The Christian is called to live an inside to outside life. This kind of life means our life with God begins on the inside (motives) and manifests on the outside (behaviors). Tim Keller calls this The Inside-out Kingdom.
To understand the inside-out kingdom, you have to start with how you think about Christianity as it compares to religion. Christianity, in one sense, is not a religion. For example, we see how Jesus was gentle with the outcasts but angry with the religious people of His day–the Pharisees. Why was this?
The Pharisees knew God’s law; the outcasts may have known it but did not practice it. They were sinners–tax collectors (Matthew), adulterers (the woman caught in adultery), and fornicators (the Samaritan woman at the well). The Pharisees practiced it but missed the point of it.
We can look at the teachings from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-18) to get an understanding of what it means to be religious. Jesus teaches us by comparing His way against the way of the religionists of His day.
- You can give to the needy with much fanfare, or you can give in a way where your right-hand doesn’t know what your left hand is doing.
- You can pray on a street corner, or you can pray in a private room.
- You can fast while you let everyone know or you can fast discretely.
Though there can be different ways to obey God’s commandments, it is preferred to do it without self-acclaim and with humility. However, there can be a danger: following Christ differently won’t make you better.
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 5:20 (ESV)
Christ says our righteousness must not be a better way to do things, but it must exceed the most religious people of His time if you want to enter into the Kingdom of God.
He suggests Christianity is something different from following rules–whether we do them to gain praise or if we do them in the privacy in our home. We would do well to understand how Christianity is not about obeying rules.
Righteousness outside of Christ is religion
If you take a hard look at religion, you will see it is nothing more than obeying rules for the purpose of attaining something good. Many people describe Christianity as a religion. I know when I first became a Christian, I used to tell people Christianity was not religion, but a relationship. It sounded good, but I am not sure I understood what I was saying.
Now it makes sense to me why people call Christianity religion; they hear about the ten commandments and see Christians trying to obey them, so they feel better about themselves. People may say they are not going to go to heaven because they are breaking God’s laws. I am sure they are perplexed when they see their Christian neighbors breaking some of these rules.
Even in Christian circles, an invisible religion can creep in. We read about the Pharisees and think it is ridiculous how they acted; worshiping God in a self-boastful way. But we can easily replace their rules with our rules, right?
- Pray in solitude
- Give anonymously
- Store treasures in heaven
If our Christianity is done with the intent to gain favor from God or to feel better about ourselves, it is not Christianity. It’s our version of religion.
The Gospel is greater than religion
Christianity is an entirely different path from the rules of the Pharisees and even our “perceived humble” good works. Tim Keller calls this Gospel goodness.
The implication of the Gospel means I’m not relying on my righteousness, but trusting in Christ and receiving His righteousness. Keller uses four points to show why the Gospel is better than “religious righteousness.”
Gospel Goodness is brighter – Religious people separate themselves from the world. They operate under a bowl, counting their deeds. Because their deeds are valuable, they don’t want to waste their time in situations where they gain no results.
They don’t like to get their hands messy with people who are different. Christianity is a light to the world. Christians, on the other hand, pursue problems. They give themselves and their things away. Because they do not rely on their righteousness, they can see their sin as a plank and the sins of other people as specks (Matthew 7:3-5).
Christians make you feel better. But religious people always make you feel condemned. They make you feel worse. – Tim Keller
Gospel Goodness is deeper – Religion focuses on the surface. It focuses on behaviors. Religious people wait to catch someone tripping up behaviorally. Christianity deals with the heart. Christian do things with different motives; e.g. you turn the other cheek not to get hit, but hoping someday you will be reconciled (Matthew 5:39).
Gospel Goodness is sweeter – Religion obeys to gain things, e.g. respect from others, acceptance from God, or personal perceived value. It says God will love you if you’re obedient. The Gospel says, because God is your Father, you are obedient. Obeying God’s commands are impossible unless we know we are valuable to God.
The exhortation to stop worrying is not a command, but a reminder that we can stop worrying because God is our Father (Matthew 6:24-34). Religion makes life about you. Christianity makes life about God.
Gospel Goodness is higher – The Gospel fulfills all the law. God did not take any shortcuts. We don’t have to settle for “the best that could be done based on the situation.” Christ came to fulfill the law perfectly. He is the only one who perfectly lived out the Sermon on the Mount.
If we are in Christ, we gain from His perfection. The LORD sees you perfected through the works of Christ. You are not a patchwork job. Christ’s righteousness makes you perfect in Him.
The Inside-out Kingdom
The world’s kingdom is a right-side out Kingdom. It focuses on the external. It focuses how you look. Christianity is inside-out. It focuses on who I am in my heart and who I am in Jesus. Instead of valuing our works, it values our emptiness.
Many people think Christianity is like climbing a ladder. They believe that we rise to God if we do the right things the right way. Their thinking can go like this: “Out of my goodness, I will seek to get God and other people to give me what I want in my inner emptiness; that is, a feeling of approval or worth.”
That is the problem with religion in that it can be so deceptive. We can think we are seeking God but don’t see how we are still placing our faith in our good works.
My co-worker was joking when he said he loaned his emergency generator to someone in need during Hurricane Sandy, which means he met the requirements of heaven. His actions make him a good person.
As a Christian, it is easy for me to shake my head at his foolishness. But if I take a minute, I realize how I lace my works with a desire to earn God’s favor:
- Reading my 4.5 chapters in the Bible.
- Praying before dinner and bed.
- Listening to Christian music during the day.
I trained my conscience regarding these tasks, so I will feel convicted if I skip them. Instead of confessing my religion, I usually admit my laziness or lack of feelings towards God.
While I may need to admit those things, I need to acknowledge how I am still putting my hope in my efforts. I need to remember how I am poor in Spirit. I need to remember I am accepted by God, through Christ and how I need to have a different attitude–a Christian one.
I’m going to build my whole life and my approach to God on what Jesus has done for me. I am going to let Jesus be my Savior. – Tim Keller
We need to live in the Inside-out Kingdom for us to have the Upside-Down Kingdom. Focusing on our good deeds is still focusing on ourselves. We are busy climbing the ladder.
This mentality will set us up to value the wrong things. We will value the praise of men, which gives the world control of our hearts. We need to build our life on Gospel goodness to enter the Upside-down Kingdom.
Call to action
- Do your teenage children feel better about themselves when they are around you, or do they feel judged and condemned? How should this teaching impact your parenting approach?
- When you pray at night after a rough day, do you find yourself confessing to God the things you didn’t do – pray, read the bible, or do you find yourself confessing how you forgot you were a child of God?
- In counseling, do you find yourself offering advice on how to improve a counselee’s spiritual disciplines (maybe a different Bible reading plan, different Bible translation, scriptural memorization)?
- Or do you find yourself helping them to see their emptiness apart from Christ, and how they are loved and accepted by God through their relationship with Christ?