The Gospel vs. Religion: The A to Z of the Christian Life is the Scary Gospel of Grace Alone

After hearing a sermon in church once a friend of mine asked me what I thought of it.  I replied that it was a good talk, well spoken with some good advice on better living, but it seemed to be lacking something.  The gospel.  She then said something that still hangs with me – “you’re not one of those people who thinks the cross needs to be in every sermon, are you?”

How can you claim to be a Christian and the gospel not be central to everything you do?  The gospel is not something you begin with in order to be saved, and then you “graduate” from it as though now you have matured beyond it.  And what would you graduate to? 

“O foolish Galatians!  Who has bewitched you?  It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.  Let me ask you this:  Did you recieve the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?  Are you so foolish?  Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”

Galatians 3:1-3

Apart from the gospel, everything else is religious, moralistic works designed to merit/earn your way back into God’s good books as if He were some kind of score-keeping Sky Pixie, to be feared but not loved.  Only religious people (including atheists) believe in this kind of god.  Thank God He is not like that.  But many Christians say they believe in the God of the Bible and the free gift of saving grace that was accomplished through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but they behave as if they believe the opposite, as functionally religious people.

I know in myself that I must continuously preach the gospel to myself in order to avoid committing this error, to daily (hourly?) come back to the foot of the cross in repentance.  The gospel is the only cure for this religious idolatry.  As I remind myself that I am saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, the Holy Spirit takes that understanding and transforms my heart and mind so that my actions flow out of a love for Christ, rather than because it is “the right thing to do” or being afraid of the penalty of getting caught doing the wrong thing.  A Christian should operate out of his God-given love for Christ, not a fear of Hell.

Perhaps there is another way to put it:

“What makes you faithful or generous is not just a redoubled effort to follow moral rules.  Rather, a change comes from deepening your understanding of the salvation of Christ and living out the changes that understanding creates in your heart.  Faith in the gospel restructures our motivations, our self-understanding, our identity, and our view of the world.  Behavioural compliance to rules without heart-change will be superficial and fleeting.

The gospel therefore is not just the ABC’s of the Christian life, but the A to Z of the Christian life.  Our problems arise largely because we don’t continually return to the gospel to work in it and live it out.  That is why Martin Luthor wrote, “The truth of the Gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine….Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.”

“Wait”, I have heard people object.  “You mean that in order to grow in Christ, you keep telling yourself how graciously loved and accepted you are?  That doesn’t seem to be the best way to make progress.  Maybe the motivation of religion was negative, but at least it was effective!  You knew you had to obey God because if you didn’t, he wouldn’t answer your prayers or take you to heaven.  But if you remove this fear and talk about free grace and unmerited acceptance – what incentive will you have to live a good life?  It seems like this gospel way of living won’t produce people who are as faithful and diligent to obey God’s will without question.”

But if, when you have lost all fear of punishment you also have lost incentive to live an obedient life, then what was your motivation in the first place?  It could only have been fear. 

What other incentive is there?  Awed, grateful love.

Some years ago I met a woman who began coming to Redeemer, the church where I am a minister.  She said that she had gone to church growing up and she had always heard that God accepts us only if we are sufficiently good and ethical.  She had never heard the message she was now hearing, that we can be accepted by God by sheer grace through the work of Christ regardless of anything we do or have done.  She said, “That is a scary idea! Oh, it’s good scary, but still scary.”

I was intrigued.  I asked her what was so scary about unmerited free grace?  She replied something like this: “If I was saved by my good works – then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through.  I would be like a tax payer with rights.  I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life.  But if it’s really true that I am a sinner saved by sheer grace – at God’s infinite cost – then there’s nothing He cannot ask of me.”  She could see immediately that the wonderful-beyond-belief teaching of salvation by sheer grace had two edges to it.  On the one hand it cut away slavish fear.  God loves us freely, despite our flaws and failures.  Yet she also knew that if Jesus really had done this for her – she was not her own.  She was bought at a ransom.

Over the years I have heard many people say, “Well, if I believed that I was saved by sheer grace, not because of good works, then I could live any way I wanted!”….God’s grace is free, yes, but it is also costly, infinitely so.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was appalled at how many in the German church capitulated to Hitler in the early 1930s, and in response he wrote his great work The Cost of Discipleship.  There he warned about the dangers of “cheap grace”, the teaching that stresses only that grace is free, so it doesn’t really matter how we live.  The solution, he said, was not to return to legalism, but to focus on how seriously God takes sin and on how He could only save us at infinite cost to Himself.  Understanding this must and will profoundly reshape our lives.  We will not be able to live in a selfish, cowardly way.  We will stand up for justice and for our neighbour.  And we won’t mind the cost of following after Christ when we compare it to the price he paid to rescue us.

A Biblical text which conveys this is Jesus’ parable of the sower in Matthew 13The preacher of God’s word, the gospel, is likened to a sower of the seed.  There are three groups of people who “receive” and accept the gospel, but two of the groups do not produce changed lives.  One set of people do not have the patience and endurance to handle suffering, while another group continues to live an anxious, materialistic life.  The only group of people who produced changed lives are not those who have worked harder or been more obedient, but those who “hear the word of God and understand it” (Matt 13v23).  Bonhoeffer insisted that people whose lives remained unchanged by the God’s grace didn’t really understand the gospel.  They had a general idea of God’s universal love, but not a real grasp of the seriousness of sin and the meaning of Christ’s work on our behalf.

In the end, Martin Luthor’s old formula still sums things up nicely:  “We are saved by faith alone [not our works], but not by faith that remains alone.”  Nothing we can do can merit God’s grace and favour, we can only believe that he has given it to us in Jesus Christ and receive it by faith.  But if we truly believe and trust in the one who sacrificially served us, it changes us into people who sacrificially serve God and our neighbours.  If we say “I believe in Jesus” but it doesn’t affect the way we live, the answer is not that we need to add work to our faith so much as that we haven’t truly understood or believed in Jesus at all.”

Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God – Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (Pg 118-124)

Does the gospel need to be in every sermon?

I would say yes.

“My [God’s] people are destroyed for lack of knowledge [of God, revealed by God through Scripture];

because you [false priests/prophet/teachers] have rejected [this] knowledge,

I reject you from being a priest to me.”

Hosea 4:6


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