Gospel or Religion? (RJS)

If the problem is Sin — and Sin is failure to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength — what is the solution?

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.

So —

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.

  • http://www.mannsword.blogspot.com Daniel Mann

    Well stated: “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.”

  • scotmcknight

    Daniel, but isn’t the first plank of the covenant of works in Reformed theology the demand of God on humans to be perfect? I’m not sure that epigram plays off of genuine opposites, regardless of how it sounds.

  • Theolgien

    I’ll stick with Barth. Any attempt to approach God outside of revelation is religion, and is sin. Even the god/God we approach in the name of religion is a god that we construct and worship.

  • Rick

    Scot #2-

    Wouldn’t it be better to say that the idea is God’s is perfect/holy, and therefore that is the standard He must have, but which humans fall short of. God then provides the grace so as to allow us to enter into relationship with Him.?????????????

  • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com Hydroxonium

    The people associated with the Gospel Coalition have discredited themselves, because of their shared insistence on the senseless doctrine of double-imputation. Everything they say is tainted; as Paul says, “a little yeast works through the whole lump of dough” (Gal 5:9).

    Their theological framework is based upon extra-biblical, man-made doctrines, and I feel it makes sense to respond to them in this way (portions in square brackets have been modified to fit the present context):

    Matthew 15:8-14
    Common English Bible (CEB)
    8 This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me. 9 Their worship of me is empty since they teach instructions that are human rules.”[a]

    10 Jesus called the crowd near and said to them, “Listen and understand. 11 [It’s not an artificial intellectual assent to Imputation of Christ's righteousness by Faith that justifies a person in God’s sight. It’s a true understanding of the King Jesus Gospel that justifies the person.]”

    12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the [Gospel Coalition] were offended by what you just said?”

    13 Jesus replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father didn’t plant will be pulled up. 14 Leave the [Gospel Coalition] alone. They are blind people who are guides to blind people. But if a blind person leads another blind person, they will both fall into a ditch.”

    (This my sincere perspective. I have been brought up in the “reformed” tradition, but could never bring myself to accept the above-mentioned doctrine because it was simply too far-fetched. But this doesn’t mean that we should condemn them; it just means that they should not be taken seriously as teachers of God’s word.)

  • scotmcknight

    Rick, that’s the classic framing of it, yes. Where would you point someone to a biblical text that proves God demands perfection? (I don’t think Matt 5:48 is about moral perfectionism in this sense, so other than that text.)

  • RJS

    Hydroxonium,

    I don’t quite understand your response to this post. I know there are ways to frame this that step over a line, and a line I don’t agree with. But it seems to me that there is some reaction to Keller as part of TGC rather than to what I’ve outlined. What raises flags for you in this post?

  • Scott Lyons

    RJS, I’m not trying to clobber you over definitions, but bothered by Keller’s use of the terms. Religion is not opposed to grace. It doesn’t do anyone any good for him or anyone else to define it as such. It’s odd to me that some Christians let go of this term with their emphasis on sola scriptura – odd since Jesus lived religiously, odd since James speaks of true religion. The OT is filled with God speaking to his people about “rending your hearts rather than your garments” (e.g. Psalm 51, Joel 2 or Is 58) but he does not suddenly expect them to stop offering sacrifices, fasting, celebrating Passover or worshipping through their established liturgy. I find the same confusion when people speak of Christ’s teaching on “vain repetition” – but it is not repetition that is vain, rather repetition becomes empty and hollow when the heart is not in it. (Which corresponds to the OT teachings I mentioned.) And if I veer some from his definition, it is only because of the confusion such defining makes of it (is religion “doing it myself” or religious rituals for Keller? Or are they the same thing for him?).

  • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com Hydroxonium

    RJS,

    The way TGC does theology, is to force everything to fit their pre-established doctrines. (I.e. they view everything from an incorrect, man-made perspective.)

    “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.”

    Here, we have our first problem. The correct answer is: (C) God first did it through Christ. Then, through our God-given faith in Christ, we do it too (cf. 1 Cor 15:10).

    Luke 10:25-28
    Common English Bible (CEB)
    Loving your neighbor
    25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
    26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
    27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”[a]
    28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

    Notice how Jesus says “do this and you will live.”

    “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 for the blessing we have already received because of Christ. …”

    Keller (and his TGC associates) view the cross of Christ as a mere propitiation, while completely ignoring the primary expiatory purpose of Jesus’ blood! To them, salvation is already fully accomplished by Christ, and so after “accepting the gospel” (which is their definition of “faith”), all that’s left is for us to respond in gratitude to the ALREADY RECEIVED blessing. In this way, Keller is deaf to what scripture is shouting out to us:

    Galatians 6:7-10
    New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
    7 Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 8 If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9 So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.
    (http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=gal%206:7-10&version=NRSV;CEB;NET;YLT;KJV)

  • http://the3150.wordpress.com Dan

    Defining the word “religion” as “works-righteousness” is one the most annoying, ignorant, and ridiculous thing that preachers say. Not only would those using this definition be proven wrong by a simple dictionary, but they are repeating a fundamentally false dichotomy, one of faith in the unmerited grace of God VS our free response of love in action (“good works”). We can do nothing to save ourselves, God’s love and mercy is undeserved (all Christians agree to this); but we must freely respond to that grace with faith and real faith will result in following God’s commandments.

    Redefining the word “religion” to mean “works-righteousness religion and everything else I dislike in religion” will not get people off the hook. Christianity is a religion. There is religion that understands the free grace of God and religion that doesn’t, but we’re still talking about the Christian religion. Pretending that the Christian faith is somehow not “religion” is not only an abuse of semantics, but it is intellectually dishonest and just makes a person sound stupid.

  • Phil Miller

    I agree with what Scott said in #8. I grew up hearing Christians say stuff like “it’s a relationship, not religion”, and many times this was used as a club to beat up Christians from other traditions, especially Catholics (Eastern Orthodox to an extent, although they were never much on people’s radar back then). I think the thing is that all Christians partake in ritual to some extent, and like Scott said, that’s not opposed to grace.

    I also think that the use of word “Pharisaical” is rather unfortunate. It’s been discussed here before, but I’m pretty convinced that the old Christian trope of describing the Judaism of Jesus’ time as works-based and legalistic is something that is just plain wrong. One thing that convinced me of this is actually the words of Jesus himself. In Matthew 23, Jesus tells the people that they must be careful to do everything the Pharisee tell them. Would Jesus tell people to do something that was actually contrary to the Kingdom? I don’t think so.

  • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com Hydroxonium

    It’s not surprising that visitors of Dr McKnight’s blog understand that Timothy Keller is guilty of setting up false dichotomies with regards to faith vs works. (Not entirely Keller’s fault; it’s a “reformed” disease that began with Martin Luther, then John Calvin, then …)

    (This is my honest opinion; no offence intended:) However, it’s surprising that RJS would take Keller seriously, given the fundamental differences between Dr McKnight’s and Keller’s theological frameworks.

  • http://restorationfellowship.org Anthony Buzzard

    Would anyone like to comment on the fact that Jesus proved himself to be a staunch advocate of the unitary monotheism of Israel in Mk 12:29?
    Is it not a remarkable fact, worthy of wide publicity, that the Church bypassed Jesus in this matter and replaced the creed of Jesus with a Trinitarian creed?
    They then disparagingly accused Jesus’ unitary monotheistic understanding of God, of being “Jewish.”
    The fact is that Jesus was a Jew!
    Is there no difference between a Trinitarian God and the God defined by Jesus in Mk 12:29=Deut 6:4?
    Anthony

  • Phil Miller

    It’s not that I think that what Keller is saying is all wrong. I think he’s right to point out the difference between the concept of grace and the idea that we are capable of saving ourselves. I think, though, the notion that we are capable of saving ourselves rests more in secular philosophies than in religion many times. People still put a lot of faith in the concept of human progress.

    If we must speak in dichotomies, I prefer the way one of my favorite theologians, Bono, put it. Grace triumphs over karma. (Even Bono uses the term “religion” in a negative sense here, but I forgive him… :-) )

    You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.

    http://www.thepoachedegg.net/the-poached-egg/2010/09/bono-interview-grace-over-karma.html

  • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com Hydroxonium

    Anthony,

    “The New Testament writers are really quite careful at this point. Jesus is not the God of Israel. He is not the Father. He is not Yahweh. An identification of Jesus with and as Yahweh was an early attempt to resolve the tensions indicated above; it was labelled as ‘Modalism’, a form of ‘Monarchianism’ (the one God operating first as Father and then as Son), and accounted a heresy.” — James D. G. Dunn, “Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?”, p. 142

    http://books.google.com.sg/books?id=-8xWzXiByKgC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA142#v=onepage&q&f=false

    It’s perfectly reasonable to acknowledge YHWH as the only God, Jesus as the divine Son of God, and the Holy Spirit as the divine Spirit of God, without needing some logically inconsistent “mystery” of Trinity that is not even explicitly stated in scripture.

  • http://patrickconley.blogspot.com/ Patrick Conley

    I am of similar opinion as Dan, above. “Religion” has been misconstrued amongst (hopefully) well-meaning Christians to emphasize salvation by God’s grace and the centrality of a personal relationship with Jesus. As a devout Catholic, I fully profess both of these elements of the authentically Christian life, as does the Catholic Church.

    But these elements in no way hinder working out one’s salvation (Php. 2:12), living out one’s faith through works (Jas. 2:14-26), striving for holiness (Heb. 12:14), even doing the commandments to live (Lk. 10:28, 37), and thus evermore greatly conforming one’s will to that of the Father.

    Neither are these elements invalidated by liturgy, sacrament, invoking the communion of saints, and the like–on the contrary, they are vastly weakened without them.

    Peace to all in this holy time.

  • RJS

    Hydroxonium,

    Keller surprised me when I first read some of his material. It isn’t that I agree with everything he has to say – or that I always agree with the way he says it – but I think that at the core he is saying what I read in scripture (the gospels and James included, and don’t forget 1 Cor. 13) including the call by Jesus to repentance and radical discipleship.

    So then what is the point of the death and resurrection of Jesus? An appropriate thing to consider this week. I’m not big on penal substitution as the overriding theme here (and perhaps disagree with Keller on that) but I am big on the idea that God accomplished something through real and concrete these events that changed the course of the story.

    I am not a fan of this distinction between “religion” and “gospel” because I think he had to redefine “religion” to make it an appropriate antithesis. On the other hand, I think I understand why he did it.

    I also don’t think his complaint is with liturgy and sacrament. He is known to refer approvingly to Anglicans … even those who use a prayer book and such! It wouldn’t surprise me if he had protestant fundamentalism in mind more than Catholicism in some of this discussion.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Interesting separation of viewpoints in the responses. In the Reformed – ‘somewhat less than’ Reformed battles, it seems to matter a lot what one considers the primary goal of what Christ makes possible. Should we primarily look to Christ’s sacrifice as our way to get to heaven when we die (no input from us is needed) or as our way to live as God’s children in the here and now (no input from us is sufficient)? Both are true, but surely the emphasis Jesus placed on the Kingdom and our (the Church’s) role in it gives us very good reason to put the here and now first. The getting to heaven part sort of follows, No?

    For me, this is the part of the Keller series of posts that has raised no serious qualms (TGC affiliation notwithstanding). Religion can be, and often is entirely of human construction. Christian religiosity can seriously corrode all witness.

    @Dan (10) Patrick (16) Perhaps replacing religion with religiosity would have been a better choice of words for Keller in making his point about human-made attempts at reaching God.

  • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com Hydroxonium

    RJS,

    Really appreciate the response. Keller definitely says many things that we can (more or less) agree with; likewise for the people at TGC (it’s quite impossible to completely disagree with someone who bases his arguments on the same bible that we all love).

    I just find it extremely tiresome (and quite pointless) to read TGC knowing that their writings are based on a fundamentally erroneous theological framework (cf. my comment at #5). For me, Jesus’ teaching on false prophets (Matt 7:15-20) should apply to some extent. The fact that TGC can be so fanatically committed to their false doctrines leads me to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with their hermeneutic.

    As N. T. Wright says:

    “Underneath even those there is the challenge about whether one reads scripture as a set of proof-texts to dogmas already given — prooftexts detached from their contexts — or whether one allows scripture itself to set, and re-set, the terms of what we’re talking about. And scripture itself suggests that the whole western tradition, from mediaeval catholicism onwards, has dangerously skewed the focus of discussion to ‘me and my getting to heaven’ rather than to ‘God and God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven’. The irony is that Piper’s concern for the glory of God reflects exactly this biblical emphasis but he doesn’t allow it to do what it should,but instead distorts it into a particular sub-variant of the reformation tradition of imputed righteousness…”
    (http://blog.beliefnet.com/bibleandculture/2009/06/q-and-a-with-bishop-wright-on-justification.html)

    If that’s the way TGC reads the bible, there is hardly any reason to trust their interpretation.

  • norman

    RJS,

    I really like the way you worded this. :)

    “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.”

    I also agree with Keller here.

    “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:”

    That is the essence of what Jesus and Paul says that Judaism had unfortunately evolved into and is the signature change that was in need of correcting. Christ Death and then resurrection is the sign that validated His authority to change that intruding pattern or practice deteriorating the faith walk IMHO.

  • Steve Sherwood

    Of TGC folks, Keller is by far my favorite, and I like a good bit of his work. I have always been uncomfortable with the way he sets “religion” up as the foil of Jesus and grace. Can religion become works righteousness, certainly? Is it always, I’d say hardly. I find Wright and the other New Perspective folks pretty persuasive in their case that Judaism was not the burdensome works righteousness obsessed world that we, as Evangelicals have tended to paint it as being. Keller is such a good thinker on so many things, why he relies so heavily on what feels like a reductionist view of religion has always confused me.

  • RJS

    This discussion gets bogged down in the “works righteousness” vs “grace” controversy with all the baggage of several hundred years since the reformation. The NPP and a number of other issues have to come into play as well. I certainly think some of the language Keller uses in this chapter isn’t what I would prefer, in part because it detracts from some important points.

    So perhaps I am reading my own views back into Keller’s chapter (I’d not be the first to do such a thing to any author). But there are two key things I see here. (1) The gospel brings and requires authentic transformation and genuine humility. (2) The entire OT as backdrop to the NT is a story of human failure. God calls, God chooses, God is at work, but people fail. This wouldn’t change if Jesus was merely another prophet or an example. Rather God through incarnation, life, death, resurrection accomplished something to break this cycle. We have to rest in that broken cycle. And act accordingly. If sin is failure to stay focused on God and God’s mission and purpose, then the solution should center on this focus. We can’t do it – the “came and dwelt among us” piece is critical here.

  • Rick

    Scot #6-

    Scot-

    Thanks.
    Disregarding the Matthew 5 passage for now (and I certainly acknowledge your NT expertise, but would like to hear you expand on your thought on that passage), here are some others that paint an overall picture towards that:
    Galatians 3:10, James 2:10. 1 Peter 1:16, Eph 1:4.

    Do regard righteousness or holiness as equal to moral perfection?

  • TJJ

    So many of the responses to this post seem akin to arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. More scholastic with a purpose to nitpick word choice than to seek to understand and discuss big ideas. Keller nowhere teaches or writes that what Christians are or how they live has no bearing or connection to faith and salvation. But yet he is being attacked here as if he does, not unlike the way Paul himself was attacked. I think RJS clarified the point, apart from the language very well. Give it a rest already.

  • Phil Miller

    TJJ,
    I hear what you’re saying, and to a degree I would agree. We are all Christians, so let’s not let things that are actually disagreements about semantic divide us. But I’m not sure if I think this issue comes down to purely semantics. It comes down to larger issues such as the nature of the atonement, and more importantly, the nature of God.

    I grew up hearing things regarding the Law and perfection that are very similar to what Keller talks about, and I don’t even come from a Reformed background. Because I heard these things so often, I think I developed the idea that God was something like an anal retentive tyrant in heaven who simply had to have things His own way, and if He didn’t, well, He wasn’t going to be happy. Fear was my biggest motivation for following God. I didn’t want to burn in hell for eternity (who would?). I think this picture of God is much different than what Scripture actually portrays, though.

    I’m not saying Keller is doing this here. But what I will say is that we need to be aware of what the unintended consequences of our different theologies are. A quick story to back this point up. I watched the documentary, The Falling Man the other day. It’s about a photograph that was taken on September 11, 2001 of a man falling from one of the WTC towers. In the documentary, the photographer and others try to identify this man. When they first thought they had identified him (it turns out they were most likely wrong with their first attempt), the man’s family was very distraught. They were a Catholic family and they believed that if anyone committed suicide, that person was sent to hell, no exceptions. So the idea that this man may have jumped to avoid being burned to death had them very upset. When they learned that it probably wasn’t him they were actually happy. My reaction is what kind of theology produces this type of reaction? What theology says that God would send someone for hell for eternity because he made the choice to jump out of a burning skyscraper instead of being burned to death?

    That’s what I mean by our theology having unintended theology. Sometimes I think the things we think we know about God actually end up trumping His true character in our minds.

  • RJS

    Phil,

    I agree with you that unintended consequences of a theology can be significant.

    Within this chapter I did not catch a whiff of “angry God” or “penal substitution”. Law and God’s need for perfection weren’t a theme of the chapter either. Maybe I’m dense and and missed the back story (although I don’t think so). That doesn’t mean Keller in another context wouldn’t preach that, perhaps he would. But I don’t think it is the story behind the point he is making in this chapter of his book.

  • Tom F.

    For me, I like what Keller says in general here, but I don’t like the semantics.

    “Religion” as “works based righteousness” is simply lame. I don’t say this to root for works based righteousness, but simply to point out that this is neither the literal or historic definition of “religion”. I think this sort of framing also contributes to the “spiritual but not religious” or the general anti-institutional nature of evangelicalism. Why is there a desire to beat on “religion”? I don’t think this language makes sense anymore and is definitely unhelpful.

  • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com Hydroxonium

    RJS,

    I agree with much of your thoughtful analyses.

    Some further criticisms of what you quoted from Keller:

    Agnosticism is meant to be an epistemological position, and not immediately a theological one.

    Also, when we find ourselves disagreeing with the way Keller says things, it’s a sign that there are underlying theological differences. I am particularly sensitive to semantic nuances, and to me those are the same differences that lead them to penal substitution, and other reformation dogmas.

  • Phil M

    I’m late to the discussion (sigh, time zones), but thought I would throw in my hat with the crowd defending the term “religion”. I agree that it has unfairly been set up as a foil against grace.

    The instructions from Jesus (good Samaritan, rich young ruler etc.), 1 Cor 13, James (and more – I’m just too lazy to go hunting at the moment): they all require special qualifications when “religion” is framed this way.

    If we are to believe the New Perspective on Paul, along with N.T. Wright’s studies on Romans, we end up with a very different picture: the Kingdom of God is now open to all – come and surrender yourself to it by living out a life loving others.

    James’ letter warns us of trying to separate works from faith so let’s try and move beyond “faith vs. works”. Perhaps “faithful surrender vs. selfish obedience” is more accurate? Less catchy though.

    Coming back to “religion”, the distinction, I think, should be between “false” religion (performing rituals for my own benefit – or on behalf of loved ones) where I am still placing my interests first, and “true” religion (performing acts of *selfless love* because the promises of God are already given to me through Christ) where I am placing others interests before my own.

  • RJS

    Hydroxonium,

    The sentence “Agnosticism and atheism represent rejection of the gospel.” in the post is my summary of an idea. Keller is focused much more on actions – being very bad and being very good for example. So your quibble there is with me. Not with him. It comes out of my social situation. For those who came from a strict conservative church I think “behaving badly” and “being very good” are ideas that have a resonance. But in the post-Christian University this isn’t really a useful point. Those who walk away or never even consider the gospel are not generally “behaving badly.”

    I am sure there are underlying theological differences with Keller. His context is reflected in some of his terminology here – which is no surprise. On the other hand a local Methodist church here is requiring that all their high school youth going on a mission trip read and discuss Keller’s book. It isn’t stealth “neo-reformed” but a realization that this book addresses many of the key issues the youth will face, and does so in a positive and charitable fashion. Keller does a reasonably good job of presenting a (protestant) mere Christianity.

  • RJS

    Phil M,

    I think part of the reason I am not tracking with some of the concern about Keller’s term is because I was reading and thinking about this chapter as I was listening to the Gospels on my commute (a dramatized NIV reading). The teachings of Jesus in large doses are truly profound.

    And there is a great deal of contrast between “religious facade” and “true religion” in the teaching of Jesus. There is also an enormous emphasis on the contrast between self-focus and selfless love. And there is a great deal of grace toward sinners.

    As Scot has noted many times – The gospels are the gospel. Where is the point Keller making in disagreement with the gospels?

    The letters of Paul, the OPP and NPP, were not in play for me as I thought about this. It would be interesting to know exactly what Keller thinks about NPP.

  • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com Hydroxonium

    RJS,

    Thanks for clarifying. I happen to consider myself an agnostic, which simply means that while I wholeheartedly believe in Yahweh and His Christ, I think God’s existence cannot be conclusively proven; otherwise, there will be no room left for faith. (I know that “agnostic” is often used interchangeably with “atheist”, so nevermind …)

    RJS, you said, ‘As Scot has noted many times – The gospels are the gospel. Where is the point Keller making in disagreement with the gospels?’

    My response to that is, everything!

    Keller says,
    ‘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 for the blessing we have already received because of Christ. …’

    Here’s why I vehemently disagree with Keller:

    Hebrews 12:5-6
    Common English Bible (CEB)
    5 and you have forgotten the encouragement that addresses you as sons and daughters:
    My child, don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline
    or give up when you are corrected by him,
    6 because the Lord disciplines whomever he loves,
    and he punishes every son or daughter whom he accepts.

    Romans 6:6-7
    Common English Bible (CEB)
    6 This is what we know: the person that we used to be was crucified with him in order to get rid of the corpse that had been controlled by sin. That way we wouldn’t be slaves to sin anymore, 7 because a person who has died has been freed from sin’s power.

    Keller, being part of the reformation tradition, grossly misunderstands the purpose of Christ’s death, and comes up with a shallow response based on gratitude. This is because he believes that he has ALREADY RECEIVED the propitiatory double-imputation (and his place in heaven is thereby secured). But, real obedience should be based on SO MUCH MORE than simply gratitude!!

    Again, (a) is wrong, but (b) is also wrong. The correct answer — the one that scripture shouts out to us — is that of Expiation, Ransom from sin/death, representative/participatory atonement, etc.

    God is not an angry Father that needs retributive-punishment inflicted on Jesus so that He can accept us. It is because He has already first loved (election of grace) us, that He accepts us by giving us corrective-punishment (chastisement/instruction/correction; Isaiah 53:5) in Jesus Christ (through faith/baptism), which expiates/cleanses our hearts, so that we are freed/ransomed from sin/death (saved from sin), and continue to participate in Christ’s death by reckoning ourselves dead to sin [Romans 6:10-11], which ultimately ends with our being declared righteous at God’s final apocalyptic judgment (saved from wrath). This is the true meaning of Eph 2:8! (In Romans 5:8-10, Justification means salvation from wrath, whilst Reconciliation means salvation from sinfulness.)

    Instead of looking at Jesus and thinking, “oh how grateful I am that Jesus was punished so that I’m spared that punishment”, the bible tells us to think, “Jesus was punished so that we are saved by participating in the same corrective-punishment” (Heb 5:8-9).

    This is what really motivates us:

    Psalm 119:97-115
    New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
    97 Oh, how I love your law!
    It is my meditation all day long.

    Hebrews 8:10-12
    Common English Bible (CEB)
    10 This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
    after those days, says the Lord.
    I will place my laws in their minds,
    and write them on their hearts.
    I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
    11 And each person won’t ever teach a neighbor
    or their brother or sister, saying, “Know the Lord,”
    because they will all know me,
    from the least important of them to the most important;
    12 because I will be lenient toward their unjust actions,
    and I won’t remember their sins anymore.

    Romans 10:4
    Common English Bible (CEB)
    4 Christ is the goal of the Law, which leads to righteousness for all who have faith in God.

    Which brings us back to this:

    Luke 10:25-28
    Common English Bible (CEB)
    Loving your neighbor
    25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
    26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
    27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
    28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

    Simply put, we truly obey God because we love God (and his laws).

    In conclusion: (a) fear, (b) gratitude, (c) LOVE

    The answer is (c) LOVE.

    1 John 4:18
    New English Translation (NET)
    18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears punishment has not been perfected in love.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Hydroxonium (32),

    I don’t want to stray from RJS’ main topic but thanks for pointing out the meaning of agnostic. As the OED puts it “A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of immaterial things, especially of the existence or nature of God. Distinguished from atheist.”

    From this definition, one might say that an agnostic could deny (or accept) the possibility of God’s self-revelation to humanity. I assume that you accept this possibility. (At least, for an agnostic you seem to know a lot about God from reading the scriptures. :) ) However, the qualifier “or can be known” is potentially ambiguous. Do we take it to mean “cannot be known by any means” or “cannot be known by human means.”

    While I agree with you that humans (acting entirely on our own) cannot know God, I would not call myself an agnostic because I also believe that humans can know God through God’s self-revelation – the central revelatory act being the Incarnation and closely related events such as the one we celebrate this weekend.

  • RJS

    Hydroxonium,

    I agree that love not gratitude is the overriding theme – the correct answer. So when Keller gives the impression that we obey out of gratitude it is a problem. (And I find the reformed view of double imputation, an angry father, and emphasis on God’s glory unsatisfactory; I know what you are reacting to here.)

    But we obey out of love because he first loved us. And your reference to 1 John 4 implies, but should probably include, 7-12 as well (emphasis mine):

    Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

    That God first loved us by sending his son as an atoning sacrifice is an important part of the story. God came to us … incarnation. I sometimes feel that in the negative response to penal substitutionary atonement and “God as angry father” we miss this point. God loved first, and he accomplished something with his love. Our responsibility is to love both God and others.

    Because of this I still think the (A) We do it and (B) God did it dichotomy is important. We rest in God’s love and love in response.

  • RJS

    This is a good discussion for Good Friday – thanks, you are making me think.

  • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com Hydroxonium

    RJS,

    Really appreciate your responses. Indeed, I mentioned the same thing in my comment #32 :) … “It is because He has already first loved (election of grace) us …”

    (oh dear, I just realised that it’s possible to use bold-formatting here; I did want to emphasise the “first” too!)

    I would say that the idea of (c) implies that (b) God did it first, then (a) we do it because of (b) what God has done. I prefer to keep both together. “We love because God first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

    Bev Mitchell,

    You’re welcome, and I agree with you! To me, being “agnostic” is my way of being humble about my own intellectual limitations. It also has to do with the fact that my epistemology is that of Critical Rationalism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_rationalism).

    Perhaps I’m over-complicating matters, but I’d say that I cannot “know” (justified-true-belief) God’s existence, but I do wholeheartedly believe it to be true, and in reading God’s word, I do truly know and understand Him!

    Jeremiah 9:23-24 is one of my favourite passages :)

  • http://caveat1ector.wordpress.com Hydroxonium

    RJS,

    Thank you too! It’s been a pleasure to read your thoughtful responses, and also really heartwarming to read your last comment :) … (Writing those comments has been a joy. I find that I learn a bit more every time I express my thoughts this way.)

  • Rick

    RJS-
    “We rest in God’s love and love in response.”

    Yes. Nice summary statement on that idea.

  • http://www.doulos.at Wolf Paul

    I am happy to see that there are a lot of voices rejecting the annoying re-definition of religion by the “relationship not religion” or in Keller’s case “gospel not religion” fans.

    In common English (and the same is due in my mother tongue German) “religion” is the entire realm of the relationship and interaction between the divine and mankind, regardless of whether it is the polytheism of Hinduism or various ancient paganisms, the pantheism of Buddhism, or the monothism of Judaism, Christianity or Islam. That is why saying “I am religious” is not enough. But saying “I am not religious, I have a relationship with God”, or “I am not religious, I believe in the Gospel” is specious — it only works if one constructs one’s own definition of religion, as all these fanboys do.

    James tells us that there is vain or worthless religion (James 1:26) as well as religion that is pure, faultless, and acceptable to God (James 1:27). I’ll take his word over Tim Keller or Jefferson Bethke anytime.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X