Tag Archives: Timothy Keller

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


Tim Keller preaching image



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

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


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

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

1. The two “thieves” of the gospel

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

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

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

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

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

2. ‘Two Thieves’ application.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

1. Principles for Renewing the Heart with the Gospel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

c. The Plot resolves: HOW HE DID IT.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case Study #2

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

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

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

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

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


What the “Three Perspectives” are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Case Study: Application for the Story of Esther

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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



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


Tim Keller preaching image

(Strategies for Christ-Centered Exposition)


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

A. Preaching Christ – AS THEME RESOLUTION

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


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

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

2. Theme of Grace and Law in the Covenant.

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

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

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

“NARROW THEMES” (just some!)

4. Worship and the Sanctuary.

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

5. Righteousness and Nakedness.

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

6. Marriage and Faithfulness.

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

7. Image and Likeness.

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

8. Rest and Sabbath.

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

9. Wisdom and the Word.

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

10. Justice and Judgment.

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


11. Factor of Redemptive-Historical Progression.

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

12. Factor of Promise-Fulfillment.

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

B. Preaching Christ


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

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

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

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

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

C. Preaching Christ


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

1. Individuals’ story-lines.

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

2. Corporate story-lines.

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

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

3. Grace-pattern story-lines.

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

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

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

D. Preaching Christ


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

1. Major Figure Typology and Symbols.

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

2. Non-Personal Salvation Typology and Symbols.

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

“Cross-Cut” Category—Way of Contrast.

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

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



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Tim Keller on “THE WOUNDED SPIRIT” – Proverbs Series

SERIES: Proverbs: True Wisdom for Living

Tim Keller teaching at RPC image

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

Book of Proverbs

Proverbs 12:

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

Proverbs 13:

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

Proverbs 14:

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

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

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

Proverbs 15:

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

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

Proverbs 16:

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

Proverbs 18:

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

Proverbs 28:

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The priority of the inner life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The complexity of the inner life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The solitude of the inner life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O all ye who pass by, behold and see;

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

The tree of life to all, but only me …

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

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

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

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

What though the’ accuser roar

Of ills that I have done!

I know them well, and thousands more;

Jehovah findeth none.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

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

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

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SUNDAY NT SERMON: Tim Keller “Decrees of the King” – Ephesians 2:19-22

Series: The King and the Kingdom – Part 9

Tim Keller preaching image

Preached in Manhattan, NY on September 17, 1989

How many weeks have I been on Ephesians 2? I’m not sure, but what we’ve been doing is looking at what the Bible says the church should be, what the church can be, and what the church is. Ephesians 2. I’m going to read verses 19-22.

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

The last thing I want to say in this series about what the church is, is about this phrase: the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” The foundation of the church, the foundation of all of our lives is the apostles and the prophets.

A lot of you know I live on Roosevelt Island. That’s just 300 yards from Manhattan. We live right around 74th Street. We can look up East 74th Street. What was happening one Saturday is I was noticing you can go … Did you know you can go east in a car on 73rd Street? You can drive from York to the FDR Drive, which, of course, is the expressway down the eastern part of Manhattan. You can come out on 73rd, and as soon as you turn the corner, you get into a little chute. It’s one lane, and it moves you for about two blocks.

You go in front of 71st Street and then you come right out onto the traffic and you’re gone. You’re out. One day I noticed there was a truck backing up at 71st Street, some kind of maintenance truck. As a result, the chute was stopped. The people couldn’t go by 71st Street, and the cars were stopped up, all the way up the chute, all the way onto 73rd. There was even a line of people on 73rd waiting to get into the chute.

I could see with my binoculars that the truck was ready to back up. In fact, as the truck backed up, all the people in the chute started clearing out. Now if you were at 73rd Street and you hadn’t turned the corner yet, and you were about to go into the chute, you could not see what was going. You could see that it was backed up, but you could not see what the problem was or what the prospects were.

What intrigued me was, as the chute emptied out, the first man at the top of 73rd, who could not see … hesitated. He didn’t come on out, and I knew what he was saying to himself. He was saying, “If I get out in that chute and it’s really stopped up in some way … You can’t go backwards. You can’t go forwards. You can’t turn right or left … I’m dead. I’ll be there for who knows long. After all, this is New York.”

So what he did was, even though the chute had cleared out, he began to back up. Now there were tons of cars behind him, and there was at least a 15-minute mess as a result. He backed up. Other people started yelling and screaming. I was watching through the binoculars. It was great … a great show. What intrigued me was he got out, and he began to talk to the people about what he was doing.

Instead of anybody else coming around him, he convinced them. They could’ve come around him and out, but instead he convinced them. I don’t know what he was saying, but he was saying, “Let’s get out of here. Let’s back up.” So there was at least a 15-minute pileup, basically, of cars trying to back away and not going into that chute. They were this close to freedom, but they couldn’t see it.

You know why. What was the basis? What was the foundation for their decision? What was the basis for their course of action? Their foundation was their own perspective. They could only see this far. I guess they were going on their experience. They probably all had been stuck in chutes for two hours in New York City, and on the basis of their experience, on the basis of their perception, on the basis of their reason, they made their decision. It was a faulty foundation.

What they needed was someone with transcendent knowledge. They needed somebody who was above and outside. It wasn’t a driver. It wasn’t someone on the highway but somebody above and outside the highway who could see the whole picture, who could know what the best course of action was, a transcendent person (like me), someone who was above and beyond it all looking at it.

As he was backing away, if I had this great transmitter, what I could’ve done is I could’ve beamed into his car radio and said, “Don’t do what you’re doing. Don’t follow your feelings. Don’t follow your perceptions. Don’t follow your experience. I know, from my perspective, the right thing is for you to go straight down and into that chute. I know it seems like suicide. It’s the only way out.” What that man needed was revelation. Revelation means outside knowledge, knowledge outside of himself, knowledge outside even of his little world, which was the highway.

What God is saying here is it is not a proper foundation for the church; it’s not a proper foundation for any human life to only rely on your own experience, your own wisdom. Anything less than the revelation God has brought to us through apostles and prophets, which is in the Word of God. The only legitimate foundation, the only worthy foundation for any life at all, the only appropriate “bottom” is the Word of God. Everybody in this room has a foundation for your decisions. What is it? I don’t think you’ll get out of here tonight until you know what it is.

If we’re going to understand what our foundation is and what it should be, we have to look at the passage. We’re just looking at these little words right here in verse 20. We should be “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” Okay, let’s examine that phrase by asking some questions. Number one, What is the foundation? Then number two, How can we be sure we’re laid on it?

1. What is the foundation?

The apostles and the prophets were people through whom God spoke, and their revelations from God are written down in this Word. The most intriguing thing about the prophets and apostles, to the human mind, is an incredible incongruity because on the one hand, these men, these apostles and prophets, were tremendously humble people. You have Paul saying, “I am the chief of sinners.” If you read the Bible, you’ll see the people who wrote it were quite willing to tell all about the worst parts of their life, all about their flaws.

You know, one of the most intriguing books to me is the book of Jonah. How again and again and again, God called him to preach to Nineveh. He ran away, and then he was swallowed by a fish. He comes up. He goes to Nineveh, and he’s angry when he has a revival and people start to turn to Christ. His racism comes out. He begins to say, “This is what I was afraid of. The reason I didn’t go to Nineveh the first time was I afraid these people might get converted, and I hate them. I want to see them as dust under my feet.”

The only way we could have possibly ever known what happened between Jonah and God, and Jonah and the whale, Jonah and all that stuff, is if Jonah told somebody. Who would’ve told anybody about that? We all have things in our lives where we were just absolute fools, but we would never want to have it written down, let alone in a book that millions of people are going to read the rest of the history of the world.

You see, the apostles and the prophets were like that. They were willing to say, “This is what I am. This is my weakness. This is what I am,” and yet when they were overshadowed by the Spirit of God, they knew their words were not their words, but they were God’s words, and they acted that way. They said, “Thus saith the Lord.”

Here’s Paul, for example, who says, “I am the chief of sinners,” and yet when he writes, at the end of 1 Corinthians, at the end of 1Thessalonians, he says, “Anyone who doesn’t listen to these words, have nothing to do with them because these words are the words of God.” It doesn’t seem right, because the people who act like that, that say, “What I have said is the word of God.” These are demagogues, you know, the people we have met in the history who talk like that.

They’re demagogues. They’re not humble people. They’re not servants. On the other hand, humble servant people don’t say, “This is the word of God.” But the reason is that the prophets and the apostles were godly people who knew God was giving them a gift for all mankind, and that was the gift of his truth. Basically, again and again and again, these men say, “Thus saith the Lord,” which means, “This is not my idea, friends. You have to listen. It’s not my idea.”

Jeremiah said, “The Word of God is a fire in my bones, and I have to get it out.” They understood what was going on. Because the biblical writers knew these were God’s words, not their words, not their ideas about God, not their experiences of God, but God’s words, as a result, they could talk about themselves as a foundation, because a foundation is something that does not shift. It’s something that does not change. It’s something that is absolutely solid. It’s absolute truth.

You must understand the Bible was just a record of a lot of godly people who had great experiences of God, and therefore, they were able to tell us a lot of good things. Yet, like any other book, there are good things in here and there are bad things. If that’s what the Bible is, it can’t be a foundation, because a foundation can’t have some good stones and others not. You can’t build a house if you have 10 foundation stones, and you say, “Well eight of them will hold the house up. That’s good enough.” No, it isn’t good enough. Every part of the foundation has to be solid and changeless.

This is how the Scripture writers thought of themselves. They said, “We’re a foundation.” For example, Peter says this about Scripture. Peter, in 2 Peter 1, he says, “… no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.” Did you hear that? “… no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

This was not just the biblical writers’ view of it. All of the church has always seen it that way, for example, Martin Luther. Luther says, “A man’s word is a little sound, that flies in the air, and soon vanishes; but the Word of God is greater than heaven and earth, yea greater than heaven and hell, for it forms part of the power of God and endures everlastingly …” Foundation. That means anything the Bible says is true; otherwise, we cannot talk about it being a foundation. Before we move on (and I want to talk about, How do you make sure you lay on the foundation?), I can’t leave without a couple of words to people who doubt what I’m saying.

Some people say, “Well, I just don’t buy that, and most enlightened pastors and churches don’t buy that anymore, and what we believe is the Bible is one authority, but there are certain things in the Bible we may not be able to accept anymore. Therefore, the Bible is an authority, but we also have other authorities. We have cultural attitudes and the wisdom of modern research. We have a lot of authorities, so the Bible is just one authority. It’s not the only authority. It’s one part of the foundation. It’s not the whole foundation. Does that make sense?”

It doesn’t. You’ve misspoken, my friend. Because when you say the Bible is just one of our authorities, but we might find things in it we can’t accept, you’ve actually shifted to a whole new foundation, because now the foundation is your own judgment. Do you see? When you say, “Well, the Bible is an authority, but it’s only one authority,” what you mean is, “I’m the authority, and I scan through the Word of God. I decide, on the basis of my own judgment and my own sagacity and my own wisdom which things look like they’re great and which things look like they’re a little weird, and I don’t know whether I can buy that.”

You see, it’s a whole new foundation. Don’t say the Bible is your foundation anymore. It’s not even part of your foundation. Your own judgment is your foundation, and it’s a very dangerous condition to be in. Very dangerous. Stop and think about it just for a moment. In the middle of the book of Job, Job begins to question God. He begins to say, “God, I don’t like the way things are going.”

In other words, he begins to find fault with God. God appears. What does he say? He says, “Job, where were you when I stretched out the heavens? Where were you when I scattered the stars? Where were you when I laid the foundation for the earth? In your three score and 10 years, in your few years, have you become wiser than me?” Let me apply that to our understanding of the Word. If you believe there are any parts of the Word of God that are shaky, that you can’t accept, that you believe have mistakes in them, if you believe that, don’t you see what you’ve done is you shifted completely to another foundation?

Look what your foundation is. Your own wisdom. Don’t you remember what you were like 10 years ago? Do you remember the stupid mistakes you made 10 years ago? Do you remember how naïve you were in this and that? Do you remember what a fool you were? You were. You know that. Anybody in this room who has any kind of normal adult-maturation process going on, you’ll look back at 10 years ago, and you’ll say, “I was an absolute idiot 10 years ago.” What do you think you’re going to say about yourself 10 years from now? You’re a fool now! We’re all fools now! We’re fools now. Yes, we are.

As you read through Word of God and you say, “There’s this thing I just can’t stand. This part of the Old Testament is awfully harsh. This part of what Paul says in the New Testament is sexist. I don’t like this.” Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have even known that. You know, it’s maybe in the last 10 years you even came to these great conclusions that now put you in a position to be the foundation, to go through the Word of God and decide where he’s right and where he’s wrong.

My friends, that’s what God was saying to Job. Are you kidding me? Do you really, really believe you’re in a position to be a two-edged sword and to go through the Word of God and scan it and to say, “I like this,” and to take other things out? My friends, the Word of God is a two-edged sword. It should be scanning through us, and it should be saying, “This is what I affirm, and this is what is wrong.” I mean, this is role reversal of the worst kind.

So first of all, if you say, “I’m a believer. I’m a Christian, but I cannot say the Word of God is my absolute authority, and the Word of God is the foundation of the church,” don’t you see what a contradictory position you’re in? Don’t you see how arrogant it is? I’ll go one step further, and that is if you don’t believe the Bible is an authority, if, instead, your foundation is your own wisdom and your own feelings and your own discernment or modern research or cultural opinion or public opinion or whatever, I want you to see you’re in a state of eternal and utter vertigo. I hope you will live with the consequences and be honest enough about it.

Some years ago, my sister’s husband, my brother-in-law, Larry, who is a doctor, was going through residency. This is a different brother-in-law than the one who watched the guy go through the windshield. Remember that one? Yes, those of you with your “perfect attendance” pins and have come to all the evening services will know all about my family, but the rest of you have very spotty knowledge.

Anyway, Larry was in his residency as a doctor. At one point, I guess he did psychiatric rounds, and he was working in a psychiatric unit of a hospital. There was one man who he was consulting with the head resident about (the teacher, the guy over him), and this resident and Larry were talking, “What are we going to do about this guy?”

Now Larry knew this resident just didn’t like the guy. He was a psychiatric patient, but Larry realized the doctor, the resident, didn’t like him. The man rubbed him the wrong way. In the discussion, Larry was sitting there, and he says, “Well, here’s what I think: I think, in some ways, it’s hard but simple what we have to do. We have to convince this man he actually is a worthwhile person. Just let him know he is a valuable, valued, worthwhile person. That’s what we have to do.”

The doctor, the teaching doctor over Larry, looked at him and said, “How do you know that?” Larry just about went back. Larry was a believer, and as he was about to turn to this doctor, he suddenly realized something. He suddenly realized that whereas he could say, “Well, even though I don’t like this young guy either, I have a foundation. I have an authority who tells me he is (regardless of how I feel, regardless of how I perceive him) a valuable human being. He’s not just a piece of rock that has fallen to the bottom of the river, and I have to treat him that way,” he couldn’t appeal to that in this man because this man was his own foundation.

Don’t you see? If every person is their own foundation and you just choose what you want to believe about what’s right and wrong, and you put your own religion together, fine, you have a right to do that. But never call anybody else, never call a country, never call a society, never call anybody else to moral behavior because you have no basis.

Just like that guy said, “How do you know he’s worthwhile? In my estimation, he’s nothing.” In other words, what’s right for you might be right for you, but what’s right for me might be right for me. There’s no basis. We have no basis for society. You certainly don’t have a basis for calling other people to moral behavior.

Larry realized, at that moment, what the consequences were of abandoning the foundation. Don’t you see, friends, if you abandon the foundation, not only have you no basis for church, you don’t have any basis for life? You’re in a state of utter vertigo, never, ever, ever being able to call people to moral behavior.

I see the placards out there that say, “Get your laws off my body.” You don’t have a right to tell me what to do with my own body. I spent 10 years in the South, and I know there are a lot of shop owners who really, really, really bristled under the anti-segregation laws. Why? They said, “I built this shop. It’s mine. It’s private property, and if I don’t want certain kinds of people in here … Get your laws off my shop!” “Get your laws off my body,” basically, they said.

“Well,” the New Yorkers say, “but that’s different. That’s racism. That’s immoral.” On whose basis? How are you going to call anything immoral if everybody is their own foundation, if there’s no transcendent authority, if there’s no revelation from God? You can forget about saying, “Well, racism is immoral.” You can’t say that. But if your foundation is the Word of God, if you believe in revelation, and you accept revelation, then you have a basis for moving on. Then there’s a bottom to life. Do you understand that? That’s what the foundation is.

2. How can you be sure you’re laid on it?

How can you be sure? Well, if you’re going to build on a foundation, you can’t just put a wing of the house on the foundation and the rest somewhere else. The whole house, everything has to be on there. Let me just suggest to you that could be a very long sermon if I tried to take every part of us and put it on there, but let’s just do three. Let’s talk about our minds, our wills, and our hearts. If you want to be built on the foundation, you have to have your mind, your will, and your heart built on it, okay?

First, mind. Do you know what that means? Maybe you think, “Well that means I’m supposed to believe everything the Bible says.” Well, of course, but it goes a lot deeper than that. If you’re built on the foundation, you are thinking biblically about everything. You saturate your mind with the Word of God to the place where you’re thinking biblically about all things. It’s almost like you’re taking the Word of God, and you’re making it like spectacles, like glasses. You put the Word on so everything you see, you’re seeing through it.

Somebody might be saying as they’re hearing me talk, “Am I hearing you right up there? I think I’ve come into a time machine, not a Presbyterian church. Do you honestly want modern New Yorkers to believe everything the Bible says? Never question anything? Are you telling me I have to check my brain at the door with the usher? Are you telling me I have to just accept everything you say dogmatically? What kind of Christians would this sort of view produce? Obviously, it would just be little people who walk along like robots and do everything they’re told. You can have it. I don’t want a religion like that?”

You completely misunderstand the ramification of biblical authority, completely and utterly. First of all, my friends, to think biblically means you are now in a position, finally, to be creative and independent. Absolutely. Look, for example, suppose you become part of this church, and I come in, and I say, “Well, this is how we do things in a Presbyterian church.”

Very politely now, you don’t have to say, “Oh, well, hey, if that’s the way Presbyterians do it, and I’m a Presbyterian, I guess I …” You have to say, “Would you please explain to me … is that the biblical way? Show me in the Bible. I don’t care if you’re Presbyterian. I don’t care if you’re Episcopalian. I don’t care what you are. Show me in the Bible. That’s my basis.” You see, you’re not gullible anymore.

You’re a law student, for example, and you’re reading a legal textbook. It’s a philosophy of law. What do you say? If you’re not built on the foundation of the Word, you have to say, “Well, this man is an expert. This man is the leading thinker in the philosophy of law. Who am I to question him?” But if you’re built on the foundation, you can say, “How does this square with the Word of God?”

Don’t you see? It makes you extremely independent because no longer are you a slave to tradition. You don’t have to do things because that’s the way they’ve done them anymore, because that’s not the basis for your authority. No longer can you be intimidated by experts. If you’re not a Christian, or certainly if you’re not built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and you go to law school, and you read philosophy of law, what are you going to do? You’ve never worked on a philosophy of law. Who knows? You say, “Well, heck, I mean, why should I question this? This person has studied for 50 years.”

But the Word of God endures everlastingly. It’s transcendent knowledge, and you can say, “How does this square with the Word of God?” No longer are you cowed by experts. Now longer are you cowed by preachers. No longer are you cowed by anybody, tradition. It’s the end of gullibility, friends. Finally, you can be creative.

On the other hand, here’s what is so interesting: Even as it makes you so independent and much more open-minded than you’ve ever been before, to have this view of the Word of God, to be a biblical thinker, makes you humble too. Because if you don’t trust experts, you don’t trust your own expertise either. If you’re not going to listen to anything I say unless you make sure you believe this is biblical, on the other hand, you also have to say, “Hey, why should I even believe myself and my own prejudices and my own views? Let me check out whether I am right on the foundation.”

You see, there’s a humility this view points out, because your expertise, your feelings, your opinions, your prejudices, are no longer authoritative. What your parents told you is no longer authoritative. Nothing is but this, and that gives incredible freedom. Now before anybody says, “Great. Fantastic. I believe that. I want to think biblically. I want to put myself, my mind … Intellectually, cognitively, I want to be right on the Word of God, and that’s where I stand,” or maybe some of you say, “Well, that’s great. You’re convincing me I want to try that,” let me warn you it’s not easy.

Because what we have a tendency to do is to bring in the baggage of our ideologies. Unless you’re constantly reforming your mind, and we’re constantly reforming our church according to the Word of God, we can just, without knowing it, bring the ideologies of the world in. You know what I mean? For example, Christians who are based on the Word of God are always creative and distinctive, and therefore, they stand apart.

Let me give you a quick example: Catholic bishop of New York, Mr. O’Connor. I was reading his position on AIDS. It’s intriguing because there’s a conservative ideology in this country, and I know a lot about it because evangelical Christians, unfortunately, in many, many cases have bought into conservative ideology that says, “Well, you know, the people who get AIDS have gotten AIDS through homosexuality and through drug abuse, and therefore, we never liked those people anyway, so let them suffer.” That’s the conservative ideology. Oh, it’s never, never put out there in print, but it’s there, and it’s thick in many parts of the country.

Then there’s a liberal ideology that says, on the one hand, “There is nothing wrong with this behavior, and we need to fight for these folks and really help these people out.” Then you have O’Connor who has a biblical position in this case and, therefore, is getting creamed by everybody, because what he’s saying is, “We have to go all out, open all the stops to get a cure for AIDS. We have to help AIDS victims against discrimination. We have to be advocates for them. We have to help them. We have to love them. We have to do all that, but homosexuality is a sin.”

He’s getting creamed because anybody who’s biblical steps outside of conservative and liberal ideologies and doesn’t belong to either of them. “Now you’re going to tell me that this view of the Word of God, this view of revelation, makes you … what … a mindless a person? Does this mean you just check your mind at the door?” My friends, finally, you’re free. Finally, you’re free from party spirit, from ideologies, from totalitarian philosophies, from demagogic Presbyterian ministers. Finally, you see that.

Okay, but that’s not enough. Not enough. It’s not enough just to think biblically and get your mind on the foundation. Secondly, there’s the will. The will. Oh, gee. Unconditional obedience. That’s what it means to put yourself completely on the foundation of the Word of God. There’s a big, big difference between 99 percent obedience and unconditional obedience. A huge difference.

Many of us obey Christian principles most of the time. Why? Because most of the time it looks practical, right? You’ve heard since you were little, “Honesty is the best policy,” so most of the time you don’t lie, because when you do, you feel bad. Besides that, you’re afraid somebody might find you out. Most of the time, you obey; 98 percent of the time. Most of the time, you obey, but there are places where what the Word of God says, what Christian principles say, you delay your obedience. Why? Because it looks like it might not be practical.

Let me give you an example. The Bible says a believer should not wittingly marry an unbeliever. That sounds like a pretty impractical thing for a lot of people, doesn’t it? They say, “Are you kidding me? Do you realize how that narrows the field, which already looks like a bottleneck to me?” I just use that illustration, because in a place like New York where everybody is single, it looks like suicide. It looks stupid.

I want you to know all those other places where you’re obeying don’t tell you whether or not your will, your volition is built, on the Word of God. It’s at those places where it looks impractical that you can see what your real foundation is. Because, you see, God came to Abraham several times. The first time he says, “Abraham, get out and go to another land.” Abraham says, “Where?” God says, “I’ll tell you later.”

Then later on, he says, “Abraham, wait for a child to be born. Your whole life you must wait, put on hold, until your child is born.” Abraham says, “How? We’re in our 90s.” God says, “I’ll show you later.” Then after the child’s born, God comes and says, “Abraham, Abraham, take your son, your only son, whom you love, and kill him.” Abraham says, “Why?” God says, “I’ll tell you later.”

At every one of those places, what if God had said to Abraham, “Abraham, I want you to obey, but let me explain, before you do this, all that I’m going to show you, all that’s going to happen. You’re going to go up the hill, and you’re going to raise the dagger over Isaac, but at the last minute, I’m going to say, ‘No, you don’t have to do it.’ Or when I told you to get out of Ur of the Chaldees, I could show you this great little suburb I have all laid out for you.”

He could have done that. He says, “So I’ll show you exactly how it’ll work out, Abraham, and then you can obey.” Why didn’t God do that? Because it’s impossible to do that and still have obedience. It’s not obedience anymore, because if your foundation is you, if you were in the position of deciding which of God’s commands look practical and which ones don’t, then the Bible is not part of your foundation. It’s not your foundation at all. Your judgment again, your interest, your comfort, your goals, your schedule, your agenda for your life, that’s the basis, and you’re judging what God has to say?

Don’t you see, those of you who, right now, are disobeying God because you think to obey him would hurt? Or those of you who are delaying obedience because you think to go ahead and obey will be impractical, will be stupid, don’t you see your foundation isn’t the Word of God at all, even though 98 percent of the rest of your life you’re in conformity with God’s Word? It’s just an accident, because the foundation is you.

As long as you find all these areas where it looks practical, yes, you’ll obey, but my friends, you’re not on the foundation. I tell you, you are not a good foundation. All other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand. Are you going to be like Abraham who obeyed the bare Word of God? God’s Word and nothing else was enough to get obedience from him.

You know what? What is so lovely is in Romans 4, when it tells us that Abraham listened to God and obeyed, it says in the King James (it doesn’t use this phrase in the modern translations, and, oh, I long for it), “He staggered not at the promise of God …” Isn’t that intriguing? Paul says Abraham “… staggered not at the promise …” What promise? God said, “Take your son and kill him.”

But every command is a promise. It has this promise. Again and again and again, the Bible says, in one way or another, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for …” what? Blessedness? No. Righteousness. Don’t try to find blessedness. Do the right thing, and you’ll get all the blessedness you could possibly want. “Seek first his kingdom, and all these other things will be added unto you.” “Obey my Word, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” That’s the promise.

Friends, the reason we disobey is not because God’s commands are too hard. It’s because we’re too cynical. We don’t believe the promise. We don’t believe when God says, “Obey me, and you’ll get what you need.” We don’t believe it, so don’t you dare say, “The reason I’m not standing on the foundation is because it’s too hard.” Oh, no, my friends. It’s because you don’t believe God. You may believe in God, but do you believe God? A lot of you believe in God, but how many of you believe God? How many of us?

Lastly … this is the end … it’s not enough to simply put your mind and your will, you also have to put your heart on the foundation. By that, I mean this: It says here that Jesus Christ is the Chief Cornerstone. Unfortunately, today, cornerstones are almost what? Embellishments. They’re like decoration.

But in the good ol’ days, when the Bible was written, your cornerstone was very important because your cornerstone was the big stone in the house, and all the rest of the foundation stones were basically pushed up against it. If the cornerstone was left out or brought out, everything else would crumble, and that means, in a sense, the foundation is just an extension of the cornerstone.

Let’s draw that analogy out. If you know the Bible so well, if you’ve memorized the Bible so you could win every Bible test or Bible quiz in the world, and if you have been very diligent to know all those regulations and you’re following them every day, what does that make you? Well, you’re on the way, but if you stop there you’re a Pharisee, because the Pharisees knew the Bible by heart, and the Pharisees did all these things, and yet Jesus comes to them and says, “… you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?” It’s an amazing thing to say.

“You don’t know the Scriptures? How could he say that of the Pharisees?” I’ll tell you why. Because the purpose of the Bible is to bring you to put your faith in Christ as Savior and Lord. That’s the purpose of all of the Bible. If you just know a lot about the Bible, and if you’re just trying to obey diligently, but you have missed the point of it, you haven’t built on the foundation yet. The point of the foundation is the Cornerstone.

After Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, there were, one day, two disciples, two followers of Jesus, on the road to Emmaus. This is recorded at the end of the book of Luke, and Jesus Christ appears to them at one point. When they do not recognize him, he begins to explain about the Messiah. It says in Luke 24:27, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

Did you hear that? “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets …” Every one of them; even Obadiah. “… he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” What this means is every part of the Bible, one way or another, the purpose of it is to bring you to Christ, to bring you to put your faith in Christ as Savior and Lord. If you haven’t done that, you have not built on the foundation, because Jesus isn’t your Cornerstone. He’s not the thing you’ve built on.

Why is Jesus the Cornerstone? Because if you are relying on your self-discipline or your thoughtful and cognizant spirit that you have, having lived in New York for so long and gone to all the literary cafes, or on your moral record, or just on how true you are to your principles, if those things are your cornerstone, you still aren’t on the foundation.

What does it mean to make Jesus your Cornerstone? Charles Spurgeon, a great Baptist preacher in London in the nineteenth century, wrote about a conversation he had with a man who worked as a longshoreman on the dock. This is the conversation, and this is a perfect example of what it means to make Jesus your Cornerstone. Listen carefully.

Spurgeon says to the longshoreman, “Do you, my friend, have a good hope that if you die, God will accept you? What is your hope?” The longshoreman says, “Well, sir, I do. I believe I’m as good as most folk I know.” Spurgeon: “Oh, dear. Oh, dear. My friend, my friend, I’m very concerned for you. Is this the best you have to rely on?” The longshoreman, now a little bit shaken: “Well, I’m also very, very charitable to the needy.”

Spurgeon: “Oh, dear. Oh, dear. My friend, my friend, I’m concerned for you. Is this the best you have to rely on?” Then he turns to the man and says, “Have you sinned?” The man says, “Yes.” Then he says, “Well, what gives you hope you will be forgiven?” The longshoreman says, “I am very, very sorry for my sins, and I have stopped them.”

Spurgeon says, “That’s what you’re relying on for forgiveness? Now friend, suppose you get in debt to your grocer, and you go to her, and you say, ‘Look, ma’am, I’m sorry I can’t pay all these goods I have bought, but I’ll tell you what. I’m very sorry for all the debts, and I’ll never get into debt anymore.’ Do you think she would accept that? Of course not. Would you even try that with her? Of course not. Do you suppose you can treat the Great God that way, as you would never do to your own grocer?”

Now the longshoreman says, “Well, my dear pastor, what should I be relying on?” Spurgeon says, “Then I told him, as plainly as I could, how the Lord Jesus had taken the place of sinners, and how those who trusted in him and rested on his blood and righteousness would find pardon and peace.” Cornerstone. Your heart is not built on the foundation if you just know a lot about the Bible, but have you transferred your trust from all these other cornerstones to him?

Well, here’s where we are, at the end. My friends, let me just suggest … the Bible, the Scriptures … Jesus says, “Search the Scriptures …” I’ll just end with the two things that are there at the bottom of your outline anyway, two final admonitions.

1. Search the Scriptures

Do you know what that means? “Search the Scriptures …” A lot of you read the Bible like you walk down a path and you notice some flowers. That’s strolling. If you’re searching, you’re down on your hands and knees like you’re looking for a contact lens. That’s how you’re supposed to read the Scripture.

My life was changed forever 15 years ago when I went on a retreat, and a lady who was teaching the Bible said, “Tomorrow I want you all to study one verse for 30 minutes.” One verse. “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men,” she said. “I don’t want you to stop after five minutes, but for 30 minutes I want you to write down everything you see in that verse, everything you believe you can learn from that verse. I want at least 100 things.”

Let me tell you something. I’ve never been the same, because after five minutes you had four or five things down, and you said, “This is ridiculous. Thirty minutes?” But after you pray, and you look, and you think, and next thing you know, they come, and they come. Everybody came back that day with 100 things. She started saying, “Okay, circle the one thing that was probably the most life-changing, the most thrilling, the most important thing you learned from the verse,” and we all circled it.

“How many of you,” then she said, “found that in the first five minutes?” Nobody raised their hand. “How many of you found it in the first 10 minutes?” Nobody raised their hand. “How many of you found it in the first 15 minutes?” One or two. “How many of you found it in the first 20, then 30?” Almost everybody raised their hands. Search the Scriptures. Look at the diligence you put in to making a living.

Yet I think on the last day, a lot of our possessions are going to get up, and they’re going to speak to us. They’re going to say, “You broke your back for us, and now we’re rust and dust. Here was the Word of God in which imperishable treasure lay, and you hardly broke the cover.” But don’t just stop with that. Don’t just search the Scriptures …

2. Let the Scriptures search you

Let it search you. One of the reasons we’re so confused today is because we don’t know the Word of God. We don’t let it search us. We don’t find ourselves, every day, looking at it and saying, “Lord, let it be a sword that comes through and does surgery on me.”

Remember when Jesus vanished from those two disciples who were on the road to Emmaus? Remember that? He left. They turned to each other, and they said, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us when he opened the Scriptures to us?” When is the last time your heart burned within you as you opened the Scripture? Jesus will open the Scripture. He’ll speak to you if you come to him and say, “I want to be on the foundation, heart, will, and mind, every part of me.” Are you ready to do that? Are you ready to put the time in that it takes, or not? Let’s pray.

Father, we see on the one hand, the gist of this passage is that there is much work we can do. We need to put forth the effort to do the study. We need to put forth the effort to find the time. We need to be diligent in saturating our minds in the Word of God and trusting it and believing it and obeying it, but we also see it’s your Son who will come to us and open the Scriptures for us because we’re too dense, oh, Father. We’re fools, and yet it’s a promise.

Father, we want our hearts to burn within us. We want our hearts to warm up and mountains of ice and snow melt because your Son is teaching us the Word. Father, we want that, and I pray every person in this room will know this soon, but especially those here who need to make Jesus, you, oh, Lord Jesus, their Cornerstone. Enable us all to build on that foundation. For we pray it in Jesus’ name, amen.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

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

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


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Book Review by David P. Craig

The foundation for this book was laid when Tim Keller was in college. He had recently come into a personal relationship with Christ and learned how to study the Bible guided by a book entitled Conversations with Jesus Christ from the Gospel of John by Marilyn Kunz and Catherine Schell. In close proximity to this study he learned how to read and study the Bible inductively. He attended a conference for Bible study leaders where one of the instructors had each student take 30 minutes to make 30 observations from Mark 1:17, “And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” In the first 10 minutes he thought he wrote down everything he had observed about the surrounding passage from the text. However, the gold was mined in minutes 20-30. It was through the patient and inductive wrestling with the text where the gold was found.

In this book of encounters with Jesus Tim Keller mines spiritual gold.The first five chapters are based on talks given by Keller to students – most of whom were spiritual skeptics – at the Town Hall in Oxford, England in 2012. These first five chapters reveal the foundational teachings of Christianity and the astonishing character of Jesus in particular as he encounters Nathanael, the Samaritan Woman and a Pharisee, Mary and Martha, Guests at a Wedding Party, and Mary Magdalene. In each of these encounters important questions are addressed to and by Jesus and one learns how to read the Scriptures copiously and glean the answers to life’s greatest questions. Questions such as: What is the world for? What’s wrong with the world? Can anything or person make the world right? How can we be part of the solution to making the world right?

Keller’s thesis is that “if you want to be sure that you are developing sound, thoughtful answers to the fundamental questions, you need at the very least to become acquainted with the teachings of Christianity. The best way to do that is to see how Jesus explained himself and his purposes to people he met–and how their lives were changed by his answers to their questions.” Therefore, the first half of this book is devoted to encounters “others” had with Jesus.

The second half of the book is devoted to how we can encounter Jesus today in the 21st century. How can we be changed by Jesus? How can we know Jesus intimately and personally? How can we discover what the people discovered in the biblical encounters with Jesus in my own life? The second half of the book is based on talks that Keller delivered at the Harvard Club of New York City over a period of several years. Keller was addressing business, cultural, and governmental leaders – highly educated individuals who shared their doubts and questions with Keller. Therefore, by highlighting pivotal events’ in Jesus’ life – his temptation with Satan, his sending of the Holy Spirit, his road to the cross, his ascension, and his incarnation – we learn of the significance of the Person and work of Jesus Christ in the Gospel.

I think this book is an especially good book to give to spiritual skeptics. With the holidays coming upon us it would make a great gift for friends, people you work with, and loved ones whom you desire to know Jesus personally and intimately. Keller writes cogently, concisely, and compellingly. He wisely interprets and applies each encounter with Jesus and highlights why we all need Jesus in our lives. For each human being there is no greater encounter that we can have than with the person and work of Jesus in and on our behalf. I highly recommend this book to quench your thirst for the only One who can satisfy our thirst – the Lord Jesus Christ.

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Posted by on November 19, 2013 in David P. Craig, Tim Keller


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Tim Keller on 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 [] under the category “Soteriology” or “J.I. Packer”).


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 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.


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.”


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).


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:// 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.


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).


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).


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.


[*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:

Keller Tim with NY Background

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).


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Dr. Tim Keller On The Importance of Gospel Repentance

*Dr. Tim Keller: “All of Life is Repentance”

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).


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8 Words of Wisdom for Singles Seeking Marriage by Tim Keller

(Condensed from Chapter 7 in his book co-authored with his wife Kathy – The Meaning of Marriage, New York: Dutton, 2011)

(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).



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How Do We Get The Gospel Across In a Postmodern World? by Tim Keller

“The Gospel and the Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World” by *Tim Keller

 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,

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

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 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).

 Gospel Theologizing

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.

Gospel Realizing

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.

Gospel Urbanizing

 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.

Gospel Communication

 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.

Gospel Humiliation

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).

Gospel Incarnation

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, and was also published as Chapter 5 in The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World, Crossway Books, 2007.


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How To Lead Secular People To Christ by *Tim Keller

The Implausibility Structure of a Culture

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 Process:

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).


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