Tag Archives: Timothy Keller
“THE GOSPEL IS NOT EVERYTHING”
(Adapted from Tim Keller’s fantastic Gospel saturated book Center Church: Doing Balanced Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012, Chapter One [I have written out many of the Scripture references in BOLD ITALIC print for ease of reference from the ESV – DPC])
What do we mean by “the gospel”? Answering this question is a bit more complex than we often assume. Not everything the Bible teaches can be considered “the gospel” (although it can be argued that all biblical doctrine is necessary background for understanding the gospel). The gospel is a message about how we have been rescued from peril. The very word gospel has as its background a news report about some life-altering event that has already happened:
Mark 1:1, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Luke 2:10, And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
1 Corinthians 1:16-17 & 15:1-11, (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power…Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
(1) The gospel is good news, not good advice.
The gospel is not primarily a way of life. It is not something we do, but something that has been done for us and something that we must respond to. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament — the Septuagint — the word euangelizo (proclaim good news) occurs twenty-three times. As we see in Psalm 40: 9 (ESV) — “I have told the glad news of [your] deliverance in the great congregation” — the term is generally used to declare the news of something that has happened to rescue and deliver people from peril. In the New Testament, the word group euangelion (good news), euangelizo (proclaim good news), and euangelistes (one who proclaims good news) occurs at least 133 times.
D. A. Carson draws this conclusion from a thorough study of gospel words:
Because the gospel is news, good news… it is to be announced; that is what one does with news. The essential heraldic element in preaching is bound up with the fact that the core message is not a code of ethics to be debated, still less a list of aphorisms to be admired and pondered, and certainly not a systematic theology to be outlined and schematized. Though it properly grounds ethics, aphorisms, and systematics, it is none of these three: it is news, good news, and therefore must be publicly announced (D.A. Carson, “What Is the Gospel? –Revisited,” in For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper, ed. Sam Storms and Justin Taylor. Wheaton, ILL.: Crossway, 2010, 158.
(2) The gospel is good news announcing that we have been rescued or saved.
And what are we rescued from? What peril are we saved from? A look at the gospel words in the New Testament shows that we are rescued from the “coming wrath” at the end of history (1 Thessalonians 1:10, “and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come”).
But this wrath is not an impersonal force — it is God’s wrath. We are out of fellowship with God; our relationship with him is broken. In perhaps the most thoroughgoing exposition of the gospel in the Bible, Paul identifies God’s wrath as the great problem of the human condition (Rom 1:18–32).
Romans 1:18-32, For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
Genesis 3:1-19, Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ”
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Here we see that the wrath of God has many ramifications. The background text is Genesis 3:17–19 (Genesis 3 passage above), in which God’s curse lies on the entire created order because of human sin. Because we are alienated from God, we are psychologically alienated within ourselves — we experience shame and fear (Gen 3:10). Because we are alienated from God, we are also socially alienated from one another (v. 7 describes how Adam and Eve must put on clothing, and v. 16 speaks of alienation between the genders; also notice the blame shifting in their dialogue with God in vv. 11–13). Because we are alienated from God, we are also physically alienated from nature itself. We now experience sorrow, painful toil, physical degeneration, and death (vv. 16–19). In fact, the ground itself is “cursed” (v. 17; see Rom 8:18–25 below).
Romans 8:18-25, For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Since the garden, we live in a world filled with suffering, disease, poverty, racism, natural disasters, war, aging, and death — and it all stems from the wrath and curse of God on the world. The world is out of joint, and we need to be rescued. But the root of our problem is not these “horizontal” relationships, though they are often the most obvious; it is our “vertical” relationship with God.
All human problems are ultimately symptoms, and our separation from God is the cause. The reason for all the misery — all the effects of the curse — is that we are not reconciled to God. We see this in such texts as Romans 5:8 and 2 Corinthians 5:20 (below).
Romans 5:8, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
2 Corinthians 5:20, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
Therefore, the first and primary focus of any real rescue of the human race — the main thing that will save us — is to have our relationship with God put right again.
(3) The gospel is news about what has been done by Jesus Christ to put right our relationship with God.
Becoming a Christian is about a change of status. First John 3:14 (emphasis added) states that “we have passed from death to life,” not we are passing from death to life ((The verb translated “passed” in 1 John 3:14 is metabaino, which means to “cross over.” In John 5:24, Jesus states, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who went me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over [metabaino] from death to life.” A parallel passage is Colosssians 1:13, where it is said that Christ-followers have been transferred from the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of the Son). You are either in Christ or you are not; you are either pardoned and accepted or you are not; you either have eternal life or you don’t. This is why Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones often used a diagnostic question to determine a person’s spiritual understanding and condition. He would ask, “Are you now ready to say that you are a Christian?” He recounts that over the years, whenever he would ask the question, people would often hesitate and then say, “I do no feel that I am good enough.” To that, he gives this response:
At once I know that… they are still thinking in terms of themselves; their idea still is that they have to make themselves good enough to be a Christian… It sounds very modest but it is the lie of the devil, it is a denial of the faith… you will never be good enough; nobody has ever been good enough. The essence of the Christian salvation is to say that He is good enough and that I am in Him! (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965, 34).
Lloyd-Jones’s point is that becoming a Christian is a change in our relationship with God. Jesus’ work, when it is believed and rested in, instantly changes our standing before God. We are “in him.”
Ever since reading J. I. Packer’s famous essay introducing John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ, I have liked “God saves sinners” as a good summary of gospel: God saves sinners. God — the Triune Jehovah, Father, Son and Spirit; three Persons working together in sovereign wisdom, power and love to achieve the salvation of a chosen people, the Father electing, the Son fulfilling the Father’s will by redeeming, the Spirit executing the purpose of Father and Son by renewing. Saves — does everything, first to last, that is involved in bringing man from death in sin to life in glory: plans, achieves and communicates redemption, calls and keeps, justifies, sanctifies, glorifies. Sinners— men as God finds them, guilty, vile, helpless, powerless, unable to lift a finger to do God’s will or better their spiritual lot (J.I. Packer, “Introductory Essay to John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ” – see this website [verticallivingministries.com] under the category “Soteriology” or “J.I. Packer”).
THE GOSPEL IS NOT THE RESULTS OF THE GOSPEL
The gospel is not about something we do but about what has been done for us, and yet the gospel results in a whole new way of life. This grace and the good deeds that result must be both distinguished and connected. The gospel, its results, and its implications must be carefully related to each other— neither confused nor separated. One of Martin Luther’s dicta was that we are saved by faith alone but not by a faith that remains alone. His point is that true gospel belief will always and necessarily lead to good works, but salvation in no way comes through or because of good works. Faith and works must never be confused for one another, nor may they be separated.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:14, 17-18, 20-26).
I am convinced that belief in the gospel leads us to care for the poor and participate actively in our culture, as surely as Luther said true faith leads to good works. But just as faith and works must not be separated or confused, so the results of the gospel must never be separated from or confused with the gospel itself. I have often heard people preach this way: “The good news is that God is healing and will heal the world of all its hurts; therefore, the work of the gospel is to work for justice and peace in the world.” The danger in this line of thought is not that the particulars are untrue (they are not) but that it mistakes effects for causes. It confuses what the gospel is with what the gospel does. When Paul speaks of the renewed material creation, he states that the new heavens and new earth are guaranteed to us because on the cross Jesus restored our relationship with God as his true sons and daughters. Romans 8:1–25 teaches, remarkably, that the redemption of our bodies and of the entire physical world occurs when we receive “our adoption.” As his children, we are guaranteed our future inheritance, and because of that inheritance, the world is renewed. The future is ours because of Christ’s work finished in the past.
“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory…having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:13-14,18).
“giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light… knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 1:12; 3:24).
“Therefore he [Jesus] is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Hebrews 9:15).
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5).
We must not, then, give the impression that the gospel is simply a divine rehabilitation program for the world, but rather that it is an accomplished substitutionary work. We must not depict the gospel as primarily joining something (Christ’s kingdom program) but rather as receiving something (Christ’s finished work). If we make this error, the gospel becomes another kind of a salvation by works instead of a salvation by faith.
As J. I. Packer writes:
The gospel does bring us solutions to these problems [of suffering and injustice], but it does so by first solving… the deepest of all human problems, the problem of man’s relation with his Maker; and unless we make it plain that the solution of these former problems depends on the settling of this latter one, we are misrepresenting the message and becoming false witnesses of God (J.I. Packer. Knowing God. Downers Grove, ILL.: InterVarsity, 1973, p. 171).
A related question has to do with whether the gospel is spread by the doing of justice. Not only does the Bible say over and over that the gospel is spread by preaching, but common sense tells us that loving deeds, as important as they are as an accompaniment of preaching, cannot by themselves bring people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Francis Schaeffer argued rightly that Christians’ relationships with each other constitute the criterion the world uses to judge whether their message is truthful — so Christian community is the “final apologetic” (Francis Schaeffer. The Mark of the Christian. Downers Grove, ILL.: InterVarsity, 1977, p. 25; cf. Timothy George and John Woodbridge. The Mark of Jesus: Loving in a Way the World Can See. Chicago: Moody, 2005).
Notice again, however, the relationship between faith and works. Jesus said that a loving community is necessary for the world to know that God sent him (John 17:23, “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” And John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”).
Sharing our goods with each other and with the needy is a powerful sign to nonbelievers (see the relationship between witness and sharing in Acts 4:31– 37 and Acts 6). But loving deeds — even though they embody the truths of the gospel and cannot be separated from preaching the gospel — should not be conflated with it. The gospel, then, is preeminently a report about the work of Christ on our behalf — that is why and how the gospel is salvation by grace. The gospel is news because it is about a salvation accomplished for us. It is news that creates a life of love, but the life of love is not itself the gospel (See D.A. Carson, “What Is the Gospel? —Revisited,” in For the Fame of God’s Name, 158).
THE GOSPEL HAS TWO EQUAL AND OPPOSITE ENEMIES
The ancient church father Tertullian is reputed to have said, “Just as Jesus was crucified between two thieves, so the gospel is ever crucified between these two errors” (Having heard and read this in the words of other preachers, I have never been able to track down an actual place in Tertullian’s writings where he says it. I think it may be apocryphal, but the principle is right).
What are these errors to which Tertullian was referring? I often call them religion and irreligion; the theological terms are legalism and antinomianism. Another way to describe them could be moralism and relativism (or pragmatism).
These two errors constantly seek to corrupt the message and steal away from us the power of the gospel. Legalism says that we have to live a holy, good life in order to be saved. Antinomianism says that because we are saved, we don’t have to live a holy, good life.
This is the location of the “tip of the spear” of the gospel. A very clear and sharp distinction between legalism, antinomianism, and the gospel is often crucial for the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit to work. If our gospel message even slightly resembles “you must believe and live right to be saved” or “God loves and accepts everyone just as they are,” we will find our communication is not doing the identity-changing, heart-shaping transformative work described in the next part of this book. If we just preach general doctrine and ethics from Scripture, we are not preaching the gospel. The gospel is the good news that God has accomplished our salvation for us through Christ in order to bring us into a right relationship with him and eventually to destroy all the results of sin in the world.
Still, it can be rightly argued that in order to understand all this — who God is, why we need salvation, what he has done to save us — we must have knowledge of the basic teachings of the entire Bible. J. Gresham Machen, for example, speaks of the biblical doctrines of God and of man to be the “presuppositions of the gospel” ((J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, new ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001, 99).
This means that an understanding of the Trinity, of Christ’s incarnation, of original sin and sin in general — are all necessary. If we don’t understand, for example, that Jesus was not just a good man but the second person of the Trinity, or if we don’t understand what the “wrath of God” means, it is impossible to understand what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Not only that, but the New Testament constantly explains the work of Christ in Old Testament terms — in the language of priesthood, sacrifice, and covenant.
In other words, we must not just preach the Bible in general; we must preach the gospel. Yet unless those listening to the message understand the Bible in general, they won’t grasp the gospel. The more we understand the whole corpus of biblical doctrine, the more we will understand the gospel itself — and the more we understand the gospel, the more we will come to see that this is, in the end, what the Bible is really about. Biblical knowledge is necessary for the gospel and distinct from the gospel, yet it so often stands in when the gospel is not actually present that people have come to mistake its identity.
THE GOSPEL HAS CHAPTERS
So, the gospel is good news — it is not something we do but something that has been done for us. Simple enough. But when we ask questions like “Good news about what?” or “Why is it good news?” the richness and complexity of the gospel begin to emerge.
There are two basic ways to answer the question “What is the gospel?” One is to offer the biblical good news of how you can get right with God. This is to understand the question to mean, “What must I do to be saved?” The second is to offer the biblical good news of what God will fully accomplish in history through the salvation of Jesus. This is to understand the question as “What hope is there for the world?”
If we conceive the question in the first, more individualistic way, we explain how a sinful human being can be reconciled to a holy God and how his or her life can be changed as a result. It is a message about individuals. The answer can be outlined: Who God is, what sin is, who Christ is and what he did, and what faith is. These are basically propositions.
If we conceive of the question in the second way, to ask all that God is going to accomplish in history, we explain where the world came from, what went wrong with it, and what must happen for it to be mended. This is a message about the world. The answer can be outlined: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. These are chapters in a plotline, a story. There is no single way to present the biblical gospel. Yet I urge you to try to be as thoughtful as possible in your gospel presentations. The danger in answering only the first question (“What must I do to be saved?”) without the second (“What hope is there for the world?”) is that, standing alone, the first can play into the Western idea that religion exists to provide spiritual goods that meet individual spiritual needs for freedom from guilt and bondage. It does not speak much about the goodness of the original creation or of God’s concern for the material world, and so this conception may set up the listener to see Christianity as sheer escape from the world. But the danger in conceiving the gospel too strictly as a story line of the renewal of the world is even greater. It tells listeners about God’s program to save the world, but it does not tell them how to actually get right with God and become part of that program. In fact, I’ll say that without the first message, the second message is not the gospel. J. I. Packer writes these words:
In recent years, great strides in biblical theology and contemporary canonical exegesis have brought new precision to our grasp of the Bible’s overall story of how God’s plan to bless Israel, and through Israel the world, came to its climax in and through Christ. But I do not see how it can be denied that each New Testament book, whatever other job it may be doing, has in view, one way or another, Luther’s primary question: how may a weak, perverse, and guilty sinner find a gracious God? Nor can it be denied that real Christianity only really starts when that discovery is made. And to the extent that modern developments, by filling our horizon with the great metanarrative, distract us from pursuing Luther’s question in personal terms, they hinder as well as help in our appreciation of the gospel (J. I. Packer, In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2007, 26 – 27).
Still, the Bible’s grand narrative of cosmic redemption is critical background to help an individual get right with God. One way to proceed is to interleave the two answers to the “What is the gospel?” question so that gospel truths are laid into a story with chapters rather than just presented as a set of propositions. The narrative approach poses the questions, and the propositional approach supplies the answers.
How would we relate the gospel to someone in this way? What follows is a “conversational pathway” for presenting the gospel to someone as the chapters in a story. In the Bible, the term gospel is the declaration of what Jesus Christ has done to save us. In light of the biblical usage, then, we should observe that chapters 1 (God and Creation), 2 (Fall and Sin), and 4 (Faith) are not, strictly speaking, “the gospel.” They are prologue and epilogue. Simon Gathercole argues that both Paul and the Gospel writers considered the good news to have three basic elements: the identity of Jesus as Son of God and Messiah, the death of Jesus for sin and justification, and the establishment of the reign of God and the new creation (Simon Gathercole, “The Gospel of Paul and the Gospel of the Kingdom,” in God’s Power to Save, ed. Chris Green. Leicester, UK: Inter-Varsity, 2006, 138 – 54).
The gospel, then, is packed into chapter 3, with its three headings — incarnation, substitution, and restoration. Chapter 1 on God and chapter 2 on sin constitute absolutely critical background information for understanding the meaning of the person and work of Jesus, and chapter 4 helps us understand how we must respond to Jesus’ salvation. Nevertheless, it is reasonable and natural to refer to the entire set of four chapters as “the gospel.”
WHERE DID WE COME FROM?
Answer: God. There is one God. He is infinite in power, goodness, and holiness and yet also personal and loving, a God who speaks to us in the Bible. The world is not an accident, but the creation of the one God (Genesis 1). God created all things, but why did he do that? Why did he create the world and us? The answer is what makes the Christian understanding of God profound and unique. While there is only one God, within God’s being there are three persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit —who are all equally God and who have loved, adored, served, and enjoyed one another from all eternity. If God were unipersonal, then he would have not known love until he created other beings. In that case, love and community would not have been essential to his character; it would have emerged later. But God is triune, and therefore love, friendship, and community are intrinsic to him and at the heart of all reality. So a triune God created us (John 1: 1 – 4), but he would not have created us to get the joy of mutual love and service, because he already had that. Rather, he created us to share in his love and service. As we know from John 17: 20– 24, the persons of the Trinity love and serve one another — they are “other-oriented” (D. A. Carson in The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2000, pp. 39 & 43 writes, “What we have, then, is a picture of God whose love, even in eternity past, even before the creation of anything, is other-oriented. This cannot be said [for instance] of Allah. Yet because the God of the Bible is one, this plurality-in-unity does not destroy his entirely appropriate self-focus as God… There has always been an other-orientation to the love of God… We are the friends of God by virtue of the intra-Trinitarian love of God that so worked out in the fullness of time that the plan of redemption, conceived in the mind of God in eternity past, has exploded into our space-time history at exactly the right moment.”).
And thus God created us to live in the same way. In order to share the joy and love that God knew within himself, he created a good world that he cares for, a world full of human beings who were called to worship, know, and serve him, not themselves (See “The Dance of Creation,” in Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton, 2008, pp. 225– 26; “The Dance,” in Tim Keller, King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus. New York: Dutton, 2011, 3– 13).
WHY DID THINGS GO SO WRONG?
Answer: Sin. God created us to adore and serve him and to love others. By living this way, we would have been completely happy and enjoyed a perfect world. But instead, the whole human race turned away from God, rebelling against his authority. Instead of living for God and our neighbors, we live lives of self-centeredness. Because our relationship with God has been broken, all other relationships — with other human beings, with our very selves, and with the created world — are also ruptured. The result is spiritual, psychological, social, and physical decay and breakdown. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” — the world now lies under the power of sin (Quote from the poem “The Second Coming,” 1920 by William Butler Yeats).
Sin reaps two terrible consequences. One consequence is spiritual bondage (Rom 6: 15–18). We may believe in God or we may not believe, but either way, we never make him our greatest hope, good, or love. We try to maintain control of our lives by living for other things — for money, career, family, fame, romance, sex, power, comfort, social and political causes, or something else. But the result is always a loss of control, a form of slavery. Everyone has to live for something, and if that something is not God, then we are driven by that thing we live for — by overwork to achieve it, by inordinate fear if it is threatened, deep anger if it is being blocked, and inconsolable despair if it is lost. So the novelist David Foster Wallace, not long before his suicide, spoke these words to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College:
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough… Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you… Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is… they’re unconscious. They are default settings (Emily Bobrow, “David Foster Wallace, in His Own Words,” taken from his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, http:// moreintelligentlife.com/ story/ david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words; accessed January 4, 2012).
The second basic consequence of sin is condemnation (Rom 6: 23). We are not just suffering because of sin; we are guilty because of sin. Often we say, “Well, I’m not very religious, but I’m a good person — and that is what is most important.” But is it? Imagine a woman —a poor widow —with an only son. She teaches him how she wants him to live — to always tell the truth, to work hard, and to help the poor. She makes very little money, but with her meager savings she is able to put him through college. Imagine that when he graduates, he hardly ever speaks to her again. He occasionally sends a Christmas card, but he doesn’t visit her; he won’t answer her phone calls or letters; he doesn’t speak to her. But he lives just like she taught him — honestly, industriously, and charitably. Would we say this was acceptable? Of course not! Wouldn’t we say that by living a “good life” but neglecting a relationship with the one to whom he owed everything he was doing something condemnable? In the same way, if God created us and we owe him everything and we do not live for him but we “live a good life,” it is not enough. We all owe a debt that must be paid.
WHAT WILL PUT THINGS RIGHT?
Answer: Christ. First, Jesus Christ puts things right through his incarnation. C. S. Lewis wrote that if there is a God, we certainly don’t relate to him as people on the first floor of a building relate to people on the second floor. We relate to him the way Hamlet relates to Shakespeare. We (characters) might be able to know quite a lot about the playwright, but only to the degree that the author chooses to put information about himself in the play (See C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967, pp. 167– 76).
In the Christian view, however, we believe that God did even more than simply give us information. Many fans of Dorothy Sayers’s detective stories and mystery novels point out that Sayers was one of the first women to attend Oxford University. The main character in her stories — Lord Peter Wimsey — is an aristocratic sleuth and a single man. At one point in the novels, though, a new character appears, Harriet Vane. She is described as one of the first women who graduated from Oxford — and as a writer of mystery novels. Eventually she and Peter fall in love and marry. Who was she? Many believe Sayers looked into the world she had created, fell in love with her lonely hero, and wrote herself into the story to save him. Very touching! But that is not nearly as moving or amazing as the reality of the incarnation (John 1: 14). God, as it were, looked into the world he had made and saw our lostness and had pity on his people. And so he wrote himself into human history as its main character (John 3: 16). The second person in the Trinity, the Son of God, came into the world as a man, Jesus Christ.
The second way Jesus puts things right is through substitution. Because of the guilt and condemnation on us, a just God can’t simply shrug off our sins. Being sorry is not enough. We would never allow an earthly judge to let a wrongdoer off, just because he was contrite — how much less should we expect a perfect heavenly Judge to do so? And even when we forgive personal wrongs against us, we cannot simply forgive without cost. If someone harms us and takes money or happiness or reputation from us, we can either make them pay us back or forgive them— which means we absorb the cost ourselves without remuneration.
Jesus Christ lived a perfect life — the only human being to ever do so. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
At the end of his life, he deserved blessing and acceptance; at the end of our lives, because every one of us lives in sin, we deserve rejection and condemnation. “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks [Gentiles], are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:9–12).
Yet when the time had fully come, Jesus received in our place, on the cross, the rejection and condemnation we deserve (“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” – 1 Peter 3:18), so that, when we believe in him, we can receive the blessing and acceptance he deserves (“For our sake he made him to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” – 2 Corinthians 5: 21).
There is no more moving thought than that of someone giving his life to save another. In Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, two men — Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton — both love the same woman, Lucie Manette, but Lucie chooses to marry Charles. Later, during the French Revolution, Charles is thrown in prison and awaits execution on the guillotine. Sydney visits Charles in prison, drugs him, and has him carried out. When a young seamstress (also on death row) realizes that Sydney is taking Charles’s place, she is amazed and asks him to hold her hand for strength. She is deeply moved by his substitutionary sacrifice — and it wasn’t even for her! When we realize that Jesus did the very same thing for us, it changes everything — the way we regard God, ourselves, and the world.
The third way Jesus will put things right is through the eventual restoration of all that has gone wrong with the world. The first time Jesus came from heaven to earth, he came in weakness to suffer for our sins. But the second time he comes, he will judge the world, putting a final end to all evil, suffering, decay, and death. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God…But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (Romans 8:19–21; 2 Peter 3:13).
This means that Christ’s salvation does not merely save our souls so we can escape the pain of the curse on the physical world. Rather, the final goal is the renewal and restoration of the material world, and the redemption of both our souls and our bodies. Vinoth Ramachandra notes how unique this view is among the religions of the world:
So our salvation lies not in an escape from this world but in the transformation of this world… You will not find hope for the world in any religious systems or philosophies of humankind. The biblical vision is unique. That is why when some say that there is salvation in other faiths I ask them, “What salvation are you talking about?” No faith holds out a promise of eternal salvation for the world the way the cross and resurrection of Jesus do (Vinoth Ramachandra, The Scandal of Jesus. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001, 24).
HOW CAN I BE PUT RIGHT?
Answer: Faith. Jesus died for our sins and rose again from the grave. By faith in him, our sins can be forgiven and we can be assured of living forever with God and one day being raised from the dead like Christ. So what does it mean to believe, to have faith? First, it means to grasp what salvation “by faith” means. Believing in Christ does not mean that we are forgiven for our past, get a new start on life, and must simply try harder to live better than we did in the past. If this is your mind-set, you are still putting your faith in yourself. You are your own Savior. You are looking to your moral efforts and abilities to make yourself right with God. But this will never work. No one lives a perfect life. Even your best deeds are tainted by selfish and impure motives.
The gospel is that when we believe in Christ, there is now “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Putting our faith in Christ is not about trying harder; it means transferring our trust away from ourselves and resting in him. It means asking, “Father, accept me not because of what I have done or ever will do but because of what Jesus has done in my place.” When we do that, we are adopted into God’s family and given the right to his eternal, fatherly love (John 1:12–13).
The second thing to keep in mind is that it is not the quality of the faith itself that saves us; it is what Jesus has done for us. It is easy to assume that being “saved by faith” means that God will now love us because of the depth of our repentance and faith. But that is to once again subtly make ourselves our own Savior rather than Jesus. It is not the amount of our faith but the object of our faith that saves us. Imagine two people boarding an airplane. One person has almost no faith in the plane or the crew and is filled with fears and doubts. The other has great confidence in the plane and the crew. They both enter the plane, fly to a destination, and get off the plane safely. One person had a hundred times more faith in the plane than the other did, but they were equally safe. It wasn’t the amount of their faith but the object of their faith (the plane and crew) that kept them from suffering harm and arriving safely at their destination. Saving faith isn’t a level of psychological certainty; it is an act of the will in which we rest in Jesus. We give ourselves wholly to him because he gave himself wholly for us (“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me… Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me”- Mark 8:34; Revelation 3:20).
THE RIGHT RELATIONSHIP OF THE GOSPEL TO ALL OF MINISTRY
There is always a danger that church leaders and ministers will conceive of the gospel as merely the minimum standard of doctrinal content for being a Christian believer. As a result, many preachers and leaders are energized by thoughts of teaching more advanced doctrine, or of deeper forms of spirituality, or of intentional community and the sacraments, or of “deeper discipleship,” or of psychological healing, or of social justice and cultural engagement. One of the reasons is the natural emergence of specialization as a church grows and ages. People naturally want to go deeper into various topics and ministry disciplines. But this tendency can cause us to lose sight of the whole. Though we may have an area or a ministry that we tend to focus on, the gospel is what brings unity to all that we do. Every form of ministry is empowered by the gospel, based on the gospel, and is a result of the gospel.
Perhaps an illustration here will help. Imagine you’re in an orchestra and you begin to play, but the sound is horrific because the instruments are out of tune. The problem can’t be fixed by simply tuning them to each other. It won’t help for each person to get in tune to the person next to her because each person will be tuning to something different. No, they will all need to be tuned properly to one source of pitch. Often we go about trying to tune ourselves to the sound of everything else in our lives. We often hear this described as “getting balance.” But the questions that need to be asked are these: “Balanced to what?” “Tuned to what?” The gospel does not begin by tuning us in relation to our particular problems and surroundings; it first re-tunes us to God (Thanks to Michael Thate for this illustration).
If an element of ministry is not recognized as a result of the gospel, it may sometimes be mistaken for the gospel and eventually supplant the gospel in the church’s preaching and teaching. Counseling, spiritual direction, doing justice, engaging culture, doctrinal instruction, and even evangelism itself may become the main thing instead of the gospel. In such cases, the gospel as outlined above is no longer understood as the fountainhead, the central dynamic, from which all other things proceed. It is no longer the center of the preaching, the thinking, or the life of the church; some other good thing has replaced it. As a consequence, conversions will begin to dwindle in number because the gospel is not preached with a kind of convicting sharpness that lays bare the secrets of the heart and gives believers and nonbelievers a sense of God’s reality, even against their wills (“But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.” – 1 Corinthians 14:24–25).
Because the gospel is endlessly rich, it can handle the burden of being the one “main thing” of a church. First Peter 1:12 and its context indicate that the angels never tire of looking into and exploring the wonders of the gospel. It can be preached from innumerable stories, themes, and principles from all over the Bible. But when the preaching of the gospel is either confused with or separated from the other endeavors of the church, preaching becomes mere exhortation (to get with the church’s program or a biblical standard of ethics) or informational instruction (to inculcate the church’s values and beliefs). When the proper connection between the gospel and any aspect of ministry is severed, both are shortchanged.
The gospel is “heraldic proclamation” before it is anything else (D.A. Carson, “What Is the Gospel? —Revisited,” in For the Fame of God’s Name, 158). It is news that creates a life of love, but the life of love is not itself the gospel. The gospel is not everything that we believe, do, or say. The gospel must primarily be understood as good news, and the news is not as much about what we must do as about what has been done. The gospel is preeminently a report about the work of Christ on our behalf — salvation accomplished for us. That’s how it is a gospel of grace. Yet, as we will see in the next chapter, the fact that the gospel is news does not mean it is a simple message. There is no such thing as a “one size fits all” understanding of the gospel.
USE WORDS IF NECESSARY
[*This insert was an interesting aside by Keller, and not in the text: The
popular saying “Preach the gospel; use words if necessary” is helpful but also misleading. If the gospel were primarily about what we must do to be saved, it could be communicated as well by actions (to be imitated) as by words. But it the gospel is primarily about what God has done to save us, and how we can receive it through faith, it can only be expressed through words. Faith cannot come without hearing. This is why we read in Galatians 2:5 that heresy endangers the truth of the gospel, and why Philippians 1:16 declares that a person’s mind must be persuaded of the truth of the gospel. Ephesians 1:13 also asserts that the gospel is the word of truth. Ephesians 6:19 and Colossians 1:23 teach that we advance the gospel through verbal communication, particular preaching.]
The article above was adapted from Keller, Timothy J. (Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Kindle Locations 761-771). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
About the Author:
Dr. Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York, and the author of numerous books including The Reason for God: Belief in an age of Skepticism (In my opinion the best book to date on apologetics for a postmodern culture—I think this book will do for post moderns what Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis did for moderns); and The Prodigal God (in my opinion the most clear presentation of the gospel for a post modern culture based on Luke 15).
Martin Luther opened the Reformation by nailing “The Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. The very first of the theses was: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ…willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” On the surface this looks a little bleak! Luther seems to be saying Christians will never be making much progress in the Christian life. Indeed, pervasive, all-of-life-repentance is the best sign that we are growing deeply into the character of Jesus.
The Transformation of Repentance:
It is important to consider how the gospel affects and transforms the act of repentance. In ‘religion’ the purpose of repentance is basically to keep God happy so he will continue to bless you and answer your prayers. This means that ‘religious repentance’ is a) selfish, b) self-righteous, c) and bitter all the way to the bottom. But in the gospel the purpose of repentance is to repeatedly tap into the joy of union with Christ in order to weaken our need to do anything contrary to God’s heart.
“Religious” repentance is selfish:
In religion we only are sorry for sin because of its consequences to us. It will bring us punishment – and we want to avoid that. So we repent. But the gospel tells us that sin can’t ultimately bring us into condemnation (Rom. 8:1) its heinousness is therefore what it does to God-it displeases and dishonors him. Thus in religion, repentance is self-centered; the gospel makes it God-centered. In religion we are mainly sorry for the consequences of sin, but in the gospel we are sorry for the sin itself.
Furthermore, ‘religious’ repentance is self-righteous. Repentance can easily become a form of ‘atoning’ for the sin. Religious repentance often becomes a form of self-flagellation in which we convince God (and ourselves) that we are truly miserable and regretful that we deserve to be forgiven. In the gospel, however, we know that Jesus suffered and was miserable for our sin. We do not have to make ourselves suffer in order to merit forgiveness. We simply receive the forgiveness earned by Christ. 1 John 1:8 says that God forgives us because he is ‘just.’ That is a remarkable statement. It would be unjust of God to ever deny us forgiveness, because Jesus earned our acceptance! In religion we earn forgiveness with our repentance, but in the gospel we just receive it.
Last, religious repentance is “bitter all the way down.” In religion our only hope is to live a good enough life for God to bless us. Therefore every instance of sin and repentance is traumatic, unnatural, and horribly threatening. Only under great duress does a religious person admit they have sinned-because their only hope is their moral goodness. But in the gospel the knowledge of our acceptance in Christ makes it easier to admit we are flawed (because we know we won’t be cast off if we confess the true depths of our sinfulness).
Our hope is in Christ’s righteousness, not our own-so it is not so traumatic to admit our weaknesses and lapses. In religion we repent less and less often. But the more accepted and loved in the gospel we feel the more and more often we will be repenting. And though of course there is always some bitterness in any repentance, in the gospel there is ultimately sweetness. This creates a radical new dynamic for personal growth. The more you see your own flaws and sins, the more precious, electrifying, and amazing God’s grace appears to you. But on the other hand, the more aware you are of God’s grace and acceptance in Christ, the more able you are to drop your denials and self-defenses and admit the true dimensions of your sin. The sin under all other sins is a lack of joy in Christ.
The Disciplines of Gospel-Repentance:
If you clearly understood these two different ways to go about repentance, then (and only then!) you can profit greatly from a regular and exacting discipline of self-examination and repentance. I’ve found that the practices of the 18th century Methodist leaders George Whitefield and John Wesley have been helpful to me here. In January 9, 1738, in a letter to a friend, George Whitefield laid out an order for regular repentance. (He ordinarily did his inventory at night) He wrote: “God give me a deep humility and a burning love, a well-guided zeal and a single eye, and then let men and devils do their worst!” Here is one way to use this order in gospel-grounded repentance.
Deep Humility vs. Pride:
Have I looked down on anyone? Have I been too stung by criticism? Have I felt snubbed and ignored?
Repent like this: Consider the free grace of Jesus until I sense a) decreasing disdain (since I am a sinner too), b) decreasing pain over criticism (since I should not value human approval over God’s love). In light of his grace I can let go of the need to keep up a good image-it is too great a burden and now unnecessary. Consider free grace until I experience grateful, restful joy.
Burning love vs. Indifference:
Have I spoken or thought unkindly of anyone? Am I justifying myself by caricaturing (in my mind) someone else? Have I been impatient and irritable? Have I been self-absorbed and indifferent and inattentive to people?
Repent like this: Consider the free grace of Jesus until there is a) no coldness or unkindness (think of the sacrificial love of Christ for you), b) no impatience (think of his patience with you), and c) no indifference. Consider free grace until I show warmth and affection. God was infinitely patient and attentive to me, out of grace.
Wise Courage vs. Anxiety:
Have I avoided people or tasks that I know I should face? Have I been anxious and worried? Have I failed to be circumspect or have I been rash and impulsive?
Repent like this: Consider the free grace of Jesus until there is a) no cowardly avoidance of hard things (since Jesus faced evil for me), b) no anxious or rash behavior (since Jesus’ death proves God cares and will watch over me). It takes pride to be anxious – I am not wise enough to know how my life should go. Consider free grace until I experience calm thoughtfulness and strategic boldness.
Godly motivations (a ‘single eye’):
Am I doing what I am doing for God’s glory and the good of others or am I being driven by fears, need for approval, love of comfort and ease, need for control, hunger for acclaim and power, or the ‘fear of man?’ Am I looking at anyone with envy? Am I giving in to any of even the first motions of lust or gluttony? Am I spending my time on urgent things rather than important things because of these inordinate desires?
Repent like this: How does Jesus provide for me in what I am looking for in these other things? Pray: “O Lord Jesus, make me happy enough in you to avoid sin and wise enough in you to avoid danger, that I may always do what is right in your sight, in your name I pray, Amen.”
*Dr. Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York, and the author of The Reason for God: Belief in an age of Skepticism (In my opinion the best book to date on apologetics for a postmodern culture—I think this book will do for post moderns what Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis did for moderns).
(1) Recognize that there are seasons for not doing marriage-seeking: When you are going through a significant transition — starting a new job, starting a new school, death of a parent, or some other fairly absorbing time or event — it might not at all be a good time to begin a relationship.
(2) Understand the ‘gift of singleness’: Paul calls singleness a gift in 1 Corinthians 7:7: But what Paul speaks of is neither a condition without any struggle nor on the other hand an experience of misery. It is fruitfulness in life and ministry through the single state.
(3) Get more serious about marriage seeking as you get older: The older you are, and the more often you ‘go out’, the quicker both people must be to acknowledge that you are doing marriage-seeking.
(4) Do not allow yourself deep emotional involvement with a non-believing person: The essence of intimacy in marriage is that finally you have someone who will eventually come to understand you and accept you as you are. You should not deliberately marry someone who does not share your Christian faith.
(5) Understand “attraction” in the most comprehensive sense: So many people choose their marriage partner on the basis of looks and money — rather than character, mission, future-self, and mythos — that they often find themselves married to a person they don’t really respect that much.
(6) Don’t let things get too passionate too quickly: Refuse to have sex before you are married. Sexual activity triggers deep passions in you for the other person before you have gotten a good look at him or her. Put friendship development before romantic development.
(7) Don’t become a ‘faux’ spouse for someone who won’t commit to you: If a relationship has dragged on for years with no signs of deepening or progressing towards marriage, it may be that one person has found a level of relationship (short of marriage) in which they are receiving all they want and feels no need to take it to the final stage of commitment.
(8) Get and submit to lots of community input: Married Christians should look for ways to “share” their marriages with the singles and other married couples in their community.
*TIMOTHY KELLER was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He was first a pastor in Hopewell, Virginia. In 1989 he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. Today, Redeemer has more than five thousand regular attendees at five services, a host of daughter churches, and is planting churches in large cities throughout the world. He is the author of KING’S CROSS, COUNTERFEIT GODS, THE PRODIGAL GOD, and the New York Times bestseller THE REASON FOR GOD, THE MEANING OF MARRIAGE (reviewed on this blog) & the forthcoming CENTER CHURCH (August 2012).
A Crisis for Evangelism
Our current cultural situation poses a crisis for the way evangelicals have been doing evangelism for the past 150 years—causing us to raise crucial questions like: How do we do evangelism today? How do we get the gospel across to a postmodern world?
In 1959 Martyn Lloyd-Jones gave a series of messages on revival. One of these expositions was on Mark 9, where Jesus comes off the mountain of transfiguration and discovers his disciples trying unsuccessfully to exorcise a demon from a boy. After he rids the youth of the demonic presence, the disciples ask him, “Why could we not cast it out?” Jesus answers, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:28-29). Jesus was teaching his disciples that their ordinary methods did not work for “this kind.” Lloyd-Jones went on to apply this to the church:
“Here, in this boy, I see the modern world, and the disciples I see the Church of God…I see a very great difference between today and two hundred years ago, or indeed even one hundred years ago. The difficulty in those earlier times was that men and women were in a state of apathy. They were more or less asleep…There was no general denial of Christian truth. It was just that people did not trouble to practise it…All you had to do then was to awaken them to rouse them…
But the question is whether that is still the position…What is ‘this kind’?…The kind of problem facing us is altogether deeper ad more desperate…The very belief in God has virtually gone…The average man today believes that all this belief about God and religion and salvation…is an incubus on human nature all through the centuries…
It is no longer merely a question of immorality. This has become an amoral or a non-moral society. The very category of morality is not recognized…
The power that the disciples had was a good power, and it was able to do good work in casting out the feeble devils, but it was no value in the case of that boy (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Revival (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1987, pp. 9, 13-15).
Put simply, Jesus is saying, the demon is in too deep for your ordinary way of doing ministry. It is intriguing that Lloyd-Jones said this some time before Lesslie Newbigin began to propound the thesis that Western society was a mission field again (See Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986 and The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989).
Indeed it was perhaps the most challenging mission field yet, because no one had ever had to evangelize on a large scale a society that used to be Christian. Certainly there have been many times in the past when the church was in serious decline, and revival revitalized the faith and society. But in those times society was still nominally Christian. There hadn’t been a wholesale erosion of the very concepts of God and truth and of the basic reliability and wisdom of the Bible. Things are different now.
Inoculation introduces a mild form of a disease into a body, thereby stimulating the growth of antibodies and rendering the person immune to getting a full-blown version of the sickness. In the same way, post-Christian society contains unique resistance and “antibodies” against full-blown Christianity. For example, the memory of sustained injustices that flourished under more Christianized Western societies has become an antibody against the gospel. Christianity was big back when blacks had to sit on the back of the bus and when men without consequences beat up women. We’ve tried out a Christian society and it wasn’t so hot. Been there. Done that. In a society like ours, most people only know of either a very mild, nominal Christianity or a separatist, legalistic Christianity. Neither of these is, may we say, “the real thing.” But exposure to them creates spiritual antibodies, as it were, making the listener extremely resistant to the gospel. These antibodies are now everywhere in our society.
During the rest of his sermon on Mark 9, Lloyd-Jones concludes that the evangelism and church-growth methods of the past couple of centuries, while perfectly good for their time (he was careful to say that), would no longer work. What was needed now was something far more comprehensive and far-reaching than a new set of evangelistic programs.
I believe that Lloyd-Jones’s diagnosis is completely on target. Richard Fletcher’s The Barbarian Conversion traces the way in which Christians evangelized in a pagan context from A.D. 500-1500 (Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, Berkley: University of California Press, 1999). During that time major swaths of Europe (especially the countryside rather than the cities) remained pre-Christian pagan. They lacked the basic “worldview furniture” of the Christian mind. They did not have a Christian understanding of God, truth, or sin, or of peculiar Christian ethical practices. Evangelism and Christian instruction were a very long and comprehensive process.
But eventually nearly everyone in Europe (and in North America) was born into a world that was (at least intellectually) Christian. People were educated into a basic Christian-thought-framework—a Christian view of God, of soul and body, of heaven and hell, of rewards and punishments, of the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. And that is why the church could make evangelism into both a simpler and a more subjective process than that practiced by previous generations. The people believed in sin, but they hadn’t come to a profound conviction that they were helpless sinners. They believed in Jesus as the Son of God who died for sin, but they hadn’t come to cling to him personally and wholly for their own salvation and life. They needed to come to a deep personal conviction of sin and to an experience of God’s grace through Christ. They had a Christian mind and conscience, but they didn’t have a Christian heart. The need, then, was for some kind of campaign or program that roused and shook people—taking what they already basically believed and making it vivid and personal for them, seeking an individual response of repentance and faith.
Since the end of the “Barbarian Conversion,” then, evangelism has shrunk into a program with most of the emphasis being on individual experience. The programs have ranged from preaching-and-music revival seasons, to one-on-one witnessing, to small-group processes. I agree with Lloyd-Jones that there was nothing wrong with these methods as far as they went and in their day. But now this kind won’t be effectively addressed by that older approach.
Some might respond that Lloyd-Jones has not been proven right. Isn’t evangelical Christianity growing—at least in North America? Look at all the mega churches spouting up! But we must remember that the new situation Lloyd-Jones was describing has spread in stages. It was in Europe before North America. It was in cities before if was in the rest of the society. In the United States it has strengthened in the Northeast and the West Coast first. In many places, especially in the South and Midwest, there is still a residue of more conservative society where people maintain traditional values. Many of these people are therefore still reachable with the fairly superficial, older evangelism programs of the past. And if we are honest, we should admit that many churches are growing large without any evangelism at all. If a church can present unusually good preaching and family ministries and programming, it can easily attract the remaining traditional people and siphon off Christians from all the other churches in a thirty-mile radius. This is easier now than ever because people are very mobile, less tied into their local communities, and less loyal to institutions that don’t meet their immediate needs. But despite the growth of mega churches through these dynamics, there is no evidence that the number of churchgoers in the United States is significantly increasing (see for example, http://www.theamericanchurch.org/facts/1.htm.).
What is clear is that the number of secular people professing “no religious preference” is growing rapidly. Michael Wolff, writing in New York Magazine, captures the growing divide:
There is a fundamental schism in American cultural, political, and economic life. There’s the quicker-growing, economically vibrant…morally relativist, urban-oriented, culturally adventuresome, sexually polymorphous, and ethnically diverse nation…And there’s the small-town, nuclear-family, religiously oriented, white-centric other America…with its diminishing cultural and economic force…Two countries (Michael Wolff, “The Party Line,” New York Magazine (Feb. 26, 2001): 19. Online at http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/media/columns/medialife/4407/index1.html.).
So Lloyd-Jones is right that the demon is in too deep for your ordinary way of doing ministry—especially in more secular, pluralistic Europe and in the parts of the United States that are similar. In the Christ-haunted places of the West you can still get a crowd without evangelism or with the older approaches. But the traditional pockets of Western society simply are not growing.
I will put my neck on the line and go so far as to say that in my almost thirty-five years in full-time ministry I’ve seen nearly all the older evangelism programs fade away as they have proved less and less effective. Dwight Moody pioneered the mass-preaching crusade in the late nineteenth century, and Billy Graham brought it to its state of greatest efficiency and success, but few are looking in that direction for reaching our society with the gospel.
In the latter part of the twentieth century there were a number of highly effective, short, memorizable, bullet-pointed gospel presentations written for individual lay Christians to use in personal evangelism. Programs were developed for training lay people to use the presentations door-to-door, or in “contact” evangelism in public places, or with visitors to church, or in personal relationships. These have all been extremely helpful but the churches I know that have used the same program in the same place for decades have seen steadily diminishing fruit.
The next wave of evangelism programming was the “seeker service” model developed by many churches, especially large ones. It is far too early to say that this methodology is finished, and yet younger ministers and church leaders are wont to say that it is too geared to people with a traditional, bourgeoisie, still-Christ-haunted mindset to operate. In many parts of society that kind of person is disappearing.
Today the main programmatic “hope” for churches seeking to be evangelistic is the “Alpha” method which comes out of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in London (See www.alpha.org.) There are good reasons why this more communal, process-oriented approach has been so fruitful, but I believe that the same principle will hold true, even for Alpha. There is no “magic bullet.” You can’t simply graft a program (like Alpha or its counterparts) onto your existing church-as-usual. You can’t just whip up a new gospel presentation, design a program, hire the staff, and try to get people in the door. The whole church and everything it does is going to have to change. The demon’s in too deep for the older ways.
In fact, things are more difficult than they were in Lloyd-Jones’s lifetime. He was facing what has been called a “modern” culture, and we face a “postmodern” one—making evangelism methods even more obsolete. It is not my job t look at the “modern vs. postmodern” distinction in any detail, but I think most would agree that the postmodern mindset is associated with at least three problems. First, there’s a truth problem. All claims of truth are seen not as that which corresponds to reality but primarily as constraints aimed to siphon power off toward the claimer. Second, there’s the guilt problem. Though guilt was mainly seen as a neurosis in the modern era (with the reign of Freud), it was still considered a problem. Almost all the older gospel presentations assume an easily accessed sense of guilt and moral shortcoming in the listener. But today that is increasingly absent. Third, there is now a meaning problem. Today there’s enormous skepticism that texts and words can accurately convey meaning. If we say, “Here is a biblical text and this is what it says,” the response will be, “Who are you to say this is the right interpretation? Textual meanings are unstable.”
So how do we get the gospel across in a postmodern world? The gospel and the fact that we are now a church on a mission field will dictate that almost everything the church does will have to be changed. But that is too broad a statement to be of any help, so I will lay out six ways in which the church will have to change. Each of these factors has parallels in the account of Jonah and his mission to the great pagan metropolis of Nineveh (I will ground the six factors in the Jonah text, but the following should not be seen as an effort to carefully or thoroughly expound the book of Jonah).
Jonah 1:1-2: “The word of the LORD came to Jonah…saying, ‘Go to…Nineveh and preach’” (NIV). For a long time I understood the “gospel” as being just elementary truths, the doctrinal minimum for entering faith. “Theology,” I thought, was the advanced, meatier, deeper, biblical stuff. How wrong I was! All theology must be an exposition of the gospel, especially in the postmodern age.
A good example of this is found in Mark Thompson’s book, A Clear and Present Word (Mark D. Thompson, A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture, New Studies in Biblical Theology, ed. D. A. Carson, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006). Thompson first describes our cultural context in which people believe all meanings are unstable and all texts are indeterminate. He then develops a Christian theology of language. This is certainly not elementary stuff. He begins by looking at the Trinity. Each person—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—seeks not his own glory but only to give glory and honor to the others. Each one is pouring love and joy into the heart of the other. Why would a God like this create a universe? As Jonathan Edwards so famously reasoned it couldn’t be in order to get love and adoration, since as a triune God he already had that himself (See the singular “The Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 8, Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989). Rather, he created a universe to spread the glory and joy he already had. He created other beings to communicate it back to him, so they (we!) could step into the great Dance, the circle of love and glory and joy that he already had.
Words and language, then, are ingredients in the self-giving of the divine persons to each other and therefore to us. In creation and redemption God gives us life and being through his Word. We can’t live without words, and we can’t be saved without the Word, Jesus Christ. Human language, then, isn’t an insufficient human construct but an imperfectly utilized gift from God. Thompson concludes:
The [gospel is that the] right and proper judgment of God against our rebellion has not been overturned; it has been exhausted, embraced in full by the eternal Son of God himself…
God uses words in the service of his intention to rescue men and women, drawing them into fellowship with him and preparing a new creation as an appropriate venue for the enjoyment of that fellowship. In other words, the knowledge of God that is the goal of God’s speaking ought never be separated from the centerpiece of Christian theology; namely, the salvation of sinners (Thompson, A Clear and Present Word, 56, 65).
This is certainly not elementary theologizing, but a grounding of even the very philosophy and understanding of human language in the gospel. The Word of the Lord (as we see in Jonah 1:1) is never abstract theologizing, but is a life-changing message about the severity and mercy of God.
Why is this so important? First, in a time in which there is so much ignorance of the basic Christian worldview, we have to get to the core of things, the gospel, every time we speak. Second, the gospel of salvation doesn’t really relate to theology like the first steps relate to the rest of the stairway but more like the hub relates through the spokes to the rest of the wheel. The gospel of a glorious, other-oriented triune God giving himself in love to his people in creation and redemption and recreation is the core of every doctrine—of the Bible, of God, of humanity, of salvation, of ecclesiology, of eschatology. However, third, we must recognize that in a postmodern society where everyone is against abstract speculation, we will be ignored unless we ground all we say in the gospel. Why? The postmodern era has produced in its citizens a hunger for beauty and justice. This is not an abstract culture, but a culture of story and image. The gospel is not less than a set of revealed propositions (God, sin, Christ, faith), but is more. It is also a narrative (creation, fall, redemption, restoration). Unfortunately, there are people under the influence of postmodernism who are so obsessed with narrative rather than propositions that they are rejecting inerrancy, are moving toward open theism, and so on. But to some extent they are reacting to abstract theologizing that was not grounded in the gospel and real history. They want to put more emphasis on the actual history of salvation, on the coming of the kingdom, on the importance of community, and on the renewal of the material creation.
But we must not pit systematic theology and biblical theology against each other, nor the substitutionary atonement against the kingdom of God. Look again at the above quote from Mark Thompson and you will see a skillful blending of both individual salvation from God’s wrath and the creation of a new community and material world. This world is reborn along with us—cleansed, beautified, perfected, and purified of all death, disease, brokenness, injustice, poverty, and deformity. It is not just tacked on as a chapter in abstract “eschatology,” but is the only appropriate venue for enjoyment of that fellowship with God brought to us by grace through our union with Christ.
In general, I don’t think we’ve done a good job at developing ways of communicating the gospel that include both salvation from wrath by propitiation and the restoration of all things. Today, writing accessible presentations of the gospel should not be the work of marketers but the work of our best theologians.
When God called Jonah to go to Nineveh the first time, Jonah ran in the other direction. Why? The reader assumes it was just fear, but chapter 4 reveals that there was also a lot of hostility in Jonah toward the Assyrians and Ninevites. I believe the reason he did not have pity on them was that he did not sufficiently realize that he was nothing but a sinner saved by sheer grace. So he ran away from God—and you know the rest of the story. He was cast into the deep and saved by God from drowning by being swallowed by a great fish. In the second chapter we see Jonah praying, and his prayer ends with the phrase “Salvation is the LORD!” (Jonah 2:9). My teacher Ed Clowney used to say that this was the central verse of the Bible. It is an expression of the gospel. Salvation is from and of the Lord and no one else. Period.
But as a prophet, doesn’t Jonah know this? He knows it—and yet he doesn’t know it. For eighteen years I lived I lived in apartment buildings with vending machines. Very often you put the coins in but nothing comes out. You have to shake or hit the machine on the side till the coins finally drop down and then out comes the soda. My wife, Kathy, believes this is a basic parable for all ministry. Martin Luther said that the purpose of ministry was not only to make the gospel clear, but to beat it into your people’s heads (and your own!) continually (“This is the truth of the gospel. It is also the principle article of all Christian doctrine, whereby the knowledge of all goodness consisteth. Most necessary it is therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it to others and beat it into their heads continually” – Martin Luther).
You might be able to get an A on your justification-by-faith test, but if there is not radical, concrete growth in humble love toward everyone (even your enemies), you don’t really know you are a sinner saved by grace. What must you do if you lack the humility, love, joy, and confidence you need to face the life issues before you? You should not try to move on past the gospel to “more advanced” principles. Rather, you should shake yourself until more of the gospel “coins” drop and more of the fruit of the Spirit comes out. Until you do that, despite your sound doctrine you will be as selfish, sacred, oversensitive, insensitive, and undisciplined as everyone else. Those were the attributes characterizing Jonah. If he had known the gospel as deeply as he should have, he wouldn’t have reacted with such hostility and superiority toward Nineveh. But the experience in the storm and in the fish brings him back to the foundations, and he rediscovers the wonder of the gospel. When he says, “Salvation is really from the Lord!” he wasn’t learning something brand new but was rediscovering and realizing more deeply the truth and wonder of the gospel.
If you think you really understand the gospel—you don’t. If you think you haven’t even begun to truly understand the gospel—you do. As important as our “gospel theologizing” is it alone will not reach our world. People today are incredibly sensitive to inconsistency and phoniness. They hear what the gospel teaches and then look at our lives and see the gap. Why should they believe? We have to recognize that the gospel is a transforming thing, and we simply are not very transformed by it. It’s not enough to say to postmodern people: “You don’t like absolute truth? Well, then, we’re going to give you even more of it!” But people who balk so much at absolute truth will need to see greater holiness of life, practical grace, gospel character, and virtue, if they are going to believe.
Traditionally, this process of “gospel-realizing,” especially when done corporately, is called “revival.” Religion operates on the principle: I obey; therefore I am accepted (by God). The gospel operates on the principle: I am accepted through the costly grace of God; therefore I obey. Two people operating on these two principles can sit beside each other in church on Sunday trying to do many of the same things—read the Bible, obey the Ten Commandments, be active in church, and pray—but out of two entirely different motivations. Religion moves you to do what you do out of fear, insecurity, and self-righteousness, but the gospel moves you to do what you do more and more out of grateful joy in who God is in himself. Times of revival are reasons in which many nominal and spiritually sleepy Christians, operating out of the semi-Pharisaism of religion, wake up to the wonder and ramifications of the gospel. Revivals are massive eruptions of new spiritual power in the church through a recovery of the gospel. In his sermon on Mark 9 Lloyd-Jones was calling the church to revival as its only hope. This is not a new program or something you can implement through a series of steps. It is a matter of wonder. Peter says that the angels always long to look into the gospel; they never tire of it (1 Peter 1:12). The gospel is amazing love. Amazing grace.
Three times Jonah is called to go to Nineveh, which God keeps calling “the great city” (1:1; 3:2; 4:11). God puts in front of Jonah the size of it. In Jonah 4:11 he says, “Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left…?” God’s reasoning is pretty transparent. Big cities are huge stockpiles of spiritually lost people. How can you not find yourself drawn to them? I had a friend once who used this ironclad theological argument on me: “The cities are places where there are more people than plants, and the countryside is the place where there are more plants than people. Since God loves people far more than plants, he must love the city more than the countryside.” That’s exactly the kind of logic God is using on Jonah here.
Christians and churches, of course, need to be wherever there are people! And there is not a Bible verse that says Christians must live in the cities. But, in general, the cities are disproportionately important with respect to culture. That is where the new immigrants come before moving out into society. That is where the poor often congregate. That is where students, artists, and young creatives cluster. As the cities go, so goes society. Yet Christians are under-represented in cities for all sorts of reasons.
Many Christians today ask, “What do we do about a coarsening culture?” Some have turned to politics. Others are reacting against this, saying that “the church simply must be the church” as a witness to the culture, and let the chips fall where they may. James Boice, in his book Two Cities, Two Loves, asserts that until Christians are willing to simply live and work in major cities in at least the same proportions as other groups we should stop complaining that we are “losing the culture” (James Montgmery Boice, Two Cities, Two Loves: Christian Responsibility in a Crumbling Culture, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996, 165ff.).
While the small town was ideal for premodern people, and the suburb was the ideal for modern people, the big city is loved by postmodern people with all its diversity, creativity, and unmanageability. We will never reach the postmodern world with the gospel if we don’t urbanize the gospel and create urban versions of gospel communities as strong and as well known as the suburban (i.e., the mega church). What would those urban communities look like? David Brooks has written about “Bobos” who combined the crass materialism of the bourgeoisie with the moral relativism of the bohemians (David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001). I’d propose that urban Christians would be “reverse Bobos,” combining not the worst aspects but the best aspects of these two groups. By practicing the biblical gospel in the city they could combine the creativity, love of diversity, and passion for justice (of the old bohemians) with the moral seriousness and family orientation of the bourgeoisie.
As I mentioned above, evangelism in a postmodern context must be much more thorough, progressive, and process-oriented. There are many stages to bring people through who know nothing at all about the gospel and Christianity. Again, we see something of this in the book of Jonah. In Jonah 3:4 we read, “Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’” Notice how little is in that message. Jonah is establishing the reality of divine justice and judgment, of human sin and responsibility. But that’s all he speaks of. Later, when the Ninevites repent, the king says: “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish” (Jonah 3:9). The king isn’t even sure if God offers grace and forgiveness. It is clear that the Ninevites have very little spiritual understanding here. And though some expositions like to talk about the “revival” in Nineveh in response to Jonah’s preaching, it seems obvious that they are not yet in any covenant relationship with God. They have not yet been converted. And yet God responds to that: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (3:10). He doesn’t say to them “You are my people: I am your God.” There’s no saving relationship here—but there is progress! They have one or two very important planks in a biblical worldview, and to God that makes a difference.
At the risk of over-simplification, I’ll lay out four stages that people have to go through to come from complete ignorance of the gospel and Christianity to full embrace. I’ll call them (1) intelligibility, (2) credibility, (3) plausibility, and (4) intimacy. By “intimacy” I mean leading someone to a personal commitment. The problem with virtually all modern evangelism programs is that they assume listeners come from a Christianized background, and so they very lightly summarize the gospel (often jumping through stages one to three minutes) and go right to stage “intimacy.” But this is no longer sufficient.
“Intelligibility” means to perceive clearly, and I use this word to refer to what Don Carson calls “world-view evangelism.” In his essay in Telling the Truth Don analyzes Paul’s discourse at Athens in Acts 17 (D.A. Carson, “Athens Revisited,” in Telling the Truth, ed. D.A. Carson, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002, 384-98). Paul spends nearly the whole time on God and his sovereignty, a God-centered philosophy of history, and other basic planks in a biblical view of reality. He mentions Jesus only briefly and then only speaks of his resurrection. Many people consider this a failure to preach the gospel. They believe that every time you preach you must tell people that they are sinners going to hell, that Jesus died on the cross for them, and that they need to repent and believe in him. The problem with this is that until people’s minds and worldviews have been prepared, they hear you say “sin” and “grace” and even “God” in terms of their own categories. By going too quickly to this overview you guarantee that they will misunderstand what you are saying.
In the early days of Redeemer Presbyterian Church I saw a number of people make decisions for Christ, but in a couple of years, when some desirable sexual partners came along, they simply bailed out of the faith. I was stunned. Then I realized that in our Manhattan culture people believe the truth is simply “what works for me.” There is no concept of a Truth (outside the empirical realm) that is real and there no matter what I feel or thin. When I taught them that Jesus was the Truth, they understood it through their own categories. There hadn’t really been a power-encounter at the worldview level. They hadn’t really changed their worldview furniture. When Jesus didn’t “work” for them, he was no longer their Truth.
“Credibility” is the area of “defeaters.” A defeater is a widely held belief that most people consider common sense but which contradicts some basic Christian teaching (You can read more on this subject of “defeaters” in this blog under the article titled: “How to Lead Secular People to Christ” by Tim Keller, as well as in his book – The Reason for God). A defeater is a certain belief (belief A), that, since it is true, means another belief (belief B) just can’t be true on the face of it. An example of a defeater belief now is: “I just can’t believe there is only one true religion, one way to God.” Notice that is not an argument—it’s just an assertion. There is almost no evidence you can muster for the statement. It is really an emotional expression, but it is so widely held and deeply felt that for many—even most people—it automatically mans orthodox Christianity can’t be true. Now in the older Western culture there were very few defeater beliefs out there. The great majority of people believed the Bible, believed in God and heaven and hell, and so on. In the old “Evangelism Explosion” training, I remember there was an appendix of “Objections,” but you were directed not to bring these up unless the person you were talking to brought them up first. You were to focus on getting through the presentation.
But today you must have a good list of ten to twenty basic defeaters out there and must speak to them constantly in all your communication and preaching. You have to go after them and show people that all their doubts about Christianity are really alternate faith-assertions. You have to show them what they are and ask them for as much warrant and support for their assertions as they are asking for yours. For example, you must show someone who says, “I think all religions are equally valid; no one’s view of spirituality is superior to anyone else’s,” that statement is itself a faith assertion (it can’t be proven) and is itself a view on spiritual reality that he or she thinks is superior to the orthodox Christian view. So the speaker is doing the very thing he is forbidding to others. That’s not fair! That sort of approach is called “presuppositional apologetics (For an introduction, see John Frame’s Apologetics to the Glory of God, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994). It uncovers the faith assumptions that skeptics smuggle in to their doubts. It will make them begin to think. If you don’t do this, people’s eyes will just glaze over as you speak. They will tune you out. Nothing you say will sound plausible to them. You can tell them. You can tell them they are sinners and say “the Bible says,” but the defeater belief may be deeply embedded in your listeners that the Bible was written by the winners of a power battle wit the Gnostic gospel writers, with the result that all your assertions are incredible.
In “Intelligibility” and “Credibility” you are showing listeners the nonnegotiables and angularities of the faith, the truth claims they have to deal with. But in “Plausibility” you enter deeply into their own hopes, beliefs, aspirations, and longing, and you try to connect with them. This is “contextualization,” which makes people very nervous in many circles. To some, it sounds like giving people what they want to hear. But contextualization is showing people how the lines of their own lives, the hopes of their own hearts, and the struggles of their own cultures will be resolved in Jesus Christ. David Wells says that contextualization requires
Not merely a practical application of biblical doctrine but a translation of that doctrine into a conceptuality that meshes with the reality of the social structures and patterns of life dominant in our contemporary life…
Where is the line between involvement and disengagement, acceptance and denial, continuity and discontinuity, being “in” the world and not “of” the world?
Contextualization is the process through which we find answers to these questions. The Word of God must be related to our own context…The preservation of its identity [= intelligibility] is necessary for Christian belief; its contemporary relevance [= plausibility] is required if Christians are to be believable (David F. Wells, “An American Evangelical Theology: The Painful Transition from Theoria to Praxis,” in Evangelicalism and Modern America, ed. George M. Marsden, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984, 90,93).
Here is an example. When I talk to someone who insists that on one’s view on spiritual reality (faith) is superior to others, I always respond that that is a view of spiritual reality and a claim that the world would be a better place if others adopted it. Everyone unavoidably has “exclusive” views. To insist no one should make a truth claim is a truth claim. So the real question is not Do you think you have the truth? (Everybody does.) The real question is: Which set of exclusive truth claims will lead to a humble, peaceful, non-superior attitude toward people with whom you deeply differ? At the center of the Christian truth claim is a man on a cross, dying for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness. Anyone who thinks out the implications of that will be led to love and respect even their opponents.
What am I doing in the above paragraph? I’m taking a major theme of my secular culture—namely, that we live in a pluralistic society of conflict and diversity, and we need resources for living at peace with one another—and I’m arguing that the claim of religious relativism is not a solution, because it is an exclusive claim to superiority masking itself as something else. Instead I am pointing out that Jesus’ dying on the cross best fulfills the yearning of our pluralistic culture for peace and respect among people of different faiths. This is contextualizing—showing the plausibility of the gospel in terms my culture can understand. We have to do this today.
Of course there is always a danger of over-contextualizing, but (as David Wells indicates in the quote above) there is an equal danger of under- contextualization. If you over-adapt, you may buy into the idols of the new culture. But if you under-adapt, you may be buying into the idols of the older culture. If you are afraid to adapt somewhat to an over-experiential culture, you may be too attached to an overly rational culture. So you have to think it out! To stand pat is no way to stay safe and doctrinally sound. You have to think it out.
I know this heading sounds pretty strong, but I want to get your attention. In Jonah 3:1-2 we read, “Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.’” In Sinclair Ferguson’s little book on Jonah he comments on the broken, humbled prophet who hears the second call to Nineveh and answers it. He says:
God intends to bring life out of death. We may well think of this as the principle behind all evangelism. Indeed we may even call it the Jonah principle, as Jesus seems to have done…It is out of Christ’s weakness that the sufficiency of his saving power will be born…So fruitful evangelism is a result of this death-producing principle. It is when we come to share spiritually—and occasions physically—in Christ’s death (cf. Phil. 3:10) that his power is demonstrated in our weakness and others are drawn to him. This is exactly what was happening to Jonah (Sinclair B. Ferguson, Man Overboard, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1981, 70-71).
What does this mean? A man recently shared with me how he was trying to talk about his faith with his neighbors, to little avail. But then some major difficulties came into his life, and he began to let his neighbors know how Christ was helping him face them. They were quite interested and moved by this. It was the Jonah principle! As we experience weakness, as we are brought low, Christ’s power is more evident in us.
Lloyd-Jones once gave a sermon on Jacob’s wrestling with God. In the talk he told the story of a time when he was living in Wales. He was in a gathering of older ministers who were discussing a young minister with remarkable preaching gifts. This man was being acclaimed, and there was a real hope that God could use him to renew and revive his church. The ministers were hopeful. But then one of them said to the others: “Well, all well and good, but you know, I don’t think he’s been humbled yet.” And the other ministers looked very grave. And it hit Lloyd-Jones hard (and it hit me hard) that unless something comes into your life that breaks you of your self-righteousness and pride, you may say you believe the gospel of grace but, as we said above, the penny hasn’t dropped. You aren’t a sign of the gospel yourself. You don’t have the Jonah principle working in you. You aren’t a strength-out-of-weakness person. God will have to bring you low if he is going to use you in evangelism.
At the end of the book of Jonah, God gives Jonah a “gourd” (KJV) that grows a vine and gives him shade, but then a desert wind blasts the vine and ruins it. Jonah becomes disconsolate. John Newton wrote a hymn largely based on this incident.
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.
I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His Love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with His own hand
He seemed intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
“Lord why this,” I trembling cried,
“Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?”
“’Tis in this way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.”
“These inward trials I employ,
From self and pride to set them free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.” (John Newton, “I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow”, 1779).
I believe Jonah is a setup for the amazing letter from God to the exiles of Babylon in Jeremiah 29. The Jews had been living in their nation-state in which everyone was a believer, but when they arrive in Babylon God tells them to move into that pagan city, filled with unbelievers and uncleanness, and work for its peace and prosperity—its shalom. He challenges them to use their resources to make the city a great place for everyone—believers and unbelievers—to live. This is not just supposed to be a calculated thing or a thing of mere duty. He calls them to pray for it, which is to love it. This was the city that had destroyed their homeland! Yet that is the call. God outlines a relationship to pagan culture. His people are neither to withdraw from it nor assimilate to it. They are to remain distinct but enraged. They are to be different, but out of that difference they are to sacrificially serve and love the city where they are exiles. And if their city prospers, then they too will prosper.
This is really astonishing, but the book of Jonah gets us ready for all this. Jonah is called to go to a pagan city to help it avoid destruction, but he is too hostile toward them to want to go. He runs away, but God puts him on a boat filled with pagans anyway. There Jonah is asleep in the boat during the storm. He is awakened by the sailors, who tell him to call on his God to ask him to keep the boat from sinking. They ask him to use his relationship to God to benefit the public good. The Scottish writer Hugh Martin wrote a commentary on this text and called the chapter “The World Rebuking the Church” (Hugh Martin, The Prophet Jonah, 1866 reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1978). Eventually Jonah goes to Nineveh—but when God turns away from destroying them, Jonah is furious. This time God rebukes him for not caring about the whole city and its welfare. Jonah 4:10-11: “You pity the plant…Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
This is a picture of the church’s problem in a postmodern world. We simply don’t like the unwashed pagans. Jonah went to the city but didn’t love the city. Likewise, we don’t love the postmodern world in the way we should. We disdain these people who don’t believe in Truth. We create our subculture and we invite people to join us inside, but we don’t take our time, gifts, and money and pour ourselves out in deeds f love and service to our city. Does the world recognize our love for them? Are we the kind of church of which the world says: We don’t share a lot of their beliefs, but I shudder to think of this city without them. They are such an important part of this community. They give so much! If they left we’d have to raise taxes because others won’t give of themselves like those people do. “Though they accuse you…they…see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12; cf. Matt. 5:16).
Where do you get the courage and power to live like that? Well, here. Centuries after Jonah, there was another sleeper in a storm—Jesus Christ (Mark 4). And he was surrounded by his disciples who, like the sailors, were terrified. And in exactly the same way they woke him up and said, “Don’t you care? Do something or we will drown!” So Jesus waved his hand, calmed the sea, and everyone was saved. So for all the similarities, the stories of Jonah and Jesus are very different at the end. Whereas Jonah was sacrificed and thrown into the storm of wrath so the sailors could be saved, Jesus wasn’t sacrificed. But wait. On the cross, Jesus was thrown into the real storm, the ultimate storm. He went under the wrath of God and was drowned in order that we could be saved.
Do you see that? If you do, then you have both the strength and the weakness, the power and the pattern, to pour yourself out for your city. Ultimately, the gospel is not a set of principles but is Jesus Christ himself. See the supremacy of Christ in the gospel. Look at him, and if you see him bowing his head into that ultimate storm, for us, then we can be what we should be.
Since we began looking at Mark 9 we should not forget that “this kind” of demon “only comes out through prayer.” Lloyd-Jones applies this to the church today by insisting that it needs a comprehensive spiritual transformation if we are going to evangelize our world with the gospel. There’s a (probably apocryphal) story about Alexander the Great, who had a general whose daughter was getting married. Alexander valued this soldier greatly and offered to pay for the wedding. When the general gave Alexander’s steward the bill, it was absolutely enormous. The steward came to Alexander and named the sum. To his surprise Alexander smiled and said, “Pay it! Don’t you see—by asking me for such an enormous sum he does me great honor. He shows that he believes I am both rich and generous.”
Are we insulting God by our small ambitions and low expectations for evangelism today?
Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For His grace and power are such,
None can ever ask too much. (John Newton, “Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare”, 1779).
*TIMOTHY KELLER was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He was first a pastor in Hopewell, Virginia. In 1989 he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. Today, Redeemer has more than five thousand regular attendees at five services, a host of daughter churches, and is planting churches in large cities throughout the world. He is the author of KING’S CROSS, COUNTERFEIT GODS, THE PRODIGAL GOD, MINISTER’S OF MERCY, THE MEANING OF MARRIAGE and the New York Times bestseller THE REASON FOR GOD & the forthcoming CENTER CHURCH (August 2012). This article was first a lecture and can be heard for free on Desiringgod.org, and was also published as Chapter 5 in The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World, Crossway Books, 2007.
Defeater beliefs – Every culture hostile to Christianity holds to a set of ‘common-sense’ consensus beliefs that automatically make Christianity seem implausible to people. These are what philosophers call “defeater beliefs”. A defeater belief is a Belief-A that, if true, means Belief-B can’t be true.
Christianity is disbelieved in one culture for totally opposite reasons it is disbelieved in another. So for example, in the West it is widely assumed that Christianity can’t be true because of the cultural belief there can’t be just one “true” religion. That doesn’t seem implausible at all. Rather there it is widely assumed that Christianity can’t be true because of the cultural belief that American culture, based on Christianity, is unjust and corrupt. (Skeptics ought to realize, then, that the objections they have to the Christian faith are culturally relative!) So each culture has its own set of culturally based doubt-generators which people call ‘objections’ or ‘problems’ with Christianity.
When a culture develops a combination of many, widely held defeater beliefs it becomes a cultural ‘implausibility-structure.’ In these societies, most people don’t feel they have to give Christianity a good hearing – they don’t feel that kind of energy is warranted. They know it just can’t be true. That is what makes evangelism in hostile cultures so much more difficult and complex than it was under ‘Christendom.’ In our Western culture (and in place like Japan, India, and Muslim countries) the reigning implausibility-structure against Christianity is very strong. Christianity simply looks ludicrous. In places like Africa, Latin America, and China, however, the implausibility structures are eroding fast. The widely held assumptions in the culture make Christianity look credible there.
Dealing With the Implausibility Structure Today
Many books on reaching post-moderns today give the impression that people now need virtually no arguments at all. The ‘apologetic’ is a loving community, or the embodiment of social concern. I couldn’t agree more that post-modern people come to Christ through process, through relationships, through mini-decisions, through ‘trying Christianity on.’ They are pragmatic rather than abstract in their reasoning, etc. But the books that are against any arguments at all seem to miss the fact that the extreme pragmatism of non-Christians today is part of a non-Christian world-view. Our post-enlightenment culture believes what has been called expressive individualism. That is – ‘it is true if it works for me.’ This obviously is based on the view that truth and right-or-wrong is something I discover within my own self and consciousness.
What then of the claim that “post-modern people don’t want arguments – they just want to see if it works for them”? All right – as with any form of contextualization, let us as evangelists enter – adapt partially – to the culture of expressive individualism. Let us show them the reality of changed lives. Let us use narratives rather than long strings of logic. But at some point, the idea that “it is true if and only if it works for me” must be challenged. We have to say: “Ultimately that is correct – in the very, very long run, obeying the truth will ‘work’ and bring you to glory and disobeying the truth might lead to ostracism, persecution, or other suffering.
There have been many times in New York City that I have seen people make professions of faith that seemed quite heart-felt, but when faced with serious consequences if they maintained their identification with Christ (e.g. missing the opportunity for a new sexual partner or some major professional setback) they bailed on their Christian commitment. The probable reason was that they had not undergone deeper ‘world-view change’. They had fitted Christ to their individualistic world-view rather than fitting their world-view to Christ. They professed faith simply because Christianity worked for them, and not because they grasped it as true whether it is ‘working’ for them this year or not! They had not experienced a “power-encounter’ between the gospel and their individualistic world-view. I think apologetics does need to be ‘post-modern.’ It does need to adapt to post-modern sensibilities. But it must challenge those sensibilities too. There do need to be ‘arguments.’ Christianity must be perceived to be true, even though less rationalistic cultures will not demand watertight proofs like the older high-modern society did.
A ‘Sandwich’ Approach to Sharing the Gospel
There are two parts to sharing the gospel. What this means now is that there are two parts to sharing the gospel in a particular culture – a more ‘negative’ and a more ‘positive’ aspect.
The more negative aspect has to do with ‘apologetics’ – it consists in deconstructing the culture’s implausibility structure. In short, this means you have to show on the cultures terms (that is, by its own definitions of justice, rationality, meaning) that its objections to Christianity don’t hold up.
The more positive aspect of sharing the gospel is to connect the story of Jesus to the base-line cultural narratives. In short, you have to show in line with culture’s own (best) aspirations, hopes, and convictions that its own cultural story won’t be resolved or have ‘a happy ending’ outside of Christ.
A sandwich of three layers — I think the overall best way to ‘present the gospel’ is a kind of ‘sandwich’ approach to these two parts. The following assumes there is a process and a series of conversations between you and the person who doesn’t believe.
Brief gospel summary. First, the gospel must be presented briefly but so vividly and attractively (and so hooked into the culture’s base-line narratives) that the listener is virtually compelled to say “It would be wonderful if that was true, but it can’t be!” Until he or she comes to that position, you can’t work on the implausibility structure! The listener must have motivation to hear you out. That is what defeaters do – they make people super-impatient with any case for Christianity. Unless they find a presentation of Christ surprisingly attractive and compelling (and stereo-type breaking) their eyes will simply glaze over when you try to talk to them.
Dismantle plausibility structure. Alvin Plantinga wisely asserts that people avoid Christianity not because they have really examined its teachings and found them wanting, but because their culture gives huge plausibility (by the media, through art, through the expertise and impressive credentials of is spokespersons) to believe a series of defeater beliefs that they know are true, and since they are true, Christianity can’t be. The leading defeaters must be dealt with clearly and quickly but convincingly. Defeaters are dealt with when the person feels you have presented the objection to Christianity in a clearer and stronger way than they could have done it.
Longer explanation of the person and work of Christ. Now, if people find you have at least undermined the defeaters in a listener’s mind, you can now return to talking at greater length about creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. If you try to do apologetics before you pull off a quick, attractive presentation of Christ, people’s eyes will glaze over and they will become bored. But if you try to do a very lengthy explanation of the meaning of Christ’s cross and resurrection before you convincingly deal with the defeaters, they won’t listen to you either.
Summary of the approach:
The attractive gospel – Brief gospel connected to baseline narratives
Why Christianity can be true – Dismantling doubts and defeaters
The Biblical story of the gospel – A more thorough telling
The gospel connected to baseline cultural narratives
The doctrines of creation, sin, grace, and faith must be presented in connection with ‘baseline cultural narratives’ – Jesus must be the answer to the questions the culture is asking. Don’t forget – every gospel presentation presents Jesus as the answer to some set of human-cultural questions, like ‘how can I be forgiven?’ (Western moral individualism) or ‘how can I be free?’ (Post-modern expressive individualism) or ‘how can we over come evil forces in the world?’ (Contemporary Africans) etc. Every gospel presentation has to be culturally incarnated, it must assume some over-riding cultural concern, so we may as well be engaged with the ones that we face! Christianity must be presented as answers to the main questions and aspirations of our culture. Two of the over-riding concerns are:
Cultural concerns. First, a concern for personal freedom and identity. Contemporary people ask: Who am I? I’m not completely sure – but I do know I have to be free to create my own identity and sense of self. Whatever spirituality I have, it must leave me free to experiment and seek and not be a ‘one size fits all.’
Second, a concern for unity in diversity. Contemporary people ask: How can we get past exclusion and exclusivism? How can we live at peace in a pluralistic world? How can we share power rather than using power to dominate one another? How can we embrace the ‘Other’ – the person of a sharply different viewpoint and culture?
Gospel resources. Gospel resources for personal freedom. Kierkegaard depicts sin in The Sickness unto Death – as ‘building your identity on anything but God’ which leads to internal slavery and narrowness of spirit. This is a gospel presentation that connects well today. (Kierkegaard, like Nietzsche and other great thinkers, was a good century ‘ahead of his time.’) Kierkegaard also deconstructed mere religion and moralism and contrasted them with the gospel. (See his Three ways of life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the spiritual.) Building your identity on any finite created thing besides God leads to the idolization of that factor and the demonization of anyone who lacks it.
Gospel resources for living at peace. If you build your identity mainly on your class, or race, or culture, or performance you will necessarily vilify and disdain anyone who lacks what you consider the cornerstone of your own significance. Therefore, building your identity on God leads to hatred of the other, to social conflict and oppression. Jonathan Edwards (again, a man ahead of his time) recognized that if your highest love is based on your nation, your family, your career, even your religious performance, then you will disdain other nations, families, classes of people, and other religions. If anything but God is our “highest good” (i.e. if make anything an idol) then we have to demonize or at least exclude some part of creation. But if God is our ultimate good, then we are free to develop deep love for (what Edwards calls) “Being in general.” If we truly made the Lord our ultimate beauty and Savior and good – we would have an equal love and joy equally in all creation, all individuals, all people groups, even in all nature and created things.
In any case, there is no religion with a more powerful ground-motif for accepting enemies and the ‘Other’ than Christianity. We are the only faith that has at its heart a man dying for his enemies, forgiving them rather than destroying them. This must be presented to our culture as an unparalleled resource for living in peace in a pluralistic society.
As we said above, people’s eyes will ‘glaze over’ if you start your presentation with ‘reasons Christianity is true’. Christianity must be attractive to people before they will sit still for a presentation of intellectual credibility. A person must come to the point where he or she says, “that would be great if it were true – but is it?” Then and only then will they sit still for a discussion on why Christianity is true. So Christianity has to first be presented attractively and compellingly. We must show post-modern western culture – with its aspirations for personal freedom and unity in diversity – that its ‘Story’ can have a ‘happy ending’ in Jesus Christ. Then we can deal with the main objections (the ‘defeaters’) in our cultures that make it hard it hard to believe that Christianity is true.
Here is an example of a brief gospel presentation:
Why we are here. The one God is community – a Trinity of three persons who each perfectly know and defer to one another and love one another and therefore have infinite joy and glory and peace. God made a good, beautiful world filled with beings who share in this life of joy and peace by knowing, serving, and loving God and one another.
What went wrong. Instead, we chose to center our lives on ourselves and on the pursuit of things rather than on God and others. This has led to the disintegration of creation and the loss of peace – within ourselves, between ourselves, and in the nature itself. War, hunger, poverty, injustice, racism, bitterness, meaninglessness, despair, sickness, and death all are symptoms.
What puts the world right. But though God lost us he determined to win us back. He entered history in the person of Jesus in order to deal with all the causes and results of our broken relationship with him. By his sacrificial life and death he both exemplifies the life we must live and rescues us from the life we have lived. By his resurrection he proved who he was and showed us the future – new bodies and a completely renewed and restored new heavens and new earth in which the world is restored to full joy, justice, peace, and glory.
How we can be part of putting the world right. Between his first coming to win us and his last coming to restore us we live by faith in him. When we believe and rely on Jesus’ work and record (rather than ours) for our relationship to God, his healing kingdom power comes upon us and begins to work through us. Christ gives us a radically new identity, freeing us from both self-righteousness and self-condemnation. This liberates us to accept people we once excluded, and to break the bondage of things (even good things) that once drove us. He puts us into a new community of people which gives a partial, but real, foretaste of the healing of the world that God will accomplish when Jesus returns.
Deconstructing the Implausibility Structure
What are the dominant defeaters in contemporary Western civilization? These are the dominant defeaters discovered in a recent survey I did of young under 25 year olds NYC who are not Christian. Below six ‘defeaters’ are stated and answered in a nutshell. Why Christianity can’t be true because of:
The other religions. Christians seem to greatly over-play the difference between their faith and all the other ones. Though millions of people in other religions say they have encountered God, have built marvelous civilizations and cultures, and have had their lives and characters changed by their experience and of faith, Christian insist that only they go to heaven – that their religion is the only one that is ‘right’ and true. The exclusivity of this is breath taking. It also appears to many to be a threat to international peace.
Brief response: Inclusivism is really covert exclusivism. It is common to hear people say: “No one should insist their view of God is better than all the rest. Every religion is equally valid.” But what you just said could only be true if: First, there is no God at all, or second, God is an impersonal force that doesn’t care what your doctrinal beliefs about him are. So as you speak you are assuming (by faith!) a very particular view of God and you are pushing it as better than the rest! That is at best inconsistent and at worst hypocritical, since you are doing the very thing you are forbidding. To say “all religions are equally valid” is itself a very white, Western view based in the European enlightenment’s idea of knowledge and values. Why should that view be privileged over anyone else’s?
Evil and suffering. Christianity teaches the existence of an all-powerful, all-good and loving God. But how can that belief be reconciled with the horrors that occur daily? If there is a God, he must be either all-powerful but not good enough to want an end to evil and suffering, or he’s all-good but not powerful enough to bring an end to evil and suffering. Either way the God of the Bible couldn’t exist. For many people, this is not only an intellectual conundrum but also an intensely personal problem. Their own lives are marred by tragedy, abuse, and injustice.
Brief response: If God himself has suffered our suffering isn’t senseless. First, if you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world, then you have to (at the same moment) have a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t know. (You can’t have it both ways.) Second, though we don’t know the reasons why he allows it to continue, he can’t be indifferent or un-caring, because the Christian God (unlike the gods of all the other religions) takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he is willing to get involved with it himself. On the cross, Jesus suffered with us.
The ethical strait jacket. In Christianity the Bible and the church dictate everything that a Christian must believe, feel, and do. Christians are not encouraged to make their own moral decisions, or to think out their beliefs or patterns of life for themselves. In a fiercely pluralistic society there are too many options, too many cultures, too many personality differences for this approach. We must be free to choose for ourselves how to live – this is the only truly authentic life. We should only feel guilty if we are not being true to ourselves – to our own chosen beliefs and practices and values and vision for life.
Brief response. Individual creation of truth removes the right to moral outrage. First, aren’t there any people in the world who are doing things you believe are wrong that they should stop doing no matter what they believe inside about right and wrong? Then you do believe that there is some kind of moral obligation that people should abide by and which stands in judgment over their internal choices and convictions. So what is wrong with Christians doing that? Second, no one is really free anyway. We all have to live for something, and whatever our ultimate meaning in life is (whether approval, achievement, a love relationship, our work) it is basically our ‘lord’ and master. Everyone is ultimately in a spiritual straightjacket. Even the most independent people are dependent on their independence and so can’t commit. Christianity gives you a lord and master who forgives and dies for you.
The record of Christians. Every religion will have its hypocrites of course. But it seems that the most fervent Christians are the most condemning, exclusive, and intolerant. The church has a history of supporting injustices, of destroying culture, or oppression. And there are so many people who are not Christian (or not religious at all) who appear to be much more kind, caring, and indeed moral than so many Christians. If Christianity is the true religion – then why can this be? Why would so much oppression have been carried out over the centuries in the name of Christ and with the support of the church?
Brief response. The solution to injustices is not less but deeper Christianity. First, there have been terrible abuses. Second, in the prophets and the gospels we are given tools for a devastating critique of moralistic religion. Scholars have shown that Marx and Nietzsche’s critique of religion relied on the ideas of the prophets. So despite its abuses, Christianity provides perhaps greater tools than the other religions do for its own critique. Third, when Martin Luther King Jr. confronted terrible abuses by the white church he did not call them to loosen their Christian commitments. He used the Bible’s provision for church self-critique and called them to truer, firmer, deeper Christianity.
The angry God. Christianity seems to be built around the concept of a condemning, judgmental deity. For example, there’s the cross – the teaching that the murder of one man (Jesus) leads to the forgiveness of others. But why can’t God just forgive us? The God of Christianity seems a leftover from primitive religions where peevish gods demanded blood in order to assuage their wrath.
Brief response. On the cross God does not demand our blood but offers his own. First, all forgiveness of any deep wrong and injustice entails suffering on the forgiver’s part. If someone truly wrongs you, because of our deep sense of justice, we can’t just shrug it off. We sense there’s a ‘debt.’ We can either (a) make the perpetrator pay down the debt you feel (as you take it out of his hide in vengeance!) in which case evil spreads into us and hardens us or (b) you can forgive – but that is enormously difficult. But that is the only way to stop evil from hardening as well. Second, if we can’t forgive without suffering (because of our sense of justice) its not surprising to learn that God couldn’t forgive us without suffering – coming in the person of Christ and dying on the cross.
The unreliable Bible. It seems impossible any longer to take the Bible as completely authoritative in the light of modern science, history, and culture. Also we can’t be sure what in the Bible’s accounts of events is legendary and what really happened. Finally, much of the Bible’s social teaching (for example, about women) is socially regressive. So how can we trust it scientifically, historically, and socially?
Brief response: The gospels’ form precludes their being legends. The Biblical gospels are not legends but historically reliable accounts about Jesus’ life. Why? First, their timing is far too early for them to be legends. The gospels, however, were written 30-60 years after Jesus’ death – and Paul’s letters, which support all the accounts, came just 20 years after the events. Second, their content is far too counter-productive to be legends. The accounts of Jesus crying out that God had abandoned him, or the resurrection where all the witnesses were women – did not help Christianity in the eyes of first century readers. The only historically plausible reason that these incidents are recorded is that they happened. The ‘offensiveness’ of the Bible is culturally relative. Texts you find difficult and offensive are ‘common sense’ to people in other cultures. And many of the things you find offensive because of your beliefs and convictions, many will seem silly to your grandchildren just as many of your grandparents’ beliefs offend you. Therefore, to simply reject any Scripture is to assume your culture (and worse yet, your time in history) is superior to all others. It is narrow-minded in the extreme.
Two Final Notes on Dealing with ‘Doubts’ and ‘Defeaters’
First, it is critical to state these defeaters in the strongest possible way. If a non-Christian hears you express them and says, “that’s better than I could have put it” then they feel that they are being respected and will take your answer more seriously. You will need to have good answers to these defeaters woven in redundantly to everything you say and teach in the church.
Second, our purpose with these defeaters and doubts is not to ‘answer’ them or ‘refute’ them but to deconstruct them. That is, to “show that they are not as solid or as natural as they appear” (Kevin Vanhoozer). It is important to show that all doubts and objections to Christianity are really alternate beliefs and faith-acts about the world. (If you say, “I just can’t believe that there is only one true religion” – that is a faith-act. You can’t prove that.) And when you see your doubts are really beliefs, and when you require the same amount of evidence for them that you are asking of Christian beliefs, then it becomes evident many of them are very weak and largely adopted because of cultural pressure.
Steps Into Faith
What about the positive? If you are ready to move toward the exploration of faith in Christianity, you must be:
Deconstructing doubt. Your doubts are really beliefs, and you can’t avoid betting your life and destiny on some kind of belief in God and the universe. Non-commitment is impossible. Faith-acts are inevitable.
Knowing there’s God. You actually already believe in God at the deep level, whatever you tell yourself intellectually. Our outrage against injustice despite how natural it is (in a world based on natural selection) shows that we already do believe in God means the world is not the product of violence or random disorder (as in both the ancient and modern accounts of creation) but was created by a Triune God to be a place of peace and community. So at the root of all reality is not power and individual self-assertion (as in the pagan and post-modern view of things) but love and sacrificial service for the common good.
Recognizing your biggest problem. You aren’t spiritually free. No one is. Everyone is spiritually enthralled to something. ‘Sin’ is not simply breaking rules but is building your identity on things other than God, which leads internally to emptiness, craving, and spiritual slavery and externally to exclusion, conflict, and social injustice.
Discerning the difference between religion and the gospel. There is a radical difference between religion – in which we believe our morality secures for us a place of favor in God and in the world – and gospel Christianity – in which our standing with God is strictly a gift of grace. These two different core understandings produce very different communities and character. The former produces both superiority and inferiority complexes, self-righteousness, religiously warranted strife, wars, and violence. The latter creates a mixture of humility and enormous inner confidence, a respect for ‘the other’, and a new freedom to defer our needs for the common good.
Understanding the Cross. All forgiveness entails suffering and that the only way for God to forgive us and restore justice in the world without destroying us was to come into history and give himself and suffer and die on the Cross in the person of Jesus Christ. Both the results of the Cross (freedom from shame and guilt; awareness of our significance and value) and the pattern of the Cross (power through service, wealth through giving, joy through suffering) radically changes the way we relate to God, the world, and ourselves.
Embracing the resurrection. Because there is no historically possible alternative of the rise of the Christian church than the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. And if Jesus was raised from the dead as a forerunner of the renewal of all the material and physical world, then this gives Christians both incentive to work to restore creation (fighting poverty, hunger, and injustice) as well as infinite hope that our labors will not be in vain. And finally, it eliminates the fear of death.
*TIMOTHY KELLER was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He was first a pastor in Hopewell, Virginia. In 1989 he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. Today, Redeemer has more than five thousand regular attendees at five services, a host of daughter churches, and is planting churches in large cities throughout the world. He is the author of KING’S CROSS, COUNTERFEIT GODS, THE PRODIGAL GOD, and the New York Times bestseller THE REASON FOR GOD & the forthcoming CENTER CHURCH (August 2012).