Tag Archives: Gospel

Heaven has a wall?

There’s a meme floating out there that states “Heaven has a wall and strict immigration policies. Hell has open border policies.”2dxqfh

I don’t address all memes out there (especially political ones!), but because I have seen this one shared numerous times, and because it is potentially damaging to our understanding of the gospel, I thought it was worth a comment.

Some truth?

First of all, like most pithy sayings, there’s an element of truth here. That’s what makes it compelling to Christians. The most obvious Scriptural reference to heaven having a wall is in Revelation 21:9-27. Here, the New Jerusalem is presented as a great city with a wall and twelve gates. The gates are always open, though nothing impure can enter the city, nor those who are shameful or deceitful. The only people who enter are those whose names are written in the book of life.

Perhaps the author of this meme didn’t have John’s vision in mind. Perhaps he was thinking more generally. Heaven really is restricted to those who have been saved by Jesus, a gift we receive by faith in Jesus. There’s an exclusivity to the gospel that makes many of us uncomfortable, but which is undeniably taught in Scripture.

And so, the logic goes, if heaven has a wall and entry criteria, then so should America. That is the logic of the metaphor. It is true that borders, in principal, are okay (think skin, the walls of a house, the membrane of a cell, etc.), and I’ll grant that level of logic to the meme.

Nevertheless, there are two major problems with this metaphor.

Problem #1: What else this implies about America.

Metaphors tend to carry a lot of weight, intended or not, and this one does too. The metaphor compares America to heaven and ends up implying quite a bit: In the America is heaven metaphor American citizens are heavenly citizens. Non-citizens are the heathens who have to pass some test. The government is God, which has the right to do “extreme vetting” however it sees fit. Etc. All of these fit into the nationalist idolatry prevalent in our culture today. Perhaps those who share this want to keep the metaphor limited to the wall. That’s fine, but it’s not all that gets communicated.

Problem #2: What else this implies about Heaven.

What’s worse is the way in which this metaphor works backwards. If America is like heaven then heaven (and its immigration policies) is like America. That’s a comparison that strikes at the heart of the gospel. Let’s think about how this works.

Heaven, as understood through strict nationalistic immigration policy, is primarily concerned about security. Those who want to enter must wait outside and show themselves worthy to enter. They must prove they are not dangerous and they must show how they can contribute. Citizens of heaven (Christians), on the other hand, are either in by birthright or because they have already gone through extreme vetting and have shown themselves worthy.

That vision of heaven is about as far from the gospel as you can get.  When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven it is both uncomfortably exclusive (“no one comes to the Father except through me”) and radically inclusive “whoever believes in me will have eternal life”).

The Pharisees and teachers of the law, the ones who imagined themselves citizens by birthright, the ones who were worthy and had something to offer, the ones who passed the “extreme vetting” were offended that Jesus came to invite the prostitutes and sinners into that same kingdom. But they had it backwards: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). He goes on to excoriate the Pharisees: “Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces! You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13).

According to the gospel, when it comes to entrance into the kingdom of God, we’re all unworthy asylum seekers. We come with nothing to offer. We come without credentials. We come, even, as enemies of God. It is only by God’s radical grace that comes to us and invites us in that we could gain entrance. And then, having been forgiven much, we share that same goodness with the world – a welcoming and hopeful vision of heaven.

This isn’t really a post about immigration. I’ve written a more systematic post about that here. Instead, I’m concerned about two things:

(1) Are we misusing Scripture to make a political point? I think this meme does just that.

(2) Are we allowing an earthly political vision to impact the way we view or express heaven? Again, this post does just that. Even if we manage to understand this meme in a very narrowly defined way, when we share it we are sure to present a picture of heaven that is inconsistent with the gospel of grace, expressed in the mercy of Jesus.

Confession of a Politically Engaged Pastor

Confession: I want to influence your* vote, but not for the reason or with the method you’re probably thinking of.

Here’s my dilemma: On the one hand I want to stay as far away from politics as possible. Politics are divisive. They usually separate instead of unite. That last thing I would want to do is divide the church on political lines, to alienate fellow believers or push away those who are seeking. I want to reach Bernie supporters, Hillary supporters, Trump supports, Kasich supports, Libertarians, #NeverTrumpers, and people of every other political stripe. I never want to unnecessarily offend and that’s often where political speech goes.

Second, so much of political thought is based on human wisdom and does not have the same weight as “thus saith the Lord.” As good or bad as some economic or political theories are, it’s just hard to defend many of them from Scripture. Since I’m a pastor in the business of proclaiming the Word of God above all else, I don’t want my political opinions to get entangled with what is more Scripturally certain.

Third, I don’t want to get distracted from the gospel. It’s Jesus that will transform the world and he does it through his life, death, and resurrection. That’s the message of life and hope. I don’t want anything to get in the way of that message.

On the other hand, while the gospel is not politics, the gospel does have political implications. Those who follow Jesus commit to following him in every area of their lives, and politics are not an exception. Voting, or choosing not to vote, is not morally neutral behavior or one based solely on personal preferences or opinions. Many political issues are based on human wisdom but others are questions in regards to what is good, and right, and just. Political engagement is a way that Christians can honor God and love neighbor, or it can be a way we dishonor God and neglect our neighbor.

I don’t want to influence your vote because I care about political power or political results. Political power can be good when used for justice but it can also seduce and corrupt. Political results are in the hands of the sovereign God. No, I care how you vote** because I am charged with the duty of discipleship (and not only in my role as a pastor, all Christians are called to be disciple-makers.) I care about how you vote because of the Judgment Seat of Christ where we will all be called to make account for our actions, whether good or bad, and how we act or fail to act politically comes under that same judgment.

Here’s my other dilemma: How then do I go about giving instruction on such matters? There are a couple of things I’m not comfortable doing – endorsing a candidate or using a position of influence to speak about matters of purely human wisdom. I’m not comfortable with this course of action for a few reasons, but the main reason is that it only gets at the surface off what is really going on. I see politics as a “lagging indicator.” Politics is always a few years behind culture. And culture comes out of a broad world view. For Christians, our worldview should be shaped by knowledge of Scripture, plus a desire to love God and love neighbor. This is the root. My aim in discipleship is to first discern the root issues and then to address them through Scripture. The benefit of this is that it not only eventually percolates back up to a political symptom (Lord willing) but that, more importantly, it’s essential to disciple-making in the first place, even if it never has any political impact.

This is part of the reason why I’ve written the blog posts that I have. I want you to know that abortion is an injustice against the weak and powerless and is an offense to the image of God. I want you to know that racism is a problem and that the body of Christ has a role to play in national healing. I want you to know that we need to examine our anger and look for constructive solutions. I want you to know that God cares for the aliens and strangers, even while that leads to uncertain political conclusions. I want you to know that political idolatry can lead to fear, hatred, and a compromised conscience. I also want you to know that not voting is an option, if the alternative is a vote between two evils. My aim is to focus on the gospel and the whole counsel of God and simply allow them to have the political consequences they might naturally have.

I really have no idea how I’m doing in this. It’s quite possible that I’m being too vague, that I lack courage, or that I am too concerned that I might offend. If so, I apologize. Or it’s possible I’m being too vocal, lifting issues higher than they should be and causing a distraction for some. If so, again, I apologize. I’ve swung wildly throughout my life. When I was a teenager I was convinced that pastors should be vocal political activists and that those who didn’t, failed to because of a lack of conviction. Later, I took the opposite position, coming to the conclusion that pastors should avoid political discussions at all costs. This election cycle has pulled me back to somewhere in the middle. Please pray with me as I try to navigate this rocky terrain.

* Note 1: “You/your” is specifically directed towards followers of Jesus. If you’re reading this and you are not a believer in, or follower of Jesus, this post probably doesn’t apply to you. It is pastoral in nature, not really generally political.

** Note 2: I don’t mean to say that there is a one-to-one relationship between proper discipleship and the “right” candidate. Followers of Jesus will disagree on some things politically, but that doesn’t mean they’re somehow “less than” if they happen to disagree with me. I expect a certain amount of healthy political diversity within the body. But, I do believe that biblical ethics and values do put certain limits on who we could vote for and maintain a clear conscience. There are certain candidates or laws which I would counsel Christians not to vote for and feel pretty certain about my conclusions.

Healing the wounds of racism through Jesus and His Church: Notes from the Church Ministries Conference

Last weekend I attended the annual Church Ministries Conference and Calvary Baptist Church in Grand Rapids. One of the workshops I attended was called “Healing the wounds of racism through Jesus and His Church.” Here are the notes that I took:

The Problem

Our culture is divided by race. This division is fueled by a politicization of racial issues. There are people on the Left and on the Right that profit from this exploiting this tension and from perpetuating false narratives that feed their followers already entrenched views of the world. The result is that divisions along racial and political lines only deepen. We begin to view race through a political lens and, in doing so, adopt all the false narratives from those who profit off of the anger that is stirred up.

The church should be well situated to bring peace and reconciliation to this issue but is itself divided by race. Sunday mornings are still one of the most segregated times of the week. We are not immune from the cultural and political divide facing our nation. We are also more likely to view racial issues through the lens of politics rather than through the lens of the reconciling gospel of Jesus Christ.

Definitions: Racism and White Privilege

These were the definitions provided by the presenters:

Racism (older definition): A belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race: racial prejudice or discrimination.

Racism (newer definition): Ethnic prejudice plus Power.

The strength of the older definition is that it describes racism on personal terms. Racism is an issue of the heart. The problem is that it doesn’t address the “systematic” nature of racism.

The strength of the newer definition is that is gets at the systematic/power dynamics involved in racism though it might excuse the wrong heart attitude of the “weak.” This newer definition does not mean that minority groups could not exhibit racism. “Power” can come from different sources. It could come from political power, economic power, or physical violence, none of which are necessarily exclusive to a “majority” group.

Systematic/structural racism is often something ignored particularly by White America. This has something to do with our highly individualistic view of sin.  We tend to view sin only at the individual level. But sin can become entrenched in culture in a way that is more than a mere heart problem. Abortion is an example of systematic sin. It has become embedded in our culture as something acceptable and is protected by a series of laws and court rulings. Those who defend it have a whole new language which serves to gloss over the reality of what it really is.

In some places racism still exists at this structural and systematic level. The presenter described two different police forces to illustrate the role of power in racism. In both police forces about 1% of the police officers were actively discriminatory. In city A those “bad apples” were disciplined by those in power. In city B those police officers were protected by those in power. That power dynamic made the minority residents of city B feel the effects of racism far more acutely since those officers who harassed them were able to continue to do so without impunity.

We need to understand the dynamics between people and systems as it relates to the totality of the Fall. Racism is a condition that exists within a person. People inhabit “systems” (politics, business, religious organization, etc.). Those people affect systems and systems, in turn, affect people.

All this brings me to the next definition: White Privilege

“White Privilege” is one of those loaded terms. It means different things to different people and it carries a lot of baggage. Here is the definition provided at the workshop:

“White privilege is a measureable thing. It’s far too easy to dismiss the perceived experiences of a person of color so studies have demonstrated that it is an objective, measureable reality as much as it is a subjective reality. Numerous examples abound. A white man at a used car dealer will be offered a price that is an average of $200 lower than the black man who checked it out earlier that morning. White children aged 12-17 are more likely to use and sell drugs than black children 12-17, yet black children are about twice as likely to be prosecuted for it. When identical resumes are sent to business with the only difference being one has a stereotypically white sounding name and the other has a stereotypically black sounding name, the white resume is far more likely to get a call back than the black sounding name…”

White privilege doesn’t mean that “a white man was hired because he was white.” It doesn’t mean that all white people are privileged. There are many factors that cross racial bounds (class, family structure, education, etc.) that give or take privilege. Nor (in the view of the presenters) is white privilege a problem. The problem is that people of color are not given the same privileges, statistically speaking.


The presenters provided three steps for healing the wounds of racism:

Admit that there is a problem. For whites this means admitting systematic and cultural racism as well as personal fears. For minorities this means being aware that anger, misplaced blame (not every issue is a racial issue), and self-doubt need to be addressed.

Submit to God and to one another. For whites this means actively listening and empowering minorities. For minorities this means demonstrating love, forgiveness, and patience with whites who find this hard to understand.

Commit to building bridges across racial boundaries. This means building relationships, being sensitive to one another, recognizing our interdependence, sacrificing preferences for the sake of the other, and embracing the God-given ministry of reconciliation.

The Power of the Gospel

All of this is possible through the power of the gospel. In Christ God has formed one new body of people, the Church. He has made those who were previously enemies into friends through the cross. He has broken down the dividing wall. I pray that the church will be willing to see racial issues through this theological lens, and not just adopt the lens of whatever political party they are affiliated with.

Sanctity of Life Sunday

A reflection for January 17, 1016.

Today is “Sanctity of Life Sunday,” a day set aside to remember that all life is sacred. All people are created in God’s image and have value because he made and loves them, not because they have some worth to society, but because they have worth to God. This means that each person has, at least, a right to live.

Throughout history there have always been people to whom this right has been systematically denied. There have always been those who are considered “worth less”, “worthless”, or “less than human.” This was the case in Nazi Germany. It was the rationale for the destruction of the Jews. This was the rationale for slavery in the South and the racism that accompanied it and followed it (and continues today). This kind of dehumanizing tendency, even when not stated in such blatant terms, has led to the oppression of many groups throughout history. This grieves the heart of God. It ought also to grieve us.

There have been many groups, especially those who are weak, who lack power, who lack position, and who lack a voice, who have therefore been oppressed and have been denied justice by the strong. The Bible is clear, God is close to the oppressed. He takes the side of the widow and the orphan and the fatherless. Psalm 72:4 is a call to God for justice: “May he defend the afflicted among the needy among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor.” Again, the psalmist calls “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:3-4). The psalmist is confident in his prayer because he knows God “upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry” (Psalm 146:7).

God calls us to share that same concern. In the prophets he calls Israel to “Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). He calls down judgment on those who deny justice to the oppressed: “Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.” (Isaiah 10:1-2)

There are many people in our world today who are denied justice, many who are dehumanized, and we should grieve in each and every case. But there is one group in particular for whom I want us to pray for today – the preborn. These are babies, little people within their mother’s wombs. Today it is legal to take away their lives. They have no voice. They are silenced. They are dehumanized. They are simply “tissue”. We learned this past year that they are dismembered, carefully, so that their little body parts can be sold. A human life is traded for convenience. Echoing Isaiah 10 the Word of God speaks to us today, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees.”

What can we do? How can we think and act with the heart of God?

First, it is right for us to mourn and today is the right day to do it. On the one hand “Sanctity of Life Sunday” is a happy reminder that all people are created in the image of God and are therefore precious to him. Everyone here is precious to God. We are not just randomly put together clumps of matter. God made us. Christ died for us. He invites us to live in relationship with Him. But this makes it all the more sad when a person created in God’s image is killed and it is heartbreaking when this is done so at such a systematic and accepted level in our society. The reality is abortion is cause to grieve – for the babies who are killed, for the women who have abortions, and for our society as whole whose conscience has been seared.

Second, we need to pray. If you feel grief, turn your grief to prayer. The psalmists and the prophets regularly call out to God to protect the weakest and the most vulnerable in our world. God cares for these babies and so we call out to him for help.

Third, there are a number of quality “Pregnancy Resource Centers” in the area which are always in need of support. My wife and I have been regularly involved with Alpha Women’s Center for some time, both with financial support and with participation in their events. Pregnancy Resource Centers and other parachurch organization play a huge role in helping women with “unwanted pregnancies” make the decision to give birth and then support them throughout the whole process.

Fourth, we need to teach our sons and encourage the young men who we know to take responsibility for their actions. We need to teach a sexual ethic that is counter to what our culture teaches. As I’ve read through the psalms and the prophets I was struck by how often they show concern for the fatherless. In the context of abortion we need to realize just how much society’s chronic fatherlessness plays into abortion. First, girls who grew up without a father around, or whose father was always absent or abusive, are far more likely to have “unwanted” pregnancies. Second, women who are single are far more likely to have abortions. In other words, more often than not, it is women without a father who are aborting babies without a father. Our abortion problem is directly related to our father problem. The men in our culture need to step up. Big time.

Fifth, there is a proper place and time for political advocacy, attending rallies, and speaking up on behalf of the unborn. One of the prophetic roles of the church, I believe, is to publically expose evil. One of the compassionate roles of the church is to speak up on behalf of the oppressed and powerless. All of this needs to be done in love, but there is a place for it within the church.

Finally, we need to be a church shaped by the gospel. This is the most important thing of all. The gospel teaches us to love both the oppressed and the oppressor for Jesus’ sake. The gospel teaches us to extend grace and we need to be a place and a people of grace. If a young woman within our midst becomes pregnant out of wedlock we need to be the place she goes to for support, not from whom she hides in shame. The gospel teaches us that we are all the worst of sinners and it teaches us that forgiveness and healing is open to all of us. For some time we had a woman attending our church who had had an abortion and was leading support groups for other post-abortive women. She was, like Christ, offering these women both truth and healing. What a beautiful picture of the gospel. God’s love in Christ is amazing. His gospel is good news. It’s in that good news that we find justice and mercy, truth and love, and it is by that good news that we are shaped.

10 Characteristics of a Gospel-Produced Church

When we in evangelical circles (especially Baptist) think about the question “What does the preaching of the gospel produce?” we tend to think of it primarily in terms of individual decisions to follow Jesus. This is, of course, a perfectly proper way to answer that question. When Peter preached his first sermon at Pentecost we see that about 3,000 individuals accepted Peter’s call, repented, and were baptized. By the work of the Holy Spirit the preaching of the gospel led to 3,000 new converts to Christianity (see Acts 2:41).

However, it is also worth noting that the preaching of the gospel didn’t just produce individual Christians. It produced (and produces) a church, a community of believers. It is not only true that 3,000 souls accepted, repented, and were baptized. The text also says that they “were added to their number that day.” What follows is a description of this budding community.

I am preparing to teach on Acts 2:42-47 and its “parallel passage” in 4:32-45. From these two passages I have compiled a list of ten characteristics of a gospel-produced church. This is by no means a complete list – a lot would need to be added. Nor, do I think, was it Luke’s intent to list exactly ten characteristics. Nevertheless, I do think these 10 characteristics are true to the text, and true characteristics of a gospel-produced and gospel-driven church.

  1. Made up of followers of Jesus. The “they” in 2:42 is “those who accepted [Peter’s] message and were baptized” in 2:41. This should probably go without saying but church membership is for those who have already committed themselves to the Lord. At our church this is also one of the reasons we require baptism before church membership.
  2. Devoted to the apostle’s teaching. What follows in 2:42 is a list of four things which the early church devoted themselves to. The first is “the apostle’s teaching.” What was the apostle’s teaching? I can only imagine it was all about the life of Jesus, but I’m sure there was a heavy dose of the Old Testament in there, too. In other words, the early church were a people of the Word; living and written.
  3. Devoted to “communion.” The next two in the list are “fellowship” and “the breaking of bread.” Some commentators see this as simply referring to sharing common meals. Others as a specific reference to the Lord’s Supper. A third group sees these two ideas as combined in the New Testament. I tend to agree with this third group. The “Lord’s Supper,” as it is often called, has another name: Communion. It is called Communion because there is a strong “community” aspect to the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection. We are reconciled to God through Jesus’ death and we are also reconciled to one another. We are united to Christ through his death, and as a direct result we are united with the rest of the Body of Christ. The fellowship which the early church was devoted to was not just small talk, but a deep and abiding unity.
  4. Devoted to prayer. The final in the list states that the early church was devoted “to prayer.” Indeed, prayer is one of the major themes of Acts. One of the primary reasons why the seven deacons were chosen was to free up the apostles for time in prayer.
  5. Filled with awe. 2:43 states that “everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.” “Everyone” here might refer to people even outside the church, but it certainly also refers to those within it. I don’t think this only applies to the early church. I may not experience miracles on the scale of the early church, but I still have plenty of reason to be filled with awe for the power of God.
  6. Devoted to one another. Verse 44 states that “all the believers were together and had everything in common.” What follows is a description of the generosity that marked the early church (see point #7) but I have separated this characteristic out because I believe that the generosity described next, and more fully in 4:32-35 was the fruit of something more fundamental in the community – love, unity, and mutual devotion. Before describing the believers’ generosity, 4:32 states that “all the believers were one in heart and mind.” This points to both their unity of faith and their deep devotion to one another.
  7. Marked by generosity. From this devotion sprang generosity. “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” and “no one claimed that of their possessions was their own, but shared everything they had.” Indeed, this generosity was seen as evidence of the power of God in their midst: “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them” (4:33b-34a). This passage can be somewhat controversial, but needlessly so. I want to caution against two extremes. The first extreme would be to say that this description of the early church has no bearing on us for today. The argument states that they were in a unique scenario and believed, erroneously, that Christ’s return would happen any moment. The second extreme would come from those who believe that the church in Acts lays out some kind of communal church life that should be carried out through all generations and situations. I think both extremes misunderstand the descriptive nature of Acts. The church was in a unique cultural and historical situation, of course, but the values they exhibited – unity, devotion, and generosity – are meant to be carried out in every cultural setting.
  8. Met for regular worship. Verse 46 states that the church met together daily in them temple courts and in one another’s homes. These meetings were not just for the purpose of fellowship, but of worship. I’m not sure if the “daily” aspect of worship needs to continue, but certainly regular participation in corporate worship ought to be the norm.
  9. Praised God with sincere hearts. This worship was carried out “with glad and sincere hearts” and resulted in the disciples praising God. Musical worship from a sincere heart (Paul and Silas are found singing a hymn in prison) is a mark of a gospel-produced church.
  10. Produced visible fruit. Finally we are told that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” The church saw visible fruit and that fruit was daily conversions and baptisms into the church. We need to be cautious here. Gospel-fruit takes many forms and it comes in different seasons. Sometimes fruit is conversions or church growth. Sometimes it is a community of love (see the fruit of the Spirit). In chapter 4 the fruit of the power of God is generosity. After the disciple’s pray the fruit of the power of God is boldness in proclaiming the gospel. We can’t control the form of the fruit, nor its season, nor can we predict it. However, I am confident that the gospel produces fruit and a church that is alive with the gospel will see that fruit. It may not be a promise, but this principle holds for everything living: “living things grow.”

After I put together this list I put together to assessments. The first is a church assessment. Is our church a gospel produced church?

  • Are we made up of followers of Jesus?
  • Are we devoted to the word of God?
  • Are we devoted to fellowship and the Lord’s Supper?
  • Are we devoted to prayer?
  • Are we filled with awe for the power of God?
  • Are we devoted to unity in the body of Christ?
  • Are we marked by generosity?
  • Do we meet regularly for worship?
  • Do we praise God with sincere hearts?
  • Is there identifiable fruit coming from our ministry?

The second assessment is a personal assessment. Do I have the characteristics of a gospel-produced believer?

  • Am I a follower of Jesus?
  • Am I devoted to the word of God?
  • Am I devoted to fellowship and the Lord’s Supper?
  • Am I devoted to prayer?
  • Am I filled with awe for the power of God?
  • Am I devoted to unity in the body of Christ?
  • Am I generous with my material resources?
  • Do I commit to regular corporate worship?
  • Do I praise God with a sincere heart?
  • Is there visible fruit in my life?

Both these lists are convicting to me, though in different ways. I invite you to examine yourself.

Book Recommendation
Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City



Sanctity of Life Sunday (Jan 18) and Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan 19) are back-to-back. Both racism and abortion are questions of justice. Christians should care about both. Both are addressed by the truth of the gospel.

I’ve been listening to Justice by Michael Sandel on CD. It’s an enlightening and instructive book which covers many different ideas of justice, from Utilitarianism to Libertarianism; covering moral philosophers from Kant, to Rawls, to Aristotle. All of the philosophers struggle with the idea of justice and of human dignity. All start, however, with purely human notions of justice.

This got me thinking, what does the Bible bring generally, and the gospel specifically, to the questions of abortion and racial harmony? I’m sure it says a lot more than the short list I have here, but this is what came to mind this morning:

  • Foundationally, God’s Word teaches us that all people are made in the image of God, regardless of race or stage of development. Each life is sacred and worthy of care (Gen 1:27).
  • The gospel teaches us to have the mind of Christ, looking to interests of others (Phil 2:4).
  • The gospel teaches us that “neighborliness” extends beyond those with those in our particular clan (Luke 10:25-37).
  • The gospel teaches us to be good to those who cannot repay us (Luke 14:12-14).
  • The gospel teaches us that God’s grace in Christ extends beyond social barriers.
  • The gospel gives us a vision of heaven, of a unified worshipping community, from every nation, tribe, and tongue (Rev 7:9-10).
  • The gospel breaks down the dividing wall of hostility (Eph 2:14).
  • The gospel makes us one in Christ (Eph 2:15-16).
  • The example of Christ shows us that love is essentially self-sacrificial (1 John 4:7-11).
  • The gospel gives us the ministry of reconciliation – both vertically and horizontally (1 Cor 5:11-21).
  • The gospel teaches us to care for the oppressed.
  • The gospel offers true freedom from guilt through the sacrifice of Christ.
  • The gospel acknowledges the horrifying and truly evil nature of sin – and then defeats it on the cross.
  • The gospel teaches us that evil can be overcome with good (Rom 12:21).
  • The gospel offers us hope for the future – with no more death, or tears, or mourning (Rev 21:4).

Also, I would like to share with you a good video with John Piper and Lacrae where both issues are addressed. A little further on in the video Piper waxes eloquent about the need to address both issues since concern for both comes from how are ethics are transformed by the gospel in Christ.

Is “religion” a bad thing? And what is it anyway?

Last week I asked the question “Is too much religion a bad thing?” My goal was to follow the line of apologetic reasoning spelled out by Tim Keller in Reason for God and illustrated by Martin Luther King in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” My main argument was that while religious zeal based on moralism can be a force for evil in the world, a true understanding of, and devotion to, the gospel is a force for peace, justice, and reconciliation.

In my post I used the term “religion” ambiguously and it was the use of this word that several of my readers reacted to.


The word “religion” means different things to different people. But, among many in evangelical circles, it has become a negative and derogatory term. Tim Keller himself uses it this way when he contrasts “religion” with “gospel” as one of two ways to respond to God. For Keller, religion means trying to please God through living a moral life. The gospel, by contrast, says that we cannot please God through “following the law” but through receiving by faith God’s gift of salvation. In Keller’s scheme, “religion” and “gospel” are opposed. Gospel is good. Religion is bad.

This same use of the word has also been popularized by Jefferson Bethke’s YouTube video “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” Again, Bethke essentially uses the word “religion” to mean “works based salvation” or, perhaps, “legalism.” I have also heard the term “religion” contrasted with the term “relationship,” as in, “we don’t have a religion [rules based system] but a relationship [with God].”

I understand why Keller and Bethke use the word “religion” in the way they do, and I think it has something to do with their evangelistic ministries. They want to show the contrast of the gospel (grace based) with the kind of moralism (law based) that is often construed as Christianity.

I am sympathetic to using the word “religion” in this way, but I am not enthusiastic about it either.

I don’t prefer to use “religion” in this derogatory way for one main reason: Because “religion” is such a broad term, when I say I don’t like religion, unless I am narrowly defining the term (as Keller does) I end up saying I don’t like a lot of things I actually do like. There are two biggies that tend to get lumped in with the word “religion”: Institution and Religious practice.


When some people say they don’t like religion they mean they don’t like “institutional” religion. They don’t like the Church. Or, more specifically, they don’t like church. Institutions are wooden, authoritarian, and restrictive. This is probably true in a lot of instances but, overall, I think institutions are both Biblical and good.

I am thankful for the various institutional structures that exist at my local church – for its constitution and bylaws, for its leadership structure of elders and deacons, for its stable programming, for its mechanism of raising finances, for its process of spending money. These institutional markers make it possible and easy for us to gather together for worship, to regularly hear the Word of God, to come together in prayer, to reach out to the community, and to keep each other on track for the sake of the gospel.

The “institutional church” is not the heart of Christianity. If it becomes an end in itself, that’s when you fall away from the gospel. But, the “institutional church” does contribute to the spiritual development of both individuals and communities of Jesus followers.

“Religious Behavior”

Some want to put a wedge between “love” and “obedience.” Judah Smith, in Jesus Is, tells us not to take our sin too seriously because it’s covered by grace. Many of us have, as Kevin DeYoung puts it, a Hole in our Holiness. In an effort to combat legalism (a worthy cause) sin is deemphasized and obedience is seen as something we shouldn’t really worry about. After all, Christianity isn’t about religion (rules, religious behavior) but about a relationship with God.

Again, I agree that religious behavior is not the heart of Christianity. When we make this a means of trying to win salvation, we are moving away from the gospel. But, obedience to God’s law is still a part of what it means to be a Christian. Jesus says in John 14 “Anyone who loves me will obey might teaching.” Love and obedience go together.

Additionally, we are encouraged in Scripture to participate in several distinctly religious activities such as baptism, the Lord’s supper, worship, tithing, Scripture reading, prayer, and giving to the poor. These are all components of true religion, though they do not earn us salvation.


I prefer to use several alternatives to the term “religion” when I am speaking about a systems of works-based-righteousness. Here are my favorites:

#1: False religion: By this I mean religious practices that is disconnected from the heart. It is characterized religious behavior but that behavior only serves as a mask to cover a heart of stone.

#2: Legalism: By this I mean the religious theory that we can earn our salvation through good works.

#3: Moralism: By this I mean the belief that Christianity (or other religions) are primarily about “being good.”

Each of these terms, in my mind anyway, is far more precise than the word “religion” which means different things to different people.

What do you think? Is the term “religion” used in too negative a way? Or, do you prefer the terminology of Bethke and Keller?