Religion vs. The Gospel
In his small book, On the New Testament: A Book You’ll Actually Read, pastor Mark Driscoll (admittedly borrowing from Tim Keller) makes the following helpful contrast between religion and the gospel:
As sinners, we are prone to pursue a relationship with God in one of two ways. The first is religion/spirituality and the second is the gospel. The two are antithetical in every way.
Religion says that if we obey God, he will love us. The gospel says that it is because God has loved us through Jesus that we can obey. Religion says that the world is filled with good people and bad people. The gospel says that the world is filled with people who are either repentant or unrepentant. Religion says that you should trust in what you do as a good moral person. The gospel says that you should trust in the perfectly sinless life of Jesus because he alone was the only good and truly moral person who will ever live. The goal of religion is to get from God such things as health, wealth, insight, power, and control. The goal of the gospel is not the gifts God gives, but rather God as the gift given to us by grace. Religion is about what I have to do. The gospel is about what I get to do. Religion sees hardship in life as punishment from God. The gospel sees hardship in life as sanctifying affliction that reminds us of Jesus’s suffering and is used by God in love to make us more like Jesus. Religion is about me. The gospel is about Jesus. Religion leads to an uncertainty about my standing before God because I never know I have done enough to please God. The gospel leads to a certainty about my standing before God because of the finished work Jesus on my behalf on the cross. Religion ends in either pride (because I think I am better than other people) or despair (because I continually fall short of God’s commands). The gospel ends in humble and confident joy because of the power of Jesus at work for me, in me, through me, and sometimes in spite of me.
In summary, the central point of the New Testament is that we are more wicked than we ever feared, yet more loved than we ever dreamed. (pgs. 35-36)
Update: An important point should be made here lest there be any unintentional misunderstanding. James 1:27 speaks of Christianity as a religion, in a positive sense, so we shouldn’t jump the gun as if all uses of the word “religion” convey a negative concept. James contrasts true, pure, and undefiled religion with false, hollow, and “dead” religion. Both Driscoll and Keller use the religion vs gospel distinction in order highlight the vast differences between a Christ-centered and gospel-rooted faith with a man-centered and self-serving faith. The former is saturated in grace, while the latter is steeped in legalism. (3/20/2012)
For more of Mark Driscoll’s work: