Tim Keller is a big name in Pop Christianity. He Pastors a large Church in NYC. With popularity, comes influence. Keller recently wrote something on evangelism that I think merits a close look.
Tim Bayly brought this to my attention and he took his own shot at this but in reading his insights I decided to have a go at this myself.
Dr. Keller was asked,
“Religion-less Spirituality” (How do you reach people who think church is the problem, not the answer?)
In the blockquotes below I will give part of Dr. Keller’s response. Keller’s full response can be accessed here,
Click to access Religionless%20Spirituality.pdf
I want to make it clear that some of what Keller says is thoughtful and commendable. However, some aspects of what Keller says is quite bad.
Second, we must demonstrate the difference between religion and the gospel in our deeds—how we embody the gospel in our community and service. Even more than Marx, Jesus condemned religion as a pretext for oppression: “If you only greet your brothers, what do ye more than others?” (Matt. 5:47). Lesslie Newbigin makes the bold case that Christianity is a better basis for true tolerance of opposing beliefs than any other religion or even secularism. Saved only by grace, Christians true to the gospel will not feel superior to those with whom they differ. This must be more than rhetoric. Only
when Christians non-condescendingly serve the poor, only when Christians are more firm yet open to their opponents will the world understand the difference between religion and the gospel.
First, Keller tries to make the case that religion is bad while the Gospel is good. This is an unfortunate distinction because religion is an inevitable category. Keller would have been better served by make the distinction between true religion and false religion. True religion is the outgrowth of the true gospel. False religion is the outgrowth of false religions. Keller’s emphasis on the Gospel is good, but to suggest that the true gospel doesn’t create true religion is misguided.
Second, Keller is correct in saying that “Christians true to the gospel will not feel superior to those with whom they differ.” However, that is not the same as saying that Christians will not believe that Christianity is superior to the faith systems of those with whom they differ. This is a necessary observation since we must steer away from the idea that all faiths are equally good. While Christians understand they are but sinners saved by grace, they also understand that unless those who are not Christians convert they will be eternally lost. Our whole desire to see people converted communicates the idea that Christians do believe that Christianity is superior to whatever faith system the unbeliever is involved in.
Therefore we must say that Newbigin’s observation is not completely correct. I think it would be better to say that Christianity is a better basis for true sympathy of opposing beliefs than any other religion. However, it is precisely because Christians are sympathetic to opposing beliefs, having lived under the oppression of false faith systems, that they are so intolerant of opposing faith systems. This opposition is not based on a sense of superiority, as if Christians believe they are made out of better dirt then non-Christians, but rather their intolerance is born of love for God and love for people caught in the slavery and bondage of false belief systems.
Finally, on this score Christians should serve the poor, as Keller suggests, but never at the expense of calling those who are poor, because of their wicked faith system to repentance. Impoverishment is not always the result of false faith system but there are many times that it is.
While Christians are not superior to other, Christianity is superior and being superior it should be intolerant of all faith systems that seek to overthrow Christianity.
We will be careful with the order in which we communicate the parts of the faith. Pushing moral behaviors before we lift up Christ is religion.
Keller needs to be asked here exactly what he means by this statement.
First, if he means that one can’t be saved by becoming moral he is exactly correct.
Second, when Keller speaks of the order in which we communicate the parts of the faith, it has been often understood that communicating the faith begins with the Character of God. The Gospel starts with the Character of God with the hopes that people will see their sin in light of God’s holiness so that they may repair to Christ. So, while we would never push moral behavior, in the sense that of telling people that if they become morally better God will accept them, we do realize that before we lift up Christ, we must articulate the character of God and this often leads to people seeing their moral turpitude.
Second, if people don’t see their sin — something connected with the realization in the awakened sinner of their moral failure — why would they be interested in the lifting up of Christ? Dr. Keller must answer the question as to why people would desire a lifted up Christ if they do not see themselves as sinners full of moral failures? Indeed, so clearly must this moral failure of sinners in light of God’s justice and holiness be communicated that we shut the door to the idea that the moral failure of our listeners can be eliminated in any way but the fleeing of sinners to a lifted up Christ.
Now, certainly we must lift up Christ as the answer to people’s awakened conscience, but it is difficult to see how consciences are awakened apart from people seeing their moral failures. Now, we can certainly speak in generics about how sin is offense and rebellion against God’s majesty, but when we start getting into the concrete it is not just generic sin that people are guilty of. People are guilty of violating God’s moral law, and part of Gospel preaching is concretely exposing sin.
So, I agree that moral failure rectified by moral improvement would be the improper order of communicating the faith, but I do not agree that the proclamation of the moral failure of the sinner, in light of the grandness of God, is something that is to be communicated after Christ is lifted up in our proclamation. Such an approach would be obtuse.
The church today is calling people to God with a tone of voice that seems to confirm their worst fears. Religion has always been outside-in-“if I behave out here in all these ways, then I will have God’s blessing and love inside.” But the gospel is inside-out-“if I know the blessing and grace of God inside, then I can behave out here in all these ways.”
I guess Keller and I are listening to different voices. I don’t hear the Church speaking with any tone that confirm people’s worst fears. The tone I hear the Church speaking with is a tone that communicates to aliens and strangers to the covenant is that all is well and there is no reason to fear God. I hear the Church using the tone of recruitment and not the tone of repentance.
Now, I agree with Keller that the Church would be in grave error if it was communicating to people that if they just clean themselves up God will accept them. But is that really what is happening?
I’m sorry I just can’t help but hear Keller saying that he doesn’t want to deal with the problem of people as sinners until they are Christians. Keller seems to be saying that once people become Christian then we can begin to deal with their sin nature and sin behavior. Does this make sense? Now certainly, once people flee to Christ we have need to continue to deal with the sin nature and sinful behavior, just as we have to deal with it in ourselves every day of our lives, but to suggest that moral behavior is something that is only dealt with after we lift up Christ is curious, to say the least. However, such an approach does have the distinct advantage of offering a Gospel that has no offense.
A woman who had been attending our church for several months came to see me. “Do you think abortion is wrong?” she asked. I said that I did. “I’m coming now to see that maybe there is something wrong with it,” she replied, “now that I have become a Christian here and have started studying the faith in the classes.” As we spoke, I discovered that she was an Ivy League graduate, a lawyer, a long-time Manhattan resident, and an active member of the ACLU. She volunteered that she had experienced three abortions. “I want you to know,” she said, “that if I had seen any literature or reference to the ‘pro-life’ movement, I would not have stayed through the first service. But I did stay, and I found faith in Christ. If abortion is wrong, you should certainly speak out against it, but I’m glad about the order in which you do it.”
First, note Keller’s use of euphemisms. The woman in this story, “experienced three abortions” as if she was the victim. Someone experiences ‘rape’ or experiences being beaten but one doesn’t normally experience abortion apart from self infliction.
Second, opposition to abortion as communicated by sitting out pro-life literature can hardly be thought to be an insistence that people have to become moral before God will accept them. In my estimation it sounds as if Keller is using conversion stories in order to defend his methodology. This is never a good idea for by such reasoning any methodology can be justified. This is the same type of reasoning that Charles Grandison Finney used to justify his methodology. It basically reduces down to, “people have gotten saved by how we do things therefore how we do thing must be correct.” Now, Keller’s reasoning is wrapped up in a much more urbane and sophisticated language but it is the same reasoning that Finney used to justify the anxious bench, that Moody used to singing sentimental altar call hymns, and that Graham used to dimming the lights right before the altar call. Keller is merely saying above … “My method works therefore my method is biblical.” Only time will tell if Keller’s methods are any more superior to Finney’s, Moody’s and Grahams.
This woman had had her faith incubated into birth our Sunday services. In worship, we center on the question “what is truth?” and the one who had the audacity to say, “I am the truth.” That is the big issue for postmodern people, and it’s hard to swallow. Nothing is more subversive and prophetic than to say Truth has become a real person! Jesus calls both younger brothers and elder brothers to come into the Father’s arms. He calls the church to grasp the gospel for ourselves and share it with those who are desperately seeking true spirituality. We, of all people, ought to understand and agree with fears about religion, for Jesus himself warned us to be wary of it, and not to mistake a call for moral virtue for the good news of God’s salvation provided in Christ.”
I would love to know how this woman’s faith was incubated apart from seeing her moral failure which raised against her the wrath of God and could only be quenched in the lifted up Christ. How was her faith incubated apart from a deep sense of her own unworthiness?
How can Truth be communicated apart from the notion that Jesus came to die for idolaters, blasphemers, sabbath breakers, parent haters, child killers, adulterers, thieves, liars, and the covetous? Did Keller’s woman flee to Christ on the basis that only in Christ could she find the truth that He alone could undertake the wrath of God that she deserved?
I think Keller’s approach leaves a great deal to be desired.
One thought on “Dr. Tim Keller & Evangelism”
1 Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey[a]in extent. 4 And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
5 So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. 6 Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. 7 And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying,
Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. 8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?
10 Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.