Do I tend toward religious performance or living by the Gospel of grace?

A few years ago a friend introduced me to a helpful way to examine my heart and see if I am living in God’s righteousness, or asserting my own self-righteousness. The simple chart shown below was adapted from Tim Keller’s talk “Preaching the Gospel.” I found it at a time when I felt far from God’s will (vocationally), but desired to live more deeply in His will (personally). Since then I’ve walked through it personally with many, each time rejoicing in the Gospel truth.

While the chart is useful for instructing others, we must begin by filtering our own heart through it. Do I tend toward religious performance (acceptance based on obedience) or living by the Gospel of grace (obedience flowing from acceptance)? 

To this I would add: we are saved by works. Yet these works are not our own; we are graciously saved by the works of Jesus, who lived the life we should live — in perfect submission to God’s will — but haven’t, and died the death we should die, but won’t have to, if we trust in Him.



In religion one says, “I obey — therefore I’m accepted.” In the Gospel one says, “I’m accepted — therefore I obey.” Ephesians 2:8-10
Motivation is based on fear and insecurity. Motivation is based on grateful joy. 1 John 4:7-11
I obey God in order to get things from God. I obey God to get to God—to delight and resemble Him. Isaiah 53:6; Romans 3:23
When circumstances in my life go wrong, I am angry at God or my self, since I believe, like Job’s friends that anyone who is good deserves a comfortable life. When circumstances in my life go wrong, I struggle but I know all my punishment fell on Jesus and that while he may allow this for my training, he will exercise his Fatherly love within my trial. Psalm 23:4; John 16:33; Phil. 4:11-14; Hebrews 12:1-13
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. When I am criticized 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. That’s how I became a Christian. Romans 10:4; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 3:18
My prayer life consists largely of petition and it only heats up when I am in a time of need. My main purpose in prayer is control of the environment. My prayer life consists of generous stretches of praise and adoration. My main purpose is fellowship with Him. Philippians 4:4-7
My self-view swings between two poles. If and when I am living up to my standards, I feel confident, but then I am prone to be proud and unsympathetic to failing people. If and when I am not living up to standards, I feel humble, but not confident-I feel like a failure. My self-view is not based on a view of my self as a moral achiever. In Christ I am simul iustus et peccator—simultaneously sinful and lost yet accepted in Christ. I am so bad he had to die for me and I am so loved he was glad to die for me. This leads me to deeper and deeper humility and confidence at the same time. Neither swaggering nor sniveling. Romans 10:4; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 3:18
My identity and self-worth are based mainly on how hard I work. Or how moral I am, and so I must look down on those I perceive as lazy or immoral. I disdain and feel superior to ‘the other.’ My identity and self-worth are centered on the one who died for His enemies, who was excluded from the city for me. I am saved by sheer grace. So I can’t look down on those who believe or practice something different from me. Only by grace I am what I am. I’ve no inner need to win arguments. Phil. 3:8-9; Mark 10:45; Phil. 2:1-11
Since I look to my own pedigree or performance for my spiritual acceptability, my heart manufactures idols. It may be my talents, my moral record, my personal discipline, my social status, etc. I absolutely have to have them so they serve as my main hope, meaning, happiness, security, and significance, whatever I may say I believe about God. I have many good things in my life—family, work, spiritual disciplines, etc. But none of these good things are ultimate things to me. None of them are things I absolutely have to have, so there is a limit to how much anxiety, bitterness, and despondency they can inflict on me when they are threatened and lost. 1 John 5:11-14; Psalm 73

(Scripture references added)

Keller says he got the idea of contrasting Religion and the Gospel from reading C.S. Lewis’ short essay, “Three Kinds of Men,” in which he says there are not merely two ways to live (God’s way and man’s way), but three: religion, irreligion, and according to the Gospel of grace.