The Gospel vs. Religion and Irreligion

Here’s another great quote from Of First Importance:

“Christians come to see that both their sins and their best deeds have all really been ways of avoiding Jesus as savior. They come to see that Christianity is not fundamentally an invitation to get more religious. A Christian comes to say: “Though I have often failed to obey the moral law, the deeper problem was why I was trying to obey it! Even my efforts to obey it has been just a way of seeking to be my own savior. In that mindset, even if I obey or ask for forgiveness, I am really resisting the gospel and setting myself up as Savior.”

To “get the gospel” is turn from self-justification and rely on Jesus’ record for a relationship with God. The irreligious don’t repent at all, and the religious only repent of sins. But Christians also repent of their righteousness. That is the distinction between the three groups–Christian, moralists (religious), and pragmatists (irreligious).”

– Tim Keller, “The Centrality of the Gospel”

This is so true! It’s amazing how easy it can be to shift my focus off of God’s grace and His provision for my sanctification to my own effort to live a life which is set apart and pleasing to God… But my pride is so insidious, so deeply ingrained in my heart, that I often can’t even see that I have set myself up as the author of my salvation.

I won’t bother asking if anyone else has this problem 😉



  1. Ideas like this are the very reason that the monergism vs. synergism debate is so important. If monergism is true, this quote should inspire us to humility and trust in God. But if it isn’t, it is a black heresy that on the level of the basest libertinism — denying that there is any value in living a holy life or seeking to become more holy.

  2. I dunno – maybe I don’t understand the debate completely yet, but I didn’t say that there’s no value in striving to be holy (certainly nobody decries living a holy life?), just how one goes about it. I cannot “work out my salvation” outside of the power of the Spirit. I must “abide in Him” (and His words “abide in me”) in order to achieve that goal.

  3. Oh, I don’t know. It sounds to me like a quote like “Good works are a way of running away from Jesus” goes further than “I should not trust my own good works to save me” into the realm of “seeking to live a holy life is futile and undesirable”.

    If I were to ask the author of the quote whether he thought seeking to live a holy life was futile and undesirable, he would certainly say “no”, but sometimes ideas carry an unintended implication. I think this is one of those cases.

  4. … that is, it eventually makes you feel that all your actions and efforts are meaningless. Which is not, I think, what the Bible teaches.

  5. Ah – no, I think (and a quick look at the source of the quote supports this), that Keller is making distinctions a la Romans 1-3 where neither the “religious” nor the “irreligious” are saved… Or, if you are a believer trying to sanctify yourself, then you’re behaving as if you were merely religious.

  6. Well, I think it’s a very small step from “don’t try to sanctify yourself” to “sanctification does not depend on you at all (thus, your actions are meaningless)”.

    The balanced persepective would be to say: “Do not be proud, thinking that your merit is what makes you holy. Rather, seek holiness in humility, knowing God must work in you and you must respond.” As Paul says, he “disciplines his body … to win the prize”. What could this be referring to but “seeking holiness”?

  7. Tell me – how exactly does sanctification depend on me? Paul also says:

    20 “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.
    21 “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”
    3:1 You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?
    2 This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?
    3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
    4 Did you suffer so many things in vain–if indeed it was in vain?
    5 So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?
    7 Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.
    Gal. 2:20-3:7

    To put it another way: I think it’s a very small step from “my own good works mean something” to “my efforts to be holy are sufficient to make me holy”… 😉

  8. (Argh – I kept thinking I had the right quote, but then realized that you didn’t provide me w/ a good quote, so I had to fabricate something… you may have seen a prior edit of my last comment depending on how the Google reader works!)

  9. Well, this passage could be speaking of monergism, but I think it isn’t, for two reasons.

    1) In this context, he is answering the party of the circumcision, is he not? Would it not make sense then to paraphrase his statements this way? “Don’t trust to circumcision for your salvation, trust in Christ. Rituals will not save you, Christ will.” That doesn’t seem to exclude human involvement in sanctification. When he says “are you now being perfected by the flesh” he is probably saying “Why did you need to add circumcision? Christ was good enough to save you already.”

    2) His reference to Abraham actually seems to be describing synergism. “Abraham believed God …” is man’s component, “and it was reckoned to him” is God’s. Monergism would say that Abraham’s belief is God’s work as well, which seems to run counter to a face-value reading of the passage.

  10. 1) Yes, he’s answering the Judaizers – who were most interested in that symbol of the old covenant, circumcision. But they didn’t stop there, as you know – you’ve read the rest rest of Galatians. Who is being obtuse now? 🙂 Paul is talking about legalism – religiosity.

    2) I think there may be an excluded middle here somewhere… I (at least) am not saying that Abraham’s (or my) faith is God’s work — and I would say that we respond to God’s prompting, both at the “time” of Salvation and during the process of sanctification. So there’s either a middle ground, or our definitions (of either monergism and/or synergism) are incorrect.

  11. 1) I understand that the scope is larger than just circumcision. I just don’t think it’s addressing man’s work in sanctification. It could be: trusting baptism to save you, trusting church membership to save you, cleaning the outside of the cup as it were. Trusting to a ritual rather than Christ for salvation. I don’t think this passage is saying: “seeking to live a holy life and disciplining yourself to that end is rebellion against God.” I just don’t think that’s consistent with scripture. To be haughty about your good deeds and to consider God “lucky to have you on His side” is certainly wrong. But “your best deeds are a way of avoiding Christ?” I thought that Christ wanted us to be more like him, that God had prepared good works for us to do, etc.

    2) Well, I think I’m the excluded middle. Pelagianism on one side and Monergism on the other.

  12. 1) Again, I don’t think he’s saying that – I think he’s talking about “religious people”, not believers – though believers can fall into the trap of a religious legalism.

  13. Wasn’t it John Donne who said “no man is an excluded middle”?

  14. Hahaha

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