of the power of the blood. He’s fine with you going to church. He’ll encourage you to clean up your life. He doesn’t mind fixing up whole cities here and there, as long as no one is doing it by the power of the blood.

There are churches and pulpits that don’t put the gospel and the grace of God at the dead center. Avoid them at all costs. It doesn’t matter how long your family has gone there. It doesn’t matter how many good people go there. If the gospel is gone, get out.

Does that sound too harsh? It certainly is harsh. But as one scholar points out, harsh words are necessary for harsh realities. As the Apostle Paul writes continually, we should oppose counterfeit gospels with all of our being. These counterfeits may clean up the outside for a while, but deep down all they do is promote rebellion.

What do the teachers you listen to emphasize? The grace of God toward you and its power of new life? Or a list of things you need to do? Only the gospel gives life. So get yourself in the presence of the grace of God. It’s the only tradition you can always trust.