For the sake of my soul, I hope Jesus’ ethical teaching isn’t the “main thing”

December 29, 2016

Just before Christmas, Tim Keller, my favorite contemporary preacher, gave an interview with New York Times. Op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristoff asked him challenging questions, and Keller acquitted himself well.

At least one Christian blogger, Steve Hackman, disagrees. He writes (emphasis mine):

Keller deftly does the difficult job of attempting to navigate 21st century sensibilities while still holding and defending cornerstones of the Christian faith…

…but then he drops one little sentence; one little bit of information that would be easy enough just to zoom past without giving it any thought whatsoever.

But this sentence hit me like a hammer!

I believe this sentence is the root cause of the rumblings being felt right now in American Evangelicalism between the old guard and a younger generation.

This sentence is the crack in the foundation ignored and overlooked for too long.

And what is this sentence?

Kristoff: And the Resurrection? Must it really be taken literally?

Keller: Jesus’ teaching was not the main point of his mission. He came to save people through his death for sin and his resurrection. So his important ethical teaching only makes sense when you don’t separate it from these historic doctrines.

Did you get that?  For evangelicals like Keller, Jesus’ teachings are of secondary importance.  They are “ethical teachings” to be incorporated after believing a death and resurrection occurred…

Now I agree with Keller the resurrection of Jesus is important but the resurrection of Christ is the confirmation (and promise) by God of everything Jesus  taught and proclaimed. Both at Christ’s baptism as well as the Transfiguration, the Father shows up to affirm his love for his son and that allshould listen to him!

What Jesus was teaching was not of secondary importance.  It was the MAIN thing!  Evangelicalism has been crippled by forgetting to keep the main thing the main thing.

Did you catch that?

As Hackman himself might say, Hackman drops one little sentence; one little bit of information that would be easy enough just to zoom past without giving it any thought whatsoever.

But this sentence hit me like a hammer!

This sentence is the crack in the foundation of American mainline Protestantism that has been ignored and overlooked for too long.

(Sorry, couldn’t resist…)

Keller says the main thing is Jesus’ death for our sins and resurrection, both of which are necessary for our salvation. Hackman responds by saying he agrees that Jesus’ resurrection is important. Wait… what about Jesus’ death for our sins?

Does anyone think that isn’t an intentional oversight? Why doesn’t he mention Christ’s atoning death on the cross? Does Hackman not believe that is important?

Does he not believe the angel who told Joseph in Matthew 1 that he is to name him Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins”?

Anyone who reads the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, without realizing how utterly impossible God’s standard for ethical behavior is, how thoroughly we fail to live it out, and how desperately we need a Savior to save us from our sins, has missed the point of the gospel.

So, yes, I hope Keller is right that Christ’s death for our sins and his resurrection are the main things.

3 Responses to “For the sake of my soul, I hope Jesus’ ethical teaching isn’t the “main thing””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I agree as to “main things.” Just so we don’t forget that Jesus (and Paul, for that matter) do tell us how we should live, difficult as it may be to live up to that. “Go ye therefore and MAKE DISCIPLES, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”

  2. betsypc Says:

    And once again, nobody talks about the importance of the ascension. In “Body & Soul”, the book by M. Craig Barnes that expounds on the Heidelberg Catechism, I learned that our salvation and atonement come from Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. Barnes divides what Jesus did into two parts: “How Low Salvation Descends” and “How High Salvation Ascends”. The former deals with the birth, life, death of Jesus. The latter deals with his resurrection and ascension—-interestingly enough the Heidelberg has only one succinct question and answer re the resurrection and its benefit for us. Although the whole picture of what Jesus did on our behalf is important, it hit me like a ton of bricks that the ascension is what impacts us the most because the ascension brings Jesus to the “here and now”, where he offering to transform us into the truly human persons God intended us to be. The ascension also confirms the fact that the same Jesus who walked and talked with the original 12 and later tagged Saul/Paul is still working on our behalf in the 21st century; the ascension is what links us to the never ending line of the community of saints past and present.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I think I agree in the sense that through the gift of the Spirit, Christ is able to be present everywhere. Notice that the blogger also speaks as if obeying Jesus’ ethical teaching is something we can just… do… on our own. So he’s also disregarding the role of the Spirit. My only caution about what you say—and I’m speaking from my own experience—is that what we can easily confuse “self-improvement” for genuine sanctification. As one Lutheran theologian said, “Sanctification is learning to live with our justification.” I like that. From my perspective, we can hardly overemphasize the cross.


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