Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The gospel is for Christians too, Part 3

The message of the Bible is neither pessimistic nor optimistic. Those words aren't strong enough for the dark picture it paints of a world under the reign of sin and death, and the totally unexpected message of God's redemptive grace. The gospel delivers the bad news and the good news: "I am more sinful and flawed than I ever dared believe," but in Christ "I am more accepted and loved than I ever dared hope." Opposed to this message are two ways of living that we're all naturally prone to. Tim Keller uses an analogy of "two thieves" to explain what they are.

The two "thieves" of the gospel.

Since Paul uses a metaphor for being "in line" with the gospel (remember Gal. 2:14), we can consider that gospel renewal occurs when we keep from walking "off-line" either to the right or to the left. The key for thinking out the implications of the gospel is to consider the gospel a "third" way between two mistaken opposites. However, before we start we must realize that the gospel is not a half-way compromise between the two poles--it does not produce "something in the middle", but something different from both. The gospel critiques both religion and irreligion (Matt. 21:31; 22:10).

Tertullian said, "Just as Christ was crucified between two thieves, so this doctrine of justification is ever crucified between two opposite errors." Tertullian meant that there were two basic false ways of thinking, each of which "steals" the power and the distinctiveness of the gospel from us by pulling us "off the gospel line" to one side or the other. These two errors are very powerful, because they represent the natural tendency of the human heart and mind. (The gospel is "revealed" by God (Rom. 1:17) -- the unaided human mind cannot conceive it.) These "thieves" can be called moralism or legalism on the one hand, and hedonism or relativism on the other hand. Another way to put it is: the gospel opposes both religion and irreligion. On the one hand, "moralism/religion" stresses truth without grace, for it says that we must obey the truth in order to be saved. On the other hand, "relativism/irreligion" stresses grace without truth, for they say that we are accepted by God (if there is a God) and we have to decide what is true for us. But "truth" without grace is not really truth, and "grace" without truth is not really grace. Jesus was "full of grace and truth". Any religion or philosophy of life that de-emphasizes or loses one or the other of these truths, falls into legalism or into license and either way, the joy and power and "release" of the gospel is stolen by one thief or the other.

The moralism-religion thief. How does moralism/religion steal joy and power?

Moralism is the view that you are acceptable (to God, the world, others, yourself) through your attainments. (Moralists do not have to be religious, but often are.) When they are, their religion is pretty conservative and filled with rules. Sometimes moralists have views of God as very holy and just. This view will lead either to a) self-hatred (because you can't live up to the standards), or b) self-inflation (because you think you have lived up to the standards). It is ironic to realize that inferiority and superiority complexes have the very same root. Whether the moralist ends up smug and superior or crushed and guilty just depends on how high the standards are and on a person's natural advantages (such as family, intelligence, looks, willpower). Moralistic people can be deeply religious--but there is no transforming joy or power.

The relativism-irreligion thief. How does relativism steal joy and power?

Relativists are usually irreligious, or else prefer what is called "liberal" religion. On the surface, they are more happy and tolerant than moralist/religious people. Though they may be highly idealistic in some areas (such as politics), they believe that everyone needs to determine what is right and wrong for them. They are not convinced that God is just and must punish sinners. Their beliefs in God will tend to see Him as loving or as an impersonal force. They may talk a great deal about God's love, but since they do not think of themselves as sinners, God's love for us costs him nothing. If God accepts us, it is because he is so welcoming, or because we are not so bad. The concept of God's love in the gospel is far more rich and deep and electrifying.

Tim Keller, The Centrality of the Gospel

Keller goes on to explain how these two ways of living, while seeming so different, are from the viewpoint of the gospel really the same. They're both based on distorted views of God and sin, and both are forms of self-justification. The gospel, however, provides a whole new way of seeing God and seeing life. I hope you'll print it out and read the whole thing for yourself. Tomorrow I'll wrap up with some examples how living "in line with the truth of the gospel" might work out in practice.

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