Book Review - Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City

Image of Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City
by Timothy Keller
Zondervan 2012
Hardcover 400

I saw a slight criticism of Tim Keller’s book Center Church about a month after it was released this September, but there was no way that the critic could have read the entire book so fast! The criticism got my attention and after reading what Keller had to say about his own book, I decided to buy it and check it out.  I had my doubts after having read a few comments from people who voiced their reservations about Keller’s direction. So, I want to lay out a report of what the book is about and what some of the key thoughts are that drive the direction of this book.

1. The Gospel

The first and most important issue that Keller addresses is the gospel, it’s content and it’s exclusivity. He also makes it clear that incarnational gospel living isn’t enough, words are necessary! It must be preached verbally. The gospel is a story that begins with creation and ends in the consummation. Different parts of the plot line of the story of the gospel are better starting points to share with unbelievers than others depending on the culture. There is no “one size fits all” presentation of the gospel that fits in every time and place. Neither is the gospel just a hoop we jump through to get converted:

It is inaccurate to think the gospel is what saves non-Christians and then Christians mature by trying hard to live according to biblical principles. It is more accurate to say that we are saved by believing the gospel, and then we are transformed in every part of our minds, hearts, and lives by believing the gospel more and more deeply as life goes on…. (p. 48)

As the gospel is understood more by believers, it will have an affect on every detail of their lives so that their lives become shaped by the gospel and it’s implications. This will lead to a gospel renewal individually and corporately. To my surprise, chapter 4 deals with the subject of revival and revivalism. This really grabbed my attention because I just spent the better part of this year digging into the past to learn about the great movements of the Holy Spirit. It was refreshing to read how we need to first begin with gospel renewal and the Holy Spirit’s power. He affirmed what Alexander, Nevin, and other Second Great Awakening “Old Schoolers” believed:

A commitment to corporate and individual gospel renewal through the ordinary means of grace - is the work of the church…Revivalist ministry emphasizes conversion and spiritual renewal, not only for those outside the church but also for those inside the church (p. 60)  …to kindle every revival, the Holy Spirit initially uses what Edwards called “extraordinary prayer” - united, persistent and kingdom centered (p. 73)  …revivals occur mainly through the “instituted means of grace”—preaching, pastoring, worship, and prayer. It is extremely important to reaffirm this. (p. 76)

As we pray and prepare for gospel renewal/revival in our church, we must preach the gospel to Christians and non-Christians alike. You can’t assume that everyone under your voice is a believer. So, although the worship service is designed specificially for believers, we must be sensitive to the fact that unbelievers will be present and what we say needs to be directed at them too.

2. The City

The next part of the book, deals with the importance of the city and how to bring the gospel to it. This is the section on contextualization. At the beginning of chapter 7, Keller acknowledges all the baggage that this word has from its origins in the World Council of Churches. He explains how mainline denominational liberalism forsook the authority of Scripture to define it’s mission and turned to see what the culture was doing as if it was God at work through it. The church then had to find out what God was doing and get on that mission—human rights, emancipation of slaves, women’s rights, civil rights and now gay rights. Keller counters:

Contextualization is not—as it is often argued—“giving people what they want to hear.” Rather, it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.

Sound contextualization means translating and adapting the communication and ministry of the gospel to the particular culture without compromising the essence and particulars of the gospel itself.  …we show people how the baseline “cultural narratives” of their society and the hopes of their hearts can only find resolution and fulfillment in Jesus. What do I mean by this? Some cultures are pragmatic and prod their members to acquire possessions and power. Some are individualistic and urge their members to seek personal freedom above all. Others are “honor and shame” cultures with emphasis on respect, reputation, duty and bringing honor to your family. Some cultures are discursive and put the highest value on art, philosophy, and learning. These are called “cultural narratives” because they are stories that a people tell about themselves and make sense out of their shared existence. But whatever [the story] may be, sound contextualization shows people how the plotlines of the stories of their lives can only find a happy ending in Christ. (p. 89-90)

To do this kind of contextualization correctly, we must find out what parts of God’s naturally revealed truth the culture rejects and what parts it accepts. Because of common grace and the image of God stamped into every person, there are parts of God’s truth that are readily accepted and others that are offensive. To engage these people well, we must affirm and begin with the “A” doctrines that they already accept and show them how they are inconsistent for not accepting the “B” doctrines that they reject. This approach as Keller explained it, had a distinct Van Tillian apologetic flavor which resonated with me. The only way to know what questions and values these people have is to immerse yourself in their questions, hopes, fears and beliefs so you can give a biblical, gospel-centered response to their questions.

In the next chapters (11-14), he writes about the importance of Christians to do ministries in cultural centers called cities.

The city is humanity intensified—a magnifying glass that brings out the very best and worst of human nature (p. 135) …  Cities, quite literally, have more of the image of God per square inch than any other place on earth. How can we not be drawn to such masses of humanity if we care about the same things that God cares about? (p. 141)

Rather than Christians leaving the cities as they get more corrupt and moving to the suburbs where other good people like themselves are living, he encourages us to be salt and light in the cities. The only way to reach the world is through the city and you can’t reach the city through the suburb, but you can reach the suburb from the city. This was Paul’s strategy in going to large cultural centers where he started churches. People are moving in and out of cities and contributing their talents to art, technology and ideas that shape the greater culture. Why shouldn’t Christians be in the very center of this, contributing what they have to offer in a gospel-shaped, distinctive way? They can do so by showing the world around them what its like to be in the kingdom of God under the Lordship of Christ and make an impact.

This brings up the question of how to engage the culture. Everyone has different philosophies about how to go about it. There are basically four models in which any of us can find ourselves:

Relevance - These are the churches that rely heavily on common grace more than revealed truth and are very active in trying to adapt to the culture. Examples include the liberal mainline denominations, emerging church and seeker sensitive churches.

Transformationist - These are people who believe in theonomy, Christian re-constructionism and the political religious right. They think that the way to engage the culture is to shape the government and cultural institutions into a distinctly Christian worldview. They are also very active, especially in politics.

Counterculturalist - These are the separatists who believe in withdrawing from the culture altogether and forming their own subculture as a distinct separate society that the world can witness as different. The people who would be included in this group would be the Amish, Mennonites, neo-monastics and fundamentalists.

(Note: Keller never mentions that fundamentalists belong in this category, but since he fails to mention it, I will. I put them here because they seem to fit somewhere between this category and the Transformationist category, since many Fundamentalists are active members of the political religious right as well.)

Two Kingdoms - This view is Augustinian in its origins and holds that the “City of God and City of Man” are coexisting together. Believers are citizens of both cities, but hold their allegiance to the City of God and do what they can to shape the City of Man with the values of the City of God. The Reformed traditions and Lutherans would belong to this category. Most Dispensationalists would not find themselves here since they don’t believe there’s a Kingdom of God until the second coming. There is very little room for the “already, but not yet” paradigm. Although Keller does offer a few criticisms of the Two Kingdoms view, he seems to favor it a little more than the others.

To be a “Center Church”, Keller explains, one must shoot for the right balance of all four views simultaneously. We do need to appreciate the common grace that the unbelievers enjoy, even as we seek to transform the culture into one that is governed by a Christian worldview. At the same time, we do need to be a separate people who are a distinct community under the Lordship of Christ that the world sees as an attractive alternative and realize that we are members of two kingdoms until the Kingdom of God comes in its fullest form to engulf the kingdom of man.

3. Movement

Finally, at the end of the book the last chapters are dedicated to the church being both an organism and an organization that has static and dynamic elements. The church is both a stable institution with inherited traditions and a dynamic movement of the Holy Spirit. We minister with balance, rooted in our ecclesial tradition, yet working cooperatively with the body of Christ to reach our city with the gospel.

In this section, Keller lays out what he defines as the Missional Church. He also talks about the history of the term Missio Dei and all of the liberal baggage that comes with it, but he explains how a guy named Lesslie Newbigin broke away from the more liberal World Council of Churches to redefine “Missional” as something that encapsulates both aspects of social justice and evangelism (incarnational and evangelistic).

Keller clearly plants his flag in the “Missional Church Movement”. There has been such a cultural shift in our society that the old culture of “Christendom” is gone forever. Christendom was the West’s Christianized culture that has reigned since the middle ages, but today we are in a neo-pagan culture in which the assumptions that believer and non-believer alike once held in common are no longer there.

Every part of a church’s life—its worship, community, public discourse, preaching and education—has to assume the presence of non-believers from the surrounding culture. The aesthetics of its worship have to reflect the sensibilities of the culture and yet show how Christian belief shapes and is expressed through them… A missional church is not less than an evangelistic church, but it is much more. (p. 264-265)

This last paragraph is exactly what missionaries do when they start a church in another country with another culture. Their churches, dress, music, etc., are familiar to the surrounding culture without adapting to the evil parts of that culture.

Keller gives the marks of a missional church:

1. A missional church, if it  is to have a missionary encounter with Western culture, will need to confront societies idols and especially address how modernity makes the happiness and self actualization of the individual into an absolute.  [Materialism,] consumerism and greed… lead to injustice. [The doctrine of the atonement and justification] provide… [a] basis and… internal motivation to live more simply and do justice in the world. (p. 271)

2. A missional church, if it is to reach people in the post-Christian culture, must recognize that most of our more recently formulated and popular gospel presentations will fall on deaf ears because hearers will be viscerally offended or simply unable to understand the basic concepts of God, sin and redemption.  …Christian communicators must now enter, challenge and retell the culture’s stories with the gospel. (p. 272)

3. A missional church will affirm that all Christians are people in mission in every area of their lives.  We must overcome the clericalism and lay passivity of the Christendom era and recover the Reformation doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers.” (p. 272)

4. The missional church must understand itself as a servant community—a counterculture for the common good…. [Churches used to be able to] limit themselves to specifically “religious” concerns and function as loose fellowships within a wider semi-Christian culture…  [W]hile the Christian church must be distinct, it must be set within, not be separated from, its surroundings. Its neighbors must see it as a servant society, sacrificially pouring out its time and wealth for the common good of the city…  [This] will show the world… [a] way between the individualistic self-absorption that secularism can breed and the tribal self-righteousness that religion can breed. (p. 274)

We must take these values and teach our people to live them out as informal missionaries in the world if we are going to have an impact and bring the gospel to them. We will have an impact for the gospel if we are like those around us yet profoundly different and unlike them at the same time, all the while remaining very visible and engaged. Christians must be like their neighbors in the food they eat, the clothes they wear, their dialect, general appearance, work life, recreational, cultural activities and civil engagement doing all things with excellence. But Christians need to be unlike their neighbors by being scrupulously honest, transparent, fair and generous. Evangelism is not simply information transmission, it’s pouring our lives into others with the gospel. The church’s objective is to connect people to God, connect people to one another, connect people to the city and connect people to the culture so that they will think “Christianly” about life. Christianity is more than a set of beliefs that achieve salvation for the soul, it is also a distinct way of understanding and interpreting everything in the world. We want Christians to be growing in maturity, working in their vocations with both excellence and Christian distinctiveness, seasoning and benefiting the culture in which they live.

At the end, he encourages churches to engage in church planting in cities as the best way to get the gospel to more unbelievers and the best way to revitalize dying established churches. If a city population can get to at least 10% Christian population, it can make a huge difference in the morals and the cultural expressions of that city.

Evaluation

Overall, this book resonated with me and gave me the clearest vision for ministry that I have ever read in one volume, since reading 9 Marks of a Healthy Church. I was greatly encouraged by this book and would recommend any pastor to consider what Tim Keller has to say. There may be some philosophical differences on some points, but for the most part, I believe he sets a good direction for churches to follow into the future.

About the Author

Timothy Keller is the founder and senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Reason for God and The Prodigal God. He has also mentored young urban church planters and pastors in New York and other cities through Redeemer City to City, which has helped launch over 200 churches in 35 global cities to date.

[node:bio/williamd body]

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There are 29 Comments

CPHurst's picture

This was a great book......and I need to get my review done as well:)

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Seeing that the reviewer has eagerly moved from being an independent fundamentalist baptist of the kjvo brand to eagerly embracing Neo-Reformed theology it us not surprising to fund scant criticisms, if any. I would be interested in reading a review by someone who holds to a less similar theology.

The assertion that Christians generally fall into 4 camps misses a big group who engage the culture and politics but in their contexts.

Ed Vasicek's picture

It is inaccurate to think the gospel is what saves non-Christians and then Christians mature by trying hard to live according to biblical principles. It is more accurate to say that we are saved by believing the gospel, and then we are transformed in every part of our minds, hearts, and lives by believing the gospel more and more deeply as life goes on…. (p. 48)

 

I'll take Psalm 119 and 2 Timothy 3:16-17 over that any day.

"The Midrash Detective"

WilliamD's picture

Ed, 

You guys who think that your own strict adherence to the Bible is what makes you right with God don't get the gospel and how it informs your life beyond just getting a ticket to heaven. The rest of the Bible makes more sense and is "obeyable" when you're motivated by the gospel. 

Keller may be off on his Presbyterianism, but he isn't off on this point. 

 

WilliamD's picture

Alex would like an IFB-KJVO review of the book since I'm too similar to Keller in theology. Here ya go, from the old me:

First, Keller is way too ecumenical. He talks way too much about cooperating with others to bring about gospel movement in the city. That's wrong. The best way to bring gospel distinctiveness is separation.  His universal church theology informs his idea of cooperating with other churches. There is no universal church. Just the local church. 

Second, he's a compromiser because he thinks you should use the kind of music in your services that is "comprehendible" to outsiders yet making it distinctly Christian. He uses Classical and Jazz because New Yorkers appreciate those genre's of music and see it as high culture. This is obviously capitulating to the culture's unredeemed flesh. Doesn't he know where jazz came from 100 years ago? (Yes, and it doesn't have the same connotations today, but that doesn't matter). 

Because Keller isn't a Dispensationalist, he doesn't understand that the whole world is going to burn up anyway, so why bother doing social justice?  Didn't Jesus say that the poor you will have with you always? If the poor will always be with us, then why bother helping people get out of poverty?  All people need are soul winners to knock on their doors to tell them how to go to heaven.  All this social justice stuff is just a post-millennial pie in the sky pipe dream. 

 

 

Ed Vasicek's picture

WilliamD wrote:

Ed, 

You guys who think that your own strict adherence to the Bible is what makes you right with God don't get the gospel and how it informs your life beyond just getting a ticket to heaven. The rest of the Bible makes more sense and is "obeyable" when you're motivated by the gospel. 

Keller may be off on his Presbyterianism, but he isn't off on this point. 

 

Us guys believe that at regeneration we are renewed and empowered by the Holy Spirit to walk in the Spirit.  The idea that adherence to the Bible makes us right with God is heresy.  I certainly don't believe that; I do not know anyone on SI that believes that. We believe we are made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ alone (as understood via I Cor. 15:1-5), although the desire to be made right with God (repentance) is understood. The word "Gospel" is used 93 times in the Bible; the way the Keller camp uses it, you would think it was used 99,993 times.

Galatians 3:3-5 reads: 

Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?

It is by faith in the power of the Spirit that we live the Christian life.  That faith rests in the Gospel for salvation, but it is ultimately in God Himself.  That faith is increased as we study and hear the Word, not just the Gospel, but the whole counsel of God. To take a part (the Gospel) and to make it the whole is a logical error.  The Gospel may be the most important part of God's Word, but it is not the whole. It may be the entry point and must constantly be appreciated (as in communion, for example), but we do need the entire counsel of God, much of which is only indirectly connected to the Gospel message itself.

John 17:17

Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.

Substituting a part for the whole is just wrong.  Our Bibles would be a lot thinner if all we needed were the Gospel

 

 

"The Midrash Detective"

WilliamD's picture

The Gospel may be the most important part of God's Word, but it is not the whole.

 

Well Ed, it sounds like you agree with Tim Keller. He has three whole chapters on this called: 

 

The Gospel is not Everything

The Gospel is not a Simple Thing

The Gospel Affects Everything 

 

Why don't you read the book for yourself? 

Joel Shaffer's picture

Kudos William D. for doing this review on Center City Church.  I think now that there is some back and forth discussion, those who have commented here hopefully are realizing that surface assumptions about this book and about each other's theology were off base. For instance, its really hard to group Ed and Alex together because they really do think quite differently on certain issues.   At the same time, Keller, in 3 chapters of this book, does embrace both gospel-centered sanctification/ministry and the entire counsel of God.  So the 93 times vs. 99,993 times comparison is unfair.  

Although I believe this review gave a very good overview of the book,  at the same time, I was surprised that this review wasn't covered in 3 parts, because there is so much to dissect, especially since the book is 400 pages with extremely small print.  Each part (gospel, city/culture, and movement/missional) needs more thorough dissection because the audience here on Sharper Iron has had many spirited discussions in the past few years on these same subjects: the gospel, culture, and the missional movement.  

Hopefully the conversation will continue 

WilliamD's picture

Thanks Joel, that's true. Surface assumptions are out of place. 

Also, I originally wrote the review for the leaders in my church to check out before we read it together. If I had known that it would be on Sharperiron, then a three part series would have been a great consideration. It is a huge book with much more than I could have possibly written in one post. 

CPHurst's picture

Though Keller is not beyond critique, having read the book I will say that it would be hard to bring out negative aspects of the book simply because Keller is so adept at being so thorough and balanced (I hate using this word because it gets abused to the point of uselessness). He draws upon every side of almost every issue he addresses pointing out the good/bad - helpful/unhelpful - gets the point/misses the point. 

 

For example, in chapter 16 Keller discusses the main cultural responses to the church. He lays out the views and critiques all of them bringing out the good and bad. In my mind he is a great model of fairness and balance. One are where some more conservative theologians will most likely disagree with Keller is the section where he deals with the various views of the atonement (pp.130-31). Keller sees truth in all of the views though he sees the theme of substitution as most central and without which there is not atonement. 

 

Again, Keller is so nuanced and careful in his argumentation that it will be hard to find fault (I will leave that up to the experts in the field). Keller is a master practitioner and is able to articulate his integration of theology and practice in a way I can only dream of. 

Ed Vasicek's picture

WilliamD wrote:

The Gospel may be the most important part of God's Word, but it is not the whole.

 

Well Ed, it sounds like you agree with Tim Keller. He has three whole chapters on this called: 

 

The Gospel is not Everything

The Gospel is not a Simple Thing

The Gospel Affects Everything 

 

Why don't you read the book for yourself? 

 

I am not saying that Keller has nothing good to say. But I am disagreeing vehemently with your comment which I think misses the mark:

You guys who think that your own strict adherence to the Bible is what makes you right with God don't get the gospel and how it informs your life beyond just getting a ticket to heaven. The rest of the Bible makes more sense and is "obeyable" when you're motivated by the gospel.

If Keller says the same as I said above, then why do you criticize me ('you guys") for disagreeing with Keller on this?  If I am disagreeing with Keller, then how can you say I agree with him?

I quoted from the review what I disagreed with Keller about:

It is more accurate to say that we are saved by believing the gospel, and then we are transformed in every part of our minds, hearts, and lives by believing the gospel more and more deeply as life goes on…. (p. 48)

I know of no verse that says believing the Gospel MORE transforms every part of our minds, hearts, and lives.  You either believe the Gospel or you do not.  Perhaps I have overlooked a passage and will stand corrected.  Growth in Scripture for the Christian, in my understanding, does not come from only one avenue: it is said to result from faith in God and the empowerment of the Spirit, trials God sends your way, the renewed mind (presumably in the Word which is what transforms your mind), prayer, the edification coming from those within the Body, etc. 

I am commenting on a review of the book, I know, and not the book.  I suppose my beef is not with a book, but a trend.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

M. Osborne's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:

It is inaccurate to think the gospel is what saves non-Christians and then Christians mature by trying hard to live according to biblical principles. It is more accurate to say that we are saved by believing the gospel, and then we are transformed in every part of our minds, hearts, and lives by believing the gospel more and more deeply as life goes on…. (p. 48)

 

I'll take Psalm 119 and 2 Timothy 3:16-17 over that any day.

If the stress is on, "The gospel is something you never leave behind," and if the gospel is being contrasted to "trying hard," you may be over-exegeting the contrast in what Keller is saying. As touching the content of what guides us to live biblically, there's nothing other than the whole counsel of God; as what lets us actually execute, it is certainly the transformation of the gospel that moved that law from the written page onto our hearts.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Ed Vasicek's picture

M. Osborne, I am with you.  But I would add that we are transformed even more (after regeneration) by renewing our minds.  Romans 12:2 does not say how we renew our minds, I understand it to refer to Psalm 1-like meditation on the Word and I Peter 2:2 craving the milk of the Word to grow.

 

Contemplating the Gospel is part of that renewal (for a good portion of the Bible is about the good news), but so is includes all of Scripture.  This may sound like straining at gnats, but it is amazingly crucial. The difference between developing an ethic and lifestyle based upon the whole of Scripture looks different from doing this with part.  Also, if you over-emphasize the Gospel --which is certainly of first importance (yes, I believe that is possible), you end up eclipsing the rest of the Word.

"The Midrash Detective"

WilliamD's picture

I know of no verse that says believing the Gospel MORE transforms every part of our minds, hearts, and lives.  You either believe the Gospel or you do not.  Perhaps I have overlooked a passage and will stand corrected.

 

Ok, you're mixing up implication with command. Just because there isn't a verse that says: "Believe the gospel more" doesn't mean that the concept isn't true. Paul says the same thing in other terms such as:

Romans 6:11  Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

If they're born again, then they already did this when they believed the gospel to be saved. They chose life in Christ over death in sin. Yet, Paul still tells Christians: "consider this true for yourself!" in other words..."believe this aspect of the gospel!" 

"You either believe the Gospel or you do not"  is very simplistic. You either believe in God's omniscience or you don't! Well, in the moments that I sin, at that moment, I am not really believing in God's omniscience because if I really did, I would fear his gaze on my willful rebellion. I believe in God's omniscience and can get that doctrine right on a theology exam, but in real life when I actually sin, I'm not believing. Keller is essentially saying the same thing. Christians live like they don't believe the gospel all the time. 

Ed Vasicek's picture

Okay, I understand what you are saying.  I just think this is broadening the Biblical meaning of the word "gospel."  

"The Midrash Detective"

Bob Hayton's picture

Perhaps this can help, Ed.

I think you are missing the main thing Keller is trying to say. Perhaps he is using "gospel" more broadly, but he is speaking truth for sure.

Here is an excerpt from an online article by Keller, called "The Gospel - Key To Change.”

The gospel is, therefore, radically different from religion. Religion operates on the principle: ”I obey, therefore I am accepted”. The gospel operates on the principle: ”I am accepted through Christ, therefore I obey.” So the gospel differs from both religion and irreligion. Not only can you seek to be your own ”lord and savior" by breaking the law of God (i.e., through irreligion), you can also do so by keeping the law in order to earn your salvation (i.e., through religion). A lack of deep belief in the gospel is the main cause of spiritual deadness, fear, and pride in Christians, because our hearts continue to act on the basis ”I obey, therefore, I am accepted.” If we fail to forgive others–that is not simply a lack of obedience, but a failure to believe we are saved by grace, too. If we lie in order to cover up a mistake–that is not simply a lack of obedience, but a failure to find our acceptance in God rather than in human approval. So we do not ”get saved" by believing the gospel and then "grow" by trying hard to live according to Biblical principles. Believing the gospel is not only the way to meet God, but also the way to grow into him.

I try to expand on this understanding in a series of posts on my blog called "The Gospel's Work in Believers."

I would say that sometimes we misunderstand the term "word of God." Often this is a techinical term referring to the gospel message. William Combs brings this out in his article on the Preservation of Scripture, for instance.  There he concludes:

The phrases “the word of God” or “the word of the Lord” are used twenty-one times in Acts and in every case the referent is to the apostolic message of Christ, which was delivered orally. This is the normal usage in Paul’s epistles as well. For instance, when Paul describes his enemies as those who “corrupt the word of God” (2 Cor 2:17, KJV), he is not making reference to the Scriptures, but the gospel message. (pg. 14)

And you can also see this in Col. 1:3-6 and 1 Pet. 1:25 for instance.

In my series, I take the following three texts to be using the term "word of God" specifically for the gospel message. And all three mention a present, on-going effect that the gospel has in believers: 1 Thess. 2:9-13, Acts 20:32 and Col. 1:3-6.

Anyway, hopefully this can help you understand where others are coming from in this....

But you really should pick up Keller's book, because it provides much food for thought, and he does a good job clarifying church ministry philosophy and providing a framework around which to think through issues - even if you disagree with him strongly on a given point. The book really is an excellent resource and I hope many will make good use of it.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Bob Hayton's picture

Just to be clear, as the book review editor for SI, I contacted William about using his post here as a review for SI's audience.  I felt this review was well done, and would be great food for discussion here at SI.  A three part post would have been better, had we more time to plan this out.  Thanks Will for letting your post come over here, and for explaining why you fell the book is helpful!

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Sam,

I had a dream and you made it come true. Heh. Thanks.

To something quoted by WilliamD which Keller states:

It is inaccurate to think the gospel is what saves non-Christians and then Christians mature by trying hard to live according to biblical principles.

Notice Keller's deception here which is to misrepresent those not aligned with him so that he may further his case. He describes those who are not "gospel centered" as attempting to mature by "trying hard". You see the trick? Right, he makes others into those who would mature by their own efforts. He uses unflattering and incriminating language.

If Keller were honest, most of those who reject his errant gospel-centeredism do not hold to the view of maturing as he described, rather they view the Word of God as teaching that believers mature by learning, believing and applying God's Word through the enablement of God's Spirit and grow over time.

But the above is one of Keller's most notable habits, to produce straw men or men out of uniform though he may have a stitch or two in place and from that make his case.

As noted earlier, Keller is very nuanced, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. But he is never too nuanced for the careful and unfawning reader to catch his consistent errors both in doctrine and reasoning.

I say this because in the quote above Keller goes on to say:

It is more accurate to say that we are saved by believing the gospel, and then we are transformed in every part of our minds, hearts, and lives by believing the gospel more and more deeply as life goes on….

The fact is Keller is simply wrong. But this is par for the course for Neo-Reformed and Neo-Calvinist Teachers. They say one thing but then attempt to have their double-speak explained away as something else the moment they get caught.

No, the Bible does not teach believers to believe the gospel more in order to mature. Rather, that maturity comes through learning, believing and applying intermediate and advanced doctrine and as they mature they will understand soteriological truths more thus growing in their understanding and appreciation for the work of Christ which will have its affect. Notice what the writer of Hebrews says in Hebrews 6:1 (NIV):

Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God,

Now to whom should I yield, Tim Keller or God? Look at what is plainly stated, that we should "leave" the elementary teachings and God identifies the elementary teaching as the gospel and we are to go on to what? To maturity with more sophisticated doctrines.

You see, Keller, like all Neo's are rationalists first, theologians second. But who can blame them, honestly? They are what Augustine and Calvin were. They are simply following their theological fathers.

Is there more complexity to the gospel than its initial faith? Yes, it is called the doctrine of soteriology. But that isn't the argument, the argument is that Keller tells us to stay here in our initial faith, i.e. the gospel and through staying here and enlarging the gospel in our minds, somehow, we mature. So even if we do what he says the most we could do would be learn the doctrine of soteriology and miss all other doctrines and in truth, you cannot even learn the sum of any doctrine without concurrently learning other doctrines in the Bible.

He is wrong.

But Tim and his attendants will protest he is being read incorrectly, you are misunderstanding him. No, he simply is full of double-speak here. He wants his cake and to eat it too. He wants to say one thing but have it mean another when it conflicts with plain Scripture. Yes, nuanced, and again for all the wrong reasons.

No one has a problem with proprietary nomenclature if it reflects sound theology which is precisely the problem with Keller's gospel-centeredism nomenclature and frankly, many of the statements made to support it, it does not reflect sound theology.

And does this mean that all of what Tim Keller says is wrong? No, but we do not measure error why what a man might say correctly but what he says incorrectly.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Alex, I have always thought of double-speak as weasely.  We either grow through the Spirit-enabled study and practice of Scripture or we don't. Growth can include more than this, but this either an important factor or it isn't.  It can't be both ways.  Thank you.

"The Midrash Detective"

Bob Hayton's picture

I fail to see how Alex is being accurate or fair in his mischaracterization of Keller.  Just how was Keller using double-speak?  Did he say everyone other than him, thought that you had to work hard and rely on self-effort?  No.  Some do think that, however, and that is what he is addressing.

Alex is assigning impure motives to Keller here. That and has Alex even read the book?  But he is okay to question Keller's honesty, say he is nuanced for wrong motives, claim he's a rationalist first. And he says: "He wants to say one thing but have it mean another when it conflicts with plain Scripture."

Thank you Alex for reading the heart and soul of Tim Keller.

Can we have a bit more charity in discussing the positions of those who differ with us here? Anyone read Rom. 15:1-7 and Eph. 4:1-13 anytime recently?

 

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

I see Bob, you want to reserve the right to speak to me sarcastically while bemoaning a lack of charity? I am amused at your missing the nose at the end of your face.

But to the claim as to whom Keller is addressing. He is addressing the matter as the quote shows, in a binary manner. Thus, it is Keller, not I, who issues only two possibilities in his considerations. He is the one guilty of over-generalization and a very poor one at that which I pointed out.

My opinion stands on both matters, Keller is not forthcoming as to what those on the other side of his binary construct believe leads to spiritual maturity and he is, indeed, a rationalist. Clearly these are my opinions. Feel free to disagree.

No I did not judge Keller's heart and soul, your over-dramatizing doesn't help your complaint either. I am criticizing the statement which has in view the author on this point and this point alone based on his previous work which tells me that he is far more or far too informed on such a matter to propose this description as fair or forthcoming.

But if it makes you feel better let me retract the first description and rephrase it:

"If Keller were more forthcoming..."

As to whether or not I have read the book, I wasn't reviewing the book, I was reviewing a quote from the book which represents one of Keller's proprietary theological tenets which I believe is easily proven as contradictory to his other theological claims.

But you could deal with the dilemma of the double-speak. Clearly someone else recognizes it besides me and outside of this discussion, well there are many who see this in Keller.

WilliamD's picture

If Keller were honest, most of those who reject his errant gospel-centeredism do not hold to the view of maturing as he described, rather they view the Word of God as teaching that believers mature by learning, believing and applying God's Word through the enablement of God's Spirit and grow over time.

 

I've had this talk over on Kent Brandenburg's blog, so I'm not going to re-hash it all again.  So, we mature by learning believing and applying God's word with the enablement of the Holy Spirit over time. Fine, I agree. What is the Word of God about? Is it a self help manual? Is it a list of rules and regulations? No, it's a story. It's a story about God and His redemption...in other words, the gospel.  If you approach the Bible without that frame of mind, you'll just be a legalist and a moralist. 

You see the trick? Right, he makes others into those who would mature by their own efforts. He uses unflattering and incriminating language....As noted earlier, Keller is very nuanced, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. But he is never too nuanced for the careful and unfawning reader to catch his consistent errors both in doctrine and reasoning.

I see you using the same trick. Those who agree with you are such sophisticated thinkers while the rest of us are described with unflattering and incriminating language - we are just fawning over Keller. The rest of us are just hero worshipping lemmings. 

 

Alex Guggenheim's picture

So you admit what Keller does is a trick, good.

The Scriptures do not use it's reference to the gospel as synonymous with the sum or whole of all Biblical/Christian doctrine. It uses the term with and specific definition in view which is the good news of Christ coming that men may indeed be saved.

Not only is Keller theologically wrong and adds to its use in an attempt to claim it also means the sum of Christian doctrine to justify his novel doctrine but he contradicts himself and this further explanation by saying that if we believe more of what we believed when we got saved, the gospel, it is this which will mature us. And we certainly did not believe the sum of Bible doctrine.

Keller wants to impose a rationalized redefinition of the word gospel for his project. Yes all doctrine is connected to the gospel as all doctrine is connected to other facets of divine truth but that does not justify claiming one is really an extension of the other or is the other thus diminishing and obscuring real biblical words, concepts and doctrines to advance a theological proposition

That would force us then to conclude that we believed the whole of Christian doctrine when we got saved since the whole of Bible doctrine and the Gospel are apparently synonyms. But of course they are not and "we" (referring to many theologians who do object to Keller's formula thus I join them) know better.

Keller has an idea, one that is partly right but out if theological order thus errant in articulation. But this speaks now to why such errant theological expression rises seeming so easily among (and of greatest concern) Bible Teachers of Protestant and Evangelical persuasion and even conservative persuasion as well as students of theology. P.S. I object to you calling yourself a lemming.

WilliamD's picture

So you admit what Keller does is a trick, good.

no, I am saying that you are using the trick you are accusing Keller of using. 

The Scriptures do not use it's reference to the gospel as synonymous with the sum or whole of all Biblical/Christian doctrine.

Neither does Keller if you read his book. Like I told Ed a few posts ago, he expresses this clearly in his chapter: "The Gospel is Not Everything"

Not only is Keller theologically wrong and adds to its use in an attempt to claim it also means the sum of Christian doctrine to justify his novel doctrine but he contradicts himself and this further explanation by saying that if we believe more of what we believed when we got saved, the gospel, it is this which will mature us. And we certainly did not believe the sum of Bible doctrine.

I think it's your rationalism that is only reading into Keller's words a false dichotomy that you are imposing on him and accusing him of making.  You seem to suggest that growth in maturity as a Christian resides in filling up one's head with more doctrine and knowledge. All though I am all for knowledge, your idea of maturity seems to be what Paul called "puffed up"  (1 Cor. 8:1-2) and it is evident in your constant condescending tone that I have pointed out to you in private and that Bob pointed out a few posts ago.  Christian maturity is not measured in knowledge of theology, but in Christlikeness (love, purity, peace, longsuffering, humility, etc...) which does take knowledge of course. So, Keller is right to teach that if we grow deeper in the understanding of the gospel (which is what makes us a "Christ-one" in the first place) we will grow in Christlikeness and thus maturity. We need to keep going back to what God says we ARE positionally, so that it will become a reality in us dispositionally. 

When we got saved, we didn't understand all that God had predestined us to be (conformed to the image of His Son) and the more we understand the gospel which encompasses:  nature of man, the character of God, the law, the incarnation, the atonement, resurrection, faith, repentance, regeneration, the New Covenant, the church as a redeemed people who are moving toward the return of Christ to bring righteousness on all the earth; we will mature. Almost all doctrine that you can imagine is in "the gospel". 

Yes all doctrine is connected to the gospel as all doctrine is connected to other facets of divine truth but that does not justify claiming one is really an extension of the other or is the other thus diminishing and obscuring real biblical words, concepts and doctrines to advance a theological proposition

Gospel means "Good news" which is what the whole Bible is and what the whole sum of the Christian faith and theology is an exposition of. By making the gospel one thing, theology another,  you are rationalistically diminishing and obscuring words and concepts to advance your own bone to pick with all things "Reformed".

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Which is why God distinguishes between Pastor/ Teachers and Evangelists and commands that Pastor/Teachers do the work of an Evangelist...because the body of doctrinal effort is all the same with no distinction for either even though God made it so.

The good news is Christ not the entire Bible. It has a special use, not a general one. You seem incapable of recognizing this. So here is the I pass and we can part ways here on this matter.

P.S. If Keller did no trick than obviously nor did I.

WilliamD's picture

The good news is Christ not the entire Bible. It has a special use, not a general one. You seem incapable of recognizing this.

 

I agree...like John Piper would say: "God IS the Gospel" 

Let me clarify what I wrote by adding one word: "Gospel means 'Good news' which is what the whole Bible is [about]". 

 

 

Ed Vasicek's picture

WilliamD wrote:

If Keller were honest, most of those who reject his errant gospel-centeredism do not hold to the view of maturing as he described, rather they view the Word of God as teaching that believers mature by learning, believing and applying God's Word through the enablement of God's Spirit and grow over time.

 

I've had this talk over on Kent Brandenburg's blog, so I'm not going to re-hash it all again.  So, we mature by learning believing and applying God's word with the enablement of the Holy Spirit over time. Fine, I agree. What is the Word of God about? Is it a self help manual? Is it a list of rules and regulations? No, it's a story. It's a story about God and His redemption...in other words, the gospel.  If you approach the Bible without that frame of mind, you'll just be a legalist and a moralist. 

You see the trick? Right, he makes others into those who would mature by their own efforts. He uses unflattering and incriminating language....As noted earlier, Keller is very nuanced, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. But he is never too nuanced for the careful and unfawning reader to catch his consistent errors both in doctrine and reasoning.

I see you using the same trick. Those who agree with you are such sophisticated thinkers while the rest of us are described with unflattering and incriminating language - we are just fawning over Keller. The rest of us are just hero worshipping lemmings. 

 

 

You are erring in making a part the whole.  It is a list of rules (613 in the Torah and about as many in the New Testament), it is a self-help manual (Proverbs), and it is the story of God's love.  The scarlet thread of redemption (esp. the Messiah and his atoning work) and God's faithfulness to Jacob's offspring are two of its main themes.  The Bible is many things, my friend.

 

I think that it is this sort of substituting the part for the whole that disturbs Alex and I so much.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Ed reflects my sentiments. 

Yes, there is a general meaning but there is a special meaning and use, emphatically, by the Bible not with reference to all divine revelation but to that which is to be believed which saves us, namely the work of Christ. To remove this distinction is to remove its special use and again, to ignore elementary hermeneutics.

It is true that gospel means good news so I guess we may say anything that is good news is the gospel which could include someone preparing breakfast for me, which, of course, denies its special use with reference to Christ and his atoning work and offer of salvation to mankind and turns sound theology on its head and Biblical hermeneutics into nothing but parlor tricks. UGH.

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