The reformer Martin Luther said that human beings, as sinners, are prone to pursue a relationship with God in one of two ways: Religion or the Gospel. Tim Keller (who recently went to be with the Lord) wrote extensively about this in various books and articles. The following are excerpts of his ideas contrasting religion and the Gospel taken from various sources, including The Reason for God, Gospel in Life, The Meaning of Marriage, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, and Redeemer Church (Brenham).
“Religion is about me.
The Gospel is about Jesus.
Religion is what I have to do to get to God.
Gospel is what Jesus did to get me.
Religion is what I have to do to be accepted by God.
Gospel is what God did to make me acceptable to Him.
The goal of Religion is to get good things from God such as health, wealth, insight, power, and control.
The goal of the Gospel is that we get God; he gives Himself as the greatest gift.”
The word Gospel simply means “good news”. The Gospel is the good news about how Jesus Christ is both man and God, and that he died on the cross in our place to pay the penalty for our sins, and that he rose again after three days conquering sin and death, thus providing salvation for all who believe in Him. Some passages which detail this for us are:
1 Timothy 1:15 – “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
Romans 5:8 – “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
1 Corinthians 15:1-4 – “Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
Romans 1:16 – “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.”
“The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope” (Tim Keller, The Meaning of Marriage)
We either approach God by way of religion or by way of the Gospel. However, only by the way of the Gospel can we be truly accepted by God, forgiven of our sins, and made new.
Furthermore, living by faith in the Gospel transforms everything else in our life.
For example, take prayer. Keller explains the difference between religion vs. the Gospel in various areas of our life.
“Religion: 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.”
“Gospel: My prayer life consists of generous stretches of praise and adoration. My main purpose is fellowship with God.”
Or, take our view of our identity and self.
“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.”
“Gospel: My identity and self-worth are centered on the one who died for me. I am saved by sheer grace, so I can’t look down on those who believe or practice something different than me. Only by grace am I what I am.”
Or, take our view of life.
“Religion: Since I look to my pedigree or performance for my spiritual acceptability, my head manufactures idols—talents, moral record, personal discipline, social status, etc. I absolutely have to have them, so they are my main hope, meaning, happiness, security, and significance, whatever I say I believe about God.”
“Gospel: I have many good things in my life— family, work, etc., but none of these good things are ultimate things to me. I don’t absolutely have to have them, so there is a limit to how much anxiety, bitterness, and despair they can inflict on me when they are threatened and lost.”
There are far-reaching consequences for how we approach God.
The way of religion offers a way, but it is the way of destruction, failure, and despair.
The way of the Gospel, by contrast, is the way of eternal life, victory, and hope.