Saturday Sermon: The Failure of Religion

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November 19, 2011 Tags: Pastoral Voices

Today's sermon features Tim Keller. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Though some may believe that moving the science/faith dialogue forward is best left to scientists, scholars, and theologians, we at BioLogos recognize that our pastors play an invaluable role in the conversation. Across the globe, pastors are helping their congregations work through difficult issues of science and faith with honesty, insight, and a gentle spirit. To this end we present an ongoing series recognizing sermons (and the pastors who give them) that are helping to promote the harmony of science and faith. Today's sermon comes from Rev. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Click above to hear an excerpt. Below, is a brief summary written by BioLogos editorial staff. The full sermon can be downloaded here.

In tracing the story of the Bible, Dr. Keller’s previous sermons examined the early chapters of Genesis, which relate the events that lead to humanity’s fall from right relationship with God. Currently, he is exploring God’s redemption of the human brokenness in Paul’s epistle to the Romans. This particular message focuses on chapter two where the Apostle Paul exposes the hypocrisy of Law-observing Jews: while they judged Gentiles by the standard of the Law, they themselves failed to fulfill its requirements. He also asserts that outward performance of the Law by no means exempts them from God’s judgment or from the disease of Sin, which entered the human heart at the Fall. Keller affirms, therefore, that all are in need of a “regenerate new heart” through Jesus Christ, who perfectly fulfilled the requirements of the Law and who alone is able to accomplish this transformation through the power of his cross.

Paul’s message first illuminates what Keller identifies as the failure of religion. The church in Rome no doubt consisted of both Gentiles and Jews. With this in mind, Paul speaks to both groups. Up to this point, Paul has been highlighting the idolatry of the Gentiles. He then reorients his focus in Romans 2 to address the Jews, who were likely to stand in judgment of their gentile brothers and sisters because of the Jewish Law. He declares in verse one, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” Keller explains that this statement exposes the hypocrisy of the religious who look to observance of an outward behavioral code for justification rather than to grace through Jesus, which leads to an inward observance of the Law. For example, although Law observers did not bow before physical graven images as the Gentiles did before faith in Christ, idols occupied their hearts. These inner idols, for both the religious Jews and present Christians, could take the form of power, career, achievement, etc. All in all, Paul demonstrates that religion fails since neither the moral nor the immoral person is perfect by God’s standards. Dr. Keller sums up this point nicely with this statement: “I’m not okay, you’re not ok.” There is not one person who measures up to the standard of the Law of God, and not one person, therefore, has a right to pass judgment according to it.

Dr. Keller then discusses why no one can measure up to the terrible beauty of God’s Law “no matter how good” one’s actions may be. Primarily, it is because the standard is not focused on performing the right deeds. Rather, the major sins described by Paul in Romans 1 include greed, insolence, heartlessness, etc. Although actions accompany such characteristics, they begin as inner attitudes of the heart. Often people read God’s ordinances at the behavioral level, as the religious Jewish people did, in an attempt to justify themselves as a moral person, but God’s requirements are much more demanding. This is revealed in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, for example, when he examines the Ten Commandments. He says in Matthew 5: 21-22 (NIV), “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that…anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court.” In using the Hebrew word ‘raca’ meaning ‘nobody,’ Jesus is revealing that the sin of murder is birthed from a heart that devalues another person who is infinitely valuable in God’s eyes. Simply put, the Law of God is after a certain type of person whose right actions flow from a right heart. For example, the Law points to a person so filled with God’s love that they not only refrain from murder, but rather treat others as royalty. Keller continues as he explains the impossibility of such a standard for a human being, yet the Law demands it. What is more, people will demand a similar standard of others. Keller also emphasizes the Day of Judgment. Because God is just, he will hold a person accountable to either the standard of grace or to the standard that one person required of another. No person is perfect, and therefore, none will be able to stand in either God’s judgment or the judgment of their own heart. This creates the need for a transformed heart as Dr. Keller expounds in the final point of this passage.

In the last verses of Romans 2, the Apostle Paul relates the “failure of religion because of the terrible beauty of the Law” to the need for a regenerate heart. This is only possible through the circumcision of the heart in Christ by the Holy Spirit. Keller first explains the significance of circumcision. Circumcision was a physical distinction between the pagan cultures and the Jewish people who were in covenant with the God of Israel. On a deeper level, this act symbolized the consequence of disobedience to the covenant first established between Abraham and God: one would be cut off from the covenantal relationship with God. As Dr. Keller explains, all people have fallen short of the Law. For this reason, God sent Jesus, his son, to fulfill the requirements of the Law. He then died on the cross to receive upon himself the consequence of death that all deserved. Therefore, Paul argues that it is no longer one who receives physical circumcision who is saved, but one who receives the circumcision of the Spirit in Christ. Romans 2:28 (NIV) establishes this point saying, “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.” Finally, Dr. Keller explains the significance of the Old Testament Law: the perfect standard describes not a moral code, but our Savior Jesus Christ. Ultimately, one seeks to obey the beautiful Law which Jesus embodied, yet one receives grace in the times of failure, confident that Christ has indeed paid it all.


Tim Keller is pastor and founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. The “Influentials” issue of New York magazine featured Keller as “the most successful Christian evangelist in the city” for his engagement with the young professional and artist demographics. He received his bachelor’s degree from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Penn., his Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hampton, Mass., and his Doctor of Ministry from Westminster Theological Seminary. Keller has helped start more than 100 churches throughout the world. He is the author of Counterfeit Gods; The Prodigal God; The Reason for God: Belief of God in an Age of Skepticism -- named book of the year by World Magazine in 2008; and the recently released Generous Justice.


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HornSpiel - #66164

November 21st 2011

The Law of God is getting at a kind of person, a kind of heart…

This is wonderfully expressed and very true. What is not discussed in this excerpt, is how we actually  grow in the direction of being people with that kind of heart. How do we get there? How do you deal with the  gulf between what you are and what God says you should be?

This made me realize that I am motivated so much by guilt and worry. I know that God loves me where I am, but I confess it is so hard to let go of what I know.



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