Religion vs. The Gospel

by Oct 13, 2010

Why do you follow Jesus? Why should you follow Jesus?

As we’ve seen in our study of the book of Jonah, it’s common to follow God only as long as he does things the way we think they should be done. It’s also common to obey God and then expect him to bless us in return. “I just want God to give me what I’ve earned!” is what one person told me recently.

But through his experience of drowning in the ocean and then being miraculously rescued by the whale, Jonah discovered a different motivation for obedience:

I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God … Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. (Jonah 2:6-9)

Jonah is in the process of discovering the gospel. He’s learning that we don’t obey God because of what God might do for us, we obey God because of what he has already done for us: “You brought up my life from the pit… so I with a voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you.”

Mirroring Jonah’s experience in the whale, Jesus died on the cross for our sins, spent three days in the tomb, then rose from the dead to prove his lordship over all creation, including our lives. He brought us up from the pit, and that’s why we obey.

This is a radically different concept than our default approach to religion. In his book Gospel in Life, Tim Keller highlights some of the implications:


  • Religion: “I obey; therefore, I’m accepted.”
  • Gospel: “I’m accepted; therefore, I obey.”


  • Religion: Motivation is based on fear and insecurity.
  • Gospel: Motivation is based on grateful joy.


  • Religion: I obey God in order to get things from God.
  • Gospel: I obey God to get God – to delight in an resemble him.


  • Religion: When circumstances in my life go wrong, I am angry at God or myself, since I believe that anyone who is good deserves a comfortable life.
  • Gospel: When circumstances in my life go wrong, I struggle, but I know my punishment fell on Jesus and that while God may allow this for my training, he will exercise his Fatherly love within my trial.


  • Religion: When I am criticized, I am furious or devastated because it is critical that I think of myself as a “good person.” Threats to self-image must be destroyed at all costs.
  • Gospel: When I am criticized, I struggle, but it is not essential for me to think of myself as a “good person.” My identity is not built on my record or my performance but on God’s love for me in Christ.


  • Religion: My prayer life consists largely of petition, and it only heats up when I am in a time of need. My main purpose in prayer is control of the environment.
  • Gospel: My prayer life consists of generous stretches of praise and adoration. My main purpose is fellowship with God.


  • Religion: My self-view swings things between to poles. If and when I am living up to my standards, I feel confident, but then I am prone to be proud and unsympathetic to failing people. If and when I am not living up to standards, I feel humble but not confident – I feel like a failure.
  • Gospel: My self-view is not based on my moral achievement. In Christ I am simul lustus et peccator –simultaneously sinful and lost, yet accepted in Christ. I am so bad that he had to die for me, and I am so loved that he was glad to die for me. This leads me to deep humility and confidence at the same time.


  • Religion: My identity and self-worth are based mainly on how hard I work, or how moral I am – and so I must look down on those I perceive as lazy or immoral.
  • Gospel: My identity and self worth are centered on the one who died for me. I am saved by sheer grace and I can’t look down on those who believe or practices something different from me. Only by grace am I what I am.