Category Archives: Sermons

Tim Keller – Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World: Adoring Christ: Spiritual Reality

Personal Notes from a Lecture by Dr. Tim Keller

Keller T preaching

The goal of the sermon is to get people to worship Jesus.

A sermon isn’t a sermon until you call people to adore Christ. A sermon is a lecture when Christ is not adored.

Willow Creek approach: ‘You can evangelize non-Christians or edify Christians’

Conservative approach: ‘All people need to worship through the same material’

If you preach Christ you’ll be evangelizing and edifying at the same time.

Post-modern people like to know how Christianity works.

PM people try on Christianity as a dress. They’ll try it out to see if it works.

You can only change a person’s life by changing what they worship and how they worship.

Text, Context and Subtext

Be clear about the text, context and subtext

1) The text: know what the text is saying. Be clear on theology

2) The context: know how to present the text to the people

3) The subtext: have the right heart for the text (Christ) and the right heart for the context (people)

4 types of subtext

1) Social Reinforcement

The purpose of the sermon is to say: ‘Aren’t we great’

The preacher builds community and belonging by using familiar language and over endorsing the goodness of the church

‘We’re here to remind ourselves that we are unique people’

2) Selling

Promotion the products of the church

‘Don’t you feel that this is a great church’?

‘See how worthy I am of your respect’

The sermon is trying to give teaching to win people over to the individual church

3) Training

The purpose of my sermon is to teach people things they don’t know

‘I want to inform you of things you don’t know’

4) Worship

This subtext points to Christ and says ‘Isn’t He great?’

‘Don’t you see that your problems are rooted in that you don’t worship Christ?’

Spiritual Reality and Edwards

Religious Affections by Jonathon Edwards:

We have always done what we wanted to do.

Edwards argued that there is no ultimate opposition between head and heart. The heart always leads the will to act. Actions are grounded in emotions- always!

‘I know God cares for me but I can’t help but feel unloved.’ Edwards would say ‘You clearly don’t know that God cares for you. You haven’t felt that reality. Once you feel that God cares you’ll act as if God cares.’

Acting directly on the will doesn’t really work. We need to aim for the heart.

If someone is not being generous it’s due to sinful emotions. It’s because their hearts find something more attractive than Christ. Once people really see and feel 2 Cor 8:9 giving becomes frequent and a happy experience!

Sensing Christ only way to motivate the will. The task of the preacher is to present the beauty of Christ so that He becomes the object of our hearts greatest affection. Presenting Christ as more excellent than everything will weaken the Christians love for things other than Christ.

‘Excellency is that which is appreciated and rested in for its own sake.’- Edwards

The nominal Christian is someone who finds grace useful to get the things that the heart finds excellent and beautiful. Christ should not be the means to the end. He is the end!

Spiritual reality is more than rational conviction.

TWO-fold knowledge of good according to Edwards:

1) That which is notional- understanding something rationally

2) That which is pleasing to the heart- delighting in Him

You can rationally know that honey is sweet without feeling it. You can’t feel that honey is sweet unless you rationally know it’s sweet.

5 tips for heart preaching

1) Use reason- be clear and logical

2) Use analogical illustrations- relate the truth to another discourse. Doing this engages the senses

3) Use narrative- use stories

4) Transfer the affections of the people from sin to Christ- show that sin is not satisfying- show people that Christ’s beauty satisfies

5) Worship as you preach- show the people that you are sensing Christ – taste the food that you’re feeding to the children

Our problem: we forget spiritual knowledge.

2 Peter 1:8-9 is not talking about someone who has forget that they are saved. Rather the Christian here is not being continuously refreshed with Christ.

Video is more attractive than audio. The Bible sometimes can go straight to audio- it is heard and not fully experienced. We need to see Christ on video – this is to experience Him.

We worship when we treasure God- when we find Him more beautiful than anything else.


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Tim Keller: Preaching the Gospel in a Postmodern World: Session 7 Notes


Tim Keller preaching image

Preaching and Pastoring on Idols – BY DR. TIM KELLER


‘Idolatry’ is a major theme for ‘what ails’ us. It is there all through the Bible as a or the unifying way to describe what is wrong with us—psychologically, intellectually, sociologically, and culturally. But again, the word itself is fairly rare in the NT, but once we get a beat on some key texts and some key words, we will see how pervasive concept is. And if it is the main way to understand what is wrong with us—a pastor, a physician of souls, can’t possibly ignore it.


The whole story of the Bible—at least in the OT, can be seen as a struggle between true faith and idolatry.

1. In the beginning—idolatry

In the beginning, human beings were made to 1) worship and serve God, and then 2) to rule over all created things in God’s name (Genesis 1:26-28). Instead, we “fell into sin”. But when Paul sums up the “fall” of humanity into sin, he does so by describing it in terms of idolatry. He says we refused to give God glory (i.e. to make him the most important thing) and instead chose certain parts of creation to glorify in his stead. “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God…and worshipped and served created things rather than the creator” (Romans 1:21-25). In short, we reversed the original intended order. Human beings came to 1) worship and serve created things, and therefore 2) the created things came to rule over them. Death itself is the ultimate emblem of this, since we toil in the dust until finally the dust rules us (Gen. 3:17-19).

2. The Law—against Idols

The great sin of the Mosaic period is the making of a golden calf (Exodus 32). The 10 commandments’ first two and most basic laws (one-fifth of all God’s law to humankind) against idolatry. 1st command is a prohibition against worshipping other gods; the 2nd command is  prohibition against worshipping God idolatrously, as we want him to be. And after God’s entire code of covenant behavior is given in Exodus 2—23, it ended with a summary warning not to make “a covenant with…their gods” (v. 32) lest they “snare you” (v. 33). So “idolatry” sums up all that God’s law is against. Just like Romans 1, Exodus does not envision any “third” option. We will either worship the uncreated God, or we will worship some created thing (an idol). There is no possibility of our worshipping nothing. We will “worship and serve” (Romans 1:25) something, and whatever we worship we will serve, for worship and service are always, inextricably bound together. Whatever most drives us is rooted in worship and whatever we worship drives us. Why? We are “covenantal” beings. We enter into covenant service with whatever most captures our imagination and heart. It “snares” us. Therefore every human personality, every human community, and every human thought-form will be based on some ultimate concern or some ultimate allegiance to something.

3. The Psalms—Praying against idols

In the Psalms, the adoration of the people is not only toward God, but also against idols. Psalm 24:3-4—“Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol”…The “kabod” or glory of God is, quite literally, his weightiness, his supreme importance. But idols are good things which get more glory in our eyes than God. Therefore we cannot give God worship unless we identify and remove the idols of our heart. This theme is so crucial to John Calvin in his effort to renew worship biblically that his whole theology of worship has been called “the war against idols’.

4. The Prophets—Polemic against idols

Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, leveled an enormous polemic against the worship of idols. a) First, an idol is empty, nothing, powerless. The idol is nothing but what we ourselves have made, the work of our own hands (Is. 2:8; Jer. 1:16). Thus an idol is something we make in our image. It is only, in a sense, worshipping ourselves, or a reflection of our own sensibility (Is. 44:10-13). It has no ability or power of its own (Is. 41:6,7); it will eventually rot (Is. 40:20); b) But second, (paradoxically) an idol is a spiritually dangerous power which saps you of all power. This is a triple paradox. Idols are powerless things that are all about getting power. But the more you seek power through them, the more they drain you of strength.

(1) First, the idol brings about terrible spiritual blindness of heart and mind (Is. 44:9, 18). The idolater is self-deluded through a web of lies (Isaiah 44:20). When we set our ‘worship apparatus’ in our hearts upon something smaller than the true God, it produces a ‘delusional field’ which causes us to live in deep denial of the truth and reality. We deny how important the idol really is to us, yet we deny how impotent the idol really is. Also, we deny the bad effects it is having on us.

(2) Second, the idol brings about slavery. Jeremiah likens our relationship to idols as a love addicted person to his or her lover (Jer. 2:25). Once we have come to believe that something will really make us happy, then we cannot help ourselves—we must follow our God. Idols poison the heart into complete dependence on it (Isaiah 44:17); they completely capture our hearts (Ezekiel 14:1-5).

Sum: So the OT is understood as a grid of idolatry. God is king, but we tried to keep control and power worshipping and serving created things. They in turn, set up a kingdom of darkness that blinds and enslaves. The prophets say that someday, the King will return and free us. But we can’t read the NT through the grid of idolatry, can we? If is seldom mentioned. And moreover, idolatry is not relevant at all for us today, is it?


It is typical to think that “idolatry” is mainly an OT phenomenon, but closer examination shows that it is not. A couple of texts provide clues to the fact that pervasive human idolatry was assumed by the New Testament writers.

1 John 5:21

The last verse of 1 John is: “Beloved, keep yourself from idols”. Now idolatry has not been mentioned by John by name once in the entire treatise. So we have to conclude one of two things, Either 1) he is now, in the very last sentence, changing the whole subject (perhaps as an afterthought, but then he does nothing to elaborate or explain his meaning at all)! Or 2) he is summarizing all he has been saying in the epistle about living in the light of (holiness), love, and truth. I think the latter is more reasonable—but the implications are significant. John, in one brief statement, is putting in the negative what he had spent the whole letter putting in the positive. This must mean that the only way to walk in holiness, love, and truth is to keep free from idols. They are mutually exclusive. Under any failure to walk in holiness is some form of idolatry.

Galatians 4:8-9

In these two verses Paul reminds the Galatians that they had once been enslaved “to those who by nature are not gods. But…how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you want to be enslaved to them all over again?” I know that “stoichea” referred to here are much debated, and I won’t go into them here. But it seems safe to assume that Paul is saying: don’t go back to idolatry. But wait! The Galatians may have once been idolaters in the sense of worshiping figures of metal and wood. But the danger in Galatians is following those who are telling them to be circumcised and who are trying to lure them into a biblical moralism, and clouding their understanding of justification by faith alone. So how can he talk of this as a return to idolatry? The implications are again significant. If anything but Christ is your justification—you are falling into idolatry. If you sacrifice to a statue, or seek to merit heaven through conscientious biblical morality—you are setting up something besides God as your ultimate hope and it will enslave you.

1. Idolatry is at the root of all sin—in fact, it is the only way to understand sin.

Galatians 4:8-9 sheds light on the classic text of Romans 1:18-25. This extensive passage on idolatry is often seen as only referring to the pagan Gentiles, but instead we should recognize it as analysis of what sin is and how it works.

v. 21 tells us that the reason we make idols is because we want to control our lives, though we know that we owe God everything. “Though they knew God, they neither glorified God nor gave thanks to him.”

v. 25 tells us the strategy for control—taking created things and setting our hearts on them by building our lives around them. Since we need to worship something, because of how we are created, we cannot eliminate God without creating God-substitutes.

vv. 21 and 25 tells us the two results of idolatry: (1) deception—“their thinking became futile and their hearts were darkened” and (2) slavery—“they worshipped and served” created things. Whatever you worship you will serve.

No one grasped this better than Martin Luther, who ties the OT and NT together remarkably in his exposition of the 10 commandments. Luther saw how the OT law against idols and the NT emphasis on justification by faith alone are essentially the same. He said that the Ten Commandments begin with two commandments against idolatry. Then comes commandments three to ten. Why this order? It is because the fundamental problem in law-breaking is always idolatry. In other words, we never break commandments 3-10 without first breaking 1-2. But why would this be? Luther understood that the first commandment is really all about justification by faith, and to fail to believe in justification by faith is idolatry, which is the root of all that displeases God.

“All those who do not at all times trust God and do not in all their works or sufferings, life and death, trust in His favor, grace and good-will, but seek His favor in other things or in themselves, do not keep this [First] Commandment, and practice real idolatry, even if they were to do the works of all the other Commandments, and in addition had all the prayers, obedience, patience, and chastity of all the saints combined. For the chief work is not present, without which all the others are nothing but mere sham, show and pretense, with nothing back of them…If we doubt or do not believe that God is gracious to us and is pleased with us, or if we presumptuously expect to please Him only through and after our works, then it is all pure deception, outwardly honoring God, but inwardly setting up self as a false [savior]…(Part X. XI) Excerpts from Martin Luther, Treatise Concerning Good Works (1520).

Here Luther says that failure to believe God accepts us fully in Christ—and to look to something else for our salvation—is a failure to keep the first commandment, namely, having no other gods before him. To try to earn your own salvation through works-righteousness is breaking the first commandment. Then he says that we cannot truly keep any of the other laws unless we keep the first law—against idolatry and works-righteousness. Thus beneath any particular sin is this sin of rejecting Christ-salvation and indulging in self-salvation.

Sum: The Bible does not consider idolatry to be one sin among many (and thus not a very rare sin only among primitive people). Rather, the only alternative to true, full faith in the living God is idolatry. All our failures to trust God wholly or to live rightly are due at root to idolatry—something we make more important than God. There is always a reason for a sin. Under our sins are idolatrous desires.

2. Idolatry is at the root of every heart—it is the only way to understand motivation

There is another word that is very common in the NT which has a strong link to the idea of idolatry. Once we make this connection, we can see an even deeper link between the NT concept of the heart and idolatry.

“If ‘idolatry’ is the characteristic and summary OT word for our drift from God, then ‘lust’ [inordinate desires], epithumiai is the characteristic and summary NT word for that same drift. (See summary statements by Paul, Peter, John, and James as Gal. 5:16ff; Eph. 2:3, 4:22; 1 Pet. 2:11, 4:2; 1 John 2:16; James 1:14ff, where epithumiai is the catch-all for what is wrong with us.) The tenth commandment [against ‘coveting’, which is idolatrous, inordinate desire for something]…also…makes sin ‘psychodynamic’. It lays bare the grasping and demanding nature of the human heart, as Paul powerfully describes in Romans 7…the NT merges the concept of idolatry and the concept of inordinate, life-ruling desires…for lust, demandingness, craving and yearning are specifically termed ‘idolatry’ (Eph. 5:5 and Col. 3:5).” – David Powlison in Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair

The author explains here how idolatry moves us to disobedience and sin. He says that unless we believe the gospel and look to the Lord for our salvation, we will look to some idol, and idolatry always leads to ‘overdesires’. For example, if we believe we will only be significant if we make a lot of money, we will be in the grip of an over-desire, “drivenness”, to succeed in our work.

This is why we can say that beneath the breaking of any commandment is the breaking of the first. Every sin is rooted in the inordinate lust for something which comes because we are trusting in an idol rather than in Christ for our righteousness or salvation. Therefore, in sin we are always ‘forgetting’ what God has done for us in Christ and instead are being moved by some idol.

This is also why the word “epithumia” (for idolatrous, inordinate desires) shows up in all the NT places that treat Christian character, such as the “fruit of the Spirit” (see Galatians 5:22ff.). It is possible to have a Pharisaical or superficial compliance with God’s law, but out of works-righteousness. This is obedience to the rules, but out of false motives and bad heart-character.

“Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation.” – Belgic Confession 24

The Belgic Confession here states that unless we believe the gospel, we will be driven in all we do—whether obeying or disobeying—by pride (“self-love”) or fear (“of damnation”). We may be obeying God, but we will be only seeking to manipulate him—get blessing from him—through our good works. We will not be obeying him out of delight in who he is in himself. So, apart from ‘grateful remembering’ of the gospel, all good works are done then for sinful motives. Mere moral effort, may restrain the heart, but does not truly change the heart into Christ-like character. Moral effort ‘jury rigs’ the evil of the heart to produce moral behavior, out of self-interest. It is only a matter of time before such a thin tissue collapses.

Sum: This means then, that idolatry is always the reason we ever do anything wrong. Why do we ever lie, or fail to love or keep promises or live unselfishly? Of course, the general answer is “because we are weak and sinful”, but the specific answer is always that there is something besides Jesus Christ that you feel must have to be happy, something that is more important to your heart than God, something that is spinning out a delusional field and enslaving the heart through inordinate desires. So the secret to change (and even to self-understanding) is always to identify the idols of the heart.

3. Idolatry is at the root of all unbelief and, to some degree, every culture.

It is not only that idols are the basis for all personal sins and problems, but they are also the basis for all social and cultural sins and problems. When an individual makes and serves an idol, it creates psychological distortion and troubles; when a family, a group, or country makes and serves an idol, it creates social and cultural trouble.

When we read Paul in Ephesians and Colossians carefully, we see him talking about ‘powers’ that sometimes seem to be demons, but sometimes appear to be forces that we can convert and persuade. I think that what we see is an example of good things—government, business/capital, the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge—made idols and thus suffused with destructive (‘demonic’) power. The book of Revelation in particular shows how the state—something quite good in Romans 13—can become evil.

Intellectual and cultural idols stem not just from a disbelief in God but from a basic rejection of the basic gospel. if we reject the truth that all our problems come from a depraved heart, we will have to account for it by ‘demonizing’ some created thing as well as idealizing (ideologizing) of some other created thing. So romanticism demonized culture and idealized nature. Marxism demonized the rich and idealized economic and social factors. It believed that if we manipulated them properly, social problems would evaporate.

The following are a list of some of the more obvious social-cultural idols. (Please remember that what is written below are major generalizations. There are many different forms of socialism and capitalism, for example, which moderate and improve on the fundamental theme I mention. The idea is to show that most ‘ideologies’ are ‘idolatries’. These overlap. The first three are economic-political ideologies; the last two are intellectual-philosophical ideologies).

a. Fascism makes an idol out of one particular race or nationality of culture. It occurs when a culture teaches individuals to say “I am acceptable because I am of the ____race which is far better than ____race(s).” Closely associated with this is the idol of militarism and physical might for coercion. Christianity is neither culturally relativistic nor imperialistic. It knows that not all cultures are equally healthy, but that all cultures are deeply stained by sin and must be judged by the Lord.

b. Socialism makes an idol of the state. It occurs when a culture teaches that our main problems are at root only social, not spiritual and moral. This view relies overly or exclusively on government solutions to re-engineer society. Christianity understands that our problems are rooted in sin which effects both social systems and individual hearts and will make an idol neither out of government nor of private, individual initiative.

c. Capitalism makes an idol of the ‘market’. When a society comes to believe that most or all our problems will be solved by free market competition, it leads people to “worship” success, personal freedom, and the ‘almighty individual’. Today, even advocates of the free market recognize the ‘cultural contradictions of capitalism’, namely, that capitalism and consumerism undermine the very virtues of self-control and responsibility that gave it rise.

d. Relativism makes an idol out of one’s own individual conscience and inner feelings. When a society teaches people “you alone can determine what is right or wrong for you, as long as you don’t steal others’ freedom to have the same choice”, then it has made “choice” an absolute value, and the feelings of the heart a god.

e. Empiricism makes an idol out of nature and scientific investigation. It insists absolutely everything has a natural, scientific cause. Thus it believes science has an answer for everything and will open all doors.

f. Pluralism can make an idol out of the government, too. The government is apparently “neutral” toward religion and holds that truth is ‘relative’. But that means that no religion or faith has the right to call into question government practices.

“[When does the pursuit of a legitimate goal become idolatry, or ‘ideology’?] An ideology arises the moment the end indiscriminately justifies every means…Thus a nation’s goal of material prosperity becomes an idol [the ideology of materialism] when we use it to justify the destruction of the natural environment or allow the abuse of individuals or classes of people. A nation’s goal of military security [becomes an idol [the ideology of militarism] when we use it to justify the removal of rights to free speech and judicial process, or the abuse of an ethnic minority.] – Bob Goodzwaard—Idols of Our Time

But while idols are all about getting power through power and performance, the biblical God can only be approached through repentance—a loss of power. While idolatry is the attempt to manipulate God to obtain power and security/salvation for oneself or one’s group, the gospel is that we are saved by sheer grace, and thus we surrender ourselves in grateful love and become willing, sacrificial servants of everyone. We now become agents in God’s kingdom which comes full of justice and mercy to all who are suffering. The gospel is the end of ideologies.

Sum: At the root of all problems (personal or social), and of all non-Christian philosophies and ideologies is the elevation of some created thing to the place of ultimate worship and ultimate arbiter of truth and meaning.

“The principle crime of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world, the whole procuring cause of judgment, is idolatry. For although each individual sin retains its proper feature, although it is destined to judgment under its own proper name also, yet they all fall under the general heading of idolatry…[All murder and adultery, for example are idolatry, for they arise because something is loved more than God—yet in turn, all idolatry is murder for it assaults God, and all idolatry is also adultery for it is unfaithfulness to God.] Thus it comes to pass, that in idolatry all crimes are detected, and in all crimes idolatry.” – Tertullian, On Idolatry Chapter 1

“A careful reading of the OT and NT’s shows that idolatry is nothing like the crude, simplistic picture that springs to mind of an idol sculpture in some distant country. As the main category to describe unbelief, the idea is highly sophisticated, drawing together the complexities of motivation in individual psychology, the social environment, and also the unseen world. Idols are not just on pagan altars, but in well-educated human hearts and minds (Ezekiel 14). The apostle associates the dynamics of human greed, lust, craving, and coveting with idolatry (Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5). The Bible does not allow us to marginalize idolatry to the fringes of life…it is found on center stage.” – R. Keyes, “The Idol Factory” in No God but God



a. Idols form into a system.

How do the particular idol-systems come to be formed in us? How do we come to have our specific idols?

The world, the flesh, and the devil (1 John 2:16,17) are inextricably linked in their influences to produce idols in us. First, our “flesh”, our sinful heart is by nature an “idol factory” (as Calvin put it). Second, the “world”, our social environment, coaxes us into various idols by model and example and sometimes direct appeal. Our family’s idols, our culture’s idols, our classes idols shape us either when we embrace them or reject them for the idol-opposite. Third, the “devil” works in us to stir up and enflame desires into idolatrous bondages. If we leave out any of the three aspects, we will reduce behavior to either “Johnny is bad” or “Johnny is abused” or “Johnny is sick”. But all these approaches are simplistic compared to the Bible. None of our behavior is simply the result of only: a) our inherent nature, b) our environment, or c) our free choice. The Bible is not essentialist (“he was born that way, it is hopeless”), behaviorist (“he is a victim of what they did to him, it’s hopeless”), or existentialist (“it’s all a matter of his choice; he can be whatever he wants to be!”).

“How do we put together the following three things? First, people are responsible for their behavioral sins…Second, people with problems come from families or sub-cultures where the other people involved also have problems. We suffer and are victimized and misguided by the destructive things other think, want, fear, value, feel, and do…My problems are often embedded in a tight feedback loop with your problems…Third, behavior is motivated by complex, life-driving patterns of thoughts, desires, fears, views of the world, and the like, of which a person may be almost wholly unaware. How are we…responsible for our behavior [#1], socially conditioned [#2], and creatures whose hearts are twisted and complex all at the same time without any factor canceling out the others?

The social and behavioral sciences miss this…Human motivation is never strictly psychological [controlled primarily by my feelings] or psycho-social [controlled primarily by my environment] or psycho-social-somatic [controlled primarily by my biological genetic code]. Human motivation is always is always God-relational [we are controlled primarily by what we worship]. Seeing this, the Bible’s view alone can unify the seemingly contradictory elements in the explanation of behavior.” – D. Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair”

Idolatry can therefore be a useful way to understand very complex, pathological personal and relational patterns of life.

“The things frequently labeled ‘co-dependency’ are more precisely instances of ‘co-idolatry’. People’s typical idol patterns often reinforce each other and fit an uncanny way into a [single, large] idol system, creating massively destructive feedback loops. The classic alcoholic husband and rescuing wife are enslaved within an idol system whose components complement each other all too well:

[1] The idol pattern in the husband…might be a use of alcohol (a) to serve an idol of escape from the pains and frustrations in life, or (b) to serve an idol of self-crucifixion to deal with his periodic guilt and remorse…[2] The idol pattern in the wife…might be a use of rescuing behavior (a) to serve an idol of personal worth by being a martyred savior of her family, or (b) to serve an idol of security by having a male’s love and dependence on her.

Each of their idols (and consequent behavior, thoughts, and emotions) is ‘logical’ within the idol system…Idols counterfeit aspects of God’s identity and character…judge, savior, source of blessing, sin-bearer, object of trust…Each idol in the system ‘makes promises’ and ‘gives warnings’. Service to each idol results in a hangover of misery and accusedness, because idols lie and murder. They are continually insinuated by the one who as a liar and murderer from the beginning.”

“Co-dependency literature often perceptively describes the patterns of dysfunctional idols which curse and enslave people (e.g. the rescuer or compulsive drinker). But the solution [in this same literature] is to offer different and presumably more workable idols, rather than Bible’s Christ…Self-esteem…acceptance and love from new significant others, [better jobs and careers] create successful versions of the idols ‘fear of man’ and ‘trust of man’. Eufunctional idols do ‘work’ and ‘bless’ with temporarily happy lives (Psalm 73)…but the idol system is intact…” – D. Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair”

“The idol begins as a means of power, enabling us to control, but then overpowers, controlling us.” – Richard Keyes, “The Idol Factory” in No God but God.

b. Idols have a “near” and “far” dimension.

“Far idols” such as power, approval, comfort, and control are more subtle and basic. They are at the roots of your life—“farther” from the surface of things. They are motivational drives. They can work through many ‘near idols’. They are dealt with mainly by a process of repenting and rejoicing (See assignment below and next week’s “Dismantling Idols” Project)

“Near idols” are more concrete and specific objects such as your spouse or your carer. Now these things—your business, your ministry, your music—are extremely good things that you need to detach from the far idols, which are using them. That means they often (even ordinarily) may remain in your life, if they are ‘put in their place’. This is what Augustine meant when he spoke of the “right ordering of our loves”.

How do we do this? Basically, you don’t want to love a near idol less, but rather come to love and rejoice in God more than you do in it—so you don’t try to ‘earn your salvation’ through it. It is important, therefore, to work on your far idols the most, or you’ll feel that your near idol is somehow dirty in itself.

Question your motives, especially when your emotions surrounding your ‘near idol’ makes you bitter, scared, or discouraged. Ask “Why am I so upset?” For idols give a franticness to our work with near idols. Often, after we become Christians (or after we get serious about our Christianity) we will have a period of ‘disorientation’, even a lapse in intensity, as we lose our old idolatrous motivations and learn gradually to pursue our ministry, marriage, and work, for Christ’s sake. But that is an extremely important transition. Jonathan Edwards’ insisted that only when we detach our work from far idols do we actually do the work for it’s own sake. “True” virtue, is to love your music for its own sake, or your spouse for his/her own sake. And you are free to do in the gospel because now you love God for his own sake, not just to get heaven and reward from him. This is what the fullness of grace does. Without the gospel, you will do your work “to get a name” or “to prove yourself”—not for the sake of the work itself.

Sum: Sin cannot simply be resisted at the volitional level through mere will power, but on the other hand, we are not helpless victims. Sin must primarily be rooted out at the motivational level through the application of gospel-truth. We must find what we worship as our functional savior through works-righteousness, in rejection of the gospel of free grace and salvation through Christ. Then we must repent and replace the idol with love and joy in Christ at the same time we are trying to change our behavior.

c. Idols create a ‘delusional field’.

As we have seen, idols spin out a whole set of assumptions and false definitions of success and failure and happiness and sadness and worth and valuelessness.

“Your idols define good and evil ways contrary to God’s definitions. They spin out a whole false belief system. False gods create false laws, false definitions of honor and stigma. Idols promise blessing and warn of curses for those who succeed or fail. ‘If I can ______then my life will be valid.”

This is critical to understand. There is legitimate sorrow, and then there is idolatrous, inconsolable sorrow, that is really the ‘curse’ of the idol. It is saying, “if you don’t have me there IS nothing else that can satisfy you!” There is legitimate guilt, and then there is un-redeemidible guilt. When people say: “I know God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself”—they mean they have failed an idol, whose standards are different than God’s and whose approval is more important to them than God’s.

d. Idols can thrive in a religious environment.

Often it is possible to jettison ‘near idols’ of sex or money and enter the church, but the ‘far idols’ may continue to be served and looked to as our functional righteousness and ‘covering’ rather than Jesus Christ. It is quite possible to serve the idol of approval, power, or control in religious forms. The elder brother in Luke 15 was seeking power and control through obeying the father, while the younger brother was attempting it through disobedience. The lack of a clear ‘near idol’ (like prostitutes) in the elder brother’s life masked what he was really about.


a. The “Moralyzing” Approach.

A very typical approach to personal change among orthodox and conservative Christians can best be called the “moralizing” approach. Basic analysis: Your problem is that you are doing wrong. Repent! This focuses on behavior—but doesn’t go deep enough. We must find out the why of our behavior. Why do I find I want to do the wrong things? What inordinate desires are drawing me to do so? What are the idols and false beliefs behind them? To simply tell an unhappy person (or yourself) to ‘repent and change behavior’ is insufficient, because the lack of self-control is coming from a belief that says, ‘even if you live up to moral standards, but you don’t have this, then you are still a failure.’ You must replace this belief through repentance for the one sin under it all—your particular idolatry.

b. The “Psychologizing” Approach.

A very typical approach to personal change among more liberal religious groups can best be called the “psychologizing” approach. Basic analysis: Your problem is that you don’t see that God loves you as you are. Rejoice! This focuses on feelings, which seems to be “deeper” than behavior—but it also fails to go deep enough. We must also find out the why of our feelings. Why do I have such strong feelings of despair (or fear, or anger) when this or that happens? What are the inordinate desires that are being frustrated? What are the idols and false beliefs behind them? To simply tell an unhappy person (or yourself) ‘God loves you—rejoice!” is insufficient, because the unhappiness is coming from a belief that says, ‘even if God loves you, but you don’t have this, then you are still a failure.’ You must replace this belief through repentance for the one sin under it all—your particular idolatry.

c. The “Gospel” Approach.

Basic Analysis: Your problem is that you are looking to something besides Christ for your happiness. Repent and rejoice! This confronts a person with the real sin under the sins behind the bad feelings. Our problem is that we have given ourselves over to idols. Every idol system is a way of our-works-salvation, and this it keeps us “under the law”. Paul tells us that the bondage of sin is broken when we come out from under the law—when we begin to believe the gospel of Christ’s-work-salvation. Only when we realize in a new way that we are righteous in Christ is the idol’s power over us broken. Sin shall not be your master for you are not under law, but under grace (Romans 6:14). You will only be “under grace” and free from the controlling effects of idols to the degree that you have both: (1) repented for your idols, and (2) rested and rejoiced in the saving work and love of Christ instead.

“If we accurately comprehend the interweaving of…behavior, deceptive inner motives, and powerful external forces, then…what was once ‘dry doctrine’ becomes filled with appeal, hope, delight and life. People see the Gospel is far richer than a ticket to heaven and rote forgiveness for oft-repeated behavioral sins…[1. A Psychologizing approach says] ‘you feel horribly and act badly because your needs aren’t being met—because your family did not meet them’…then it says, God accepts you just as you are’…This is not the biblical gospel, however…This approach just soothes the unhappy soul without getting to the source of the pain]. [2. In a Moralyzing approach] Christ’s forgiveness is applied simply to behavioral sins. The solution is typically…an attempt to deal with the motive problems with a single act of housecleaning. There is little sense of patient process of inner renewal…daily dying to the false gods we fabricate.” – David Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair”

“The faith that…is able to warn itself at the fire of God’s love, instead of having to steal love and self-acceptance from other sources, is actually the root of holiness…It is often said today, in circles which blend popular psychology with Christianity, that we must love ourselves before we can be set free to love others…But no realistic human beings find it easy to love or forgive themselves, and hence their self-acceptance must be grounded in their awareness that God accepts them in Christ. There is a sense in which the strongest self-love that we can have…is merely the mirror image of the lively conviction we have that God loves us. Moralism, whether it takes the form of either deunuciation or “pep talks”, can ultimately only create an awareness of sin and guilt or manufactured virtues built on will power…We all automatically gravitate toward the assumption that we are justified by our level of sanctification, and when this posture is adopted, it inevitably focuses our attention not on Christ but on the adequacy of our own obedience. We start each day with our personal security not resting on the accepting love of God and the sacrifice of Christ but on our present feelings or recent achievements in the Christians life. Since these arguments will not quiet the human conscience we, are inevitably moved either to discouragement and apathy or to a self-righteousness [some form of idolatry] which falsifies the record to achieve a sense of peace…” – Richard Lovelace, The Dynamics of Spiritual Life



a. Using ‘Problem Emotions’ to identify idols.

“1. Every self exists in relation to values perceived as making life worth living. A value is anything good in the created order—any idea, relation, object or person in which one has an interest, form which one derives significance…

2. These values compete…In time, one is prone to choose a center of value by which other values are judged…[which] comes to exercise power or preeminence over other values.

3. When a finite value has been elevated to centrality and imagined as a final source of meaning, then one has chosen…a godOne has a god when a finite value is…viewed as that without which one cannot receive life joyfully. (To be worshipped as a god, something must be sufficiently good…Were my daughter not a source of exceptional affection and delight, she would not be a potential idolatry for me, but I am tempted to adore her in a way…disproportional.)

Anxiety [Idolatry and the future]

[5] Anxiety becomes neurotically intensified to the degree that I have idolized finite values…Suppose my god is sex or my physical health or the Democratic Party. If I experience any of these under genuine threat, then I feel myself shaken to the depths.

Guilt/Bitterness [Idolatry and the past]

[6] Guilt bcomes neurotically intensified to the degree that I have idolized finite values…Suppose I value my ability to teach and communicate clearly…If clear communication has become an absolute value for me, a center of value that makes all my other values valuable…then if I [fail in teaching well] I am stricken with neurotic guilt.

[7] Bitterness becomes neurotically intensified when someone or something stands between me and something that is my ultimate value]

Boredom/Emptiness [Idolatry and the present]

[8. To be bored is to feel empty, [meaningless] Boredom is an anticipatory form of being dead. To the extent to which limited values are exalted to idolatries…[when any of those values are lost], boredom becomes pathological and compulsive…My subjectively experienced boredom may then become infinitely projected toward the whole cosmos…This picture of the self is called despair [The milder forms are disappointment, disillusionment, cynicism]” – T.C. Oden, Two Worlds: Notes on the Death of Modernity in America and Russia – Chapter 6


If you are angry. Ask, “is there something too important to me? Something I am telling myself I have to have? Is that why I am angry—because I am being blocked from having something I think is a necessity when it is not?” Write down what that might be:

If you are fearful or badly worried. Ask, “is there something too important to me? Something I am telling myself I have to have? Is that why I am so scared—because something is being threatened which I think is a necessity when it is not?” Write down what that might be:

If you are despondent or hating yourself: Ask, “is there something too important to me? Something I am telling myself I have to have? Is that why I am so ‘down’ – because I have lost or failed at something which I think is a necessity when it is not?” Write down what that might be:

b. Using ‘motivational drives’ to identify idols.

“An idol is something within creation that is inflated to function as a substitute for God. All sorts of things are potential idols…An idol can be a physical object, a property, a person, an activity, a role, an institution, a hope, an image, an idea, a pleasure, a hero…If this is so, how do we determine when something is…an idol?

As soon as our loyalty to anything leads us to disobey God, we are in danger of making it an idol…

–Work, a commandment of God can become an idol if it is pursued so exclusively that responsibilities to one’s family are ignored.

–Family, an institution of God himself, can become an idol if one is so preoccupied with the family that no one outside one’s family can be cared for.

–Being well-liked, a perfect legitimate hope, becomes an idol if the attachment to it means one never risks disapproval.

[Idols] are inflated…suggesting that the idol will fulfill the promises for the good life…Idols tend to come in pairs—[for example] a nearby idol may be a rising standard of living, but the faraway idol is a semi-conscious belief that material success will wipe away every tear…” — Richard Keyes, “The Idol Factory” in No God but God.

“…that most basic question which God poses to each human heart: “has something or someone besides Jesus the Christ taken title to your heart’s functional trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear and delight?

Questions…bring some of people’s idol systems to the surface. “To who or what do you look for life-sustaining stability, security and acceptance?…What do you really want and expect [out of life]? What would [really] make you happy? What would make you an acceptable person? Where do you look for power and success?’ These questions or similar ones tease out whether we serve God or idols, whether we look for salvation from Christ or from false saviors.

[This bears] on the immediate motivation of my behavior, thoughts, and feelings. In the Bible’s conceptualization, the motivation question is the lordship question: who or what “rules my behavior, the Lord or an idol?” – David Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair”

We often don’t go deep enough to analyze our idol-structures. For example, “money” is of course an idol, yet in another sense, money can be sought in order to satisfy very different, more foundational or “far” idols. For example, some people want lots of money, but save it) while others want lots of money for access to social circles and for making themselves beautiful and attractive (such people do spend their money on themselves!) The same goes for sex. Some people use sex in order to get power over others, others in order to feel approved and loved, and others just for pleasure/comfort. The following outline can be helpful in letting people consider different foundational “idol-structures”. Dick Keyes calls them “far-idols” as opposed to “near idols”. Remember, these are all alternative ways to make ourselves “righteous/worthy”:

What We Seek         Price Willing to Pay         Greatest Nightmare      Others Feel     Prob/Emotion

COMFORT                       Reduced                      Stress, demands               Hurt           Boredom

(Privacy, lack of stress, freedom)

APPROVAL            Less independence                   Rejection                Smothered     Cowardice

(Affirmation, love, relationship)

CONTROL               Loneliness, spontaneity         Uncertainty            Condemned       Worry

(Self-discipline, certainity, standards)

POWER                  Burdened; responsibility        Humiliation                  Used             Anger

(Success, winning, influence)


Circle the thoughts that are lodged in your heart:

Power idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I have power and influence over others.

Approval Idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am loved and respected by ___________________.

Comfort idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I have this kind of pleasure experience, a particular quality of life.”

Control idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am able to get mastery over my life in the area of _____________________.”

Other related idols:

Helping idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—people are dependent on me and need me.”

Dependence idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—someone is there to protect me and keep me safe.”

Independence idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am completely free from obligations or responsibilities to take care of someone.”

Work idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am highly productive getting a lot done.”

Achievement idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am being recognized for my accomplishments, if I am excelling in my career.”

Religion idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am adhering to my religion’s moral codes and accomplished in its activities.”

Individual person idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—this one person is in my life and happy there and/or happy with me.”

Materialism idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I have a certain level of wealth, financial freedom, and very nice possessions.”

Irreligion idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I feel I am totally independent of organized religion and with a self-made morality.”

Racial/cultural idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—my race and culture is ascendant and recognized as superior.”

Inner ring idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—a particular social grouping or professional grouping or other group lets me in.”

Family idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—my children and/OR my parents are happy and happy with me.”

Family idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—Mr. or Ms. ‘Right’ is in love with me.”

Suffering idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I am hurting, in a problem—only then do I feel noble or worthy of love or am able to deal with guilt.”

Ideology idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—my political or social cause or party is making progress and ascending in influence or power.”

Image idolatry: “Life only has meaning / I only have worth if—I have a particular kind of look or body image.”

Answer these diagnostic questions:

a. What is my greatest nightmare? What do I worry about most?

b. What, if I failed or lost it, would cause me to feel that I did not even want to live? What keeps me going?

c. What do I rely on or comfort self with when things go bad or get difficult?

d. What do I think most easily about? What does my mind go to when I am free? What preoccupies me?

e. What prayer, unanswered, would make me seriously think about turning away from God?

f. What makes me feel the most self-worth? What am I the proudest of?

g. What do I really want and expect out of life? What really makes me happy?

Summarize: Now that you’ve answered the questions above, look for common themes. Write below what you think are the “functional” masters? What things tend to be too important to you?


a. First Step – Repent: Taking Down The Idols (Judges 10:10-16; Romans 8:13)

On the one hand, (contra the Psychologizing Approach) you are called to repent. You have been worshipping an idol and rejected the true God. Every idol is the center of some system of works-righteousness by which we are seeking to “earn” our salvation, so you are also trying to be your own Savior. So you must repent. But this actually gives much hope—it means there is something you can do. The Psychologizing Approach, though sympathetic, is not truly empowering, because it leaves us feeling like helpless victims. How do we repent?

(1) NAME THE IDOLS (getting specific)

In prayer, name these things to God. Sample prayer language: “Lord, these are the things I have built my life and heart around…”

  • Name some “Near” idol or idols:

  • Name some “Far” idol or idols:


Idols create “delusions”. They appear more wonderful or all powerful than they really are. They lead us to deny their hold on us. Stand back and get them into perspective. In what ways are your idols distorting your thinking or hiding themselves from you? (For example: “My idol of status and money has made me deny how much I hate my job and how much happier I would be in another (but lower-paying) career.”)

Recognize how weak and poor they are (in themselves). In prayer, confess that these things are good, but finite and weak, and praise God for being the only source of what you need. Sample prayer language, “Lord, this is a good thing, why have I made it to be so absolute? Why do I feel so pointless with out it? What is this compared to you? If I have you, I don’t have to have this! This cannot bless me and love me and help me like you! This is not my life—Jesus is my life! This is not my righteousness and worthiness. It cannot give me that. But you can and have!” Write out such a prayer in your own words.

Recognize how dangerous they are (to you). Idols enslave, and they will never be satisfied. Realize how they increasingly destroy you. Look and now, in prayer, confess that these things are absolutely lethal, and ask a strong God for his help. Sample prayer language: “Lord, why am I giving this so much power over me? If I keep doing it, it will strangle me. I don’t have to do so—I will not do so any longer. I will not let this jerk me around on a leash any longer. This will not be my Master—you are my only King.” Write out such a prayer in your own words.

Recognize how grievous they are (to Christ). Idols ultimately are cruel to the heart of the one who offers us so much, and at such infinite cost. Realize that when you pine after idols (in your anger, fear, despondency) that you are saying: “Lord, you are enough. This is more beautiful, fulfilling, and sweet to my taste than you. You are negotiable, but this is not. Despite all you’ve done for me, I will only use you as long as you help me get this. You are negotiable, but this is not. You haven’t done enough for me—if you don’t help me have this, I will discard you.” In prayer, admit, how deeply you have grieved and de-valued Jesus, and ask forgiveness. Sample prayer language: “Lord I see how repulsive this idol for what it is—an idol. In yearning after this, I have trampled on your love for me. I realize now that the greatest sin in my life is a lack of thankfulness, a lack of grateful joy for what you have done for me.” Write such a prayer in your own words.

b. Second Step – Rejoice: Replacing The Idols (Luke 10:20; Colossians 3:1-4).

On the other hand (contra the Moralyzing Approach) you are called to tremendous joy and encouragement. What you have turned from is the beauty, love, and joy of Christ. He offers what you have been seeking elsewhere. He awaits you, he “stands at the door” knocking (Rev. 3:20), seeking a far deeper connection of intimacy with you than he has previously. It is an appreciation, rejoicing, and resting in what Jesus has done and offers you that will “replace” the idol. Notice how often (Col. 3:1-9; Rom. 8:6-13; Heb. 12:1-3) growth and change is a dynamic of two interactive processes—“put to death” (repentance) and “set your mind above” (rejoicing in what you have and are in Christ). These are not really two separable things. Only rejoicing in Christ strengthens us to admit the worst about ourselves in repentance. On the other hand, only the sight of our sin reveals to us how free and unmerited his grace is. Rejoicing and repentance must go together. Repentance without rejoicing will lead to despair. Rejoicing without repentance is shallow and will only provide passing inspiration instead of deep change.

What does it mean to “rejoice” or “set your mind” on Christ? “Rejoicing” in the Bible is much deeper than simply being happy about something. Paul directed that we “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4), but this cannot mean “always feel happy”, since he also said that every day he was weighted with concern and anxiety over his flock (2 Cor. 11:28-29). Jesus forbid his disciples to rejoice in their power over demons, and insisted that they rejoice over their salvation (Luke 10:20). What you rejoice in is the thing that is your central sweetness and consolation in life. To rejoice is to treasure a thing, to assess its value to you, to reflect on its beauty and importance until your heart rests in it and tastes the sweetness of it.

So “rejoicing” is a way of praising God until the heart is sweetned and rested, and until it relaxes its grip on anything else it thinks that it needs. The rejoicing is this not strictly a second distinct step after repentance, but rather it completes the repentance. (In the same way, the Christian repentance is not distinct, but rather it begins the rejoicing!) Why? In Christian repentance—we do not “take our sins” to Mt. Sinai, but to Mt. Calvary. Sinai represents only the law of God, and makes us fear God will reject us. But Calvary represents both the law of God and his commitment to save us no matter what—even if his Son has to fulfill and pay our debt to the law. “Going to Sinai” with our sins means we use the painful fear of rejection to motivate us to change. “Going to Calvary” with our sins means we use gratitude for his love to motivate us to change. The free love of Christ means that in disobedience, you have not just broken the rules, but spurned the One who lost his Father rather than lose you.

The Moralyzing Approach, then, though challenging, is not in the end truly cleansing, because it only makes us afraid of the consequences of our sin, rather than disgusted with the sin itself as grieving and dishonoring to our Savior. Thus it is only as we rejoice in the absolute certainty of his love for us that we can truly repent. In the gospel, it is the thing that most assures us (free grace) that most deeply convicts us of sin. How do we rejoice? 3 ways:


To replace idols so they cannot grow (back), you must learn to rejoice in the particular thing that Jesus brings that replaces the particular idol of your heart. Whenever you see your heart in the grip of some kind of disobedience or misery, some temptation, anxiety, anger, etc., always ask: (1) How are these effects being caused by an inordinate hope for some-one or some-thing to give me what only Jesus can really give me? And (2) How does Christ give me so much more fully and graciously and suitably the very things I am looking for elsewhere? Then Rejoice and think of what he has done and what he has given you. Here are some examples:

(a) If you struggle with temptation, (often it is a near idol linked to a far idol of comfort)—let Jesus entice you with his life. Rejoice in the gospel until you see his beauty. (1) How are these temptations being caused by an inordinate hope for some-one or some-thing to give me the comfort and consolation that only Jesus can really give me? (2) How does Christ give me so much more fully and graciously and suitably the very things I am looking for elsewhere? Rejoice and think of what he has done and what he has given you. Let him entice you with his beauty. Sample rejoicing prayer for times of temptation: “Lord, only in your presence is fullness of joy and pleasures forever more (Psalm 16:11) yet here I am trying to find comfort in something else. Why rake in a mud puddle when you have set a table for me (Psalm 23:5) filled with your love, peace, joy? This thing I am tempted by is just a pleasure that will wear off so soon—it is a sham and cheat, while your pleasure, though it may start small will grow on and forever (Prov. 4:18). And remove my idols of pleasure, which never can give me the pleasure I need.”

A meditation for rejoicing in Jesus (and the gospel) when tempted—read John 6:5-13:32-40. See Jesus feeding people with his bread, the only bread that will not leave you hungry (John 6:35). Meditate on John 6 and write out a rejoicing prayer that replaces temptation thoughts.

(b) If you struggle with anxiety, (often out of a far idol of control) let Jesus comfort you with his care. Rejoice in the gospel until you are humbled enough (to see you don’t know best) or valued enough (to see that he could not forget you). (1) How are these anxieties being caused by an inordinate hope for some-one or some-thing to give me the control over my life and environment only Jesus can really give me? (2) How does Christ give me so much more fully and graciously and suitably the very things I am looking for elsewhere? Rejoice and think of what he has done and what he has given you. Let him quiet you with his loving power. Sample rejoicing prayer for times of anxiety: “Lord, I live by your sheer grace. That means though I don’t deserve to have things go right, yet I know you are working them all out for good (Rom. 8:28) because you love me in Christ. All my punishment fell into Jesus’ heart—so you only allow bad things for my growth, and for loving wise purposes. I can relax, because my security in life is based neither on luck nor hard work, but on your gracious love for me. You have counted every hair on my head (Matt. 10:30-31) and every tear down my cheeks (Ps. 56:8) – you love me far more and better than anyone else loves me or than I love myself. And remove my idols of security—which never can give me the security I need.” Pray this prayer when anxious or write one out yourself.

A meditation for rejoicing in Jesus (and the gospel) when anxious—read Luke 8:22-25; Mark 4:35-41. See Jesus assuring them of his care. Meditate on this and write out a prayer that replaces anxious thoughts.

(c) If you struggle with anger and pride, (often out of a desire for power), let Jesus humble and soften you with his mercy. Rejoice in the gospel until you are so. (1) How are this anger and hardness being caused by an inordinate hope for some-one or something to give me the power and significance that only Jesus can really give me? (2) How does Christ give me so much more fully and graciously and suitably the very things I am looking for elsewhere? Rejoice and think of what he has done and what he has given you. Let him humble and soften you with his grace and mercy. Sample rejoicing prayer for times of anger: “Lord, when I forget the gospel I become impatient and judgmental of others. I forget that you have been infinitely patient with me over the years. You are slow to anger and rich in love (Psalm 145:8). When I am anything other than tender-hearted and compassionate to people around me, I am like the unmerciful servant, who, having been forgiven an infinite debt, is hard toward his fellow debtor (Matt. 18:21-35). I live completely and solely by your grace and long-suffering, and I praise you for it. Tenderize my heart toward others as I do so. And remove the idol of power—the need to get my own way—which is making me so hard toward these people.” Pray this prayer when irritable and angry or one you write out yourself.

A meditation for rejoicing in Jesus (and the gospel) when cold or angry—read Matthew 26:36-46. See Jesus being let down by his disciples, but still giving them credit for their willing spirits (Matt. 26:41). Remember that you have fallen asleep on him so often. Meditate on this and write out a prayer that replaces hard-hearted thoughts:

(d) If you struggle with rejection and a sense of worthlessness (often out of a desire for approval), let Jesus assure you of his love. Rejoice in the gospel till you are affirmed. (1) How is this despondency being caused by an inordinate hope for some-one or some-thing to give me the sense of approval that only Jesus can really give me? (2) How does Christ give me so much more fully and graciously and suitably the very things I am looking for elsewhere? Rejoice and think of what he has done and what he has given you. Let him assure you with his fatherly love. Sample rejoicing prayer: “Lord, when I forget the gospel I become dependent on the smiles and evaluation of others. I let them sit in judgment on me and then I hear all their criticism as a condemnation of my very being. But you have said, “Now there is no condemnation’ for me (Rom 8:1). You delight and sing over me (Zeph. 3:14-17), you see me as a beauty (Col. 1:22). Why do I pant after the approval of the serfs when I have the love of the King? Ironically, I am being a lousy friend—because I am too hurt by criticism to either learn from it of give it to others (for fear of getting it back). Oh, let me be so satisfied with your love, committed to what is best for them. Remove my idols of approval—which can never give me the approval I need” Pray this prayer when feeling hurt and rejected or write on out yourself.

A meditation for rejoicing in Jesus (and the gospel) when hurt or rejected—read John 15:9-17; 17:13-26. Listen to how Jesus talks about you to his Father. Think of what you mean to him, what he is willing to do for you. Meditate of this and write out a prayer that replaces despondent thoughts.

It should be clear how to reflect on your heart in such a way that you can deal with its idolatrous ‘motions’ and effects. You may have other problems besides the four mentioned above. For example, you may have a particular problem with guilt over the past, or with boredom in general, and so on. Follow the same pattern you see above: (a) What is the ‘far’ idol motivation (e.g. power, approval)? What is the ‘near’ idol it is attached to (e.g. success at work, dating a particular person, ministry)? (b) How does Jesus particularly provide what the idols cannot? (1) Pray to him, thanking him for it, and (2) find some passage of Scripture in which he very visibly and concretely demonstrates this gift or quality. Meditate on it.


Meditation. Essentially, rejoicing in Christ is worship. You can get no relief simply by “figuring out” your idols and simply saying, “but Jesus gives me peace that this idol cannot.” You have to actually get the peace that Jesus gives, and that only comes as you worship. The “Rejoicing in Particular” exercises are just abstractions that will not effect you unless as you pray and praise and meditate the Spirit inscribes these truths on the heart (Eph. 1:18ff.; 3:15ff). These worksheets can give you the truths you need, but through the Spirit you have to “pray them in”. That takes time. It is a process.

So it is not only important to spend time repenting and rejoicing in fixed times of solitude and prayer. You must also “catch” your heart falling into idolatry during the day, and you must draw on your hard work of reflection by learning to quickly repent/rejoice your heart into shape on the spot. This means that everyone should have a series of “Quick Strike” prayers that go against your main idols and the delusional fields/negative patterns that may happen during the day. (You may wish to write these prayers out on a card.) Often the prayers might be accompanied by a Bible passage or verse.

When filled with anxiety, thinking: “If I slip up, if I make a wrong move here, I could lose everything.” But think or pray instead, “All the things I have are really gifts of grace. They aren’t here because of my performance, but by God’s generosity. He loves me enough to lose his only Son for me, surely he will continue to give me what I need. Console yourself.”

When filled with pride and anger, thinking: “I am not getting what I deserve! People are not treating me right! Who do they think they are?” But think and pray instead, “All the things I have are really gifts of grace. I have never gotten what I deserve—and I never will! If God gave me what I deserved, I’d be dead. Humble yourself.”

When filled with guilt, thinking: “I have blown it! My problems mean he’s abandoned me.” But think or pray instead, “All the things I have are the results of God’s grace. I never earned them to begin with—so I couldn’t have un-earned them. He accepted me long ago even though he knew I would do this. This was in my heart all along—I just didn’t see it, but he did. He’s with me now. Be confident, Self.”

When filled with boredom and lethargy, thinking: “Sure, I’m a Christian. Sure I have good things. So what?” But think or pray instead, “All the things I have—every one—is a gift of grace. The very fact I am a Christian is a miracle. Be amazed. Be in wonder, Self.”

Conclusion: All we have been trying to say in this last section is well summarized by a few famous lines in a poem by John Donne. Meditate on it and make it a prayer—

Take me to you, imprison me.

For I, except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except YOU ravish me.

SOURCE: Personal notes from Dr. Tim Keller’s lecture at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fl. in the early 2000’s – lecture from I-tunes.



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Tim Keller: Preaching the Gospel in a Postmodern World – Session 6 Notes


Tim Keller praching w bible image



In the last session we laid out three broad strategies for doing application in sermons. What follows is a series of more specific methods for the actual designing and executing of application in a sermon.


1. Your people-context always shapes your sermons.

When we study the Bible, we only extract answers to the questions that we implicitly or explicitly have on our hearts as we read it. If all revelation is covenantal, and we don’t understand a passage of the Scripture unless we know how to “use” it (see Session 1-B), then there is no such thing as a “view from nowhere”. We have certain questions, problems, and issues on our mind, and as we read the Bible, we mainly “hear” what it teaches us about those questions, problems, and issues.

Therefore, there is a “vicious” cycle in preaching. You will tend to preach to the people you listen to most during the week. Why? The people you are most engaged with fill your mind with their questions, which act as something of a “grid” as you read the Bible. Their issues will be on your mind as you read and you will especially notice biblical truth that speaks to them. Thus your sermons will tend to aim at the people who you already have most on your heart. They will then be the people that are most interested and satisfied by your preaching. They will come and bring others like themselves. Because they are coming, you will meet more of them, speak more to them, and thus (semi-consciously) tailor your sermons more to them. The more you listen to them, the more they pull the sermon toward them—the more you direct the sermon to them, the more they come to church—the more they come to church, the more you listen to them.

At the very worst, evangelical preachers read and engage other evangelical preachers and writers. They read (and speak to) almost exclusively those thinkers that support their own views. Then the sermons are really only helpful for other seminary students and graduates (of your particular stripe)! It is not really true that some sermons are too academic and thus lack application. Rather, the preacher is applying the text to the people’s questions that he most understands—other academics.

At the best, evangelical preachers read and engage other evangelical Christians. Then their sermons are really only helpful for other Christians. Christians may love the messages and feel they are being “fed”, but they know instinctively that they cannot bring non-Christian friends to church. They never think, “I wish my non-Christian neighbor could be here to hear this.”

There is then no abstract, academic way to preach relevant, applicatory sermons. They will arise from who you will listen to. If you spend most of your time reading, instead of out with people, you will apply the Bible text to the authors of the books you read. If you spend most of your time in Christian meetings or in the evangelical sub-culture, your sermons will apply the Bible text to the needs of evangelicals. The only way out of this is to deliberately diversify your people context.

2. Deliberately diversify your people-context.

How? The first approach is easiest—vary what you read. Read lots of material by people who differ wildly from you theologically. The fastest way to do this is not to read books, but magazines. For happy middle class liberal/New Age culture, read The Utne Reader. For angry liberal/atheistic culture, read The Nation. For sophisticated, upscale liberal culture read The New Yorker. For cutting edge GenX liberal culture, try Wired. There are quite a few other periodicals that would do just as well. This is just an idea.

The second approach is harder—vary who you talk to. Pastors find this difficult, because most people won’t be themselves with us. Nevertheless, through being very careful with your appointment schedule, and through being creative with your community and neighborhood involvement, be sure to spend time with people from a variety of spiritual conditions. Here is a partial list. Be sure that you do not find you only spend time with one kind of person.


Now when you both read the Bible text and write the sermon, think especially of individuals you know with various spiritual conditions (non-Christian, weak Christian, strong Christian), with various besetting sins (pride, lust, worry, greed, prejudice, resentment, self-consciousness, depression, fear, guilt), and in various circumstances (loneliness, persecution, weariness, grief, sickness, failure, indecision, confusion, physical handicaps, old age, disillusionment, boredom). Now, remembering specific faces, look at the biblical truth you are applying and ask: “how would this text apply to this or that person?” Imagine yourself personally counseling the person with the text. Write down what you would say. The effect of this exercise is to be sure that your application is specific, practical, and personal.

1. Quick-Lists.

At the very least, ask yourself: “What does this text say to a) Mature Christians, b) non-Christians, c) newer or very immature Christians?

A second list to keep in your head easily is to ask yourself: “What does this text say to the ‘four soils’, the four groups of the Mark 4 parable?” a) Conscious skeptics and rejecters of the faith, b) Nominal Christians whose commitment is extremely shallow, c) Christians who are divided in their loyalties and messed up in their priorities, d) Mature, committed Christians.

2. Warning Will Robinson!

Important safety tip. If the person(s) you are visualizing are actually going to be in the audience which hears the sermon you are preparing, be sure not to use details that would make it appear that you are using the pulpit to publicly rebuke an individual. That is an unbiblical thing to do! (Matthew 18 and 5 tells us to go to a person privately if we have something against them). You want your sermon to apply to large numbers of people, not just one. Use the thought of individuals to stimulate specific applications, but don’t write them out in such a way to cause the audience to play a “guessing game” about the parties you are referring to.

3. Longer Lists (to get you thinking)

Here are the kinds of different people you may be speaking to. Does the text speak to any of them?


  • Conscious Unbeliever – aware he is not a Christian.

  • Immoral pagan – Living a blatantly immoral/illegal lifestyle.

  • Intellectual pagan – Claiming the faith is untenable or unreasonable.

  • Imitative pagan – Is fashionably skeptical, but not profound.

  • Genuine thinker – Has serious, well-conceived objections.

  • Religious Non-Christian – Belonging to organized religions, cults, or denominations with seriously mistaken doctrine.

Non-churched Nominal Christian – Has belief in basic Christian doctrines, but with no or remote church connection.

Churched Nominal Christian – Participates in church but is not regenerated.

  • Semi-active moralist – Respectably moral whose religion is without assurance and is all a matter of duty.

  • Active self-righteous – Very committed and involved in the church, with assurance of salvation based on good works.

Awakened Sinner – Stirred and convicted over his sin but without gospel peace yet.

  • Curious – Stirred up mainly in an intellectual way, full of questions and diligent in study.

  • Convicted with false peace – Without understanding the gospel, has been told that by walking an aisle, praying a prayer, or doing something, he is now right with God.

  • Comfortless – Extremely aware of sins but not accepting or understanding the gospel of grace.

Apostate – Once active in the church but who has repudiated the faith without regrets.


New Believer – Recently converted.

  • Doubtful – Has many fears and hesitancies about his new faith.

  • Eager – Beginning with joy and confidence and a zeal to learn and serve.

  • Overzealous – Has become somewhat proud and judgmental of others, and is overconfident of his own abilities.

Mature/growing – Passes through nearly all of the basic conditions named below, but progresses through them because he responds quickly to pastoral treatment or he knows how to treat himself.

Afflicted – Lives under a burden or trouble that saps spiritual strength. (Generally, we call a person afflicted who has not brought the trouble on himself).

  • Physically afflicted – Experiencing bodily decay (the sick, the elderly, the disabled)

  • Dying

  • Bereaved – Has lost a loved one or experienced some other major loss (a home through a fire, etc.)

  • Lonely

  • Persecuted/Abused

  • Poor/economic troubles

  • Desertion – Spiritually dry through the action of God who removes a sense of His nearness despite the use of the means of grace.

Tempted – Struggling with a sin or sins which are remaining attractive and strong.

  • Overtaken – Tempted largely in the realm of thoughts and desires.

  • Taken over – A sin has become addictive behavior.

Immature – A spiritual baby, who should be growing, but who is not.

  • Undisciplined – Simply lazy in using the means of grace and in using gifts for ministry.

  • Self-satisfied – Pride has choked growth, complacency and he has become perhaps cynical and scornful of many other Christians.

  • Unbalanced – Has had either the intellectual, the emotional, or the volitional aspect of his faith become overemphasized.

  • Devotees of eccentric doctrines – Has become absorbed in a distorted teaching that hurts spiritual growth.

Depressed – is not only experiencing negative feelings, but is also shirking Christian duties and being disobedient. (Note: If a person is a new believer, or tempted, or afflicted, or immature, and does not get proper treatment, he will become spiritually depressed. Besides these conditions, the following problems can lead to depression).

  • Anxious – Through worry or fear handled improperly is depressed.

  • Weary – Has become listless and dry through overwork.

  • Angry – Through bitterness or uncontrolled anger handled improperly is depressed.

  • Introspective – Dwells on failures and feelings and lacks assurance.

  • Guilty – A conscience which is wounded and repentance has not been reached.

Backslidden – Has gone beyond depression to a withdrawal from fellowship with God and with the church.

  • Tender – Is still easily convicted of his sins, and susceptible to calls for repentance.

  • Hardening – Has become cynical, scornful, and difficult to convict.


1. Use both “running” and “collected” application.

Application is not appended to the end of a sermon—it runs throughout. Nevertheless, a sermon as it progresses, should move to more and more direct and specific application. “Running application” refers to the fact that every biblical principle must be stated immediately in its “practical bearings”. But as the sermon winds to a close, it is important for the preacher to “collect” the applications, recap them, and then drive it home by moving at least one step closer in specifics.

2. Ask direct questions.

The best preachers speak to each listener very personally. That can be done by posing direct questions to the audience, posing inquiries which call for a response in the heart. Ask, “how many of you know that this past week you have twisted the truth or omitted part of the truth in order to look good?” and follow it with a pause. This is far more personal and attention-riveting than a mere statement, “many people twist the truth or tell half-truths to reach their own ends.” Talk to the people; ask direct quotations. Be ready for the occasional person who really will answer you back! But the goal is to have people answer in their minds/hearts—carrying on a dialogue with you.

Anticipate objections and questions.

If you know the people to whom you speak, you will know the kind of objections or questions they will be posing in their hearts in response to your points. So identify those questions and express them. This keeps up the personal dialogue and lends great power to the sermon. For example:

“Now some of you are likely saying, “Yes, that’s great for you, but you have faith. I wish I could believe in God, I have tried, but I just can’t develop faith’! But friend, your real problem is not that you can’t believe in God, but that you are refusing to doubt yourself. You are committed to the “doctrine” of your own competence to run your life. And you believe in it against all the evidence! Come! Admit what you know down deep, that you are not wise and able enough to run your own life. Doubt yourself, and you will begin to move toward faith in God.”

Look at the Puritans for models of this. They were excellent at posing “common objections” and answering them within the body of the sermon.

4. Provide tests for self-examination.

Do not underestimate the sinner’s ability to avoid conviction of sin! Every heart has scores of time-tested subterfuges and excuses by which it can somehow rationalize away any direct confrontation with its own wickedness. As you preach, these are the kinds of thoughts going on in the minds of the listeners:

“Well, that’s easy to say—you don’t have my husband!”

“I suppose that may be true of others, but not of me.”

“I sure wish Sally was here to hear this—she really needs that.”

Therefore, it is important to provide brief “tests” for the listeners. For example:

“Well, perhaps you agree with me—you agree that pride is bad and humility is good, but you think ‘but I don’t have much of a problem with pride.’ Well look at yourself. Are you too shy to witness? Are you too self-conscious to tell people the truth? What is that, but a kind of pride, a fear of looking bad?”

The “tests” of course, are simply “example illustrations”, of the sort that John the Baptist gave his audience in Luke 3.

Don’t pass by the “pliable” moment.

Often there come points in the sermon when it is evident that the audience’s attention is riveted and they are getting something of what Adams calls an “experience” of the truth. Often you can sense that people are coming under conviction. One sign is usually the lack of fidgeting, foot shuffling, and throat clearing. The audience gets more silent and still.

This is a “pliable” or a teachable moment. Don’t let it go past! Don’t be so tied to your outline or notes that you fail to take time to drive home the truth directly and specifically. Perhaps you could pause, and look the people in the eye as they swallow the food you have just fed them.

6. Be affectionate as well as forceful.

Be sure, when you deal very specifically with the behavior and thoughts of people, that you combine an evident love for them with your straight talk about sin. Be both warm and forceful when dealing with personal questions—never ridiculing! If you ridicule a listener for a question he or she has just posed (perhaps) in the heart, you will make yourself appear haughty and unapproachable (and maybe you are!).

7. Use a balance of the many forms of application.

Application includes, at least, a) warning and admonishing, b) encouraging and renewing, c) comforting and soothing, d) urging, pleading, and “stirring up”. There is a dangerous tendency for a preacher to specialize in just one of these. Often this comes because of a bent in temperament or personality. That is, some preachers are temperamentally gentle and reserved, others are light-hearted and optimistic, while others are serious and intense. These temperaments can distort our application of the biblical truth so that we are always majoring in one kind. But over the long haul, that weakens our persuasiveness. People get used to same tone or tenor of voice. It is far more effective when a speaker can move from sweetness and sunshine to clouds and thunder! Let the biblical text control you, not your temperament. “Loud” truth should be communicated as loud, “hard” truth should be communicated as hard, “sweet” truth should be communicated sweetly.


1. What does it take to repent?

a. You need a sense of God’s grace to repent. 

To truly repent, a person certainly needs humility—“emotional poverty”. You must feel and acknowledge the guilt of what you have done and your inability to make it right by your own efforts. But full and true repentance also requires emotional ‘wealth’. You need to have a hope and assurance of God’s commitment to you, his love and mercy toward you. Anyone who simply despairs under sin, who says, “I’m too bad, too terrible for God or anyone to forgive me” is (ironically) guilty of unbelief. In some ways, to be either proud or despondent is to refuse to see Christ as Savior and to insist on being your own Savior. John Newton once wrote to a depressed man:

You say you feel overwhelmed with guilt and a sense of unworthiness…You say it is hard to understand how a holy God could accept such an awful person as yourself. You then express not only a low opinion of yourself, but also too low an opinion of the person, work, and promises of the Redeemer…You complain about your sin, but when we examine your complaints, they are so full of self-righteousness, unbelief, pride, and impatience that they are little better than the worst evils you complain of” (letters, Vol II).

Notice that Newton says that to despair of God’s grace (i.e. that it is unable to forgive and receive someone as bad as you are) is really a form of self-righteousness. How so? It is a refusal to accept God’s favor on the basis of mercy. A heart that says, “if I haven’t earned it, I won’t take it as a gift!” (or that says, “if I flagellate myself for a long time, then it will atone for what I’ve done) is as deeply self-righteous as the heart of a proud Pharisee. It wants Jesus to be an example and a Rewarder of the Righteous, but not to be a gracious Savior.

b. You need a sense of God’s grace even to become convicted.

Not only that, but it is not really possible to be honest about how sinful you are unless you have confidence that God loves you. If you base your self-image on your record and performance, it will be traumatic to admit the extent of your sinfulness. You will be in denial, rationalizing and ‘screening out’ evidence of deep character flaws. Unless you believe that “the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds” you, you will not be able to repent. It takes the good news of the gospel as much as the bad news to lead our hearts to admit what we really are.

c. The “joyful fear” of repentance.

In Psalm 130:4 we read the remarkable verse: “but with you there is forgiveness, therefore you are feared.” This is one of the most striking verses in the Bible. The Psalmist says that forgiveness, pardon, and grace leads to an increase in the “fear” of the Lord. What does this mean? “Servile fear [being scared] would have been diminished, not increased, by forgiveness…The true sense of the ‘fear of the Lord’ in the Old Testament…implies relationship” (Kidner, p. 446). So this term “fear” would best be defined as: “Joyful awe and wonder before the transcendent greatness of who God is”. And here in Psalm 130, it is the prospect of grace and mercy that leads the author into joyful and humble submission. This “fear” then is paradoxical. The more we experience grace and forgiveness and love, the more we get out of ourselves, the more we bow to Him in amazed, wondering submission to His greatness. When we really understand that we are forgiven, it does not lead to ‘loose living’ or independence, but to respectful surrender to His sovereignty. If we had earned our salvation, our lives would still be our own! He’d owe us something. But since our salvation is by free grace, due totally to his love, then there is nothing He cannot ask of us. We are not our own. It is the joy that brings about this submission.

2. The joyful fear of preaching.

Since a) we can’t really even psychologically admit the magnitude of our sin if we don’t know there is hope of salvation, and since b) self-hatred is basically a form of self-righteousness—how does that effect preaching? When we preach, we need to challenge with the comfort of the gospel. Put another way—the thing that most comfort us (the free, unconditional, sacrificial love of Jesus) should be the thing that most convicts us. The language of preaching should not be: “unless you clean up your act, you will never get the love of God” but “how on earth can you treat this loving God like this?” The first approach is: “repent or God will drop you!” The second approach is: “repent for spurning the God whose Son died so you would never lose Him!”

The first approach actually encourages self-righteousness. It tries to convict us by increasing self-centeredness, by saying, “the sinfulness of your sin is that it is going to make you unhappy! Better get rid of it or you won’t be blessed.” Ironically, this only gets you to hate yourself (for being a failure) and to hate the consequences of the sin (“this is going to ruin me!”) rather than the sin itself for what it is in itself, a violation of God.

The second approach increases Christ-centeredness, saying, “the sinfulness of your sin is that it rejects the sacrificial love of Christ. He died so you wouldn’t do this sin!” While the first approach tends toward hating myself rather than the sin, this approach tends to help be hate the sin rather than myself. If the focus is on the death of Christ for me, and of His unconditional commitment to me, then I see my own value to Him, and that makes the sin worse! It is trampling on His unconditional love. It is savaging the heart of the one who loved me unconditionally.

The preacher who convicts out of the comfort, who goes for ‘joyful fear’ instead of ‘servile fear’ will find that he can be extremely strong and forceful in his admonitions. This is not a ‘therapeutic’ approach. Paul said, “Do you not realize…that it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance?” (Romans 2:4)

SOURCE: Personal Notes from Lecture #6 By Dr. Tim Keller at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL. i the early 2000’s.



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Tim Keller: Preaching The Gospel in a Postmodern Culture – Session 5 Notes


Tim Keller preaching image



How do we ‘get down to earth’—bringing a text into direct contact with the hearts and lives practices of the listeners? And how do we do this in such a way that really changes the heart through the gospel rather through general moral exhortation? I will lay down three broad strategies for application that flow out of a redemptive-Historical approach.

Indeed, the second strategy (Aiming at Heart-Motives) flows directly out of the “Law Completion” way of Redemptive-Historical exposition.


One of the most important ways to get a hearing from post-modern people and to wake up nominal or sleepy Christians is to preach the gospel as a “third” distinct way from both irreligion and religion.

Religion is ‘outside in’: “if I work hard according to biblical principles, then God will accept/bless me”. The gospel is ‘inside out’: “because God has accepted/blessed me, I work hard to live according to biblical principles”. Religion (explicitly in other faiths and implicitly in legalistic Christianity) makes moral/religious observance a means of salvation. Even people who believe in the Christian God can functionally ‘base their sanctification. Even people who believe in the Christian God can functionally ‘base their sanctification on their justification’ (Lovelace). Thus a prime need is to distinguish between general ‘religion’ and gospel Christianity as well overt irreligion. Why? (1) Many professed Christians aren’t believers—they are pure ‘elder brothers’ (Luke 15:11ff.) and only making this distinction can convert them. (2) Many, many real Christians are elder-brotherish—angry, mechanical, superior, insecure—and only making this distinction can renew them. (3) Modern and post-modern people have rejected religion for good reasons and will only listen to Christianity if they see it is different.

1. The two “thieves” of the gospel

Tertullian said, “Just as Christ was crucified between two thieves, so this doctrine of justification is ever crucified between two opposite errors.” Tertullian meant that there were two basic false ways of thinking, each of which “steals” the power and the distinctiveness of the gospel from us by pulling us “off the gospel line” to one side or the other. These two errors are very powerful, because they represent the natural tendency of the human heart and mind. These “thieves” can be called moralism on the one hand, and relativism on the other hand. (Note: Thinking in terms of the RHM, we can say that ‘legalism’ is an under-realized’ eschatology in which the presence of God’s future acceptance and vindication is not grasped, and anti-nomianism is an ‘over-realized’ eschatology in which the law and striving is not necessary).

Another way to put it is: the gospel opposes both religion and irreligion. On the one hand, “moralism/religion” stresses truth over grace, for it says that we must obey the truth in order to be saved. On the other hand, “relativists/irreligion” stresses grace over the truth, for they say that we are all accepted by God (if there is a God) and we have to decide what is true for us. But “truth” without grace is not really truth, and “grace” without truth is not really grace. Jesus was “full of grace and truth”. Any religion or philosophy of life that de-emphasizes or loses one or the other of these truths, falls into legalism or into license and either way, the joy and power and “release” of the gospel is stolen by one thief or the other. The real gospel gives us a God far more holy than a moralist can bear (since your morality is only a filthy rag before him) and far more loving than a relativist can imagine (since his love cost him dearly).

Since Paul uses a metaphor for being “in line” with the gospel, we can picture gospel renewal failing when we keep from walking “off-line” either to the right or to the left. However, before we start we must realize that gospel is not a half-way compromise between the two poles—it does not produce “something in the middle”, but something different from both. The gospel critiques both religion and irreligion (Matt. 21:31; 22:10).

In Galatians 2:14, Paul lays down a powerful principle. He deals with Peter’s racial pride and cowardice by declaring that he was not living “not in line with the truth of the gospel”. From this we see that the Christian life is a process of renewing every dimension of our life—spiritual, psychological, corporate, social—by thinking, hoping, and living out the “lines” or ramifications of the gospel. The gospel is to be applied to every area of thinking, feeling, relating, working, and behaving. Notice, Paul did not say, “you are breaking the no-racism law!” though that is perfectly true. However, it is not the best way to think. Paul asks neither “what is the moral way to act?” nor does he say “we don’t need to order our steps at all!” but rather asks: “what is the way to live that is in-line with the gospel?” The gospel must continually be “thought out” to keep us from moving into our habitual moralistic or individualistic directions. We must bring everything into line with the gospel.

The main problem, then, in the Christian life is that we have not thought out the deep implications of the gospel, we have not “used” the gospel in and on all parts of our life. Richard Lovelace says that most people’s problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel—a failure to grasp and believe it through and through. Luther says, “The truth of the Gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine…Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.” (on Galatians 2:14f).

2. ‘Two Thieves’ application.

So we see that we must move away from the typical ‘conservative evangelical’ preaching which basically says: “irreligion and immorality is bad; moral living is very good; Christianity is best.” Of course it is better to not rob and kill, whether you are a Christian or not! But gospel preaching is careful to show the ‘dark side’ of morality, so that non-Christians (who see the dangers of religiosity and self-righteousness) will realize the gospel is something else, and so that Christians will not be trapped in the lifelessness of moral self-effort. The following are some examples of how to treat subjects contrasted with both irreligion and religion.

a. Approach to discouragement. When a person is depressed, the moralist says, “you are breaking the rules—repent.” On the other hand, the relativist says, “you just need to love and accept yourself”. But (assuming there is no physiological base of the depression!) the gospel leads us to examine ourselves and say: “something in my life has become more important than Christ, a pseudo-savior, a form of works-righteousness”. The gospel leads us to repentance, but not to merely setting our will against superficialities. It is without the gospel that superficialities will be addressed instead of the heart. The moralist will work on behavior and the relativist will work on the emotions themselves.

b. Approach to love and relationships. Moralism often uses the procuring of love as the way to “earn our salvation” and convince ourselves we are worthy persons. That often creates what is called ‘co-dependency’—a form of self-salvation through needing people or needing people to save you (i.e. saving yourself by saving others). On the other hand, much relativism/liberalism reduces love to a negotiated partnership for mutual benefit. You only relate as long as it is not costing you anything. So the choice (without the gospel) is to selfishly use others or to selfishly let yourself be used by others. But in Christ we see a man who unconditionally sacrificed for us out of love for us (not need for us). When we get both the emotional-humility (who do I think I am?) and the emotional-wealth (he loves me like that!) we are moved to also humbly serve others, but not out of inappropriate need. We do sacrifice and commit, but not out of a need to convince ourselves or others we are acceptable. So we can love the person enough to confront, yet stay with the person when it does not benefit us.

c. Approach to suffering. Moralists believe that God owes them. The whole point of moralism is to put God in one’s debt. So when a moralist suffers, he must either fell mad at God (because I have been performing well) or mad at self (because I have not been performing well) on both. On the other hand, relativism/pragmatism feels always angry, claiming that God must be either unjust or impotent. But the cross shows us that we had a suffering God. But the gospel on the one hand takes away our surprise and pique over suffering. On the one hand, we see him suffering—without complaint—for us. So we know that we deserve to be eternally lost but by mercy we will never get what we deserve. This eliminates self-pity. On the other hand, we know God could not be punishing us for our sin—since Jesus paid for our sins, and God cannot receive two payments. That means whatever suffering we are receiving is not retribution, but instruction. If you face suffering with a clear grasp of justification by grace alone, your joy in that grace will deepen, but if you face suffering with a mindset of justification by works, the suffering will break you, not make you. “He suffered not that we might not suffer, but that in our suffering we could become like him.” Since both the moralist and the pragmatist ignore the cross in different ways, they will both be confused and devastated by suffering.

d. Approach to sexuality. The secularist/pragmatist sees sex an merely biological and physical appetite. The moralist tends to see sex as dirty or at least a dangerous impulse that leads constantly to sin. But the gospel shows us that sexuality is to reflect the self-giving of Christ. He gave himself completely without conditions. So we are not to seek intimacy but hold back control of our lives. If we give ourselves sexually we are to give ourselves legally, socially, personally—utterly. Sex only is to happen in a totally committed, permanent relationship of marriage.

e. Approach to one’s family. Moralism can make you a slave to parental expectations, while pragmatism sees no need for family loyalty or the keeping of promises and covenants if they do not “meet my needs”. The gospel frees you from making parental approval an absolute or psychological salvation, pointing how God becomes the ultimate father. Then you will neither be too dependent or too hostile to your parents.

f. Approach to other races and cultures. The liberal approach is to relativize all cultures. (“We can all get along because there is no truth”). The conservatives believe there is truth for evaluation of cultures, and so they choose some culture as superior and then they idolize it, feeling superior to others in the impulse of slef-justifying pride. The gospel leads us to be: a) on the one hand, somewhat critical of all cultures, including our own (since there is truth), but b) on the other hand, we are morally superior to no one. After all, we are saved by grace alone. Christians will exhibit both moral conviction yet compassion and flexibility. For example, gays are used to being “bashed” and hated or completely accepted.

g. Approach to witness to non-Christians. The liberal/pragmatic approach is to deny the legitimacy of evangelism altogether. The conservative/moralist person does believe in proselytizing, because “we are right and they are wrong”. Such proselytizing is almost always offensive. But the gospel produces a constellation of traits is us.

(1) First, we are compelled to share the gospel out of generosity and love, not guilt.

(2) Second, we are freed from fear of being ridiculed or hurt by others, since we already have the favor of God by grace.

(3) Third, there is a humility in our dealings with others, because we know we are saved only by grace alone, not because of our superior insight or character.

(4) Fourth, we are hopeful about anyone, even the “hard cases”, because we were saved only because of grace, not because we were likely people to be Christians.

(5) Fifth, we are courteous and careful with people. We don’t have to push or coerce them, for it is only God’s grace that opens hearts, not our eloquence or persistence or even their openness. All these traits not only create a winsome evangelist but an excellent neighbor in a multi-cultural society.

h. Approach to human authority. Moralists will tend to obey human authorities (family, tribe, government, cultural customs) too much, since they rely so heavily on their self-image of being moral and decent. Pragmatists will either obey human authority too much (since they have no higher authority by which they can judge their culture) or else too little (since they may only obey when they know they won’t get caught). That means either authoritarianism or anarchy. But the gospel gives you both a standard by which to oppose human authority (if it contradicts the gospel), but on the other hand, gives you incentive to obey the civil authorities from the heart, even when you could get away with disobedience.

i. Approach to guilt. When someone says, “I can’t forgive myself”, it means there is some standard or condition or person that is more central to your identity than the grace of God. God is the only God who forgives—no other “god” will. If you cannot forgive yourself, it is because you have failed your real God, your real righteousness, and it is holding you captive. The moralist’s false god is usually a God of their imagination which is holy and demanding but not gracious. The pragmatist’s false god is usually some achievement or relationship.

j. Approach to self-image. Without the gospel, your self-image is based upon living up to some standards—whether yours or someone’s imposed on you. If you live up to those standards, you will be confident but not humble. If you don’t live up to them, you will be humble but not confident. Only in the gospel can you be both enormously bold and utterly sensitive and humble. For you are both perfect and a sinner!

k. Approach to “right living.” Jonathan Edwards points out that “true virtue” is only possible for those who have experienced the grace of the gospel. Any person who is trying to earn their salvation does “the right thing” in order to get into heaven, or in order to better their self-esteem. In other words, the ultimate motive is self-interest. But persons who know they are totally accepted already do “the right thing” out of sheer delight in righteousness for its own sake. Only in the gospel do you obey God for God’s sake, and not for what God will give you. Only in the gospel do you love people for their sake (not yours), do good for its own sake (not yours), and obey God for his sake (not yours). Only the gospel makes “doing the right thing” a joy and delight, not a burden or a means to an end.

l. Approach to the poor. The liberal/pragmatist tend to scorn the religion of the poor and see them as helpless victims needing expertise. This is born out of disbelief in God’s common grace or special grace to all. Ironically, the secular mindset also disbelieves in sin, and thus anyone who is poor must be oppressed, a helpless victim. The conservative/moralists on the other hand tend to scorn the poor as failures and weaklings. They see them as somehow to blame for the situation. But the gospel leads us to be: a) humble, without moral superiority knowing you were “spiritually bankrupt” but saved by Christ’s free generosity, and b) gracious, not worried too much about “deservingness”, since you didn’t deserve Christ’s grace, c) respectful of believing poor Christians as brothers and sisters from whom to learn. Jesus himself came as a poor man. The gospel alone can bring “knowledge workers” into a sense of humble respect for and solidarity with the poor.


We saw Martin Luther believed that self-justification (rather than Lord-justification) is the root of all sin. This means that there is a particular heart-motive ‘barrier’ under every sin, which is some form of unbelief in the gospel of Lord-justification. This means that we must ‘use the gospel’ each time we do application. We must show that some form of gospel-unbelief is at the root of why we do not live as we ought. We must renew the heart-motives with the gospel, not just with exhortation that focuses directly on the will.

1. Principles for Renewing the Heart with the Gospel.

a. The gospel offers not just forgiveness for our bad record, but also complete acceptance through Christ’s perfect record. Christ did not only die in our place but lived a perfect life in our place. Therefore we do not simply get forgiveness for sins from Christ, but also complete acceptance. His perfect past record now (in God’s sight) becomes ours.

b. There is no alternative to the gospel but works-righteousness. Both religion and irreligion are forms of it. Un-religious persons are struggling to achieve a “righteousness” through their own efforts, and religious persons are struggling to achieve a “righteousness” through their own efforts. So fundamentally, they are no different.

c. All sin is therefore ultimately rooted in ‘idolatry”, pseudo-salvation, false trusts or ‘lords’ caused by works-righteousness. The ultimate reason for any sin is that something besides Christ is functioning as an alternative “righteousness” or source of confidence—and is thus an “idol”, a pseudo-savior, which creates inordinate desires.

d. All of life is repentance—not just for sins, but also for our false “righteousness(es)”. Any failure of actual righteousness is always a failure to live in accordance with our imputed righteousness. We make something besides Jesus our real hope and life. So believing the gospel means to repent, not just for our sins, but the particular (self) righteousness(es) underlying our behavior. That is the secret of change.

e. Gospel repentance creates a whole new motivation in our relationship to God, to others, to ourselves, and to our life in the world. Only through the gospel is there a new sense of delight in and service to God for the beauty of who he is in himself, not for what he gives you. That frees us to love others and do good deeds for their own sake, and not for how they profit us.

f. Therefore, the gospel is not only the way to enter the kingdom, but also the way to advance (in) the kingdom.

2. A Basic Outline for Aiming at the Heart as well as Behavior.

The following may actually be four points in a presentation, or they may be treated very quickly as the last point of a sermon. But more generally, this is a foundational outline for the basic moral reasoning and argument that lies at the heart of the application.

a. The Plot winds up: WHAT YOU MUST DO.

“This is what you have to do! Here is what the text/narrative/story tells us that we must do or what we must be.”

b. The Plot thickens: WHY YOU CAN’T DO IT.

“But you can’t do it! Here are all the reasons that you will never become like this just by trying very hard.”

c. The Plot resolves: HOW HE DID IT.

“But there’s one who did. Perfectly. Wholly. Jesus the–. He has done this for us, in our place.”

d. The Plot winds down: HOW, THROUGH HIM, YOU CAN DO IT.

“Our failure to do it is due to our functional rejection of what he did. Remembering him frees our heart so we can change like this…”


a) In every text of the Scripture there is somehow a moral principle. It may grow out of because of what it shows us about the character of God or Christ, or out of either the good or bad examples of characters in the text, or because of explicit commands, promises, and warnings. This moral principle must be distilled clearly.

b) But then a crisis is created in the hearers as the preacher shows that his moral principle creates insurmountable problems. The sermon shows how this practical and moral obligation is impossible to meet. The hearers are led to a seemingly dead end.

c) Then a hidden door opens and light comes in. The sermon moves both into worship and into Christ-application when it shows how only Jesus Christ has fulfilled this. If the text is narrative, you can show how Christ is the ultimate example of a particular character. If the text is didactic, you can show how Christ is the ultimate example of the principle.

d) finally, we show how our inability to live as we ought stems from our rejection of Christ as the Way, Truth, and Life (or whatever the theme is). The sermon points out how to repent and rejoice in Christ in such a way that we can live as we ought.


If I preached a sermon on “honesty”, I could show the forms of dishonesty and how harmful it is, and how we need to ask God to help us be honest. But it I stopped there (and merely called people to ask forgiveness for lying and try harder to be honest), I would only be playing to the heart’s natural self-righteousness. I would be essentially supporting the growth of ‘common morality’ in the people. Those who would be convicted by the sermon would feel guilty and burdened. Those who had not lied lately would be smug. I should admit that nearly every sermon I ever preached on honesty/lying up to my first 15 years in the ministry was like this! Even though I knew (via Ed Clowney) that I had to preach Christ and not moralism from every text, I really just made Jesus an “add-on”. I didn’t apply him as Savior to the actual sin of lying, but to the aftermath only. My sermon would go like this:

I. Here are all the ways we lie, and why they are forbidden.

II. We should not lie, because Jesus told the truth and kept his promises (Jesus as Example).

III. If we do lie, Jesus will forgive us and help us do better (Jesus as God-of-gaps).

In other words, I used Jesus as an example, and then as someone who forgives us when, though we try very hard, we sometimes fail. This essentially tells people to sanctify themselves. It implicitly appeals to fear and/or pride as motives for honesty.

But in gospel analysis we ask the question: “why do you lie in a particular situation?” The usual reason we lie is because there is something we feel that we simply must have (besides Jesus) to survive and be truly happy, and so we lie. It is usually a good reputation, or saving face, or approval, or some other thing. I first came to understand this when I realized that my wife and I tend to ‘fudge’ the truth in very different circumstances. I realized that the underlying reason that I lied/deceived was a fear of people’s disapproval.

Using “Luther-ist” analysis, I was trusting in the approval of people rather than in Christ as my functional trust, as my main hope. But anything you add to Jesus Christ as a requirement for a happy life is a functional salvation, a pseudo-lord, and it is controlling you, whether it be power, approval, comfort or control. So the only way to change your habit of lying is to (not just try harder) but to apply the gospel—to repent of your failure to believe the gospel, and see that you are not saved by pursuing this thing (which you are lying to get), but through the grace of Jesus Christ.

Alternatives – What are the alternatives? Type #1 – On the one hand, there is a “Christ as Example” or ‘moralistic’ sermon that says—“please try harder or God will be very unhappy!” Type #2 – On the other hand, there is a “Christ as God-of-Gaps” or ‘relativistic’ sermon that says—“we all fall down but God loves us anyway!” (Many people today in the Reformed camp smell that ‘church growth’ theory has led us to more ‘relativistic’ sermons in the evangelical world. But are we just to go back to the moralistic ones?).

Instead we must do “Christ-as-Savior” or “gospel” sermons. Unlike “Type #2” sermons, they begin with deep, below the surface repentance, not a superficial application of “Jesus loves you anyway”. Unlike “Type #1” sermons, they end with rejoicing, since the thing we must repent of is always a failure to enjoy, delight in, and relish the grace and provision of Christ’s work. So this is how I learned to preach sermons on lying—or anything else. No matter what the issue, if we call people to “try harder”, we actually push them deeper into slavery, but when we always solve the problem by applying the gospel, then both a) non-Christians get to hear it every week in multiple perspectives, and b) Christians get to see how it really works in every aspect of life.

Sum: Only “Christo-centric” preaching can really lead the hearers to true virtue, gospel holiness. Typical preaching only distills “biblical principles” which do not see the text in its redemptive-historical context. Thus it is only natural that the application part of such a sermon will tend to merely exhort people to conform to the principles. Only Christo-centric preaching can produce gospel holiness.

Case Study #2

A Sermon on the power of sexual/beauty’s attraction in our culture.

I. What you must do: The power of physical beauty over us must be broken. Look at the devastation in our society and in our lives. 1) It distorts women’s view of themselves (add eating disorders); 2) It demoralizes aging people; 3) It distorts men’s lives, by making them reject great spouse-prospects for superficial reasons (add pornography). What must we do? Don’t judge a book by its cover. Be deep. Don’t be controlled.

II. But you can’t: You know quite well we won’t be able to. Why? 1) First, we desire physical beauty to cover our own sense of shame and inadequacy. Genesis 3. “When you look good you feel good about yourself” really = …”you feel yourself to be good.” 2) Second, we are afraid of our mortality and death. Evolutionary biologists and Christians together agree that the drive to have physical beauty is a desire for youth. We’ll never overcome our problem by just “trying”.

III. But there was one who did. There was one who was beautiful beyond bearing yet willingly gave it up (Philippians 2). He became ugly that we might become beautiful (Isaiah 53).

IV. Only now we can change. Only as we see what Jesus did for us will our hearts be melted and freed from the belief that we can judge a book by its cover. Only when we can be in Him will be freed from our sense of shame and fear of mortality (You want the non-Christians to wish it were true even if they don’t believe it yet).


What the “Three Perspectives” are.

Vern Poythress in God-centered Interpretation takes John Frame’s 3 perspectives of normative (prophetic), existential (priestly), and situational (kingly) and works this out for hermeneutics. He says that when interpreting the text, you do not know the meaning of a text unless you understand its author’s original historic sense (normative), its application to the hearers (existential), and its place in the history of redemption (situational). If you use one of these three aspects, you make it an idol and it leads to distortions.

However, once you ‘go into’ the application to the hearers, you again have the three perspectives. Again, if you only use one the aspects, you make it an idol and it leads to distortions. He calls these distortions—the “Doctrinalist’ (mainly normative), ‘Pietist’ (mainly existential), and ‘Cultural-transformationalist’ (mainly kingly).

a. A ‘Doctrinalist’ looks to a text to see how it supports sound doctrine. This person makes the Enlightenment mistake that you can have objective knowledge without it being personal. The Reformed way to put this – is that all knowledge is ‘covenantal’. (See Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority and Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God). Their basic gist is this: no part of revelation is given simply to be known. Everything that is revealed is revealed for covenant service (Deut. 29:29). There is no neutrality—you are either in covenant service to God as you look at the world or in covenant service to some other Lord. Thus Frame in “God in our Studies” in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, pp. 81-84 is able to say that the way the Lord has structured knowledge so that you can understand God’s truth if know yourself, and your world, as well as the biblical text. The three perspectives “co-inhere’. You can’t really know what a biblical text means unless you also know how it is to affect the world and you. In short, if I don’t know how to use a text, I don’t know it’s meaning—so the difference between ‘meaning’ and ‘application’ is meaningless.

Many evangelicals, especially in the Reformed camps are afraid of subjectivism and of being ‘man-centered’. They want to simply “expound what the divine biblical text says, without regard to ‘felt needs’ or human concerns.” But that is impossible. The minute the doctrinalist starts reading a text, he is doing so with particular questions on his heart—the last Presbytery debate he was at, the last books he read, a particular cultural problem—and thus the reader finds in the Scripture the answers to the questions on his heart. If the Bible is a covenantal revelation—if, in fact, if all knowledge is covenantal—done in moral commitment to some ‘lord’ so that no such thing as neutral, value-free ‘fact’—then application to felt needs is happening in every interpretation and preaching. So you better do it consciously, to the people in front of you, or you will only be pleasing your self or even solving your own problems in the pulpit and starving everyone else.

b. A ‘Pietist” tends to look at every text as it relates to people psychologically and devotionally. The text is applied to answer the questions: How does this help us relate to the Lord? How does it help our prayer life? How does it show us how to live in the world? How does this help the non-believer find Christ? How does this help me handle my personal problems? The pietist is the best of the three at looking for ways to preach a text evangelistically and bring it to bear on the individual’s heart and conscience in order to get a ‘decision’. Also, the pietist is constantly aware of how Christians are loosing their internal spiritual grip on the doctrine of free justification and may be ‘returning to the bondage’ (Galatians 5:1) to false savior-gods (Galatians 4:8).

c. A Cultural-transformationist tends to look at the text as it relates to corporate and cultural issues, such as social justice and econmic fairness and Christian community building. The ‘Great Reversal’ of the cross means that the gospel proclaims a complete reversal of the values of the world—power, recognition, status, wealth. For example, the gospel is especially welcomed by the poor and for the poor (Luke 4:18 – He anointed me…to preach the gospel to the poor.” Cf. also Luke 7:22). Preaching the gospel and healing people’s bodies are closely associated (Luke 9:6). Jesus points to the coming kingdom of God that will renew all of creation. The gospel creates a people with a whole alternate way of being human. Racial and class superiority, accrual of money and power at the expense of others, yearning for popularity and recognition—all these things are marks of living in the world, and are the opposite of the mindset of the kingdom (Luke 6:20-26). The cultural-transformationist looks at all things with this perspective.

So the doctrinalist reads Luke 4:31-37 and says: “This passage teaches the deity of Christ and demonstrates his sovereignty over evil spirits and also shows the grace of God toward people in bondage to sin.” The pietist looks at the same passage and says: “this passage teaches that Jesus can solve my problems if I let him and also that once I am delivered I have to tell my friends.” The cultural-transformationist reads the passage and says: “this passage shows Christ as an active power in the world, transforming the world, liberating people from oppressive structures” (See Poythress, pp. 1-4).

We need all three perspectives when thinking about writing application. Orthodox people are sensitive to ‘therapeutic’ and ‘liberationist’ idolatries. But they tend to cling to old Enlightenment idolatries themselves into a ‘doctrinalist’ idolatry. Since by temperament, we all have our ‘bent’, we should force ourselves to look at a text through all three application ‘perspectives’. When we do so, we will often see many rich possible uses of a text that otherwise we would miss.

2. The Three Perspectives and the question of ‘What is the Gospel’?

a. The Discussion. There is a rather significant and growing controversy going on about ‘what is the gospel?’ in evangelical circles today. Many people are saying that the traditional evangelical gospel is too ‘individualistic’ because it left out the ‘kingdom of God’. More and more are saying, “the gospel is the good news of the reign of God, not the good news that you can have personal forgiveness and peace with God.” (Much of this sort of language is inspired by the writings of Lesslie Newbigin, N.T. Wright, and the ‘Gospel and Our Culture Network’).

This kind of talk is both helpful and misleading. It is quite true that traditional evangelicalism has been individualistic, largely because of a lack of orientation to the redemptive-Historical perspective. It is quite true that ‘the kingdom’ is essential to the gospel. For example, the very concept of simul Justus et peccator—simultaneously legally ‘just’ and yet actually ‘sinful’, the very heart of Luther’s gospel—is based largely on the ‘already but not yet’ of the kingdom of God.

Justification by faith is possible because of the presence now of the future verdict upon God’s people on judgment day. When we are ‘born again’, we are born into the kingdom (John 3:1ff). So if you leave the kingdom of God out of the gospel preaching, you are being misleading. However, it may also be quite misleading for a preacher to simply say, “the good news is that the reign of God is here!” That can become a new moralism (a socially activistic moralism) that tells people “God’s program of creation renewal is going on, and you can join it.” But how does a person join it? By ‘getting with the program’ in some general way? By getting baptized and beginning to live according to kingdom values? This may end up being a new kind of self-effort. I doubt that preaching simply “the good news is the reign of God” is going to lead people to respond, “My chains fell off; my heart was free. I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”

b. Three Perspectives on the Gospel. I think it is important to see that the gospel itself (just like the Tri-une God) should be understood through three perspectives as well. Each perspective is true in that it eventually comprises the whole, but each approach begins with a particular ‘door’ or aspect.

The ‘normative’ aspect I’ll call “the gospel of Christ” – stresses the objective, historic work of Christ that Jesus really came in time-space and history to accomplish all for us. It will talk much about the real, historicity of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection (John Stott). This view thinks that the problem addressed by Paul in Galatians was a doctrinal heresy.

The ‘existential’ aspect I’ll call “the gospel of sonship” stresses our new identity in Christ as adopted children, liberated from the law. It will talk much of the power of the spirit to renew broken hearts and psyches (Jack Miller). This view thinks that the problem addressed by Paul in Galatians was a pastoral one of Christians falling back into legalism.

The ‘situational’ aspect I’ll call “the gospel of the kingdom” – stresses the reversal of values in the new creation. It will talk about healed community, cultural transformation, ministry of deed and justice (Harvie Conn). This view thinks that the problems addressed by Paul in Galatians was the lack of ‘table fellowship’ between Jew and Gentile.

We need all three perspectives, though each perspective is not simply a ‘part’ of the gospel. For example, the ‘kingdom’ perspective contains the other two. If God is king, then salvation must be by grace, for if we are saved by works, something else will be our Lord and Savior. Or, if we have a new identity in Christ by sheer grace, then we must not look down at anyone else, and self-justification is the basis of racism and injustice. If you go deep enough into any one perspective, you will find the other two.

What is ‘the Problem’? There is a great danger of getting locked into only one perspective because we get obsessed with some too-sweeping analysis of what the main problem “in our world today”. (1) If you think that subjectivism in society is the problem you will do the gospel of X and fear that sonship-gospel and the kingdom-gospel sound too much like the ‘liberal’ ideas. (2) If think that Pharisaical objectivism is the problem, you will do the sonship-gospel with more emphasis on personal individual emotional freedom. (3) If you think the main problem we face is old Enlightenment individualism, you will do the gospel of the kingdom with more emphasis on working together sacrificially to transform through the power of the gospel. But aren’t we facing all these problems?

Remember also that different groups and classes of people are in different conditions. With traditional cultures, the traditional evangelical gospel good, as it builds on a desire for historical evidence and a sense of ‘truth’. Traditional cultures (with their share of ‘failed Pharisees’) often respond well to the sonship-gospel, as may ‘post-modern’ people who have a desire for freedom. Many groups with a high ‘people-consciousness’ such as minorities will respond better to the kingdom-gospel, as will many post-modern people who think more so in terms of ‘sociology’ than psychology (identity politics).

So we should be careful. Most of us are ‘in reaction’ to some approach to the gospel we think is unbalanced. We must not over-react by getting ‘stuck’ in one perspective.

3. Case Study: Application for the Story of Esther

a. God calls us to serve Him in intensely secular settings (Cultural Transformationist). This message is similar (but stronger!) as that of the accounts of Joseph and Daniel. We learn here how a believer can be effectively used by God in the heart of secular and pluralistic culture, even in the centers of its power. In all three accounts, we learn of Jewish figures who rise to power in an unbelieving society through their skills and talents—and then use their places to save their people.

This is a threatening message to many Christians today. There has always been a strong tendency among orthodox believers toward separation from the polluted, unclean, and morally/spiritually ‘messy’ arenas of politics, business, government, and so on. But Esther is a concubine, a member of a harem!

“Let Esther’s harem represent every unclean political or commercial institution or structure where evil reigns and must be confronted. Believers are needed there…Our cities are full of dens of iniquity. Our culture is described as essentially post-Christian, secular, and often antithetical to biblical values and hostile to biblical virtues…[But] Esther gives us permission to reflect on our call to serve God within the matrix of a modern secular…system…How could God call Esther to be the interracial replacement spouse of a polygamous, pagan Persian king? …This book is off the screen for many evangelicals…We urban people need Esther now more than ever. Never allow it to be trivialized or spiritualized away, as it has been so often…” (Ray Bakke, A Theology as Big as the City, IVP, 1997).

b. God calls us not only to change individuals, but change society and culture (Cultural-transformationist). In each case we’ve looked at in this course—Joseph, Daniel, and Esther—God called someone to work for just laws and policies in a secular society. It is common for modern Christians to insist that the only way to change society is to convert and disciple individuals. If that is all there is to be done, then the ‘higher’ calling would be to go into Christian ministry. But the Bible shows us people who God also calls to work for social and “systemic” justice and peace in society. Esther used her position to have an unjust law repealed.

Ray Bakke reminds us that we must read Esther ‘synoptically’ with Ezra and Nehemiah (A Theology as Big as the City, p. 106). These three Jewish ‘heroes’ had three very different callings. Ezra was a clergyman, who taught the Bible to the restored community in Jerusalem. Nehemiah was a lay person who used his skill to literally rebuild the wall and infra-structure of Jerusalem to insure safe streets and a decent economy. Esther, meanwhile, used her position to work for just laws in the secular realm. Only all three people, working together, were able to rebuild Jerusalem into a viable city. One did evangelism/discipleship (working on spiritual welfare), one did community development (working on the social and economic welfare), one did social justice (creating laws that were just and allowed the community to grow). This was not only a lay-clergy leadership team, but a male-female leadership team.

This means that we will never see God’s kingdom move forward with only evangelism and discipleship. We must also do ‘wholistic’ ministry that works on behalf of the poor and at-risk neighborhoods, and we must also have Christians in ‘secular’ jobs working with excellence, integrity, and distinctiveness. We need Ezra ministry, Nehemiah ministry, and Esther ministry—all together—if we are going to ‘win’ our society for Christ.

c. God is the only real King (Doctrinalist).

We have noted that God’s name is never directly mentioned, why? The teaching is: God is sovereignly in control, even when he appears to be completely absent. The dramatic tension in the book revolves around a threat to the very existence of the Jews. If we put the book in its total biblical context, we know that this is really a threat to the whole plan of God to redeem the world by grace. Genesis 12:1-3 tells us that God planned to bring salvation into the world through a family and a people, descended from Abraham. Abraham’s people were to be guardians of both the true faith and the “Messianic seed” which would one day produce a savior who would redeem the world. A threat to the Jewish nation was, therefore, an attack by the world on God’s redemptive plan. However, largely through a set of “coincidences”, the Jews are saved. God’s plan to save the world through grace is intact.

“What the writer of Esther has done is to give us a story in which the main actor is not so much as mentioned—the presence of God is implied and understood throughout the story, so that these mounting coincidences are but the by-product of his rule over history and his providential care for his people. It is an extraordinary piece of literary genius that this author wrote a book about the actions and rule of God from beginning to end, and yet that God is not named on a single page of the story” (Dillard, p. 196).

What a vivid way to teach us that God is always present, even when he seems most absent and his purposes most ‘opaque’! The message of the book is that God’s plan of grace/salvation cannot fail, and though he may appear to be completely absent, he is really behind everything, working out His plan.

Because of this theme, the writer contrasts two conflicting world-views—that of Haman and that of Mordecai. Haman believes in chance-fate. He casts lots to determine the best time to annihilate the Jews (3:7-11). He thinks he can control history by the exercise of his power. The other world-view is that of Mordecai. He believes that there is a divine presence over-ruling history (4:14) who can use us if we make ourselves available to him, but whose plan is not dependent on nor thwarted by human power. “The book sets the two world-views in contrast and shows by the outcome which is to be preferred” (Baldwin, p. 38).

Nevertheless, we are taught that God’s sovereignty is not determinism. When the story is over, it will be possible to look back and see that so much of what happened was due to a divine power behind even the most mundane ‘accidents’. Yet the narrator does not depict a kind of fatalistic determinism. Our choices are not determined apart from the responsible exercise of our will. Esther will have to risk her life and act courageously if the salvation of her people will be realized. We are not just passive pawns in God’s plan.

d. Human strength is weakness and weakness can be strength (Pietist).

Recent commentators have noticed the weakness of men and the power of women in the book. In contrast to the huge show of power in his great feast, the drunken Xerxes tries to humiliate his wife who in turn humiliates him. In response, he decrees that all men should control their wives when he can’t control his own. The decree, evidently made when he was still drunk, only makes him look foolish. Later he appears to regret it on several fronts.

Not only is he ‘bested’ by his first queen, the rest of the book shows him being ‘bested’ by his next queen. While the king is revealed to be ill-informed, forgetful, impulsive, unjust, and unwise, his queen Esther is seen to be a brave, take-charge, focused, wise, and just person. Not only Vashti and Esther, but Haman’s wife Zaresh appear as ‘strong and shrewd’ while all the men (except Mordecai) appear vain and foolish.

Esther, of course, is the person who most of all stands the world’s expectations on their head. First, she was an orphan, without father or mother (2:7). Orphans are one of the most oppressed, powerless groups (cf. James 1:27). Second, she was a woman, and not a powerful or wealthy woman, but a concubine, the member of a harem. In the process of the narrative, however, she ascends from being an orphan and Mordecai’s protégé to being a queen of a great power, who makes plans and takes decisive leadership and who in the end is her uncle’s guardian. Originally, her physical beauty won the king’s heart, but 2:15 indicates that her character and behavior had won the attraction of the rest of the court as well. Esther comes from the outside margins of society and is used by God to do redemption. So again we see a very prominent theme in the Bible. God does not work through the channels that the world considers strong and powerful. Instead, He works through groups (women, racial minorities) who seem powerless. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.

In a related theme, we learn that ‘the one who would lose himself will find himself’. We learn that evil sets up strains in the fabric of life and backfires on the perpetrator, while faithfulness to God is also wise. Haman, who intends to destroy Mordecai and his kin, ultimately destroys only himself and his kin. This theme is especially achieved through the literary device of irony. The gallows that Haman builds for Mordecai becomes his own place of execution. Haman seeks to plunder the wealth of the Jews, but it is his wealth that falls into their hands. The reversal of role and fortune that occurs so often in the Bible eventually finds its fullest expression in Jesus, who was exalted because He stooped so low. At the same time Satan is brought low because he sought exaltation.

Sum—Do what you can to penetrate the culture. Don’t live in a ghetto!—and when there, serve the Lord. Serve your people. Serve the interest of justice! Don’t be afraid to lose your power, even your life, for God is the real king! Don’t be seduced by human power, beauty, and acclaim!


Now how can you do it all? You can’t! if we end the sermon right here, we’ll all be in despair. You don’t have the courage to do this. You may get excited today about doing this, but your courage will evaporate quickly. And you may decide you are going to make all the risks that Esther made, but when it comes down to it, you aren’t going to risk your influence and money and status to help people in needs. You just won’t have the ability to do so.


You have to often go into the palace—but not be tempted by the palace! You’ve got to be willing to leave the palace in order to serve your Lord! Ah, but why can’t we? We are enthralled by the acclaim and glory of the palace! How to free ourselves? Esther’s great temptation, once she comes into a place of luxury, comfort, and privilege, is to hold on to that position to the detriment of her people. When by God’s grace we come into such a standing, we may be seduced by it. Mordecai had to challenge Esther and force her to see her choices. Salvation comes through Esther only when she is willing to give up her place in the palace and take her life into her own hands and risk it all in order to intercede before the throne of power. Again we see that redemption comes not by gaining but by losing, not by filling oneself, but by emptying oneself.

We also see, over and over, that we need a deliverer who identifies with us and that stands as our representative—as in the career of Joseph in Egypt, David before Goliath. So in this story we are led to see Jesus, who did not need a challenge to leave his place of power, who saved us not at the risk of his glory but at the cost of his glory, who did not say, “if I perish, I perish” but “when I perish, I perish”, who had to die in order to stand before the throne as our intercessor (Heb. 7:24-25). But the “rest” that Jesus brings is not one that gives us rest from enemies by killing them, but by winning them. After the cross, we pray for our enemies. Jesus has brought the barrier down between Jew and Gentile, Saul and Amalek. We learn—Salvation “rest” comes by the sacrifice and intercession of another. We have one who was in the greatest palace of all, but who did not just serve his God at the risk of losing the palace, but at the cost His own life.

Source: Tim Keller – Personal Notes taken from Lecture at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando in the early 2000’s



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TIM KELLER: Preaching The Gospel In a Postmodern World: Session 4 Notes


Tim Keller preaching image


The historic Protestant doctrine is that we are not only justified by faith rather than our works, but we are also sanctified by faith rather than our works. Yet very few ministers know how Christ’s finished work is the dynamic and guide for growth into holy character.

A. Moralism vs. Sanctification by Faith.

1. The distinctives of sanctification by faith.

Excerpts from G.C. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification (Eerdmans, 1952):

“The ancient feud of Rome with the Sola-fide doctrine, based as it is on the view that Sola-fide is subversive of sanctification, must be called Rome’s most fundamental error. It was no other than Sola-fide which made clear the true significance of sanctification, and distinguished it from all moralistic effort at self-improvement…” p. 14.

“Wesley admitted full acceptance of the Sola-fide doctrine. [But] one may accept the doctrine and then fail to do justice to it…One can assume it as one’s starting point, as did Wesley, and subsequently view the process of sanctification in terms of a dynamic category—a power plus its effects—without taking account of the bearings which faith always sustains toward divine grace. Sola-fide becomes a point of departure and breaks its connection with sanctification…When the victory of Christ is lost sight of, the warfare degenerates into self-reliant activism…it is on the road to making sanctification independent from justification.” pp. 52, 63.

Luther and Calvin taught that not only was justification by faith in Christ’s work—not ours, but sanctification is also by faith in Christ’s work, not ours. In practice, however, nearly every evangelical teaches that: 1) we are justified by faith in Christ’s work, and 2) we are sanctified by trying very, very hard to live according to biblical principles (with the Holy Spirit’s help, of course). Berkouwer insists that it is not salvation by grace, but sanctification by grace which is the biggest difference between the Reformers and the Catholic church and between the Reformers and later Methodism (Wesley) and much Protestantism today.

2. The general relationship of justification to sanctification.

Excerpts from G.C. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification (Eerdmans, 1952):

“Orientation”“Genuine sanctification—let it be repeated—stands or falls with this continued orientation toward justification and the remission of sins…too often the bond between sanctification and Sola-fide was neglected and the impression created that sanctification was the humanly operated successor to the divinely worked justification.” P. 78.

“Feeding”“Holiness is never a ‘second blessing’ placed next to the blessing of justification…The exhortation which comes to the Church is that it must live in faith out of this fullness: not that it must work for a second blessing, but that it must feed on the first blessing, the forgiveness of sins. The warfare of the Church…springs from the demand to really live from this first blessing.”  p. 64.

“Commerce”“The believer’s constant ‘commerce’ with the forgiveness of sins and his continued dependence on it must—both in pastoral counseling and in teaching—be laid bare, emphasized, and kept in sight…Faith preserves us from autonomous self-sanctification and moralism.” pp. 84, 93.

Berkouwer says that it is a mistake to ask: “we know we have imputed righteousness, but now how do we move to actual righteousness?” We do not ‘move on’. Any particular flaw in our actual righteousness stems from a corresponding failure to orient ourselves toward our imputed righteousness. Sanctification happens to the degree that we “feed on” or “orient to” or “have commerce with” the pardon, righteousness, and new status we now have in Christ, imputed through faith.

3. The practical relationship of justification to sanctification.

Excerpts from martin Luther’s, Treatise Concerning Good Works (1520).

“There is not one in a thousand who does not set his confidence upon the works, expecting by them to win God’s favor and anticipate His grace; and so they make a fair of them, a thing which God cannot endure, since He has promised His grace freely, and wills that we begin by trusting that grace, and in it perform all works, whatever they may be” (Part IX).

“All those who do not at all times trust God and do not in all their works or sufferings, life and death, trust in His favor, grace and good-will, but seek His favor in other things or in themselves, do not keep this [First] Commandment, and practice real idolatry, even if they were to do the works of all the other Commandments, and in addition had all the prayers, fasting, obedience, patience, chastity, and innocence of all the saints combined. For the chief work is not present, without which all the others are nothing but mere sham, show and pretense, with nothing back of them…If we doubt or do not believe that God is gracious to us and is pleased with us, or if we presumptuously expect to please Him only through and after our works, then it is all pure deception, outwardly honoring God, but inwardly setting up self as a false [savior]…” (Part X, XI).

“This faith, faithfulness, confidence deep in the heart, is the true fulfilling of the First Commandment. Without this there is no other work that is able to satisfy this Commandment. And as this Commandment is the very first, highest and best, from which all the others proceed, in which they exist, and by which they are directed and measured, so also its work, that is, the faith or confidence in God’s favor at all times, is the very first, highest and best, from which all others must proceed, exist, remain, be directed and measured…” (Part IX).

“Note for yourself, then, how far apart these two are: keeping the First Commandment with outward works only, and keeping it with inward trust. For this last makes true, living children of God, the other only makes worse idolatry and the most mischievous hypocrites on earth…” (XII).

All people sin in general because we are sinners, but why do we sin in any particular instance? Luther—any sin is rooted in the inordinate lust for something which comes because we are trusting in that thing rather than in Christ for our righteousness or salvation. Therefore, in sin we are always ‘forgetting’ what God has done for us in Christ and instead are being moved by some idol. Luther says that to fail to believe God accepts us fully in Christ and to look to something else is a failure to keep the first commandment—love God with all the heart. Thus beneath any particular sin is the general sin of rejecting Christ-salvation and indulging in self-salvation.

Excerpt from the Belgic Confession – Chapter 24.

“We believe that this true faith, being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God and the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin. Therefore it is so far from being true that his justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore, it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man; for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a ‘faith working through love,’ which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word…We would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be continually vexed if they relied not on the merits of our Savior.”

Unless we believe the gospel, we will be driven in all we do—whether obeying or disobeying—by pride (“self-love”) or fear (“of damnation”). Apart from ‘grateful remembering’ of the gospel, all good works are done then for sinful motives. Mere moral effort, may restrain the heart, but dos not truly change the heart. Moral effort merely ‘jury rigs’ the evil heart to produce moral behavior, out of self-interest. It is only a matter of time before such a thin tissue collapses.

B. Moralism vs. Gospel Virtue

1. The ‘Splendor’ or Common Virtue and its Weakness.

Excerpts from Jonathan Edwards. Abridged and paraphrased, from Charity and Its Fruits, in vol. 8, Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Paul Ramsey (Yale, 1989) and Religious Affections, in vol. 2, Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. J. Smith (Yale, 1959).

“A result of ‘faith working by love’ is freedom. On this basis, obedience is called “evangelical” (gospel-based)—the obedience of children to a Father, done with love and delight, as opposed to legalistic, slavish, and forced. God is now chosen for his own sake; holiness is chosen for its own sake, and for God’s sake” (CF, p. 182).

“No matter how many our acts of justice, generosity and devotion, there is really nothing given to God…if God is not the end (or ultimate aim) in what is given. If your aim is the gaining of reputation and love, then the gift was offered to your reputation. If your aim is for profit and comfort, then the gift was offered to your profit…indeed, in such cases the gifts are but an offering to some idol…It is true that by doing great things something is worshipped, but it is not God…” (CF, pp. 180-81).

“Those whose affection to God is founded first on his profitableness to them, only regard God to the limit of the good things he does to meet their desires…But in gracious gratitude, Christians are affected by God’s goodness and free grace, not only as it benefits them, but as infinitely glorious in itself…” (RA, pp. 243, 248).

What makes people honest? Generous? Jonathan Edwards tackled this over the years in his Miscellanies and then in his moral philosophy works: Charity and Its Fruits, Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, and The Nature of True Virtue. He also says many relevant things about this in Religious Affections. The following is my summary of his “gist”.

There are two kinds of moral behavior: “common virtue” and “true virtue.” Let’s take one virtue: honesty. “Common” honesty is developed in two ways:

1) First it can be inspired by fear. There is the secular version—“be honest—it pays!” or “if you are not honest, society doesn’t work”. There is also the religious version—“if you are not honest, God will punish you!” These are all versions of the same motive, namely, that it is impractical to be honest.

2) Second, it can be inspired by pride. There is the secular conservative version—“don’t be like those terrible dishonest people who hurt others and have no virtue!” or the secular liberal version—“don’t be like these greedy people who don’t work for the common good”. There is also the religious version—“don’t be like these sinners, these bad people. Be a good godly person”. These are all versions of the same motive, namely, that I am better than these people who lie.

Edwards is by no means scornful of common virtue. Indeed, he believes in the ‘splendor of common morality’ (Paul Ramsay), which is the main way God restrains evil in the world. He does call it virtue and not sham. Nevertheless, there is a profound tension at the heart of common virtue. We just said that the main reason people are honest is due to fear and pride.

But what is the main reason we are dishonest? Why do we lie? Almost always—it is our fear or pride. So in common virtue, you have not done anything to root out the fundamental causes of evil. In ‘common honesty’ you have restrained the heart, but not changed the heart. You are doing an ingenious for of judo on yourself. (Judo depends on using the enemy’s forward motion against him). You have ‘jury-rigged’ your heart so that the basic causes of dishonesty are being used to make yourself honest. But this is quite a fragile condition. At some point you will find that honesty is not practical nor humiliating and you will do it. Then you will be shocked. You will say, “I was not raised to do such a thing.”

But the reason you did, was that all your life, through the sermons and moral training you had, you were nurturing the roots of sin within your moral life. This is true whether you grow up in a liberal-moral environment or a conservative-moral environment. The roots of evil are alive and well and protected underneath your moral-behavior progress. And some day they erupt and show themselves and we are shocked.

2. The roots of “True Virtue” and its Nurture

Luther told us that the essence of every sin is a desire to be one’s own Savior and Lord in some particular way. It is to set up some idol which is the real way you are going to save yourself. It may even be a very ‘religious idol’ (cf. Judges 17:1-13). It may be a very religious life, but at the heart it is a way of using God as an object, rather than adoring him as being beautiful for who he is in himself. It is using obedience to God to achieve comfort, security, self-worth/status—therefore our ‘virtue’ is self-centered and conditional. It’s a form of bargaining. It is using our virtue to put God in our debt—he now owes us. He must give us salvation and blessing. Therefore, our obedience is a way to save ourselves and control God. Edwards (see above quote #2) also understands ‘common virtue’ as an idolatrous effort at self-salvation, rather than a response to grace (see above quote #3) in which God is adored for his sheer beauty.

So Edwards says—what is true virtue? It is when you are honest not because it profits you or makes you feel better, but only when you are smitten with the beauty of the God who is truth and sincerity and faithfulness! It is when you come to love truth telling not for your sake but for God’s sake and its own sake. But it particularly grows by a faith-sight of the glory of Christ and his salvation. How does ‘true honesty’ grow? It grows when I see him dying for me, keeping a promise he made despite the infinite suffering it brought him. Now that a) destroys pride on the one hand, because he had to do this for me—I am so lost! But that also b) destroys fear on the other hand, because if he’d do this for me while I’m an enemy, then he values me infinitely, and nothing I can do will wear out his love for me. Then my heart is not just restrained but changed. It’s fundamental orientation is transformed.

3. Thomas Chalmers on Moralism vs. Gospel Virtue.

“The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”, from The Works of Thomas Chalmers (New York: Robert Carter, 1830) vol. II.

The object of the gospel is both to pacify the sinner’s conscience and to purify the heart, and it is of importance to observe that what mars the one of these objects mars the other also. The best way of casting out an impure affection is to admit a pure one…Thus it is that the freer the Gospel, the more sanctifying the Gospel. The more it is received as a doctrine of grace, the more it will be felt as doctrine [leading to godliness]…

On the tenure of “do this and you will live”, a spirit of fearfulness is sure to enter; and the jealousies of a legal bargain chase away all confidence of intimacy between God and man; and the creature striving to be square and even with his Creator is, in fact, pursuing all the while his own selfishness instead of God’s glory. With all the conformities which he labors to accomplish, the soul of obedience is not there, the mind is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed under such an economy can it ever be. It is only when, as the Gospel, acceptance is bestowed as a present, without money and without price, that the security which man feels in God is placed beyond the reach of disturbance. Only then can he repose in Him as one friend reposes in another…the one party rejoicing over the other to do him good…in the impulse of a gratitude, by which is he awakened to the charms of a new moral existence.

Salvation by grace, salvation by free grace, salvation not by works but according to the mercy of God is indispensable to godliness. Retain a single shred or fragment of legality with the Gospel…and you take away the power of the Gospel to melt and conciliate. For this purpose, the freer it is, the better it is. That very peculiarity which so many dread as the germ of Antinomianism [lawlessness], is, in fact, the germ of a new spirit, and a new inclination against it.

Along with the light of a free Gospel, does there enter the love of the Gospel, which in proportion as you impair the freeness, you are sure to chase away. And never does the sinner find within himself so mighty a moral transformation, as when under the belief that he is saved by grace, he feels constrained thereby to offer his heart a devoted thing, and to deny ungodliness.

[Why is this grateful love so important?] It is seldom that any of our [bad habits or flaws] disappear by a mere process of natural extinction. At least, it is very seldom that this is done through the instrumentality of reasoning…or by the force of mental determination. But what cannot be destroyed may be dispossessed—and one taste may be made to give way to another, and to lose its power entirely as the reigning affection in the mind.

It is thus that a boy ceases at length to be a slave of his appetite, but it is because a [more ‘mature’] taste has brought it into subordination. The youth ceases to idolize [sensual] pleasure, but it is because the idol of wealth has…gotten the ascendancy. Even the love of money can cease to have mastery over the heart because it is drawn into the whirl of [ideology and politics] and he is now lorded over by a love of power [and moral superiority]. But there is not one of these transformations in which the heart is left without an object. Its desire for one particular object is conquered—but its desire to have some object…is unconquerable…

The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one…It is only…when admitted into the number of God’s children, through faith in Jesus Christ, that the spirit of adoption is poured out on us—it is then that the heart, brought under the mastery of one great and predominant affection, is delivered from the tyranny of its former desires, the only way that deliverance is possible.

Thus…it is not enough…to hold out to the world the mirror of its own imperfections. It is not enough to come forth with a demonstration of the evanescent character of your enjoyments…to speak to the conscience…of its follies…Rather, try every legitimate method of finding access to your hearts for the love of Him who is greater than the world.

C. Moralism vs. Christ-centered Exposition.

We alluded above to the fact that Christ-centered exposition is very directly linked to Christ-centered application. It is possible to expound Christ and fail to do Christ-centered application, but it is impossible to do Christ-centered application in a sermon if you have not first done Christ-centered exposition.

For example, look at the story of David and Goliath. What is the meaning of that narrative for us? Without reference to Christ, the story may be (usually is!) preached as: “The bigger they come, the harder they’ll fall, if you just go into your battles with faith in the Lord. You may not be real big and powerful in yourself, but with God on your side, you can overcome giants.” But as soon as we ask: “how is David foreshadowing the work of his greater Son”? We begin to see the same features of the story in a different light. The story is telling us that the Israelites can not go up against Goliath. They can’t do it. They need a substitute. When David goes in on their behalf, he is not a full-grown man, but a vulnerable and weak figure, a mere boy. He goes virtually as a sacrificial lamb. But God uses his apparent weakness as the means to destroy the giant, and David becomes Israel’s champion-redeemer, so that his victory will be imputed to them. They get all the fruit of having fought the battle themselves.

This is a fundamentally different meaning than the one that arises from the non-Christocentric reading. There is, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: is it basically about me or basically about Jesus? In other words, is it basically about what I must do, or basically about what he has done? If I read David and Goliath as basically giving me an example, then the story is really about me. I must summons up the faith and courage to fight the giants of life. But if I read David and Goliath as basically showing me salvation through Jesus, then the story is really about him. Until I see that Jesus fought the real giants (sin, law, death) for me, I will never have the courage to be able to fight the ordinary giants in life (suffering, disappointment, failure, criticism, hardship). For example how can I ever fight the “giant” of failure, unless I have a deep security that God will not abandon me? If I see David as my example, the story will never help me fight the failure/giant. But if I see David/Jesus as my substitute, whose victory is imputed to me, then I can stand before the failure/giant. As another example, how can I ever fight the “giant” of persecution or criticism? Unless I can see him forgiving me on the cross, I won’t be able to forgive others. Unless I see him as forgiving me for falling asleep on him (Matthew 27:45) I won’t be able to stay awake for him.

In the Old Testament we are continually told that our good works are not enough, that God has made a provision. This provision is pointed to at every place in the Old Testament. We see it in the clothes God makes Adam and Eve in Genesis, to the promises made to Abraham and the patriarchs, to the Tabernacle and the whole sacrificial system, to the innumerable references to a Messiah, a suffering servant, and so on. Therefore, to say that the Bible is about Christ is to say that the main theme of the Bible is the gospel—Salvation is the Lord (Jonah 2:9).

So reading the Old Testament Christocentrically is not just an “additional” dimension. It is not something you can just tack on to the end of a study and sermon. (“Oh, and by the way, this also points us to Christ”). Rather, the Christocentric reading provides a fundamentally different application and meaning to the text. Without relating it to Christ, the story of Abraham and Isaac means: “You must be willing to even kill your own son for him.” Without relating it to Christ, the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel means: “You have to wrestle with God, even when he is inexplicable—even when he is crippling you. You must never give up.” These ‘morals-of-the-story’ are crushing because they essentially are read as being about us and what we must do.

Source: Doctor of Ministry Class – Personal Notes – Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando – Class co-taught by Tim Keller and Edmund Clowney – early 2000’s. Class available for free on I-Tunes.



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Tim Keller: Preaching The Gospel in A Postmodern Culture – Session 3 Notes


Tim Keller preaching image

(Strategies for Christ-Centered Exposition)


How do we ‘get to Christ’, practically speaking, when preaching a text that is not directly about Jesus? When most people think of “Preaching Christ” from a text, they think of doing so by typology. They look in the text for a ‘type’ of Christ within the text. So for example, we may preach Isaac as the type of sacrificial son, or David as the type of the warrior-savior, and so on. But that is not the only way to preach Christ or to put a text in its “macro” context pointing to Christ. It is important to see how many different ways there are to ‘preach Christ’ besides direct typology. Sidney Greidanus lays out a number of ‘ways’ to preach Christ besides typology in his book Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Greidanus lists the following “Ways” from the OT Passages to Christ: a) Redemptive-Historical Progression, b) Promise-Fulfillment, c) Typology, d) Analogy, e) Longitudinal Themes, f) NT references, g) Contrast). Motyer also does so in his Look to the Rock. This is my own list which I believe incorporates the insights from their outlines. I made a list based on both their outlines (also consult the Scripture index in Clowney’s Unfolding Mystery).

A. Preaching Christ – AS THEME RESOLUTION

There are quite a number of what Don Carson calls ‘inter-canonical’ themes that ‘cut-across’ the entire biblical corpus. Currently, Carson is editing a series of books on these themes (They are called New Studies in Biblical Theology, put out under ‘Apollos’ imprint of IVP in the United Kingdom, IVP in the USA). Motyer’s Look to the Rock chooses seven of these themes and shows how Christ is the fulfillment of each. But Motyer points out that the OT asserts truths in apparently unreconcilable tension with each other. Thus these themes have ‘thickening plots’ as the OT goes on. In other words, like all good stories, there is a dramatic tension within the theme that seems almost insoluble. Only in Christ, however, are the ‘tensions’ in these themes resolved and fulfilled. With this approach, rather than only looking for ‘types’ we should look for the questions the text raises to which Jesus is ‘the answer in the back of the book’. If you find any of the following themes threading through your text (and this is not an exhaustive list) you can simply ‘pull on the thread’, looking back to where it began and ahead to its fulfillment in Christ now and on the Last Day.


1. Theme of King and Kingdom. The freedom and glory of God’s kingdom is ‘lost’ when Adam and Eve sin. The search for a true ‘judge’ and king absorb much of the history of God’s people. The people continually fall away from submission to the rule of God and  instead serve idols, which oppress and enslave. Both the successes and failures of all Israel’s leaders point to the need for a true King. But eventually the tension between the brokenness and depth of sin and the requisite power of the Liberator-King becomes overwhelming. Though Moses leads the exodus out of the land of bondage, he fails to obey God at the Rock. Though David defeats Goliath, he sins against Uriah. No human king is enough. The expectations of a perfect King come to fruition in Isaiah and the Psalms to such a high degree that only the coming of the Lord himself can fulfill them.

Question: “how can any king be powerful enough to liberate us from slavery?” The answer: only one who is God himself. (e.g. In the Lord of the Rings – you need a King).

2. Theme of Grace and Law in the Covenant.

A second major theme of the Bible is how the holiness and love of God relate in the covenant. God is absolutely holy and also merciful. But how can he be both? Ray Dillard says that the histories of Judges through 2 Chronicles seem caught on the dilemma of whether God’s covenant with his people is conditional (conditioned on obedience) or unconditional (by sheer grace). Thus the narratives are mainly propelled by the tension of the question: “how can God be holy and still remain faithful to his people?” The answer: only in the cross, where both the law of God and the love of God was fulfilled. Dillard insists that we must not try to resolve this tension until we get to the cross. Isaiah points to a ‘resolution’ when he speaks of the need for both a High King and a Suffering Servant, but even he is essentially creating just more ‘dramatic’ tension that only Christ can resolve.

3. Theme of Creation, Fall, and Re-creation (Resurrection).

As the Kingdom theme shows us the need for a Liberator from idols and the covenant theme the need for a Redeemer from the Law so the theme of creation-and-consummation points to our need for a Healer who is Life itself. Death brings decay and disintegration to all God’s good creation. Life is filled with grief and loss. Society is a Babel. Even the people of God are in a kind of indefinite ‘exile’. We are alienated from our God, our true selves, one another, and from the creational environment. The question: “how can the creation be saved and healed? How can we be liberated from death and decay?” Answer: only if the one who created us returns to renew us at last. Only by the one who defeats death through the resurrection. He will reconcile ‘all things’ (Col. 1:16-20) and make the world into the Garden of God (Rev. 21:1-8).

“NARROW THEMES” (just some!)

4. Worship and the Sanctuary.

Question: How can we connect to the presence of God? Answer: The Presence was lost through sin. It dwells amidst the people in the tabernacle, but in Christ, God’s glory becomes something we ‘behold’ (John 1:14), and now the presence of God is actually within us (1 Peter 2). Some day, the light and presence of God will fill the earth. Jesus is the Beauty we must adore to live.

5. Righteousness and Nakedness.

Question: How can we be free of shame and condemnation? Answer: We were originally righteous and right with God—naked and unashamed. Jesus however is the perfectly obedient Son, clothing us in a robe of his own righteousness and lead us boldly and unashamedly before the throne.

6. Marriage and Faithfulness.

Question: How can we know love and intimacy? Answer: God depicts his relationship with this people as the relationship of a husband to an unfaithful wife. Jesus however, is the true bridegroom who sacrificially loves his spouse, wins her love, and presents her to himself as a radiant bride.

7. Image and Likeness.

Question: How can we become fully human beings? Answer: God made us in his ‘image and likeness’, but that likeness has been defaced in us, though not lost. In Christ and his incarnation, we have the perfect picture both of who God is (in terms we can literally grasp) and also of who we are meant to be. Through Christ the image of God is restored in us.

8. Rest and Sabbath.

Question: How can we find harmony with ourselves and those around us? Answer: We were originally called into the ‘rest’, the shalom of God, but now we are deeply restless. The Sabbath points to the rest from our physical work that we need. More profoundly, Christ brings us the spiritual rest from our good works (Hebrews 4). Finally, we will have the ultimate rest in the City of God.

9. Wisdom and the Word.

Question: How can we know the truth, especially the reason for our existence? Answer: We were created for a purpose, but now we experience meaninglessness. We do not have the wisdom to direct our steps. But in Christ we have not only the master teacher of the Word, but the Word, the Logos himself, who is the one we should live for, our meaning in life.

10. Justice and Judgment.

Question: If there is no ultimate judge, what hope is there for the world, so filled with tyranny and injustice, but if there is an ultimate judge, what hope is there for us, who have done so much wrong? (I.e. How can the Word of God be life-giving blessing and not just a curse?). Answer: only in Christ is there hope, for he is the Judge who took judgment, so God can be both Just and Justifier of those who believe.


11. Factor of Redemptive-Historical Progression.

The preacher must put the text into the ‘flow’ of God’s salvation history, because all of these themes build to fulfillment progressively. God establishes his world in creation, but through the Fall, nearly all is lost. Then God begins to re-establish (kingdom, sanctuary, Word, rest, covenant) with the patriarchs, then under Moses, then during the time of the Prophets. After this, all these themes flame into new brightness in Christ himself. Now God is working them out in the era of the church and will bring them to finality on the last day. Therefore, the theme of RH progress cuts across all other themes. It is usually important to make some reference to the whole story. For example, when preaching about the Psalmist’s desire to go to the sanctuary, we should not simply exhort our people to enjoy worship. Rather we should say, ‘now we are the temple (1 Peter 2:4-5) because Jesus is the temple (John 2:13ff.). How much more available must the Lord be now for rich communion?’ You can always trace each of these ‘broad’ or ‘narrow’ themes through the progressive unfolding of them.

12. Factor of Promise-Fulfillment.

Many of the ‘inter-canonical themes’ have explicit Old Testament promises attached to them. From the ‘mother promise’ of genesis 3:15 down, Jesus is the fulfillment of them all. Move from the promise (implicit or explicit) in your text down to its fulfillment in Jesus. Or, if you are preaching a text from the New Testament, show the history of the longings and promises that are the background to what is asserted. This gives ‘depth’ and ‘story’ to the rather abstract pronouncements of the epistles, especially.

B. Preaching Christ


A third major way to ‘get to Christ’ is to take the “Law Listening” approach. This is based on the idea of Paul in Galatians 3:24 that the Law is ultimately meant to “lead us to Christ.”

In this approach, we take one of the many ethical principles and examples of the Bible—from the wisdom literature or the Old Testament law or even from a New Testament epistle—and truly ‘listen’ to it. These ethical principles are extremely searching and profound, and if we listen to them honestly and thoroughly, we will see that it is simply impossible to keep them! In Christ-centered preaching we argue that we have not truly ‘listened’ to the full weight of the rule till we see that Christ will have to fulfill this ethical principle for us.

Therefore, ultimately, Jesus is the only way to truly take the law seriously. The law does demand that we be perfectly holy. So we are not really listening to the law if we think we can obey it! The law is saying, in effect, “you can never fulfill me—you need a Savior!” (Galatians 3 & 4). Only if we know we aren’t saved by faith do have the strength to actually hear how extensive and searching and deep the demands of the law are.

What then do we exhort the people to do? The “Law Listening” approach does not say: “well, then you don’t really have to obey—after all, nobody’s perfect!” Instead, we show that we will not be truly freed and able to obey this principle until first we see that Jesus fulfilled it for us. This ties directly into Application Strategy “A. Critique Both Religion and Irrelegion”. Look there for more details.

But it is important to see that we do not need to find a ‘type’ or even an ‘inter-canonical theme’ in order to preach Christ from the text. It is not simply that Jesus Christ fulfills the requirements of the law on our behalf so we are not condemned by it. It is not even only that he exemplifies obedience to the law so that we might have a model for holy living. But since all human history only has happened because of Jesus (Genesis 3:15) and since we are created in his image, institutions like marriage, work, family, and community were designed to reflect him. In other words, it is not just that our relationship with Jesus is a good marriage, but marriage itself was invented to show us what our relationship with Jesus is to be like. Therefore, We can’t explain why we “shall not steal” unless we look at Jesus’ ultimate generosity, who “thought it not robbery” to remain in heaven but gave it away, who “though rich, became poor for your sakes”. We can’t explain why we “shall not commit adultery” unless we look at the faithfulness and (properly!) “jealous” love Jesus has shown to us on the cross. His “jealous” love does not only define sexual fidelity, but it gives us the only sufficient motive and power to practice it ourselves. Jesus is not simply the ultimate example, but as the fulfiller of the principles for us at infinite cost to himself, he changes the inner dynamics of our hearts so we can desire and long to be like him.

C. Preaching Christ


The second major way to ‘get to Christ’ is to take the micro-story line in your text and connect it to the Bible’s ‘macro’ story line: God is intervening into the history of a rebellious human race, by calling out and forming a new humanity, through actions that climax in the death and resurrection of Christ, and which lead to the judgment and renewal of the entire creation. There are two basic kinds of story-lines to be connected to the Christ-story line. (Much of the following is what is traditionally called ‘typology’).

1. Individuals’ story-lines.

All the individual stories point us to Jesus, as we locate them in the history of redemption (often with the direct help of the New Testament writers, often not). Jesus is the true and better Adam who passed the temptation test in the garden and whose obedience is imputed to us (1 Cor. 15). Jesus is the true Abel who though innocently slain has blood that cries out for our acquittal, not our condemnation (Heb. 12:24). Jesus is the true Abraham who answered the call of God to leave all the familial and go out into the void “not knowing whither he went!” Jesus is the true “Isaac” who is the son of the laughter of grace who was offered up for us all. He is the true Jacob, who wrestled with God and took the blow of justice we deserved so we like Jacob only receive the wounds of grace to wake us up. He is the true Joseph, who at the right hand of the king forgives those who betrayed and sold him and uses his new power to save them. Jesus is the true and better Moses who stands in the gap between the people and the Lord and who mediates a new covenant (Heb. 3). He is the true Rock of Moses who, struck with the rod of God’s justice, now gives us water in the desert. He is the true Joshua who is the general of the Lord’s army. He is the true and better Job—the only innocent sufferer who then intercedes for his friends (Job 42). Jesus is the better Samson, whose death accomplishes so much good (Judges 16:31). He is the true David, whose victory becomes his people’s victory though they never lifted a stone to accomplish it themselves. Jesus is the true “Teacher” (Ecclesiastes) who may lead us through despair to help us find God. He is the true Jonah who went into the belly of the earth and so the people could be saved.

2. Corporate story-lines.

It is not simply the stories of individuals that point us to Christ. The redemptive purpose of God (easier to see in the RHM than the STM!) is to redeem a people and renew creation. Therefore, the major events in the history of the formation of the people of God also point us to Christ. Jesus is the one through whom all people are created (John 1). Thus the creation story itself points forward to the new creation in Christ. Jesus is the one who went through temptation and probation in the wilderness. Thus the story of the Fall points forward to the successful probation and active obedience of Christ. Thus the exodus story points forward to the true exodus Jesus led for his people through his death (Luke 9:31). He led them not just out of economic and political bondage to sin and death itself. Thus the wandering in the wilderness and the exile to Babylon points forward to Jesus’ ‘homelessness’ and wandering and wilderness temptation and his suffering as the scapegoat outside the gate. He underwent the ultimate exile which fulfilled the righteousness of God fully.

Jesus is very literally the true Israel, the Seed (Galatians 3:16-17). He is the only one who is faithful to the covenant. He is a remnant of one. He fulfills all the obligations of the covenant, and earns the blessings of the covenant for all who believe. When Hosea talks about the exodus of Israel from Egypt, he says, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Hosea 11:1). Hosea calls all of Israel “my son”. But Matthew quotes this verse referring to Jesus (Matthew 2:15) because Jesus is the true Israel. As we have seen above, just as Israel was in bondage in Egypt but was saved by the mighty redemptive actions of God in history, so Jesus leads the new people of God out of bondage to sin through the mighty redemptive actions of God in history (his death and resurrection).

3. Grace-pattern story-lines.

Another kind of ‘typology’ that is often overlooked is narrative pattern of life-through-death or triumph-through-weakness pattern which is so often how God works in history and in our lives. Notice how everyone with power and worldly status in the story of Naaman is clueless about salvation, while all the servants and underlings show wisdom. This is a major pattern in the Bible, a gospel-pattern, a grace event or a grace ‘story-line’. Move from the grace-event to the work of Christ. For example, few have considered either Esther or Ruth to be a ‘type’ of Christ, and yet, in order to redeem the people they love, they must risk loss and do many things that mirror how Christ brought salvation to us. Another, important Grace-event typology is the ‘order’ of the Exodus and the Law-giving. God did not first give the law and then deliver the people. First he delivered the people and then he gave them the Law. Thus we are not saved by the Law, but saved for the Law. The Law is how we regulate our love-relationship with God, not the way we merit the relationship. We are saved by faith in Christ.

By the way, Sidney Greidanus does not like to call this ‘typology’ at all, and prefers to call this ‘preaching Christ by analogy’.

It is especially important to see the importance of tying even the deeds of Christ to his own work. Why can Jesus be so accepting of outcasts and sinners? Only because he paid the penalty for them on the cross. If we preach his examples of loving acceptance without tying them to the pattern of the cross, we are simply ‘moralizing’. We are simply telling people, “be accepting and tolerant of others.”

D. Preaching Christ


We briefly mentioned above how to determine if a particular feature in a text has symbolic significance for the author. In general, if a feature has symbolic significance for the author (symbolizing God’s saving activity in some way) then it may be seen as a type of Christ, even if the author does not evidently have Christ consciously in mind. This is an area where abuse is quite possible. For example, does Eve’s creation out of the side of Adam symbolize our redemption out of the wounding of Christ’s side in his execution? (Example from Greidanus, p. 37). Unlikely. We can’t go into this here. Rather, we assert that symbolism-typology is quite important in the Bible and here are some ways symbols function.

1. Major Figure Typology and Symbols.

All the major figures and leaders of the Scriptures point us to Christ, who is the ultimate leader who calls out and forms the people of God. Every anointed leader—every prophet, priest, king, judge who brings about ‘salvation’ or deliverance or redemption of any kind or level—is each a pointer to Christ, both in their strengths and even in their flaws. Even the flaws show that God works by grace and uses what the world sees as marginal and weak. The ‘outsiders’ who God uses, especially those in the line of the promised ‘seed’, point to him (cf. Matt. 1:1-11). He is the fulfillment of the history of the judges who show that God can save not only many, or by few, but by one. Jesus is the judge all the judges point to (since he really administers justice), the prophet all the prophets point to (since he really shows us truth), the priests all priests point to (since he really brings us to God), and the King of kings.

2. Non-Personal Salvation Typology and Symbols.

Trace the ‘salvation-by-grace’ symbols to their fulfillment in Christ. The bronze snake, the water of life from the smitten rock point to Christ, of course (since John and Paul tell us they do!). But especially the entire sacrificial and temple system is really pointing to him. Absolutely everything about the ceremonial system—from the clean laws to the altar, the sacrifices, and the temple itself—are pointing to him. The Sabbath and the Jubilee point to him. He makes them all obsolete. Jesus is the sacrifice all the sacrifices point to (Hebrews 10). Jesus is the bread on the altar in the temple (John 6), the light stand in the Holy Place (John 8), and the temple itself (John 2), for he is the presence of God with us. Jesus fulfills circumcision—it represents how he was cut off from God. Now we are clean in him (Col. 2:10-11). Jesus is the Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7).

“Cross-Cut” Category—Way of Contrast.

Sidney Greidanus is helpful when he reminds us that we do not need a good example in our text in order to ‘get to Christ.’ When we say Christ is the completion or fulfillment of every text, that means that he is not only a comparison but a contrast to every text. Christ is a better David, Samson, and Moses—so we don’t have to apologize for their flaws. Their flaws show us Christ by way of a contrast. Or look at the cries for justice in the Psalms. In one sense, Christ validates those cries—injustice is serious! In another sense, however, Jesus’ fulfillment now leads us to think of our enemies in a different way than David did.

Source: Personal Notes from Doctor of Ministry Class at Reformed Theological Seminary in the early 2000’s.



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Tim Keller: Why Do Christ Centered Application? Session Notes Part 2

Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World – Part 2

Tim Keller praching w bible image



The first ‘aspect’ of the model is ‘Expounding Christ’ from the Scripture. This part of the course will be carried out by Ed Clowney. Here are some of my (Tim Keller) thoughts by way of overview and introduction. The ability to ‘expound Christ’ from every part of the bible is crucial. Many people resist this approach (on the ‘left’?) as hyper-orthodox or (on the ‘right’?) as not sufficiently honoring the original author’s intent. Others just avoid this approach for pragmatic reasons, claiming that it is too difficult to do week after week. Both the resistance and the despair have some merit! There are both dangers and difficulties that attend this approach.


What does it mean to “preach Christ” from all the Scripture? Sidney Greidanus writes, “We can define ‘preaching Christ’ as preaching sermons which authentically integrate the message of the text with the climax of God’s revelation in the person, work, and teaching of Jesus Christ” (Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, Eerdmans, 1999, p. 10).

This definition assumes that every text has both a ‘micro’ and a ‘macro’ context. To understand any particular text of the Bible, we must first put it into the ‘micro’ context—its historical and linguistic setting, in order to discern the immediate intent of the human author. But every biblical text also has a ‘macro’ context—its place in the entire Bible which has as its purpose the revelation of Christ as the climax of all God’s redeeming activity in history. We must not only ask: ‘what did the human author intend to say to his historical audience?’ but also ‘why did God inscripturate this as a way of pointing to the salvation of his Son?’


1. The direction of Jesus.

When Jesus met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he discovered that they were in despair because their Messiah had been crucified. He responds, “’how slow of heart to believe all the prophets have spoken!’…and beginning with Moses and all the Prophets he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-29). Later he appears to his disciples in the upper room and we are told “He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you; everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45). Jesus blames the confusion of the disciples on their inability to see that all the Old Testament is “all” about him and his salvation. Another place where Jesus makes this same assertion is John 5:31-47. Jesus says that the father has testified to him in the Scriptures (v. 39). But he confronts his hearers with how they do not understand the Scriptures’ testimony. He says, for example, that they think they follow Moses, but “Moses wrote about me.” (v. 46). The Law of Moses can only be understood as it points to Christ.

2. The example of the apostles.

The apostolic writers are famously ‘Christ-centered’ in their interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul and the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, continuously quote Psalms as the words of Christ—and not just ‘Messianic’ or ‘Royal’ Psalms where the speaker is some clearly Messianic figure. The gospel writers also quote passages from the Psalms and Prophets that clearly show they read the words of the Scriptures as being all about Jesus. Peter writes: Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.” (1 Peter 1:10-12). He shows that the ‘Spirit of Christ’ in the prophets was pointing to the person and work of Christ in their writings.

So it is not likely that Jesus or Peter are simply talking about isolated, explicit predictions of the Messiah (cf. Gen. 3:15; 49:10; Is. 9:6; 53). That would not do justice to the comprehensiveness of the language employed. Jesus says that “all the Scriptures” point to him and that each part—the Law, the Prophets, and the Wisdom literature—are about him (Luke 24:44-45). It is particularly interesting that he would say that the “Law” is about him! We might understand how he could say that the prophetic literature was about him—but the Law? What we have here is that all the major themes, major figures, major genres, and major story lines are reflective of and fulfilled in him.

“There are great stories in the Bible…but it is possible to know the Bible stories, yet miss the Bible story…The Bible has a story line. It traces an unfolding drama. The story follows the history of Israel, but it does not begin there, nor does it contain what you would expect in a national history…If we forget the story line…we cut the heart out of the Bible. Sunday school stories are then told as tamer versions of the Sunday comics, where Samson substitutes for Superman. David…becomes a Hebrew version of Jack the Giant Killer. No, David is not a brave little boy who isn’t afraid of the big bad giant. He is the Lord’s anointed…God chose David as a king after his own heart in order to prepare the way for David’s great Son, our Deliverer and Champion…” – Ed Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery

Summary: Every part of the Bible is about the historical unfolding revelation and accomplishment of the gospel – salvation through Jesus Christ. The Bible is not a collection of “Aesop’s Fables”, it is  not a book of virtues. Paul shows in Galatians 3 that there is a complete unity in the Bible. There is a story within all the Bible stories. God is redeeming a people for himself by grace in the face of human rebellion and human desire for a religion of good works.

3. The problem of ‘moralism’.

The ultimate reason that we expound Christ in every passage is because that’s the truth! The whole Bible is about Christ. But there is a very practical reason we expound Christ as well. Ed Clowney points out that if we ever tell a particular Bible story without putting it into the Bible story (about Christ), we actually change the meaning of the particular event for us. It becomes a moralistic exhortation to ‘try harder’ rather than a call to live by faith in the work of Christ. There is, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: is it basically about me or basically about Jesus? In other words, is it basically about what I must do, or basically about what Jesus has done? If I read David and Goliath as basically giving me an example, then the story is really about me. I must summons up the faith and courage to fight the giants in my life. But if I read David and Goliath as basically showing me salvation through Jesus, then the story is really about him. Until I see that Jesus fought the real giants (sin, law, death) for me, I will never have the courage to be able to fight ordinary giants in life (suffering, disappointment, failure, criticism, hardship).

Any exposition of a text that does not ‘get to Christ’ but just ‘explains biblical principles’ will be a ‘synagogue sermon’ that merely exhorts people to exert their wills to live according to a particular pattern. Instead of the life-giving gospel, the sermon offers just one more ethical paradigm to crush the listeners.


1. The concern of allegorizing.

The main danger (and main objective) to the Christo-centric approach is the danger of allegorizing. An example that Sidney Greidanus uses from Augustine.

“The door [in the side of the ark] surely represents the wound made when the side of the crucified was pierced with the spear…This is the way of entrance for those who come to him…” (City of God 13.21).

“Allegorizing” has two very bad effects. 1) It makes for completely arbitrary interpretation. Instead of living under the authority of the Word, we can get nearly any message from a text we wish. 2) It fails to honor the meaning and message of the human author, whose conscious intent is the vehicle for God’s revelation. Modern interpreters, both of an orthodox and liberal bent, eschew allegorizing by concentrating wholly on the original intent of the human author as the only sure and certain benchmark. But there are dangers on the other extreme as well.

2. Remembering the Two Authors

Rodney A Whitacre writes that there have always been two basic emphases or approaches to biblical interpretation. The first he calls this the “Historic Approach” to Bible interpretation. This stresses the fact that each text has a very human author. This approach asks “What did the human biblical author intend to say? What did it mean to the original author and audience? To discover this, the interpreter looks at the linguistic, literary, and historical evidence. But Whitacre also speaks of the “Organic Approach” to Bible interpretation. This stresses the fact that all of Scripture has a divine author. This approach asks: “What does the divine biblical author intend for us to hear? Why did he put this in the Bible for us” To discover this, the interpreter looks at all the Bible (especially texts that are most like and most unlike it) and at Jesus Christ, who (as we have seen) the overall message of the Bible is about. (Rodney A. Whitacre, “Hearing God’s Truth: A Beginner’s Guide to Studying the Scriptures”. Available at the website of the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. Http://

a. The Extreme Forms. (1) At the extreme end of an “Organic-Only” approach, we have wildly Allegorical Interpretation. Whitacre gives an example of this in a famous interpretation of Psalm 137:8-9 by the medieval church. “O daughter of Babylon…happy is he…who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” The allegorical interpretation goes like this. Jesus is the Rock. Babylon represents evil and sin. So we are being told to take even our littlest sins and most embryonic sinful thoughts and dash them on Christ. This interpretation connects to other parts of the Bible (Christ as the Rock, the need for purity and holiness) but it makes no attempt to connect to the original historic meaning of the text. (2) At the other extreme of a “Historic-Only” approach to the original “Historic-Only” approach, we have most scholarship in the world today—the Historical Critical Interpretation. It makes no attempt to align or integrate what Paul says with what Isaiah says. There is no concept of any divine authorship or divine unity. Any attempt at harmonization is scorned and disdained. The meaning of the ancient texts is locked away, therefore, in a very ancient time, and has nothing to do with us directly. Any normative or systematic theology is impossible.

b. Moderate Forms. Within the mainstream of the evangelical world these two extremes are rightly discarded. (Of course, the highly allegorical reading of the Bible is quite prevalent among lay people in all churches). But two more moderate forms of the two poles creates real confusion among orthodox students of the Bible today. (1) First, there is a moderate Evangelical-Historical approach which does allow for ‘harmonization’ with other texts for the purpose of Systematics, but is not comfortable with reading any meanings out of a text that the human author did not know of. Because this view believes in the divine authorship of the entire Bible, it will accept that an OT author was talking unwittingly about Jesus, but only when a NT author tells us that he was. (2) On the other hand, the Redemptive-Historical approach, which stresses more the organic unity of divine authorship, believes that many texts mean more than the human author intended. By the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, an OT text may tell us about Jesus Christ and we may discover this, even if no NT author tells us so.

c. Criticisms. (1) Of the “Redemptive-Historical’ approach: First, there is a real danger of allegory. If you are not ‘controlled’ in your interpretation by first establishing the human author’s intention, then your imagination can just run wild, and you can get anything out of it. Second, since you are always trying to ‘find Christ’ in the text, you may miss the very real practical applications and moral exhortations that are there. The people will get an inspiring picture of Jesus, but not get any real practical direction in how to live their lives. Third, it could be hard for your lay people to learn how to interpret the Bible with this method. When you are done, they’ll say: “My! I could never get all that out of a text.” And they’ll be right.

(2) But the criticisms of the ‘Historical-Intent Only’ approach are, I believe, more trenchant. First, the New Testament writers continually interpret the Old Testament using the ‘Organic’ or ‘Redemptive-Historical’ approach. They are constantly reading Psalms and other parts of the Bible as being about Christ, even when those texts have no clear “Messianic Prophecy” in them. This was clearly a ‘model’ with which the NT writers were interpreting the OT. Why not use the model?

Second, the historical approach often speaks of the Christo-centric approach being ‘arbitrary’, but it’s own method is much more speculative than it seems to realize. We are never sure we are able to reconstruct the original condition and historical setting. We are never sure we are right about the original audience. It takes a great deal of imagination and guess-work to posit authorial intent. So the grammatico-historical exegesis is not as scientific and objective as it might first appear.

Third, we must be able to preach Christ from a text, or we have the problem of ‘synagogue’ sermons. We are preaching the same sermon that could be preached in a synagogue—“Here is the righteous law. Do it and you will live.”

Fourth, the ‘Historical-Intent Only’ approach implies that the Church was not able to interpret the Bible properly until very recently we had the historical tools to discern original settings (See Moises Silva, Has the Church Misread the Bible? Zondervan, 1984).

3. The Difference between an “Allegory” and a “Type”

The biggest practical issue that comes to us in this discussion is—how can you tell the difference between a “type” and an “allegory”? The Redemptive-Historical approach finds typos of Christ in OT texts even where a NT writer does not indicate that there is one. How can you be sure you are not allegorizing? Based on the writings of Clowney and Rod Whitacre’s paper, here is a summary of the difference.

a. Typology: (1) (Clowney) A type is based on something in the text of symbolic significance to the human author and in the Scriptures in general. There must be evidence that the author saw a feature or figure as having more significance of symbolism. For example, is the fact that the chord Rahab uses to mark and protect her home (Joshua 2) is scarlet significant to the author? Or does the color red symbolize blood or sacrifice in general in the Bible. If not (and I don’t think we can demonstrate that it does), then we cannot preach that the chord represents the blood of Christ protecting us from the justice and wrath of God—as some people have done. However, we can preach the blood on the doorposts of the Israelites that way (Exodus 12). Can we preach that God’s choice of Leah as the mother of the Messianic seed is a type of God’s salvation through weaknes and rejection (Matthew 1:1-17; 1 Cor. 1:26ff.)? We would have to demonstrate that the author of Genesis knew that Judah was the bearer of the Messianic strain and therefore it’s coming to Leah rather than Rachel was an act of grace. I believe we can (Genesis 49:10). Can we preach that Isaac represents Christ? Yes, because in the Old Testament, the first-born had redemptive significance. Every first born belonged to God, etc.

(2) (Whitacre) A type is also based on connections between macro features and figures. It sees similarities between persons (prophets, priests, kings), events (Passover, exodus), and patterns of practice (aving through rejection, weakness). For example, in 2 Kings 5, we see a type of Christ’s revelation in the exclusivity of the prophet Elisha. Naaman must go to Israel, and he must wash in the Jordan. Because the Lord’s salvation is a revealed salvation, we must submit to that revelation. On the other hand, we see a type of Christ’s salvation in the prominence of the servants. Naaman keeps going to kings, but God sends his salvation through the weak and marginal. He must go to weaker country than Syria, he learns of his salvation through a servant girl who was victimized by his military, he only avoids disaster when his own servants reason with him to listen to Elisha. Because the salvation comes through weakness and the powerless, we receive it by repentance and faith alone, and we thereafter refuse to worship at the shrine of worldly power and wealth. So types focus on ‘macro-patterns’ of revelation and salvation rather than descending to details.

b. Allegory: (1) Allegory, by contrast, seeks no basis in the author’s original intent. Of course, it reads everything as symbolic, but it makes no attempts to show through linguistic or literary analysis that the feature it fixes on was of some symbolic significance to the human author. In other words, it ignores the human nature of the Bible and treats it as if it were simply a supernatural text. (2) Secondly, allegory focuses on micro-features such as words or even numbers. It may take the two coins that the Good Samaritan left with the innkeeper as the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, left by Jesus to sustain and heal us. It may take the ‘little ones’ of Ps. 137:8-9 as our sinful thoughts or our ‘little’ white lies. Instead of seeking to identify broader patterns of salvation with Jesus’ pattern of salvation, it fixes on details.

Appendix #1 – Historic and Organic: An Outline of Positions


“I interpret the human biblical author’s original meaning without alignment with meaning of the other biblical authors.”


“What does the human author mean?”


“I interpret the human biblical author’s original meaning in alignment with other human authors. But I do not look for meanings in the text that the human author did not put there.” Typology – only if the NT tells me specifically.


“I interpret the human biblical author’s original meaning not only in alignment with other human authors. I also look for meanings that the divine author may have put there that the human author did not.” Typology – based on Symbolic significance.


“What does the divine author mean?”


“I interpret the biblical text without much regard for the human biblical author’s original meaning. I use it to confirm or illustrate other texts in the Bible.


1. Two Basic ‘Theological Frameworks’.

Richard Lints, in The Fabric of Theology (Eerdmans, 1993) points out that what we have been calling ‘Christ-centered’ exegesis is more than a way to interpret texts. He believes that one very significant difference among evangelicals lies between those who organize doctrines into a “redemptive historical” framework and those who organize doctrines along the lines of a “redemptive historical” framework and those who organize doctrines along the lines of a “systematic-topical” framework (See pp. 259-290). The first framework (which he connects with the names of Vos, Kline, and Gaffin) sees the basic theological structure of Scriptures as a series of historical epochs in which God progressively reveals more and more of his redemptive purposes in Christ through successive covenants (Creation, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Christ-inaugurated, Christ-consumated). The second framework (which connects with the names of Hodge, Berkhof, and Erickson) sees the basic framework of Scripture as a series of logical categories or subject headings around which the varied texts of Scriptures are organized to produce doctrines (God, Man, Christ, Justification, Sanctification, Glorification).

What is the difference? Lints argues that the redemptive-historical model (RHM) is better than the systematic-topical model (STM), and so do I. John Murray speaks of the “tendency to abstration” of the STM, the tendency to dehistoricize, and to arrive at “timeless”, topically oriented universals. (“Systematic Theology” in the New Testament Student and Theology, J.H. Skilton, ed. P&R, 1976). RHM, on the other hand focuses on God’s special revelation not primarily as ‘naked information’ but primarily as God’s activity in history. This means:

2. Theological frameworks Compared

a. The RHM gives us a dymanic view of our place in redemptive history. The RHM tells that we are now in a particular period of redemptive history (between the first and second coming of Christ). This is the period of the “already-but-not-yet” of the kingdom of God, which sets us apart from the epoch previous to and following this one. The STM model has little concept of the all-pervasiveness of the kingdom of God. It tends to see the kingdom mainly in terms of one of the traditional ‘millennial’ positions.

The massive importance of the ‘already-but-not-yet-kingdom’ for both faith and practice is largely missed by those steeped in the STM approach. It tends to think of biblical truth in a-historical categories of doctrine which we now have to “apply” to our lives today. It tends to rely mainly on “correctness” or technique (“5 principles for overcoming worry”). The RHM avoids over optimism or pessimism or legalism by focusing always on the dynamic-kingdom-epoch lifestyle we live out now. The City of God and the City of Man are present realities. Christ as died, risen, and ascended has put us in a particular, current, dynamic relationship to God, our sin, our past, the Spirit, the world, and to the assembly of heaven itself. It tells us about this new relationship and status we have now, and how to live it out as the people of God in this entire epoch. This is a far more “organic” way to think out Christianity.

John Stott, in a very interesting and easy-to-understand chapter called “The Now and Not Yet” in The Contemporary Christian (IVP, 1992) shows what a powerful effect this theological category has on our practice. This understanding of our place in RH keeps us from fundamentalism (the “not yet Christians”), Pentecostalism (the “already” Christians), and Liberalism (in some ways too “not yet” and in other ways too “already”). It keeps us from over or under-discipline, from over- or under-emphasis on evangelism or social concern, from over optimism or under-optimism about revival, and so on. A-historical (STM) understandings of the Bible lead constantly to these extremes. By the way, Jonathan Edwards noted these same three enemies of true revival—Dead orthodoxy, Enthusiasm, and Heterodoxy.

b. The RHM gives us a more biblical and less “western” framework. Harvie Conn in Eternal Word and Changing Worlds (Zondervan, 1984) points out that the highly rational, scientific approach of STM is difficult for people of non-Western cultures to enjoy or grasp. Many are now pointing out the many of the formulators of STM were unwittingly shaped and affected by the Enlightenment, its detached rationality and its mistrust of history. Harvie (and Rick) note that the RHM gives much more weight to the fact that the Bible is filled with narrative. The gospel itself is a true story, not a set of “principles” or “laws”. The STM approach has ‘de-storied’ the gospel. Harvie also points out that RHM understands that all God’s truth is covenantal truth, never abstract from history and life. (See pp. 225-234). Thus preaching and teaching from the RHM tends to be much less pietistic and abstract from life. All of this means that RHM s a vastly better vehicle for spreading the gospel through and to all people groups.

c. The RHM gives us a more corporate and less individualistic approach to ministry.

The RHM understands that the goal of salvation history is not simply a ‘right relationship’ with God and live in heaven forever. The goal of redemption is really ‘re-creation’. God’s saving purposes culminate in a new creation, not a disembodied eternal state. The gospel is not that we get to escape earth into heaven, but that heaven “comes down” to transform the earth. The church, then, is not simply an aggregation of people who help one another find God, but it is called to be in this world a sign of the coming new creation. We are to embody the ‘new humanity’ that Christ is creating.

All of this drastically undermines the pietistic,, individualistic, privatistic Christianity that can be a result of the STM approach. While the STM approach points us more to how we as individuals get peace with God and ‘live right’, the RHM framework calls us to live our lives out as a ‘counter-culture’, a new nation, in which our business practices, race relations, artistic expressions, family life, etc., show the world what humanity could be like under the Lordship of Christ. And the RHM emphasis on ‘new creation’ calls us to be concerned for the social and material world, since God’s ultimate salvation will not only redeem the soul but the body and the physical world as well.

d. The RHM gives a much more relevant approach to ‘post-modern’ times. This point is closely connected to the previous one. “Post-meodern” times are characterized by a rejection of the Enlightenment worship of rationality and technique, and is much more devoted to narrative and story as ways of finding meaning. Also, post-modernity rejets the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the individual and stresses the importance of community. As we have just seen, the RHM shows us all those resources in biblical theology that the STM approach has tended to overlook. It breaks the Bible into stages of a Story—the story of Jesus and his salvation—while the STM breaks the Bible into logical categories. More than that, the RHM actually puts us into the story, showing us our place and stage in the unfolding of the kingdom of God. The RHM approach also shows concern for the regeneration of human community and even the physical environment, not just individual, interior happiness. In all these ways, RHM is much more relevant to post-modern sensibilities.

e. The RHM gives us a more Christ-centered understanding of the Bible. The RHM sees each epoch of redemptive history as being the progressive revealing of Christ. God could have poured our judgment on mankind in the Garden, therefore the only reason there is any history is because God has purposed to send his Son into the world, to pour out judgment on him and thereby bring salvation. Jesus is the only reason there is human history, and therefore he is the goal of human history. Thus everything God says and does in history explain and prepare for the salvation of his Son. The STM, on the other hand, will examine the Law, the prophets, and history of Abraham, Moses, David, etc. for information about the various doctrinal topics—what we learn about how to live, what to believe. But the RHM sees every story and law and piece of wisdom literature as pointing to Christ and his work. Preaching and teaching from an STM framework tends to be much more moralistic and legalistic.

f. The RHM gives us a more organic way of reading biblical texts. The RHM works at understanding the differences between stages in redemptive history, while the STM largely ignores such study. But many disputes over the application of the Old Testament laws are really based on a lack of understanding of the role which the Mosaic regulations played in that time in redemptive history (i.e. how they helped us look to and prepare for God’s coming salvation) and of how that role is fulfilled in Christ.

Maybe even more fundamentally, the RHM really leads us to see the very purpose of each biblical passage differently. We have said that RHM understands God’s revelation never comes in the form of textbook type information, but in the form of covenant. Why? Because the purpose of God’s truth is never to merely inform, but to know God in a relationship of love and service. For example, if we read Genesis 1-2 with an STM mind-set, expecting “naked information” about how the world was created, we will see it differently than those who read with a RHM mind-set, expecting knowledge of who are Creator is and how we are to relate to him and to his creation.

Concluding Note: Do not read the above as pitting Systematic Theology per se against ‘Biblical Theology’. There have been many proponents of the RH approach that virtually deny the ability to do coherent ST at all. This is going too far by far, and such a denial ultimately undermines the concept of a single divine author of the whole Bible.

Source: Personal Notes from D.Min Course Co-Taught by Ed Clowney and Tim Keller from Reformed Theological  Seminary


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