Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Keller’

When the apostle Paul steps on my toes

February 9, 2017

Rembrandt's Paul. He wouldn't really have been writing in a book.

Rembrandt’s Paul. He wouldn’t really have been writing in a book.

I’m currently teaching a Bible study on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. At last night’s study, we looked at Galatians 1:6-9.

Paul’s main concern here is that false teachers had infiltrated the Galatian churches, which Paul established on his first missionary journey, and were distorting the gospel he preached to them. These teachers, often called “Judaizers,” insisted that the Galatian Christians, many of whom were Gentiles, needed to observe Jewish ceremonial law in order to be fully Christian.

Keep in mind: the Judaizers’ error was subtle. As one Reformation-era theologian, Heinrich Bullinger, put it, they could affirm everything in the Apostles’ Creed. “What they denied,” however, “was that everything related to salvation was given by Christ alone.”

As you can see in Paul’s response, this seemingly small error was spiritually deadly.

In his Galatians for You commentary, Tim Keller asks us to consider ways in which contemporary Christians and churches make the same mistake. As I told the class, I see in my own preaching a tendency toward this error when I emphasize the necessity of “surrendering” our lives to Christ. While I like the language of surrender, the problem, as Keller describes it, is that we can overemphasize our human action at the expense of God’s grace.

Surrendering to Christ, in other words, can become more about us than Jesus ChristIt can become a measure of the strength and purity of our faith, or the thoroughness of our repentance. We can turn “faith” itself into a kind of meritorious work that we must perform for God before he saves us the “rest of the way.”

In which case, what we do is very small, but it’s hardly nothing. And contrary to Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:8-9, our efforts would be something about which we could boast.

No. Paul would remind us that saving faith and repentance are not something that we muster on our own, apart from the prevenient grace of God. The biblical kind of surrender that we need to make to God is one that says, “I give up! I am helpless. I can do nothing to earn this gift of salvation. If I’m going to be saved, it’s going to be through Christ’s merit alone. Enable me depend on him completely for my salvation.”

Are you already a Christian? That means that you’re “in the process” of being saved—i.e., you’re being sanctified. God is enabling you to become more Christlike. Paul’s warning still applies: Sanctification is not self-improvement. It is God alone who sanctifies. Surrendering in this case would mean, just as before, trusting in Christ completely to do this good work within us.

But do we have to do anything? Well, yes—if you insist on looking at it from the human side of the equation. But, but, but… I can hardly say that without the legalist within puffing his chest out—or, depending on the day of the week, hanging his head in shame. 

I’ll leave it to John Piper to say the rest. This comes from his post, “Should We Teach that Good Works Come with Saving Faith?”:

I don’t think that question will ever be settled at the experiential level… because human beings are wired to be legalists. We are wired to trust in what we do as the ground of our assurance.

Now along comes a gospel preacher who says, “Christ died for your sins and he provided a righteousness, so that all of your guilt can be taken away and all the righteousness that God requires of you can be provided totally by another. And this forgiveness and righteousness is received totally by faith alone.” Then he follows it up in a subsequent message, saying, “The faith that justifies justifies by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone. It will always be accompanied by graces like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.”

And as soon as you say that this faith is going to bear fruit, people shift back into their legalistic mode of “Oh, I see. We’re really justified by our works.” And it takes a lifetime of fighting that battle…

Sermon 01-29-17: “Fulfilling the Law and the Prophets”

February 7, 2017

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Do Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:20, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” contradict our Protestant understanding of justification by faith alone? To answer that question, we need to understand what Jesus is saying in verses 17-19. This sermon explores these verses. In the process, I talk about the inspiration of scripture and the way in which Jesus fulfills the Old Testament.

Sermon Text: Matthew 5:17-20

[No audio or video this week due to an iPhone error. They will be available for next week’s sermon.]

leah-remini-cover-768x1024Leah Remini, the actress who played Doug’s wife, Carrie, on the TV show King of Queens for many years made news in 2013 when she announced to the world that she was leaving the Church of Scientology—after being an active member of the cult for 35 years. Over the past couple of months, she produced an eight-part documentary on the A&E Network about Scientology—and the great harm it does to its followers. Which is kind of brave—because they have an army of lawyers and private investigators and more money than they know what to do with. They will use these resources to try to ruin your life!

As Remini describes in the documentary, the path to spiritual enlightenment that scientology promises involves spending basically all your time and all your money on classes, books, and so-called “auditing” sessions. All together, she estimated that she spent nearly $5 million on Scientology.

After all the money, all the time, all the work, she was supposed to have reached a level of spiritual enlightenment at which point she was completely free from fear and anxiety; she was in a place of perfect peace—a place free of pain and suffering. And did she achieve that? “No,” she said, “not even close.”

Even after all that money… all that work. And I do mean work. She said that when she wasn’t working on King of Queens, she was taking Scientology classes—from 8:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night. Every day. She spent much of her time in Clearwater, Florida, which is the international headquarters of Scientology. At one point, the documentary shows her walking on the beach in Clearwater, and she said, “This is the first time I’ve ever been to the beach.” The first time? And she’s like, “Yes, you don’t get vacation time in Scientology.” Read the rest of this entry »

Where do evil and suffering fit into God’s plans?

January 24, 2017

A regular contributor to Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, who calls herself “RJS,” wrote a post that further illustrates the problem with the way that many evangelicals discuss issues related to God’s sovereignty and providence. If you didn’t read my post on the subject last week, please do so. Then read RJS’s most recent post.

I wrote the following comment, to which I hope RJS responds.

You say Genesis 50:19-20 shouldn’t be a “catch-all propositional truth thrown at people in times of pain.” For that matter, what propositional truth should be “thrown at” anyone in the midst of their pain. Pastoral sensitivity is necessary no matter what. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t propositional truths. I wouldn’t necessarily quote James 1:2 (“Count it all joy, my brother and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds…”) when someone is in pain, even though someone’s pain would usually qualify as a “trial.” Right?

Regardless, if God can work “even through the evil actions of humans,” as you say in your last paragraph, I fail to see the distinction between what counts for “God’s plans” and what doesn’t. You seem to imply that God’s plans only use “good events.” But if God foreknows what sinful humans will do, and he’s at work, a la Romans 8:28, through everything, how can “every evil and tragic occurrence” also not be part of his plans—unless you accept some form of open theism and believe that these events take God by surprise. (Not judging here, just trying to understand your point of view.)

I’m speaking as a Wesleyan-Arminian, by the way. I’m not a Calvinist troll. But in my way of thinking, if God has plans at all, how can those plans not take into consideration the evil and sinful things that humans do—or even so-called “acts of God” that harm people?

Besides, every event that happens in the world—for good or evil—has a ripple effect on history, affecting the lives of hundreds, thousands, or more. At what point will God start enfolding these myriad consequences into his “plans”?

With that in mind, I still find Timothy Keller’s words about providence and the “butterfly effect” persuasive. As I wrote in an earlier blog post:

In the scientific realm of chaos theory, there’s something called the “butterfly effect,” which says that a butterfly flapping its wings in China “would be magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific. Yet no one would be able to calculate and predict the actual effects of the butterfly’s flight.”[1] Should it be any easier to figure out God, and why God is doing or allowing something to happen?

Pastor Tim Keller reflects on this and writes: “If an all-powerful and all-wise God were directing all of history with its infinite number of interactive events toward good ends, it would be folly to think we could look at any particular occurrence and understand a millionth of what it will bring about.” Yet often when things don’t go our way, we’re the first ones to think, “That’s not fair! If I were God, I would run the universe differently.” But as you can imagine, we’re not really in a position to judge.[2]

1. Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 100.

2. Ibid., 101.

Christmas Eve Sermon 2016: “Angels, Why this Jubilee?”

December 30, 2016

dreamstime_m_14219263

In today’s scripture, the angels announce good news to the shepherds, not good advice. In other words, it’s an announcement about something that God has done for us, rather than something we do ourselves. As I say in this sermon, this distinguishes Christianity from every other world religion. Apart from Christ’s atoning death and resurrection, we face a crisis in our lives that none of us is able to solve. The good news is that, like any gift under the Christmas tree, God has given this gift of forgiveness and eternal life for everyone. All we have to do is receive it.

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

Sermon Text: Luke 2:1-20

A couple of days ago, my boys and I went to see the new Star Wars movie, Rogue One. It began the same way all the other Star Wars movies began—with a black screen and these words: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

In other words, no matter how much tinkering with computer-generated imagery that George Lucas and others have done to keep the movies looking as visually “realistic” as possible, these ten words may as well read, “Once upon a time…” They remind us from the beginning that, despite the fact that thousands of British people in a recent census claimed “Jedi” as their religion, the world of Star Wars is nothing more than a glorified fairy tale.

star_wars

There’s nothing wrong with fairy tales, of course. But please note that the beginning of Luke’s Christmas story couldn’t be more realistic. True, it does take place long ago and far away—but not so long ago that we can’t date it and not so far away that we can’t pinpoint it on a map. No, it happened in “those days” during the reign of Caesar Augustus reigned—we know when that was—and when he issued a decree that the entire Roman Empire would be registered for a census. And not just any census—this was the first one, Luke tells us, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.

Luke wants us to know, in other words, that the birth of Christ was a real and verifiable event in history.

Why does that matter? Because Luke is reporting news to us—this happened in this time and place, and you need to know about it. He’s not giving us advice. Think about it: Fables, fairy tales, and even science-fiction fantasies can impart valuable life lessons to us. They can give us good advice. Live your life like this, they say. But they can’t give us good news. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 23: Surrendering to God

December 23, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Luke 1:28-38

glory_cover_finalNotice in verse 38 that Mary isn’t necessarily saying that she’s happy to be God’s chosen vessel for bringing God’s Son into the world. Her joy would come later—after she visits her relative Elizabeth later in later in this chapter. Right now, she is likely nervous, uncertain, and afraid. In spite of her feelings, however, she says “yes” to God. She surrenders her will to God. She says, in so many words, the same thing her son would say more than thirty years later in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will but thine be done.”

Although our circumstances will be different from hers, all Christians must be prepared to do the same. Like Mary, we must learn to surrender to the Lord.

Pastor and author Tim Keller gives us an idea what this looks like. He describes an experience decades ago at a Christian conference:

Two questions were put to us. First, are you willing to obey anything the Bible clearly says to do, whether you like it or not? Second, are you willing to trust God in anything he sends into your life, whether you understand it or not? If you can’t answer these two questions in the affirmative, we were told, you may believe in Jesus in some general way, but you have never said to him, “I am the Lord’s servant.” These questions were startling to me, but to this day I believe they are accurate indicators of what Christians are being asked for.[†]

Can you answer these two questions in the affirmative? What changes do you need to make in your life to become a more faithful servant of the Lord? Pray for the grace to change.

Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 91.

Tim Keller in the New York Times

December 23, 2016

kellerIn today’s New York Times, op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristoff interviews my favorite contemporary preacher, Tim Keller. You can read the interview here. While I would have pushed back harder on the resurrection and the Bible’s alleged “fuzziness” (Luke’s virgin birth story was “written in a different kind of Greek”? Huh?)  the interview was edited, as Kristoff indicates, so we can’t know what else Keller had to say.

Still, these are not softball questions. As a useful exercise, in the spirit of 1 Peter 3:15, you might try formulating your own answers to these questions.

I want to highlight a couple of Keller’s responses. First, when asked about the alleged inconsistency between faith and science, I liked his answer. I’m including it here mostly because I want to remember that Plantinga quote, which I’ve highlighted:

I don’t see why faith should be seen as inconsistent with science. There is nothing illogical about miracles if a Creator God exists. If a God exists who is big enough to create the universe in all its complexity and vastness, why should a mere miracle be such a mental stretch? To prove that miracles could not happen, you would have to know beyond a doubt that God does not exist. But that is not something anyone can prove.

Science must always assume that an effect has a repeatable, natural cause. That is its methodology. Imagine, then, for the sake of argument that a miracle actually occurred. Science would have no way to confirm a nonrepeatable, supernatural cause. Alvin Plantinga argued that to say that there must be a scientific cause for any apparently miraculous phenomenon is like insisting that your lost keys must be under the streetlight because that’s the only place you can see.

Next, when asked about Christianity’s exclusivity (Is Gandhi in hell?), Keller gets to the heart of the matter: Who can be saved by being good? Who is good? And if being good were the criterion, wouldn’t that also be exclusive? The alternative to a works-based salvation, as Keller notes, is universalism: everyone will be saved in the end. But where does that leave justice? Should evil go unpunished?

What I admire most about Christianity is the amazing good work it inspires people to do around the world. But I’m troubled by the evangelical notion that people go to heaven only if they have a direct relationship with Jesus. Doesn’t that imply that billions of people — Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus — are consigned to hell because they grew up in non-Christian families around the world? That Gandhi is in hell? 

The Bible makes categorical statements that you can’t be saved except through faith in Jesus (John 14:6; Acts 4:11-12). I’m very sympathetic to your concerns, however, because this seems so exclusive and unfair. There are many views of this issue, so my thoughts on this cannot be considered the Christian response. But here they are:

You imply that really good people (e.g., Gandhi) should also be saved, not just Christians. The problem is that Christians do not believe anyone can be saved by being good. If you don’t come to God through faith in what Christ has done, you would be approaching on the basis of your own goodness. This would, ironically, actually be more exclusive and unfair, since so often those that we tend to think of as “bad” — the abusers, the haters, the feckless and selfish — have themselves often had abusive and brutal backgrounds.

Christians believe that it is those who admit their weakness and need for a savior who get salvation. If access to God is through the grace of Jesus, then anyone can receive eternal life instantly. This is why “born again” Christianity will always give hope and spread among the “wretched of the earth.”

I can imagine someone saying, “Well, why can’t God just accept everyone — universal salvation?” Then you create a different problem with fairness. It means God wouldn’t really care about injustice and evil.

There is still the question of fairness regarding people who have grown up away from any real exposure to Christianity. The Bible is clear about two things — that salvation must be through grace and faith in Christ, and that God is always fair and just in all his dealings. What it doesn’t directly tell us is exactly how both of those things can be true together. I don’t think it is insurmountable. Just because I can’t see a way doesn’t prove there cannot be any such way. If we have a God big enough to deserve being called God, then we have a God big enough to reconcile both justice and love.

Sermon 12-18-16: “Wise to Follow the Newborn King”

December 21, 2016

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One main theme of my Advent sermon series is that we’re not so different from the men and women in the Bible’s Christmas narratives. In today’s scripture I focus on three responses to the birth of the newborn king: hostility, indifference, and transformation. Chances are, your life, like my life, reflects all three responses. What do we need to do to become more like the magi?

Sermon Text: Matthew 2:1-12

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download a MP3.]

A company called Modern Nativity has made a splash this holiday season by reimagining the manger scene as having happened to a group of present-day hipsters. “Hipster Nativity”! So Mary, holding a cup of Starbucks coffee, and Joseph, with his smartphone, are shown taking a selfie of themselves and the baby Jesus in a stable with a solar-paneled roof. A shepherd is shown uploading pictures of the joyous event to Instagram or Snapchat. And the wise men, the subject of today’s scripture, are shown wearing skinny jeans, riding Segways, and carrying their gifts to the newborn king in Amazon boxes—naturally.

hipster_magi

Hipster magi, with their gifts in Amazon boxes

I don’t love this nativity set, to be honest—especially for the $130 that they’re asking for it. But I do think if the magi were giving gifts to Jesus today, Amazon would somehow be involved. This was literally a picture I took yesterday of one delivery to my house! [Show picture of Amazon boxes.]

Remember when we used to go to stores to buy stuff—we used to go to the mall? I don’t miss those days!

But getting back to Hipster Nativity, I also appreciate that contemporary nativities help us imagine ourselves in this story. As has been my theme throughout this Advent sermon series, I want us to see that we’re not so different from the men and women who took part in these events related to Christmas about 2,020 years ago. We can see ourselves in them!

In fact, I want this sermon to focus on three very different responses that we see in today’s scripture to the events of Christmas and the birth of Christ.

First, we see in King Herod the response of hostility. Read the rest of this entry »

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 19: The “Little Herod” in Each of Us

December 19, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Matthew 2:13-15

glory_cover_finalKing Herod went to murderous lengths to oppose the kingship of Jesus Christ. Yet, in the following passage, Tim Keller argues that even we Christians have a little bit of “King Herod” living within us:

Why do you think it is so hard to pray? Why do you think it is so hard to concentrate on the most glorious person possible? Why, when God answers a prayer, do you say, “Oh, I will never forget this, Lord,” but soon you do anyway? How many times have you said, “I will never do this again!” and two weeks later you do it again? In Romans 7:15 Paul says, “What I hate I do.” There is still a little King Herod inside you. It means you have got to be far more intentional about Christian growth, about prayer, and about accountability to other people to overcome your bad habits. You can’t just glide through the Christian life. There is still something in you that fights it.[†]

How does that “little King Herod” manifest itself in your life? Pray for forgiveness and repent. Ask for the grace necessary to fight him back.

Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 73.

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 16: God’s Calendar

December 16, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Matthew 1:1-17

glory_cover_finalBe honest: When you saw that the Matthew 1 passage above was a genealogy, you quickly skimmed the names. I don’t blame you. I’ve done the same thing many times. But if we take our time with this genealogy, we can learn a lot.

For example, one thing we learn is that it took centuries—millennia—for God’s promise to Abraham to be fulfilled. Recall that God called Abraham to leave his home in family and create a new people, Israel, so that through them—and Israel’s faithful representative, Jesus—all the world could be saved.

The lesson? God operates on his own calendar, not our own. As Tim Keller puts it:

This is one of the main themes of the nativity story, and indeed the Bible. Look at the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. For years it seemed like God was ignoring Joseph’s prayers, letting him experience one disaster after another. But in the ned it became clear that every one of those things had to happen in order for all to be saved. Joseph was even able to say to his brothers, who had sold him into slavery, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Look at Jesus, being called to heal a fatally ill girl but stopping to deal with someone else instead and allowing Jairus’s daughter to die. His timing seemed completely wrong—until it became clear it wasn’t (Mark 5:21-43).

God’s grace virtually never operates on our time frame, on a schedule we consider reasonable. He does not follow our agendas or schedules. When Jesus spoke to the despairing father Jairus, whose daughter had just died, he said, “Believe” (Mark 5:36). He was saying, “If you want to impose your time frame on me, you will never feel loved by me, and it will be your fault, because I do love you. I will fulfill my promises.”[†]

How good are you at waiting on God? When have you tried to “impose your time frame” on Jesus? Do you think Keller is exaggerating when he says that we’ll “never feel loved” by him when we do?

Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 35-6.