I am continually amazed by the never-ending tug of religiosity on my heart. I have been saved by grace, I live in grace, I thank God for grace, but I often fall back into religion. This, I believe, is the default wiring of the human (because of sin). We are born with a relentless desire to self-justify and promote ourselves because of our self-righteousness.
So, what are some distinctions between religion and the gospel? None of these are all that clever and neither are they ingenuous sparks of originality. Others have said the same things in a much more articulate fashion. Nevertheless, here are a few observations regarding the gospel versus religion as seen in Luke’s narrative.
1. Religion despises wicked people, but Jesus calls wicked people to Himself: Within religious thinking, some people are far worse than others. We see this exemplified by the words and actions of the Pharisees. They were horrified by the kinds of people Jesus spent time with and professed love for in his day-to-day ministry. The very people the religious elite rejected because of their self-righteous religiosity were the people Jesus pursued and called to follow Him. The gospel tells us we are all wicked people and we need Jesus to call us to Himself.
2. Religion demands payment, but Jesus cancels debts: Religious people rightly recognize that we owe God a great debt for our sin. However, they wrongly assume that we can work hard enough and do enough good to pay our sin debt. Jesus is clear in that we cannot pay our debt, He must cancel our debt (from our perspective) by paying our debt (God’s perspective) with His obedience, death, burial, and resurrection. We are bankrupt. We have nothing to offer God. So, Jesus pays the debt we cannot pay. Religion says pay your own debt, the gospel says the debt is paid for all who repent and believe.
3. Religion is cruel, but Jesus is compassionate: Religion is all about self. On the surface religion appears to be about God, but when we get to the heart of the issue we see that the object of our worship is the god of self. This is a cruel thing on two levels. 1) Religion is cruel because it promises salvation, but it never delivers. 2) Religion causes us to be cruel to those we see as less “holy” than ourselves. Religion says we are “clean” and others are dirty. Whereas the gospel tells us that we are all sinful and defiled people. None are clean. So, Jesus comes to us and for us. Jesus becomes unclean for us and with us. He takes our sin on Himself and gives us His righteousness. Just as the Good Samaritan has compassion on the unclean man in the ditch, Jesus has compassion on sinners and comes for us.
4. Religion demands endless work, but Jesus gives rest: Religion is a system with “daddy issues.” Think about it. If you had a cruel and unloving father, you probably spent much of your life trying to gain his attention, to make him proud, to gain his affection. Religion is a system that puts our “daddy issues” on a cosmic scale. Religion says God is a cruel Father that you must work endlessly to gain His attention, His approval, and His affection. False. The gospel says that God loves you because of God. Your performance doesn’t earn His attention, approval, or affection. The gospel says that in Christ we have God’s undivided attention. In Christ, because of His performance for us in our place, we have God’s approval. The gospel says that God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were sinning against Him, Christ came and died for sinners (Rom. 5:8). In Jesus, we find rest. We don’t have to earn or prove anything. We rest in Christ.
5. Religion says we determine our worth by our effort, but Jesus says you are valuable (as you are): Religion sees some people as worthless. According to religion, some people have gone too far and sinned to much to be found and loved by God. Religion says that if we even want a chance at earning God’s love we must search hard and diligently to find God. The gospel says the opposite. The gospel says you cannot find your way back to God. So, God comes searching for us. The gospel says God comes for us because even when we are lost we have value to Him. The value of something is determined by the price paid for it. Jesus purchased His people by shedding His priceless blood. So, we are valuable. We are not valued because of our efforts, but based upon the price paid for us.