One of the most compelling characteristics of the biblical gospel message is its profound uniqueness. Through the years, as I have struggles with questions of faith, religion and truth, as I have put the biblical message under my own criticism and scrutiny, I have been astounded at the particularity and specificity of this message. Despite its hundreds of misrepresentations, it is a story that is truly distinct, a worldview that stands apart.
We live in a world where there basically seem to be two categories of people: the religious and the secular. The religious people, which actually make up the vast majority of humanity¹, believe in the importance of serving God, following his will and seeking to please him. To them life revolves around the question of life after death, or heaven. The secular person is generally urban, educated and career driven. Priorities in life that stand out to this population is personal freedom and fulfillment. The idea that truth can be dictated by a single source or system of thought is strongly opposed. Secular people in our time often admit to have some sort of spiritual values but these are very vague, loosely held and ever-evolving.
These two categories of people are very broad and encompass a wide variety of different kind of people but when examined in the big picture sense, the difference between the two is quite clear cut. What is more interesting is that each one has classic criticisms and disagreements with the other. The religious see the secular as self centered, hedonistic and vain. The secular sees the religious as self righteous, ignorant and primitive.
Much can be said about the interesting things that are happening in our time between these two categories of humanity. Suffice it to say for now that, in general, we are seeing a more and more increasingly polarized context of human civilization. People in our time hold to more and more extreme versions of these world views. Neither is going to give up. Most often, neither is very open to listen to the other.
But if we look back through history, we can see that this is no new development. People of all times have generally divided into those who build their lives around knowing God and winning his favor by doing good, and those who have built their lives around the things which are more tangible, visible and measurable.
In steps Jesus.
A careful reading of the New Testament quickly paints a clear picture that the gospel message confronts, not just the secular, but both of these groups of people. In fact, Jesus’ greatest conflicts were with the most religious and “righteous” people of his time. He exposed their life of seeking to please God as merely another vain attempt at establishing their own self worth apart from him. At the same time he confronted those who lived life establishing their own moral standard about the futility and emptiness of such an endeavor.
The circle of people that surrounded Jesus were ex-members of both types of people. His followers came from the highest point of religious life as well as the lowest parts of human civilization; pharisees, tax collectors, convicts, business people and beggars.
Why? The solution that Jesus offered was profoundly different from anything that people have heard of before. Jesus offered a third way to live. Indeed he pointed people back to the inevitable reality of a mighty God who stands behind this amazing world of biological complexity, morality, truth, beauty and love. No other answer can account for all of this. Nevertheless he also pointed to our own futility and depravity in relation to God. Our religious attempt at self righteousness is merely another restatement of our alienation from our Maker, just as is the life of those who refuse to think of him.
Jesus both confront and affirms certain aspects of both ways to live, while ultimately pointing to their simultaneous futility. Jesus then points us to the reality of the grace of God. The impossibility of knowing God is broken by God himself as he becomes our mediator, stepping into this world, taking an infinite plunge to fulfill an infinite need.
Jesus’ message of grace brings together both the justice and the love of God. It confronts those who distort the justice of God by thinking they can buy his favor by following rules and being good moral people. It also confronts those who distort the love of God by presuming on it, and ignoring the inevitable need for justice.
Its a message that gets at the heart of the issue. Its a message that exposes us in our utterly helpless state in the face of God, and yet it reorients our hearts to the center of all reality – a real God who saves.
Jesus offers a third way to live. Have you considered its implications?
(1.) According to the Pew Research Center only 22.8% of people don’t identify themselves with any religious system.
(2.) I am indebted to Tim Keller in his numerous talks and writing to pointing out the distinction between Jesus and every other way.