On Religion, to its Uncultured Pomo Despisers

Some people are wondering why I wrote that article in the January 2k10 issue of The Banner. Well, I wrote it because they asked me to write something, and they didn’t tell me what to write, which is a pain, because then I have to think of something.

So what I came up with was a defense and exposition of the term “religion.” Why? Because religious people who think they’re not religious say silly things about not being religious. And not only in popular stuff like The Shack, or in too-hip-for-my-haircut Emergent communities, but even among learned and respected persons. The one I have in mind is one of my favorite authors and pastors, Tim Keller. Love the guy. Wish I could have gone to his church when Sandy and I were in Manhattan. Love his book/DVD The Prodigal God, and used it for a teaching series in our church. Love his The Reason for God, and his YouTube defense of the Christian faith to the employees of Google. Love his new books that have come out that I haven’t read yet.

But he said something surprising on his website promoting The Prodigal God. And I quote:

“Religion operates on the principle: I obey, therefore I’m accepted. But the gospel operates on the principle: I’m accepted through what Jesus Christ has done, therefore I obey. So religion isn’t just a little bit different than the gospel; they are diametrically opposed. And unless you actually invite people into the gospel, in distinction from religion, if you just call them to give their lives to Christ in some general way, they’ll think you’re calling them into being a good person; they’ll think you’re calling them into being an elder brother. So you have to always distinguish the gospel from religion and irreligion and as you preach, because our churches are filled with elder brothers, and they don’t know they are. All they know is God isn’t very real to them, and their faith is a kind of a drudgery to them, and unless you preach to them the difference between religion and the gospel, they aren’t going to get renewed by the Holy Spirit; they’re not going to find the gospel beginning to transform their lives. One of the best ways to do that is by preaching the parable of the prodigal son. This parable will help us live out the implications of what it means to be gospel-transformed people. Not elder brothers, not younger brothers, but people living as images of our true elder brother, Jesus Christ.”
http://www.theprodigalgod.com/video.html accessed September 10, 2009, under the “Message for Pastors” link.

Surely, Tim knows better than that, since he must be pretty well acquainted with John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and the concepts therein like the semen religionis and the sensus divinitatis. But I presume he uses this language for strategic purposes. I just don’t think it was a good strategic choice, because it’s not entirely honest, and it creates problems when one tries to explain Paul’s arguments in Romans 1 about how all people are religious, and his own evangelistic strategy in Acts 17:16ff., and the fact that religion pertains to the fact that humanity is created to relate to its Creator. I just wish he had specified that what he’s talking about is “works-centered religion”or “human-centered religion,” otherwise the statement can sound potentially shallow or misleading.

That’s why I love it that there’s a Facebook group called “I am religious but not spiritual.” And yes, I’m a fan.


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