There is a popular video making the rounds by a young man named Jefferson Bethke. In it, he slams religion, saying that it is not what Jesus came to bring us. There are a lot of strong feelings on both sides of the issue.
Tim Keller, in his Gospel in Life study guide has created a chart where he compares religion with the Gospel. The first comparison is this: Religion says, "I obey, therefore I'm accepted." The Gospel says, "I'm accepted, therefore I obey."
Before we jump on the "Okay, I am safe because I fall on the gospel side of this" side of the argument, look more closely. The Gospel is all about what God has accomplished for us in Christ. The Gospel is never about what we bring to God.
I am sitting here, looking at the front cover of UCC's directory (University Christian Church of Muncie, Indiana) as I type. According to the sign on the church building on the front cover of the directory, UCC is "A Place Where Life Change Happens." So is our distinction the fact that life change happens here (Look at me, Look at what I do for God!) or is our distinction "Look at what Christ has done for me!" I believe it was B.J. Thomas who sang, "What a difference He's made in my life," and not "What a difference we make in the lives of others." Or look at UCC's mission statement, "University Christian Church exists for winning souls and nurturing spiritual growth." While that sounds wonderful, what is at the center of it? Is it what we do for God or what God has done for us? Are we going to be the Pharisee who stands and prays about his spiritual accomplishments, or are we going to be the tax-collector who beats his breast and says, "God, forgive me, a sinner." (Luke 18:9-13) Some may see this as splitting hairs, I see it as revealing a possible spiritual illness. If this makes anyone angry, let me share another of Keller's differences between Gospel and religion.
Religion says, "When I am criticized I am furious or devastated because it is critical that I think of myself as a 'good person.' Threats to that self-image must be destroyed at all costs." The Gospel says, "When I am criticized, I can take it. I struggle, but it is not critical 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. I can take criticism."
It is never about what I do for Christ or what I bring to Him, but always about what He has done for me and what He brings to me. Or to put it another way, consider the words of the hymn, "Rock of Ages"
"Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.
The Gospel makes Christ beautiful, not me or my church or anything else for that matter. That is because even on my best day, I am a sinner in need of a Savior. And it is not only my sin that falls short, it is also my goodness since "all our righteous acts are like filthy rags." (Isaiah 64:6)
To quote Jefferson Bethke, the church is "not a museum for good people, it's a hospital for the broken." At least, that is what it is supposed to be.