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

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

Tim Keller preaching image

Preached in Manhattan on March 1, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The trajectory of sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The cure for sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

The Reason For God Keller

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Nature of True Virtue Jonathan Edwards

By *Tim Keller

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

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

 

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Tim Keller Sermon: The Power of The Gospel

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

Tim Keller preaching image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The form of the gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The content of the gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The power of the gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ABOUT THE PREACHER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

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

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

 
 

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

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

Tim Keller preaching image

Preached in Manhattan, New York on February 1, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The ruin of Cain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The culture of death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Savior, if of Zion’s city,

I through grace a member am,

Let the world deride or pity,

I will glory in thy name.

Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,

All his boasted pomp and show;

Solid joys and lasting treasure

None but Zion’s children know.

Let’s pray.

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

 

ABOUT THE PREACHER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

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

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

 

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

SERIES – Bible: The Whole Story—Creation and Fall

Tim Keller preaching image

Preached in Manhattan, New York on January 25, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The potency of it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The subtlety of sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The eventual victory over sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ABOUT THE PREACHER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

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

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

 
 

 

 

 

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

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

Tim Keller teaching at RPC image

Preached in Manahattan, New York, January 11, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Tis not that I did choose thee,

For Lord, that could not be;

This heart would still refuse thee,

Hadst thou not chosen me.

My heart owns none before thee,

For thy rich grace I thirst;

This knowing, if I love thee,

Thou must have loved me first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ABOUT THE PREACHER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

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

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

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

 

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Tim Keller on “THE WOUNDED SPIRIT” – Proverbs Series

SERIES: Proverbs: True Wisdom for Living

Tim Keller teaching at RPC image

Preached in Manhattan, N.Y. on December 5, 2004

Book of Proverbs

Proverbs 12:

25 An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.

Proverbs 13:

12 Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.

Proverbs 14:

10 Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.

13 Even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief.

30 A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot.

Proverbs 15:

The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.

13 A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit. 14 The discerning heart seeks knowledge, but the mouth of a fool feeds on folly.

Proverbs 16:

All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the Lord.

Proverbs 18:

14 A man’s spirit sustains him in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?

Proverbs 28:

The wicked man flees though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.

We’re looking at the book of Proverbs every week, and we continue to do that. We’re looking at the subject of wisdom. We’ve said wisdom is competence with regard to the complex realities of life. It means being not less than moral and good, but more. For example, if you want to help a poor family out of poverty, that’s wonderful. That’s right. That’s good. It’s moral.

If you’re a simpleminded conservative and you think poverty is completely the result of lack of personal responsibility or if you’re a simpleminded liberal and you think poverty is completely the result of unjust social structures … In other words, if you’re reductionistic, if you’re simplistic, if you’re not savvy about the complex realities of poverty, though you mean well and you’re being moral and right and good, you can ruin that poor family’s life.

Tonight what we want to do is talk about wisdom with regard to the complex realities of the inner being, the inner life, or what we would today call the psychological life, which is, as we’re going to see in a moment, a modern category that’s actually itself too reductionistic. Nevertheless, what are we talking about?

We all at certain times just have a lot of trouble understanding and dealing with the very deep, conflicting, confusing, powerful, sometimes warring dynamic impulses and feelings that just roll through our hearts, roll through ourselves. Sometimes we don’t feel we have any power over it. We feel helpless, and we don’t know how we got to feeling like that. We know there’s something deeply wrong with it. We don’t know what to do about it.

Tonight maybe we’ll get some wisdom because we’re taking a look at what the book of Proverbs says about this subject, and I’d like to look at the passage under four headings. Let’s see what we learn from these collected proverbs. You’re not going to be wise unless you understand the priority of the inner life, the complexity of the inner life, the solitude of the inner life, and the healing of the inner life.

1. The priority of the inner life

Take a look at the second from the last proverb in the list, and we’ll learn something about the priority of the inner life. “A man’s spirit sustains him in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” What does the word spirit mean? In the Hebrew Scriptures, in the Old Testament, the word spirit is actually literally the word for wind.

Whenever the word wind, ruwach, is used in the Old Testament it has to do with force, with power, with energy. When it refers to your inside, the human inner being, the human spirit is roughly analogous to what we would call today emotional energy, passion for life, that which propels us out into life, makes us want life, makes us want to take it on, navigate, deal with it.

What’s a crushed spirit? A crushed spirit then is to look out at life and to have no desire for it, have little or no joy in it, have no passion to get out there and deal with it. Of course, there are degrees of a crushed spirit. It can be anywhere from listlessness and restlessness to discouragement to despondency to being very, very cast down and to losing all desire to live.

What is this proverb saying? Look at it again, and here’s what it’s saying. There is nothing more important than maintaining your inner being. When it says, “A man’s spirit sustains him in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” here’s what it’s saying. “A broken body can be sustained with difficulty by a strong spirit, but a crushed or broken spirit can never be sustained or carried by the strongest body of all.”

In other words, this proverb is getting at something actually the whole Bible gets at. We human beings are obsessed with the idea that our happiness is determined by our external circumstances, that our happiness is completely determined by whether our body is healthy or whether our body looks good, whether we have money, whether people are treating us right, whether things are going well out there. That’s what makes us happy, or that’s what makes us unhappy.

The Bible actually says, “No, it has nothing to do with your circumstances. Happiness is determined by how you deal with your circumstances from inside, how you process, how you address, how you view them.” That’s the reason why Paul’s prayers for the churches he’s writing in the New Testament letters are amazing.

When you consider when he’s writing all these churches, he’s writing churches that were in great difficulty and straits. He’s writing churches that were persecuted. He’s writing churches where civil magistrates had broken in and pulled off some of the Christian families to jail. Yet whenever he says, “I’m praying this for you” or “I’m praying this for you,” he never mentions things like that.

He never says, “I’m praying that civil magistrate won’t come and take any more of you off to jail.” He doesn’t pray for protection. He doesn’t pray against suffering. What does he pray for? He prays this sort of thing. Here’s Ephesians 3. He says, “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being …”

Do you know what he’s saying? “If your life is all broken, all things are wrong, and your spirit is strong and powerful, you move out into the world in strength, but if everything about your life is going fine, just all the circumstances are doing fine but your spirit is crushed, you move out into the world in weakness.”

Do you believe that? Do you understand the priority of that? The Bible says, Proverbs says, if you don’t, you’re a fool. I’ll put it another way. Are you far, far, far more concerned to deposit grace in your spirit than you are to deposit money in your bank account? If you’re not, you’re a fool.

2. The complexity of the inner life

After having said what we just said, it’s natural to ask a question like, “All right. So what do you do to keep your inner being from deteriorating? What goes wrong with a spirit? What causes a crushed spirit? Why do our emotions and our feelings seem to get out of control? Why do we get so downcast sometimes? Why do we lose all passion for life? Why do we struggle so much? What is our problem?”

Do you know what the biblical answer is? It’s complicated. I want to show you this for the next couple of minutes. In fact, the Bible’s understanding of human nature, understanding of what goes wrong inside is more nuanced, more multifaceted, more multidimensional, more complex than any other answer I know of, any other counseling model, any book on despondency or what’s wrong or how to have emotional health or how to have a happy life.

You read them all, and compared to the Bible they are one-dimensional. They are reductionistic. They boil everything down. They’re too simpleminded. They’re too simplistic. They’re not savvy. They’re not wise. The Bible gives you the most fully nuanced, the most complex assessment of what can go wrong and lead to despondency and lead to a crushed spirit. Let’s take a look at five of them. They’re right in here.

A. A crushed spirit may have a physical aspect. I know that sounds very weird. For example, let’s take a look at 14:30. “A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot.” The word passion means literally a hot feeling. That word can refer to anger or bitterness or envy or fear or something like that. What it’s giving us here is a very nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the relationship of the body to the emotions.

Emotional unhealth leads to physical unhealth in all kinds of ways, disintegration, deterioration, but what’s the implication? The implication, of course, is since the body and the emotions are united, then bodily weakness can lead to emotional unhealth. If you’re weary, if you’re not eating right, if you have chemical imbalances, there’s a physical aspect to being crushed in spirit. There can be. There often is.

You say, “How could that be?” For example, I had a thyroid problem a couple of years ago. Of course, the problem is gone, as well as the thyroid. That’s why it’s gone. One of the things I learned about is what happens when you don’t have the thyroid hormone or you don’t have enough of it. Oh my word! Even though I didn’t experience anything like this, here’s something I can just tell you the truth of.

If you don’t have enough thyroid hormone in your body, you’re going to eventually want to kill yourself. You say, “Of course, that’s all in your head.” Of course, it’s all in your head! The crushed spirit is in your head, but the point is if you lose all desire to even live because of something wrong with your body, you have a crushed spirit. It doesn’t matter what the cause is, and one of the causes can be the physical.

B. A crushed spirit may have an emotional, relational aspect. Look at the very first proverb on the list. “An anxious heart weighs a man down …” That’s synonymous with a crushed spirit. It’s talking about literally sinking. “An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.” Don’t trivialize it. In English it comes across a little bit trivial-sounding.

What is it saying you need sometimes? What do you need? You need an outside word of love, of kindness. You need support. Sometimes you don’t need medicine. Sometimes you don’t need therapy. You don’t need an answer. You don’t need complicated reflection. You need love sometimes, because we have an emotional, relational nature. You just need arms around you. You need a shoulder. You need intimacy. You need support.

C. A crushed spirit may have a moral aspect. Take a look at the last of the proverbs in the list. “The wicked man flees though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.” What’s that talking about? It’s a quote from Leviticus 26, where God says, “If you disobey me, you will flee though no one pursues.”

My word, look how nuanced this is. It’s talking about conscience. It’s talking about guilt. It’s talking about what can go wrong inside, in your spirit, in your emotions, what can go wrong inside if you know you’re not living right, if you know you’re not living up to standards, if you feel guilt, if you feel shame, if you feel like a failure in any way.

Look how nuanced it is. It doesn’t say you flee when someone pursues; you flee when no one pursues. Guilt just generalizes a sense there’s something wrong with you, so you not only feel guilty for some things you ought to feel guilty for, but you also can’t help then feeling guilty for all kinds of things you shouldn’t feel guilty for.

Someone criticizes you, and you feel assaulted, attacked. It’s a bad conscience. You make a little failure, and you feel like a total failure. It’s a bad conscience. There’s a moral aspect. There’s a conscience aspect. That’s not all. Do you realize how wrong it would be if you treat a crushed spirit that’s basically a physical problem as a moral problem?

D. A crushed spirit may have an existential aspect. Go to the fourth proverb down. “Even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief.” When you first read that, do you know what you’re automatically doing? You say, “Oh, I think I know what that’s talking about,” and you’re relativizing it.

You’re saying, “Sometimes some people are laughing and they’re having fun, but down deep they’re still sad. They’re putting on a happy face. They’re trying to forget their troubles. Though they are laughing, down deep they’re sad. Though they’re trying to be happy, in the end they’re still grieving.”

It doesn’t say, “Some people in laughter the heart is sad,” does it? It’s an absolute statement. What amazed me was every single Hebrew commentator, every Hebrew scholar, I looked at about this verse says we mustn’t relativize it. We must realize what a profound thing it’s saying. This is true of everybody. Why?

Do you not realize there’s an existential angst that comes down deep from under …? Everybody knows all parties eventually are going to be over. All joy really does end in grief. You say, “What are you talking about?” Let me just give you some examples. Here’s the happy family, sitting around the dining room table. The simple reality is one of those people is eventually going to see every other member dead.

Death ends everything. Everything your heart wants out of life eventually will be taken away from you. If you don’t die a tragic young death, eventually your health will be taken away from you. Your loved ones will be taken away from you. Everything will be taken away from you. It’ll all be gone.

Some of you are saying, “Gee, I’m so glad I came tonight. This is a wonderful … I guess that’s right. I guess that’s true, but do you have to tell me about it? Do we have to think about it?” Guess what? Try not to think about it. This is saying down deep you know about it. There is a ground note of sadness you cannot overcome.

New York is filled with people who say, “Well, I don’t believe I was created. I believe I’m here by accident, and I believe when you’re dead, that’s it. You rot. That’s it. You’re gone. I understand that, but the point is have fun while you’re here.” Wait a minute. If your origin is insignificant and your destiny is insignificant, which means someday nobody will even remember anything you ever did, have the guts to admit your life is insignificant.

What that means is unless you have some way of dealing philosophically with this, unless you have some way of ascribing meaning to the daily things you do, which is really pretty hard, you’re going to have this ground note of sadness that underneath all your laughter you’re going to be sad, because you know all joy eventually ends in grief. I’m not exaggerating. Do you see what’s happening now? This is a philosophical problem, and a lot of people have it.

In fact, we all have it until somebody helps us deal with death. If you’re not able to deal with the idea of death, if you’re not able to overcome your fear of it, if you’re not able to find some way in light of death you can ascribe meaning to the things you’re doing now, today, do you see there’s a medical possibility for a crushed spirit?

There’s an emotional, a relational, a moral, an existential, a philosophical … Do you see, by the way, doctors don’t want to think about philosophy, and friends don’t want to think about medicine? They just want to love you. Do you know what Christians do? We turn everything into moral.

We say, “Oh, you’re downcast? You’re down? Well, have you claimed all the promises? Have you confessed all known sin? Are you having your quiet time? Are you praying? Are you thanking God? Are you doing everything right?” Check, check, check, check. Checklists. We turn everything into a moral issue. We’re reductionistic.

Of course, the people who are into self-esteem, what do they say? “It’s all emotional and relational.” Of course, the people who think we’re just a body, what do they say? “It’s all the physical.” That’s not all. There’s a physical aspect, but not only a physical aspect. There’s an emotional aspect. There is a moral aspect. There’s an existential aspect.

E. A crushed spirit may have a faith aspect. Here’s what I mean. Look at 15:13. “A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit.” A lot of people would say, “Wait a minute. I thought the heart and the spirit are pretty much the same thing.” In English heart means emotions versus head which means the reason. That’s why we would say, “Wouldn’t the spirit, which seems to be emotional passion, and the heart be the same thing?”

No, in the Bible the heart means something quite a bit more than that. The heart is your core commitments, the things you most fundamentally trust, the things you most fundamentally love, the things you’re most fundamentally living for, the things you most fundamentally hope in. That’s why the second proverb that we’ll get back to in a minute says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” That word longing means a desire from the depths of your personality.

When your heart has been set on something … It has to be set on something. You have to set your heart on something as your ultimate hope, your ultimate trust, the thing you’re looking for to really make yourself happy, really make yourself feel significant, the thing you say, “If I have that, then my life means something, then I know I’m somebody, then I know I’m all right.”

You have to put your heart on something because that’s the kind of beings we are. This is telling you if you put your heart on something in the most fundamental way and any problem happens to it, anything threatens it in any way, it’s deferred. You won’t even want to live. You’ll be crushed in spirit.

For example, if you’re dating somebody and you’re starting to really love them and then they break up with you, you break up, that’s going to create great sorrow, but if romance, having somebody love you, is the ultimate hope of your life, if you really do believe down deep what the Righteous Brothers said years ago, “Without you, baby, what good am I?” There’s another one. “You’re nobody till somebody loves you …”

Listen, if you really look at somebody else and say, “You’re my fundamental hope. You’re the thing that really makes me know I’m okay,” and you break up with that person, you won’t even want to live. Heartache creates a crushed spirit. A bad conscience creates a crushed spirit. Existential angst creates a crushed spirit.

Look at this. Go into Barnes and Noble, and you’ll never find a book that will tell you how complicated you really are. Every book on emotional health, every book on counseling, every book is going to reduce you. It’s going to simplify you, because some people think you’re basically a body. “That’s basically what you are.” They don’t believe in a soul, “So let’s deal with it physically.”

Some people are going to say, “You’re really your emotions. Your deepest feelings are the real you, not your conscience, not your beliefs, your emotions. We just have to nonjudgmentally support people to just follow their feelings.” You’re not just a body. You’re not just your emotions. You’re not just your conscience. You’re not just a will. You’re not just your thinking.

Of course, you have object relations, then you have cognitive therapy, you have psychoanalysis, and every one of them does something the Bible won’t do, because you are not mainly a body or mainly your emotions or mainly your conscience or mainly any of these things. You are a man or a woman in the image of God, and God’s image is stamped on absolutely every aspect of your being.

Unless you’re living with every aspect of your being before God, you are going to have despondency. You are going to have out-of-control emotions. You’re going to have despair. You’re going to have a crushed spirit you will not be able to remedy. You’ll get the books, and you’ll go and listen to people who tell you the way to emotional health. They’ll always be too simple. They’ll always be foolish.

When I read the books compared to the Bible, I want to look at those books, and I want to say what Hamlet said to his friend Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

3. The solitude of the inner life

If you take a look at the third proverb in the list, it’s a very interesting proverb. “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.” What in the world does that mean? You say, “Well, I have friends. They can share my joy. I have people who understand me.”

Do you know what this is saying? Again, don’t relativize this. Here’s what this is saying. Your insides, the movements and motions of your heart, are so complex, they’re so inward, and they’re so hidden there’s an irreducible, unavoidable solitude about human existence. Nobody will ever completely understand you.

Do you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to do the same thing to you you’re doing to them. You’re going to think you understand them. You’re going to put them in a category and say, “It’s just like what happened to me” or “It’s just like what happened to so-and-so.” No, this is saying you are so unique and you are so hidden and you’re so inward nobody in the end, in the final analysis, will ever really understand you.

You’re going to have to basically go through life alone. Nobody can completely … Even the people closest to you very often just will not understand you. You can sense that, and it’s horribly disappointing. This is saying get over that. Don’t be shocked at being misunderstood, especially in light of the fact … Look at the third proverb from the bottom. It says, “All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the LORD.” Do you know what that’s saying?

You don’t even understand yourself. You have absolutely no idea what’s all down there. You have a better idea than anybody else, but nothing compared to what God can see. You are alone. There is no human being who can walk with you everywhere you go. There is no human being who can help you interpret really everything you’re going through. Do you know what this means? Here’s what it means. Listen carefully.

If God is only somebody you believe in, if he’s an abstraction or maybe he’s somebody you don’t believe in at all, but if God is not a friend, if God isn’t someone you know personally, if God isn’t someone you have a personal relationship with, if you don’t have sometimes a sense of God really with you, putting his love and his truth palpably on your heart, if you don’t have an intimate, personal relationship with God, you are utterly alone in the world. You are absolutely alone in the world, and human beings can’t live in that kind of isolation. They cannot.

He’s the only one who can walk with you through every dark valley. He’s the only one who can understand. He’s the only one. If you don’t have him … It’s not good enough to be good or moral or even to believe in God in some general way. If you don’t have him as a personal friend, if you don’t have an intimate, personal relationship, a sense of real dealing with him, you are utterly alone.

4. The healing of a crushed spirit in the inner life

What happens then? If you have a crushed spirit, what do you do? Do you see? I’ve actually set up (on purpose) how hard it is to heal a crushed spirit, and here’s the reason why. We just said we need a kind word from outside. We can’t heal ourselves. We need someone from outside to come in with love. Yet we also just said nobody really understand you.

We said we have a conscience. Years and years and years of therapy … You can go to therapy for 30 or 40 years. I know people who have. Some of you have and have been told almost every week, “Stop feeling guilty about everything. Don’t let them put that guilt trip on you. You don’t have to feel guilty. Don’t feel guilty.”

Guess what? You still do after 30 or 40 years, because even when no one is pursuing, you flee. There is something indelible about a sense that, “I’m just not right. I’m not living up. I’m not doing what I ought to do.” What are you going to do about that? What are you going to do about existential angst in the face of death, and how in the world are you going to stop your heart from putting its ultimate trust and ultimate hope in things you can lose?

Here’s the answer. The secret is the Tree of Life. What do I mean by the secret being the Tree of Life? The Tree of Life, which is mentioned twice here, actually three times in Proverbs, is an interesting reference because the Bible talks about the Tree of Life in Genesis and the Bible talks about the Tree of Life in Revelation, but there’s nowhere else in all of the Bible where it’s discussed except in the book of Proverbs.

Through wisdom, the book of Proverbs says, you can actually get a taste of it. If you go back to Genesis, the Tree of Life was in the middle of the garden of Eden, Paradise. What does the Tree of Life mean? What does it represent? It represents, not just eternal life being endless; it represents fullness of life, absolute satiation of the deepest desires.

You have creative desires to accomplish things. You have aesthetic desires for beauty. You have romantic and relational desires for love. You have epistemic desires for knowledge. The Tree of Life represents absolute satiation a million times over, a million times magnified, of the greatest amount you could think you could want. That’s the Tree of Life, but the book of Genesis also tells us we lost it.

The end of Genesis 3, says there is a flaming sword that turns and sweeps back and forth keeping us from the Tree of Life, because when we turned to be our own masters, to be our saviors, to be our own lords, when we decided we want to be in charge of our own lives, we lost the Tree of Life. What does that mean? Here’s what it means. What is this saying here? Look at the second proverb. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”

It would be possible to read this as just saying, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick. Okay, when you really have your heart set on something, it’s a disappointment,” but it’s talking about something different. What it’s really saying is the things we put our hearts on to fulfill our deepest longings will never fulfill them because what we’re really looking for in everything we do is the Tree of Life.

In other words, when you get into your career and you get so excited about the new career, when you get a new boyfriend or girlfriend, when you get into a new relationship, when you go on a vacation, when you travel to some place you’ve never been, there’s always something. It promises something it can never actually deliver. Why? One commentator says this Tree of Life image in the Bible is not simply referring to eternal life.

One Hebrew commentator puts it like in the Bible the Tree of Life is an image of immortal, eternal life, but also it’s an image of irretrievable loss. It’s an image of cosmic nostalgia, a longing for something we remember yet we’ve never had. In all of the music you go to to kind of give yourself a high, you’re actually looking for a song you remember but you have never heard.

What you’re looking for in love is you’re looking for arms you remember but you never really had. That’s what the Bible is saying; that’s what the Tree of Life is. Unless you understand what you’re looking for in everything you’re looking for is the Tree of Life, you’re not going to be wise.

Of course, there’s nobody who has put it like Lewis, who says, “Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. […]

The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality.”

In another place Lewis writes, “… our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.” Once you get a little older … Some of you look like you have a ways to go. Some of you look like you don’t. You start to realize every single thing you looked for to give you a sort of satisfaction it never really delivers, and there are several things you can start doing.

One is you can be really stupid and say, “I need a new city. I need a new job. I need a new wife. I need a new husband. I need a new lover. I need a new place to go,” and you’re just constantly changing all the time. You could just get mad at yourself and blame it on yourself. “You’re a failure. It’s something wrong with you.” You could just get cynical and say, “You shouldn’t expect anything out of life.” In every case you’re going to have a crushed spirit or at least an atrophied spirit.

What’s the solution? Do you know the New Testament continually says Jesus died on a tree? “Yeah, in the book of Acts and 1 Peter 2 and Galatians 3. They hung him on a tree. He was nailed to a tree. He died on a tree.” Have you ever wondered about that? Have you said, “That’s kind of an exaggeration. It was a cross. Obviously, there was a big trunk, but it wasn’t really a tree, was it? Why do they say a tree?” Oh, it’s so significant, and I’ll tell you why.

In the garden of Eden, God comes to Adam and Eve and says, “Obey me about the tree. Don’t eat it, and you will live.” They didn’t. Centuries later, Jesus comes into a garden, the garden of Gethsemane. God comes to Jesus and says, “Obey me about the tree.” He did, but look at the difference.

To the first Adam God said, “Obey me about the tree, and you will live,” but to the second Adam God says, “If you obey me and go to the tree and go to the cross and do what I’m asking you to do, you will be crushed, crushed in spirit, crushed in body, crushed eternally,” and he did it. In Psalm 22, which he quotes from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” there’s a place in verse 14 where it says, “My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me.”

There is a crushed spirit. Jesus lost his ultimate hope. He put all of his hope in his Father, and the only person in the history of the world who put his ultimate hope in his Father, the Father, lost the Father eternally on the cross. He was crushed in spirit. He was infinitely crushed. He went through all that agony. Why? For us, to pay the penalty.

George Herbert, the great poet, puts it perfectly, sums up the whole Bible in one stanza in that great poem “The Sacrifice,” in which he depicts Jesus speaking from the cross, and there’s that one stanza where Jesus says …

O all ye who pass by, behold and see;

Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree;

The tree of life to all, but only me …

The cross was a tree of death, but because he climbed the tree of death, we have the Tree of Life. Actually, he turned the tree of death … The cross was a tree of death to him; therefore, it was a tree of life for all of us. To the degree you let that melt your heart, to the degree you see what he did for you, to the degree you rejoice in that, to the degree you orient your heart toward that and it just melts you at the thought of that love, to that degree you will experience what Tolkien calls, “… Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

There is a joy. It’s the foretaste to the Tree of Life. That’s the gospel. When you take the gospel and you start to use it on your spirit, that’s what you finally need. That’s the ultimate kind word. It’s the ultimate good word. We just said, “Do you need to get rid of your isolation? Do you need emotional connection and yet nobody understands you?” The only eyes in the universe who can see you to the bottom love you to the skies. Use that on your emotion. Use that on your relational aspect. Use that on your conscience. This last verse I was looking at a minute ago …

Howell Harris, I think it was, was an old Welsh preacher 200 years ago. When he was a young man, he wasn’t a Christian yet. He was like 14 or 15. His aunt was dying, and the family was all gathered around her. Back in those days they were waiting for her to die, and it looked like she was dead.

They said, “I think she’s gone. Poor Aunt So-and-So.” She opened her eyes, she looked up, and she said, “Who calls me poor? I am rich, and I will stand before him as bold as a lion.” Then she died. It had a big impact on Howell Harris, who later on wrote a hymn, I think, that went like …

What though the’ accuser roar

Of ills that I have done!

I know them well, and thousands more;

Jehovah findeth none.

Come on. He took the tree of death so you could have the Tree of Life. Use that on your emotion. Use that on your conscience. Use that on your existential angst. That’ll get rid of your fear of death. Most of all, use it on the hope of your heart. Love the people you love and love the things you love, but through them realize the ultimate song, the ultimate beauty, the ultimate arms, the ultimate Tree of Life you’re going to have.

Am I saying to you, “Okay, you really don’t need people now. You just need God. You just need to take this tape home, take this CD home, and listen to it. ‘Just me and God and my Bible, and I’ll be able to overcome all my depression’ ”? No, that’s not what I’m saying. That’s way too simplistic.

Besides that, do you know how hard it is to get the gospel deep down inside every aspect of your being? Do you realize how long it takes? Do you realize how almost always you need somebody to tell it to you over and over and over again? You need friends. You need counselors.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it something like, “It is possible that a person may by God’s grace break through to certainty, new life, the cross, and fellowship without the benefit of confessing to a brother or sister. It is possible a person may never know what it is to doubt his own forgiveness in Christ.

Most of us cannot make that assertion. When the confession of sin, when opening up the heart, is made in the presence of a Christian brother or sister, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders. He gives his heart to God and finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus and his brother.

The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin, and as the open confession of my heart to a brother or sister ensures against self-deception, so too the assurance of forgiveness becomes fully certain to me only when it is spoken by a brother or sister in the name of God.”

Put your hope in him. Take hold of the gospel. Work it into one another’s lives, not just into your own life, and you will know power in your inmost being. Let us pray.

Father, we ask that you would help us now, as we come to your Table, to really taste the Tree of Life. We know the sacrament can be a foretaste of that, and we pray that you would nourish us and feed us in our hearts through our faith in you. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

ABOUT THE PREACHER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

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

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

 
 
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Posted by on January 8, 2014 in Sermons, Tim Keller

 

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SUNDAY NT SERMON: Tim Keller “CHRIST OUR HOUSE” – Ephesians 2:14-22

Series: The King and the Kingdom – Part 8

Tim Keller preaching image

Preached in Manhattan, NY on September 10, 1989

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. - Ephesians 2:14–22

We’re looking, for three weeks, at this passage about the church. Last week, we talked about the fact that the Spirit of God, the life of God, coming into our lives as believers creates a tie stronger than any other tie that can exist between human beings. It’s a tie that transcends the deepest differences that can exist between human beings, differences of family, differences of race, differences of culture, differences of class; therefore, we say the church has a unity and a fellowship, a solidarity the world has been seeking between human beings, for years, in vain.

Tonight, we’re going to look how the same principle relates to our worship. Last week, fellowship and unity; this week, worship. There are volumes in one verse here, verse 18. In fact, all we’re going to look at is verse 18. “For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” Every word in there is loaded. It reminds me, a hymn writer once talked about a verse like that.

A box where sweets compacted lie.

That’s what it is. Every word is sweet. Look at the first one: for. It’s a sweet word. Why? Look at what comes before it, all of Paul’s discussion of how Jesus Christ died on the cross to reconcile people to God and to reconcile people to one another, but what is the point of it? What is it for? It all boils down to verse 18. “For through him we both have access …” Access is the bottom line of the Christian life. Access.

You may be religious. You may have experienced forgiveness. You may have experienced changes in your life. You may have overcome habits. You may have experienced a certain amount of peace, but listen. All those things are great, but that’s not the bottom line of the Christian life. Those things are symptoms. Those things are sparks, in a sense. They’re results. The bottom line of the Christian life is access. It’s all for this: Through him, we have access, getting in. Getting in.

The bottom line of the Christian life is … Are you in, near God? Are you out on the periphery, or are you in close? Do you experience access to him? Do you enjoy him? Do you know him? Or flip it around. Is he in the center of your life, or is he out on the periphery? Does he enjoy access to you? Do you enjoy access to him, and does he have absolute access to you? Are you in his center, or is he in your center? Access, that’s what the Christian life is about. That’s why we have to look at it. Notice all three members of the Trinity, the triune God, are involved in bringing us this great gift.

For what? “For through him …” Who’s that? Christ. “.… we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” Three prepositions: through Christ, to the Father, by the Spirit. Three little words. Prepositions of all things, not a noun, not a verb, not even an adverb. Three prepositions on which you can build your whole life. Not only that (and it has been done), on which you can build a whole civilization. Three prepositions. Let’s look at each one of them. This gift of access is to the Father through the Son by the Spirit. Let’s look at what this gift of access is. It’s:

1. To the Father

This word access, it’s one of those few times in which it’s helpful to know Greek. Usually, the Greek word means exactly what the translation says it means. In this case, it’s helpful to look at it, because the word access here, in Greek literature, means to have an introduction to a VIP, to have an introduction to a very important person. Therefore, Paul is, in a very specific way, drawing a picture.

Imagine this. Modernize it a little bit. There’s some great man coming to town, a man of the greatest importance, the greatest significance, the greatest fame, and in this case (which isn’t often the case), you admire this man mightily, so much that you’re willing to go out into the crowd just hoping you’ll catch a glimpse of him. Maybe you’ve even pushed to the front of the police line. You’re waiting there, and along comes the entourage. You haven’t even seen the man yet.

All of a sudden, to your surprise, in the entourage, you recognize somebody. Somebody in his entourage comes over and says, “Oh, I can’t believe you’re here. This is marvelous. Would you like to meet him?” You say, “I can’t believe it. Why, yes.” You’re on the outside. You’re behind the police line. You’re outside just hoping for a glimpse through the door, through the window. Maybe when the limousine comes by, for some strange reason, (you know, if there’s a light on the other side, even those dark glass places you can sometimes see through), maybe just a silhouette.

Suddenly, the friend takes you and leads you in, not just inside the police line but inside the house, not just inside the house but inside the room, not just inside the room but right up to his chair. You sit down, and the man gets the introduction from your friend. He turns to you, and he says, “Why, this is marvelous. I’d love to get to know you better. Could you come back for dinner? Just you and me and my wife.” You’re in. You’re in. You’ve experienced access.

Is that far-fetched? Let me tell you something, friends. If you think that’s far-fetched, the reality Paul is pointing to is as far greater than that story as an ocean is greater than a dewdrop. The reality is far greater than that story, which many of you say, “That’s never happened to me. That sort of thing never will happen to me.” The reality is greater, and that is every person who has received Jesus Christ as Savior has an introduction, not to a VIP, not to somebody in a limo. In New York, they’re a dime a dozen.

There are a lot of others places … a limo … anybody in a limo, anybody in an entourage, anybody behind a police line, that might happen once a year, twice a year, but here, it’s every day. It’s every block. But you say, “Even so, it’s fantastic. That would never happen.” The reality is so far greater because you have an introduction, an irrevocable, permanent introduction, into the courts of the King of the cosmos, the Lord of all life and love and power. He takes you into his heart, into his secrets, into his counsel, into his confidence. You, you’re in.

This is important because whether we recognize it or not, many of us, to one degree or another, are really dominated and influenced by a deep need to be on the inside, and our lives are actually run as much by that as they are by a fear of being left out. There is no worse fear than being left out. See, human society is full of little, what we call inner circles. There are all sorts of inner circles, and the worst thing in the world is to be outside of one if you get near one.

The most famous inner circle, of course, is high society, and a lot of us want to be in high-society circles. Well, we don’t admit that to ourselves until we get near enough to one to get an introduction, and then we go wild over it if it happens to us. Of course, we consider them snobs. Who is we? Anyone outside of that circle. But listen, those of us who are the most disdainful of people who are social climbers trying to get into the inner circle, many of us are just as consumed by a need to be in some other inner circle.

Oh, no, we don’t want tall ceilings and chandeliers. We want the cozy little studio or attic, and just four or five friends and the delicious knowledge we, even we, just we four or five, are the ones who know. Know what? It depends. It depends on if you’re Republican or a Democrat. It depends. But there are all these inner circles, and we want to be in there. Now before any of you say, “Oh, I’m not dominated by that kind of thing. I’m not influenced by that kind of thing,” realize, think about it. We are. It’s one of the great mainsprings of human behavior.

Why … I’m going to say kids, but you know, lots of us were, those of us who weren’t hatched … why is it that most kids have sex the first time? Why is it that most kids use drugs the first time? Why do they have sex the first time? Is it their hormones? Ridiculous. Those of you who remember realize you’re too scared to have your hormones involved at all. It’s the desire to be in. It’s the fear of being out. It’s one of the mainsprings of our professional lives. Let’s face it. It’s one of the reasons we get galled if we’re not brought in, and it’s any profession. It’s my profession too.

Kathy and I know that there’s a particular friend of ours, a pastor friend, who has gotten up and up in the world. Over the years, he’s really developed an inner circle. I’ve never been invited in, and there have been many times in which I was rankled by that. It’s the same cancer. When you start a new church, one of the things that very often happens is in the early stages there is tension between the people who perceive they have not gotten into the pastor’s inner circle and the people who are in. On and on it goes.

I read a very interesting biography not too long ago. It was a testimony of a man who had been gloriously converted to Jesus Christ after a long career as a very highly successful female impersonator. You know, I was just reading through the thing rather quickly. It was rather light reading and interesting and helpful and very glorious in many ways. At one point, he’s telling how, after all his life being a sissy, marginalized, always on the outside, always mocked, the first time he got onto the stage and went into his act … This is what he wrote: “I went into my act. They demanded encore after encore. I was in for once in my life, all those normal people out there clapping.”

The power that lifestyle had for him was that need to be in. You can go into psychoanalyzing him. You can go into checking out his hormones, but the whole idea was … He was out, and now he was in. It does affect us. How can we keep from this sort of thing ruining our lives? There’s only one way. You can sniff and say, “I won’t let that happen,” but then you look around for other people like you who are just as sensible about these inner circles. The next thing you know, you have one.

You have to acknowledge the fact that this is a need for access, and the only way it will not run your life and ruin your life is if you fill that need with the only thing that can truly satisfy it, and that is access into the only circle that counts, the circle of God, the Trinity. He takes you all the way in. It says in the Psalms, “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him …” The secret. That’s a big part of being in an inner circle, when people tell you secrets, you know, and the Lord tells you secrets.

It says in Revelation 2, to those who overcome, he gives you a white stone, and on it is your name written, the name that is known only to you. If you think I’m so wise, as a teacher of the Bible, that I know what in the world he’s talking about, I don’t know. But all I know is it probably has to do with the fact that God, the longer you work with him, the more he shows you who you are, the more he shows you what gifts he has given you, what your purpose is. He brings you in. He brings you all the way in; therefore, the only thing that is going to satisfy the need for access is access to God.

What is that access? It’s knowing God. See, the word for access and the word for knowing God is the same. Knowing God is the essence. John 17:3, Jesus says an amazing thing. He says, “This is eternal life …” What’s eternal life? Is that kind of esoteric to you? “This is eternal life that they know you, the only true and living God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” Knowing God is eternal life. What knowing God means is very critical to understand, and the best way I can explain it is to tell you the word knowledge in the Bible always has two layers to it. Two layers.

You can know something at the informational level, but you also can know something at the personal level, and those two things are intertwined. In John 14:9, Jesus says to Philip, “Philip, have you been with me so long and still you do not know me?” What does he mean? He says, “Philip, you have a lot of information about me. You’ve been living with me. You know all about me. You’ve heard all of my words. You’ve memorized all of my teachings, but you still don’t get it.”

What is he talking about? Philip had an informational knowledge, but no more. He was missing something else. Or in Matthew 7 (this is a sermon in itself, but I’ll do it some other time), where Jesus says on the last day people will come to him and they will say, “Lord, Lord, didn’t we do great deeds in your name? Didn’t we cast out demons in your name? Didn’t we prophesy in your name?” And Jesus will look at them and say, “I never knew you …” I never knew you.

Don’t ask me to go into that now, but what he’s saying is this is the all-knowing Creator who is talking. Jesus cannot mean, “I don’t know about you.” It doesn’t mean, “I don’t have all the information on you.” He knows everything about you. He knows the number of hairs on your head, but “I never knew you …” He is talking about personal knowledge. Put it this way: You can know something at an informational level and not personal.

My brother-in-law, I remember, some years ago, hated to wear seatbelts. I used to joke about it. He would say, “I hate seatbelts!” One time I visited him (he lives far away) and he had his seatbelt on. I said, “Ooh, wow.” I joked around in a macho way. You know, guys do. I said, “Hey, what are you doing with the seatbelt on?” He was very serious. He said, “I went to visit a friend of mine in the hospital who was in a fairly minor accident and went through the windshield. He did not have his seatbelt on and had 30 stitches in his face.” He said, “Ever since then, I put on my seatbelt.”

Think about something. Did my brother-in-law, whose name is Jim … Did Jim get any new information about seatbelts? Did he get any new information? He already knew all the stuff about seatbelts. He knew the statistics. Did he get any new information? No. Then what made the difference? The difference was, though he did not get any new information … listen … the information became new. He got no new information; the information became new.

It moved down from the informational level to the personal level. In other words, it got down to the place where it affected him as a whole person. His mind, his will, and his emotions were engaged. He saw how he related to seatbelts as a person (personally), and now it changed him. In the same way, it’s possible to have a whole lot of principles, knowledge about the Lord, knowledge about scriptural teaching, knowledge about God, but the questions is … Has that knowledge ever come down and become personal? Have you ever actually met him?

The Bible talks about this in Ephesians 1:18, where Paul says, “I pray …” He says this to the Ephesians. “… that the eyes of your heart would be enlightened so you might know the hope of your calling.” To me, that’s a locus classicus. That’s a classic text. He tells these people he’s praying they would know the hope of their calling. These are Christians. They know about their calling. They’ve heard it all, and he’s saying, “But you don’t really know it, do you? At the deep level, at the personal level, you haven’t really encountered it, and I’m praying the eyes of your heart would be enlightened.”

Right there, you have it. I can read something in the Scripture, but when the truth begins to shine because of what God’s doing to me, truth that has always been there, truth that has been a letter on the page … it begins to shine … the eyes of my heart are enlightened. I begin to know that truth. There are places where the Bible says, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!” Now there it is.

A lot of you in this room (I would hope most of you, probably) believe in the goodness of God. You believe God is good. You know he is good, but is that truth shining at you? Are you experiencing access to the goodness of God? Is it thrilling you? Is it comforting you? Is it changing you? Is it personal knowledge the way it became to my brother-in-law, Jim? Is it affecting you?

When I was a pastor, people would come on in, and I would see they were eaten up with worry, eaten up with it. This was back in the days when I was fairly naïve about this. I would open the Bible, and I would read places where it talked about God being good. “Oh, there are so many places about God being good, and worry is a complete mistrust, a throwing out the window, of the whole idea of the goodness of God. You can’t worry without denying it,” and I would say, “You know God is good.” The people would look at me, and they would say, “I know that, but it doesn’t help.”

I began to realize, as I began to read what the Bible said about knowledge, what it meant to know God, what it meant to have access, I realized you can’t say that. If you say, “I know about the goodness of God, but it doesn’t help,” you’re contradicting yourself. If you know about the goodness of God, you wouldn’t be worried. If you really knew it … I’m not saying that Christians don’t worry, but it’s because of a lack of access.

If the truth begins to shine, if the eyes of your heart are enlightened, if you know it, if you experience access to the goodness of God, it wipes out that kind of anxiety. Nobody has perfect access, but to the degree you have access, to that degree, there’s peace. The truth shines. That’s what this great gift is. It’s a remarkable gift. It’s unbelievable. Do you see it? Just before I go on, real quickly, there are two opposite errors churches fall into about this idea of knowledge.

There’s informational knowledge, and there’s personal, experiential knowledge. There are some churches that put all the emphasis on informational, and the emphasis is all on learning the doctrine and understanding it and knowing it inside out and mastering it and being accurate but without a commensurate emphasis on working that truth into the life before God in repentance and prayer so the truth shines and changes you. If you don’t have that commensurate access, if you put too much emphasis on the informational knowledge, what happens is you develop a legalistic church, an authoritarian church, a heresy-hunting church.

On the other hand, if a church puts much more emphasis on experience, and actually even eschews dogma, always saying, “We don’t believe in doctrine and dogma. We just want to bring you to Jesus,” the danger with that, first of all, that’s silly because as soon as you say, “I don’t believe in doctrine, just Jesus,” I say, “Who is Jesus?” “Oh, Son of God, fully God, fully Man, Savior, Mediator. But I don’t believe in doctrine.” You can’t. You can’t have personal knowledge without informational knowledge. Real knowledge, real access is based on informational knowledge. It’s more than informational knowledge, but it’s never less.

I mean, that’s not the way it works. If you sit down with somebody and you’re trying to get to know them personally, you ask for information. You want to know where they are, where they live, what job they have, and so on, don’t you? Then of course, you use the informational knowledge to build personal knowledge, and that’s the way it goes. But it’s more dangerous than that.

You have to realize that Christian mysticism (if I can use the word), Christian experience, is utterly different than Eastern experience. Eastern mysticism puts all the emphasis on destroying, frustrating the one side of your brain, the analysis side, the rational side, the logical side, and says, “Let’s frustrate it.” You know, all the things you’re supposed to meditate on, like, What is the sound of one hand clapping? And so forth. You’re supposed to meditate on that because it frustrates the logic. It frustrates the one side of your brain until the intuitive side is brought out.

That’s absolutely unbiblical, because Jesus said to the woman at the well of Samaria, “You must worship in spirit and truth, with your left and your right brain, with your analysis and your intuition.” I can’t go into more detail on that now, but do you see why there are these opposite errors? Knowledge is always more than information but never less. This is the gift. We have access, but how do we get it? How do we get it? There are the last two prepositions, which we actually have to look at together.

Why is it that most of us do not experience that access very much? And why is that some of you have never experienced? You know it as I’m describing it. Okay. There is the gift to the Father. That’s the gift, but the gift comes through the Son and by the Spirit. In other words, the gift is bought by the Son and delivered by the Spirit.

2. Bought by the Son

It says what? It says, “For through him we both have access to the Father …” Go back to the illustration about the entourage. Remember the key? Why is it that you got in to see the man? It was the friend, and that friend just can’t be any friend. You don’t think just anybody in their entourage could have gotten you in. It had to be a friend with tremendous standing with the VIP, with the very important person, right? It had to be a person with great standing. Why? Because a great person who doesn’t know you has to trust the introducer, so then he knows he can trust you.

If you try to introduce yourself, that’s tremendously arrogant, because what you’re doing if you try to introduce yourself, is you’re actually granting this person an audience. It’s tremendously arrogant. You say, “I’ll tell you who I am, and I don’t need an introduction,” which, of course, is just setting yourself up over top that person. The only way to get in is to have an introduction by somebody whom the great person trusts. It’s the only way.

Who is Jesus Christ? We’re told, “He is the One who stands before the Father.” Right here in this same passage, up in verse 13, we’re told we’re brought nigh. “We’re brought nigh by his blood.” He died in our place. He took our punishment for our sins. “Now,” the Bible says, “he stands before the Father.” Hebrews 7:25: “He stands. He lives to intercede for us.” We read a little earlier in the service he stands as one making our defense. In other words, we have a permanent, irrevocable introduction.

Anyone who approaches God through Jesus has access, and only through Jesus. Because if you go any other way, you try any other religion, you’ll have to be introducing yourself. You are your own reference. Do you realize how arrogant that is? To come to someone who you’re trying to get a job from, or you’re trying to get in with, you’re trying to get an audience from, and you refuse to even come up with a reference. No one else introduces you … I introduce myself.

Do you realize how incredibly insulting that is to the other person? Do you realize why you’ll never get a job that way? Just try to go see the president of the United States without an introduction. You’ll come down with bullets in you. It’s the same thing with the Father. You have two choices. There are only two approaches. You can introduce yourself, or you can go through Jesus. When you go through Jesus, you don’t have to introduce yourself ever again. Ever again. Then we’re told …

3. By the Spirit

What that means is though the Son has bought it, the Spirit has actually brought it. The Son has bought it, and the Spirit has brought it. It says, for example, in John 16, Jesus says, “The Spirit will come and take of mine and show me to you. He will glorify me.” The Spirit’s job is to melt you under the truth.

Back in the old days, before we had wonderful glued envelopes, do you know how you sealed an envelope if you wrote it? What you had to have is you had to have a little piece of wax, right? You had to have a seal (usually a signet ring), and you had to have a flame. So you softened the wax with the flame, and what the flame did to the wax was it made the wax susceptible to the seal.

If you tried to put the seal on the wax without the flame, there are only two things that could happen. What? It could break the wax, or it could just leave only a superficial outline on the surface. But if the wax is changed, it’s softened by the flame, then the wax is susceptible, and it’s changed in the image of the seal. Now that illustration, transform it. The wax is your heart. The seal is the Truth, the Word of God, and the flame is the Spirit.

When I go to the Truth of God, and the Spirit is giving me access, do you see what happens? You can read about the power of God. If you just read about the power of God, without the influence of Spirit, you say, “Oh, God is powerful.” Without the influence of the Spirit, all that can do is make a superficial impression on the top of you, but when the Spirit of God is there, you read about the power, and there’s access. The truth begins to shine. It begins to change you, and what happens is your heart develops courage.

When you read about his goodness, it develops peace in you. When you read about his forgiveness, it develops relief in you. You shake off your guilty fears. When you read about his forgiveness, it develops generosity and mercy in you. When you read about his holiness, it develops conviction of sin and humility in you. Don’t you see? Only when the Spirit of God is doing that do you see real access happening. Only then.

I told you, by looking at these two things, these two prepositions, through Christ and by the Spirit, we can understand why some of us in this room are not experiencing access. Do you know why? A lot of us are saying, “I’ve been trying to do a good job. I’ve been working at being religious. I’ve been coming to church for a number of years. I’ve never had anything like what you’re talking about. Never!”

The answer is there’s no influence of the Spirit. There’s no softening. In fact, I’d have to say you have to be careful because the more and the more you try so hard to be religious and to be moral without the influence of Spirit on you, you push that seal in the wax, and you push that seal in the wax; all you get is a superficial outline. Eventually what happens is you crack it. That’s why we have people running around forming Fundamentalists Anonymous groups, people who have been cracked under the legalism, cracked under the Word without the Spirit.

Oh, you say, “Well, okay, why isn’t the influence of the Spirit in my life?” The only answer could be you’re not coming through the Son. It’s the only possible answer. You might say, “Well, I believe in Jesus,” but are you trying to introduce yourself? Are you coming to God, making yourself your own reference? Are you coming to him and saying, “Father, I’ve had a hard life, so I deserve …” I mean maybe you don’t use the words, but, “I’ve had it tough. I’ve tried. I’ve worked. I’ve worked.”

Or are you saying instead, “Oh, Lord God. Oh, Lord God. The audacity of someone like me to come to you, you have the right just to throw me out, but the gospel is Jesus has paid it all, and now he stands before the throne for me. He is my introduction. He is my reference. No other. All the other things I’ve ever done are worthless in your sight. Save me for Jesus’ sake?” If you’ve never done that, you’ve never come through him.

Do you understand that? For as hard as you’ve tried to be a Christian, if you’ve never done that, if you’ve never stopped your introductions, you never come through him; therefore, you’ve never really had access to the Father by the Spirit. Where does this leave us? Let me just finish by applying what we’ve learned, access to the Father through the Son by the Spirit, to three kinds of people here. Ready? If the shoe fits …

1. There are those of you who know about this access because you’ve experienced it, but you don’t experience it that much

You know, some tests of the experience … quick … just to make sure you know you’re alive. When you have access, when the Spirit is working on you, when the truth is shining, number one, when you go to God in prayer, you feel the burdens come off. “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” You feel the burdens come off. You can feel the needs and the troubles come off when you’re praying.

Another mark of access is there’s a confidence and boldness. Instead of saying, “Oh, gosh, why would God even listen to me?” there’s a boldness. There’s an eloquence. Besides the confidence and besides the sense of burdens coming off, number three, the real mark of access is surprise. There’s that hymn writer who wrote …

Sometimes a light surprises

The Christian while he sings;

It is the Lord who rises

With healing in His wings.

When you’re looking at the Word of God and it begins to sparkle out truth, your mind gets eloquent. That’s access. You start to see new beauties you hadn’t seen before, things that surprise you. They sparkle out like sun on the water. Your mind gets eloquent. You’re surprised by new beauties.

Another mark of access, and the most important one, is you find it really changes the way in which you live. Do you know that access? Do you know what I’m talking about? Every real Christian knows about it, but I also know every real Christian in this room also says, “I wish I had more of it. In fact, I’m really missing it lately. What can you do?” Here’s what I tell you to do: Even you need to make sure you’re going through the Son by the Spirit.

Through the Son means … Do you rejoice in the access you have through the Son? Do you rejoice in it, or do you run right into God’s presence with your “gimme” prayer list, and you say, “Oh, Lord, I have a lot for you to work on today?” Or do you walk in recollecting, thinking about the fact the only reason you’re not struck dead as you walk into prayer is because you’re coming through the Son and to say, “Oh, Lord, look at the standing I have. Even you can’t bring a charge against me because of the great salvation you brought for me in Jesus Christ?”

To the degree you rejoice in that access, to the degree you’ll experience that access, do you see? Do you just run into God’s presence, or do you enjoy? Do you reflect on what you have? The Bible says, again and again, you must pray in Jesus’ name. Do you know what that means? Do you think it’s just a little thing you say at the end in perfunctory way? To come in the name of Jesus means you know the only reason God will hear you is because of the irrevocable, permanent introduction you have before the throne of God. You relish that, and you revel in that. Are you doing that?

The other thing, of course, is you have to be by the Spirit, and one of the reasons many of us are not experiencing access is not only are we asking the Spirit for that access and yearning for it, a lot of us are grieving the Spirit in our lives. If access to God is by the Spirit and yet in our lives, by sins of omission or commission, by a lack of Christian duties or by actually breaking God’s commandments, you grieve the Spirit, and then you wonder why there’s no access. You can’t do that.

My friends, don’t be too discouraged here. You have to realize sometimes God doesn’t give you high access, and it’s a way for him to test you, because God values obedience given when there’s very little feeling in the heart. When you don’t feel close to him, but you obey, he knows how hard that is, and he knows how valuable that is, and he likes it. But on the other hand, I must point out to you God wants us to have access, and the reason many of us don’t is simply because of our disobedience and our laziness. You have to recollect coming through Jesus. You have to go by the Spirit.

2. The people who are trying to start a new church here

Not all of you are. An alive church experiences access to the Father. That means an alive church is just as big on defending the faith and truth as spreading it. An alive church is not afraid of surprise, because access means surprise. An alive church isn’t afraid of surprise. I mean, it’s creative. It’s not rigid. An alive church is a church that is ready to expect great possibilities because they have access to God, but I can’t go into that right now.

3. There are those of you who are here who have never experienced access, and you know it

In New York City it’s possible to be in some mighty elite circles. I don’t care what kind of circle you’re in, if you’re just getting in or if you think you’re about to get in, it’s awfully exciting, isn’t it? You’re sure this is going to satisfy that need for access. Nuh-uh. No matter what circle you’re in (and if you’ve been in it long enough, you know this), you’re nowhere unless you’re in God’s circle. The only way to do that is to come to the Father through Son by the Spirit.

Psalm 84 says, “How lovely is your dwelling place … My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” Everybody in this room, whether you admit it or not, that is the language of your deepest self, and the door is open. Let’s go in. Let’s take time to pray silently, time to say, “Lord, here’s what I have to do to put into practice what I’ve learned tonight.” Let’s pray.

If you’re a believer who is really dry, come through the Son. Remind yourself of who is there for you. Stop trying to introduce yourself. Don’t worry about that. At the same time, be willing to quit with those things you know grieve the Spirit and have blocked off your access. If there’s anybody here who knows you have no access; you really need to receive Christ as Savior, pray this prayer with me:

Lord, I’ve tried, off and on, to reach you, but I see how it has all been my own efforts, really, to introduce myself to you. I thought many things I did could get me in, but only Jesus Christ and his work can get me in. Now I receive him as Savior. Master, accept me for his sake. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.

 

 

ABOUT THE PREACHER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

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

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

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2013 in Sermons, Tim Keller

 

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TIM KELLER ON CHRISTMAS AND SUFFERING

come thou long expected Jesus guthrie

When September 11th happened and New Yorkers started to suffer, you heard two voices. You heard the conventional moralistic voices saying, “When I see you suffer, it tells me about a judging God. You must not be living right, and so God is judging you.” When they see suffering they see a judgmental God. The secular voice said, “When I see people suffering I see God is missing.” When they see suffering, they see an absent, indifferent God.

WHAT CHRISTMAS DOES FOR SUFFERING

But when we see Jesus Christ dying on the cross through an act of violence and injustice, what kind of God do we see then? A condemning God? No, we see a God of love paying for sin. Do we see a missing God? Absolutely not! We see a God who is not remote but involved. We sometimes wonder why God doesn’t just end suffering, but we know that whatever the reason, it isn’t one of indifference or remoteness. God so hates suffering and evil that he was willing to come into it and become enmeshed in it. Dorothy Sayers wrote:

For whatever reason, God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—he [God] had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace, and thought it was worthwhile.

The gift of Christmas gives you a resource—a comfort and consolation—for dealing with suffering, because in it we see God’s willingness to enter this world of suffering to suffer with us and for us. No other religion—whether secularism, Greco-Roman paganism, Eastern religion, Judaism, or Islam—believes God became breakable or suffered or had a body. Eastern religion believes the physical is illusion. Greco-Romans believe the physical is bad. Judaism and Islam don’t believe God would do such a thing as live in the flesh. But Christmas teaches that God is concerned not only with the spiritual, because he is not just a spirit anymore. He has a body. He knows what it’s like to be poor, to be a refugee, to face persecution and hunger, to be beaten and stabbed. He knows what it is like to be dead. Therefore, when we put together the incarnation and the resurrection, we see that God is not just concerned about the spirit, but he also cares about the body. He created the spirit and the body, and he will redeem the spirit and the body.

Christmas shows us that God is not just concerned about spiritual problems but physical problems too. So we can talk about redeeming people from guilt and unbelief, as well as creating safe streets and affordable housing for the poor, in the same breath. because Jesus himself is not just a spirit but also has a body, the gift of Christmas is a passion for justice. There are a lot of people in this world who have a passion for justice and a compassion for the poor but have absolutely no assurance that justice will one day triumph. They just believe that if we work hard enough long enough, we’ll pull ourselves together and bring some justice to this world. For these people, there’s no consolation when things don’t go well. But Christians have not only a passion for justice but also the knowledge that, in the end, justice will triumph. Confidence in the justice of God makes the most realistic passion for justice possible.

WHAT CHRISTMAS DOES FOR THE DESPISED (& THE DESPISER)

Lastly, in the package of Christmas, there’s the ability to reconnect with the part of the human race you despise. Have you ever noticed how women-centric the incarnation and resurrection narratives are? Do you realize that women, not men, are at the very center of these stories? For example, in the story of the resurrection, who was the only person in the world who knew that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead? Mary Magdelene, a former mental patient, is the one Jesus tells to take this news to the world. Everyone else in the whole world learns it from her. Women are the first people to see Jesus risen from the dead.

In the incarnation, the annunciation comes to a woman. God penetrates the world through the womb of a poor, unwed, Jewish, teenage girl. The first theological reflection group trying to wrap their minds around this to figure out what this means and what is going on is Mary and Elizabeth. We know that in those days women had a very, very low status. They were marginalized and oppressed. For example, we know that a woman’s testimony was not admissible in court. Why? Because of prejudice against women.

We say to ourselves, aren’t we glad we’re past all that? Yes, but here’s what we have to realize: God is deliberately working with people the world despises. The very first witnesses to his nativity and resurrection are people whom the world says you can’t trust, people the world looks down on. Because we don’t look down on women today, we don’t look at this part of the story and realize what we’re being told. But here’s what we’re being told: Christmas is the end of snobbishness. Christmas is the end of thinking, “Oh, that kind of person.” You don’t despise women, but you despise somebody. (Oh, yes you do!) you may not be a racist, but you certainly despise racists. You may not be a bigot, but you have certain people about which you think, “They’re the reason for the problems in the world.”

There’s a place in one of Martin Luther’s nativity sermons where he asks something like, “Do know what a stable smells like? You know what that family would have smelled like after the birth when they went out into the city? And if they were standing next to you, how would you have felt about them and regarded them?” He is saying, I want you to see Christ in the neighbor you tend to despise—in the political party you despise, in the race you despise, in the class of people you despise.

Christmas is the end of thinking you are better than someone else, because Christmas is telling you that you could never get to heaven on your own. God had to come to you. It is telling you that people who are saved are not those who have arisen through their own ability to be what God wants them to be. Salvation comes to those who are willing to admit how weak they are.

In Christmas there is a resource for something most of us don’t even feel the need of. We might be able to admit we have trouble being vulnerable or that we need help handling suffering or that we need more passion for justice. But almost nobody says, “What am I going to do about my prejudice and snobbery? I really need help with that.”

Do you remember what an incredible snob you were when you were a teenager? Teenagers generally want nothing to do with people who don’t dress right and look cool. Do you think you ever got over that? You’re not really over that. You just found more socially acceptable ways to express it. You see, teenagers let that aspect of human nature out and don’t realize how stupid they look, and after a while they get rid of it. But really they are just papering over it. There are all kinds of people you look down on and want nothing to do with—and you know it. But in Christmas you have this amazing resource to decimate that—to remove it and take it away.

These are the gifts that come in the package of Christmas— vulnerability for intimacy, strength for suffering, passion for justice, and power over prejudice. And you are blessed if you open this gift and take it into your life. If you do, you’ll be blessed. You’ll be transformed.

SOURCE: This adapted sermon is an excerpt from Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus: Experiencing the Peace & Promise of Christmas. Edited by Nancy Guthrie, Crossways. Copyright © by Timothy Keller, 2007. 


Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, which he started in 1989 with his wife, Kathy, and three young sons. For over twenty years he has led a diverse congregation of young professionals that has grown to a weekly attendance of over 5,000.

 

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