The Santa Message vs. the Gospel Message

This past Christmas my wife purchased a book for our family titled When Santa Learned the Gospel. It is a fun little children’s book that was written by Australian author Simon Camilleri. In an interview Camilleri gives the background of his inspiration to write the book.

Back in 2013 I witnessed something very funny at a local community carols event. As expected, at the end of the evening, Santa came out on stage and asked the kids “So, who’s been a good boy or girl this year?” All the kids raised their hands and said “Meeee!!” The funny thing was, when he asked them, “And who’s been a naughty boy or girl?” they all said “Meeee!!” just as enthusiastically. After an awkward moment, Santa shrugged and said, “Oh well . . . I guess you’ve tried to be good.” I left that event pondering what message about life those kids had just received. I reflected on how the whole “morality equals reward” system that the Santa story promotes was kind of like the “good people go to heaven” message that many think Christianity teaches. I sat down inspired to write something that would give some commentary to what I had witnessed and at the same time communicate the true gospel to both kids and adults. What resulted was a funny little poem called, “When Santa Learned the Gospel”.

In an amusing way, Camilleri describes the Santa message as being encapsulated in the Christmas song “Santa Clause is Coming to Town.” We’ve all heard it before where it says, “He’s making a list, checking it twice….gonna find out whose naughty or nice…..Santa Clause is coming to town!” Essentially, the Santa message is that the good (nice) kids are rewarded with presents, while the bad(naughty) kids are rewarded with nothing, or a lump of coal. As Camilleri noted above, this is very similar to what many think Christianity is all about. It is a system of works righteousness where good people are rewarded with heaven and bad people are rewarded with hell.

In late November of this year, the town where I live and serve had its own community event to kick off the Christmas season. I was invited to speak and having been inspired by this little children’s book, I decided to contrast the Santa message with the Gospel message. Using as my text Ephesians 2:8-9, I had three simple points.

  1. Salvation is by grace – it is a gift to be received from God.
  2. Salvation is through faith – we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and his atoning work on our behalf.
  3. Salvation is not of works – it is not our own righteousness that saves us; rather, it is the righteousness of Christ.

I was grateful for the opportunity to share this truly good news of a God who rescues us from our sins. I tried to make the message as simple and as clear as possible, knowing that many people, perhaps even most people, are gospel illiterate. We shouldn’t be surprised. This “morality equals reward” Santa message seems to be the dominant message of our day, yet it could not be more antithetical to the “not by works” gospel message that we find in Scripture. As a pastor, I have found that many regular church-goers don’t understand or comprehend the gospel. This is why the “good news” of the gospel must be told again and again and again.

The worst thing we could do as Christians is to assume gospel literacy. Even though most people think they know the message, in all reality they are gospel ignorant. They are much closer to the Santa “works righteousness” message than they realize. The gospel message will always clash against the Santa message and other messages that are in the mold of works righteousness. Our job as ambassadors and witnesses for Jesus is to clarify and articulate the “by grace through faith” gospel to everyone we can.

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

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