Scripture and the Church

Tim Keller's False Gospel: A 'Sandwich' Made Without the Bread of Life

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
The Bread of Life is healthy bread - life-giving, strengthening, and sustaining. But Timothy Keller calls for a "sandwich presentation of the gospel" that contains no such bread.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Part four of a series. Read part three.

The Bread of Life is healthy bread - life-giving, strengthening, and sustaining. But Timothy Keller calls for a "sandwich presentation of the gospel" that contains no such bread.

In our last article in this series, we saw the evidence of Timothy Keller's man-centered approach to presenting his "gospel". Like Rick Warren and many others, Keller often claims that he is not changing the message of the Gospel but only the method of communicating it. But when you introduce a man-centered method, inevitably you must re-shape the message to fit that mold.

The result is a message that is no longer the one true Gospel, but a counterfeit that gives false comfort to souls who are still lost in their sins. As we shall see, that is what Keller's methodology produces.

Keller's "Sandwich Approach"

In his definitive essay on the subject, Deconstructing Defeater Beliefs: Leading the Secular to Christ, Keller advocates what he calls "a 'sandwich' approach to sharing the gospel" which he summarizes as follows:

1. The attractive gospel - Brief gospel connected to baseline narratives
2. Why Christianity can be true - Dismantling doubts and defeaters
3. The Biblical story of the gospel - A more thorough telling

Keller describes each element of the "sandwich" (this and all the quotations that follow are from Keller's essay) -

Brief gospel summary. First, the gospel must be presented briefly but so vividly and attractively (and so hooked into the culture's base-line cultural narratives) that the listener is virtually compelled to say "It would be wonderful if that were 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 stereotype-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 its 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.

This methodology is inherently un-Biblical. Let us examine why this is so.

Keller Approaches Man on Man's Terms

Keller's methodology approaches unbelieving man on man's terms. Here is the first fatal flaw of Keller's method: He approaches man in spiritual darkness as though he had some semblance of spiritual light. But what does Scripture tell us of man as we proclaim the Gospel to him?

And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. (John 3:19-20)

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools... (Romans 1:18-22)

But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus' sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:3-6)

Keller Makes Man Responsible for Results

Keller's method, like so many today, assumes it is our job "pull off a quick, attractive presentation of the gospel" to people who are in such a condition of darkness. We must motivate them to hear us out. We must make it "surprisingly attractive and compelling."

This reduces Gospel proclamation to the level of hawking a product or selling an idea. True Gospel preaching is neither. It is the proclamation of God's way of salvation to man fallen and condemned, on the authority of His Word and nothing else. We are to "preach" the Gospel; in the original language the word is kerusso. As Strong's Lexicon puts it, the word means "to proclaim after the manner of a herald [one who delivers official messages from a sovereign], always with the suggestion of formality, gravity and an authority which must be listened to and obeyed."

The keynote of true proclamation of the true Gospel is not "pulling off a quick, attractive presentation" but "thus saith the Lord." Some will defend Keller's method by saying that our generation does not want to hear that. But here is the Biblical answer: Has there ever been a generation that did? Of course not. Ever since our first parents fell into sin, man has hidden and fled from the truth of God, and shaken his fist at Him.

Keller's methodology says that we are responsible for results as we confront man in such a state. Scripture tells us that we are not. We are responsible to proclaim the Gospel as God has given it, and to leave the results in His hands. We are ambassadors for Christ:

Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20)

...and [pray] for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak. (Ephesians 6:19-20)

We have no right to say anything or use any method that the God we represent has not sanctioned. We speak and act for Him, just as Jesus did during His earthly ministry - more on this in a moment. How can we do any less than our Lord did?

Ill-Defined Apologetics

Keller's method, like so many today, assumes that apologetics is the answer. But the concept of apologetics that Keller and so many others employ, is not the Biblical one -- being able to give a Biblical reason for the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15). It is, rather, the false notion that Christians and the church must deal with man's objections to Christianity so that he will believe.

This way of thinking makes man the authority. It puts puny, sinful man in judgment over the truth of the holy and all-wise God. The fact is, God will only deal with man's objections and doubts when he first bows the knee in repentance and faith.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony. By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible...But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek [ekzeteo, investigate or carefully study] Him. (Hebrews 11:1-3, 6)

I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul shall make its boast in the Lord; the humble shall hear of it and be glad. Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together. I sought the Lord, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears...Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him! Oh, fear the Lord, you His saints! There is no want to those who fear Him. (Psalm 34:1-4, 8-9)

You will not find a true Christian on the face of this earth, who reads and studies the Word, who does not - if he is honest - admit that he has questions about the faith and even deep-seated objections to things that the Word of God plainly says. Dealing with those doubts and objections is part of God's sanctifying work - the washing of water by the Word (Ephesians 5:26) as it is preached, read, and studied.

An Ironic Form of Easy-Believism

Keller's method is, despite all its emphasis on human effort, an ironic form of easy-believism: If we can just somehow answer enough of sinful man's objections, he will listen and believe. But this denies the true nature of saving faith. The one who true comes to God comes in "repentance from dead works" - including the prideful exercise of his own sinful intellect - and "faith toward God" (Hebrews 6:1). This is a work of the Spirit of God.

A Denial of the Sovereign Work of the Holy Spirit

Keller's method denies the essential, indispensible, and sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in bringing the spiritually dead to life in Christ. It is strange that this should be the thinking of a man who claims to be Reformed in his theology.

The Gospel is only "compelling" when God does the work. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit is the one who will "convict [literally, reprove or refute] the world of [literally, concerning] sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged" (John 16:8-11).

It was because of such a work of the Spirit that Paul could say this of the Thessalonian believers:

We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers, remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the sight of our God and Father, knowing, beloved brethren, your election by God. For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake. (1 Thessalonians 1:2-5)

Keller's Method Runs Counter to All Biblical Examples

Keller's method opposes the method and message we find by example throughout Scripture. Let me mention just a few.

How did John the Baptist approach his hearers?

Behold! The Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29).

Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand! (Matthew 3:2).

How did Jesus Himself approach even the most religious people of the time?

Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself does; and He will show Him greater works than these, that you may marvel. For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will. For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son, that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.

Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live.

For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth - those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.

I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me. If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true. There is another who bears witness of Me, and I know that the witness which He witnesses of Me is true. You have sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. Yet I do not receive testimony from man, but I say these things that you may be saved. (John 5:19-34)

What was Peter's inspired message at Pentecost?

"Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know - Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it...Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for [because of] the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call." (Acts 2:22-24, 36-39)

Much is made of the alleged need to approach the "Jews" (religious people) and "Gentiles" (pagans) of our day with a different method and message. But the Apostle Paul's own Divinely-commissioned method is the same with both groups, and utterly refutes this kind of thinking. Here is how Paul approached the Jews:

Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, "This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ." (Acts 17:1-3)

And, here is how Paul describes his approach to the Gentiles:

And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

Is there anything in these examples of "pulling off" a "quick" presentation that is attractive for its own sake? Is there anything of "connect[ing] the story of Jesus to the base-line cultural narratives"? Is there any hint of concern that "people's eyes will glaze over and they will become bored"? Any hint of first dealing with "defeater beliefs"? No. There is immediate and direct proclamation of the truth of God in Christ, and trust in the Spirit to do His sovereign work.

Keller's Method Runs Counter to God's Own Charge to Preachers

Keller's method opposes God's own charge to preachers as recorded for us in Paul's instructions to Timothy. God did not call anyone to be a pastor of a church who is not a faithful preacher of the authentic Gospel and a sound expositor of the Word. In 2 Timothy chapter 4:1-5, the Apostle Paul challenges Timothy thus:

I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the Word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables [to human myths rather than the reality of God's truth]. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Paul says to Timothy: Preach the Word of God and nothing else! Give them the Bread of Life and nothing else! Stand ready to do it at all times and in every kind of situation - "in season and out of season."

The force of the original language is this: "Preach the Word when the Word is welcome in the ears of your hearers, yes; but also preach the Word when the Word is unwelcome in the ears of your hearers." Christian preacher, the reception of the Word is not your responsibility. It is God's. Your job, always, is to preach the Word! Give the Bread of Life.

Genuine Christian preaching is not about felt needs. It is not about sinful man's comprehension of the world. It is not about building up the self-esteem of man in his sinful state. Genuine Christian preaching is not driven by what people want to hear or don't want to hear. Genuine Christian preaching is Scripture-driven preaching. Preach the Word, young Timothy! Preach that, and nothing else!

Paul's challenge to Timothy comes immediately after his great declaration about the Word of God and preaching: "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work." And then in the verses that follow, the Apostle Paul tells Timothy to "reprove, rebuke, and exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine."

The word translated "reprove" means to expose error. The word translated "rebuke" means to denounce error, to express strong disapproval of it. The word "exhort" means to earnestly beg and plead with people, to encourage them, to urge them in the right direction. "Reprove, rebuke, and exhort." How? "With all longsuffering and doctrine." Do it with patience. Do it without ceasing. Do it unfailingly. And do it with doctrine - the Word of God. Christian preacher, church of Jesus Christ, make sure your doctrine, your reproof, your correction, your instruction in righteousness, is the Word of God and not the word of man.

Why is the preacher to do this? Why is the church to do this? Because, Paul says in verse 3, "the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine." People won't want to put up with it. They will want to hear what they want to hear. They will want that which appeals to the natural man, the man who cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God because the Spirit of God isn't living in him. But the answer is not to descend to their level, but to lift them up to Christ.

A 'Gospel Sandwich' Made Without the Bread of Life

It is interesting to note that Paul by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit uses the phrase "sound doctrine" in this passage. The Greek word that is translated "sound" is the word from which we get our English word "hygiene." The word in the Greek has the meaning, "healthy". And it also carried the meaning "accurate". The sense of the phrase "sound doctrine" is, "teaching that is free from any mixture of error." Sound teaching. Healthy teaching. The Bread of Life is healthy bread. It is life-giving bread. It is strengthening bread. It is sustaining bread.

Timothy Keller's "sandwich presentation" contains no such bread. We shall see more of this, the Lord willing, as we move from the examination of Keller's method to the examination of the content of what he falsely calls the "gospel".


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