We have begun studying Tim Keller's Gospel in Life: Grace Changes Everything on Wednesday nights at Gateway in our Spiritual Formation gathering. The premise of this study is that the gospel affects all of life and that our union with God in Christ radically changes every aspect of life. We will be exploring this concept in depth September 17-19 at the Redeem Conference with a couple of other churches.
I want to take a look at Keller's perspective on the gospel through the lense of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards. First, Keller says this about religion, irreligion, and the gospel: "The gospel is neither religion nor irreligion – it is something else altogether. Religion makes law and moral obedience a means of salvation, while irreligion makes the individual a law to himself – or herself. The gospel, however, is that Jesus takes the law of God so seriously that he paid the penalty of disobedience, so we can be saved by sheer grace."
We often attempt to follow Jesus as a means to some other end. We think that by following Christ, we can make a deal with God to get what we want out of life. When we don't get what we want, we tend to get frustrated and look for other methods. Or, we throw in the towel and go our own way. At the end of the day, our focus is on ourselves, our desires, and our perceived needs. Our faith is in Christ only for what He can do for us. This is the heart of the prosperity gospel and its roots run through all forms of religion. In reality, God is the end not the means and we are to seek Him for who He is alone.
Keller goes on to say regarding Luther's perspective on this, "Christians who know the gospel in principle and who have been changed by it nevertheless continually revert to works-righteousness and self-salvation in a myriad of subtle ways. A basic insight of Martin Luther's was that 'religion' is the default mode of the human heart. Your computer operates automatically in default mode unless you deliberately tell it to do something else. Luther says that even after you are converted by the gospel, your heart will go back to operating on the religious principle unless you deliberately, repeatedly set it to gospel-mode. This then is the basic cause of our spiritual failures, uncontrolled emotions, conflict, lack of joy, and ministry ineffectiveness. We believe the gospel at one level, but at deeper levels we continue to operate as if we are saved by our works. Luther writes:
'There is not one in a thousand who does not set his confidence upon his works, expecting by them to win God's favor and anticipate His grace; and so they make a fair of them, a thing which God cannot endure, since He has promised His grace freely, and wills that we begin by trusting that grace, and in it perform all works, whatever they may be.'"
After coming to Christ by grace through faith, we then fall into the Galatian heresy of trying to perfect ourselves through works (Galatians 3:3). This is almost imperceptible to us, as we think that we are just doing what God has told us to do. Or, we rebel against God's Law because we don't think that obeying it will provide the satisfaction that we crave. But, the truth is that we can only find our true righteousness and joy and strength through faith in Christ. Jesus is the focus of our faith and He is far more than a means to an end, no matter how good the end is.
Keller goes on quoting Luther from his Commentary on Galatians:
"As the earth bringeth not forth fruit except it be watered first from above; even so by the righteousness of the law, in doing many things we do nothing, and in fulfilling the law we fulfill it not, except first we are made righteous by the Christian righteousness, which appertaineth nothing to the righteousness of the law . . . But this righteousness is heavenly, which we have not of ourselves, but receive it from heaven; we work not for it, but by grace it is wrought in us, and is apprehended by faith . . . Why, do we then nothing? Do we work nothing for the obtaining of this righteousness? I answer, Nothing at all. For this is perfect righteousness, to do nothing, to hear nothing, to know nothing of the law, or of works, but to know and believe this only, that Christ is gone to the Father, and is not now see; that He sitteth in heaven at the right hand of His Father, not as judge, but . . . that He is our high priest intreating for us, and reigning over us, and in us, by grace . . .
"Where Christ is truly seen, there must be full and perfect joy in the Lord, with peace of conscience, which thus thinket: Although I am a sinner by the law, and under condemnation of the law, yet I despair not, yet I die not, because Christ liveth, who is both my righteousness and my everlasting life. In that righteousness and life I have no sin, no fear, no sting of conscience, no care of death. I am indeed a sinner as touching this present life, and the righteousness thereof . . . But I have another righteousness and life, above this life, which is Christ the Son of God, who knoweth no sin, no death, but is righteousness and life eternal . . .
"He that strayeth from this Christian righteousness, must needs fall into the righteousness of the law; that is to say, when he hath lost Christ, he must fall into the confidence of his own works. But . . . when I have Christian righteousness reigning in my heart . . . I do good works, how and wheresoever occasion arise . . . Whosoever is assuredly persuaded that Christ alone is his righteousness, doth not only cheerfully and gladly work well in his vocation, but also submitteth himself . . . to all manner of burdens, and to all dangers of the present life, because he knoweth that this is the will of God, and that this obedience pleaseth Him."
So, there is a place for works in the Christian life. But, works comes as a response of worship to the work that Christ has done for us and are entered into by faith in the same way that the righteousness of Christ is entered into by faith. To sum up, it is really important to know first of all that we are loved and accepted by God because of what Christ has done for us, not because of what we have done. To get this wrong means that we will get the rest of the Christian life wrong as well.