Keller, gospel and Center Church 1

‘The gospel’ was one of the issues we looked at in detail during a week’s teaching on ‘Evangelical Identity, History and Theology’ on our Master’s course. It’s a great and important topic: biblically, theologically, personally and nothing gets closer to the heart of evangelical identity and theology than the evangel.

Some new reading I’m looking forward to on gospel is Tim Keller’s Center Church. A review copy from Zondervan took a long while to arrive, but it did last week. I’ve just begun to read Part 1 which consists of three chapters on ‘Gospel Theology’.

Chapter 1 is ‘The Gospel is not Everything’.

With such a title he is at one with numerous voices: the gospel is a specific message of Good News that is to be proclaimed and shared. Many things flow from that good news, but are distinct from it.

A question here then is what is the core to the gospel and what are its effects? How would you put this?

Scot McKnight argues the NT gospel is primarily Christology from which forgiveness of sins flows (1 Cor 15, Acts sermons; Rom 1:1-4). Keller is framing it in terms of a message of personal salvation.

Keller chooses to begin his gospel summary with ‘bad news’ – we are saved from wrath and judgement, alienation from God and therefore from ourselves and from each other.

The good news, is the healing of that broken relationship with God. Becoming a Christian involves a new status. He gives the example of John 3:14, ‘you have passed from death to life’ and summarises the gospel as ‘God saves sinners’.

This ‘good news’, Keller says, is news of something that has happened. It must be distinguished (but never separated) from the effects or consequences of the gospel. Things like:

  • good works
  • care for the poor
  • ultimate justice and peace for the world
  • cosmic reconciliation
  • a life of love

The gospel is not ‘Christ’s kingdom program’ that we join, but something we receive as gift, by grace through faith.  It is a primarily a report about the work of Christ on our behalf.

When we push a bit further to ask what is the content of the good news, Keller says two questions need to be asked.

1) What must I do to be saved? A question about the necessity of individual salvation, forgiveness, reconciliation with God.

2) What hope is there for the world? A question about the biblical narrative of fall, redemption and future hope for new creation

Both are necessary, but Keller warns that to give primacy to the second without the first is not the gospel.

Keller connects narrative and propositions. Four ‘chapters’ of the Bible story frame a narrative from which propositional gospel truths emerge:

1. God & creation – answering the question of where did we come from?

2. fall & sin – answering the question of why did things go wrong?

3. the gospel of Jesus Christ – answering the question of what will put things right? Incarnation, substitutionary atonement, ultimate restoration.

4. faith, grace and trust – answering the question of how can I be put right?

The gospel, strictly speaking, is therefore one section of the overall narrative of the Bible, but only makes sense and draws depth from within that overall narrative.

And this gospel is ‘endlessly rich’ since it is intimately connected to the whole biblical narrative. All of church ministry needs to be centered in and flow from this gospel.

Some Comments

As you’d expect from Tim Keller, this is rich, thoughtful, pastoral and creative.  It is also grace-filled. It consistently puts the focus back on what God has done for us, not what we can do for God. It is a healthy antidote to legalism, antinomianism and to anxious evangelical activism that so often thinks that if ‘we’ get the ‘right’ theology, the ‘right’ model of church growth, the ‘right’ understanding of the gospel, the ‘right’ form of worship music etc then blessings will flow – as if ‘success’ depends on us and not the Spirit of God.

It is accessible. People can understand and relate to the message that the good news is what God has done for us. That neither legalism (we can save ourselves) or irreligion (we don’t need saving) answer deep spiritual needs. It rightly insists on the absolute necessity of personal faith and personal appropriation of the gospel through faith in Jesus.

It gives real weight to the biblical narrative. Keller is far too astute a bible teacher and pastor to detach personal faith from the overall narrative. To do so leads to a distorted individualism that minimises the revelation of Scripture and makes the OT especially virtually redundant. It can reduce the gospel down to a series of propositions disconnected from the narrative [you are sinner, believe in Jesus, you are saved, will go to heaven]

However, it does frame the gospel in primarily soteriological terms. In other words, the propositional tends to trump the narrative. Reformed systematic theology is prior to the gospel as Christology (a joyful message of good news about Jesus the Messiah –  his birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and reign as risen Lord). There is not really a central place for Israel, Messiah, Resurrection and Lord in this framework – it is in the background but it not central to the good news of Jesus Christ which is a problem. To say that the gospel is best summarised as ‘God saves sinners’, while true, is not really how the NT talks of the gospel.

The ambiguity over the place of the kingdom is perhaps connected to limited mention of the gospel as good news of Christ’s victory (Christus Victor) over Satan, death, sin and all powers and principalities.

There is unresolved ambiguity in this chapter about what place Keller has for the kingdom of God within the gospel. On the one hand, the kingdom is not part of the gospel (a past event God has done in Christ). It presumably is an effect of the Christ’s victory over sin and death. Yet, he acknowledges and agrees with Simon Gathercole that the gospel includes the establishment of the reign of God and the future new creation.

Comments, as ever, welcome

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