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Category Archives: Tim Keller

Dr. Timothy Keller is founder and pastor of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. Over the past 20 years, the church has grown to five services at three sites, with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Named one of the Top 25 Most Influential Churches in America, Keller’s ministry is notable not only for winning over New Yorkers who are skeptical to faith, but also for its missional approach, planting more than 100 churches though Redeemer City to City. He is the New York Times bestselling author of The Reason for God, The Prodigal God, and Counterfeit Gods. He blogs at Redeemer City to City.

Tim Keller: No One Seeks God – Romans 3:9-20

SERIES – Bible: The Whole Story—Redemption and Restoration #9

Tim Keller preaching image

Preached in Manhattan on March 1, 2009

What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. 10 As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands; no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” 14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery mark their ways, 17 and the way of peace they do not know.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” 19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. - Romans 3:9-20

The Bible, we say every week, is not so much a series of little disconnected stories, each with a moral. The Bible is actually a single story about what’s wrong with the world and the human race, what God has done to put that right in Jesus Christ, and finally how history then, as a result, is going to turn out in the end. That is the story of the Bible. What we’re looking at in Romans 1–4 is Saint Paul’s version of that entire biblical story, which is also called the gospel.

We are coming here, in this passage, to the very end of his analysis of what’s wrong with the human race, which, though it’s a tiny little word, is fraught with profound meaning. The Bible’s answer to the question “Why? What’s wrong with the human race?” is the word sin. Paul here is giving us a kind of summary statement of the biblical doctrine, you could say, of sin.

When I was a new believer and just trying to work my way around the Bible, I want you to know this particular passage gave me fits. It was a tough passage for me. Some of the statements seemed over the top. It bothered me, and I wrestled with it, but eventually it revolutionized my way of thinking about life and about myself and about the world.

I’ll share a little bit of what I learned back then with you now. This is perhaps the most radical, the strongest of all the statements the Bible gives us about what’s wrong with the human heart. We’re going to learn three things about sin here: the egalitarianism of sin, the trajectory of sin, and the cure for sin.

1. The egalitarianism of sin. We’re going to work pretty much through the passage. In the very beginning, in verses 9 and 10, Paul is making a statement. He’s making a point that I’m going to call the egalitarianism of sin. He says over and over again there’s no one righteous, there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks for God, but it’s in verse 9 that he says the most amazing thing. He says, “Jew and Gentile alike are under sin. Are we any better? Not at all!”

Now you have to remember Paul is looking back to Romans 1, where he’s talking about the pagan Gentiles rolling in the streets … sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. There’s a long list of sexual practices and evil corruption practices, civil and corporate and individual. Then Paul identifies himself as a God-fearing Jew who is trying to obey the Ten Commandments in chapter 2, and he says, “Are we any better than them? Not at all.”

Moral and immoral, religious and secular, he’s saying there is no difference. In fact, in the beginning he says, “… alike are under sin.” What does that mean? If you want to understand what that means, you can scroll to the bottom of the text, where it says in verse 19, “… the whole world [is] held accountable to God.”

The word accountable means liable. It’s a judicial word. It means liable for punishment. What he’s saying is, no matter who you are, no matter what your record, no matter whether you’ve lived a life of altruism and compassion and service or a life of cruelty and exploitation, we’re all alike. We’re all condemned. We’re all lost. We all deserve to be rejected by God. That’s what he’s saying.

How could that be? That’s actually getting to the next point. Let me remind you of what we even know from last week in looking at Romans 2. Paul is saying a criminal robbing and murdering people and a moral, religious, upright Pharisee who thinks because of his good deeds and his righteousness God owes him blessing and people owe him respect …

Paul is saying as different as those look on the surface, underneath those are both expressions of the same radical self-centeredness, radical self-absorption, that is sin. Now how that can be we’ll get to in a second, but here’s what I want you to see. When Paul says “all alike,” and, “Are they any better than us? Not at all!” this is radical egalitarianism. I want you to see the implications of this. Let me give you two implications.

The first implication is if you’re looking at Christianity, and I know some of you are, if you’re thinking about Christianity like, “Well, what is this about?” if you’re exploring it, if you want to know more about it, almost always you come unconsciously with a preliminary model already determined in your mind for how this is going to work.

Basically, most people come to Christianity saying, “We’re going to explore this,” and you start to say, “Okay, somehow there’s some things, this and that, I must do for God, and if I do this and that for God, then God will be obliged to do this and that for me. That’s how spirituality works. If I do this and that for God, God will do this and that for me.” That’s the model in your head. You kind of assume it. You think you’re exploring, though you’ve already assumed that model. What you’re actually exploring, you think, is what the this and the that are.

Most people think, “Well, spirituality works like this. There is some kind of life that is considered a good life, and I must adopt it. There is a kind of life that is a bad life, and I must reject it. Then if I adopt a good life and reject and abandon the bad life, then God will do this and that. I’m just trying to find out what is a good life, what do I have to stop doing, what do I have to start doing, what will God do.”

That’s what you think of exploring. But I want you to see the model is wrong. Hear me. Whatever Paul is talking about when he calls people to become Christians and receive salvation, whatever Jesus is calling us to do when he calls us to take salvation, they can’t be calling us to simply stop bad living and start good living, because he’s saying here the people who live good are no better than the people who live bad. They’re all spiritually lost. Spiritually speaking, they’re in the very same place.

So if you think what it means to become a Christian is, “There are certain things I have to stop doing and certain things I have to start doing, then God will bless me,” you’re wrong. What is it then? I’m just trying to get you to see that because you come in with a grid, it doesn’t actually understand or accept this, because there’s nobody who believes this except Christians. No other worldview, no other religion, no other philosophy says anything like this.

The fact is that whatever it is Jesus and Paul are calling you to in order to get salvation, it’s nothing like anything you can conceive of. You’re going to have to listen really carefully, because it’s not on your mental map. Whatever it is, it is a category-buster. I just want you to recognize that. It’s unique. It’s different. It’s not what you expect, and you’re going to have to listen carefully.

The gospel doesn’t really fit into other human categories. So first of all, please keep in mind that Paul and Jesus and I … When I call you to become a Christian, I’m not just saying, “Stop living like this and start living like this.” Of course I want you to change your life. A changed life is absolutely important, but it can’t be the main thing. It can’t be the chief thing. It can’t be the central thing. Why? Because people who live good lives and people who live bad lives are all alike, according to God.

Now the other implication is, let’s just say you have embraced Christianity. You say, “I am a Christian.” Do you realize the radical nature of the statement, “Are we any better? Not at all!”? There was nobody who ever lived, probably, who was more dedicated and upright and moral, and dedicated to his God, to his principles, to the Scriptures, than Paul.

It’s just amazing if you read all the way through Romans. Paul goes through the list of sexual practices and various sorts of corruption in chapter 1, and then he gets to chapter 3 and says, “Am I any better than them? Not at all!” For Paul to say, “I have come to the conclusion, through the gospel, that the criminal who is killing people and robbing people and raping people in the street is equal to me. I am no better than that person,” is unbelievable.

I want you to think about this. Paul was a Pharisee, and as a Pharisee he would have considered Gentiles as spiritual dogs and unclean. Yet here he is now, dedicating his life to living with them, to living with these racially other people. Is it possible, before the gospel came to Paul, that he could have looked at heretics and infidels and said, “We’re equal.” Could he have looked at pagans and at libertines and immoral people and said, “We’re equal”? Not on your life!

But now here’s what’s going on. A group of people, big swaths of the human race, that he would have looked down on, that he would have scorned, that he would have written off, that he would have showed no love and respect for … The gospel, the doctrine of sin, has radically re-humanized the human race for Paul.

Do you hear me? Radically re-humanized. There are all kinds of people he would have looked down on, caricatured them, thought, “Who has anything to do with them?” But now, “I’m no better than them.” These people are radically re-humanized in his mind. Now do you think this doctrine of total depravity …

That’s an old theological term for this doctrine, the idea that the world is not filled with good people and bad people, but all people are lost, all people need salvation, all people are sinful. Total depravity … Do you think the doctrine of total depravity will make you look down on people? Not at all. Look what happened to Paul.

If you believe in this doctrine of total depravity, and you think it out, and you take it to the center of your life, it re-humanizes the human race. All kinds of people that you would have never given the time of day to, you now love and respect. Why? Because I’m no better. Wherever you are socially, your social location, makes you prone to look down your nose at people of certain races, certain classes, certain nationalities.

Even your vocation does. You’re an artist. “Look at the traditional, middle-class bourgeois.” You’re a traditional, middle-class bourgeois. “Look at these freaky, stupid artists.” You’re conservative, or you’re liberal. You really feel about your politics … Do you really look at the other side and say, “I’m no better”? No, you don’t say that. You say, “We’re a lot better.”

It’s true. Any place you are in the world, whatever your racial or your cultural group, your national grouping, you have a history with another kind of person, another kind of grouping, that your social location makes you tend to despise. But if you believe in the doctrine of sin, you’re no better. Do you see the radical egalitarianism of the biblical doctrine of sin?

2. The trajectory of sin

We also learn here about the trajectory of sin. We have to now deal with the fact that a lot of people say, “This is just over the top.” I did as a young Christian. I looked at this and I see Paul saying no one seeks for God. It sure seems to me there’s an awful lot of people spiritually searching and seeking to please God. Then it says no one does good. “Wow, wait a minute. What do you mean, nobody does good?”

But if you look more carefully, you will see what Paul is giving us here is a definition of sin that goes deep. He’s showing us that sin is relational before it ever becomes, if it ever becomes, a behavioral thing like breaking the law. Why? Look at the word turn away. “All have turned away …” Even look at the word seek. “… there is … no one who seeks God.”

These are directional words. What it’s talking about is trajectory. It’s talking about direction. Your aim. Therefore, sin is not so much a matter of whether you’re doing bad things or good things. Sin is mainly a matter of what you’re doing your doing for. We’re being told sin makes you want to get away from God. Not go toward him; get away.

Sin makes you want to get out from under his gaze, get out from under his hands, get out from under his control. You want to be your own savior. You want to be your own lord. You want to keep God at arm’s length. You want to stay in control of your own life. That’s what sin makes you want to do. As we have often said, but we have to say it now again, there are two ways to be your own savior and lord.

There are two ways to keep God at arm’s length. One is to be a law to yourself. Live any way you want. The other is to be very, very, very good, and go to church and obey the Bible and do everything you possibly can and try to be like Jesus, so that God has to bless you, so God has to save you, in which case you’re trying to get control over God. In that case you’re not seeking God. You’re seeking things from God.

The text doesn’t say, “No one seeks blessing from God.” Of course they do. “No one seeks answers to prayer from God.” Of course they do. “No one seeks forgiveness from God.” Of course they do. “No one seeks spiritual …” Of course they do. But no. Paul’s saying no one seeks God. All your so-called serving, and all your so-called doing good, is really for yourself. It’s away from God. It’s away from others. It’s toward self-centeredness. That’s the trajectory.

Let me give you an example of how what looks like selflessness and sacrificial love and service is not. AA can tell you. People who are involved in AA know about this sort of thing. What I’m about to describe to you happens all the time. I’m going to describe to you a married couple in which one spouse is an alcoholic.

By the way, it could be the woman rather than the husband, but I’m just going to make it this way. I’m going to have the husband be the alcoholic and the wife not. Here’s how it often works. Often the husband is an alcoholic. So what does the wife have to do? Over the years, she has to bail him out. She has to make excuses for him. She has to clean up his mess. She has to constantly rescue him.

Then of course, she turns on him and says, “Do you know what I’m doing for you? I’m not leaving you. I’m staying with you. I’m trying to keep this marriage together. I’m trying to keep our family together. I’m trying to keep our family economically afloat, no thanks to you. I have to do this, and I have to do that, and I have to do all these things. Look what you’re doing to me! I suffer so much for you. I give so much to you, and yet you do this over and over and over again.”

So she seems to be the one who’s serving. She seems to be the one who is giving of herself. Yet AA will tell you how often this will happen. If the husband gets into rehabilitation and begins to get better, very often the marriage will fall apart. She won’t like it. She won’t be able to deal with it. Why not? If she really loved him, she’d want the best for the person she loved. If you love a person, you want the best for the person. The best thing for an addict is to go sober. If she really loves him, she should love to have him sober, but she doesn’t.

Do you know why? Here’s what usually happens. She needed him to be a mess so she could rescue him, so she could feel good about herself, so she could feel worthwhile, so she could feel in control, so she could demand things of him and other people, so she could feel very noble about herself. She wasn’t seeking him. She wasn’t loving him. She was loving herself. She wasn’t serving him. She was serving herself. She wasn’t seeking him. She was seeking things from him. She was seeking power. She was seeking control.

Underneath all that selflessness, and underneath all that service, she was serving herself, and she was being radically selfish. She was doing all the right things, but she was doing it for herself. Paul is saying that is the case with all of us actually. Unless the Holy Spirit comes in to change your heart, nobody serves God for God.

Nobody is really seeking God. They’re seeking things from God. Nobody even serves others, because you always serve people, you always serve God, as long as it benefits you, so you can feel good about yourself, so you can make demands, so you can feel noble. No one seeks for God. No one does good.

It doesn’t mean nobody formally does good things. Of course it is better to give to the poor, of course it is better to forgive somebody than it is to harm somebody or to spend all the money on yourself. Of course. I’m not saying there aren’t such things as virtuous deeds, but we’re looking at the heart. We’re looking at trajectory.

I want you to know (I’ll just finish the little personal story here), that early on in my Christian life, when I was struggling with Romans 3 and figuring, “This just seems over the top. I feel like I do good. I feel like I sought God before I became a Christian too.” I just thought Paul was just being over-the-top.

But I remember sometime in my early Christian walk, and it would have been in my early 20s, I had a very bad patch. Everything was going wrong in my life. I suppose looking back on it … I don’t even remember the circumstances. For all I know, looking back on it, it might have been pretty weak tea, but at the time it seemed like the end of the world.

I was sitting there and praying, and I actually began to say, “Why should I be praying? What am I getting out of this relationship with God? He doesn’t answer my prayers. There are all these unjust things happening around me. I’ve worked my fingers to the bone for this man. What am I getting out of it?”

I had a thought. I’ll never forget the thought. Because I’m a Presbyterian, I figured it was a hunch. If I was a member of some other denominations I would have said it was God speaking to me. Now in my mature theological position, as I think about it, it was probably God speaking to me through a hunch. The thought was this. “Now, only now that everything is going wrong in your life … now we’ll find out whether you got into this faith to get God to serve you or in order to serve God. Now we’ll know.”

I began to realize, maybe Paul was right that really every single part of my heart either did bad things, or now that I was doing good things I was doing good things for myself. No one seeks for God. No one is righteous. No one is really doing good for goodness’ sake, or for God’s sake, or even for other people’s sake, but for your own sake. That radical self-centeredness is what’s making the world a mess. I came to see that I was running from God even in my good deeds. Do you? I hope you do.

3. The cure for sin

Now lastly, how are we going to cure this? I mean, this is a problem. In fact, this middle part of the passage says, “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.”

Whenever I look out on a Manhattan crowd, many of you look quite marvelous, but this is what you look like to God. Night of the Living Dead. Look at it. It’s amazing. Spiritually speaking, this is the case. Underneath all of our doing good, underneath all the good deeds and working for charity and trying to do the right thing and trying to honor your parents, all the good deeds … there’s anger. There’s touchiness. There’s turning on people if they harm you.

There’s a great deal of discouragement and unhappiness because, “God is not doing what he ought to be doing in my life.” Inside, it’s all a mess. It’s like a kind of spiritual leprosy. You may look great on the outside, but inside you’re falling apart. It’s like spiritual leprosy. What will cure us? Paul here at the end tells us two things that are the keys to the cure. The first thing is, at the very end, “… every mouth may be silenced …”

When Paul says that, you must remember this is the end of his exposition of why we need salvation. Starting in verse 21, he begins to open us up to salvation. He says, “But now a salvation or righteousness …” But he’s bringing us to this point. This is his way of saying you’ll never be able to receive Christ’s salvation unless you shut up spiritually, unless your mouth is silenced.

What does it mean to be shut up, to shut up spiritually? To have your mouth silenced means no excuses, and no Plan B. See, if you say, “Oh, I know I did wrong, God, but I can do better next time. I know I’ve done these things wrong, but I can turn it around. I see my motives are bad, but I can change my motives …” Shut up.

As long as you’re still saying, “I know I can do … I know I can do …” Paul says you haven’t shut up and you’re not ready for salvation. You can’t receive the cure for this sin unless you realize you can’t fix yourself, you realize that even trying to fix yourself makes yourself worse, because every effort to somehow put it together and be a better person and really try harder is really just another effort in self-justification, self-salvation, self-sufficiency. You’re just making yourself worse.

This condition of spiritually shutting up and just being quiet so you can receive the cure doesn’t mean, by the way, beating yourself up. “Oh, I’ve done so wrong.” Shut up. You’re still centered on yourself. You have to get to the end of yourself. The only way to begin to get pulled out of the radical self-centeredness of sin is to get to the end of yourself.

That means not just saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry for my sin. I’ll try to do better.” You have to not only be sorry for your sin but even sorry for the reason you did anything right in your whole life, which means you have nothing to do but receive. There is nothing you can do now. You just have to wait and listen.

John Gerstner puts it like this. Because of the gospel, “… the way to God is wide open. […] No sin can hold him back, because God has offered justification to the ungodly. Nothing now stands between the sinner and God but the sinner’s ‘good works.’ ” Now listen carefully. “All they need is need. All they must have is nothing.” But most people don’t have it. They have, “Well, look at the good things I’ve done.” Shut up. “But look at how bad these are. I can …” Shut up.

See, what he’s saying here is all you need is need. All you need is nothing. But most people don’t have it. He’s saying the way you open yourself to salvation, in fact the only way you can receive God’s salvation is not just simply to repent of your sins. Pharisees repent of their sins. When they do something wrong, they say, “Oh, I did wrong, and now I’m going to do better.”

They repent of their sins, and they’re still Pharisees. If you want to become a Christian, you don’t just repent of your sins, but you also begin to repent of the reason you did anything right. Now you’re in a position to say, “I need something completely different than just help to live the right way.” So first of all, shut up. Spiritual silence.

The second thing you need for the cure is the fear of the Lord. Actually, the cure is there. I never realized it until I started studying this passage and getting ready to teach it to you. Look at this. “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. […] Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery …” Why? “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Do you see? If they had fear, they wouldn’t have all those things. The fear of God is the antidote. It’s the cure. The fear of God is the opposite. The reason they do all those things is there’s no fear, so if you put in the fear, you have the cure. What is that? See, here it is. What is the fear of the Lord? All through the Bible, fear of the Lord is a major concept. It sure is.

Do you know how often it says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom? It says it in Job. It says it in Psalms. It says it in Proverbs. What does that mean? Wisdom means until you fear God, you can’t even begin to think straight about reality. “Well then, what is this fear of the Lord if it’s so important, if it’s the cure for my sin?”

The trouble is, for us, the fear of the Lord sounds like being scared of the Lord. It doesn’t. Do you know why? First of all, if you actually start to look at the way the texts use the words fear of the Lord in the Bible, you hear things like this. Deuteronomy 10 says, “What does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, love him, and serve him with all your heart and soul?” To fear God is to love him with all your heart and soul.

Well then, why do they call it fear? Let me go on further. Psalm 119 says, “Because you fulfill your promise to me, I fear you.” What? “Because you’ve been so good to me, I’m filled with fear.” Then Psalm 130:4, which is maybe the classic text. “But because you have forgiven me, therefore, I fear you.” Whatever the fear of the Lord is, it is increased when you see and experience God’s salvation, his grace, his goodness, his love. It increases.

“Well,” you say, “why would you call it fear? It sounds like you should call it joy. Why fear?” The fear of God is joyful, humbling awe and wonder before the salvation of God. It’s called fear because it’s not just happiness. When you really see the salvation of God and what it is, on the one hand it affirms you to the sky, but at the same time it humbles you into the dust. That’s why it’s called fear. Let’s call it the joyful fear, awe and wonder before the greatness of God’s salvation.

It turns you out of yourself. It turns you away from the being curved in, the self-centeredness, because on the one hand you’re too humbled to just be self-centered, and you’re too affirmed to need to be. Therefore this joyful fear is the cure, and it happens when you see his salvation. You say, “Well, what does that mean? See his salvation? What does that mean?” I’ll tell you what it means. Just think like this, and let’s conclude like this. Because you don’t seek for God, because I don’t seek for God, because nobody seeks for God, God’s salvation has to be God seeking for us.

There are a lot of religions that say human beings can seek for God. If you just try hard, you can find him. So God sits there and says, “Here are the rules, and here are all the things you need to do. If you pick them up and you do them, I’m sure you can find me.” In other words, in most religions, salvation is you finding God. But in the Christian religion, in Christian faith, it’s the opposite. Salvation is God seeking and finding you. If you know what he did to do that, it will fill you with this joyful, humbling, sin-curing fear.

Let me just give you one story to tell you about it. In the Old Testament, God goes to one prophet named Hosea, and he says, “Hosea, you see this woman over here named Gomer? Marry her.” So Hosea says, “Sure. I’m a prophet. You’re God. You spoke to me. I’ll marry her.” It’s not long after he’s married to her he begins to realize she has wayward feet, she is not being faithful to him, she is being sexually unfaithful to him. As she begins to have children, he realizes they’re not his children. In fact, he names one of them “Not Mine.”

Finally her unfaithfulness gets worse and worse and worse, and eventually she leaves him. She just leaves him and leaves the kids and goes off to one man, then goes off to another man, then goes off to another man. She gets what she deserves, because she’s so faithless. She’s breaking every promise, and she’s lying. Finally the last man sells her into slavery.

Hosea turns to God and says, “Remind me why you asked me to marry her.” God basically says, “So you will know something about my relationship to you. Now you’ll know what it’s like for me. Now you know what it’s like to be me.” “Here’s what I want you to do, Hosea,” he says. “I want you to go where she is being bid on, and I want you to purchase her freedom. I want you to take her back. Then you’ll know what it’s like to be me.”

So there’s poor Gomer. From what we can tell, she’s being bid on as a slave. She’s probably stripped naked, because they were, so the buyers could see what they were buying. She’s standing there, and suddenly to her shock she hears her husband’s voice bidding. He purchases her freedom.

He walks up to her, and instead of berating her, he takes his cloak off and covers her nakedness and says, “Now you will come home and be my wife.” Wow, how moving that is! It’s nothing compared to what God has done for you. Do you know what God is saying to you through Hosea? Poor Hosea. He had to do it so I could use this sermon illustration. It ruined his whole life.

But guess what? It was worth it, because God is trying to say, “Hosea just had to go to the next city, but I had to come from heaven to earth to find you. You weren’t seeking me. I had to seek you. I had to find you. I didn’t just have to reach and dig down in my pockets to get the money out to purchase your freedom. I had to go to the cross. There I had to suffer and die. I had to pay the penalty for your sins. Look at this sin. Somebody has to pay for it. I was stripped naked on the cross so I could clothe you with a robe of righteousness and say, ‘You come home with me.’ ”

When you see, not that “Oh, we all have the ability, if we really try hard enough, to go find God,” but that the salvation of the gospel is God seeking us, finding us, coming to us at infinite cost to himself, that will fill you with a holy fear, a joyful fear. You will find the cure has begun. Let’s pray.

Our Father, we thank you that now as we take up the bread and the cup and take the Lord’s Supper, we’re in a position where you can drive even closer into the center of our being the cure for sin. We see you sought us because we didn’t seek you. You had to do it, because if you had sat and waited for us to come find you, we never would have. We thank you, therefore, that it’s such a moving story, what you have done for us.

But most importantly is the objective work of Jesus Christ on the cross that opened a way for us, so now the only thing standing between us and you is this belief that we still have control of our lives, that we can earn our salvation. Help us now to set aside our sin and even set aside our righteousness and receive your free salvation. Cure our sin. Cure our hearts. Begin the cure now. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

 

 

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Book Review: Tim Keller’s “The Reason For God”

The Reason For God Keller

Mere Christianity for the 21st Century - Book Review by David P. Craig

In 1943 in Great Britain, when hope and the moral fabric of society were being threatened by the relentless inhumanity of global war, an Oxford don – C.S. Lewis was invited to give a series of radio lectures addressing the central issues of Christianity. Over half a century after the original lectures, the topic retains it urgency. Expanded into book form, Mere Christianity set out to provide a rational basis for Christianity in an era of modernity.

Fast forward to the 21st century. We now live in a post-modern era in the western world. When Lewis wrote in 1943 lines of black and white, right and wrong were very clear, not so anymore. How can we believe in a personal God in an age of skepticism unlike the times of fifty years ago? Are there any cogent reasons to believe in God in an age of relativistic thought? Enter Tim Keller.

Tim Keller’s Reason for God has provided for modern Christians and skeptics what C.S. Lewis provided in his time – a reasoned defense over the main objections to Christianity: (1) There can’t be just one true religion; (2) How could a good God allow suffering? (3) Christianity is a straightjacket; (4) The Church is Responsible for So Much Injustice; (5) How can a loving God send people to Hell? (6) Science has disproved Christianity; (7) You can’t take the Bible literally…and then in provided seven offensive cases for the coherency of rational Christianity: (1) The clues of God; (2) The knowledge of God; (3) The problem of sin; (4) Religion and the Gospel; (5) The true story of the cross; (6) The reality of the resurrection; (7) The dance of God.

In reading the book one finds a step by step macro level picture of why a reasonable belief in God is rational and compelling in a postmodern world. All other world-views leave one full of loopholes and contradictions. Only Christianity  gives one the comprehensive lenses by which we can see ourselves, the world, and a personal God more clearly and logically. Life, relationships, and our place in the universe has meaning, purpose, and hope if there is indeed the existence of a Holy God who came and died for us to know Him and to make Him known.

I highly recommend this book for both skeptics of Christianity and believers in Christianity. It will answer the most important questions we can ever ask about faith, life, the after life, and the most important issues of our day. Tim Keller answers the profoundest questions we have with humility, sensitivity, biblically, and practically. It is one of the “must reading” books for our times. I especially would like to see Christians giving this book to their unbelieving friends and reading the book with them. It is a great book for discussion and building bridges to the gospel – and thus opening the door for a relationship with God through His Son – Jesus Christ.

 

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Jonathan Edwards on Why Society is So Fragmented Without God at the Center

The Nature of True Virtue Jonathan Edwards

By *Tim Keller

In The Nature of True Virtue, one of the most powerful treatises on social ethics ever written. Jonathan Edwards lays out how sin destroys the social fabric. He argues that human society is deeply fragmented when anything but God is our highest love. If our highest goal in life is the good of our family, then, says Edwards, we will tend to care less for other families. If our highest goal is the good of our nation, tribe, or race, then we will tend to be racist or nationalistic. If our ultimate goal in life is our own individual happiness, then we will put our own economic and power interests ahead of others. Edwards concludes that only if God is our summum bonum, our ultimate good and life center, will we find our heart drawn out not only to people of all families, races, and classes, but to the whole world in general.

*SOURCE: Tim Keller. The Reason For God. New York, Dutton, 2008, p. 166.

 

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Tim Keller: The Failure of Religion

Series Part 8 – Bible: The Whole Story—Redemption and Restoration

Tim Keller preaching image

Preached on February 22, 2009 in Manhattan, New York at Redeemer Presbyterian Church

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?

Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance? But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will give to each person according to what he has done.”

Let’s continue in verse 12.

12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.

14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15 since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.

17 Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal?

22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? – Romans 2:1-2, 12-26

We’re trying to trace out the storyline of the entire Bible. We started in Genesis, where we learn what’s wrong with the human race, and then we’ve gone now to Romans 1–4, where we’re learning what Paul says God has done about it through Jesus Christ. We’ve been going through Romans, and here at the beginning of chapter 2, Paul does a turnaround.

It’s so surprising and shocking that if I begin to … I don’t even have to introduce too much introduction here. I will start to explain it, and it’ll draw us right in. Please see, however, this chapter talks about three things: the failure of religion because of the terrible beauty of the law and, therefore, the need for a regenerated, new heart.

1. The failure of religion

Paul starts this chapter by saying, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you … do the same things.” This only makes sense if you go back and see what was in chapter 1. Right? Because “the same things” refers to chapter 1.

If you remember, Paul has been talking about Gentiles, pagans, idol worshipers worshiping, bowing down to figures of wood and stone and metal, sexual orgies … That has all been in Romans 1. All of a sudden, Paul turns and says, “Hey, you out there listening, sitting in judgment, you do the same thing.”

Paul knew this letter was going to be read. This letter would’ve been read out loud to the Roman congregation, and who was in the Roman congregation? Gentile Christian converts and Jewish Christian converts. Who would’ve been out there sitting, thinking, “Oh yeah, those pagans, those orgies, that bowing down to worship idols … That’s just awful”? Who would’ve been sitting there condemning? Who would’ve been sitting there passing judgment on all of that? It would’ve been the Jewish Christians, but now keep this in mind.

In this case Paul is actually speaking to people who essentially represent anyone who’s religious, anyone who has tried very hard not to be pagan, not to have orgies, not to bow down to little figures of wood and stone. He says, “Hey, you people out there, you people who all of your lives have been trying to obey the Bible, all of your lives have been relying on obedience to the law and feeling pretty good about it, saying, ‘I obey the biblical law,’ you out there, when you condemn those pagans, you condemn yourself, because you do the same things.”

It’s very surprising, and how could that be? He was talking about orgies and bowing down to idols. How could he turn to the good, Bible-believing people who have been trying to obey the Bible all their lives and say, “You out there, smug people sitting around there saying, ‘Yes, that’s awful. That stuff is awful,’ you condemn yourselves because you do the same things”? How could that be?

If you go down a little deeper into the text, he actually talks about it. In verses 21 and 22, he says, “… you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?”

At that point the reason he’s saying, “You condemn yourselves,” is he’s talking to moral people, and he says, “Though you say publically you don’t commit adultery, a lot of you do commit adultery.” Any moral community, any church, any synagogue is going to have hypocrites in it, people who say, “This is what I believe,” but in private they’re doing the opposite.

That’s partly why he’s able to say, “Hey, you religious people, you Bible-believing, Bible-obeying people, looking at all these awful pagans out there, rolling in the streets together in their drunkenness and their orgies, you’re feeling superior to them. You’re doing the same thing.” Some of it is hypocrisy, but that’s not all he’s saying here, because then he says, “You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?”

He’s talking to Jewish Christian believers as you can see from the title of the paragraph. This is completely inexplicable at first sight, because there is absolutely no record of Jews running a kind of operation where at night they would go out to temples and rob them and sell the idols on the black market. Is that what he’s talking about? There’s absolutely no evidence Jews did anything like that. What in the world is he talking about?

The answer is he must be talking metaphorically. By the way, he hints at that in verse 5, because when he says to them, “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart …” this is something you could never tell by looking at it in English, but he’s using two Greek words that in the Greek translation of the Old Testament were always associated with idolaters.

What he’s actually saying is, “You’re religious, you’re obeying the Ten Commandments, and externally it looks like you’re complying with all the rules and regulations, but though you may not have idols of the hand, you have idols of the heart. You may not have idols you can pick up and move around, but you have idols in your heart.

You abhor idols, and yet essentially you’re no better than the idolaters, because though you’re obedient, the thing you really live for, the things that really give you meaning in life, the things you really are worshiping are career or achievement or power. Therefore, you stand condemned.”

How can he really say this, that the good, Bible-believing people are every bit as condemned, every bit as lost as the Gentiles and the pagans? How can he say that? We’ll get to that under point two, but first I’d like to stop. I want you to think about the amazing point one, because this is what he’s saying. He’s saying something that will show you, if we think about it, the unity of the Bible and the uniqueness of the gospel.

By the unity of the Bible, I mean this. If you were here in the fall, do you remember we talked about Jesus’ great parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15? We spent six weeks going through that parable, and in the parable Jesus gives us a father with two sons: a younger brother, who loves sex with prostitutes and takes away all the father’s money and squanders it … He’s materialistic. He’s licentious. He’s disobedient to the father.

Then he has a second son, and the older brother is very obedient and very compliant to the father and obeys everything the father says, and yet the point of the parable is they’re both lost. They’re both alienated from the father, and they both need salvation. That’s Jesus, but now here you have Paul. Paul is giving his greatest exposition of the gospel, and he’s saying exactly the same thing. In Romans 1 he’s talking about younger brothers. He’s talking about how they’re condemned.

He’s talking about how they’re lost, bowing down to idols of the hand, rolling around in drunkenness and sex. Okay, sin, the kind of sin everybody thinks of as sin, but now he turns to Romans 2. He says, “You elder brothers, you people who are trying so hard to be good and you think God owes you a good life because you’re so good, you are every bit as lost. You’re every bit as in need of salvation.” Isn’t that amazing? Paul is saying exactly the same thing Jesus was saying. Do you see the unity of the Bible?

Also, let me show you how unique the gospel is. For Paul to be saying, “You good people are condemned. You bad people are condemned. You’re all lost. You moral people, you immoral people, you’re all lost …” In the 1970s was this enormous best seller, as some of you may have heard. It has actually kind of passed into the language a little bit. It’s a book by Thomas Harris called I’m OK—You’re OK. It was a little self-help book. It was on the top of the New York Times best-seller list for two years.

In the 1990s a woman named Wendy Kaminer wrote a devastating critique of the self-help movement, and the name of her book was I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional. It’s a tremendous critique. Basically, she shows how narcissistic the whole idea was.

She says, “How in the world can you say this is mental health to say, ‘I’m okay. You’re okay. We’re all okay,’ yet out there in the world there is all the blood of the innocent crying out from the ground for justice? There’s genocide. There’s terrorism. There’s all this awful stuff. How in the world can you say it’s the sign of mental health to go out into the world and say, ‘Everybody is okay. You’re okay. I’m okay. We’re all okay’? That’s silly. That’s narcissism.”

She just hilariously deconstructed it. About 10 years later, after she really showed how silly it is to say, “I’m okay. You’re okay. We’re all okay,” she came back with another book that showed she was a bit in a bind, because her whole point was, “Hey, with all the injustice, with all the innocent blood crying out from the ground for justice, how can you say everybody is okay?”

She came back with another book in which she was very critical of what she called the “hard right,” because she saw a lot of people saying, “Yeah, there is evil out there, and we have to bring back the death penalty. We have to go to war.” She suddenly saw all these people saying, “I’m okay, and the rest of you are no way okay.” In fact, that was the subtitle of her book. The New York Times gave the book a subtitle: I’m okay, and you’re nowhere near okay.

She says the trouble with that … She says, “ ‘I’m okay. You’re okay. We’re all okay,’ was narcissistic. That’s narcissism, but to say, ‘I’m okay, and I have the truth. You all are evil, and I’m going to punish you,’ that’s how you get death camps. That’s how you get, ‘I’m the superior race. You’re the inferior race. I’m the superior person. You’re the inferior person.’ ”

She says that’s moralism, and that’s as bad as narcissism. Narcissism is, “We’re all okay. You’re okay. I’m okay,” and moralism is, “I’m okay, and you’re not okay.” Wait a minute. So she was just saying, “I’m okay. Everybody is okay,” is narcissism, but then moralism is bad. What’s left? There’s masochism: “I’m not okay, and everybody else is.” Of course, that’s not right. What’s left?

In the 1970s a minister and a great Bible teacher, who is now passed away, named John Gerstner, was speaking, and he referenced the book I’m OK—You’re OK. He says, “How does that compare to the message of the Bible?” Then he told a story. It was about the fact that he and his wife were on a trip to Asia. They were actually in Cashmere, and at one point they went on an excursion in a little boat. It was he and his wife and a boat man who didn’t know much English and his grandson.

On their way back from the excursion, as they were starting to near shore, they actually bumped another boat. When they bumped the boat, there was a fair amount of water that kind of splashed in and got everybody wet up to the knees. The boat man started getting very, very agitated, and John Gerstner said, “Okay, it’s a little bit of water,” so he said, “It’s all right. We’re okay. Don’t get upset. We’re okay.”

A couple of minutes later, the man was still getting even more agitated, and John was thinking he was very superior. He said this poor man either had an ego problem, or he … He said, “Don’t worry. We’re okay.” Then finally as they got almost to the dock, he got really agitated, and John Gerstner said, “We’re okay.”

The man looked up at him and said, “You not okay. I not okay,” pushed them out of the boat onto the dock, threw his grandson, jumped out onto the dock, and at that minute the boat was sucked down into the water and came up about six boats to the right on the other side. It turned out there had been a hole in the hull. The boat man had seen it. John Gerstner had not seen it, and if he had stayed in there one more second, they would’ve gone down with it.

Gerstner said, “I realize that’s the message of the Bible. I’m not okay. You’re not okay.” Do you realize what this means? It’s not the moralism of saying, “I’m okay, and you’re no way okay,” not the narcissism that says, “I’m okay. You’re okay. Everybody is okay,” not when there’s injustice out there in the world, and not the dysfunctionality, the masochism of saying, “I’m not okay, and everybody else is.”

No, what the Bible says is we’re all sinners. We’re all lost. Nobody has the right to look down at anybody else. We’re all in trouble. We’re all alienated from God. No one has the right to be trampling upon or exploiting anybody else. We all need God. I’m not okay. You’re not okay. If you don’t know that, you’re going to go to the bottom. That’s what’s so unique about the gospel. There really isn’t any other position like that, and it’s the right one. Why is it religious people stand condemned? The reason is, according to Paul, because of …

2. The terrible beauty of the law

What we see here, when Paul talks about the fact that judgment is going to be according to the law, is he shows us why nobody can stand in the judgment, no matter how religious and good you are. He shows us both the inwardness and the intuitiveness of the law. Let me give it to you here briefly.

A. The inwardness. Do you remember how I mentioned in verse 1 Paul actually says to the religious people, “You condemn all those Gentiles and those pagans out there for all those … But you do the same.” It says, “… you who pass judgment do the same things.” What are the things? They’re the things that are not on the page. They’re listed in the last verses of chapter 1.

He made a list of sins, and then he says, “You religious people do the same things.” What was that list? Here are some of the things on the list: evil, greed and depravity, envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice, gossips, slanderers, insolent, arrogant and boastful, senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

If you look carefully, you’ll see almost all of these are not behavior but inner attitudes of the heart. Greed, envy, malice, insolent … By the way, that’s the Greek word hybris. Have you ever heard of that word? Arrogant, heartless, meaning not able to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Ruthless, obviously meaning exploitative.

Here’s what Paul is doing, and this is very important. Paul does what Jesus does. When we read the law, “Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal …” because we’re trying to justify ourselves, we actually read just the surface. We read only about the external behaviors. We see only the external behaviors, and when you go away from the law of God in the Bible, you can feel like, “I’m not so bad.”

What Paul does, and what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount, is what we all should do. The law of God is getting at a kind of person, a kind of heart. When you read the law, you need to actually be reading through it, because the law of God is actually an outline of the kind of beautiful character, kind of incredibly beautiful heart we should have, and the law of God is getting at it.

It is absolutely wrong of us to read the law in the most self-justifying way. “Oh, I don’t kill. That’s one law I’m not breaking.” When you get to the Sermon on the Mount, you’ll see Jesus does exactly what Paul does here. What does he do? For example … listen … Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount actually expounds the Ten Commandments but shows the kind of heart and the kind of spirit the commandments are getting after.

Let me just give you one case. Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but I say unto you anyone who looks at another person and says, ‘Raca,’ has broken this commandment.” What does raca mean? Does it mean, “You fool. You imbecile”? Is it an insult? No, it’s actually a word that means nobody. It means, “You nothing. You nobody.”

What Jesus is saying is if you look at any other human being and feel like this person isn’t important … in fact, you can barely pay attention to them because they’re nobody … if you look down your nose at anyone and disdain them or are indifferent to them or don’t treat them with importance, he says that’s like breaking the commandment. How could that be like murder, for crying out loud?

Do you know what Jesus is saying? He’s saying murder is a tree. Trees grow from acorns (at least oak trees do). What is the acorn? What is the seed of the tree? What does murder start with? Superiority, hubris, arrogance, a disdain, a contempt, a treating a person not as a person but as a thing, looking down, using people.

He says the only difference between a murderer and you is unless you welcome every human being that comes into your life, every human being who is presented to you, unless you treat that person as infinitely valuable, unless you treat every person as a person of infinite value and worth, if you just disdain certain people, ignore certain people, just don’t even care about certain people, he says that’s a seed.

The only difference between you and a murderer is the murderous seed has been watered and fertilized. Therefore, the commandment of God is getting after someone who cherishes people, cherishes every person. Even the persons the world considers unimportant, of no consequence, you treat as if they’re kings and queens. That’s the kind of heart Jesus says the law of God is trying to get after.

Then he goes through all the … If you read the Sermon on the Mount, what does he say? You should be so honest that you don’t ever have to swear an oath. He says every yes and every no, every interaction should be as honest as if you had sworn on a stack of Bibles in a courtroom. Then he says you should be so loving that if someone wrongs you, you don’t just refrain from revenge.

You forgive them in your heart, and even when you go and confront them and even when you go and seek justice, you do it with no ill will at all, filled with love in your heart for your enemy. He says you should be so generous to the poor that you give and give and you don’t even care if you get any thanks. That’s all in the Sermon on the Mount. He says you should be so trusting of God you don’t worry no matter what the circumstance is.

Some years ago a woman who was teaching literature at a university decided to have all of her students read the Sermon on the Mount. None of them had, and half of them hadn’t even heard of it. It was all fresh for them. They read it, and they all absolutely hated it. This is a typical comment she got in the response papers. “I did not like the Sermon on the Mount. It made me feel I had to be perfect.”

They all hated it. They said, “This is absolutely ridiculous. Nobody can be like that.” Then she said, “That’s okay.” She listened to them, and then she asked them a question. “Aren’t these, though, the kind of people you want around you? Don’t you want people who are so loving they don’t resent and they’re never indifferent, so generous they’re always grateful? Aren’t these the kind of people you want around you? Aren’t these the kinds of things you want in other people and you demand of other people?” They all got very quiet.

In other words, “I’m very angry if you hold me to this standard. On the other hand, actually I hold everybody else to this standard.” Therefore, you’re condemned from your own mouth. That’s exactly what Paul is saying, because the law of God, if you learn how to read it, is after a kind of person, a kind of heart, a life of absolute beauty, not just the external behavior, but the heart, the motivation, the attitude. When we see that and we see how we really demand it of other people but we refuse to demand it of ourselves, we’re condemned.

B. The intuitiveness. It’s not just the inwardness Paul talks about here. Do you know what is so amazing about this middle section where he says, “You are condemned from your own mouth” and then down in verse 12, he says, “All who sin apart from the law will perish apart from the law. Indeed the Gentiles, who do not have the law, show they do understand something of the law, and they will be held accountable for that”? What is that?

Some years ago a man named Francis Schaeffer summed this up beautifully and said something like, “Do you know what Romans 2 is about? Romans 2 is about the invisible tape recorder. Romans 2 is saying even though you don’t know it, there is an invisible tape recorder God has put around everybody’s neck. No, you can’t feel it or see it, so don’t try. It’s there. Romans 2 says it’s there.

On judgment day all of a sudden you’re going to appear before God, and a lot of people are going to say, ‘I didn’t even know you existed. Wait a minute. You can’t hold me responsible for the law of God.’ Other people are going to say, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of the Bible, but I’ve never read the Bible. You can’t hold me responsible for this law. I didn’t realize the God of the Bible is the real God. Okay, here you are, but you can’t hold me responsible. You can’t judge me for something I didn’t believe in.’

Then what is God going to do? He’s going to reach around the back. He’s going to unclasp, and he’s going to get off your invisible tape record. It’ll become visible, and you’ll say, ‘I didn’t see that there.’ He’ll say, ‘No, you couldn’t have felt it. It was invisible.’ Then he’ll say, ‘I want you to know I am the fairest Judge you could possibly imagine. I am not going to judge you according to the Bible because you didn’t know the Bible. I’m not going to judge you according to Christ because you never heard of Christ.

I’m going to judge you by your own words, because this tape recorder only recorded throughout your life whenever you said to someone else, ‘You ought’ or ‘You should.’ This tape recorder has only recorded your standards for the people around you. Therefore, I’m not going to judge you by anything other than the standards by which you judged people your entire life.”

Nobody in the history of the world will be able to stand in the judgment day, because you’re not going to even be able to stand before your own words, before your own standards. Therefore, we are all absolutely lost. Where is the hope? Is there any hope? Of course, the answer is yes. The failure of religion because of the terrible beauty of the law means now at the very end there’s a need for a new heart.

3. The need for a regenerated, new heart

Suddenly at the end, Paul begins to talk about circumcision. This is almost the end of the chapter. He says, “Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, it has no value. If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirement, they will be regarded as though they were circumcised, will they not?”

Then he goes on. Let me read you the end. “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit … Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.”

Here’s what Paul is saying. He is saying, “Do you know? You religious people …” Of course, in this case, the Bible-believing, religious people were Jewish Christians. He says, “Do you know? All of your life you’ve been trying to obey the law of God, and circumcision was a sign of being a Jew who was trying to obey the law of God. What you really need is circumcision of the heart. What you really need is a new heart, not obedience outwardly. You need to have a regenerated heart, or you will never, ever do what the law requires.”

Why does he bring up circumcision? What’s the big deal? Here’s the big deal. When God entered into a relationship with Abraham, that was the first time God showed up and said to a man and his family, “I want to have a personal, intimate, covenant relationship with you.” As a sign of that relationship, he says to Abraham, “I want you to be circumcised.”

The circumcision was a sign of the relationship the way baptism is a sign of being in the church. Why circumcision, though? I think most people understand baptism, kind of like death and rebirth and the Spirit and all, but what was the symbolism of circumcision? I don’t want you to think about it too long, but that’s the point.

Why did God choose circumcision as a sign of this intimate, covenant relationship he had with Abraham? He said, “I want you to walk blamelessly before me, and if you walk blamelessly before me, if you follow my covenant, I will bless you. But if you disobey the covenant, if you enter into a covenant with me and then you go your own way and you disobey me, then you’ll be cut off from your people. You’ll be cut off from the Lord. You’ll be cut off from me.” That’s the natural punishment. Do you know what circumcision was?

In those days you didn’t sign a contract to bind a contract; you acted out the curse. In other words, when a person would enter into a covenant with someone else, he might pick up some sand and he might drop it on his head and say, “If I don’t do everything I’m saying I will do today, if I disobey the covenant I just made you today, may I be as this dust,” or a person would cut an animal in half and walk between the pieces and say, “If I don’t do absolutely everything I have said today in this contract, may I be cut into pieces myself.”

What God was saying to Abraham was, “If you want to enter into a relationship with me, you need to be circumcised. That means you are admitting, if you disobey the covenant, you’ll be cut off.” Here’s my question. Did Abraham really obey the covenant? Did Isaac really obey the covenant? Did Jacob? Has anybody ever obeyed the covenant? Has anyone ever walked before God blamelessly? That’s the covenant.

No, of course not. Why in the world does God have any people at all? Why is there anybody called the people of God? Why is there anybody who God says, “You are my people, and I am your God”? How could anybody be in a covenant relationship with God? The answer is in Colossians 2, there is a little verse that almost always when you go by it … If you’re reading through Colossians, it’s one of those verses you read and you say, “What was that about?” and then you just go on. “I’ll ask Tim about it someday, but right now I don’t get it.”

In Colossians 2:11 and 12, Paul is talking about the cross. He’s talking about Jesus dying on the cross, and then he says, “In him you were also circumcised …” He’s talking to Gentiles, by the way, who weren’t literally circumcised. He says, “In him you were also circumcised … not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ …”

Here’s what he’s saying. On the cross Jesus was cut off. That’s why he calls it a circumcision. On the cross Jesus Christ said, “My God, my God, I can’t see you. I can’t feel you. Where are you?” Isaiah 53 says he was cut off from the land of the living. Why? He was getting what circumcision represented. He was being cut off. He was going under the knife. It was bloody. It was violent. He was getting the curse we deserve, because we can’t stand in the judgment. We can’t stand before the law.

That’s not all. It doesn’t just say he was circumcised on the cross. It says, “In him you were circumcised, not a circumcision made with hands,” he says, because the Gentiles weren’t. “You have a new heart. You have new life.” Why? “Because you’re circumcised with Christ.” What does that mean? It means now you stand in him in this way.

When you read the law properly, when you read the Sermon on the Mount, and you see what the law is getting after, the love, the peace, the generosity, the integrity it wants, instead of saying, “Oh my goodness! I hate this. I’ll never be like this,” instead realize what that is describing. It’s describing a person. Whenever you read the law of God and you see this incredible, perfect standard, do you know who it’s describing? It’s describing Jesus.

Don’t be crushed by the standard. See the beauty of Jesus. According to the Bible, when you believe in Jesus Christ and you give your life to him, then all of your sins and what they deserved are transferred to him. He’s cut off for you, and all of the beauty of his law-keeping, all the beauty of his life is transferred to you, and in Christ we’re told, “… there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus …” Once you understand that, it pricks the heart.

The idea of a circumcised heart is pretty weird. It’s quite a metaphor. It’s intimate and it’s tender and it’s scary. What it means is your heart of stone begins to be a heart of flesh, and you have a new attitude toward the law, because when you see God sent his Son to die so the requirements of the law were fulfilled, you never look at the law of God and say, “Oh, I’m saved, so it doesn’t really matter.”

The law is so important Jesus died to fulfill the requirements of the law. You don’t look at the law as a Christian and say, “It doesn’t matter how I live because, after all, I’m not condemned.” Jesus died because the law was so important, so you try like crazy to live according to the standards of the law. Yet when you fail, you don’t get crushed with guilt. You’re not crushed like, “Oh, what an awful person I am,” because you know what he did for you.

There’s this paradoxical attitude toward the law. We’re absolutely, fastidiously, diligently seeking to obey it and never crushed into the ground by it, nor hopeless when we disobey it. We get back up on the horse. It’s fascinating. In other words, we’re not saying, “I’m okay. You’re okay. Everybody is okay. After all, we can live any way we want,” or “I’m not okay. Everybody else is okay,” or “I’m okay, and you’re not close to being okay.” It’s none of those things.

“I’m not okay. You’re not okay. I’m no better than you. Yet in Jesus Christ I’m a beauty when God sees me. I’m beautiful.” As a result, I don’t judge anybody because God is the Judge. When somebody wrongs me, I leave that to God, and I forgive them. I don’t even judge myself. “Oh, how bad I am!” No, I’ve been judged in Jesus.

Don’t you see that at the center of your life ought to be Jesus Christ, the Judge of the earth but the Judge who was judged? If you bring into the center of your life the Judge of all the earth who was judged in your place, you have both a healthy respect for moral absolutes, and you know there’s right and there’s wrong. You know there’s injustice. You know it’s important to seek justice. You know it’s important to be a good person and a morally upright person.

On the other hand, you are not judgmental toward people. You forgive people. You’re not down on yourself, judging yourself when things go wrong. Oh, the uniqueness of the gospel! The uniqueness of a Christian! Bring the Judge who was judged in your place into the middle of your life. Let’s pray.

Thank you, Father, for giving us the bad news about judgment day, the bad news that no one can stand in the judgment, and the good news that your Son Jesus Christ was circumcised for us on the cross. He was cut off for us so now in him we have new hearts, and we thank you for all that.

Oh my word, Father, we thank you for it, and we ask would you please help us to live in accordance with it, to appropriate it, to have the joy and the poise and the power that would come with what we believe and what we know? We ask that you would grant it for Jesus’ sake. In his name we pray, amen.

 

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Tim Keller Sermon: The Heart of Darkness

Tim Keller preaching image

SERIES – Bible: The Whole Story—Redemption and Restoration— PART 7

Preached in Manhattan on February 15, 2009

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal men and birds and animals and reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. – Romans 1:18-25

We’re in a series that’s tracing out the storyline of the Bible. We’ve said each week that the Bible is not a disconnected set of individual stories that each has a little moral to it. Rather, the Bible is primarily a single story that tells us, first, what’s wrong with the human race; secondly, what God has done about that in Jesus Christ; and thirdly, how it’s all going to turn out in the end of history.

We first started by looking at Genesis 1–4 to see the beginning of the Bible’s story about what is wrong with the human race, and now we’ve begun to look at Romans 1–4, where Paul gives us perhaps the single most comprehensive explanation of what God has done about our problem through Jesus Christ.

At this spot in the text of Romans, we actually have something pretty interesting. If you’ve been with the series, we have Paul reflecting himself on Genesis 1–4. We have him looking back on all the things we’ve been looking at and summarizing what’s wrong with the human heart. Now all Scripture is equally true, and all Scripture is equally inspired, but not all Scripture is equally packed. This text is packed. There is more in it than we can unpack.

So, for example, the very first line introduces to us the idea of the wrath of God. A lot of people have questions about that. We’re going to wait for next week on that. Instead, what we’re going to look at tonight are the four things Paul says you can find in every human heart. If you look in every human heart, Paul says, reflecting on Genesis 1–4, you’ll find four things. Those four things are the knowledge of our God, the manufacturing of our idols, the hardening of our humanity, and the capacity for endless praise.

1. The knowledge of our God

Let’s start at the top of the text. The first thing we learn here, Paul says, is there is in every human heart the knowledge of God, because we’re told that what is so awful, what God is so angry at, is we suppress the truth. You can’t suppress something unless you have it. What do they have? What do we have? The truth. What is the truth? The truth is (and as you go through the rest of the little paragraph, it tells you), that basically down deep in our hearts, we know there is a God, and we know about his eternal power and divine nature.

In other words, regardless of what we tell ourselves or what we claim, every human being knows there is a Creator on whom we are utterly dependent and to whom we are completely accountable. His power … see? His nature … We know that down deep, but we suppress it. We repress it. The word there is we hold it down or hold it back.

That means Paul is saying two things about human beings. First of all, everyone does understand a great deal about truth. There is a lot of truth every human being knows about life, about reality. But we’re also told we hold down that truth. We repress it. Why? Well, here’s the big answer. The reason we repress the knowledge of the true God is, if you take a look down in verse 21, it says, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him …”

I remember years ago, when I first started studying this passage, that sure sounded anticlimactic to me. “They didn’t give thanks? That’s it? That’s the problem? That’s the source of all the problems in the world, the evil, the misery, and suffering? We don’t give thanks?” You know, you think about when you were little, all the teachers and all the adults and all the parents were always saying, “Now, say ‘thank-you.’ Don’t take that without saying ‘thank-you.’ ” “Thank-you.” It just seems like courtesy, you know.

Is that it? That’s the problem with the whole world? Bad manners? Is that it? No. Let’s think about it for a second. Do you know what plagiarism is? We say, “That’s intellectual property theft, IP theft.” Yeah? But do you know what plagiarism is? Do you know why it’s so severely punished? Because it’s not giving thanks. In other words, it’s claiming to be self-sufficient, claiming that you came up with this, and not acknowledging dependence, not acknowledging the fact that you didn’t come up with that. You got it from over there. You’re dependent on this person.

Plagiarism is a refusal to give thanks, and therefore, it’s a claim to self-sufficiency when it’s not there, when it’s not true. Cosmic ingratitude, cosmic un-thankfulness, is living in the illusion that we are self-sufficient, that we can call the shots, that we decide what is right or wrong, that we decide how to live. We hate the idea that we would be utterly and completely dependent and, therefore, thankful to God for everything, because then we’d lose control. Then we’d be obligated. Then we couldn’t live the way we want, and we hate that.

Therefore, we’re told, because the sin in the heart makes us want desperately to keep control of our lives, and to live the way we want to live, we cannot acknowledge the magnitude, the size, the greatness, and how much we owe God, how dependent we are on him, how accountable we are to him, how much we should be living in thankfulness. We don’t want that, because that means to lose control.

Let me give you an example. Therefore we repress the knowledge of the real God. We may believe in God, but we don’t believe in the real God, the true God, because that means losing control. Example: Some years ago, I was listening to a minister teach on this topic. When I give you his illustration, you’ll know how long ago this was. He was saying the other night he had been watching television. He was watching David Frost on television. He saw David Frost interviewing Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who was a very famous and activist atheist.

David Frost was arguing with her. She says, “Oh, there is no God.” He says, “Well, I think you can believe in God.” They went back and forth, and finally David Frost was getting kind of frustrated, so he did a modern thing. He solved the problem in the modern way. He took a poll of the studio audience. He said, “Now how many of you out there believe in God?” Almost everybody raised their hand, and he turned to Madalyn Murray O’Hair and said, “See?”

The preacher, the teacher who was teaching on Romans 1, said, “What a shame Madalyn Murray O’Hair missed … What an opportunity, what a chance she missed! What she should have done is say, ‘Excuse me. Can I take my own poll?’ She would have turned to the audience and said, ‘How many of you believe in the God of the Bible?’

She would have asked, ‘How many of you believe in the God who, when he comes down on Mount Sinai, comes down in lightning and deep darkness? How many of you believe in the God who is a consuming fire, who says, “No one can look upon the face of my glory and live”? How many of you believe in the God who says, “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin”? How many of you believe in the God of the Bible? That God?’ Probably,” said the teacher, “very few people would have raised their hands, and then she could have just turned and said, rightly so, ‘I win.’ ”

Here’s why she would have been able to do that if she’d known. Romans 1 says the real God, not the liberal God or the conservative God … The liberal God is the God of love in the universe, you know, the spirit of love. Everybody loves everybody, so you basically can live the way you want. The conservatives say, “No, we believe there’s a God with moral absolutes, and if you really obey those absolutes, if you try really hard, then you know you’re one of the righteous people. Then you can please God. Then he will take you to heaven.”

Don’t you see? Both of those kinds of gods leave you in control. You know, a God who is just a God of love … you can live any way you want. A God who is a demanding God … if you obey him, then he’ll take you to heaven, and then you can know you’re one of the righteous people … that’s a God who owes you. You’re not losing control.

But this is the God of the Bible, the God who is a consuming fire, the God whom you can’t look upon and live, the God who says, “Without the shedding of blood there’s no remission of sins.” This is the God who, if you relate to him, you have to relate to him on the basis of absolute grace, and therefore you owe him everything. You will be utterly thankful to him or not have a relationship to him at all. That God.

At the very end of that old movie The Bible in which you have Abraham and Isaac, and Isaac at the very end looks up at his father Abraham and says, “Is there nothing he cannot ask of thee?” And Abraham says, “Nothing.” That God. Nobody believes in that God unless by the power of the Holy Spirit your heart is regenerated. The Holy Spirit has to come in and intervene to let you believe in that God, because according to Romans 1, you can’t believe in that God. You suppress the truth about that God.

You may not believe in any God at all. That way you can live any way you want. Or you believe in God. In fact, most people believe in God, but they don’t believe in that God. They can’t believe in that God. They won’t believe in that God, because then they lose control. We can’t do that. We don’t want to glorify him as God. That means give him the significance he deserves and give him utter thanks, because then we’d be out of control.

Therefore, we all have the knowledge of God, but we suppress it. Do you know what this means? Here I’m going to speak to Christian believers. We have to realize what Solzhenitsyn said is true of everybody in a way. Solzhenitsyn has this very famous line where he says you can’t divide the world into good and bad people. Rather, “… the line dividing good and evil cuts through the center of every human heart.” Every human being is good and evil.

You know, Christians understand that, because Christians know even when you’re born again you have the new self and you still have the old self, and we feel that. But Paul is saying that’s true of absolutely everybody. Everybody is in the image of God. Everybody has the truth, and yet everybody has a deeply ambivalent relationship to the truth.

Therefore, the line between good and evil goes down the middle of every movie, every book, every work of art, because every human being knows a lot about the truth, and every human being is struggling and resists the truth. Therefore, every work of art, every cultural product, everything out there has remarkable mixtures. There’s a dialogue going on between the truth and falsehood in all human endeavor.

Therefore, Christians cannot just say, “Well, I only want to read Christian books and go to Christian counselors and Christian lawyers and Christian doctors, and all those other people out there are bad.” No, no. You don’t want to be like Salieri who’s sitting around saying, “Hey, I go to church. I pray. Why is this licentious person Mozart …” This is in the movie Amadeus. “… getting so many of God’s gifts? Why is such beauty coming into the world through him? I don’t understand it. I’m the good person. He’s the bad person. What’s going on here?”

James 1:17, says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights …” Every act of goodness, wisdom, justice, and beauty, no matter who does it, is a gift from God, and everybody does them. So Christians need to not be so exclusive. They need to have critical appreciation of all the people around them and all the culture around them, yet at the same time knowing in all of our hearts there is this deep resistance to the truth. So you’re not naïve; on the other hand you’re not exclusive. So it’s a very important first point.

2. The manufacturing of idols

Now this is perhaps the central thing Paul is getting across. There’s a lot more we could say about it than we are about to say, but let me say this. First of all, he shows us here the inevitability of idolatry, because he says in verse 25, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator …”

Notice “… they worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator …” There are only two options. You either worship the Creator, or you worship a created thing, but there is no possibility of not worshiping or serving anything, in spite of the fact that plenty of people say they don’t worship or serve anything. It’s impossible. Why? Paul says it’s impossible. If you do not worship the true God, and nobody does, apart from the power of the Holy Spirit, then you have to be worshiping something else.

How could that work? Well, like this. Some philosophers and thinkers have said it this way. Human beings are telic creatures. Telic is from the word telos, which means purpose. In other words, human beings have to live for something. Human beings don’t live; they have to live for something. Something has to capture your imagination. Something has to capture the highest allegiance of your heart. Something has to be the resting place of your deepest hopes.

Every human being has to look at something deep in their heart, semi-consciously or unconsciously, and say, “If I have that, then my life is worthwhile. Then I have meaning in life. Then life will have been worth living. Then I’ll know I’m somebody. If I have that …” and whatever that is, wherever your hopes are, your deepest hopes, whatever your highest allegiance is, whatever your ultimate concern is, that’s what you worship.

That’s what worship is. Therefore, the inevitability of idolatry, because since none of us in our natural state actually worship the true God. We believe in God, but we believe in a kind of god who keeps us in control of our lives, as we just said. Then what we actually center our lives on, what we actually give our functional trust, our functional worship to, is always something else, whether it’s achievement, or money, or claim, or human approval, or comfort, or power, or approval, or control.

That’s the inevitability. But the second thing Paul shows is the incredible range of idols. Today if you talk about idolatry, almost immediately modern people say, “You mean worshiping statues?” Oh no. When Kathy and I first started coming up here to start the church, in 1989, we used to take trips up here every Sunday afternoon to meet with people and meet individuals. I remember one time we met somebody at a Thai restaurant.

Every week we used to take one of our three sons and leave the other two at home with a babysitter. That’s the parental philosophy “divide and conquer.” You leave two at home, have one … you know, we outnumbered them, so it always was better. But I remember my middle son, age 9, with the loud voice that only 9-year-olds can muster, walks into the Thai restaurant, sees the little statue and a candle lit in front of it, and says, “There’s idols in New York!” If only he knew … Because see, Paul in his writings … let me give you three examples … shows that anything can be, anything is an idol.

On the one hand, here he links idolatry to sexual lust, sexual desires. Now if this is the only place he mentioned idolatry and then he said sexual lust is an example of an idol, making an idol out of sex, romance, maybe even marriage, you say, “Well, he has sex on the mind.” But go to Colossians 3. There he calls greed idolatry, materialism idolatry, a love of money idolatry.

You say, “Okay, well, I can understand that. Sex can be an idol, money can be an idol.” Try this one on. In Galatians 4, he is talking to Jewish Christians who are sliding back into their belief that they need to adopt the Mosaic code, all the Mosaic laws, in order to please God. He looks to them, and he starts saying, “If you go back into that kind of moralistic religion, if you begin to think that obeying the Mosaic code and the law of God is going to get you into heaven and please God, if you go back into that kind of moralistic, legalistic religion, you are going into idolatry.”

Look, maybe you’ve heard of the idea that money can be an idol. Maybe you’ve heard the idea that sex can be an idol. Have you ever heard that church can be an idol? The law of God can be an idol. Your own moral efforts and your own moral rectitude can be an idol. Until you can see that, you don’t have a biblical understanding of what idolatry is, because idolatry is looking to something to give you the kind of hope, the kind of value, the kind of safety that only God himself can give you.

If you love anything more than God, if you rest your security in anything more than the providence and wisdom and sovereignty of God, if your imagination is captured by anything more than the greatness of God, if your value is rooted in anything more than the grace and love of God, if you love anything more than God, and you do, you are looking to a created thing to give you what only God can possibly give you. Therefore, you have set up an idol.

There are all kinds of idols. There are near idols and far idols. For example, you say, “Well, I’ve heard this idea that money is an idol.” Ah, okay. But why is money an idol? Some people, you know, make a lot of money, and you’d have no idea. They don’t spend it on themselves. They don’t spend it on clothes. Do you know why? Money for them is something they sock away, and they can’t give it away.

Do you know why? Because money is their way of keeping control of the environment. It’s their way of saying, “I have this money, and therefore, I can handle what comes. I’m secure. I have control over my world.” Instead of prayer, instead of God, it’s money. That person doesn’t spend the money on him or herself at all. They just have to know it’s all there. They can’t give it away. Why? Because of the idolatry of control. “I have control of my life, and the money gives me that control.”

Other people take the money and they spend a lot on themselves. You can see it. They look beautiful, and they live in beautiful places, and they hang out with beautiful people. Why? Because for them, money is a way of getting on the inner ring. Money is a way of getting human approval. “If I have human approval, then I know who I am. Then I feel significant and secure.” So the money is actually an easy-to-look-for idol, but underneath there are deeper idols.

Everything is an idol. Everything can be an idol. Everything serves as an idol. If you are a Christian believer, it means you may have had the back broken of your idols, and when you gave yourself to Christ you understand something about who he is. He comes into your life, but you have the new self and the old self, and the old self is still beholden to idols. Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, we’re completely beholden to idols, and therefore, everybody in this room has a problem with it.

Do you know what your idols are? Do you know what your near idols are, your far idols are? Unless you do, Paul says you don’t even know your own heart at all. You don’t know anything about your heart. You haven’t begun to understand yourself. So in the heart is the knowledge of God. In the heart is the manufacturing of idols.

3. The hardening of our humanity

The third thing that’s going on in every human heart, and linked very much to idolatry, is the hardening of our humanity. One of the great themes of the Bible throughout, from Old to New Testament, is that idolatry leads to a heart of stone, to dehumanization. Over and over again, we’re told if you worship idols, which are things, rather than the living person of God …

If you worship things rather than the person of God, instead of a person, you’ll become a thing. You will become hard. You will become as blind as the idol. You will become as deaf as the idol. You will actually become less and less of a human being, less and less personal, more hardened in heart, more blind.

There are hundreds of these references, but here’s one. Psalm 135. “But their idols are silver and gold … They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear … They have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk, nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.”

Now Paul is basically working that out, because when he says we’re all guilty of idolatry, then he goes along and says our wills, our minds, and our emotions are slowly being eroded. They are slowly being taken over, and we are becoming less and less human and less and less personal all the time.

Look, first of all, he says whatever you worship (this is down in verse 25) you serve. That word serve means you are a slave to it. Think about this. Well, I know this is hard because we’re also blind and futile in our thinking, and we’re in denial. But think about this. Whatever is the most important thing in your life, whatever is the thing about which you say, “Boy, because of that, I’m happy. Because of that, I have meaning in my life …” You have to have that. You have to. If you don’t have that, life is over. Hope is gone. Your very identity falls apart.

Therefore, there’s no freedom about that thing. There’s no choosing about that thing. Human beings can choose. But you’re more like an animal who is operating on instinct. Or you’re more like a robot that has to do what it’s programmed to do. You have to have it. You’re driven. So your will is beholden.

Secondly, your mind. See, up in verse 21 it says because they neither glorified God nor gave thanks to him, their thinking became futile. Then of course, even down in verse 25 it says, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie …” All addicts … and that’s what we’re talking about, you know. Idolatry is a form of spiritual addiction. All addicts … all … are actually in denial.

You see, I don’t know where you are. I don’t know what you thinking right now. But if you say, “I don’t see any idols in my life right now,” you’re an addict, and you are in denial. You say, “Well, yeah, of course, that is pretty important to me.” You have no idea how important it is, because you don’t want to see. Alcoholics say, “I can control it.” That’s what an alcoholic is. An alcoholic says, “I can control it.” They can’t, but they think they can.

There’s something in your life that you look at like that. Idols weave a delusional field, a field of denial, around them, so you always minimize their impact on you. In other words, you have eyes, but you don’t see. The longer you worship the idol, the more you have eyes that don’t see, just like they have.

Last of all, your hearts are darkened. Not only is your will beholden and your mind made futile and deluded, but then it says in verse 21, “… their foolish hearts were darkened.” Most of all, it says, “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts …” Now if you’ve been around Redeemer, you’ve heard this before. The Greek word that is translated here desire shows up every place that idolatry shows up in the New Testament.

It’s the word epithymia, which actually means an epi-desire, like an epicenter. It doesn’t mean sinful desire. That’s not the best way to translate it. Sometimes they try to translate it as lust, but lust of course just means sex, so that’s not a good translation. There’s no good English translation, so I’m going to tell you what it is.

Idolatry creates super-desires. Burnout-level, over-the-top, uncontrollable desires. Inordinate desires. Over-the-top desires. You not only are driven to have it, but if anything gets in your way, there is paralyzing anxiety, not normal kinds of worry. There is paralyzing, debilitating guilt, not normal kinds of regret. There is paralyzing, debilitating bitterness, not normal kinds of anger.

Therefore, you are more and more like an animal, or more and more like a robot, following your program, and less and less like a human being. You say, “How does that work out?” Well, let me read you from a manuscript that I was working on with somebody about idolatry. Listen carefully.

“Anxiety is idolatry mapped onto the future. Anxiety becomes pathologically intensified to the degree that I have idolized finite things. Suppose my highest value, my functional meaning in life, is politics, either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. Then when my party experiences a great defeat, I don’t experience just glum disappointment, but I’m shaken to the depths. I want to leave the country, and I’m too furious to speak to anyone who voted for the other side.

Guilt is idolatry mapped on the past. Guilt becomes pathologically intensified to the degree that I have idolized finite things. Suppose I value a happy family. Therefore, my performance as a parent is valuable above everything else. Then if my daughter goes wrong or has great problems, I am not just sorrowful and grieved, I am stricken with neurotic guilt. I cannot forgive myself. I hate myself. I may become suicidal.

Lastly, anger and bitterness is idolatry mapped onto the present. Anger becomes pathologically intensified when someone or something stands between me and something that is my ultimate value. Suppose my career is the measure of my worth as a person, and someone at work is harming it. I won’t just be angry. I will be so deeply bitter and capable of doing things to this person that I may blow up my career more thoroughly than that person ever could.”

Do you see what’s going on? Or what if you make your moral rectitude into an idol? Remember, like in Galatians 4? What if you really believe that because you’re a good person, you’ve tried very hard, God owes you a good life. Then when difficulties come, sorrow is pathologically intensified into absolute bitterness against God and life itself and it poisons your ability to ever enjoy life ever again, because you deserve better than this? Don’t you see? Idolatry dehumanizes you. If you worship a thing instead of the living person of God, you’ll become less and less a person and more and more a thing.

4. The capacity for endless praise

How will we escape? I told you this is a packed text. This text is like an arrow. If you really listen to it, this text is like an arrow in a bow, and the bow is bent. The bow is really bent. How are we going to escape? Here’s what you have to do. Admittedly, the text doesn’t tell you much about it, because what Paul’s going to tell you God has done about it comes later on in the next chapters, especially chapters 3 and 4. But there’s a hint here, especially at the very end, when it says we “… worshiped … created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.”

Think with me for a second. The first thing you have to do, if you want to escape the idols of your heart and the hardening that comes with them, is you have to really not waste your sorrows. You have to make good use of your disappointments. There has never been a better time than now. There have never been more disappointments in New York City than now.

Why? Well, here’s why. It says in verse 24, “Therefore God gave them over …” To what? Now don’t forget what the right translation is. God gave them over to the strongest desires of their hearts. The worst thing God can do to you, and the most just form of punishment God could possibly give you, is to give you over to the strongest desires of your hearts. In other words, let your wishes come true. That’s the worst thing God could possibly do, and the most fair thing.

Oscar Wilde, of all people, said, “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” You think about that. It’s right out of Romans 1. When the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers. Oscar Wilde knew that when he got the things his heart most wanted it was the worst possible thing for him, because our hearts are disordered, our hearts have idolatrous desires. They have epi-desires, over-desires.

The worst thing God could possibly do is give you what you want, give you over. You know, the word give over is actually a word that means surrender to your enemies. That’s an amazing verse. Paul is saying your enemies are the strongest desires of your heart, the idolatrous desires of your heart. The worst thing God could actually do is give you a good life, let everything happen the way you want it to happen.

Richard Baxter, the old seventeenth-century Puritan, has a section on particular kinds of spiritual problems, and he has a frightening section which he wrote in the 1650s or 1660s on if you set your heart on money and you actually get it, how horrible that is for you spiritually. He says, for example, if you set your heart on money and you actually make it, several things happen.

One is you, first of all, mistake wealth and savvy and skill and smarts for character, because you’re smart and you’re savvy and you’ve made this money. You want to believe it’s because of your character. So you mistake wealth and savvy for character. Then the rest of your life, you make all kinds of terrible choices in relationships, because you’ll mistake wealth and savvy for character, and it’s not true.

You’ll also become very proud. He says wealthy people believe they’re smart about every area, they’re experts on everything. He says everybody sees it and everybody laughs at it, but nobody can say anything because of your power, which makes it impossible for people to tell the truth. He goes on and on and on and says the worst thing that could possibly happen is to set your heart on money and get it.

But it’s really true about anything. Kathy and I, before we were married, had really good prayer lives. Neither of us really thought we were going to get married to anybody. We got married, and without our knowing it, our prayer life kind of went into the toilet. Why? Well, why do you have to pray to God when all you could do is just call on the phone?

John Newton said the worst thing about a good marriage is the problem of idolatry. For many years, we had no idea how poor our prayer life was because we had made idols out of each other. We didn’t see it that way. We didn’t understand that. But when sickness came, when bad sickness came to both of us, we realized our prayer life was nothing like it should have been. The best thing that happened to us was our idols were in jeopardy. It gave us a prayer life back.

The best thing that can happen, according to Oscar Wilde, is God not answering your prayer. At that time, and only at that time, do I begin to see this anxiety I’m feeling, this guilt I’m feeling, this anger I’m feeling … it’s pathological. It’s not caused by the circumstances. It’s caused by my over-trust in things, my looking to things to give me what only Jesus can give me. It’s only in bad times that you will ever see your idols. It’s the only opportunity you have … briefly, when bad times come … to get on top of them.

Then besides making good use of your troubles, the second thing you have to do is learn to do what the angels do, which is endlessly praise. See, the only way to get your hearts to stop worshiping other things is to worship the right thing. Who endlessly praises God? The angels. In 1 Peter 1:10–12, we read, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets spoke of the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. They spoke of the things that have now been told to you by those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit, into which things even angels long to look.”

The phrase long to look … It says here the angels long to look at the gospel. They long to look at Jesus dying for us. They long to look at the glory of it and the beauty of it and the wisdom of it and the love of it. They can’t get enough of it. Do you know what that phrase long to look is? It’s the word epithymia. It’s the word that’s usually translated lust. The angels lust after the gospel. What does that mean?

Here’s what it means. The deepest passions of angels’ hearts are satisfied by looking at the love and the beauty and the wisdom of Jesus Christ. Reveling in it, rejoicing in it, singing praise … It wasn’t even for them. See, when the deepest passions of your heart are satisfied by praising and adoring Jesus Christ, then all other passions are put in their place.

You can look at approval, and you can look at romance, and you can look at all these things you wish you had, and you can say to them, “I can live without you, because I have Jesus Christ. If I can’t live without you, I’ll never be able to live safely spiritually with you. Therefore, don’t you tell me how to live my life. Don’t you push me around. Don’t you inflict anxiety and guilt on me.”

You can spit in the world’s eye, if you have learned, like the angels, to look at the gospel and be so moved by his love for you and love him for his love for you, especially when you realize this word … It says God gives us over to our strongest desires, but do you realize in Romans 8 it says God gave him over to die for us? And in Ephesians 5 it says Jesus Christ gave himself over to die for us.

When you see Jesus Christ giving himself over to his enemies to die for us, out of love for us, to pay for our sins, nothing else will take functional control of your heart. If you see him giving himself over for you, you will not be given up and given over to your lusts, to your idols. Learn to sing the praises of the one who died for you. Here’s actually a hymn that was written many years ago about this very subject by William Cowper.

The dearest idol I have known,

Whate’er that idol be,

Help me to tear it from thy throne,

And worship only thee.

Let’s pray.

Thank you, Father, for being the one God who, if we get you, will satisfy us to the bottom, and if we fail you, will forgive us. If we live for our career, our career can’t die for our sins. We pray, Father, that you would help us to rest in the beauty of what Jesus Christ has done. Teach us how to praise you endlessly, especially for your gospel grace.

As we do it, as we sing your praises, and as we think about what you’ve done, our hearts will heal. We’ll get from hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. We’ll become more and more personal. We’ll be more and more free to live our lives instead of being driven by fears and guilt and anxiety. Oh, Lord, give us the lives that are possible if we love what your Son our Savior has done for us, Jesus Christ. In his name we pray, amen.

 
 

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Tim Keller Sermon: The Power of The Gospel

SERIES – Bible: The Whole Story—Redemption and Restoration – Part 6

Tim Keller preaching image

Prached on February 8, 2009 in Manhattan, N.Y.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God—the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.

Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

14 I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15 That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome. 16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” – Romans 1:1-7, 14-17

Every week we start by saying we are tracing out the storyline of the Bible, because the Bible is not so much a series of disconnected, individual stories, each with a little lesson or moral telling us how to live. It’s primarily a single story telling us what’s wrong with the human race, what God has done to make things right, and how it’s all going to work out in the end.

We’re drilling down into three places in the Bible. We’ve drilled down into Genesis 1 to 4, where we learned something about what the Bible says about what’s wrong with us. Now we’re going to drill down into Romans 1 through 4, perhaps the single most comprehensive and packed place where, through a letter of Saint Paul, we learn what God did about it.

All scholars and students of Romans believe verses 16 and 17 are Paul’s way of putting the gospel in a nutshell, his message in a kind of thesis statement. Therefore, it’s an extremely important statement. I want to meditate on it with you to help you break through. That’s kind of an odd statement (break through). Let me tell you why I use the phrase.

Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism, actually, later in his life told a story. In the preface to one of his collections of writings, he wrote a little reminisce of a great experience he had (it’s also called the “Tower Experience”) as a young man. Many people would call it his conversion experience. It all had to do with Romans and Romans 1:16 and 17.

He wrote, “I greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistle to the Romans, and nothing stood in the way but that one expression ‘the justice of God,’ because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him.

Therefore, I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. […] Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that, ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that … through gift and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.” “When I saw that Law meant one thing and Gospel another, I broke through.”

That’s interesting. He had this breakthrough. What he means is he was completely transformed … his thinking, his heart, his life, everything … by these verses because he pondered and pondered until he broke through. I would like to help everybody here break through. That is to say if you haven’t, if these two verses have never done to you what they did to Luther, I’m going to try to show you three factors you have to grasp if you’re going to break through.

If it has, if the ideas here of these verses have transformed you, I’d like to give you by telling you the same three things (of course, since you’re all in the same room together) how you could help other people who are open have a breakthrough. There are three factors that have to do with breakthrough.

You have to grasp, according to, I think, this text, the form of the gospel, the content of the gospel, and the power of the gospel. The form, the content, and the power. I’ll give you tests along the way. I’m being very focused. How do we break through? You have to understand …

1. The form of the gospel

You can see, especially if you read all the way through Romans 1:1–17, the word gospel shows up more here than any other place in the book. In fact, I think it may be the word gospel shows up more in these verses per phrase than any other place in the Bible. We have to ask ourselves, “What is so important? Why this word?”

The word gospel, as most of you know, is a Greek word we transliterate euaggelion. That is, eu, the good, and aggelos, an angel. We look at the word angel in English, of course. Right away we think of wings and things like that, which is wrong, because the word aggelos means a herald. What actually is at the very heart of the word gospel is the news media. Did you know that? News media? Okay.

How did news about great historic events get distributed back in those days? What was the news media? No print paper. No audio, video, radio, television. Well, then how was news …? What was the media for the news? The answer is it was heralds. That is, everybody is back in the town because they know there’s a great military battle that’s being fought miles away, so they’re behind the barricades. They don’t know what’s going to happen.

What happens when the general achieves a great military victory? How do we spread the news? He would send heralds. The aggelos. An aggelia, which is a message or a herald. The news. The herald would come in to the town and declare the news, “Victory!” Then he would run to the next town square and proclaim “Victory!” Then everyone would go back home with joy.

If that’s at the very, very heart of the word gospel, if that’s what the message is, the essence of the Christian message is news … good, joyful news … then this is the difference between the gospel and every other philosophy or religion. The gospel is not good advice about what you must do. It’s primarily good news about what’s already been done for you, something that’s already happened.

See, other religions say, “If you really want to meet God, do this, this, and this.” It’s good advice. Only Christianity is not good advice but primarily good news about something that’s already been done for you. This is test one. We’ve talked about this actually not too many weeks ago, so I won’t belabor it, but it’s crucial. One of the breakthroughs is to realize how utterly different Christianity is because it’s good news, not good advice.

If I ask somebody here in New York, “What do you think the essence of Christianity is? What does it mean to be a Christian?” the average person on the street would say, “Well, I think it means to try to live like Jesus and try to love your neighbor, try to live by the Golden Rule.” I want you all to know I think that is an incredibly great idea. Let’s all do that. I’m all for it, but that’s not news. That’s not the heart of Christianity. It can’t be, because it’s not news.

Is that news? Is that news about what has been done for you … outside of you, for you … that inflicts in you such joy that you finally can live according to the Golden Rule? See, that’s Christianity. Something has happened outside you, something momentous. It’s happened outside you for you, and that’s what inflicts into you life-changing joy. Now I can live according to the Golden Rule.

To say being a Christian is the Golden Rule, that’s not news. Therefore, there’s no breakthrough. See, breakthrough, transformation, comes like this. If you say to somebody, “Here’s the essence of the Christian message. You need to live like Jesus and love your neighbor according to the Golden Rule,” there are only three responses to that. One is you say, “Sure, I knew that.” Shrug. Indifference.

The second, like Luther, is, “Oh, that’s very hard. I can’t do that.” Crushed. Discouraged. The third is the Pharisees say, “I do that all the time.” So either shrugged or bugged or smug. No breakthrough. No breakthrough! No, “Oh my word! I never thought of that.” See, that’s what happened. When Luther broke through, he said, “This is a paradigm shift.” Sorry, it’s cliché, but it’s far more than that but it’s not less.

Here’s my question. Here’s the first test. I don’t know what you believe, but whatever you believe about God or how you ought to live, is it mainly about you, or is it mainly about what he has done? Is it mainly about you and what you must do, or mainly about him and what he has done? Which is it? See the breakthrough? The gospel is news, not advice.

2. The content of the gospel

The content of the gospel is that very spot where Luther meditated and meditated, where he says, “For in the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed. A righteousness that comes by (dia, through) faith. Just as it is written, the one who is righteous through faith, that’s the person who lives.” He was thinking and thinking about this until suddenly he realized, “The righteousness of God is a righteousness that comes to me, and I receive by faith.” That opened everything up.

If we want to understand this term, which isn’t a very ordinary term … It’s a technical term in a way. It’s a term Paul uses, though, so we need to try to figure it out. It changed Luther’s life. It changed mine. We’re justified by faith. Let me use two illustrations to show you. The second one is considerably more poignant than the first.

The first one, though, think about this. Whenever we talk about being justified, we’re talking about not a change in the object but a change in the relationship to the object. Not a change inside the object, but relationship to the object. For example, if you’re speaking to me, and you say something, and I say, “Hmm. Justify that statement,” what do I mean?

I’m not saying, “Change the statement.” What I’m actually saying is, “It’s hard for me to accept that. Do something. Say something to change my relationship to the statement, to change my regard for it so I can accept it.” I’m not saying, “Change the statement.” “Help me get into a new relationship with it because I’m about to reject it.” “Justify that statement” means, “Change my regard for it. Do something.”

That is actually what the word means, especially at certain points here but also in Romans 5 where Paul says in verse 2, “Since we’re justified by faith, we have access to this grace in which we stand.” The word stand there means to stand in the presence of a great God or a great king or judge. This is what Paul is saying. Jesus has done something so God, looking at us, in spite of everything wrong with us … Jesus has done something to change God’s regard for us, his relationship to us.

Something has been done. See, that’s the news. Something has been done so now the Father looks at us and loves us and delights in us and accepts us. Our relationship has been changed. It’s not so much something happened inside, because then that would all be about us. That wouldn’t be gospel. It would all be, “Well, you have to do something.” It’s about something that’s happened outside of us that has changed God’s relationship to us. What is that?

To me, the second factor in what brings a breakthrough over the gospel is when you realize the gospel is about more than just forgiveness. Follow me, please. It’s about more than just forgiveness. Please don’t think I’m saying there’s anything wrong with forgiveness, but most people think that’s what this is. That’s what salvation is. That’s what Jesus did.

The idea is because Jesus died on the cross, when I do something wrong, I can ask God for forgiveness, and I’m forgiven. Isn’t that wonderful? Yes, of course it’s wonderful. It’s more than wonderful, but I want to show you here for a second it would not be enough. It’s way less than what’s being promised here. Yeah!

Because, see, if it’s true that that’s really salvation, that because Jesus died on the cross, now when I ask for forgiveness, I’m forgiven … God forgives me, wipes the slate clean. Do you realize what that means? It means that even though he has forgiven me for what I just did wrong, my relationship with him is still up to me because actually, in a sense, God says, “Hey, I just forgave you for what you did. I’m not going to hold that against you, but now you’d better get it right.” If that’s all forgiveness is, it’s not enough.

You know, for example, here’s a man, let’s just say, and he is in prison. What is going to get him a new life? Well, you could say the first thing that’s going to get him a new life is pardon. The governor writes a pardon, and he is out. Wow! He has a new life. No. He is just back to where all the rest of us slobs are. He is not in prison. Now he has to get a job. Now he has to work. It’s a long haul. He doesn’t have a new life yet.

You say, “Well, what more do you want?” I’ll tell you what’s more. The salvation of the gospel is not so much like simply getting a pardon to get out of prison. It’s besides getting a pardon, forgiveness. It’s also like getting the Congressional Medal of Honor on top of it. It’s a negative and a positive.

There’s a TV series called NCIS. It’s about Naval Criminal Investigative Services. It’s a cop show amongst military and criminal investigators. There’s a really great episode that was done about four years ago. The main character was played by Charles Durning, the great actor. The episode is about a poor broken-down old man, a former Marine, played by Charles Durning. He is in his eighties. He is broken down. He is kind of dowdy, and he is accused of murder. He is accused of murder!

At one point, two big, beefy Marines and a snarling Navy lawyer come after this poor little old man. They’re about to arrest him. They’re overshadowing him. Here he is standing in their presence accused. As they stand and they’re about to cuff him, actually, a friend of the old man pulls his tie aside. Under it is the Congressional Medal of Honor, because on Iwo Jima, he had done acts of extraordinary valor and bravery beyond the call of duty and had been given a Congressional Medal of Honor.

When he pulled that aside, the Marines and the snarling lawyer immediately saw what it was. Instead of looking at the poor little old man, the accused, condemned man, they saw that medal of honor, and they immediately snapped to attention and saluted. They were in awe. Just like that. It’s very, very good drama, and it’s very, very kind of moving to see. It is just an image, however faint, of what Paul is talking about here.

You know, one of the verses I always quote to you but I never explain is 2 Corinthians 5:21. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” What does that mean? “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Well, think.

On the cross, what does it mean to say Jesus was made sin? God made him sin. Does that mean God made him sinful, God put sin in his heart so he became greedy and angry and violent? No! He was up there forgiving his enemies. I mean, no! He was up there loving his Father, even when his Father was turning on him. Absolutely it didn’t mean he became sinful. It means he was treated as our sins deserve. He was given the treatment our record deserves.

So what does it mean to say that when you give your life to Christ, our sins are put on him? “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In him! What does that mean? It can’t mean that automatically the minute you become a Christian, you become righteous in your heart any more than he became sinful on the cross. No, no, no, no.

What it must mean is we are covered with his medals. We are covered with his glory. We’re covered with all the awards and the medals of his valor and his cosmic bravery because he took on evil and he went down to death. All that he deserved is now on us. Here’s where the illustration doesn’t quite work because that old man basically was suddenly given all this … Even though he was condemned, they suddenly saw his medal, which he had won in a former life. In our case, the medals on us were won by Jesus in a former life.

Now the whole universe salutes us. Now God himself delights in us. We have become the righteousness of God in him. Now do you see the test? Do you see where the breakthrough comes? The first breakthrough is when you see it’s not advice but news. The second breakthrough is when you see it’s not just forgiveness, but it’s being clothed in the righteousness of Christ. It’s a righteousness from God given to me by a gift.

No wonder Luther said, “Oh my word! That’s incredible.” It is incredible. When you ask somebody (I do all the time), “Hey, are you a Christian?” and the person says, “Well, I’m trying,” that shows they have no idea about what Christianity is about because Christianity is a standing. We have access to this grace in which we stand. See? It means you have no idea about what it means to be a Christian. You’re still stuck back in the idea it’s good advice.

Some people say, “Well, I hate to call myself a Christian, because I don’t feel worthy of the name.” Of course you don’t feel good enough, but you’re in him if you understand the gospel. He is always good enough. He is utterly good enough. Covered with his medals. Covered with his trophies. Covered with his badges and banners and ribbons in glory.

You know, some people will say, “That’s interesting. I guess the Luther types, religious people … Gosh. He was a monk. How much more religious can you get than that? I guess there are people who are always filled with guilt and shame. They’re religious, and they need this. They need this idea.” No, it’s not just them. Oh no!

I have talked to an awful lot of people recently who have lost an awful lot of money. Do you know what? One of the things you can see (in fact, sometimes they tell me) is it was a lot more than money. They didn’t know. They didn’t know! There’s a disorientation at the center of their being. They’re not sure who they are. There’s a complete loss of identity. There’s a complete loss of confidence. Do you know why? Because that money was their righteousness.

See, irreligious people don’t use the word righteousness. As we said a couple of week ago when we were talking about Cain and Abel, no human being can assure themselves … We cannot assure ourselves of our value and worth. We have to get somebody outside approving us, acclaiming us, declaring us worthy, declaring us a people of value.

Some people do it through, “I want to look beautiful.” Some people say, “I want to make money.” Some people say, “I want to achieve.” Whatever. The fact is, everybody is desperately struggling for righteousness. Here’s the weird thing. Everybody’s righteousness, if it’s not God’s, is going to be blown away. Recession is one way, but it’s going to happen. Old age is another way. Everybody’s righteousness is going to blow away unless this is upon you.

The second breakthrough then that you see is not just forgiveness, wiping the slate clean, but getting the cosmic Medal of Honor. You know, being accepted in the beloved, having the righteousness of God put upon us in Jesus. Being legally righteous even when we’re actually unrighteous. We’ll see more about that. Thirdly, the last thing you have to do if you’re really going to understand and break through is you have to have a sense of …

3. The power of the gospel

Not just the form, not just the content, but the power. Paul says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation …” I guess in my case, of all these … You know, even though it’s brief (verses 16 and 17 are brief), this is my favorite part of this nutshell.

Because, see, it’s not saying that the gospel brings the power of God or it results in the power of God or it’s a means to the power of God, does it? Well, no, it doesn’t. What does it say? It says the gospel is the power of God in verbal form. Therefore, when I believe it, when I hear it, when I understand it, when I grasp its propositions, its meanings, its words, to the degree that I actually get this gospel into my life, the power of God is coursing through me.

It is the power of God! Therefore, the way you know you’re beginning to understand the gospel and breaking through is instead of it just being a set of ideas, you begin to sense it being a power. How is that so? Well, here are a couple of ways. First of all, one of the ways you know you’re breaking through (or perhaps breaking through or have a chance of breaking through) is you feel its offensiveness.

Notice connected to this idea of the power of God, he says, “I am not ashamed. I am not ashamed of the gospel.” When you say something like that, “I am not ashamed of her. I am not ashamed of him. I am not ashamed of that,” that means there are whole lot of other people who are, or you wouldn’t have said that. Okay? There are a whole lot of other people who are offended or they think it’s crazy.

I want you to know everybody who hasn’t broken through or isn’t on the verge of breaking through thinks the gospel is crazy. Everybody! I’ve had two churches: one in a very blue collar, traditional, conservative place (a small southern town) and the opposite place. Here’s what’s so interesting. Everybody is offended by the gospel.

In Hopewell, Virginia, where I was pastor, everybody was hard working. They’re all religious. Even the atheists are Baptists. Everybody! I mean, even the atheists, the God they don’t believe in is the Baptist God. Everybody is religious. Everybody is very traditional. Everybody is hard working. Everybody is conservative. They’re offended by the gospel because they think it’s too easy.

I’ll never forget one of the first people I shared the gospel with was a woman. Right across the parking lot behind our church was a very broken down area. You know, rental property. Bad rental property, by the way. Trailers and things like that. There was a woman there. She was a very unhappy woman. Her name was Joy. In a southern town in the late 70s, she was divorced. She had two children. One was, I think, with no husband. One was with her former husband.

She was living essentially in poverty. She was a mess. She was disgraced. She was ashamed. We went in there. Three of us sat down, and we shared what I just shared with you, almost exactly the same thing. She couldn’t believe it. She said, “You mean, in spite of everything, he can accept me?”

I remember one of the things we talked about was I said, “Well, you know, if you really understand the gospel, that means the minute you believe in Christ and ask God to accept you because of what he has done, the minute your sins are put on him and his righteousness is put on you, God loves you and delights in you as much this very second as he will a billion years from now when you’re perfect and glorious and someone can’t even look at you without sunglasses. You see?” I said, “He won’t love you any more then than now, any less now than then.”

She couldn’t believe it. She cried. She thought it was the greatest thing. She embraced it. She believed it. A week later, we came back. You know, followup. We sat down. She was really upset because she had called her sister. Her sister was a very hard-working woman. She had a husband, three or four children. They were upstanding citizens. They went to church. They were good people.

When Joy called her older sister up and told her she was born again, she was saved, God loved her and all that, the sister said, “What are you talking about? It can’t be that easy. You have to work for this sort of thing. You have to work very hard, years of self-discipline, years of moral effort. I don’t know what kind of God that pastor is talking to you about, but I have no respect for him that he would just take somebody like you like that. It’s too easy.”

You see, it sounds really very dignified to say, “I can’t believe in a God. I have higher standards than that,” except do you know what? That sister had built her identity on being the good daughter, and Joy was the bad daughter. It was incredibly self-justifying to say, “It can’t be that easy.” You know, the gospel was in danger of destroying that wonderful dysfunctional family system in which Joy was the sick one. See?

So we had to go right back with the gospel. It did. I think it did. You see, in a traditional conservative culture, it’s too easy. Now we come up here where everybody is liberal and sophisticated and secular. Up here, it’s offensive not because it’s too easy but because it’s too simplistic. Here’s why. Because, you see, everything here is ambiguous and difficult. Nobody is sure.

See, we like philosophy here. We like ethics. We like discussions. Here are the pros and the cons. We get together, and we have discussions and forums. Everybody is a little bit right, and everybody is a little bit wrong. Nobody is really sure. Then we can go home and live anyway we want. It’s a great, great system, because who is to say. The clarity of the gospel, the absolute clarity of it, you know? They even like religion better because in it, you’re always trying, and you’re trying. You’re never quite sure whether you’ve done it. The clarity of it.

Here’s this first-century carpenter. He dies. Everything changes if you believe in that. You believe in that, and then you’re in. You don’t believe in that, and you’re out. Oh my gosh! The clarity of it! The simplicity of it! Don’t you see? Liberal or conservative, blue collar or white collar, north, south, east, west. The gospel is absolutely unique. It’s absolutely on its own. Everybody hates it. It makes absolutely no sense to anyone. It contradicts every system of thought in the world. It contradicts the heart of every culture in the world, every worldview.

It’s completely on its own. It offends everyone. See, whoever you are, you have to come from somewhere. You have to come from north or south or east or west or conservative or liberal. Something! You’re human beings. Therefore, unless you’ve felt the offense of the gospel, you don’t know yet what it even claims. Unless you’ve wrestled with it, struggled with it, you don’t even know what’s in it. You couldn’t know what’s in it.

When you begin to feel it and you begin to wrestle and struggle, then you at least have the possibility of breaking through. By the way, the gospel is not an academic thing. It’s not a set of bullet points we’re trying to get you to memorize. It’s from a person to a person. Therefore, it feels personal. When you’re really beginning to hear the gospel truly and understand the gospel, you start to sense there’s a power dealing with you, disturbing you, upsetting you. Maybe during this sermon, I hope. Maybe when you think about it or talk to a friend about it.

Do you find the gospel upsetting you, kind of dealing with you? Are you wrestling with it? Is it bothering you? I would rather somebody came to Redeemer for a couple of weeks and was so revolted that they had to leave. At least they were feeling the power rather than just saying, “Well, that’s interesting, but I don’t have much time for that.” Then you’re absolutely, absolutely in no position to ever have a breakthrough.

You have to feel the power of it. You have to feel the offensiveness of it. Here’s the other way in which is the power. Some people would say, “Well, all that matters, I suppose, is that you … Now that you’ve received the righteousness of Christ, that’s all that matters. Now you’re fine. It doesn’t matter how you live.” No, no, no, no, no. You know, what’s so amazing about Paul is he is able to get sound gospel theology everywhere.

Look at verse 7. “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints …” At the beginning of the memo: “To, From, Re:” He already has the gospel in there. Do you know why? He says, “What is a Christian?” “To all … who are loved by God and called to be saints …” Look at that. What is a Christian? Not primarily someone who is living in a certain way. The first is you’re loved by God. Your relationship has been changed. Something has been done to justify you.

You’re loved, but if you’re loved and if you know you’re loved, then you’re called. That means you’re invited. That means you’re attracted to be saints, which means to be holy. You never, ever, ever have the righteousness of God put upon you without, at the same time, finding it’s beginning to develop in you. You never, ever, ever, ever are loved by God in spite of your bad character without that starting to change your character.

You’re never justified except that you automatically begin to get sanctified. The righteousness of God will never be put upon you without it developed within you. If it’s not developed within you, then you haven’t really received it upon you. That’s the reason why Paul could look at Peter in Galatians 2, where Peter’s old racist sensibilities have begun to come back. He is not eating with Gentile Christians. He won’t even eat with them.

What does Paul say? Paul doesn’t say, “Peter, you broke the ‘no racism’ rule.” (Even though there is a ‘no racism’ rule; Christians shouldn’t be racist.) What he says is, “Peter, you say you’re justified by faith, not by works. You say you’re a sinner saved by grace. How can you be superior to any other race? You say you have the righteousness of Christ on you, but you’re not living in righteousness. Therefore, it’s not upon you if it’s not beginning to develop within you.”

If you are loved, then you are called, you’re attracted, into holiness. You want it. You long for it because, “I want to look like the One who did this for me. I want to please the One who did this for me.” If you don’t want to please, if you don’t want to look like the one who did this for you, then it’s still not personal. You really still don’t know what’s happened.

One of the great things I love about … There’s a passage in Matthew 11 where John the Baptist, in prison, about to be beheaded, sends some messengers to Jesus. The messengers say, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” John the Baptist is doubting. I can understand why. You know, he declared Jesus the Messiah. He said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” but everything is going wrong. He is in prison.

“Wait a minute. You’re the Messiah, and I’m with you. I’m about to get my head chopped off. Are you really the one who is to come, or should we be looking for somebody else?” He is doubting. Jesus so nicely says, “Go back and tell John the Baptist, ‘The blind see … the poor have good news preached to them.’ ” He gives him some arguments why he is the Messiah. Then he says, “Say this to John: ‘And blessed is he who does not take offense at me.’ ”

What I loved about that is instead of Jesus saying, “How dare you question me! I’m the Messiah,” he says, “Let me give you some answers. I want you to know I am not offended by people who are struggling with my offensiveness. Good luck. Hope you get through it. It’s not very easy. I hope you get the blessedness of people who finally get through that offensiveness and break through.”

What a man. He is not offended that we struggle with his offensiveness. He is not at all upset about the fact that it’s hard. He says, “Here are some answers to questions. If you have any more, please come back.” What a Savior. What a man. Go to him. Let us pray.

Our Father, we thank you for the gospel. We thank you that we’re able to look these few weeks together at what Saint Paul has said that has changed so many lives. It’s changed mine. It’s changed so many here. We ask you would help us to break through. We ask you would help us to grasp the form, the content, and the power of the gospel in such a way that we do so that we, knowing we’re loved by you, sense your calling into a whole new life. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

ABOUT THE PREACHER

In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting.  Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.

Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:

Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).

Romans 1-7 For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (2014).

Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).

Judges For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).

Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.

Center ChurchDoing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.

Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.

The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.

King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.

Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.

The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.

Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.

 
 

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Tim Keller: Sermon “A Tale of Two Cities” – Genesis 4:10-26

SERIES – Bible: The Whole Story—Creation and Fall – Part 5

Tim Keller preaching image

Preached in Manhattan, New York on February 1, 2009

10 The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. 14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.

16 So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden. 17 Cain lay with his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch. 18 To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad was the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael was the father of Methushael, and Methushael was the father of Lamech.

19 Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah. 20 Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock. 21 His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play the harp and flute. 22 Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. Tubal-Cain’s sister was Naamah.

23 Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. 24 If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” 25 Adam lay with his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth, saying, “God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him.” 26 Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time men began to call on the name of the Lord.

In this series of sermons, we are trying to trace out the single storyline of the Bible. Each week we’ve started by saying the Bible is not primarily a disconnected set of little stories each with a moral, each with a lesson, on how to live. Primarily, it’s a single story telling us what’s wrong with the human race, what God has done about it, and how history is going to turn out in the end.

We’ve started by looking at the beginning of the biblical story, what’s wrong with us. The Bible continually tells us what’s wrong with us here in Genesis 1–4. We’re at the end of the section of Genesis. This particular part is neglected somewhat. It’s not preached on a great deal. There are a couple of reasons why. One of them is a question that bedevils the reader, at least the modern Western reader.

Here’s Adam and Eve, and they have two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel. So there’s this young man (Cain) who’s run out into the world. He says, “Oh, I’m afraid now the people will attack me.” Who? “Cain lay with his wife …” Where did she come from? “Cain was then building a city …” Hmm. Populated by whom? If you take the text seriously and historically like I do (a lot of other people do), there are actually all sorts of possibilities, but here’s what I think would be helpful to help you be good readers of biblical narrative.

Biblical narrative is incredibly selective and spare. If you read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John together, you’re constantly surprised. Having read maybe an event or an incident in Mark, when you get to Luke, which will tell you about the same event, Luke will very often give you more details. You’ll see there was a lot more going on in that event than Mark told you about. Mark is very spare.

You’ll say, “Well, why didn’t Mark tell me there was another angel there, or this person was there, or someone was coming with that?” The answer is the reason why the biblical narrator (writer) doesn’t tell you all kinds of information that you sit there and want to know about is it doesn’t help him get his point across. The point of Genesis 4 is to teach us some things. If it doesn’t tell us things we want to know about, it’s because it’s not necessary in order to understand the point, the teaching, the truth.

So you just have to be a little bit willing to recognize the point of reading this text is to learn what the Lord, who is the ultimate author of every part of the Bible, wants to tell you. I don’t know where all these other people came from. However, here’s what we do learn. There are three very important things. They’re rather broad, but they’re extremely important. We learn here about the ruin of Cain, the culture of death, and the future city of grace. It’s very important. The ruin of Cain, the culture of death, and the future city of grace.

1. The ruin of Cain

Let’s start with the ruin of Cain. If you remember last week, when Cain kills his brother Abel, the first thing God says is, “Where is your brother Abel?” Not that God doesn’t know, but he asks Cain. Then Cain gives a very cold answer and says, “How do I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?” Ooh! “I’m not his nursemaid. Why ask me?” Now God comes back and says, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

That’s a strong statement. You would think when God says, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground,” the next thing he would do would be to smite him to the ground himself, to kill him, to take his blood. But as we see, God doesn’t do that. He doesn’t do it. God is doing absolutely everything he possibly can to give an opportunity for Cain to repent. That’s one of the things I think we’re supposed to get here.

God is doing everything so Cain can repent, giving him every bit of space, every opportunity. Why? Martin Luther has a great definition of sin. His definition of sin in Latin was, “homo incurvatus in se,” which means literally, “Sin is man curved in upon himself.” What Luther means by that (and this is absolutely right) is the Bible defines sin as always focusing on yourself, always choosing yourself over God or others, always placing yourself in the center. Always!

What that means is yes, of course you do bad things, but what’s brilliant about that and cutting and penetrating about this definition is sin determines that even when you do good things, even when you help the poor, even when you enter into friendships, even when you come to church and study the Bible and try to obey the Ten Commandments, it’s always about you. You always relate to God.

Sin determines you relate to God and other people only in such a way and only to the degree that it furthers your agenda, that things are going your way, that God or other people you’re relating to are doing things the way you think they should be done, as long as it gives you the self-image you want to have or you want to project. As soon as it becomes something that’s very costly, as soon as a relationship with God or other people is very costly, we’re out of it. Why?

Because even when it looks like we’re serving God and other people, we’re actually serving ourselves. That’s how insidious sin is. But repentance goes to the root of that. Repentance goes absolutely to the root of it. It means you get out of yourself. You take yourself out of the center, and you begin to get the favor of God, and you begin to heal the blindness and the hardness and the pride sin brings into your life.

Therefore, there is nothing more important than repentance. Nothing! Look what Cain does. Notice what he says? He is crying, in a way. You see? He said to the Lord … He cries out. He is upset. He is sorrowful. Maybe he is weeping. I don’t know. He says … What? “My punishment is more than I can bear.” Here’s the tragedy. There’s a kind of sorrow, there’s a kind of weeping (“Oh, I’m so sorry for what I’ve done”) that is just as self-absorbed, just as self-centered as the sin you’re crying about.

Notice he is not saying, “Oh, what it cost you, oh Lord, and your honor and glory. Oh, what it cost my brother Abel. Oh, I can’t bear the thought of my brother lying there in his own blood.” No. What he is saying is, “I’m really upset about what’s going to happen to me.” He is sorry for the consequences of the sin, not for the sin. He is obsessed with the cost to himself, not to God or other people. In other words, he is sorry for himself. He is not sorry for his sin.

There’s a kind of sorrow, a kind of apparent repentance, a kind of weeping and weeping over what you’ve done wrong, which actually makes you more self-centered and self-absorbed than ever. It makes it worse. This is the first point. We have to move, because these points are actually so broad and so important and yet we could talk about them forever. Here’s what this means.

If repentance is at the bottom of the ruin of the human race, if repentance was so important that God was giving Cain every opportunity, and if repentance is something so easy to miss and think you’re doing it when you’re not, then you should do everything to foster the skill of repentance in your life.

When people point a finger at you or come to you and say, “You’ve done this wrong,” what is our first instinct? What’s our first instinct? “What are you talking about? You don’t understand. What are you talking about? How dare you! You’re the one to talk!” Instead, the first thing our hearts should be saying is, “Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.”

If repentance is that important, that crucial and that slippery and that difficult, we should be a community of people who help each other repent, who do it very, very quickly, who are quick to say, “Well, here’s what I can say I did wrong.” At the heart of the ruin of the human race is the inability to repent. That’s the first point. It seems to go away, but we’ll get back actually to that.

2. The culture of death

The second point we learn about is sin doesn’t just ruin the individual life. It ruins the culture. It doesn’t just ruin our individual little lives; it ruins human society and culture. What we see here in the descendants of Cain from verses 17 on to the bottom is extremely telling. On the one hand, we see, even though human beings are sinful, they’re still in the image of God. Do you know why? They’re creating culture.

Let me scroll you back to Genesis 2. If you were here when we were in Genesis 2, we saw we are made in the image of God. That means we reflect God. Well, who do we reflect? We’re reflecting a creator God. Because we reflect a creator God in whose image we were made, we ourselves are creative. How does that work itself out? When God put Adam and Eve into the garden and said, “Be fruitful and multiply and have dominion,” gardening is neither leaving the ground as it is nor is it ruining it.

Gardening is creatively rearranging the raw material of the ground so as to bring about produce, to produce things, to produce food and flowers and other kinds of plants that help human beings flourish and grow and live. We’ve said that’s what culture is. Gardening is the kind of paradigm for what … What is culture? Culture-making is this. You take the stuff, the raw material, of the world, and you produce things for human life and flourishing.

So when you take the raw material of sound and human experience and you produce music and narrative, that’s the arts. When you take the raw material of the physical world, you produce technology and the sciences. When you take the biological raw material and rearrange it for human flourishing, that’s medicine and other things.

Even though Cain and his descendants are twisted by sin, they’re still producing culture. So you have down here animal husbandry in verse 20. You have harp and flute, music, in verse 21. We have technology, tools, bronze, and iron in verse 22. They’re producing culture, but this culture is now a culture of death.

See, originally when God put Adam and Even in the garden and he said, “Be fruitful and multiply and have dominion,” what he was actually saying was, “I want you to rearrange things. I want you to create a culture that supports life by producing products that serve people.” Life through service. That’s the meaning of culture, but look what we have here.

First of all, we have the culture of oppression and secondly, violence. Here’s oppression. Verse 19. “Lamech married two women …” Now Genesis 2:24 tells us the original plan was for a man to leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, not wives. That’s Genesis 2:24. So polygamy was not the design of marriage at all. All through the rest of the Bible, pretty much all you have is polygamy.

Robert Alter, the great Jewish expert on biblical literature says if you know how to read the book of Genesis, you will know that one of the main subtexts of the book of Genesis … If you read all through the stories from here down through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, etc., one of the main subtexts and, therefore, one of the main points of the book of Genesis is polygamy is an absolute disaster.

If you don’t see that from reading the book of Genesis, Robert Alter says you just don’t know how to read a text. It is a disaster for everybody involved, but especially for the women who, by definition, are disempowered. They’re oppressed. What we have is cultural forms that now lead to oppression here.

That’s not all. Down here it says, “Lamech said to his wives, ‘… listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.’ ” Oh my word. Look at this. First of all, the word wound and injured is the word for bruise. Just bruise, scratch. The word for young man is actually best translated lad. It means a boy or, at best, an adolescent.

Lamech is boasting that if even a kid scratches or bruises him he’ll take his head off, literally. When he says, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times,” seven was a symbolic number of perfection. Therefore, to say, “I will be avenged 77 times,” 7 times 70 or 77 times (depending on how you translate it; it’s actually hard to translate), what Lamech is trying to say is, “I will never give up revenge. I will never lay aside my anger. I will never, ever, ever forgive anybody for ever wronging me.”

He is boasting about it, and he is proud. Look at the violence, and look at the pride. This is not, “My life to serve you,” which is the whole idea behind gardening, but, “Your life to serve me.” It’s amazing, and it’s violent. What you have here is the human culture is twisted by sin. You no longer have a culture based on life through service, on power and exploitation. The other thing we see (and this is very important to recognize) is the culture flows out of the city.

The very, very first time the word city is used anywhere in the Bible (and therefore, the first time it’s actually mentioned in history) is in verse 17. “Cain lay with his wife …” He began to produce progeny. “Cain was then building a city …” Now this Hebrew word city does not mean a place filled with lots and lots of people. When you and I think of city versus town or village, we think of numbers.

The word city meant a fortified settlement. It’s extremely important to understand that culture begins to develop. The first time the Bible talks about human culture, the first time the human culture begins to develop … The thing God told Adam and Eve to do is build (develop) culture, civilization. The first time it develops is after a city is built.

Henri Blocher, the French Christian scholar, says something like, “It is no doubt significant that in Genesis 4, progress in the arts and engineering comes from the city of the Canaanites. Nevertheless, we are not to conclude from this that civilization, as such, is the fruit of sin. Such a conclusion would lead us to the views of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Bible condemns neither the city, for it concludes all history with the vision of the city of God, nor art and engineering.”

What’s Blocher saying? Why did he bring in Rousseau? Here’s why he brought in Rousseau. In the eighteenth century, Rousseau and the romanticists tried to understand why there was so much violence and oppression in the world. They decided to blame the city. What they said is, “Human beings, human nature, is basically pristine and beautiful and wonderful and good, but society teaches people to be violent and selfish.”

Therefore, the idea of Rousseau and the romanticists was that savages, actually, natives, people away from cities, would be much more likely to be good and peace loving. Benjamin Franklin, being the very cagey man he was, was trying to get during the Revolutionary War … He went to Paris to do diplomacy, trying to get the French on our side. He was very, very careful to wear coonskin caps and rather hairy breeches.

In other words, he tried very hard to look like a savage or a native to make sure people thought there would be some more virtue here. Of course, we all know now … everybody knows now … that what Rousseau said there was an absolute crock. Cities are not necessarily places of more savagery than native tribes in the bush or the wilderness. That’s just not true at all.

Many scholars have pointed out the romanticists’ idea that somehow cities are breeders of sinful behavior and people who live in the country are more virtuous is actually something that’s been passed into the American psyche and actually into the American Christian psyche so that we have a tendency to have a very negative view of cities. The Bible does not have a negative view of cities at all. At all!

When God sends the people of Israel from Egypt into Canaan, he will not let them be exclusively agrarian. He commands them to build cities in the book of Numbers. When God sends the people of Israel out into exile in Babylon, that pagan, awful city that actually took them prisoner (and they were prisoners), what does he say? He says, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city. Pray for it. Love it. Care for it. Make it a good place to live.”

When God sends Jonah, his prophet, to the big, bad pagan city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the greatest city in the world at the time, at the very end, he looks at Jonah, and he says, “Look at 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left. I love the city. How could you not love a city that size with all those needy people? Why don’t you love the city?”

Of course, the most amazing thing of all is that when you get to the end of the book of Revelation, the end of history … Actually, we’re going to go there at the end of this series. When God has the world in the condition he wants it in, when he finally has the world exactly the way he wants it, it looks a lot like New York, without the graffiti and a few other things. It’s a city!

The Bible is amazingly positive about cities. Why? The reason it’s positive about cities is that when God made Adam and Eve creative, when he made them creative, it was inevitable that they would build cities. Cities are places of creativity. Cities are places where culture is forged. That’s the reason why culture does not begin to happen until there’s a city. Why? Well, I can give you a historical reason, but I can also give you a logical reason.

The historical reason is, the fact is, a city was any settlement with a wall. That wall created stability. It was out there when somebody did something wrong, people just did blood feuds back and forth, and they killed each other back and forth. They revenged each other. It was in the city you had jurisprudence. It was in the city you could have cases heard by judges, and things could be dealt peacefully. You could have rule of law develop.

Out there, it was subsistence living. You made your own clothes. You grew your own food. You did everything. In cities, some people are better at making tools. Some people are better at making food. Some people are better at making clothes. Now you have an economy. You have specialization. You have goods and services.

It’s not the size of the settlement but the stability of it. It was in cities that human culture was able to develop at all. You say, “Well, that’s fine now. We don’t need a wall. We don’t have walls around cities. Where there are walls, they’re great tourist attractions, but we don’t do that anymore. We don’t need that. Cities aren’t important for culture anymore.”

Oh yes, they are. They’re still the places, by their nature, from which culture flows. So as cities go, so goes the culture. You say, “Why?” Well, because cities are places of density and diversity. Cities are places where there are more people like you than anywhere else and also more people unlike you than anywhere else.

For example, let me show you how it works on culture. First of all, there are more people like you than anywhere else. Let’s just say you’re a violinist, and you’re the best violinist in the state of (pick a state). You won the state competition. You’re the best. You get off the train in Penn Station or Grand Central Station. To your horror, you walk by some person playing the violin on the platform. People are throwing money into the little violin case.

She is better than you. You go, “Oh no.” You start to practice, and you dig down deep. Everybody feels that way. Cities are places of masses, zillions of people like you, more people like you than anywhere else. That makes you dig down deep. It’s also true that cities are places of more people unlike you than anywhere else. There is a diversity here you’ll never see anywhere else. You’ll meet people you never otherwise would have met unless you went to a city.

As a result, you’re questioned. Everything you do is questioned. Everything you do, you have to compare and contrast. It makes you think creative thoughts you never would have had otherwise. Many of the things you came here thinking you were going to do, you continue to do, but only after you’ve done a lot more thinking about them now because you’re in cities.

Because of the density and because of the diversity, because of the zillions of people like you and the zillions of people unlike you, this is a crucible. This is a furnace out of which flow new and creative and innovative ideas. This is the result. What comes out of the city goes out into the culture. As a city goes, so goes the culture.

Yet cities are affected by sin. The density, the fact there are so many more people like you here competing with you, should be stimulation. It is stimulant. It’s great. Because of sin, it’s also exhausting. It’s dog-eat-dog, and it leads to burnout. The diversity (all the people who are very different than you) should be a stimulation to creativity, but … It is, but it’s also a place of constant conflict and fighting and division.

Most of all, at the heart of cities is a battle. Will the culture be a culture in which we make products, supporting life to serve others, or basically we’re doing our work, we’re making our products, we’re working in the city, and we’re creating culture to make a name for ourselves, to get our own glory, to accrue power, and to exploit other people? Is human culture mainly my life to serve yours or your life to serve me? That leads us to our final point.

It’s very hard to live in cities without being sucked into the culture of power, being sucked into burnout, being sucked into conflict. How are you going to get the strength to be in the city? By the way, if you want to make a difference in society, if you want to just have a happy life, you probably don’t want to be here because of … what? Because of the competition. Because of the conflict. Because of the density and diversity.

If you want to make a difference in society, if you want to make a difference in how human life goes, then you ought to be in cities. Yet it takes a tremendous power to avoid being sucked in, as it were. It takes tremendous spiritual power and poise to not be sucked in to the poisonous distorted heart of human culture, especially as it’s taking effect in cities. How do you get that power?

3. The future city of grace. Lastly, there is a future city of grace God is developing. How do we know that? Well, at the very, very end of this chapter, it says, “Adam lay with his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth, saying, ‘God has granted me another child in place of Abel …’ Seth also had a son …” See, a new line. “At that time men began to call on the name of the Lord.”

The word name comes up twice in this text. When Cain built a city, he named it not after God (like Jerusalem or something like that, the city of God, it’s the Lord’s peace). He didn’t name it after God. He named it after his own son. In Genesis 11, the culmination of the line of the Canaanites built the tower of Babel, which is a skyscraper, which is a city. The reason why the Canaanites built this great city of Babel was to make a name for themselves.

Genesis 11:4. “… make a name for ourselves …” That’s what’s wrong with cities. That’s what’s wrong with culture. When you do work to make a name for yourself, when you go to cities to make a name for yourself … That’s, by the way, why almost everybody comes to New York. When work is really about you, not about producing products for human flourishing, when sex is really about you, not to enter into a relationship in which you serve and you form a family and you bring about children and human flourishing …

When it’s about you, when it’s to get a name for yourself, it creates the culture of death. The city is producing a culture of death. There’s a new line of people that God begins. They’re not there to make a name for themselves but to call on the name of the Lord, to live life for God’s sake, and to live life for their neighbor’s sake. That produces two kinds of societies: one based on power, one based on service. One based on making a name for themselves, and one saying, “All I want to do is honor the Lord’s name. I want to have his name put on me. I want to be like him.”

That’s pretty fascinating. Where do these two groups of people live? Well, they actually live in the same place, because Jesus says in his famous Sermon on the Mount to his disciples, “You are the light of the world. You are a city on the hill. Let your good works so shine that the pagans see them and glorify your Father.” What Jesus Christ is saying there is that the line of Seth, the believers in God, and then eventually the believers in Christ are supposed to be an alternate city in every city.

We’re supposed to create a human society in which we’re calling on the name of the Lord rather than trying to make a name for ourselves, in which case that it will transform everything: the way sex is used, the way money is used, the way power relationships are brought about, the way families work, the way business practices are conducted, the way we spend our money. Everything!

Jesus says, “I want you to be a city on a hill,” which means, “I want the city around you to see your good deeds.” Good deeds doesn’t just mean rectitude. It means service. In other words, the way you know you’re part of the line of Seth, the way you know you’re part of the city based on grace, the city of people calling on the name of the Lord, is whereas the city of Cain outside is suspicious of you because you don’t have the right beliefs …

But you inside the city love the people around you, even though they don’t believe at all like you do. You go to the mat for them. You sacrifice for them. See, that’s what God said in Jeremiah 29 when he says, “Yes, that city oppressed you. Yes, that city persecuted you. Yes, that city will persecute you, but I want you to live in love and service toward them.”

How do you get the power to do that? Do you know what this is actually saying? Because actually in 1 Peter, this same thing is said that Jesus says, only he is even more explicit. He says, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

It doesn’t mean they might accuse you of doing wrong. They will! Jesus and Peter are saying if you want to be part of God’s city of grace, the alternate city in every city, the city based on the name of God instead of making your own name, the city based on life through service not death through power, then you are going to be constantly misunderstood. If we live the life we should in New York City, pouring ourselves out to make this a great place, we expect to be persecuted.

That is to say we expect at certain points to be misunderstood, vilified, maybe even attacked. We’re not going to get upset about it because we were told that’s part of what it means to not be part of the city of man, to not be part of the city of Cain, to not marginalize and use power over our opponents but basically serve them the way Christ served us. Where do you get the power to do that? Where do you get this power we’re supposed to have so we’re not sucked into the ways of the world?

Here. When Lamech at the end of his poem, his song, says, “… Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (or 70 times 7), does that remind you of anything? When the disciples asked Jesus, “How often do we have to forgive?” he said, “Not just 7 times but 70 times 7.” They said, “Lord, how could we get the grace and the power to forgive people infinitely?” Do you know what Jesus was doing? He was remembering the taunt of Lamech, and he was reversing it.

You see, Lamech was saying, “Endless anger. I will never, never let go of my anger. I will never let go of my anger. I will always hold my anger. Endless anger. Endless revenge.” Do you know what Jesus is saying? The endless anger of human sin will be met by the endless love of God. Jesus is saying Lamech, though he had no right, said he would never let go of his anger. He would be endlessly revenging.

Do you know what Jesus is saying? “I, the Lord, am the only one who has the right to say that. I have the right to be endlessly angry at the human race, but I won’t be. I’m going to be as merciful to you as to Cain.” One of the most interesting things … Nobody knows what the mark of Cain is. Okay, there we go. Biblical selectivity again.

Cain says, “I’m so upset.” He is not repenting. “I’m upset. Somebody is going to hurt me.” What does God do? He puts a mark on Cain. That mark somehow protects him. We have no idea what it is. Was it a tattoo? What was it? Was it a little dog? “Mark, sic ‘em. Get him!” No. Nobody knows. One commentator actually said that. “Maybe it was a dog named Mark.” You can’t follow all the commentaries.

All we know is that though Cain deserved to be smitten to the ground, he got mercy. How can a just God be merciful to Cain? How can a just God say, “I will be endlessly forgiving to you,” very much the opposite of what Lamech said? How can God give us endless love and mercy here? Because the three things Cain says are going to fall on him actually fell on Jesus. Do you see what those three things are?

It’s up here in verse 14. “I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” Who was the restless wanderer on the earth? Jesus said, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” “… whoever finds me will kill me.” Yes, in the garden they found him, and they took him to the cross and killed him. On the cross, he even lost the presence of God. “My God, my God. Why hast thou forsaken me?”

There’s the answer, first of all, how a just God can be merciful. Because God came to earth in Jesus Christ, and he took the curse that really should fall on us. See, curses came, and then he marks them for mercy because the real curse fell on Jesus and on God himself so the blessing could come to us. That’s how he can do it.

When you know that, when you know he did all that for you, that means you no longer have to prove yourself or make a name for yourself. When you get baptized, we put the name of the Lord on you. That means work now is just about work. It’s not about getting a name for myself. Sex is just a way of saying, “I love you” to the person you’re married to.

In other words, these things now become ways of serving others instead of ways of making a name for yourself. Now you’re part of the city of God by grace. Do you know where it all starts? Do you know how you can more and more make yourself a person who is really living like a citizen of the city of God instead of the city of man? Repent. Repent every time somebody gives you the opportunity. Repent, and you won’t be ruined. You’ll be restored and made a citizen.

Savior, if of Zion’s city,

I through grace a member am,

Let the world deride or pity,

I will glory in thy name.

Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,

All his boasted pomp and show;

Solid joys and lasting treasure

None but Zion’s children know.

Let’s pray.

Our Father, we thank you that you have given us citizenship in your city. We sit down now at your Table. We’re in your family. We’re members of your city. We pray you would show us what it means to live lives in accordance with these great truths of the gospel. It’s in Jesus’ name that we pray, amen.

 

ABOUT THE PREACHER

In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting.  Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.

Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:

Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).

Romans 1-7 For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (2014).

Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).

Judges For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).

Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.

Center ChurchDoing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.

Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.

The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.

King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.

Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.

The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.

Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.

 

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Tim Keller Sermon: “THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN A NUTSHELL” – Genesis 4:1-10

SERIES – Bible: The Whole Story—Creation and Fall

Tim Keller preaching image

Preached in Manhattan, New York on January 25, 2009

Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.” Later she gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.

The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” – Genesis 4:1-10

We’re looking at the storyline of the Bible. We’re saying each week that the Bible is not primarily a set of disconnected individual stories, each of which has a little lesson or moral about how to live life, but primarily, the Bible is a single storyline, a single story, that tells us what’s wrong with the human race, what God is doing about it, and how history is going to turn out at the end. We’ve begun to trace out this storyline by starting with Genesis, the first four chapters.

The Bible’s simple answer to the question, “What’s wrong with the human race?” is sin. Contemporary people just cringe and wince and get a tic when we use the word sin because we don’t like it. Recently I actually read a book review (kind of an older book review but not too old) in the London Times. It was the London Times online. As an offhanded comment, the reviewer said, “You know, we need to retire these words sin and evil. They’re empty and obsolete.”

Okay, then what vocabulary will you use to talk about war atrocities or massive corruption in government and business or slavery or violence? What will you use? What language will you use? Will you use the language of technology or sociology or psychology? Will you talk about maladaptive behavior or dysfunction? That’s not sufficient.

The language we have in those disciplines isn’t profound enough and rich enough to deal with the realities of what’s really going on in the world and what’s wrong with the world. We have to recover the vocabulary of sin. That’s one of the things we’re doing as we look here at Genesis 3 and 4.

Tonight we learn more about what the Bible means by this term sin by looking at this sad and poignant narrative, famous story of Cain and Abel. Let’s look at three new things we learn tonight about what the Bible says is wrong with us and, therefore, three new things about sin. Let’s notice the potency of sin, the subtlety of it, and we see a foreshadowing of the victory over it. So let’s notice the potency of it, the subtlety of it, and our eventual victory over it (all in this text).

1. The potency of it

In verse 7, God, in speaking to Cain, uses a remarkable image. He says, “But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” It’s a remarkable image. It’s the image of a leopard or a tiger, a predatory animal, crouching in the shadows, coiled and ready to spring and kill.

God says that’s sin. Sin is predatory. Sin has a deadly life of its own. How is that? Here right away we’re going to see why there is no other set of vocabulary words that we have that deal with the reality of what sin is. How so? First of all, when God uses this image, it’s telling us that sin has an abiding, growing presence in your life. If you commit sin, sin is not over. Sin is not simply an action. It’s a force. It’s a power.

When you do sin, it’s not now over, but it actually becomes a presence in your life. It takes shape, a shadow shape, and stays with you and begins to affect you. Eventually, it can just take you out. You say, “Well, how could that be?” Well, you can start with the psychological concept of habit. You can start there, but you can’t end there. You can start by noticing the things we do become easier to do again and easier to do again and easier to do again and harder to stop doing.

C.S. Lewis some years ago wrote this passage in one of his chapters of Mere Christianity. He says, “That explains what always used to puzzle me about Christian writers; they seem to be so very strict at one moment and so very free and easy at another. They talk about mere sins of thought as if they were immensely important: and then they talk about the most frightful murders and treacheries as if you had only got to repent and all would be forgiven.

But I have come to see that they are right. what they are always thinking of is the mark which the action leaves on that tiny central self which no one sees … but which each of us will have to endure—or enjoy—forever. One man may be so placed that his anger sheds the blood of thousands, and another so placed that however angry he gets he will only be laughed at.”

Do you hear that? Here are two people. They both get angry. One of them, because of the conditions, has the power to kill people with it. The other person, no matter how angry he gets, people just laugh at him. Each has done a little mark on the soul. It’s pretty much the same case in both men.

“Each has done something to himself which, unless he repents, will make it harder for him to keep out of the rage next time he is tempted, and will make the rage worse when he does fall into it. Each of them, if he seriously turns to God, can have that twist in the central man straightened out again: each is, in the long run, doomed if he will not. The bigness or smallness of the thing, seen from the outside, is not what really matters.”

There’s another place, by the way, nearby in Mere Christianity where Lewis makes the interesting observation that first, the Nazis killed the Jews because they hated them. After awhile, they hated the Jews because they had killed them. Here’s the point. When you sin, the sin doesn’t just go away. The sin becomes a presence in your life. You start by doing sin, but then sin does you.

You can decide, “I’m not going to forgive my mother, I’m not going to forgive my father, for what he or she has done.” Okay, you’ve done it, but then it will do you, because that will poison your relationships with other people, certain people in all kinds of ways you don’t even see. It will harden you. Do you see the difference already in this family? When God comes to Adam and Eve (remember last week if you were here) and God says, “What have you done,” at least they’re kind of abashed and sheepish.

Adam is saying, “My wife made me do it.” The wife says, “The Serpent made me do it.” But here God comes to Cain and says, “What have you done?” He says, “Do you think I’m supposed to keep tabs on that guy?” There’s a hardening. First, you start to do sin, and then sin does you. It becomes a presence in your life.

See, it’s not just inside. It’s not just that you … This is the reason why legal terminology is not enough just to say, “We’re violating God’s norms,” nor is psychological terminology quite enough to say, “Well, it creates bad habits or psychological problems.” No, let me go a little further. When it talks about sin as a crouching tiger (or hidden dragon), when it talks about sin like that, it says, for example, in Galatians 6, sins will find you out. You reap what you sow.

Do you know what that means? Sin also creates a presence not just in you but around you. Why? It sets up strains in the fabric of things, the way God made the world, especially in the human community. Haters tend to be hated. Cowards tend to be deserted. He who lives by the sword will die by the sword. What is all that?

When you sin, that sin becomes a presence in your life. It takes shape in and around you, and it will take you out. Therefore, you should avoid sin like the plague, because it is a plague. Somebody says to you, “You know, you have a cancerous tumor growing in this part of your body.” You say, “Well, one of these years I’ll get to it.” You don’t do that. For somebody to come along and say, “You have an abrasive spirit,” or, “You can’t control yourself in this area,” or, “You have this,” or, “You have that character flaw,” you don’t say, “Well, yeah.”

Don’t you dare, because that’s the second aspect of potency we see in this image. The idea of sin crouching at the door not only tells us it’s coiled to spring (it’s a presence in your life that when you sin, you create a presence in your life that then can take you out), but also the image gets across the fact that sin hides.

See, the lion, the tiger, the leopard is crouching. That means down away out of your sight. Why? Because if you see a crouching tiger, you have a chance. You can get a couple of steps on it, but if you don’t see a crouching tiger, you’re dead. If you don’t see it well or you don’t know quite where it’s located … The less aware you are of the location or the reality of the crouching animal, the more vulnerable you are, and the more likely you are to die.

What that means is the worst things in your life, the character flaws and the sins in your life that are most going to ruin you or are ruining you or are going to make the people around you miserable are the things, the character flaws, you least will admit. They’re the ones you’re in denial about, you rationalize, and you minimize. Whatever the consequences happen to you, when somebody brings them up, you rationalize them.

By definition, those are the crouching sins in your life (the ones that are going to take you out). As long as you look at workaholism as conscientiousness, as long as you look at your grudge as moral outrage, as long as you look at materialism as ambition or arrogance as healthy self-assertion, as long as you look at your obsession with looks as good grooming, you’re vulnerable. You’re in denial.

What are the crouching sins in your life? Do you not have a short list of character flaws you know have power over you but you always tend to rationalize, you always tend to minimize? You know, many of us get at least to this spot. We know we’re bad at that. We know that’s a problem for us, and yet when anyone ever brings up an actual particular case of it, “Oh no! You don’t understand.”

At least you know there’s a crouching tiger in there somewhere. You just don’t quite know where. Do you know what your sins are? Do you know what your besetting sins are? Do you know what your crouching sins are? If you don’t even have a list, then you’ve been mastered. So see the potency of sin. See how deadly it is. See why it’s nothing to take lightly. It’s nothing to be trifled with. Okay, now secondly, let’s notice …

2. The subtlety of sin

This brilliant narrative shows us how subtle it is, because here you have Cain, and here you have Abel. We have Abel being accepted by God and Cain being rejected. So what do they represent? They represent the people who call on God’s name and find favor with God and then the people who God rejects.

When you actually read through the narrative, it’s difficult to know why, isn’t it? See, that’s part of the brilliance of the narrative, because we don’t have … Look. Liberals and conservatives basically … When they divide the world into good and bad people, they have this nice, bright line. I think the traditional idea is good people are the people who uphold moral values, and bad people are the people who don’t believe anything, and they live any way they want.

The liberal bright line is good people are the people who are working for inclusion and who are working for a pluralistic society and equality. Bad people are the intolerant people, the fundamentalists, the bigots. I mean, they have these nice lines, but here you have … Look. You don’t see Cain and Abel … One of them is running around boozing it up and womanizing, and the other one is going to church and bringing their offerings.

You don’t see one person working hard, and the other person a ne’er-do-well living off welfare. That’s not what you have. What do you have? The only difference is one seems to be a farmer and one seems to be a rancher, from what we can tell. One is raising animals. To make an offering to God, you bring the firstfruit of the new animals born to you this year, because that’s your income. The other one is a farmer. What you do is you bring some of the produce of your field because that’s your income.

Well, they’re both offering up to God, are they not? They’re both doing God’s will. They’re both seeking God. So what’s the problem? All we’re told is God blessed and showed favor to Abel, which probably almost certainly means he prospered him and made him successful and let things go well in his life, and he didn’t favor Cain. Why? What’s going on? It’s subtle. It’s supposed to be subtle. It’s supposed to be a matter of the heart.

That’s how the narrative gets you to start to investigate. Here are some clues to the answer. The first clue is this. Do you see what it says? It says, “Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering … But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” Here’s what’s interesting. Every year, the income of a rancher basically is how many more calves and colts and lambs and that sort of thing are being born.

If you want to be really cagey, you wait and give the Lord his offering after you see how many animals are being born to you, right? I mean, if you’re going to have 12 animals born, then, “Oh, I’ll send the Lord one or two.” You know? “I’m a tither. I’ll send three, a little more than a tithe.” Here’s the danger. If you send the first one born, what if there are only two this year? What if there are only three? “I don’t want to give God 50 percent. That’s kind of exorbitant, don’t you think?”

Therefore, there’s a kind of person who is pretty calculating and is “absolutely making sure I give God just what I have to.” Then there’s a kind of person who is openhearted. They’re not calculating. There’s a joy. There’s an abandon. There’s a trust. So we see that in Abel. Do you recognize that? We see a different kind of spirit there, a different level of commitment, a kind of joy, a kind of freedom. You don’t see it in Cain.

Well, where was that? Why? Okay, secondly, Hebrews 11, looking back on this passage … In Hebrews 11, we’re told Abel made his sacrifice and offering in faith, but Cain did not. Well, what the heck does that mean? That’s a little difficult to understand. Why? Well, when you and I think of faith in God, are we saying Cain didn’t have faith in God? You don’t think Cain believed God existed?

I think he believed God existed. He is talking with God here, so that’s not a problem. He really knows God exists. What’s going on? You have to remember from last week God hasn’t given this first family a whole lot of information yet about how he is going to save the world. He has just given them one verse. It’s Genesis 3:15. In Genesis 3:15, God promised one of the descendants of Adam and Eve is going to crush the Serpent’s head, is going to destroy sin and death.

Therefore, God promises to save the world. That’s all we know. It’s pretty vague. It’s awfully rudimentary, but this is what I want you to consider. There are only two reasons you can possibly bring an offering to God. There are only two reasons to put money in the plate. There are only two reasons to bring a lamb or an offering in the Old Testament and New Testament. It doesn’t matter. There are only two reasons to give God an offering.

One is to give God an offering in response to salvation, in gratitude toward salvation. The other reason is to do it as a means of salvation, as a way of getting God to bless you, as a way of getting God to reward you, answer your prayers, take you to heaven. There are only two possible reasons. Even in the rudimentary form that the gospel existed in Abel’s mind, Abel, in some way, was putting his trust in God’s promise of salvation.

As a result, there was an openheartedness about him. There was a lack of calculation. Here’s what happens with Cain. Do you not remember (if you were here in the fall) the parable of the prodigal son and the elder brother and what the elder brother’s heart was like? We said back then … If you weren’t here, don’t worry. I’ll give you the nutshell version of it. If you believe you’re a sinner saved by grace, then everything is gravy. You believe God has saved you in spite of your merits, and everything God gives you is gravy. Everything is icing.

But if you’re an elder brother, if you believe, “God owes me because I’ve worked so hard, and I’ve served my father, and I’ve obeyed the Bible, and I’ve done everything right. God owes me it,” if you believe you’re saved by works, if you believe you’ve put God in your debt … The way you know you’re a sinner saved by grace or an elder brother saved by works is that when God doesn’t let your life go the way you think it ought to go, when God is not blessing you and prospering you and having things go well, the elder brothers get absolutely furious.

Why? It proves they actually believe God owes them because of their good works, because of their offerings. When you see Cain looking first at Abel and seeing Abel being blessed over himself, he is murderously angry, and he is angry at God. He is so angry at God, he is willing to say, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” “Get out of my face.”

What do we have there? You don’t see the difference between Cain and Abel on the surface, do you? They’re both hardworking. They’re both going to church, as it were. They’re both trying to do God’s will, but what is the fundamental trust of their heart? Are they looking to other things or themselves for their salvation, or are they looking to God? That makes all the difference between whether you’re a grumpy, angry, furious Cain, always mad with how the world is going, always upset because somebody is getting ahead of you, competitive, looking at the Abels around …

“Why are they getting ahead? They don’t deserve to be ahead. What’s going on here?” Do you want to be a Cain, or do you want to be an Abel? See, Cains hate Abels. Abels don’t hate Cains. Cains denounce. Cains demonize. Cains are always comparing. Cains are always grumpy. Cains are always anxious. It all has to do with what are you looking to as your salvation? What is your heart’s fundamental trust?

Do you see the subtlety of it? That’s the very essence of whether sin is mastering you or whether you are mastering sin. There’s the potency of sin, and there is the subtlety of sin. Is there any hope? “Preacher, is there any hope?” Well, you know, it’s a sad story. Of course, the story seems to end … There’s no happy ending.

“Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ […] The Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.’ ” Yet because this is such a brilliant narrative, it’s such a brilliant text, because the author ultimately was the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is an incredible storyteller, we have foreshadowing. Right there at the very end, you actually have the basic furniture for …

3. The eventual victory over sin

What do you see? You see two things about God. One is his grace, and one is his justice. First of all, notice his grace. He is asking questions. Again! Remember last week, if you were here? Last week, God does not show up after Adam and Eve sinned and say, “How dare you do what I told you not to do!” Instead, he comes and says, “What have you done? Where have you been? What’s going on?” Even here, he shows up even after the murder and says, “Where is your brother Abel?”

Now look. When God asks you a question, I can guarantee one thing. He is not looking for information. If God is asking you a question, he is not trying to understand your heart. He already understands your heart. He is not trying to figure out what’s going on. He already knows what’s going on.

If God asks you a question, he is trying to get you to understand your heart. He is trying to bring you along. I think in Genesis 3 and 4 one of the most moving things as I’ve meditated on these texts for years now is that God does not show up and say the first time to Cain, “How dare you question who I bless and who I don’t bless! I mean, don’t you know who I am? Who do you think you are? I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” He doesn’t do that.

He says to Cain, “I see you’re downcast.” Literally, by the way, God says, “Your face has fallen,” which is actually a Hebrew idiomatic expression for depression. He is coming, and he is counseling a depressed man. He is asking him questions. He is pursuing him, and he is trying to get him to understand his own heart. Look at the tenderness of it.

What amazes me is how, even though he is telling him the truth, he says, “Look, Cain. It’s not Abel’s fault you’re depressed, and it’s not my fault. It’s your own actions and your own attitudes.” Yet he says, “But sin is going to master you. I don’t want it to master you.” Isn’t that amazing? He is coming after Cain. He doesn’t want to see him perish. So there we see the grace of God. There we see the love of God, but at the very same time, in verse 10, we see something.

It’s always kind of spine tingling to me when he says, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” What does that mean? All through the Bible, there are places where God says, “The innocent shed blood is crying to me from the ground.” What does that mean? God is a God of justice. It means when injustice is done, it cries to God, as it were. There’s an outcry.

When there’s violence in Sodom and Gomorrah, he comes by in Genesis 18, and he says to Abraham, “I’m on my way down to Sodom and Gomorrah because of the outcry, the cry of the oppressed, because of the violence, and because of the terrible things that are happening there.” God can’t shrug at sin. He just can’t let it go. He is a righteous God. He is a just God. Injustices cry to him all the time. Innocent shed blood always cries to him for rectification, for making it right. He can’t deny that. He can’t just turn away from that.

Here you have an absolutely just God, and yet an absolutely loving and gracious God. How in the world can a just God save us? He wants to save us, but he is just. How will he ever be able to make good on his promise of Genesis 3:15 to save the world, to save us like this? Here’s how he can be both just and gracious.

Years later, another Man showed up who was a lot like Abel, because he came into a world, he came into a nation, filled with Cains, people who were religiously very observant, who were always bringing their offerings, honoring the sacrificial system, and yet they hated his Spirit, and they slew him. The book of Hebrews says when Jesus Christ shed his blood, an innocent victim of injustice, his blood cried out, but in a new way.

See, this is in Hebrews 12. The writer to the Hebrews says, “You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” That’s interesting. What is that talking about? Here’s what it’s talking about.

Jesus Christ was, in a sense, the ultimate Abel because he was the only person who was truly innocent who came into this world. He was not a grumpy Cain. He was beautiful. He was gorgeous. He was loving. The Cains couldn’t stand it, and they killed him. But he didn’t die only as a victim of injustice. He also died by design. He died in our place. He died to pay the penalty for our injustices.

Do you know what that means? Let me be as personal as I can possibly be. In the first three or four years of my Christian life, every time I went to God to ask for forgiveness, I was nervous. In fact, when I got up off of my knees when I was done confessing my sins, I was still nervous because I would take 1 John 1:9, where it says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” and I’d say, “Okay. I’ve sinned, and so I’ll kneel down, and I’ll ask for God’s forgiveness.”

But do you know what? I would sin, and I’d say, “I’ll never do this again.” A few days or weeks later, I had done it again. I’d get down on my knees. A few days or weeks later, I’d done it again. I’d get down on my knees. Every time I would say, “Please be merciful. Please be merciful!” There was something in the back of my head that kept saying, “Okay. You’re in your early twenties. What if you’re still doing this in your early forties, your early fifties? Where will God finally say, ‘Hey, I’m under no obligation to be merciful to you infinitely’?”

Every time I would get up, I would wonder, “Will he be back in my life? Will he bless me?” Then one day I understood what Hebrews 12 was talking about when it says Jesus Christ’s blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Jesus Christ’s blood, like all innocent blood, is crying out for justice, but now what is it saying?

In a sense, Jesus Christ is standing before the throne of his Father and saying, “Father, your law demands justice. These people here have sinned. The wages of sin is death. But for all the people who believe in me, I have paid for it. There is my blood crying out for justice.” Here’s how it cries now. “Justice demands that you never condemn my brothers and sisters.”

Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ and who says, “Father, forgive me because Jesus Christ has died in my place,” do you know what that means? God can never condemn us. Why? Because that would be to get two payments for the same sin, and that would be unjust. That’s the reason why 1 John 1:9, does not say, “If you confess your sins, he is faithful and merciful to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” It says, “… he is faithful and just …” What does that mean?

A life-changing sermon for me was a sermon by David Martyn Lloyd-Jones that I read years ago on 1 John 1:8 and 9. Here’s what he said: If Jesus Christ has shed his blood for you and you have asked God to forgive you because of Jesus Christ’s shed blood, God could never, ever, ever condemn you, because that would be to get two payments, and that would be unjust. Therefore, the justice of God now demands that there is no condemnation for you as long as you live and that you will never perish.

Jesus Christ, in a sense, is not standing before God interceding for us by asking for mercy, because, you see, Jesus is not actually getting up there saying, “Here’s Tim Keller, and he sinned again. So, Father, give him one more chance. Please be merciful one more time.” God is up there saying, “Well, all right.” No wonder I never felt good when I got up off my knees. Now I realize what Jesus Christ essentially is doing.

He is saying, “Tim Keller sinned again, but I’m not asking for mercy. I’m not asking for mercy. I’m demanding justice. Embrace him. Cleanse him. Open his eyes. Come into his life.” The justice of God is infallible. The justice of God is like the mountains. The justice of God and the righteousness of God cannot be gainsaid. Now it’s on our side if you believe in him. See, now the blood of Jesus Christ cries out for justice, but the justice is not against us anymore. It’s for us … all of it.

If you really know you’re that secure in his love, if that moves you to the depths, it shakes you to the depths and it moves you to tears, you’re not going to be a grumpy Cain anymore. You’re not going to always be comparing yourself to other people. You’re not going to be angry because somebody is getting ahead of you. Your identity is not based on your performance anymore and all that kind of thing.

There will be a security. There will be a poise. You’ll become a sweet, loving Abel, not a grumpy, condemning, self-righteous Cain. Don’t you want that? The world needs a lot of Abels. The Cains are out there killing each other, exploiting each other, lying about each other, elbowing each other out.

They’re as miserable as can be. Sin is mastering them, but use this potent gospel of the grace of God to deal with the potent sin in our lives, in your life. The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all unrighteousness. Go and learn what that means. Spend the rest of your life learning what that means. Let’s pray.

Father, we thank you that you have given us this great gospel. As sad as it is to see the blood of Abel crying out from the ground for justice, how remarkable it is that it points us to the blood of Jesus Christ crying out that now there can be no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Oh my! Would you give us a sense of our security? Would you give us a glorious sense of it? Let that reality be the one that controls us. Let it turn us more and more into the Spirit and the image of your Son, Jesus Christ, who did all this for us. It’s in his name we pray, amen.

ABOUT THE PREACHER

In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting.  Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.

Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:

Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).

Romans 1-7 For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (2014).

Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).

Judges For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).

Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.

Center ChurchDoing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.

Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.

The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.

King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.

Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.

The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.

Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.

 
 

 

 

 

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Tim Keller Sermon: Paradise Lost – Genesis 3:8-24

SERIES: Bible: The Whole Story—Creation and Fall – PART 3

Tim Keller teaching at RPC image

Preached in Manhattan, New York on January 18, 2009

Genesis 3:8–24

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” 10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” 12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,

Cursed are you above all the livestock

and all the wild animals!

You will crawl on your belly

and you will eat dust

all the days of your life.

15 And I will put enmity

between you and the woman,

and between your offspring and hers;

he will crush your head,

and you will strike his heel.”

16 To the woman he said,

“I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing;

with pain you will give birth to children.

Your desire will be for your husband,

and he will rule over you.”

17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’

Cursed is the ground because of you;

through painful toil you will eat of it

all the days of your life.

18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,

and you will eat the plants of the field.

19 By the sweat of your brow

you will eat your food

until you return to the ground,

since from it you were taken;

for dust you are

and to dust you will return.”

20 Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living. 21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. 22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

We’re looking at what the Bible says about sin. The Bible is not a disconnected set of stories, each of which has a little moral about how to live life. Primarily, the Bible is a single story telling us what is wrong with the human race, what God is going to do about it, and how history is going to end, how it’s all going to turn out. It’s a single story. We’re looking at Genesis 3–4 to give us answers to what’s wrong with the human race, why the human race is so prone to selfishness, violence, wars, atrocity, and corruption all the time.

C.E.M. Joad was a British philosopher. He was an atheist. He was a member of The Brains Trust. He lived in the early twentieth century. He was an atheist but came back to faith later in life and, at the very end of life, wrote a book called The Recovery of Belief. In it he said this very fascinating thing: “It is because we rejected the doctrine of original sin that we on the left were always being disillusioned by the behavior of both the people and the nations and politicians, and by the recurrent fact of war.”

Did you hear that? He says he thought most of the problems were the capitalists, not the common people, because he had rejected the doctrine of original sin. He bought into what Rousseau said, what Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, what almost all of the European intellectuals in the nineteenth century said. That is, that though human beings have their problems, the problems are not hardwired into us. They are lack of education. We can make the changes.

He realized near the end of his life that because he didn’t believe in the doctrine of original sin, he didn’t believe what the Bible said about the universality and the depth of sin in every human heart, he had basically based his whole life on a different view of human nature. He set in motion social policies that didn’t work. Basically, because he didn’t have the Bible’s understanding of human nature, he wasn’t able to navigate life as it was. Isn’t that something?

So let’s see what the Bible has to say about sin (last week, this week, and the next couple of weeks) as we look at Genesis 3–4. We learn four things here: the heart of sin, the breadth of sin, the depth of sin, and the end of sin.

1. The heart of sin

What is sin again? What is the definition of sin? The reason you may find out every week I give you a different definition is that, like the concept of God, the concept of sin is so profound you can’t stick it into one single nutshell definition. Last week we said, in terms of a vertical perspective, sin is putting yourself in the place of God. It’s taking upon yourself prerogatives and rights only God has. We talked about that last week.

Today I’d like to give you a more horizontal perspective. You see it right away. As soon as Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit and now sin has come into their lives and we’re seeing the results of this, immediately we see what I’d like to show you here. When God says here in verse 11, “Did you eat of the tree I commanded you not to eat from?” the man says, “The woman did it.”

Just to show you, by the way, the man is not more sinful than the woman, when God turns to the woman and says, “What do you have to say for yourself?” she says, “The Serpent did it.” We’ll get back to that, the equality here. Here’s the point. When Adam says, “She made me do it; send her to hell; give me another wife,” basically … “You’re talking to the holy God of the universe. What do you have to say for yourself?” “Take her.”

Here we see the essence of sin in a horizontal perspective. Sin is a willingness to throw anybody else under the bus to justify yourself. Sin is justifying yourself at the expense of other people, to feel superior to other people. In order to have a self-image, I have to feel superior to other people. I have to expose other people. I have to exploit other people. Sin is saying, “Your life to enhance mine,” not “My life to enhance yours.” See that’s servanthood.

“Your life to enhance mine. I will suck you dry. I will drain you dry. I will disadvantage you so I can feel good about myself, so I can justify myself, so I can have the significance and security I want.” Philip Roth wrote a novel called The Human Stain. That’s his metaphor for evil. The novel is actually about a man who starts to do very well in life, and everybody feels they have to bring him down. They have to find something wrong with him. They have to ruin his career.

Philip Roth has one of his characters talk about what he calls “the human stain,” which is this proneness to evil in the heart, which is, in a sense, deeper than behavioral actions. It’s this need to pull people down, this need to justify yourself at the expense of other people, to feel better than other people. “I’m good because you’re bad. I’m competent because you’re incompetent.”

At one point one of his characters … She calls this the human stain in the heart, and she says something like, “It’s in everyone, indwelling, inherent, defining. The stain that precedes your acts of disobedience, that encompasses disobedience and perplexes all explanation and understanding. It’s why all talk of cleansing your heart is a joke. The fantasy of purity is appalling, for what is the quest to purify but more impurity? The stain is inescapable.”

What does she mean by that? She says, “If you actually try to purify yourself, that just brings more impurity.” Here’s why. The stain is self-righteousness. The stain is, “I justify myself by pulling you down, by making myself feel superior to you, better than you.” If that’s the case, then to try to purify yourself from the stain only makes you more stained, because you say, “Look, I’m pure,” and you’re not.

C.S. Lewis wrote a little satirical piece called “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” Screwtape is a senior devil (this is a satirical, fictional piece, by the way) who basically is at a dinner for a college of junior devils who are getting ready to go out there and tempt the human race and make life horrible. So Screwtape suggests a particular method for making people’s lives miserable and making the world a horrible place.

What he suggests is there’s a particular feeling human beings have, and what you want to do is turn the gas up on that feeling. Whatever else you do, make sure you enhance this feeling, because this is the feeling that will really ruin their lives. Then Screwtape says, “The feeling I am talking about is that which prompts a person to say, ‘I’m as good as you.’ ” That’s the essence of sin. That’s the essence of how hell operates. That’s what made the Devil, the Devil. “I’m as good as you.” When Satan started saying that about God, it was all downhill for the universe.

He says, “Anyone who says, ‘I’m as good as you,’ does not believe it. No one says, ‘I’m as good as you,’ if you believe it. You wouldn’t say it if you did. The St. Bernard never says to the toy dog, ‘I’m as good as you.’ ‘I’m as good as you’ is a useful means for the destruction of whole societies, but it has a far deeper value as a state of mind, which necessarily, excluding humility, charity, contentment, and all of the pleasures of gratitude or admiration, turns a human being away from every road which might finally lead him to heaven.”

The impulse that makes you say, “I’m as good as you. I don’t like you getting ahead of me …” The impulse that says, “I’m better than you; that’s how I know I’m okay” is sin, and it’s really at the root of everything from murder to racism to all of our conflicts. This is another view into the heart of sin.

2. The breadth of sin

This is really important. I’ve already alluded to it. What the man does, so does the woman. The man and the woman are both equally ashamed, both equally filled with blame shifting and doing the same behavior, both equally banished. There’s no difference. One is not more sinful than the other. This is crucial.

The Christian doctrine of original sin is that we are hardwired for selfishness and cruelty. It’s not just a problem of we have bad examples or bad environments. We’re hardwired for it. Secondly, the Christian doctrine of original sin is that we’re all hardwired for it, all of us, across the cultures, across the races, across the classes, across the genders. Everybody. Let me show you how important that is.

Remember what Joad said? He said we were on the left, because we denied the doctrine of original sin, thought what’s really wrong with the world was located in the capitalists, in the elites, not in the common people. But life showed him that, no, sin is everywhere. He realized the mistake he made as a member of the left was, because he didn’t believe in the doctrine of original sin, he demonized a certain group of people, he demonized a certain set of folks, and saw that is where the problem is, but the doctrine of original sin is it’s in all of us equally.

On the other hand … I don’t want you to think I’m picking on people from the left. People from the left would say, “Oh, it’s the elites; it’s not the common people.” There are other ways to look at it. What about conservative people, or what about people who just simply are traditional and feel like what’s really wrong with the people is the hoi polloi, the unwashed masses, the common people?

There’s a very famous letter that has come down to us from the Duchess of Buckingham. The Countess of Huntingdon, who had become converted to evangelical religion under the preaching of George Whitefield in the eighteenth century in Britain, tried to evangelize her aristocratic colleagues. She would send sermons by George Whitefield to her friends. She would invite them to come to hear him preach. One of her aristocratic peers, the Duchess of Buckingham, after having been invited by the countess to come and hear George Whitefield, sent her an icy note declining. This is what she said:

“I thank Your Ladyship, but the doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect toward their superiors in perpetually endeavoring to level all ranks and do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl upon the earth. It is highly offensive and insulting, so I cannot but wonder that your ladyship should relish any sentiments so much at variance with high rank and good breeding.”

She’s right. The doctrine of original sin levels people. The doctrine of original sin makes it impossible for people from the left to say, “It’s those elites up there, not us common people,” and it makes it impossible for the people from the right to say, “It’s you unwashed masses,” or “It’s you criminal element,” or something like that, “not us virtuous people who have good breeding.” She was right. Do you know why? The doctrine of original sin creates a radical democracy of sinners.

If you believe in original sin, nobody is better than anybody else. You cannot look down your nose at a criminal or a drug dealer and say, “There’s a sinner; not me,” because the doctrine of original sin says the same seeds of that kind of behavior are in your heart. Maybe it didn’t sprout because you weren’t in the very same environment as that person out there, but the fact of the matter is you’re no better. We’re all sinners. We all need grace.

The Duchess of Buckingham was right. She says, “This levels everybody, to say that I have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl the earth.” That’s what the Bible teaches. It destroys self-righteousness. That’s the reason G.K. Chesterton says, “Christianity preaches an obviously unattractive idea, such as original sin; but when we wait for its results, they are pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity; for only with original sin we can at once pity the beggar and distrust the king.”

What does he mean by “brotherhood”? What it means is it’s possible for a society that claims to be Christian to be racist, but if it is, it’s racist in spite of the doctrine of original sin, not because of it. It’s not grasping what the doctrine says. What the doctrine says is it’s a radical democracy. We’re all brothers and sisters in sin. We’re all under judgment. We all have no hope except for the grace of God.

That’s the reason why if you really grasp the doctrine of original sin, it creates a solidarity between you and every single person, even the most wretched people you see on the streets of New York City. When that comes into your heart, no longer do you say, “Oh, who are these people?” You are these people. I read about a discussion that happened here in New York City recently about the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, which still beggars the imagination. How could it have happened?

They were getting together and they were talking. “Well what does this mean?” One person had the audacity to say, “Look, let’s not call this sin. Let’s not say there was anything wrong. This is the way people are. People are going to do this. People are going to cheat; they’re going to lie. They’re going to do this. This is why we need government regulation. The only hope is government regulation.”

But government is people. Soylent Green is people, but government is people. Oh, that’s terrible. You guys don’t know what Soylent Green is? Unless you’re a real movie geek, you need to go and Google “Soylent Green,” and then you’ll know. It has nothing to do with the sermon at all, so just please don’t even think about it for the rest of the sermon, or you’re going to hurt yourself. Government is people. We are all the same. That is the breadth of sin.

3. The depth of sin

Here’s what we mean. Human beings are radically relational. That’s what we’re made for. Remember, we’ve seen this as we’ve gone through Genesis 1–2. We’re in the image of God. That means we’re built to reflect or to relate to God. We saw we are built to be lonely without other human beings. We’re relational beings. We live for relationships.

What we see in these verses right here is every single relationship being destroyed by sin. Another way to put it is sin is a malignant tumor eating away at our very ability to conduct any relationship. Sin destroys our relationship with God, our relationship with ourselves, our relationship with others, and even our relationship with nature and the world around us. Look carefully quickly.

First of all, we see in these verses it destroys our relationship with God. In verse 8 we’re told God comes walking into the garden in the cool of the day. When the Bible says David walked with Jonathan, or Abraham walked with Lot, or something like that, of course it means they literally walked, but it means more than that. The word walking in Hebrew was an idiom that meant friendship, relationship.

The fact that God walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day meant he was coming in wanting friendship, seeking relationship, and we hid. Sin is running from God who wants a relationship with us. Why don’t we want a relationship with him? The answer is (we said already) sin now means our lives are about power, about getting power over other people, about saying, “I’ll have a relationship with you as long as it doesn’t get in the way of my needs, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of my happiness and my fulfillment.”

It’s always, “Your life to enhance me.” You’re happy to have relationships as long as they enhance you, as long as they build you up, as long as they make you feel good. What we don’t like is servanthood. We like consumer relationships. “As long as the cost-benefit analysis is working well and I’m getting as much or more out of you as you’re getting out of me, fine.”

We don’t like covenant, where you are committed to someone to serve somebody whether or not you’re getting anything out of it or not. We hate that. Covenant goes against the grain of the heart, because sin is now all about keeping control and having power. There’s no way for a finite being to walk with an infinite being without losing control, so we won’t have it.

Yes, it’s true most people in the world say they believe in God and they pray, but most people in the world do not actually have in their minds the real God, because most people have a god they can pray to when they want to and doesn’t really demand loss of control of your life, doesn’t really demand that you change your life. Haven’t you seen that? Isn’t that true of a lot of us? In which case, we’re actually running from God and hiding from ourselves the fact we’re running from God by essentially believing in a god who isn’t holy, isn’t infinite, isn’t sovereign.

So first, our relationship with God has been destroyed. As a result, our relationship with ourselves is destroyed. How do we see that? When Adam says, “The reason I hid from you is I was ashamed because I was naked.” In the Bible, just like walking is an idiom for something bigger than just walking, so nakedness is an idiom for something bigger than just being ashamed of being naked.

Nakedness is a sense of guilt, that there’s something wrong with me, a sense of shame, that I need to prove myself, I need to cover, I need to keep people from seeing who I am because they’ll reject me. Nakedness is a psychological dislocation, a lack of ease with who you are. When our relationship with God is severed, our relationship with ourselves is severed. That is to say, we really don’t want to admit what’s wrong with us. We really don’t want to admit the worst about ourselves.

See the one thing we don’t want to believe is that we’re utterly dependent on God. We want to think we need God occasionally or maybe not at all, but in our heart of hearts we know we’re utterly dependent on God, and therefore, we are in denial about who we really are. That’s where the shame comes from, and that’s where the guilt comes from, and that’s where this lack of ease with being able to admit who we are comes from.

Thirdly, our relationship with each other is destroyed. We already saw some of that when the man starts to throw the wife under the bus just to save his neck. Even the making of fig leaves in verse 7 … As soon as sin came into their hearts, they covered up from each other. They sewed fig leaves to cover up their nakedness, but they were covering up their nakedness from whom at that point? God wasn’t even around. From each other.

We cannot bear to have other people really know who we are. We have to control what other people see about us, because we have to maintain power and control. Because our relationships are now power relationships, not love and service relationships, our relationships with each other are messed up. Individually we have superficial relationships, exploitative relationships, but corporately, races don’t get along with each other, the genders don’t get along with each other. Because our relationships with God are messed up and our relationships with ourselves are messed up, so our relationships in the world are messed up.

Lastly, the fourth thing that’s destroyed here is even our relationship with nature, the physical environment. Verse 17 says instead of just going out there and tilling the ground and up comes nothing but, I guess, flowers and food, now thorns and thistles will come up. The dust is no longer your friend. There is a lack of mesh with the physical environment. There is a clash with the physical environment. It’s no longer our friend. Now we age, now we get sick, now there are natural disasters, and now we die. We came from dust, but what’s going to happen at the end?

Erma Bombeck, who used to write humor columns many years ago, generally for women, in newspapers, at one point said something like, “You know, my life is dominated by dirt. At this end of the house there’s dirt. There’s dirt in the bathroom, dirt on the plates in the kitchen, dirt in the rug. So I work to get rid of the dirt, and by the time I get to the other end of the house, the first end of the house is dirty again. It never ends. And in the end, after all of these years of struggling against dirt, struggling against dirt, what do I get? Six feet of dirt.”

That’s almost exactly what God says in Genesis 3:17–20. In the end the dust wins. Every one of our relationships has been decimated by sin.

4. The end of sin

Now, what’s God going to do about it? You know, even though the Bible has all kinds of authors … Every one of the books has a different author, yet the Holy Spirit is the Author behind the author, and therefore the Bible is, in a sense, a single book with a single author, and he, the Holy Spirit, is an incredibly good storyteller. What we have here in the midst of this incredible disaster is the most enigmatic, intriguing foreshadowing. What is the foreshadowing of what God is going to do about it in the future? What are we going to see?

First, look at the mercy of God’s heart. He comes in, and he doesn’t smite them. He says, “Where are you? What have you done? Have you done what I asked you not to do?” What does God want with those questions? God could not be seeking truth and illumination for himself. He knows the answer. The only reason God would be asking questions is if he’s trying to give truth and illumination to them.

He’s treating them as adults. He’s not treating them as objects. He’s not treating them as animals, or even as children. He’s doing what people in AA call an intervention. He is trying to get them to tell him what they should know. “Admit what you’ve done. Say who you are. Own it. Take responsibility.” It’s fascinating. He’s counseling them. He’s seeking them in love, asking the questions instead of just telling them what they’ve done wrong. Isn’t that something?

Notice really carefully, by the way, whereas he asks questions to Adam and Eve, he doesn’t ask any questions to Satan. Do you know what that means? God loves the sinner but hates the sin. God holds out hope for evildoers, but he will not compromise with evil. It’s very interesting. So first of all, we see God makes a distinction between the evildoers and evil, and he seeks in love to change people’s hearts.

Secondly, we see the mercy of his hand. The second thing he does is he makes garments for them. Isn’t that something? See they had sewed fig leaves all over themselves. When God makes garments for them, they need garments psychologically for privacy, now physically they need garments because we have a hostile environment and they need better things than fig leaves, and he makes garments out of animal skins.

Many people over the years have noticed this seems to be God’s hint, a pointer toward the sacrificial system, toward the atoning sacrifices of the temple and tabernacle, and eventually, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus himself. Therefore, when God clothes Adam and Eve, do you know what he’s saying? He says, “Someday I’m going to have to give salvation, but my salvation is holistic. You need forgiveness. You also need shelter from the stormy blast.”

Therefore, human beings who seek to spread God’s salvation out in the world have to deal with all of the results of sin: physical, spiritual, psychological, and social. That’s the reason we don’t just go out into the world to help people get their sins forgiven and connect to God, but we also feed and clothe. Derek Kidner in his commentary on Genesis on this passage says, “The coats of skins are forerunners of the welfare, both spiritual and physical, which man’s sin makes necessary. Therefore, social action could not have had an earlier or more exalted inauguration.” Interesting.

So we see the holistic nature of God’s hand, and we see the mercy of God’s heart, but what is he going to do? He says in verse 15. This is the enigmatic foreshadowing. He looks at the Serpent and he says, “Because you have done this, I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers. He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” There’s a lot to be said here, but here’s what we have to see.

Do you know what the picture is? Imagine a group of people, a family, and into the midst of them comes slithering as fast as it can (and you know how fast they can come) a snake, a venomous snake, a poisonous snake, coming right at them. One man goes after the snake, and he begins to stomp on it. Finally he crushes the head and saves the family, but only after, in the process, the snake bites him, the poison goes into him, and he dies. That’s the picture.

What God is saying is … This is amazing if you realize this snake is not just a snake but is Satan. It represents evil. God is saying one of the descendants of Adam and Eve, the seed of the woman, a human being, is going to destroy sin and death itself but get a fatal wound in the process. A human being is going to come, and he’s going to destroy sin and death, and in the process lose his life. I wonder who that could be.

You see, the first Adam should have done something like that, not just stood there and let the Serpent destroy his family. The first Adam should have jumped on the snake or stomped on the snake or whatever. But the second Adam will. It’s Jesus Christ. Keep this in mind. In Romans 4 Paul says, “In Christ your sins are covered.” In Romans 4 Paul says, “Blessed is the one whose sin is covered. Blessed is the one to whom God does not impute sin.”

Now we don’t like cover-up, do we? Cover-up, Watergate … that’s not good. No, cover-up when you’re just sweeping things under the rug is not good, but that’s not what’s happening here. What we’re being told is that Jesus Christ is going to deal with your sin. When he goes to the cross he’s going to deal with your sin so your sins can be covered, pardoned, forgiven. How? Look at the last verse.

When God sends Adam and Eve out of the garden, there’s a sword there, and nobody can get back into the presence of God. Nobody can get back into the garden. Nobody can get back into paradise. Nobody can get to heaven unless you go under the sword. What does the sword represent? The wages of sin, the justice of God. The wages of sin is death. Nobody can get back into paradise unless they go under the sword.

The Bible says in Isaiah that when the Messiah comes, the suffering servant, he will be cut off from the land of the living. Jesus Christ went under the sword. He opened a new and living way back into the presence of God. He went first, and the sword slew him. He has covered our sins. Here’s what it means to be a Christian. It’s not to say, “I’m going to try real hard to live a good life.”

To be a Christian means to say, “Father, cover my sin because of what Jesus Christ has done. Objectively cover it by pardoning my sin, but subjectively deal with the sin in my heart. I don’t feel loved. I don’t live loved. I’m trying to prove myself. I’m trying to get control. Let the love of what Jesus Christ did for me so flood my heart by the Holy Spirit I can start to serve people.”

You know what? A lot of people in New York … If there’s one thing I’ve seen over the years, it’s how hard everybody is working. Everybody is working so hard to achieve, and a lot of people are really upset. “I didn’t get into that graduate school. It’s not the top tier. I’m not there. I didn’t make that much money. I didn’t achieve. I’m gaining weight. Nobody wants to go out with me.” You’re really upset because you’re looking for beauty, and you’re looking to achievement, and you’re looking to accreditation and credentials.

Do you know what these things are? They’re fig leaves. They’re ways you’re trying to deal with the nakedness. You’re trying to deal with the sense that, “There’s something wrong with me, and I don’t quite know what it is.” Let Jesus Christ clothe you with his love. Accept what he has done. Ask God to receive you because of what Jesus Christ has done, and ask the Holy Spirit to make real to your heart what he has done for you.

That will begin not only to cover your sin objectively so God accepts you and you can go to heaven because of what Jesus has done, but subjectively it’ll start to heal your heart of sin, the canker, the cancer, the thing that’s destroying all of your relationships because you’re so nervous and so ashamed and you’re trying to prove yourself and you’re so needy. When the love of God comes in there, it changes everything. Ask God to cover you with the righteousness of Christ now so that someday you can be utterly covered with the very glory of God. Let’s pray.

Our Father, we’re so grateful it’s possible for us to know this horrible spiritual cancer, sin, has already, actually, been dealt with and is eventually going to be dealt with completely and is going to be over. Until then, we ask that you would help us to receive your salvation, your grace, into our lives in such a way that we can begin to more and more die unto sin and live more and more unto righteousness and be conformed to the image of your Son, in whose name we pray, amen.

ABOUT THE PREACHER

In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting.  Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.

Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:

Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).

Romans 1-7 For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (2014).

Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).

Judges For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).

Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.

Center ChurchDoing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.

Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.

The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.

King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.

Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.

The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.

Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.

 
 

 

 

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Tim Keller Sermon: Paradise in Crisis – Genesis 3:1-9

Series The Bible: The Whole Story Part 2 – Creation and Fall

Tim Keller teaching at RPC image

Preached in Manahattan, New York, January 11, 2009

 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ”

“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” - Genesis 3:1-9

In this series of sermons we’re trying to get across that the Bible is not a series of disconnected stories, each one with a little moral for how to live, but it’s actually primarily a single story about what went wrong with the human race and what will put it right. Figuring out what went wrong with the human race is actually really important.

Beatrice Webb, who was one of the architects of the modern British welfare system … She and her husband and some others founded the London School of Economics. She was a socialist, an activist, a British leader. She kept a diary, and in 1925 she went back and looked at her older diary, and she wrote, “In my diary, 1890, I wrote, ‘I have staked everything on the essential goodness of human nature.’

Now, 35 years later, I realize how permanent are the evil impulses and instincts in us and how little they seem to change, like greed for wealth and power, and how mere social machinery will never change that. We must ask better things from human nature, but will we get a response? No amount of science or knowledge has been of any avail, and unless we curb the bad impulse, how will we get better social institutions?”

That’s a remarkable statement from somebody who ought to know. She is saying there is something so wrong with us that leads to selfishness and violence, that leads to corruption in business and corruption in government, that leads to war and atrocities, and that’s consistent across history.

She says science hasn’t dealt with it. Education hasn’t dealt with it. Social machinery hasn’t dealt with it. Who will explain it? Chapter 3 and chapter 4 of Genesis do, and we’re looking at them for four weeks. Let’s start with this very famous text, and let’s learn what we can by noticing four features of the narrative: the sneer, the lie, the tree, and the call.

The story starts with a sneer. It says, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ ” Satan is speaking through the serpent. Right away readers say, “Who is Satan, and where did he come from, and what’s wrong with him, and how did he get that way?” but this text is about us. It doesn’t tell us anything about that. It’s here to explain how we got to be the way we are, and how we are now.

If we read it that way, it’s incredibly instructive, but if we ask, “Where did he come from, and what’s all this?” it doesn’t. It’s all right. That’s not what we need to know right now. It’s not the most important thing we ever need to know. What we see is the fall of the human race starts not with an action, but with an attitude, not with an act, but with a sneer. This word translated really, which could also be translated indeed … “Indeed, did he really say …?” It shows the sense of this is not that the Serpent is denying what God said; he’s mocking what God said.

He’s not saying God didn’t say it; he’s saying it’s ridiculous. It’s laughable. The sense of it is if you ever hear somebody say something like this: “Did he really say that?” That doesn’t mean he’s asking, “Did it really happen?” No, he’s saying, “Was he such an idiot, such a jerk, to say that? Did he really say that?” He is not denying God said it; he’s mocking it. He’s trying to get Adam and Eve to laugh at it. He’s trying to change their attitudes toward it. Therefore, the fall of the human race starts not with an action, or even with a thought, but with an attitude of heart.

We’re going to learn two things from this. The first thing (though this doesn’t always happen, I think this happens a lot) is, more often than not, we lose God not through argument, but through atmosphere. For example, here’s a little speech in a novel. It’s about two people who went to college and lost their Christian faith, and then one person gets it back later.

The person speaking got the faith back and is talking to the other person about how they “lost” their faith in college. He says, “Let’s be frank. We found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At college we started automatically writing the kinds of essays that got good marks and saying the kinds of things that won applause.

We were afraid of the label ‘fundamentalism,’ afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule. Having allowed ourselves to drift, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the faith, in the same way a drunken man reaches a point in which he believes another glass will do him no harm.”

I don’t want anybody to think I’m saying that’s how people lose the faith in college. Very often people lose their faith through argument, but not usually. They usually lose it through sneers. Everybody is sneering. Everybody is snarky. Everybody is saying, “You really believe that?” or “He really believes that?” “Does she really believe that?” You just want to go into your shell. You want to go along. You very often lose God not through argument, but through atmosphere.

Over the years, I have to say, for every one argument I’ve gotten against Christian belief I get 99 sneers. When somebody says, “Do you really believe that?” a proper measured response would be, “Well, that’s an assertion trying to create an atmosphere; it’s not really an argument. So could you please tell me why you think what I believe is untenable?” Just file that. So first of all, I think we learn here we tend to lose God as much, if not more, from atmosphere than argument.

Secondly, humor. The fall of the human race happened through an attitude of the heart that was expressed through a particular kind of humor. Here’s what I’d like us to think about, at least briefly. There’s a kind of humor that is actually an expression of humility. It persuades, it’s humble, and it says we’re all alike. And there’s a kind of humor that is an exercise of the will for power. It’s serpentine. It’s a way of putting somebody else down so it puts you up.

There’s a kind of humor that brings us all down and deflates and gets us to talk, and there’s a kind of humor that puts one group or one person up and smashes everybody to the ground. It’s serpentine. Do you know the difference? One brought about the fall of the human race and will bring about your fall, and one actually can be healing.

W.H. Auden wrote some wonderful essays and did some wonderful lectures on Shakespeare, doing literary criticism of Shakespeare. In a couple of his essays, he says he believed Shakespeare, whether he was personally a Christian or not, had a Christian view of human nature and the world, and therefore, Shakespearean comedy was different than Greek classical comedy.

Auden says in Greek classical comedy, the comedy ends with the audience laughing and the characters on stage in tears, but in Shakespeare comedies, like Much Ado About Nothing, it always ends with everybody laughing. The people out there are laughing and the people up here are laughing. Why? He says the Greek classical idea was what is funny is “Look at those fools up there. They’re not sophisticated like us.” Therefore, the audience is led by the comedy to laugh at the people up there because they lack the sophistication of the audience.

But, he says in one of his essays, there’s a different kind of humor Shakespeare had. He says comedies like Much Ado About Nothing are based on the belief that all men are sinners, and therefore, no one, whatever his rank or talents, should claim immunity from the comic exposure. Then Auden goes on and talks about the fact the Christian gospel turns the Greek idea of excellence and sophistication on its head.

In Christianity the ultimate excellence is to know you need the comic exposure to see your own pretensions and pride exposed and to seek forgiveness. He says, “Therefore, in Shakespeare the characters are exposed and forgiven, and when the curtain falls, the audience and the characters are all laughing together.”

David Denby, a movie critic for the New Yorker, wrote a book that’s coming out this week called Snark. In it he’s talking about how there’s a kind of humor that puts everybody down and says everybody is full of it and everybody is out for themselves. New York magazine this week wrote a snarky review of the book. It says, “When you have a society filled with BS, you just have to get up and say it’s filled with BS, and I’m going to get up and say it’s filled with BS.”

Auden would say that’s classical. That’s Greek comedy. What you’re really saying is, “Everybody but me is filled with BS. Everybody but me is out for themselves.” There is a kind of humility that says we human beings need to be laughed at. Look at our pretensions. And there is a kind of cynicism that is corrosive, that laughs at any truth claims, any claims that this is right and this is wrong, and is, therefore, basically serpentine, putting yourself in the judgment seat.

What will happen is that kind of cynical, corrosive, serpentine humor that says “Everybody is filled with BS but me, everybody is on the take, everybody is out for themselves but me,” leaves you in the end with no meaning in life. That can’t give you meaning in life. It leaves you in the end without friends. It’s serpentine. The Serpent laughs at you. If you laugh like the Serpent, the Serpent in the end will laugh like you.

Secondly, the fall of the human race proceeds with a lie. The next thing you see is after the attitude of the heart comes a lie for the mind. We see it here in verse 4. God has said, “Don’t eat of this tree,” and the Serpent comes back in verse 4 and says, “You will not surely die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened.”

Here’s what he’s saying. “God, if you obey him, will keep you down. God knows if you do this and this you’ll broaden your horizons, but he doesn’t want you to.” What Satan is trying to get into the heart of the human race is “If you obey God, you’ll miss out. If you obey God, you won’t be happy. If you obey the will of God, it’ll cut you off from other options. It will keep you from being all you want to be. You will not thrive and flourish.”

What’s so extremely interesting to see here is that Satan knows what is really crucial to destroy. Notice Satan does not go after the existence of God. He doesn’t say, “The only way I’m going to destroy the human race is to get everybody to disbelieve in God.” Heck no. He knows the whole human race can believe in God. Practically the whole human race does believe in God, and it’s a mess. That’s not the issue.

He also doesn’t actually go after the law or the will or the holiness of God. He doesn’t say, “Oh, God doesn’t care what you do.” He doesn’t say, “God doesn’t say you can’t eat of that tree.” He doesn’t deny the existence of God. He doesn’t deny the law of God, the will of God, the holiness of God. He denies the goodness of God. He denies the goodness and the love and the grace and the good will of God behind all of those decrees.

He says, “If you obey God, you can’t trust his good will. You can’t trust him. You’re going to have to take your life into your own hands.” That lie went in, and that lie is in my heart and that lie is in your heart. Do you know what it’s doing? It’s doing a lot. Why is it we say, “I know the Bible says I shouldn’t sleep with this person I’m not married to, but it would be great”? “I know the Bible says I shouldn’t spend all this money on myself; I should give it away, but it would be great to spend it all on myself.” “I know I’m not supposed to hold a grudge against this person and try to seek revenge, but boy, it feels good to seek revenge.” You’re tempted.

Do you know why you’re tempted? There would be no temptation unless, underneath, you already believed you can’t trust God. Your heart is saying, “If you obey, you won’t be happy.” The fact that Satan has destroyed our trust in the love of God is beneath everything else. Remember, in the fall we did our series on the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.

There were two different guys, weren’t there? There was the elder brother. He was very religious. He was very moral. He lived a very good life. He followed all of the rules. Why? So that forced God and everybody else to respect and reward him. Then there was the younger brother. He went off, and he had sex with prostitutes, and he lived it up with all of his material possessions. They look very, very different, but look at the bottom of each one.

Why is the moralist, the moralist? Why does he say, “I’m going to earn my salvation”? Because he doesn’t trust in the grace of God. Why does the younger brother go off and say, “I’m going to live any way I want; I’m going to do what I want to do”? Because he doesn’t trust the grace of God. He doesn’t believe if he obeys God he’ll be happy. They don’t believe in the love of God. They don’t believe in the good will of God. It’s at the root of everything. We’ll talk about this more next week.

Philip Roth has a novel called The Human Stain. It’s a metaphor for evil. At one point, one of the characters in the book talks about it. The human stain is the evil of the heart that makes everybody want to put everyone else down. It’s there before. It’s underneath all our wrongdoing. “I want to put other people down, and I have to prove myself.” Do you know where that comes from?

Erick Erickson in his book Childhood and Society says if a child, in the very earliest years, learns not to trust the dominant personality of the parents because they’ve been abused or because they’ve been neglected or abandoned … If a child in the very beginning of their life cannot trust the dominant personality in their life, then they have a fundamental inability to attach or trust ever again, and it’s a taproot for all other kinds of pathologies.

Now listen. I’m not a psychologist. I have no idea whether Erick Erickson is right about childhood pathologies or not. I do know it’s really weird that Genesis says that is exactly what happened in the beginning of the human race. When we were in our infancy, we believed the Serpent that we can’t trust God, that we can’t trust his love.

There are people right now working themselves to death in their jobs because they’re trying to prove to themselves and everybody else that they’re valuable because they don’t trust the love of God, and there are people putting everybody else down and exploiting and lying to everyone. The human stain. Why? They don’t trust God. If you don’t trust God, you don’t trust anybody. We’ve been ruined by the lie.

So first there was a sneer for the heart. Then secondly there was a lie for the mind. Finally, that leads to an act of the will. But it’s a tree sin. Take a look down here at verse 6: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”

What was the great sin? What was this great horrible action? What is it that ruined the human race? They ate of the tree. What is this thing? What was wrong with that? What in the world could be wrong with a tree? By the way, a lot of people say, “I don’t get it. We have Ten Commandments. Sometimes to not kill somebody is actually rather hard to obey. Sometimes not to steal is hard to obey. But not to eat of a tree?

You can see why stealing could be bad, and you can see why killing can be bad, you can see why adultery can be bad, but not eating from a tree. What was the big deal about the tree? What was so bad about that? What was the logic behind the prohibition? God says, ‘You can do anything. It’s paradise. But you can’t eat from that tree.’ What was so bad about that?” Here’s what’s so bad about that.

What if God had actually given Adam and Eve an explanation? You can see Adam and Eve walking up to the tree and saying, “What’s so bad about eating from this tree?” and God saying, “Well, if you eat from the tree, there will be infinite suffering and misery and death for the rest of human history.” They would have gone, “Never mind. There’s a whole other … I mean, the rest of the world. There are all of these other trees.”

You know what? The reason God didn’t give them the explanation is crucial to why the decree was so important and what it was all about. If he had given them the explanation and they had said, “Oh, I’m not going to eat from the tree …” Why? Because cost-benefit analysis. “It’s not worth it.” That’s not really obedience, is it? That’s cost-benefit analysis. That’s self-interest. You’re still in the driver’s seat.

No, no. Here’s what’s going on. God was saying to Adam and Eve, “My children, I am God, and your life is a gift to you, and this world is a gift to you. I want you to live as if I’m God and you are living by my power. I want you to live as if this world is a gift and, therefore, not your possession to do with any way you want. I want you to see your lives are a gift from me and, therefore, not yours and something you can do with any way you want.

Therefore, don’t eat from that tree. This is your chance. You can either choose to treat me as God and to treat your life and the world as if it belongs to me and, therefore, you have to use it as I direct, or you can put yourself in the place of God. You can act as if your life is yours and that you generated it. You can act as if this entire world is yours and you can use it any way you want. You can treat me as God, or you can put yourself in the place of God.”

The Serpent knows that, because the Serpent says, “Take of the tree, and you will be like God.” That’s what Adam and Eve do. What’s so important for us to see is you need to look beyond all of the rules. You have to look through the rules. “Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t do fornication. Don’t spend all your money on yourself. Don’t be selfish.” All of the things the Bible says. There are the rules.

Behind the rules is, “Don’t put yourself in the place of God. Obey the rules because you’re not God.” God says, “Obey my rules not because of cost-benefit analysis, not because you see why, but because I’m God.” Do you realize that virtually everything that’s wrong with us in this world is you and I putting ourselves in the place of God? This is the problem.

On the one end, it’s not that hard to see that killing, murder, that kind of thing (which is awful, of course, and happens all the time all over the place in the world every day), is certainly putting yourself in the place of God, but have you ever thought about your anxiety? Some of us are eaten up with anxiety. Some of us are going to the doctor because of the way in which it’s corroding our bodies. We’re so anxious. Why? I’ll speak for myself. You’ve heard me say this before.

I get anxious because I have an idea of how my life has to go, how the church has to go, how things have to go in history, and I’m afraid God, who’s in charge of history, isn’t going to get it right. He’s not going to do it the way it needs to be. I know better. What am I doing? Why am I eaten up with anxiety? I’m in the place of God. See this is the sin behind these other sins. This is the thing that’s staining us.

Because of the mistrust, we put ourselves in the place of God. “I can’t trust God, so I have to do it myself.” How do I deal with worry? I deal with worry by saying, “I don’t know; God knows.” I pull myself a little bit out of the place of God, and I start to feel better, and by tomorrow I’ll be back. See, from anxiety on the one hand to murder on the other hand to grudges …

If you won’t forgive somebody, it’s because you’re putting yourself in the place of God. You think you know what they deserve. How do you know? You think you have the right to see them until they get what they deserve. You don’t have the right. You’re putting yourself in the place of God. All of our problems are coming because we’ve done what the Serpent asked us to do.

Do you know what this means? Let’s get down to nitty-gritty. One thing New Yorkers hate doing … They don’t mind obeying the will of God. They see what the Bible says. They don’t mind obeying the will of God as long as it makes sense to them, but if they feel like, “This is not very progressive,” or “This doesn’t meet my needs …” Do you know who William Borden is? You probably don’t.

William Borden grew up in Chicago in the late nineteenth century and went off to Yale in the 1890s, I believe. Yes, he was one of those Bordens. He was extremely wealthy. The Borden’s dairy. He was part of that family, and he was the heir of a great wealth. When he was at Yale, he sensed God’s call to the mission field, and he decided he was going to go to North China and work amongst Mongols and Chinese people.

It was very, very dangerous at the time, and when he announced to his family he was going to go into missionary work, this was appalling to everybody. A man of his stature, of his wealth, of his station in society didn’t do that. He got opposition from his family. He got opposition from his class of people. But he was absolutely resolute. When he graduated from Yale, he gave his entire inheritance (which at that time was $1 million, which was a heck of a lot of money) to mission agencies. He gave it away.

Now in relative poverty, he moved to Cairo to learn Arabic. Just out of college, with his whole life ahead of him, bright … Within a few weeks he had contracted spinal meningitis, and within a few weeks after that he was dead. Scratched on an ordinary piece of paper, which he wrote in his diary as he lay dying, found in his bedroom after he died, were these three phrases: “No reserve, no retreat, no regrets.”

Why wouldn’t he have written in his diary, “God, what are you doing? All my obedience, all my commitment, all my promise, all of my money, all of this preparation. Why would I die now? What possible good …? What are you doing?” Oh no. “No reserve, no retreat, no regrets.” Why? Because he didn’t obey the will of God for reputation. He didn’t obey the will of God for results. He didn’t obey the will of God for impact. He obeyed the will of God just for God’s sake. Not because it made sense, not because he understood it, just because it was God, because God is God and he wasn’t.

Don’t you see that is the ultimate deconstruction of the human will to power that’s ruining the world? If you say, “I’m going to be religious,” or “I’m going to believe in God and I’m going to obey,” but it’s calculated, it’s part of a career move, it’s part of a way of helping you get the inner strength so you can get out and do all of the things … There has to be at some point, “I’m doing this because God says so, because he’s God and I’m not. Period.”

That’s the ultimate deconstruction of the human will for power, which the Serpent got into our systems and poisoned us with. Even though I’m not saying William Borden overcame sin in his human nature, in that one act, where he was faithful to the end, he completely overturned the will of the Serpent. He disbelieved the lie that you can’t trust God. He refused the action of putting himself in the place of God.

By the way, we happen to know he ended up inspiring thousands and thousands of other missionaries over the next generation to go into missions. But he didn’t know that, and you don’t have to know that. See this is the stain. This is the thing that has come into our lives. In the next couple of weeks we’re going to see how this plays out, but we want to end with this. What does God do? Here’s the end.

At the very end, in verses 8–9, you see the rest of the history of the human race in a nutshell. Do you know that? The rest of the entire history of the world in a nutshell. “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’ ”

Please notice two things. The first thing is we are now hiders. If you take that idea and go back over your entire life and think about it, if you rethink your life in terms of that, you’ll see a lot. It’ll be an illuminating exercise. Because we don’t trust God, we now hide from ourselves. We cannot bear to know who we really are. We can’t have a realistic honest appraisal of ourselves. That’s what therapy is all about. If it wasn’t for verse 8, you wouldn’t have a job, therapists.

We hide from ourselves, we hide from each other (spin, dishonesty), but most of all, we hide from God, because in the presence of God we see what we don’t want. We’re hiding. We’re running from the truth, from God, from each other, from our very selves. We’ll look at more of that in the next couple of weeks.

The other thing that is so remarkable is that while we hide, according to these texts, God seeks. It’s our nature to hide; it’s God’s nature to seek. God comes back saying, “Where are you?” Now does he really need information? Does he really not know what happened? Of course not. If he knows what happened, what is he doing?

He’s engaging. In love he’s coming after them. In love he’s counseling them. He’s trying to get them to answer. We learn two things. The first thing we learn is we hide; God seeks. If we ever find God it’s because God found us. There’s that little hymn that goes like this:

‘Tis not that I did choose thee,

For Lord, that could not be;

This heart would still refuse thee,

Hadst thou not chosen me.

My heart owns none before thee,

For thy rich grace I thirst;

This knowing, if I love thee,

Thou must have loved me first.

Anybody who ever finds faith with God feels like that. “You must have come after me; I never would have come after you.” That’s just a fact. The Bible from the very beginning to the end teaches that. More importantly, God going out in love finds its ultimate expression in Jesus Christ. It’s in Jesus Christ all of the things the Serpent gave us are dealt with. Jesus comes back and smashes the Serpent’s head, because he deals with the tree, he deals with the lie, and he even deals with the joke.

First of all, how does Jesus Christ deal with the tree? In the garden of Gethsemane, he’s struggling. There’s a garden. See centuries after Adam and Eve are struggling in the garden over a command about a tree, Jesus is in a garden, and he’s struggling over a command about a tree. It’s called the cross. He knows he has to go to the cross and die for our sins and pay the penalty we owe, and he’s struggling.

Think about this. Adam and Eve were in a bright sunny garden, and God said, “Obey me about the tree, and you will live,” and they didn’t. Jesus Christ was in a dark garden, and God said, “Obey me about the tree, and you’ll be crushed,” and he did, for us. Here’s what he did. He climbed the tree of death and turned that tree of death, the cross, into a tree of life for you and me. There’s the reversal of the tree sin.

What’s the tree sin? Us putting ourselves where only God deserves to be, putting ourselves in the place of God. The tree salvation is God putting himself where we deserve to be, on the cross. See the original tree sin was us putting ourselves where only God deserved to be, taking prerogatives only God deserves to have, putting ourselves in the place of God, but the tree salvation, which is a salvation of Jesus Christ, his death on the cross, is God coming down and putting himself where we deserve to be and taking it for us.

That not only deals with the tree, but that deals with the lie. The lie is, “You can’t trust God,” and all the poison in your life is because you don’t believe God loves you. You don’t believe in the grace of God. What’s going to overcome that? “Well I just believe in a god of love.” That will never overcome it. That’s too weak. It’s weak tea. It won’t work. This is the only thing that will overcome it.

You have to see Jesus Christ climbing a tree of death and turning that tree of death for him into a tree of life for you and me. That will finally begin to take the toxins out of your soul, and you’ll finally start to actually believe God loves you. This is the only thing that will take that out. It’s the only crowbar strong enough to wedge out of your heart the belief that “Basically I’m on my own.”

Lastly, Jesus even deals with the joke. He turns the sneer into something else. Dr. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to say the way in which he could tell the difference between a person who was a Pharisee, who believed they were saved by their good works, because they lived a good life, and a Christian who understood the gospel of grace, was to ask them, “Are you a Christian?”

If you ask a pharisaical, moralistic person, “Are you a Christian?” the person gets very … “What do you mean? Of course. Why would you even ask? How dare you ask?” But if you ask anybody who understands the gospel of grace, “Are you a Christian?” they laugh. They say, “Yes, what a joke. Me, a Christian. But it’s true.”

If you’re not a joke to yourself that you’re a Christian, that God is in the middle of your life, that God is using you … If that doesn’t make you laugh, you don’t understand the gospel. It’s a whole different kind of laughter than the laughter of the Serpent. Jesus Christ has dealt with the tree, he has dealt with the lie, and he has even dealt with the sneer and turned it to laughter. Let’s pray.

Our Father, we have a lot to plow through this next month as we try to understand how we got to be the way we are and as we begin to try to understand the various aspects of that and to know how to try to overcome it using the grace and the gospel of Jesus Christ. So we pray you’d be with us, and we pray you will remind us of what a great joke it is that we belong to you because of your grace. Help us to smile. Help us to laugh at that. Help us to rejoice for the rest of our lives that your Son did what he did. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

ABOUT THE PREACHER

In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting.  Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.

Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:

Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).

Romans 1-7 For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (2014).

Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).

Judges For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).

Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.

Center ChurchDoing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.

Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.

The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.

King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.

Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.

The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.

Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.

 
 
 
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Posted by on January 18, 2014 in Sermons, Tim Keller

 

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