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Posts Tagged ‘Tim Keller’

There has been quite a debate in recent years over the definition of the word ‘gospel.’

Now, right there many of my readers (if I may be so bold as to presume multiple) are ready to write this off as another instance where scholars waste time and ink arguing about things we already know.  After all, the gospel is about how a person gets saved and has a relationship with God.  Why complicate something so simple a child could understand it?

Problems with the Popular Conception

The critique of this concept of the gospel has already been leveled by many people.  Here are some of my issues with it, in no particular order:

1. Why are the Gospels called “Gospels?’  The standard definition doesn’t fit this usage.  “How You Get Saved, According to Mark.”  Sorry, doesn’t work.  Because if that were the case, I’m not sure why we have 4 different Gospels.

2. It doesn’t quite fit with the OT usage of the word (or at least the Greek word, euanggelion).  Take, for example, Isaiah’s usage of it in Is 40:9; 52:7; 60:6; 61:1 (paying attention to the surrounding context, of course).  Those passage, indeed, most of Isaiah 40-66, are about God rescuing, restoring and re-establishing the nation from their exile.  That, of course, includes individuals, but that’s not at all the focus.

3. It doesn’t always fit the NT usage, either.  Some frequently point to Romans 1:1-4.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God- the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.

Again, the standard answer can’t simply be substituted and work well.

4. Nor does it fit too well with Jesus’ use of Isaiah 61 in Luke 4:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

The gospel here is not simply having the debt of sin paid for and the promise of relationship with God.

5. Or consider Paul’s speech in Athens (Acts 17:22-31).  There is no mention of Jesus dying for our sins so we can have eternal life.  I want to be clear, though: I think what we have here is a condensed version of Paul’s interaction with the Athenians.  I have serious doubts he went too long without mentioning the cross of Christ.  But, it is interesting that Luke doesn’t include that aspect of Paul’s proclamation in this passage.

Okay, we could probably multiply passages and the like, but I think I’ve proven my point.

Where the Popular Conception Is Right

On the other hand, though, those who want to diminish the individual aspect of the gospel- that we are sinners in need of good news that God has made a way for us to know and have a relationship with him- also fail to deal adequately with the biblical data.  One would only have to read 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, where Paul clearly delineates the gospel he preached (here are vv3-8):

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also.”

So there it is, in plain language: Christ died for our sins, was raised from the dead and appeared to many of his followers.  That the biblical writers didn’t believe in or emphasize individual salvation is a wrong-headed idea, considering one of them once wrote “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

So I don’t want to appear as if I’m saying the traditional definition of the gospel is wrong.  It’s just that it doesn’t exhaust all that the Bible says the gospel is.  It’s not simple, it’s simplistic.

Keller & Gathercole on the Gospel

I want to highlight two resources, one of which I only recently learned about.  First, I highly recommend Tim Keller’s (free!) talk, appropriately called “What Is the Gospel?”  My coblogger, Brian, recommended it to me with this sales pitch: ‘it was like hearing the gospel for the first time!’  The second, recommended by Keller, is an essay by NT scholar Simon Gathercole called “The Gospel of Paul and the Gospel of the Kingdom” (this is a pdf, HT: JT).

Both of these resources take a careful look at the biblical material, but are by no means technical.  Anyone can use them, most probably should.  Keller’s talk if about 49 minutes, whereas Gathercole’s essay is 17 pages (with huge margins).  In the meantime, I’ll highlight the keys points.

Keller gives 3 aspects to the gospel, all of which are important and irreplaceable.

1. The Historical Aspect (the gospel events).  “The gospel is news about what Jesus has done, not primarily advice about how to live.”

2. The Sonship Aspect (the gospel identity).  The gospel is about a status you receive now, not just a reward you receive later.

3. The Kingdom Aspect (the gospel administration).  “The gospel is a completely transformed reversal of the world’s values, not just strength to live according to the old values.”   Also, this aspect is about God making this world a great world again.

Gathercole’s essay deals with the question of what is the gospel in Paul’s writings and in the Gospels, and are they ‘different gospels.’  Here is his summary of Paul’s gospel: “the gospel is God’s account of his saving activity in Jesus the Messiah, in which, by Jesus’ death and resurrection, he atones for sin and brings new creation.”  In other words, the gospel is about both who Jesus is (his identity) and what he has done (his work, which includes both salvation for people and bringing about a new creation).

Regarding the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke), Gathercole doesn’t try to ‘over-harmonize’ them with Paul.  They are different, as seen in the usage of the phrase “the gospel of the kingdom,’ which isn’t not prevalent in Paul.  But while the linguistic ties aren’t always there, the basic thematic outline of the gospel is the same in both sets of writings:

The unity of their presentations of the gospel can be seen in the broad outlines of these three key themes: (1) the identity of Jesus as Messiah, (2) his work of atoning sacrifice and justification, and (3) his inauguration of a new dominion.  These lie at the heart of the apostolic gospel.

What both Keller and Gathercole do well is note the ‘broad gospel’ without losing focus on the individual aspect of it.  While their three categories don’t exactly match up, it’s actually pretty close.  What I like about them both is this: they keep the big picture (new creation/dominion) and the narrow picture (forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ death and resurrection), but also tie it in to the historical events recorded in the Gospels about Jesus, Israel’s long-awaited Messiah would would restore not only them, but the nations of the world (Is 49:6).

One Last Bit of Wisdom from Keller

Some would, understandably, ask how this should affect our proclamation/sharing of the gospel.  After all, the 4 Spiritual Laws are nothing if not easy to share and understand, why make it harder by having to include everything in one shot?

I recommend Keller’s blog post here.  Among other things, he notes that the biblical writers themselves rarely include everything about the gospel in a one-stop shopping manner.  Even before twitter, we were accustomed to trying to make everything ‘short, sweet and to the point.’  But maybe we’d be better off casting a full blown gospel vision before people rather than aim for pithy.  For a people who have lost even the basic biblical categories (sin, justice, forgiveness, etc), this might be exactly what we need to do.

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What is the Bible About?

This doesn’t really count as a post, but here is a short video I found especially encouraging today:

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Knowing God: God Only Wise

Wisdom can be a slippery word to define these days.  I suspect that most Americans would equate wisdom with intelligence or sagacity.  More practically, wisdom might be defined as the ability to make “good” choices.  Most of the time when I say that I made a “wise” choice, this is all I really mean:  It was a good one, viz., it brought about the results I sought.

Along this line of thinking, wisdom is more or less morally neutral.  What constitutes “wise” or “unwise” is largely subjective.  I could say that I was wise in lying to the police officer about my expired registration, because it spared me the displeasure of a ticket.  Biblically speaking, however, I’d be wrong.  Packer corrects this perception of wisdom in the 9th chapter of Knowing God, defining wisdom as “the power to see, and the inclination to choose, the best and highest goal, together with the surest means for attaining it.”  It is “the practical side of moral goodness” (p.90).  Biblical wisdom, Packer notes, is not morally neutral.

God’s wisdom, unlike ours, is perfect, and not limited by a lack of foresight, intelligence, or moral goodness.  His choices are always the best means of realizing his perfect will.  Packer is quick to point out what the ultimate aim of this perfect will is.  This is a crucial point, given our tendency to think that any act of God which brings about personal unhappiness or discomfort is not good (i.e., unwise).  God’s ultimate aim is his glory (p.92):

[God’s] ultimate objective is to bring [humankind] to a state in which he is all in all to them, and he and they rejoice continually in the knowledge of each other’s love – people rejoicing in the saving love God, set upon them from all eternity, and God rejoicing the responsive love of people, drawn out of them by grace through the gospel.  This will be God’s glory, and our glory to, in every sense which that weighty word can bear.

Packer lets the Bible illustrate God’s wisdom in action, through a few brief surveys of the lives of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph.  This is Packer’s springboard to the important point that our own lives can take odd twists and turns, including hardships, that God is working towards his very good ends.  Writes Packer, “We may be frankly bewildered at things that happen to us, but God knows exactly what he is doing, and what he is after, in his handling of our affairs” (p.98).

I once heard Tim Keller remark that our own “books” have not been written yet.  In the case of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, we can look back at the story of their lives and see how God worked his great plans through them.  But when Joseph was locked up in Egypt, he didn’t have that perspective.  Nor do we, as we face trials and odd turns of circumstance.  What we do have, is the blessed assurance of God’s perfect wisdom.  Our grief, confusion, or pain, then, can always be framed with trust.  We may not know what the reasons are, but we do know what they are not:  Our suffering is not because God doesn’t care, because he’s made a mistake, because he’s forgotten, overlooked, or miscalculated.  God is perfectly wise, and therefore perfectly trustworthy through any circumstance.

As much as I’d love to close this post on the note above, I can never escape the fact that great theological propositions are often cold-comfort when we’re smack in the middle of a trial.  Most of us have had the experience of a well-meaning friend reciting Rom.8:28 to us when we’re in such a place, and most of us have had to nod politely (at best).  Belief in God’s wisdom doesn’t necessarily ease the pain, nor (I would argue) is it meant to.  What it does do is give us hope.  It is the light at the end of the tunnel.  Without it, all suffering and confusion is ultimately unbearable.  We may hurt and weep, but we needn’t despair.  A bright future awaits all of God’s children, and we can count on it.

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Considering Lazarus

During a recent discussion in our church’s training school, I commented that in all of Jesus’ parables, he never once names any of his characters.  The people are always generic:  son, servant, master, builder, Samaritan, etc.  I was quickly corrected, however, and reminded that there is one parable wherein Jesus names some of his players.  The parable is found in Lk. 16:19ff, and is commonly called “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”  You can read the full text here.

Why is Lazarus named in this parable?  Tim Keller makes the claim that Lazarus’ name is significant in that it makes the contrast between Lazarus and the rich man all the more stark:  the rich man, who by earthly standards is ‘somebody,’  has no name in the parable, whereas Lazarus, a poor man (‘nobody’), has a name.  Even more, Lazarus means “God is my help.”  Perhaps this suggests, however subtly, that the rich man is one who trusts in earthly status (i.e., wealth) for help.  Jesus is speaking among Pharisees, after all (c.f., 15:2, 16:14), whom Luke reminds us are lovers of money (16:14).  We should also note that Biblical names very often speak to the character and identity of the individual.  The poor man’s character and identity are wrapped up in God, whereas the rich man has no character or identity outside of his wealth.

Jesus’ parable ends with the Rich man’s plea to Abraham to raise Lazarus from the dead so he may warn his brothers of their impending judgment.  Abraham’s reply is that “If [your brothers] do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if somebody rises from the dead” (16:31).  I had always taken this verse to be foreshadowing Jesus’ own death and resurrection.  Says Jesus,  “You Pharisees are so hard of heart that even if I rise from the dead, you won’t believe me.”  Fast forward to Acts 4, and you can almost hear Jesus saying, “See?”

But perhaps v.31 is referring to the actual  Lazarus whom Jesus did raise from the dead (Jn. 11:38-44).  Note again the response of the Pharisees:  Not only do they want to kill Jesus (11:47-53), but they want Lazarus dead, too (12:10).  The resurrection of Lazarus is certainly a hinge point in John’s gospel, not unlike Peter’s confession in is a hinge point in Mark (Mk. 8:27-30).  Both are centerpieces in their respective gospels, and mark the beginning of Christ’s road to the Cross.

Because of the importance of Lazarus’ resurrection in John’s gospel, some have wondered why the synoptic accounts (Matthew, Mark and Luke) do not include it.  It has been speculated that one of the reasons why the synoptics do not mention Lazarus is precisely because of Jn. 12:10, i.e., Lazarus is a marked man.  Since the synoptics could have circulated when Lazarus was still alive, the writers engaged in a “witness protection program” of sorts.  John, which is widely believed to have been written later than the synoptics, retells the story because by then Lazarus is dead.

The conservative exegete in me wants to limit the importance of Lazarus’ naming in the parable to a literary device created to contrast his character with that of the rich man.  This stays closest to Luke’s text and immediate context.  I am more cautious about taking v.31 to refer to the real Lazarus simply because it requires some speculation, however well-informed.  We could also play the “both/and” card here, and make the claim that v.31 refers to Lazarus and Jesus.  Thankfully, the referrant of v.31 brings little to bear on the point(s) of the parable itself, so I’m ultimately content to let it rest there, and perhaps add it to my list of questions to ask the Lord when I meet Him face to face, or at least to the list of reasons why I need a good commentary on Luke.

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Tim Keller on The Shack

I encourage you to read this brief, but insightful, look at The Shack written by Tim Keller.  Here’s a taste:

Many have gotten involved in debates about Young’s theological beliefs, and I have my own strong concerns. But here is my main problem with the book. Anyone who is strongly influenced by the imaginative world of The Shack will be totally unprepared for the far more multi-dimensional and complex God that you actually meet when you read the Bible.

Check out the whole thing.

You can also check out Brian’s thoughts on The Shack here: Part 1 and Part 2.

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Free Tim Keller Sermons

This has already been thrown around a bit in the blogosphere, but I’m already playing catch up on this site from being inactive (sick) for 2 weeks, so I may as well finally post this.  Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City has made available 150 Tim Keller sermons for free.  I confess I haven’t listened to much of Keller, but I’ve read The Prodigal God (see Brian’s review here) and thought it was great.  At any rate, Keller’s one of the most respected evangelical pastors around today, so I highly recommend checking out his stuff.  Some of his “classics,” such as his Prodigal God series are available here.  Happy listening!

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Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I recently completed Tim Keller’s latest book, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith.  If you’re like me, you raise a suspicious eyebrow every time book claims to “recover” or “rediscover” anything about Christianity, let alone its heart.  It is a bold claim, and worthy of scrutiny.  Thankfully, Pastor Keller lives up to the hype, and then some.

As the title implies, the book focuses on one of Jesus’ best known parables: The parable of “The Prodigal Son.”  You know the story:  A man has two sons, the younger demands his inheritance, runs off and squanders everything on wild living, only to find himself destitute.  Repentant, he returns home to his father, who welcomes him with opens arms, and throws him a feast.  The other, ever-obedient brother, is indignant.  The parable closes with the father explaining his actions to the elder brother: “We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours…was lost and now is found” (Lk. 15:32).  The sermon practically writes itself, and you’ve probably heard it before.  Here is a perfect picture of God’s love for us:  Though we sin, if we return to God, he welcomes us, and longs to restore us as His children.

True enough, says Keller, but focussing on the younger brother’s story, “misses the real message of the story…because there are two brothers, each of whom represents a different way to be alienated from God, and a different way to seek acceptance into the kingdom of heaven” (p.7).  So begins Keller’s careful analysis of the text, and his focus on the oft-neglected story of the elder brother.

Keller’s text is such a pleasure to read that I am wont to summarize it all here.  Suffice it to say that his primary focus is on the elder brother, while drawing parallels to the ‘elder brothers’ who haunt our churches today.  Keller’s description of the elder brother’s attitude towards his father (i.e., God) was most striking to me.  The elder brother is indignant because his moral record has not won him his own feasts and rewards.  Keller makes the point that the elder brother’s attitude evidences that his service is not motivated by love for the father, but rather by a desire for control; a spiritual quid pro quo.  “If I do this, then he owes me that.”  His actions spring from self-righteousness with manipulative undercurrents.  These lead to entitlement, disappointment, bitterness, and ultimately alienation from God.  Although the parable begins “There was a man who had two sons” (Lk. 15:11), at the end, only one is reconciled to God.

In the last two chapters, Keller pulls back from the parable and takes a broader view of its place in the Bible as a whole.  This leads to a simple but effective presentation of the gospel which looks forward to our own homecoming, and feast with our Heavenly Father among redeemed creation.

The book is all of 133 well-spaced pages, so it will take even slow readers (myself among them) very little time to finish.  The text itself is immensely readable, and suitable for any audience, Christian or not.  Don’t let the approachability and readability fool you, however.  This is not a quick “feel good” devotional read for a short flight or long weekend.  Taken seriously, The Prodigal God packs a punch that is equal parts conviction and hope.

This is the first time I’ve read Keller, who is the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  He is also the author of the best-selling The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.  It’s already on my Christmas list.

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