Keller, gospel and Center Church 3

What would you say it means to ‘think with a Christian mind’ (Rom 12:1-2??).

Tim Keller doesn’t use this language in chapter 3 of Center Church, but this is the sort of question he is answering. His contention is that ‘The Gospel Affects Everything’.

He means by this that, while the gospel is a ‘set of truths to understand and believe’, those truths are more like a set of lenses by which to view all of life (after Lesslie Newbigin).

The gospel leads to a whole new way of thinking and of living. The implications of the gospel are endless. Keller gives a three part gospel outline and follows with implications.

  1. The Incarnation and the Upside-Down Aspect of the Gospel

There is a complete reversal of the world’s attitudes in the gospel story. The first shall be last; the servant king; victory in death; the poor, meek and humble are above the rich and satisfied. This leads to a radical and alternative gospel community in which racial superiority, pride in achievement and wealth, seeking after power and prestige are all alien.

2. The Atonement and the Inside-Out Aspect of the Gospel

The gospel negates human pride and legalism. It works from the inside-out not the outside-in. It is not a matter of external behaviour earning God’s pleasure. It is knowing God’s unmerited grace and living a life of thankfulness and joy in response. This revolutionises ‘how we relate to God, to ourselves and to others on the outside.’

3. The Resurrection and the Forward-Aspect of the Gospel

Christians live in light of future hope of new creation and a world healed of all sin and brokenness. The basis of this hope is the resurrection of Jesus. This has all sorts of implications for how we now live. For evangelism and gospelling in light of the future coming of the King; for helping the poor and working for justice since God wills an end to all injustice; working for human flourishing since God is the maker of all things.

Gospel implications for church life

This sort of broad gospel vision will lead a ‘center-church’ to become a hybrid of:

An evangelical-charismatic church which stresses personal conversion, grace, evangelism, church planting and experience of God’s renewal.

An Anabaptist peace church which stresses community, radical giving, spiritual disciplines, racial reconciliation and living with the poor

A Kupyerian / mainline denominational church which stresses the welfare of the city, civic involvement, cultural engagement and seeing work as vocation.

And you can only respect and give thanks for Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian’s clear vision here and how it has been put into practice in New York. Keller rightly has serious street cred when it comes to gospel ministry.

Gospel implications for the Christian life

In quite a swathe of evangelicalism, the gospel is like an entry card for beginners who then move on to deeper things. Keller says no, the gospel is that which transforms all of life and it takes a lifetime of discipleship and growth in wisdom to live out the implications of the gospel.

Keller’s consistent framework is how gospel grace speaks an alternative story to that of moralism / legalism / religion OR relativism / irreligion / liberalism. The gospel is a third way between the two.

A list of examples he talks about is below;  I’ll just unpack a couple.

Discouragement and depression:

Love and relationships:  Moralism can make love a source of self-image and worth. Relativism can reduce love to partnership for mutual benefit. You relate as long as it does not cost. Rather, the gospel calls us to self-sacrifical love, but not out of a need to earn approval or help our self-image. We can love enough to confront, yet stay with the person when it does not benefit us.

Sexuality: Moralism can see sex as shameful and dirty. Relativism can see it as an appetite to be sated. The gospel sees it in terms of self-giving unconditional love in the context of completely giving ourselves to another in terms of our whole lives – legally, socially, personally. So “sex is to be shared only in a totally committed, permanent relationship of marriage.” (40)



Race and culture


Human Authority

Guilt and self-image

Joy and Humor: legalism eats away at joy in an anxious need to perform rightly. Relativism tends towards pessimism since there is no higher purpose or ultimate justice. But the gospel grace leads to daily thankfulness, joy in everyday life and a deep sense of humility. We don’t need to take ourselves too seriously.

Attitudes toward class

Some Comments

Keller’s gospel framework is primarily grace versus religion or irreligion. It is applied thoughtfully and graciously to all of life. It is consistently evangelistic and personal. It ties in to deeply Christian themes of humility and grace.

This said, plus Keller’s wonderful ministry in New York and far beyond, it seems totally impertinent for a Joe Soap like me to offer critique. So, feeling like a kid in a first-year art class pontificating on the imperfections in Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, here are a couple of areas Keller doesn’t seem to engage with.

One startling omission in three chapters on ‘Gospel Theology’ is the good news that Jesus is the Lord. Lord is one of the most important descriptions of Jesus in the NT. The climax of Peter’s speech in Acts 2 is that the gospel is that Jesus is the risen Messiah and reigning Lord. It is Paul’s joyful affirmation of the gospel in Romans 1:1-4 and the focus of eschatological hope in Phil 2:5-11 when every knee will bow before him. This puts the person of Jesus (Christology) at the heart of the gospel

There is also literally (I think) no mention in 3 chapters summarising the gospel of the Holy Spirit. For Keller, gospel is salvation by grace. It is an understanding of grace that leads to a life lived between ‘religion’ and ‘irreligion’. What I find surprising (especially after listening to his great preaching on Galatians 5 some time back) is that he gives the impression that this is merely a rational process. If we get our thinking on gospel right – then the rest falls into place.

I know he doesn’t believe this, but that’s the impression you’d get if you were coming to this cold. The role of the Spirit in living a gospel life is not mentioned. But when you read the gospels and Acts, a vital part of the good news is the outpouring of the Spirit in light of the victory won at the cross and resurrection of the Son.

Bottom line point of difference: the gospel is best not equated with justification by faith. JoF is a result of the gospel, not the gospel itself.  The gospel is not a set of linear propositions. It is a proclamation of the biblical narrative that finds fulfilment in the life, death, resurrection, ascension and coming return of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, the Son of God and living Lord. It calls for faith in Jesus, repentance (and baptism). And the blessings of faith in Christ lead to justification / reconciliation / redemption / sacrifice and so on. As Michael Bird says, the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel, it is not the gospel itself.

Comments, as ever, welcome


2 thoughts on “Keller, gospel and Center Church 3

  1. Patrick

    Ive been wondering about where some of these new (old?) realisations about the wider gospel would start to make sense to me. I think this post is sinking it home for me.

    It reminded me of how i was converted. It wasnt a message about forgiveness that drew me to church, but rather it was the idea that God is real, he exists and he is who he says he is.

    When i met a community of Christians (grace baptist church) who actually lived as if Jesus really was lord, that was me taken hook line and sinker. Some of my family members who were opposed to my conversion said to me that Christianity was just a crutch that i needed to get me through my life. At the time i resisted this idea but now i think they were right, in the sense that prior to my conversion i was my own lord but afterwards Jesus was in that way i was finally leaning on the one thing i was made to lean on!
    However i will add that it wasnt long before forgiveness became a huge issue for me. The bible became a weight around my shoulders about a year or so into my new found faith and it wasnt until i heard some teaching about the depth of my sinfullness and the depth of God’s grace that i was clear of my guilt.

    Incidentally you mentioned in the other post that keller says substitution is the main theory of atonement. I havent read this book but i have heard preach in other places that he understands that all atonement theories have a substitutionary aspect even christus victor in the sense that its christ who is the victor and not us he takes our place, the same with the ransom theory in that he pays the ransom and not us. Again i don’t know if he was saying something else in the book but i have heard him talk about substitution in a way doesnt restrict atonement to penal substitution.

    On St Patrick’s lack of a well worked atonement theory-i like it. It makes me wonder if we can read church history as a church that had an understanding of the gospel that was lopsided on the Jesus is Lord side until the reformation.. with current evangelicals having gone too far in the other direction?

    Happy Patrick’s Day agus go raibh maith agat le an gach post a rinne tu an mblian seo. Leighim alan blogs ach is doigh liom nach bfhuil faithinireland agus “creideamh” is fearr san eire !

  2. Go raibh míle maith agat a Richard! Honoured.
    Like the idea of being made to lean on Jesus the Lord
    And your story captures really well the scope of gospel christology (Jesus the risen Lord) being inseparable from soteriology (died to save us from our sins).

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