What Is the Difference Between Religion and the Gospel? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I have just completed reading The Reason for God by Timothy Keller, which has provided me much material for the blog in recent days.  In one powerful section of the book, Keller carefully draws out the distinction between one definition of “religion” and the Christian gospel.  First, Keller clarifies what he means by “religion” in this particular context:

In the broader sense, religion is any belief system of ultimate values that shapes our pursuit of a particular kind of life in the world. This is the reason that it is quite fair to call secularism a religion, and Christianity as well. However, virtually all religions require to one degree or another a form of self-salvation through merit. They require that people approach God and become worthy through various rites, observances, and behaviors. This is also what most people think of when they think of religion, and in this sense Christianity as presented in the New Testament is radically distinct. That is why for the purposes of this chapter we will speak of Christianity as distinct from “religion.”

According to Keller, religion “operates on the principle ‘I obey – therefore I am accepted by God.'”

The operating principle of the gospel is “I am accepted by God through what Christ has done – therefore I obey.”  This is what the concept of grace is in Christianity, that God accepts us because of what Jesus has done, not because of our own efforts.  Thus religion and gospel play out quite differently in people’s lives.

Two people living their lives on the basis of these two different principles may sit next to each other in the church pew. They both pray, give money generously, and are loyal and faithful to their family and church, trying to live decent lives. However, they do so out of two radically different motivations, in two radically different spiritual identities, and the result is two radically different kinds of lives.

The primary difference is that of motivation. In religion, we try to obey the divine standards out of fear. We believe that if we don’t obey we are going to lose God’s blessing 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. While the moralist is forced into obedience, motivated by fear of rejection, a Christian rushes into obedience, motivated by a desire to please and resemble the one who gave his life for us.

The distinction between religion and gospel also plays out in our own personal identity – what we think of ourselves.  Here Keller reminds us that the person who believes that God accepts them based on their deeds feels superior to everyone else, whether they are liberal or conservative.

Another difference has to do with our identity and self-regard. In a religious framework, if you feel you are living up to your chosen religious standards, then you feel superior and disdainful toward those who are not following in the true path. This is true whether your religion is of a more liberal variety (in which case you will feel superior to bigots and narrow-minded people) or of a more conservative variety (in which case you will feel superior to the less moral and devout). If you are not living up to your chosen standards, then you will be filled with a loathing toward yourself. You will feel far more guilt than if you had stayed away from God and religion altogether.

In part 2 of this series, I will continue to examine Keller’s thoughts on the differences between religion and gospel.

  • Karla Marie

    I should read the book. I have long struggled with the difference between serving God out of fear or out of love. My pastor tells me we must fear God and toe the line. Seems the harder I try,the more I mess up. Then I hear someone say that the grace of God keeps us no matter if we’re totally disciplined. I can never come to a peaceful resolution in my mind so my walk with God is rocky at best. Sometimes I feel at peace with Him,knowing I’m loved and accepted and I feel the burden lift but it doesn’t last. I begin reeling like I don’t pray enough,study enough,do enough good deeds and again feel I don’t measure up. I’m so frustrated.

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  • Bill Pratt

    Hi Karla,
    I would highly recommend his book. He spends considerable time on this topic, so you will find a lot of information useful for your particular struggle. I think the key for me is knowing that God unconditionally loves and accepts me. This knowledge allows me to serve him without the constant fear of rejection.

    God bless,

  • Karla Marie

    Thank you,Bill. I look forward to reading the book.

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