(This article was excerpted from the BuildingChurchLeaders.com Training Theme Reaching Our Community)
"Growing numbers of Americans say they are spiritual but not religious," says Robert Wuthnow in After Heaven, his assessment of American spiritual development since 1950. It is a spirituality without truth or authority but filled with belief in the supernatural. It is a trend born of the modern fears of religion.
The church must echo Jesus' own powerful critique of religion and visibly demonstrate the difference between religion and the gospel. Two questions can help churches think about their core message:
1. Does our church communication clearly distinguish between religion and the gospel?
Jesus condemned self-justification through moral performance, at one point claiming that religion was more spiritually dangerous than overt immorality. Both traditional religion and the new spirituality are forms of self-salvation. The religious way of being our own savior leads us to keep God's laws, while the irreligious way of being our own savior leads us to break his laws. The solution is the gospel.
The gospel shows us a God far more holy than a conservative moralist can imagine—for he can never be pleased by our moral performance. Yet it also shows us a God far more loving than the liberal relativist can imagine—for his Son bore all the weight of eternal justice. His love for us cost him dearly.
Practically speaking, this means we must be extremely careful to distinguish between general moral virtue and the unique humility, confidence, and love that flow from the gospel. Without the gospel, we can restrain the human heart, but not change the human heart. The gospel calls for repentance over our self-righteousness. The true virtue that results creates an attitude of acceptance toward the poor, the outsider, and the opponent that neither religion nor secularism can produce.
2. Do our deeds demonstrate the difference between religion and the gospel?
Jesus condemned religion as a pretext for oppression: "If you only greet your brothers, what do ye more than others?" (Matt. 5:47). Only when Christians non-condescendingly serve the poor, only when Christians are more firm yet open to their opponents will the world understand the difference between religion and the gospel.
Pushing moral behaviors before we lift up Christ is religion. Religion has always been outside-in—"If I behave out here in all these ways, then I will have God's blessing and love inside." But the gospel is inside-out—if I know the blessing and grace of God inside, then I can behave out here in all these ways."
We, of all people, ought to understand and agree with fears about religion, for Jesus himself warned us to be wary of it, and not to mistake a call for moral virtue for the good news of God's salvation provided in Christ.
Tim Keller is senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.