The last four chapters of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God deal with Christian doctrine. This is where we find the solution – in the general sense of the term, and from a protestant perspective. In Chapter 11 Keller describes the contrast between Religion and the Gospel … but first he must define his terms.
According to Keller, Religion is salvation through moral effort while the Gospel is salvation through the grace of God. Don’t clobber me over his terms – we could just as well say that there are two conceivable solutions: (A) We do it or (B) God did it.
In (A) Jesus came as teacher with a message – do this and you will be saved. This is also the message of most (every?) other major religions. Do this and you will find the divine. Do this and you will enter the kingdom of God.
In (B) Jesus came essentially as savior (although he was also teacher). Jesus says: “I am the divine come to you, to do what you could not do for yourselves.” (p. 185)
The Gospel (B) is that God through Jesus did for us what we could not and cannot do for ourselves so that we can rest in that assurance of reunion with God and participate in bringing about the Kingdom of God – the community of the people of God. Here and now – continuing forever. (OK, this is not Keller’s exact expression, rather it is mine; but Keller has a similar sense, more or less). This isn’t cheap grace, it is costly grace – but it is grace.
The Gospel comes through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s Messiah.
A person can reject the gospel by walking away from any significant form of Christian faith and life. Agnosticism and atheism represent rejection of the gospel. One can also reject the gospel by developing what Keller calls a Pharisaical form of faith, trusting in one’s ability to follow the law. Keller illustrates his points in this chapter by reference to fiction: Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ; Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood; and Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Here he quotes O’Connor who wrote about one of her characters, Hazel Motes, that “he knew that the best way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.” (p. 177) Keller’s point: Christianized religion (his definition of the word “religion”) is as much a problem as non-Christian religion.
The Gospel is scary. If we are saved by our good works there are limits to what God can expect of us; if we are saved by grace there is nothing he cannot ask of us. Following Jesus — accepting the Gospel — is total surrender.
I’ve been listening to the gospels again, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John leading up to the Holy week (well, starting John this morning). Luke taken in large chunks is a powerful book. I don’t think I’ve really appreciated it before (in small chunks and moral lessons). There is a powerful message in all of the gospels and in the Gospel. It isn’t social action or personal piety or religion. It is total surrender to the Kingdom of God characterized by love of God and love of neighbor (all neighbors). No boxes to tick off, no rules to follow, nothing to hold back and retain control over. The only response to the call of Jesus is total surrender.
Grace, though, looms large through this all. Returning again to Keller’s discussion (excerpts from 179-181):
Religion operates on the principle “I obey – therefore I am accepted by God.” But the operating principle of the gospel is “I am accepted by God through what Christ has done – therefore I obey.” …
The primary difference is that of motivation. In religion, we try to obey divine standards out of fear. We believe that we are going to lose God’s blessings in this world and the next. In the gospel, the motivation is one of gratitude fro the blessing we have already received because of Christ. …
Another difference has to do with our identity and self-regard. … I cannot feel superior to anyone, and yet I have nothing to prove to anyone. I do not think more of myself or less of myself. Instead I think of myself less. I don’t need to notice myself – how I’m doing, how I’m being regarded – so often.
Religion and the gospel also differ fundamentally in how they treat the Other – those who do not share one’s own beliefs and practices. … A Christian’s worth is and values are not created by excluding anyone, but through the Lord who was excluded for me.
Religion and the gospel also lead to divergent ways of handling troubles and suffering.
On the last Keller points out that there is no guarantee with the gospel that doing right reaps the benefits of health, wealth, and respect. Jesus certainly did right and lived “a life filled with the experience of poverty, rejection, injustice, and even torture.” (p. 182)
In Keller’s view Religion (A), even Christian Religion, is no better than irreligion as it does not, cannot, address the problem.
Is Keller’s division between Religion and Gospel useful? If not what distinction would you make?
Does this tally with your understanding of the Gospel?
How would you describe the Gospel?
Whether one agrees entirely with Keller or not, this is a great place to start a conversation.
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net
If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.