Tim Keller’s Two Gospels?

biblicalthought.com has a post by Stephen Macasil entitled, Does Tim Keller Have Two Gospels?. I commented there, but my comment has not been published yet. That’s when I remembered, “Say, I have my own blog! I’ll say what I want to say right there!”

Essentially, Macasil interacts with a Christianity Today article by Tim Keller (see here), specifically the following statement:

“There are people from other religions (Judaism, Islam), people with strong Catholic backgrounds, as well as those raised in conservative Protestant churches. People with a religious upbringing can grasp the idea of sin as the violation of God’s moral law. That law can be explained in such a way that they realize they fall short of it. In that context, Christ and his salvation can be presented as the only hope of pardon for guilt. This, the traditional evangelical gospel of the last generation, is a ‘gospel for the circumcised.’

“However, Manhattan is also filled with postmodern listeners who consider all moral statements to be culturally relative and socially constructed. If you try to convict them of guilt for sexual lust, they will simply say, ‘You have your standards, and I have mine.’ If you respond with a diatribe on the dangers of relativism, your listeners will simply feel scolded and distanced. Of course, postmodern people must at some point be challenged about their mushy views of truth, but there is a way to make a credible and convicting gospel presentation to them even before you get into such apologetic issues.

“I take a page from Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death and define sin as building your identity—your self-worth and happiness—on anything other than God. That is, I use the biblical definition of sin as idolatry. That puts the emphasis not as much on ‘doing bad things’ but on ‘making good things into ultimate things.’

“Instead of telling them they are sinning because they are sleeping with their girlfriends or boyfriends, I tell them that they are sinning because they are looking to their romances to give their lives meaning, to justify and save them, to give them what they should be looking for from God. This idolatry leads to anxiety, obsessiveness, envy, and resentment. I have found that when you describe their lives in terms of idolatry, postmodern people do not give much resistance. Then Christ and his salvation can be presented not (at this point) so much as their only hope for forgiveness, but as their only hope for freedom. This is my ‘gospel for the uncircumcised.'”

Macasil takes exception to Keller’s Gospel to the postmoderns, which emphasizes building one’s identity on God rather than things that lead to disappointment. He states:

“If the postmodern accepts the offer of Christ as her only hope for freedom but does not look to Christ as her only hope for forgiveness of her sin, where would she spend eternity if she died on her drive home from believing Keller’s ‘gospel for the uncircumcised’ in a 75mph head-on-collision with an eighteen-wheeler? Would Tim Keller have a biblical warrant to preach at her funeral and offer the same hope for freedom to the surviving family and friends – that they may too go to be with her one day? My answer is no. Tim Keller is preaching another gospel, not just another form of the one true gospel.”

When I lived in New York, I attended Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church. No, I didn’t see Ann Coulter there, probably because I sat in the very front and she sat elsewhere. (I was right beside the exit, so I could slip out the door and avoid greeting people right after the service. I am bad, I know!) But I went there for about a year and a half, even though I never got involved in its small groups or ministries.

And Tim Keller emphasized the Gospel that Macasil believes in, week after week. For Keller, the reason we can find satisfaction in God and not other people or things is that God loves us deeply. And how do we know that God loves us deeply? Because Jesus Christ died on the cross. And why did Jesus die on the cross? To pay our sin debt, satisfying God’s justice. The Gospel of forgiveness is a big part of what Tim Keller preaches, even to the post-moderns. So Tim Keller’s Gospel is the true Gospel.

Not that I don’t wrestle with Keller’s Gospel. For one, Paul never really presents the Gospel as the solution to human dissatisfaction or search for meaning. That’s my impression, at least. Paul more or less presents what Keller defines as the Gospel to the circumcision: we have all sinned, God sent Jesus as a propitiation, and we have new life and deliverance from our sinful flesh through faith in him. But the Bible does touch on satisfaction/existential issues elsewhere. Consider the following texts:

“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (Isaiah 55:2, NRSV).

“[F]or my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).

Here, we read that anything other than God does not satisfy us, for only God can provide nourishment and quench our thirst.

That brings me to my second point. I know that anything other than God does not satisfy. Things don’t always go the way that we want, and, even when they do, that doesn’t necessarily satisfy us either. If they did, then why do handsome, rich, babe magnets use drugs or commit suicide? But my question is, “Does God really satisfy?”

For Tim Keller, we are satisfied by God when we realize that he loved us so much to send his son to die for us. When that becomes real to us, Keller says, it will give us poise, peace, and security.

But how does it become real to us? In my impression, Tim Keller tried to address this in a variety of ways. He said that God makes it real to us by an act of grace, so we should keep on pursuing him. Sometimes, Keller used apologetics, particularly N.T. Wright’s book on the resurrection, to affirm that there is actual historical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. He also told us that we find God in community, so we should be sure to join small groups.

He was touching on what was probably in the minds’ of many: How can a doctrine give us security, when it looks like just one point of view amidst a bunch of other worldviews? Tim Keller appealed to experience, but his reference to N.T. Wright shows that you really can’t circumvent modernism–the attempt to demonstrate that something is objectively true in a real world–in trying to provide genuine meaning to people’s lives. We want something that’s real, not just something that we think is real. As Tim Keller said on numerous occasions, “Something is not true because you believe it. You believe it because it is true.”

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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12 Responses to Tim Keller’s Two Gospels?

  1. Steven Carr says:

    Wright’s arguments are pretty bad.

    See Wright Forum to see his ideas refuted.

    Wright is reduced in his resurrection book to saying that the new body of Jesus was on top of the old one.

    Jesus as a set of nested Russian dolls?

    I have a debate on the resurrection at Resurrection Debate

    Comments are always welcome


  2. James Pate says:

    Thanks for your response and the links, Steven.

    Yeah, I think Wright gets that part about one body on top of another from II Corinthians 5:4, about being further clothed.

    I read some of what you said in the Wright Forum, under resurrection debate. Your assumption seems to be that a “spiritual” body is one that is immaterial, without any flesh at all. But I wonder if we can define “spiritual” in other ways–perhaps as flesh that is different from mortal, corruptible flesh. After all, Paul does talk about different kinds of flesh. I’m not too comfortable with N.T. Wright translating “spiritual” in I Corinthians 15 as “spirit-filled,” though. What’s that mean exactly?


  3. Bumble says:

    Hey, thanks for posting your refute.

    For me, it’s a matter of personal experience. I have been following religious Christianity for years, swinging the pendulum between taking pride in keeping my morally good life, and feeling despair because I am not good enough.

    But from Keller’s presentation I rediscovered the Good News again, the first love I had when I was first converted.

    Pragmatically Keller’s presentation of the Gospel actually brought lots of healing for my soul.

    And I didn’t even live in New York.


  4. James Pate says:

    Hi Bumble. Yeah, I still struggle with those issues, to be honest.

    So do you primarily listen to Keller via audio cassettes? I subscribed to his MP3 program for a while, but it was too expensive for me. Plus, I couldn’t retrieve some of the old MP3s.


  5. Steven Carr says:

    Spirit-filled is simply Wright’s spin to get around Paul saying that Jesus became a spirit at the resurrection.

    Presumably Paul did not think Jesus was especially spirit-filled before the resurrection, and would have thought it absurd that the body of Jesus contained God.

    After all, a body containing God would be spirit-filled, which Wright assures us only happened to Jesus at the resurrection.

    Claiming the corpse of Jesus was underneath the new , imperishable body is Wright’s spin to get around the fact that 2 Corinthians says the earthly body will be destroyed.

    That would leave us naked, and we would then be clothed in our heavenly body.

    When Thomas put his hand in the side of Jesus, he did not find a corpse underneath the outer body.

    There was only one body.

    Paul says flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God , and trashes the idea that resurrected beings are made out of the dust that corpses dissolve into.

    As you can read from my resurrection debate, neither Paul nor the Christian converts he was writing to, believed in God choosing to raise a corpse.


  6. Izgad says:

    C.S Lewis talked about evil in such terms; that one can create an ultimate good besides for God.

    “What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’ – could set up on their own as if they had created themselves – be their own master – invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history – money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery – the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy. (Mere Christianity pg. 53-54)


  7. James Pate says:

    Hi Steven,

    There’s a lot there! I don’t totally dismiss what you are saying, for I Corinthians 15 does call Christ a life-giving spirit. But Paul does talk about being further clothed. Does that mean there’s a corpse underneath Jesus’ resurrection body? No, I think it means that Jesus’ physical body has taken on some spiritual qualities, particularly incorruptibility and immortality. His resurrection body is continuous and discontinuous with the body he had before his death.

    What about that passage where Paul says God will destroy the body? Many have argued that Paul was quoting a slogan, not stating his own point of view. The slogan would say that we should eat, drink, and be merry, for God would eventually destroy the body. Enjoy things while we can, in other words. It’s like those Gnostics who went in the licentious direction.

    And Paul did define resurrection in one place as rescucitating a corpse. In Romans 8, he says that God will quicken your mortal bodies.

    You may have responded to some of these in other formats, so I’ll take a lot at the debate at some point.


  8. James Pate says:

    Hi Izgad! Thanks for the quote. I know you’ve written on Lewis a lot on your own blog.

    Your quote calls to my mind a quote from George MacDonald, whom Lewis called his “master”: When one goes to a brothel, he is actually seeking God. Of course, he seeking him in the wrong place, but there’s some search for happiness there.


  9. Steven Carr says:

    Romans 8:11 is clearly talking about the here and now.

    Christ , the life-giving spirit, is living inside Christians now.

    Otherwise they would just be dead men walking.

    2 Corinthians 5 is clear about the destruction of the body.

    For Paul, the body was not transformed, no more than a bird can be transformed into the sun.

    Paul tells the Corinthians how foolish it is to discuss how corpses could be resurrected.

    He then uses the examples of earthly and heavenly things to show how categorically different they are to each other – as different as a fish is different to the moon.

    In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul talks about being naked before being further clothed.

    We shed our clothes and put on new ones.

    Or to use another analogy of Paul’s, we leave one tent and move into another.

    Paul is quoting a slogan, but his ‘God will destroy both one and the other’ is a rejoinder to the slogan about food and the stomach.

    The parallelism in the verses is pretty clear.

    “Everything is permissible for me”—but not everything is beneficial.

    “Everything is permissible for me”—but I will not be mastered by anything.

    “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food”—but God will destroy them both.

    I have much more in my resurrection debate, where comments are always welcome.


  10. Steven Carr says:

    I should point out that you don’t take on incorruptibility by being clothed in something.

    No more than Harry Potter became invisible because he was wearing an invisibility cloak.

    His body did not change because it was clothed in something.


  11. James Pate says:

    Hi Steven,

    Your parallelism argument looks rather sound. Interestingly, even commentaries that believe in the physical resurrection of Christ say that the belly will be destroyed. Perhaps our resurrected bodies will lack bellies, and Jesus only ate for show. I don’t know.

    If that Romans 8 passage on quickening mortal bodies is about the present, then why is it in the future tense? And why is Paul telling already saved people that their bodies WILL be quickened? Haven’t they already been spiritually resurrected?

    I Corinthians 15:53 says that corruption will put on incorruption, so couldn’t the “further clothed” be the mortal body putting on immortality?

    My last point is actually a question. There are people who believe that Christ’s resurrection was spiritual, who act as if Jesus’ body did not change (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses). I hope I’m making sense there. Do you believe that Jesus changed from a fleshly being to a spiritual being, or that his corpse is still somewhere?


  12. Steven Carr says:

    According to Ephesians 2, Christians have already died and been resurrected, so it is no problem for Romans 8:11 to talk about their being life in our bodies now (which remain *mortal* bodies, even in Romans 8)

    The one thing Paul is careful to avoid saying in Corinthians is that a dead body is transformed.

    He thought such discussion was idiotic.

    People were idiots even to discuss how a corpse could return from the dead.


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