Tim Keller, ‘Center Church,’ “Ch. 5, The Essence of Gospel Renewal.” Reflection

Chapter 5 introduces an important corrective to evangelical thought – there are not two but three possible human responses to God.  Keller draws from the writings of Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards to build a case for what has become key to his preaching.  The responses are:

(1) A gospel motivated heart response to the grace of God

(2) Moralistic Religion

(3) An irreligious rejection of faith

Churches are filled with two types of people who behave Christianly (1) and (2), “Yet they do so out of radically different motives, in radically different spirits, and resulting in radically different kinds of inner personal character” (p.63).  Those who respond religiously think “I obey; therefore I am accepted” – thereby rejecting Christ and becoming their own saviour.  While they may look obedient, they are in fact “avoiding God as Lord and Savior by developing a moral righteousness and then presenting it to God in an effort to show that he “owes” you.” (p63)  Thus, there are two ways to reject God – religion and irreligion.  The way to truly accept God is by a heart response to his grace.  These people have the epiphany, “I am accepted by God through Christ; therefore I obey.”

Keller focuses on exposing religion because it is one of the Church’s biggest problems.  Even for people who have once had a genuine heart transformed gospel response to God, they can easily slide into religion because as Luther has argued, religion is the default of the human heart (p64).  This default position can cause the Christian heart to be divided between religion and the gospel. Churches must, therefore, always be on the case against religion through prayer, teaching and discipleship.

I have found amongst young adult Christians, strong evidence of the religious.  For most young adults that I meet and counsel, their motivation for obedience is driven more out of fear of the shame and loneliness that might come from rejection by their community.  The problem of course is that the community can quietly shift its own standards.  If enough of the young adults from church go out and party and get wasted, then that becomes socially acceptable amongst the church community, so drunkenness comes off the sin list.  In the last few decades, there has been a liberalising of the consensus amongst evangelical young adults about what sexual behaviour is acceptable before marriage (see Relevant Magazine and ThinkProgress.)  This has resulted in a culture of don’t ask don’t tell. These young adults are religious because they keep coming to church and performing the Christian activities, but they don’t have heart that has been transformed by the grace of God.  Their desire to be obedient is ultimately driven by selfish motives.  They keep coming to church for lots of complex reasons, one of the main being that their identity has become “Christian” because of family upbringing etc… and they find it hard to let go of that. What they need is to experience gospel renewal: they need their hearts reset by God’s grace.

The case for the gospel heart response to God can easily be found in Scripture. God saved the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, led them into the desert, and then gave them the law.  Their obedience to God’s law is because of their deliverance not the cause of their deliverance.  But God warns them that they can be circumcised in the flesh and not in the heart (Lev 26:41; Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4).  In Philippians 3:3 (and Romans 1-4), Paul lays out the three responses to God: uncircumcised pagans, circumcised in the flesh but not in the heart (proving their worthiness to God through law keeping), circumcised in the heart (obedience to God as a heart response to their salvation in God).  Why is religion a flawed response to God? Because “As it is written, ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one… who seeks God’” (Rom 3:11).  Religious people, according to Paul in Romans, will really find salvation by approaching God through Christ – through grace alone and faith alone. (p64)  Of course, Paul is borrowing from Jesus who contrasts the religious and gospel heart response:

Religion: The Pharisee (Luke 7, John 3), The respectable crowd (Mark 5)

Gospel: The fallen woman (Luke 7) or the immoral Samaritan woman (John 3-4); The demon possessed man (Mark 5).

In case we still haven’t understood, Keller sets out a helpful table on p.65 comparing religion and the gospel.  He follows this with one of this book’s most important words of application for teachers and preachers:

…If you are communicating the gospel message, you must not only help listeners distinguish between obeying God and disobeying him; you must also make clear the distinction between obeying God as a means of self-salvation and obeying God out of gratitude for an accomplished salvation. You will have to distinguish between general, moralistic religion and gospel Christianity. You will always be placing three ways to live before your listeners. 

The most important way to gain a hearing from postmodern people, confront nominal Christians, wake up “sleepy” Christians, and even delight committed Christians – all at the same time – is to preach the gospel as a third way to approach God, distinct from both irreligion and religion. (p.65)

…Moralistic behaviour change bends a person into a different pattern through fear of consequences rather than melting a person into a new shape.  But this does not work.  If you try to bend a piece of metal without the softening effect of heat, it is likely to snap back to its former position…Many people, after years of being crushed under moralistic behaviourism, abandon their faith altogether, complaining that they are exhausted and “can’t keep it up.”  But the gospel of God’s grace doesn’t try to bend a heart into a new pattern; it melts it and re-forms it into a new shape.  The gospel can produce a new joy, love, and gratitude – new inclinations of the heart that eat away at deadly self-regard and self-concentration. (p.67)

People need the heat of the gospel to melt them into a new shape.  As Paul instructs in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, by focusing on God’s grace, your heart will change.  And, through ongoing discipleship and encouragement from the Christian community, good teaching, and the Holy Spirit, we will start to understand and overcome our idols.  When we apply the gospel to the idols of our heart, and the Holy Spirit works to change us, the idols will be rooted out and we will stop prioritising other things above Jesus, and stop pursuing self-salvation (p.71)

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