Scripture and the Church

Tim Keller's False Gospel: A Point-By-Point Analysis

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
Timothy Keller promotes a "gospel" designed to be attractive to unregenerated man, but stripped of the Biblical essentials and robbed of Divine power and authority.
From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Part five of a series. Read part four.

Timothy Keller promotes a "gospel" designed to be attractive to unregenerated man, but stripped of the Biblical essentials and robbed of Divine power and authority.

In our last article, we focused on Timothy Keller's methodology for presenting his version of the "gospel". We saw that 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

As we continue our examination of Keller's teachings, we now move from Keller's method to the actual content of what he falsely calls the "gospel". Here is what Keller describes as "the attractive gospel" or a "brief gospel connected to baseline narratives." His presentation involves four points: "Why We Are Here" - "What Went Wrong" - "What Puts the World Right" - and "How We Can Be Part of Putting the World Right". Unless otherwise noted below, all quotations are from Keller's essay.

"Why We Are Here" According to Keller

"The one God is a 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."

The teaching that "God is a community" has been gaining popularity in recent decades. At first glance this may seem to be simply a new or different way of expressing the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity. But those who are using this terminology, Keller included, are using "God is a community" not to teach truth about the Godhead, but to teach a communal rather than an individual view of salvation. Their descriptions of the Godhead, like Keller's above, tend to humanize God rather than emphasize the vast gulf between an infinitely holy God and utterly sinful man.

John Armstrong of ACT 3 Ministries is another advocate of this teaching. Armstrong promotes Federal Vision theology, which teaches this communal view of God as integral to a "salvation" commencing with water baptism and maintained by communal participation in the life of the church and especially the eucharist. Armstrong explains the "God is a community" teaching as follows, connecting it to baptismal regeneration:

Through faith and Christian baptism we share in the glory that was his [Christ's] before the world began. This gift enables us to share in the interpersonal life of the Trinity. Jesus' prayer to the Father during his Last Supper (the prayer that began to shape and change my life in the early 1990s) was "As you Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us." In our baptism we are baptized into the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is proper to Christian baptism because we are baptized into the triune love of God.1

I have become aware that Federal Visionists within the Presbyterian Church in America consider Keller a friend and not a foe, because they see his view of God and communal view of "salvation" as in line with theirs.

In his discussion of "Why We Are Here" we next come to Keller's view of the created order: "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." First of all, it is ironic that Keller, a promoter of theistic evolution, would say that "God made a good, beautiful world" when his evolutionary position entails billions of years of suffering and death to reach the present state of the world - in which suffering and death predominate. The theistic evolutionary view has no place for a "good and beautiful world" - a perfect world that could be launched into chaos by man's sin.

"What Went Wrong" According to Keller

"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 nature itself. War, hunger, poverty, injustice, racism, bitterness, meaninglessness, despair, sickness, and death all are symptoms."

This bears little resemblance to the Genesis account of creation and the fall of man into sin. Keller refuses to say what Scripture says - that God created a perfect universe out of nothing by His spoken word, and that man plunged that perfect creation into death and destruction, and cut himself off from fellowship with his Creator, by violating a direct commandment of the infinitely holy God.

In his writings and teachings, Keller avoids the word "sin" and rejects the Biblical definition of the term. In fact, one of the chapters in Keller's book The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith is titled "Redefining Sin". In an interview for USA Today Keller explained his position:

When Keller, author of The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, speaks about "sin" to his audiences, which are 70% single and younger than 40, "I use it with lots and lots of explanation, because the word is essentially obsolete."

"They do get the idea of branding, of taking a word or term and filling it with your own content, so I have to rebrand the word 'sin,' " Keller says.

"Around here [in his Redeemer Network churches] it means self-centeredness, the acorn from which it all grows. Individually, that means 'I live for myself, for my own glory and happiness, and I'll work for your happiness if it helps me.' Communally, self-centeredness is destroying peace and justice in the world, tearing the net of interwovenness, the fabric of humanity."2

Is this how the Bible speaks of sin? Can any true preacher of the Gospel dare to "rebrand the word 'sin' "? Never!

Is sin merely, as Keller puts it, "I live for myself, for my own glory and happiness, and I'll work for your happiness if it helps me"? Is sin merely "self-centeredness [that] is destroying peace and justice in the world, tearing the net of interwovenness, the fabric of humanity"? No. Scripture defines sin as any lack of conformity to, or violation of, the law of God (1 John 3:4, Romans 4:15). As such, it is the most serious problem in the universe. Sin isn't merely an offense against God's law, which emanates from the holiness of God. That is bad enough. Beyond that, sin is an offense against God the Lawgiver Himself (Exodus 32:33, Deuteronomy 32:51, Psalm 51:4), and it is an offense by creature against Creator (Ezekiel 18:4). Sin is a doubly-deep problem, and man is doubly condemned.

First, through the offense of Adam as the federal head of the human race, the guilt of Adam's sin was imputed to all mankind and the human race was condemned (Romans 5:18-19). Second, every human being is condemned because of his own personal unbelief and sin (John 3:18-20, Isaiah 59:2). In other words, we are not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are by nature sinners. Furthermore, the entire created order was brought under God's curse because of Adam's sin (Genesis 3:16-19, Romans 8:22).

Keller's "re-branding" of sin trivializes and obscures the sinfulness of sin according to Scripture. His proposed "attractive gospel" plays around the edges of man's sin problem without pinpointing the cause or plumbing its depths.

"What Puts the World Right" According to Keller

"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."

Keller's opening sentence bespeaks a diminished view of God and His sovereignty. Keller redefines lostness - and not coincidentally, a chapter in his recent book The Prodigal God is titled "Redefining Lostness". In his "attractive gospel" presentation Keller has done just that. He claims that "God lost us." This is a perversion of the word apollumi that is translated "lost" in the New Testament. The primary meaning of the word has nothing to do with the idea of God having lost us. The word has to do with the death, ruin, or destruction of something or someone - in other words, with spiritual death. The word has to do with the sovereign judgment of God in declaring man lost and condemned because of his sin.

Keller's portrayal of God as "determined to win use back" implies that man - sinful, rebellious, condemned man - is in the driver's seat, and of his own volition will determine whether or not God is successful is His quest. Once again, this is exceedingly odd language for a man who claims to be Reformed in his theology. It is, on its face, a denial of the sovereignty of God in salvation.

Keller's portrayal of the cross-work of Christ in this section of his presentation also revives a long-standing heresy: "By his sacrificial life and death he both exemplifies the life we must live and rescues us from the life we have lived." Here Keller restates the language of the moral-influence theory of the atonement that has often plagued the church through the centuries. It is in direct conflict with the reason that Scripture says Christ went to the cross, which is penal substitution - to be the propitiation for our sins, to appease the wrath of God, to satisfy His justice by taking the punishment we deserve for our sins (Romans 3:25, 1 John 2:2 and 4:10).

"How We Can Be Part of Putting the World Right" According to Keller

"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."

The first problem with this part of Keller's "attractive gospel" presentation is that God is not in the business of "putting the world right" but of saving a people out of this condemned world for life in the new heavens and new earth:

But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless... (2 Peter 3:10-14)

The second problem with this part of Keller's "gospel" is that is sets forth an un-Biblical purpose for the preaching of the Gospel. The goal of Gospel preaching is not the transformation of individuals, communities and cultures. This is the idea that Keller and others endorsed and promoted in the Manhattan Declaration. This man-centered view of "gospel" traces its American roots to the heresies of the New England Congregationalists of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Biblical goal of Gospel preaching is simply the proclamation of the one true Gospel to the glory of God (Romans 10). It is God's glory to use the preaching of His Word both to save souls and to demonstrate the hardness of the unrepentant. God the Holy Spirit uses the Word, preached, read, and studied, to sanctify those who believe the Word (Ephesians 5:26). Those who will spend eternity in the Lake of Fire will do so because of their unbelief and its manifestations (Revelation 21:8).

It is true that the preaching of God's Word and the sanctified behavior of His saints does also exert a beneficial moral influence upon society, often keeping in check the worst effects of man's sinfulness upon this present evil world. But to make transformation of individuals, communities and cultures primary, as Keller and many others want to do, is to make our finite judgments of the good of man primary and the glorious and sovereign purposes of God secondary.

Finally, this part of Keller's presentation speaks of deliverance from "self-condemnation". That is not man's problem. Man's problem is God's condemnation because of his unbelief:

He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 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 3:18-20)

Only a "Preliminary Presentation"?

Some defenders of Keller say that we should not be so critical or analytical of this four-point presentation, because it is meant to be preliminary to a "real" presentation of the Gospel. But how can you present the "real" Gospel after you've presented a counterfeit? How can you now achieve clarity when you have gone to great lengths to implant confusion? How can you possibly now credibly present the facts of the Gospel according to Scripture, when you have filled your hearers' heads full of falsehoods? You cannot.

Other defenders say that Keller's preliminary presentation is "milk" for those who cannot yet stand "meat". But what does Scripture say? 1 Corinthians 3:2 and Hebrews 5:12 tell us that both milk and meat are truth from Scripture - not a story of our own invention, as is Keller's humanistic "retelling" (actually, his thorough distortion) of the Gospel message.

Keller himself claims this is all preliminary to a "longer explanation of the person and work of Christ." And what is Keller's "real" gospel presentation? In an essay titled The Gospel in All Its Forms, Keller refers to "gospel" as something that people "agree on" in their generation or culture. He agrees with the late theologian C. H. Dodd (one of the men who laid the groundwork for the heresy of justification by faith plus works embodied in the so-called New Perspective on Paul) that there is one "consensus gospel" in the Bible. "So yes," says Keller, "there must be one gospel, and yet there are clearly different forms in which that one gospel can be expressed. This is the Bible's own way of speaking of the gospel, and we should stick with it."

The "form" in which Keller expresses the "gospel" above deforms it into something unrecognizable as the one true Gospel. Once again, Keller shows that what is really important to him is not the Gospel message but making it acceptable to the unregenerated mind through "cultural contextualization". This, as we saw in an earlier article, produces a "gospel product" that may be attractive to the mind and heart of some unregenerated men, but which is stripped of the Biblical essentials, and robbed of Divine power and authority. It is not the true Gospel, which is "the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16).

How Do Sound Churches Descend to This?

All of our discussion thus far exposes an underlying question that I am sure is on the minds of many: How does a once-sound church, denomination, or Christian school come to the place where it obscures and ultimately denies the Gospel, as Keller and his followers, and so many others, do? As we conclude this series, the Lord willing we shall address that issue.
 

References:

  1. John Armstrong, "God Is a Community of Persons" as viewed on November 2, 2011 at  http://johnharmstrong.typepad.com/john_h_armstrong_/2011/07/god-is-a-community-of-persons.html

  2. Cathy Lynn Grossman, "Has the 'Notion of Sin' Been Lost?", USA Today, March 19, 2008, as viewed on 11/2/2011 at http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2008-03-19-sin_N.htm]

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