Trinity Baptist Church: Sunday School, Mar. 15, 2009



Week 5: Religion versus the gospel (RFG, Ch. 3, Ch. 4, Ch. 11).  Isn't religion responsible for oppression and injustice?  Does religion take away one's freedom? 


Christianity takes away people’s freedom.

Before we can even answer that assertion, we have to examine our idea of human freedom.  If we do so and are honest, we find something mildly disturbing.  What does it mean to be completely free?  Normally, we mean that I have no constraints at all on my choices; I can choose to do whatever I want.  If that is our definition of freedom, we have several problems:

1.  Can we choose what we want?  If not, then we are not really free after all.  Human beings all end up serving that which they find ultimately beautiful or meaningful.  If you say, I want to be free to live for my own happiness, you will invariably make only choices that you believe will contribute to your own happiness.  In fact, you will be a slave to your own happiness.  You will not actually be “free” to choose at all because your choices will be determined by what you ultimately value.  For instance, when you face a choice to collaborate with the Nazis or be executed, you will collaborate with the Nazis.  Why?  Because you value happiness over morality.  What if we let freedom be our ultimate value?  Then we will be unable to choose any kind of long-term commitment lest it take away our freedom.  So I would argue that we are never free in the sense that we think.  We are really only free to do what we want, which is another way of saying that what we want completely determines what we do.  “Well,” we answer, “perhaps I am not free in some absolute sense, but nonetheless, it seems good to me to live for my own personal happiness and fulfillment even if that means that I am not truly free.”  But…

2.  Do we have enough wisdom to achieve happiness?  Do we honestly think that we are wise enough, let alone self-controlled enough, to achieve our goals?  Moreover, do we think we really know what will make us happy?  I personally find that I am completely incompetent in running my life.  If left to my own devices, I invariably choose things that will make me happy in the short-term and leave me miserable in the long-run.  Certainly, we can see the wreckage that many people (ourselves included) have made of their own lives and the lives of others by choosing what they truly thought would bring them the most happiness.  Is this freedom?  Being free to live a life of pure hedonism is like a blind man being free to drive on the interstate.  Certainly, I desire (and God desires!) that I am ultimately happy; but I dare not trust myself to find the way on my own.  The same is true even if we desire to live for the good of others, or the good of society, or the good of humanity.  How do I know what is good for others?  How do I know what will ultimately benefit society?  Ask a Republican and a Democrat and they will give two very different answers.  Who is right?  How can I be sure that I am living my life for causes which, in the final analysis, will end up benefiting society and blessing others rather than destroying society and harming others? 

3.  Do we really want freedom without purpose?  Consider Sartre’s quote: “I had appeared by chance, I existed like a stone, a plant, a microbe.  I could feel nothing to myself but an inconsequential buzzing.  I was thinking… that here we are eating and drinking, to preserve our precious existence, and that there’s nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing” (RFG, p. 127).  Certainly, man without God is free in some sense.  He has no purpose to fulfill, no use, no reason at all.  He can do what he likes.  But is that what our heart actually craves?  Or does it cry out for real meaning?

4.  “If there is no God, then everything is permissible” (Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov).  We forget that true freedom from God does not open up the doors only to benevolent hedonism, but to any action at all.  We take for granted that a truly liberated man freed from the idea of meaning or purpose will still uphold our vaguely Judeo-Christian ethics.  Why do we believe this at all?  When Hitler or Nietzsche talked about freeing us from the bondage of traditional morality, what did they have in mind?

"My program for educating youth is hard. Weakness must be hammered away. In my castles of the Teutonic Order a youth will grow up before which the world will tremble. I want a brutal, domineering, fearless, cruel youth. Youth must be all that. It must bear pain. There must be nothing weak and gentle about it. The free, splendid beast of prey must once again flash from its eyes... That is how I will eradicate thousands of years of human domestication...That is how I will create the New Order." -- Adolf Hitler, 1933.

If God does not exist, if I am truly free in the sense that atheists believe we are free, then am I not free to do anything at all, any atrocity (but there is no such thing), any act of hatred or cruelty (but there is no such thing)?  “Well,” we object, “I choose not to do such things.”  I am glad you do!  But do you know your own heart?  What happens if, one day, you decide you would rather hate than love, would rather abandon your wife than cherish her, would rather beat your children than care for them?  If we realize that this is the freedom that we are asking for, I wonder whether I really want such freedom at all.

What then is the Christian idea of freedom?  Keller does a good job of discussing it in Chapter 3.  The Biblical God indeed requires us to completely submit to him.  In that sense, he requires us to submit to him.  Paul can call himself “A bond-servant of God” (Titus 1:1).  But we must keep in mind that God is our good and perfect Creator.  The Biblical authors never viewed service to God as bondage.  In fact, it was quite the opposite!  Imagine that you are a man who has had a terrible wasting disease for years.  One day, you meet a doctor who looks at you, diagnoses your condition, and gives you a course of medicine to take every day.  The moment you begin taking the medicine, your symptoms begin to fade.  The light returns to your eyes, the strength returns to your legs.  For the first time, you can leave your bed and stand in the sunlight again.  You can walk through the garden and smell the flowers.  How do you feel about your medicine?  Is it a burden?  Is it a shackle? “No!” you say, “It is freedom and life!”  That is precisely what the Biblical authors say about God.  Obedience to God gives us freedom and joy.  “It is for freedom that Christ set us free” (Galatians 5:1).  Jesus said “I come that they may have life, and have it in abundance” (John 10:10). The Bible sees our condition without God not as freedom, but as slavery, and returning to him not as bondage but as liberation.  The Bible does not promise us joy in heaven as a reward for serving God on earth; it says that serving God is heaven on earth.

It’s great that believing in Christianity works for you, but it doesn’t work for me.  I think we should be free to discover the truth for ourselves. 

What on earth do we mean here by the word ‘truth’?  Clearly, we can’t mean it in its usual sense.  If you tried to stop a friend from leaping off a ten-story building, you would not want him to respond “It’s great that believing in gravity works for you, but I think we should be free to discover the truth for ourselves.”  What you are trying to alert him to is an objective reality.  I think that whether Christianity (or Islam or atheism) “works for us” is not the important question.  What we have to decide is whether it is true or false.  If it is false, what does it matter whether it works for us?  And if it is true, what does it matter whether it doesn’t work for us?  Just as in the case of gravity, I need to adjust my likes and dislikes to accommodate objective reality.

Isn’t Christianity responsible for oppression and injustice?

To our shame, it often is.  I think as Christians, we need to take responsibility for the things evils done the name of Christ and apologize to our hearers, feeling genuine sorrow for the dishonor we have brought on Jesus’ name.  Isn’t it written “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you”?  Then let us make every attempt to make the gospel attractive when people see our love for God, for them and for each other. 

However, almost anything can be used as an excuse for evil.  Certainly, religions have been used as an excuse for oppression and violence.   But so have all belief systems.  So has atheism.  So has communism.  So has democracy.  In fact, even (non-)systems of non-belief lead to evil.  After all, what is responsible for the bland indifference to suffering and selfishness that is so rampant for us in the United States?  Is it not our agnosticism, superficiality, and materialism?  The conclusion we come to is profoundly Biblical: the heart of man is deceitful above all things.  There is some selfish tendency, some inherent bent towards evil deep in the human heart that emerges and corrupts every belief system and human society, religious or not.  So the real question is not, do followers of some given belief system  do evil?  Then answer is almost always yes.  Rather, the real question is: are the deeds of such people consistent with or fundamentally opposed to their professed beliefs? 

I am very glad that most materialists I know are kind and loving.  But is their kindness and love consistent with their belief that there is no absolute good or evil, that human beings are no more intrinsically valuable than rocks?  Not really.  Similarly, a professed Christian may be full of pride, self-righteousness and hatred.  But are these characteristics consistent with his following of Christ who told us to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who mistreat us (Luke 6:27-29)?  Who told us that the tax collector who cries out “God have mercy on me a sinner” rather than the self-righteous Pharisee is justified before God (Luke 18:9-14)?  Should following such a Savior lead us to violence and hatred or love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control?

I think the worst response we can make to such an inquiry is to begin to hold up the righteousness of Christians and the purity of the church.  What rubbish!  Ultimately, what is there in us to admire?  There are certainly thousands, millions, billions of examples of kindness and love displayed in the Church but is this due to our own goodness, or is it the work of the Holy Spirit? I would certainly not hold up Christians or Christianity, but instead hold up Christ.   We should freely admit that we ourselves are sinners and point to Jesus, in whom there is no fault.

Religion makes you self-righteous and superior.

Yes!  Perhaps Tim Keller’s most brilliant point is his dissection and critique of religion.  What is religion?  I think that most people understand all major religions as having basically the same message: “God wants you to be a good person and to love him.  And if you do these things, he will take you to heaven.”  This statement may be a fair summary of other religions, but it is certainly not the gospel, the central message of the Christian faith.  In fact, it is essentially opposed to the gospel.  What is the gospel?

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.  – Rom 3:21-26

How is this message different than the message of “religion”?  The operating principle of “religion” is: “If I live a good life, God will bless me.” The operating principle of the gospel is: “In spite of my sin, God has forgiven me at infinite cost to himself; therefore I will live a good life.”  Can’t we see how these two principles are not just different, but fundamentally opposed?  If I believe that I am saved by living a righteous life, then I believe that I deserve to go to heaven.  I will either believe that I am living a righteous life, in which case I will look down on “sinners”, or I will realize that I have failed to live a righteous life, and then I will despair.  But if I believe the gospel, that Jesus came to earth to pay the penalty for my ungodly, sinful life and to be my righteousness and my salvation, then there is no room for self-righteousness.  As Paul continues in the next paragraph:

Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. – Rom 3:27-28

 Becoming a Christian does not happen through moral reformation, moral living, or our commitment to righteousness.  It does not happen when we achieve some level of righteousness.  Rather, we become a Christian when we realize that we are completely without righteousness.  We realize that we are a justly condemned sinner in need of a merciful Savior.  Our salvation by Jesus leads to moral reformation, not the other way around.  We obey because we are accepted; we are not accepted because we obey.

Keller would agree that religion does indeed make us self-righteous and superior.  For that reason, religion is the cause of wars, oppression, and injustice.  If I believe that I am right before God because of my beliefs, my morality, and my righteousness, then I will invariably look down on others.  But the gospel is completely different.  if I believe that I am made right before God in spite of my unrighteousness, in spite of the fact that I am undeserving, then how can I look down on anyone?  Indeed, several times in the Bible, we are told that those who understand the gospel will be characterized especially by mercy (see Matthew 18:21-35 and James 2:12-13).  Why?  Because we will realize that we ourselves have been saved by the sheer mercy, love, and grace of God and will extend that mercy love and grace to others.


Especially with regard to this topic, words will accomplish very little.  What does it matter if we say that the gospel leads us to lives of mercy and gentleness, freedom and joy unless are lives are actually marked by these things?  I know that I personally find myself continually trying to please God and earn my salvation by my own good works, thereby depriving myself of the joy of the gospel.  We can defend the gospel until we are blue in the face, but it is the fruit of God’s Spirit in our lives that will be the real defense.  Let us pray that the Lord would cleanse us of sin and fill us with his Spirit so that people would see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven.