Written by Stephen Cox
People tend to think that there are two ways to relate to God – to follow him by accepting the gospel (the good news) of Jesus Christ, or reject him. But within rejecting God, there are also two approaches. One way is just living as we see fit (irreligion). The other form of rejection is by being really righteous and really moral, and so earn our own salvation (false religion). So in actual fact, there are three ways to relate to God: the gospel, irreligion and false religion.
Let me explain further. The gospel is the proclamation of what God has done in the person and work of Christ to rescue sinners. False Religion is any man-made system that attempts to gain God’s favour and love through works. As Kyle Worley has written, unfortunately “religion has become like a chubby seventh-grader lately. Every day it’s getting “pantsed” in the locker room of ideas, never to be seen the same way again. I just want to note that ‘religion’ is not bad in a biblical sense (cf.James 1:27). What makes it bad is the prevalent perception that institutions or creeds, together with our own deeds can serve as a portal to relationship with God rather than a full reliance upon the person and work of Jesus Christ alone.”
We need to be regularly reminded of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Too many days we can confuse it with false religion. They are not the same thing. There is, in fact, a gloriously firm distinction between false religion and the gospel. False religion is hopeless. The gospel is the hope for the nations. False religion brings destruction. The gospel brings freedom. False religion exalts the work of people. The gospel exalts the work of Christ alone. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has written down a few definitions of both, and I want to share them with you.
I obey-therefore I’m accepted.
I’m accepted-therefore I obey.
Motivation is based on fear and insecurity.
Motivation is based on grateful joy.
I obey God in order to get things from God.
I obey God to delight and resemble Him.
When circumstances in my life go wrong, I am angry at God or my self, since I believe that anyone who is good deserves a comfortable life.
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.
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.
When I am criticized 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. I can take criticism.
My prayer life consists largely of petition and it only heats up when I am in a time of need. My main purpose in prayer is control of the environment.
My prayer life consists of generous stretches of praise and adoration. My main purpose is fellowship with Him.
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.’
My identity and self-worth are centered on the one who died for His enemies, 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. Only by grace I am what I am. I’ve no inner need to win arguments.
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, whatever I may say I believe about God.
I have many good things in my life—family, work, spiritual disciplines, etc. But none of these good things are ultimate things to me. None of them are things I absolutely have to have, so there is a limit to how much anxiety, bitterness, and despondency they can inflict on me when they are threatened and lost.
The gospel is neither religion (as defined above) nor irreligion – it is something else. Religion makes law and moral obedience a means of salvation, while irreligion makes the individual a law to him- or herself. The gospel, however, is that Jesus takes the law of God so seriously that he paid the penalty of disobedience, so we can be saved by sheer grace.
Furthermore, the gospel liberates us from the burden of a false, do-it-yourself religion. The gospel doesn’t just bring us out of “false religion” but it brings us into “true religion,” which is accompanied by the assurance of a right relationship with Christ and an ability to live this life as God planned.I pray we would understand the gospel deeper and better and live in the freedom given to us by Christ.