Religion vs. the Gospel | Christian Sermon by Matt Carter
For the last forty or fifty years in the American church, we have quit teaching the gospel for the most part. A lot of us grew up in churches where what we were taught was more of a works-based kind of follow-the-rules, Old Testament-law-following Christianity, rather than the gospel.
It was not taught that our standing with God doesn’t change based on how good we are or how bad we are on any given day, but rather our standing with God is based on the righteousness of Jesus.
And so the pastors of my generation are looking at the Bible, and they’re saying that the Christianity they read about in the Scriptures is not the Christianity they were taught growing up.
If you wanted to be a good Christian, there was a “good” list, and the bad people did stuff on the “bad” list. And you wanted to make sure as a good Christian that you did more things on the “good” list than you did on the “bad” list.
When you did stuff on the “bad” list, you’d think, I must not be saved. How can a person that’s saved struggle like I do with sin? And when you were good, you’d think, Hey, I’ve been good, so God must be pleased with me now. So in those times we replaced that self-loathing with good old-fashioned self-righteousness.
That is not the picture of Christianity that the Bible paints. The essence of our faith, the essence of Christianity, is not a list of do’s and don’ts that you do your best to follow.
The essence of our faith is the truth that God loves you and accepts you and connects with you, not on the basis of what you’ve done, good or bad, but that God loves you, and accepts you, and connects with you on the basis of what Jesus has already done for you at the cross. That’s the gospel.
Look at the very first sentence of Jesus’ very first sermon. Mark 1:14–15 (NASB) says, “Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’ ” What Jesus did was separate Christianity from every single religion that has ever come in the history of this world with that one statement.
The first thing Jesus says is, “The time is fulfilled.” Why does He say this? The Scripture says God is slow to anger, so we know that God is gracious toward our sin. In Exodus 34:6 it says God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loving-kindness and truth’ ” (NASB).
But the Scripture tells us that God is not just gracious, but He is also just. God is a God of justice, and if God never punished sin, if He never dealt with sin, then it could be said of Him that He was gracious but not that He was a God of justice.
He will endure our sin, and endure our sin, and endure our sin, but there comes a time when justice has to be enacted for our sin. It says in Numbers 14:18 (NASB): “The Lord is slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty” (emphasis added). In other words, He’s going to punish our sin.
When that time comes, when His gracious endurance of our sin is over, that time is called the time of fulfillment.
Imagine for a second that you are in the first century there and the first thing out of the prophet of God’s mouth is this: “The time is fulfilled!” What goes through your mind when you hear “The time is fulfilled” is the story of the flood where God endured our sin, and endured our sin, and endured our sin, until He endured it no longer and took us out.
You’re thinking about Sodom and Gomorrah, where God endured our sin, and endured our sin, endured our sin, until there were none righteous that could be found, and He poured out fire and brimstone on the city and took them out. What’s going through your mind is, God is done with our sin, and His wrath is coming on us.
And so if you’re in the original audience, you expect Jesus to finish the sentence “The time is fulfilled!” with “The kingdom of God is at hand! Repent because the wrath of God is coming and He’s going to take you out!” But that’s not what Jesus said. He said He wanted everybody to know the time is fulfilled. Yes, God’s patient endurance of your sin is over. But He said repent and believe the gospel.
The time is at hand, and yes, you broke all the rules, every one of you.
The Scripture says that even our righteous deeds are like filthy rags in the sight of our God. All of us have fallen short of the glory of God.
But Jesus walks up and says the time is fulfilled, and yes, God’s wrath is coming. But Jesus said this time is different. Jesus said God’s wrath is not going to be poured out on you. This time God’s wrath, once and for all, is going to be poured out on Me. It’s called the gospel.
Why does that statement right there distinguish Christianity from every other religion in history? Because every other religion in history is defined by this: a person doing their best to fulfill a list of qualifications and regulations and rules and dos and don’ts, hoping that they please God. A Christ-follower is very simply somebody who repents and believes the gospel.
Matt Carter (MDiv, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, PhD, Southeastern Seminary) is lead pastor of Sagemont Church in Houston, Texas. He is author or co-author of several books. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children.