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The Gospel, Religion & Irreligion


Image from: The Cross Church

The Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1: 16).  The Gospel does not just bring us power; it is the power of God itself.

During the past six months the small group that meets at our house went through The Gospel In Life series by Tim Keller.   We found the Gospel thoroughly refreshing.  In a Japanese context, I would say this was one of the most helpful studies that one could “import” from the west.  Unfortunately, we do not have the material in Japanese, so the group had to be exclusively English-speaking group, although I plan on preaching a series on the difference between the Gospel, Religion and Irreligion possibly through March this year at the bilingual service.  One thing I’ve been observing through our study is that, in Japan people’s moral standards are still very traditional and social ethics are highly valued.  In a sense, Japanese Christians are more prone to become legalistic precisely because we all bring with us our cultural baggage when we convert to Christianity.  Evidently there is no culture that is superior or inferior to another.  We are all sinners (Romans 3: 23), and sin is in present in a fallen culture.  Hence we’re all equally prone to become legalistic-pharisees because “the seed of religion is implanted in the heart of every man.”   I’m picking on Japanese culture, because that is where God has called us to minister.  Having said this, in a society where outward appearance is everything, I find that some cultural norms and practices can also reinforce our self-righteousness religious tendency.  But as prophet Isaiah puts it: “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64: 6).   Therefore, we must be able to distinguish between the Gospel and Religion (by “religion” I’m using the word in a negative sense as in the video HERE).

Here is a difference between Religion and the Gospel according to Tim Keller, taken from the Gospel In Life study guide, pg. 16.   I hope you’ll find this helpful!

RELIGION: I obey, therefore I’m accepted.

THE GOSPEL: I’m accepted, therefore I obey.

RELIGION: Motivation is based on fear and insecurity.

THE GOSPEL: Motivation is based on grateful joy.

RELIGION: I obey God in order to get things from God.

THE GOSPEL: I obey God to get to God, to delight and resemble him.

RELIGION: When circumstances in my life go wrong, I am angry at God or myself, since I believe, like Job’s friends that anyone who is good deserves a comfortable life.

THE GOSPEL: When circumstances in my life go wrong, I struggle but I know all my punishment fell on Jesus and that while he may allow this for my training, he will exercise his fatherly love within my trial.

RELIGION: When I am criticized, I am furious or devastated because it is critical that I think of myself as a “good person.” Threats to that self-image must be destroyed at all costs.

THE GOSPEL: When I am criticized, I can take it. I struggle, but it is not critical for me to think of myself as a “good person.” My identity is not built on my record or my performance, but on God’s love for me in Christ.

RELIGION: My prayer life consists largely of petition and only heats up when I am in a time of need. My main purpose in prayer is control of my environment.

THE GOSPEL: My prayer life consists of generous stretches of praise and adoration. My main purpose is fellowship with God.

RELIGION: My self-view swings between two poles: If and when I am living up to my standards, I feel confident, but then I am prone to be proud and unsympathetic to failing people. If and when I am not living up to standards, I feel insecure, inadequate, and not confident. I feel like a failure.

THE GOSPEL: My self-view is not based on a view of myself as a moral achiever. In Christ I am “simul iustus et peccator”—simultaneously sinful and yet accepted in Christ. I am so bad he had to die for me and I am so loved he was glad to die for me. This leads me to deeper and deeper humility and confidence at the same time, neither swaggering nor sniveling.

RELIGION: My identity and self-worth are based mainly on how hard I work or how moral I am, and so I must look down on those I perceive as lazy or immoral. I disdain and feel superior to “the other.”

THE GOSPEL: My identity and self-worth are centered on the one who died for his enemies and who was excluded from the city for me. I am saved by sheer grace, so I can’t look down on those who believe or practice something different from me. It is only by grace that I am what I am. I have no inner need to win arguments.

RELIGION: Since I look to my own pedigree or performance for my spiritual acceptability, my heart manufactures idols. It may be my talents, my moral record, my personal discipline, my social status, etc. I absolutely have to have them so they serve as my main hope, meaning, happiness, security, and significance, regardless of what I say I believe about God.

THE GOSPEL: I have many good things in my life: family, work, spiritual disciplines, etc. But none of these good things is an ultimate end for me. None of them is something I absolutely have to have, so there is a limit to how much anxiety, bitterness, and despondency such things can inflict on me when they are threatened and lost.

Grace changes everything!

Read a related post: Jesus Does Not Hate “Religion” Per Se! 

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