To most people in our society, Christianity is religion and moralism. The only alternative to it (besides some other world religion) is pluralistic secularism. But from the beginning it was not so. Christianity was recognized as a tertium quid, something else entirely.
The crucial point here is that, in general, religiously observant people were offended by Jesus, but those estranged from religious and moral observance were intrigued and attracted to him. We see this throughout the New Testament accounts of Jesus’s life. In every case where Jesus meets a religious person and a sexual outcast (as in Luke 7) or a religious person and a racial outcast (as in John 3-4) or a religious person and a political outcast (as in Luke 19), the outcast is the one who connects with Jesus and the elder-brother type does not. Jesus says to the respectable religious leaders “the tax collectors and the prostitutes enter the kingdom before you” (Matthew 21:31).
Jesus’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to think.
Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God (pp. 17-19).
Keller suggests twelve categories of people that the text may be speaking to:
- Conscious unbeliever: Is aware he is not a Christian (e.g., immoral pagan, intellectual pagan, imitative pagan, genuine thinker, religious non-Christian).
- Nonchurched nominal Christian: Has belief in the basic Christian doctrines, but with no or remote church connection (e.g., churched nominal Christian, semi-active moralist, active self-righteous).
- Awakened: Is stirred and convicted over his sin but without gospel peace yet (e.g., curious, convicted with false peace, comfortless).
- Apostate: Was once active in the church but has repudiated the faith without regrets.
- New Believer: Is recently converted.
- Doubtful: Has many fears and hesitancies about his new faith (e.g., eager, overzealous).
- Mature/growing: Passes through nearly all the basic conditions named below but progresses through them because he responds quickly to pastoral treatment or knows how to treat himself.
- Afflicted: Lives under a burden or trouble that saps spiritual strength (e.g., physically afflicted, dying, bereaved, lonely, persecuted/abused, poor/economic troubles, desertion).
- Tempted: Is struggling with a sin or sins that are remaining attractive and strong (e.g., overtaken, taken over).
- Immature: Is a spiritual baby who should be growing but is not (e.g., undisciplined, self-satisfied, unbalanced, devotee of eccentric doctrine).
- Depressed: Is not only experiencing negative feelings but also shirking Christian duties and being disobedient (e.g., anxious, weary, angry, introspective, guilty).
- Backslid: Has gone beyond depression to withdrawal from fellowship with God and with the church (e.g., tender, hardening).
Andy Naselli, quoting Tim Keller, in How to Understand and Apply the New Testament (pg. 316-17).
If you think legalism is simply too much emphasis on the law, then you will think the antidote is to talk less about obedience and more about acceptance and forgiveness. If you think that antinomianism is simply too loose an attitude toward morality and law, you will assume the remedy is to talk less about mercy and acceptance and more about God’s righteousness and holy commands. In short, you will try to cure one with a dose of the other. That will be a disaster, because both of them have the same root cause. Both come from the belief that God does not really love us or will our joy, and from a failure to see that “both the law and the gospel are expressions of God’s grace.” For both the legalist and the antinomian, obedience to the law is simply the way to get things from God, not a way to get God, not a way to resemble, know, delight, and love him for his sake.
Tim Keller, Preaching (pgs. 54-55).
So, first of all, Christians must be like their neighbors in the food they eat and clothes they wear, their dialect, general appearance, work life, recreational and cultural activities, and civic engagement. They participate fully in life with their neighbors. Christians should also be like their neighbors with regard to excellence. That is, Christians should be very good at what others want to be good at. They should be skillful, diligent, resourceful, and disciplined.
Second, Christians must be also unlike their neighbors. In key ways, the early Christians were startlingly different from their neighbors; it should be no different for us today. Christians should be marked by integrity. Believers must be known for being scrupulously honest, transparent, and fair. Followers of Christ should also be marked by generosity. If employers, they should take less personal profit so customers and employees have more pay. As citizens, they should be philanthropic and generous with their time and with the money they donate for the needy. They should consider living below their potential lifestyle level. Believers should also be known for their hospitality, welcoming others into their homes, especially neighbors and people with needs. They should be marked by sympathy and avoid being known as self-serving or even ruthless in business or personal dealings. They should be marked by an unusual willingness to forgive and seek reconciliation, not by a vengeful or spiteful spirit.
Timothy J. Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (pg. 282-283).