PREACHING: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism
By Timothy Keller
Preaching is authored by Timothy Keller who is described on the book jacket as “founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City… renowned for his insightful, accessible, and erudite sermons.” The jacket goes on to describe it as “a book for anyone who is interested in communicating their faith so others can be transformed.” The prologue indicates the target audience to be those who seek “The Secret to Great Preaching”. It is a book about how to preach but more importantly, it is a book about what to preach. Supposedly, the reader will learn to assemble and deliver “not just an informative lecture but a life-changing sermon.”
The subtitle Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism describes this book. Keller and the publisher seem willing to agree with the Prince of Wales (in line to be the head of the Church of England) that “faith” is to be communicated, but not The Faith. Even Pope Leo X used the term “Defender of The Faith” in 1520 when he awarded that title to King Henry VIII (as reward for Henry’s attack on Luther’s doctrine). Jude 3 tells the believer to contend for the Faith once delivered to the saints. It has now become acceptable, even fashionable, to communicate ‘faith’ rather than the Faith. Preaching is a book on what to believe: “A manifesto, not a manual, as I told myself many times in the writing of this book.” 
Preaching, Craft or Calling?
Even though Keller acknowledges the role of the Holy Spirit in preaching, the over-arching emphasis in the book is on the acquisition of rhetorical skills which, once mastered, will enable the preacher to preach “compellingly, engaging the culture and touching hearts.” The stated purpose of the book is to reveal to the aspirant preacher methods that will assure that “all these things happen.”
Keller’s Secrets of Successful Preaching
Keller urges the preacher to “diversify conversation partners. The more you listen to them, the more they pull the sermon in their direction; the more you aim the sermon to them, the more they come to church.” Bill Hybels, the pastor who founded Willow Creek, could not better describe the seeker-sensitive, market-driven church! “Stay on top of thought trends. Spend time with people from a variety of spiritual conditions and traditions.” “Your listeners will be convinced by your message only if they are convinced by you as a person.” “They may see insecurity, the desire to impress, a lack of conviction, or self-righteousness – any of which closes their minds and hearts to the words.” “You must be something like a clear glass through which people can see a broken by gospel-changed soul in such a way that they want it for themselves.” Keller proceeds with this popular jargon about being “transparent”, using “agree-to-disagree reasoning”, and incorporating “apologetic sidebars” to address “defeaters.” “Sprinkle your preaching with these interesting, concise, yet penetrating asides” for your preaching “must address the common direct objections to Christianity”… with “sympathetic accusation.” According to Keller, the preacher must use “the culture’s own respected voices” to “affirm and appreciate… baseline cultural narratives.”
“Enact a vivid presentation of [Christ]. Many hearers will feel they can almost see him, so they cannot help but… worship him.” He thus holds up the preacher as the source of salvation going on to say that the preacher must put “thought and ingenuity” into engaging “the heart.” He warns that “neglecting persuasion, illustration and other ways to affect the heart undermines the effectiveness.” Throughout the book, he places the power and authority in man rather than in God and His Word. He even claims that the reason the Holy Spirit worked through George Whitefield and the Apostle Paul was because of “what they did.” (italics his) “People could sense in them the striking union of love, humility, and gentleness with power, authority, and courage.” George Whitefield and the Apostle Paul would immediately recognize the unbiblical nature of Keller’s teaching.
In the Prologue, he sees the Holy Spirit as “the secret of great preaching” as if the Holy Spirit were a mere rhetorical tool. He confirms this attempt to use the Holy Spirit by immediately saying that the difference between a bad and good sermon “is largely located in the preachers—in their gifts and skills and in their preparation.” He goes on to say that “all of this takes extensive labor” to develop a persuasive argument, enrich it with poignant illustrations, incisively analyze heart motives, distill a clear outline and theme, and to make specific application to real life. In this way, Keller ties “up heavy loads…on men’s shoulders that no [student of preaching] could bear.” (Matthew 23:4) If the reader were not already discouraged, Keller adds to the burden by saying that “to be able to craft and present [a sermon] skillfully takes years of practice.” While claiming that the Holy Spirit “is the Christian preacher’s power,” he says in the very next sentence, “This is how to deliver… a life-changing sermon.” (Italics mine) Keller ignores the history of America’s First Great Awakening which began with one sermon preached by Jonathan Edwards. That sermon was read in a manner that would put to sleep any without the Holy Spirit’s conviction that we truly are “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” George Whitefield was said to have oratorical talents, but “the Rev. Mr. Edwards of Northampton [was] a preacher of low and moderate voice… without any agitation, or anything else to excite attention except his habitual and great solemnity.” (Iain Murray, biography of J.E., p.175)
As always, Keller emphasizes what he calls “balance” and warns the preacher against being “unnecessarily dogmatic.” “We have a balance to strike.” “We must recognize imbalance.” To use Keller’s words, the student preacher must be neither apologetic and unassertive nor confrontational and harsh. He is advised to do “expository preaching” because that “unleashes our belief in the whole Bible” and “enables God to set the agenda.” In contrast, Scripture teaches that the power lies not in “our belief” but rather in the object of our belief and that God always sets the agenda. Created beings cannot enable or unleash the Creator.
After all this how to, he says that “Christ is best perceived by intuition” and that the pastor should “preach Christ through instinct.” He ends the Prologue by adding yet another how to: “Cooperate with the Spirit’s mission in the world.” The so-called Emerging Church speaks much of participating with God in being “missional” and transforming the secular community, but this should never come from a pastor who claims to be Reformed. Cooperating with the Trinity is blasphemous language and should be a red flag for any reader of this volume. Keller says “We reach the people by preaching to the culture and to the heart.” To the already exhausted reader trying to fulfill this unbiblical demand, he then says to “preach with awe and wonder, exhibit an uncontrived transparency, [show] poise, authority, love, joy, peace, wisdom…so that people get a sense of God’s presence as well.” “Preaching cannot simply be accurate and sound; it must be compelling and penetrate to [listeners’] hearts.” He continually presents the power as being in the preacher: “If you are dry or tedious, people will not repent and believe the right doctrine…we must preach so that hearers are cut to the heart.”
Because unbiblical doctrine always produces psychoanalysis, Keller becomes increasingly pharisaical claiming that “people can tell” whether the preacher is “humbled, wounded, healed, comforted, and exalted.” He says that “good contextual preaching… helps people see things that are invisible to them but that control them.” Assuming extrasensory perception, he goes on to claim that listeners “can sniff out if you are more concerned about looking good… than you are about… loving them.” Keller is convinced that “people are examining motives without even being aware that they are doing it.” He is here describing people who are disobeying Jesus’ injunction in the Sermon on the Mount to eschew judgements of the heart (analyzing motives). Keller seems unaware of the sinful nature of this behavior. A pastor obedient to Scripture would confront such sinful judgment of others regardless of whether or not the people are aware of doing it! Keller’s psychological insights become even more brazen as he claims that “people who are moved on one level by your performance will subconsciously resist it at another level.”
He reaches a peak of wearisome and meaningless instruction in this section saying the preacher must know his material cold, preach from the heart, have a deep rich private prayer life, experience love and gratitude, engage the imagination, and connect spiritual truth to “a vivid sense experience the listener has had.” As an example of this, David supposedly repented of adultery with Bathsheba because Nathan’s story caused “the imagined sensory experience [to] become attached to his own behavior.” All is a matter of technique: “evoke a remembered sense experience and bring it into connection with a principle.” Keller then illustrates God’s view of Cain’s sin as being “like a panther or a leopard ready to spring on you.” However, he ignores the biblical reality that this sensory experience did not bring Cain to repentance. The thinking reader is left to presume Nathan was successful in using these techniques of “Preaching…to the Heart” while God failed to “evoke wonder” (175) and to use “rhetorical devices that fit the culture.”
Keller’s Reliance on Worldly Wisdom
Those familiar with the writing style of Timothy Keller have become accustomed to his frequent use of quotations from a wide variety of individuals from all walks of life. Preaching is peppered with quotations from such sources and more than a quarter of the book is devoted to extensive footnote elaborations.
As in all his books, Keller begins with the tone of a faithful Reformed pastor, even quoting Edmund Clowney, the late president of Westminster Seminary. Thus he gives the appearance of trust in the Word of God. However, he assumes it to be a heavy problem to “communicate life-changing biblical truth to people at any level in an increasingly skeptical age.” In support of the subtitle, he assumes the culture to be not only the problem but also the answer.
Presumably because of this, Preaching contains a myriad of quotations from a wide possible variety of sources. The first sentence in the book mentions Peter Adam, a man of whom most of his readers will have never heard. He goes from there to Gerhard Friedrich, Peter Davids, George Kennedy, Anthony Thiselton, Alec Motyer, Hughes Oliphant Old, Alan M. Stibbs, Fred Craddock, William Perkins, Terry Eagleton, P.T. Forsyth, C.E.M. Joad, Charles Taylor, Mark Lilla, Robert Bellah, Gail Sheehy, Thomas Nagel, Luc Ferry, John Colquhoun, Mari Ruti, and Eugene Lowry to name only a few. As is usual for Keller’s writing, it is often difficult to connect many of these references to his stated purpose.
One example is Keller’s admiring reference to Fred Craddock, who is described as “a great Disciples of Christ preacher”. Craddock taught at Methodist-affiliated Emory University and was described by some as a “mild-mannered man encouraging mild-mannered people to be more mild-mannered.” Even Keller describes him as one “who moved mainline Protestant preaching decisively away from the expository method”. Coming from a denomination that long ago lost confidence in the authority of Scripture, it is not surprising that Craddock focused the sermon on the experience of the listener and viewed preaching as a socializing force that creates community. Those who view Scripture as having authority view Craddock’s teaching as one of the forces which “transformed the sermon into a success seminar.” His popular book As One Without Authority written in 1971 was seen as “a general revolt against propositional preaching.” Even so, Keller says, “Craddock has much to teach us.”
The author apparently wants the reader to know that he does not limit his reading to the Bible. He quotes William Perkins as saying “The minister must privately use the arts and philosophy as well as employ a wide variety of reading while he is preparing his sermon.” Few Christians would object to a pastor reading outside Scripture. The problem lies in grounding theological conclusions based on this “wide variety of reading”. He warns against sensing an insight and then hunting for a biblical text to find occasion “for telling people what you want to tell them anyway.” Yet the few times Keller does use Scripture in the book, it appears to be done in exactly that manner.
He tells the reader to avoid “the we-them language” and to “Show yourself to be a member of the whole Body of Christ by speaking generously of those in other branches of the church. And show yourself to be a member of the broader human community in which you reside.” He goes on to advise the use of “supporting material from sources that your listeners trust” when you are preaching to “people who have strong doubts about the Bible.” His examples of such material are from David Foster Wallace ( a philosophy graduate from Amherst who wrote novels and died of suicide in 2008 at age 46), Martin Luther King, Leonard Bernstein, atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, secular scholar Andrew Delbanco, and C.E.M. Joad (English philosopher, Guild Socialist, member of Fabian Society, a leading member of Federal Union and Peace Aims Committee proposing the establishment of a World Federation with an International Parliament as the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth, and who declared his closest intellectual influences to be George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells). Keller says that quotes from unbelievers to support your points “often results in their increased respect for the wisdom of the Bible.”
Keller gives no Scripture to support such directives as they are in direct contradiction to Scriptural commands. Elijah hardly greeted the prophets of Baal with requests for material he could use to make God’s Word sound more respectable and wise. Scripture instructs believers to put on the whole armor of God and stand (Ephesians 6) rather than to “show yourself to be a member of the broader human community.”
Keller does not use the term ‘Christian witness’ but instead prefers ‘Christian communicators’. He appears to be exceptionally concerned that the Christian appear no different from the culture. He says the communicators “must show that they remember very well what it is like not to believe… expressing… doubts and objections with appreciation and respect.” This “can come only from spending lots of face time with people who don’t believe, as well as from reading the best sources critiquing Christianity.” He uses no Scripture here because the Bible nowhere suggests that believers are edified by reviewing the old life with unbelievers while affirming “baseline cultural narratives.” Keller’s teaching directly opposes Paul’s directive: “One thing I do, forgetting what lies behind… I press forward to the goal of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let those who are mature think in this way… Stand firm thus in the Lord” (Philippians 3:13-4:1). The author to the epistle to the Hebrews says that the faithful “are seeking a homeland; if they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:14-16). Scripture urges us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1,2).
Preaching without Borders
Keller’s books rarely make a distinction between believer and unbeliever. He does comment that both will be in the congregation, but he does not define either term. This is likely because the philosophers and monks on whom he bases his doctrine were largely Universalists. The attempt to mix pagan philosophy with Christianity can only lead to universalism as it did with Origen.
Keller makes no reference to the old man having been buried with Christ or to the new creation receiving open eyes and ears enabling them to evaluate the culture via Scripture. Instead, he teaches that “we are social-cultural beings, and our inner-heart motivations are profoundly shaped by the human communities in which we are embedded.” Assuming environmental determinism, he says that “the foundational beliefs of the culture… are usually invisible to people inside it.” In direct opposition to Romans 3:10 and all of Scripture, Keller assumes all people have “deep aspirations for good” and that these aspirations “can be fulfilled only in Christ.” This is the heart of his false gospel easily played on a church thoroughly steeped for decades in pagan philosophy cloaked as the ‘science’ of psychology. Keller makes man the agent of change in opposition to Scripture where it is made clear that only the Holy Spirit convicts and leads man to repentance.
The Westminster Confession Chapter XIII: Of Sanctification, 13.1 says, “They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them.”
“By nature, we are all out for the world, and the world appeals to us. But Christians find they are no longer interested. They see the world in a different way. ‘Whosoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God’(James 4:4). The Christian is amazed to find himself looking at everything in this new way. What you find in the New Testament is not a Christian philosophy but a mind and outlook dominated by the Lord himself. That means we view all things in light of the Lord’s coming and of what he has done and where he is and what he is yet going to do; this dominates the whole of our live and all our thinking. Christians ‘set their affections on things above, not on things on the earth’ (Col. 3:2). Because of that, they develop a relative immunity to the things that happen around them The Lord has opened their eyes. They see through the world; they see beyond it. So we examine ourselves.” [Living Water, Studies in John 4, Crossway)
To quote J.C. Ryle, “Wrong views about holiness are generally traceable to wrong views about human corruption.” Keller does not see the heart of man as deceitful and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). Yet Scripture reminds us constantly that we “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” (Ephesians 2:3). This is not at all the issue for Keller.
Preaching to the Culturally Determined
Keller prefers to use the term ‘late-modern’ rather than ‘post-modern’. This terminology would appear to be an attempt to distinguish himself from the Emerging Church though much of what he teaches could come from their website. He is convinced that “Christians living in late-modern times are somewhat shaped by…the narratives of late modernity.” He is definitely interested in narratives but does not see Christians as shaped by the overarching metanarrative of Christ’s death and resurrection. He clearly agrees with Emerging Church doctrine that all knowledge is socially contextualized and that you must become your culture, or they will see right through you. He seems to agree with those who teach that God is beyond our linguistic grasp. To Keller, “The key to preaching to a culture… is to identify its baseline cultural narratives.”
Because of his devotion to Roman Catholic piety and his rejection of basic Reformation doctrine, Keller presents a muddled view of reality. He is wrong in saying that “Christian preachers and teachers” should affirm baseline cultural narratives “since we see their clear origins in Christianity.” He even references Krister Stendahl (a founding leader of New Perspectives on Paul) as proof that “the modern understanding of the feelings and the self has grown from…Christian roots.” He moves on as though no one will notice his lack of evidence for this assumption.
Keller views mankind as does Charles Taylor (a Canadian philosopher who was awarded the Templeton Prize and who believes we need to tackle Islamophobia). Readers are to simply accept Taylor’s conclusion that our “late-modern cultural narratives… grew out of Christianity”. Thus we are to accept the “narratives of late-modernity” such as “history is making progress”, “feelings are good”, and “emotions should be understood.” These are to be affirmed because they are supposedly Christian in origin. Keller tries to justify this anti-biblical claim by saying his understanding of cultural narratives flows “naturally from the idea that the purpose of all things was communion with the personal God.” Keller cannot be ignorant of the Westminster Confession stating that we were created for the glory of God. All things being in communion with God is a tenet of pantheism.
Keller’s Pagan Philosophical Roots.
Having affirmed the importance of cultural determinism, Keller declares the following to be the job of the preacher: “to attract people through their culture’s aspirations… to come to… the true power, the true beauty.” “You can’t really reach and restructure the affections of the heart… unless you point… to the beauty of Jesus. You want them to experience what they were taking notes about.” (italics his). This author can hardly be unaware these beliefs and even the language come from the ancient mystery religions and pagan Greek philosophy.
Seeking the Divine Beauty
One philosopher who is credited with introducing pagan Greek philosophy into Christian doctrine is Johannes Scotus Erigena (815-877). He taught that every rational being, even in his perversity and sin, is really seeking God. This God sets all things in motion toward Himself solely by His beauty. His conclusion regarding the magnetic attraction of the Divine Beauty came from the old Hellenistic principle that ‘like attracts like’; therefore, all men desire God whether they realize it or not. They simply need to rise above the material world, transcend the things of the senses, and then relate to the Beauty in the Divine. Erigena said, “When we love God, it is actually God loving Himself in and through us. The Trinity loves itself and revolves within itself from eternity to eternity.” Plato (428-347BC) taught that man must reach that knowledge of nothing other than Beauty itself. He urged his followers to use the beautiful things in this world as a ladder on which to ascend to the beauty of the higher world. (Symposium 211) This is the Platonic Way of salvation, the ordo salutis of Greek philosophy.
Proclus (412-485AD), a Greek philosopher in the Platonic tradition, promoted this fusion of Plato with his Chain of Love saying that self-directed love (Eros) descends and turns all things toward the Divine Beauty for its own benefit. Heavenly Beauty streams down the Chain of Love to us and furnishes us our means of ascent to the Beauty. (571,N) Gregory of Nyssa (335-395AD), a bishop of northern Cappadocia, said that “Knowledge of God must start from within the self. We must direct our desire to the Beautiful in order to avoid the shadows of the sense world; the virgin life is advised.” (432,N) Maximus Confessor (580-662), a monk in Constantinople, taught that we must free ourselves from pleasure in earthly things and direct our desires toward the Divine. According to Keller, “Change happens… by feeding the imagination new beauties. Affections are the inclination of the whole person when sensing the beauty and excellence of some object. When our heart inclines toward the object in love, it propels us to acquire and protect it.” Keller says that “the power of physical beauty over us must be broken because it distorts women’s view of themselves and distorts men’s lives by making them… turn to pornography.” And, “Evolutionary biologists and Christians agree that the drive to possess physical beauty is a desire for youth.” He gives no reference source for these statements.
Augustine was steeped in Plato’s teachings and therefore, taught that “to know oneself is to know God and to abide in oneself is to abide in God.” (Nygren 517) Augustine taught a theology of humility but used humility as a means of rising to a theology of glory. He was introduced to the works of Plotinus around the time he became a Christian. Even secular authors recognize that Augustine’s Confessions are “informed by the language of Plotinus.” (Augustine: Conversions to Confessions by Robin Lane Fox, Basic Books). Plotinus (204-270) taught a spiritual journey with the goal of reintegration of the soul with its divine origins, the fountain of all being. This ended with passive contemplation in which the soul naturally drew closer to the beatific vision. Interior truth inside the soul is always trying to return to the Beauty, the One beyond all attributes. Plotinus pursued Persian and Indian philosophers and supposedly attained mystical union with the Beautiful One four times.
Keller claims that Christianity “taught that our feelings should be examined and our highest love… directed toward God.” His conclusion comes directly from Greek philosophy with its concept of self-directed love or Eros. This idea that man must seek God within himself constantly recurred in Augustine as he pointed the church toward mysticism, the introspective Way to God. Keller’s theology reveals the blend of Neoplatonism against which Luther and Calvin battled to the end of their days. This synthesis formed the foundational view of love for the Roman Catholic Church via Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. It places God at the top of the ladder with man climbing the rungs via the re-ordering of his loves.
Plato and Keller both teach that all love is acquisitive love (What’s in it for me?). Keller does not acknowledge that the natural (unregenerate) man seeks nothing above his own happiness. There is no evidence that he accepts Scripture’s view of this as a mark of the fallen and sinful nature. For him, egocentricity should be accepted with the only issue being (as it was for Plato) the re-ordering of the loves in the upward direction; sin is viewed as misdirected loves amenable to the proper technique.
According to this teaching, man must assess the worth of objects and love according to the worth of that object. God is thus degraded to the level of a means for the satisfaction of human desire. Love is an ethically indifferent force to be directed according to the object it desires. The issue is not good vs. evil or right vs. wrong; it is rather a decision as to which ‘love-object’ satisfies needs. Man’s happiness resides simply in learning to conduct the water to the garden rather than to the sewer. (494, N) Man’s sinful behavior is simply misdirected loves; we are all seeking God, just seeking Him in the wrong place.
Keller seems to assume that his readers will not recognize ancient Greek and Hindu philosophy regarding the ‘highest good’. He again invokes the concept of Eros in Greek philosophy: “What makes people into what they are is the order of their loves. People change by changing what they love most.” Placing change along with fulfillment of aspirations as the priority is clearly Roman Catholic doctrine from Greek philosophy via Augustine through Thomas Aquinas. This kind of thinking has been opposed by Reformed pastors for five hundred years.
Luther saw clearly in the Word that even the soul turned toward heaven is still bent upon itself, governed by desire and longing and will be freed from this focus only by the blood and righteousness of Jesus. Reformed pastors once knew what Luther recovered from the Word of God: that not only what is regarded as degrading and bad, but also the highest and best in man is “flesh.” First and foremost, in spite of imaginary righteousness, man is a transgressor of the Law. Jesus “did not come to call the righteous, but to call sinners.” (Mark 2:17) Luther minced no words regarding Keller’s kind of teaching: “The Christian is not an independent center of power alongside of God. He can only give that which he has received from God. Christian love is through and through a Divine work.” (N,734)
Jesus as Ladder of Our Ascent to the Divine
Keller begins Part Two of the book reviewing man’s “deepest aspirations” as being essentially good but misdirected. Misdirected hopes produce lack of fulfillment. Keller claims that “the early Christian communicators… affirmed people’s hopes, fears and aspirations.” Along with this, he claims that the apostles simply “reframed the culture’s questions… and redirected its hopes.” The early church “was but requisitioning the ladders by which she escaped from the world.” Love is to be used as a ladder to ascend to the higher world. Having presented man’s problem as sinking aspirations, Keller is devoted to presenting Christ as the ladder on which to climb to joy.
He uses evangelical terminology but teaches a self-salvation via the ascent of the soul to deity rather than salvation as a work of God descending to lost mankind. Ancient heresies were always “requisitioning the ladders” of self-salvation; thus they presented Christ as becoming man so that man might become gods. John Climacus (525-606) taught that man will be free from all passions at the top of the ladder and there possess the Divine Apathy (the freedom from suffering as described by Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics). His book on the Ladder to Perfection was the most widely used handbook of the ascetical life in the ancient Greek church. Pseudo-Dionysius (probably around 532) taught that the desire of every creature is to be partaker in the Good, that all things issue from God, and that all things return to Him. (581,N). To quote from Pope Benedict XVI to a general audience at the Vatican on February 11, 2009: “The last step [of the ladder] is Eros (human love), a symbol of the matrimonial union of the soul with God. The power of human love can be reoriented to God. An intense experience of this Eros will help the soul to advance.”
Idols of the Heart
This is surely why Keller’s church is permeated with recovery groups modeled after the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation. The Hellenistic Eros doctrine underlies ‘idols of the heart’ teaching invented by David Powlison and fits well with Keller’s false gospel. Every step of the ladder in the book entitled Climax (Ladder) by St. John of Climacus is linked to a principal passion that is defined and diagnosed with an indication of the treatment and a proposal of the corresponding virtue. This most important treatise of spiritual strategy is based on life as a continual ascent to the Beautiful. Today, instead of moving to a hermitage or monastery to accomplish this, we hire a counselor to give us insight into our idols and to help us drop them as we purify ourselves which will in turn enable us to move up the ladder to the Divine Beauty, the Divine Apathy. This belief is basic to the ancient mystery religions (out of India, Persia, and Greece) with the goal being to break the bonds that bind us to the material world, rid ourselves of the things of the senses, and move up like angels to our heavenly abode. (364, N) When the more spiritually advanced have been purified (idols recognized and eliminated), then and only then are they invited into the mysteries. The true Gnostic is a Christian of a higher rank having freed himself of idols with his loves redirected and aspirations fulfilled. The true Gnostic is no longer bound by the letter of Scripture but cleaving to its deeper, pneumatic meaning. This view is based on “the psychology of desire, which is… decidedly egocentric. Here our gaze is turned unwaveringly upon our own self and what can satisfy its needs.” (Nygren 530) Keller joins the Gnostics in seeing sin as turning downward toward earth rather than upward toward happiness. Luther followed Scripture in seeing sin as being a slave to oneself; everything turned for him upon Christ and His redemption.
When Luther came to understand Justification by faith alone (rather than ‘faith formed by love’ as in the Roman Catholic Church), he saw that self-love must be plucked up by the roots and destroyed. Christ came not to call the righteous but sinners. He who seeks reward never finds God. There is nothing in the life and activity of the natural man which does not bear the marks of “seeking its own” (I Corinthians 13). Christian love is the very opposite of the love that “seeketh its own” and can only come via Agape descending to us. Christian love is through and through a Divine Work. (734,N) Unless God through Christ makes a way for Himself down to man, there is no way. “Whoever loves his life will lose it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:5,6). To love one’s neighbor requires the annihilation of self-love.
“An unbroken line runs from the ancient Mystery religions through Plato, Plotinus, Proclus, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Medieval Mysticism down to our own time.” (574, N) This book along with his book entitled Prayer places Keller in that line. It is highly unlikely that he is ignorant of this history of ideas.
Preaching the Gospel of Security and Significance
Keller does not speak biblically of man as dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1) nor does he mention God’s wrath on sin. For him, man’s problem is some version of failing to “trust God’s good will toward us.” Throughout the book, Keller is concerned about the listener’s “sense of personal identity and worth”. The concept of personal identity (coming from Erik Erikson) and unconditional love (coming from Carl Rogers) giving security and significance is taught throughout the book. He grounds his false gospel in the teaching of psychotherapists rather than in Scripture. For Keller, man’s problem is misplaced identity, and the solution is unconditional love giving security and significance.
Erik Erikson (1902-1994) trained in psychoanalysis under Freud’s daughter Anna and focused his career on what he called ‘personal identity’. He coined the phrase ‘identity crisis’. After his death, the man was described by his daughter as plagued by “lifelong feelings of personal inadequacy.” Carl Rogers (1902-1987) became a psychotherapist after two years at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He concluded that ‘unconditional positive regard’ was “essential for healthy development and for constructive change”. This is because “the organism has one basic tendency and striving to actualize, maintain, and enhance the experiencing organism.” These two men were leaders in humanistic psychotherapy in the twentieth century.
Keller fully accepts this concept of ‘identity’ though it is completely outside of Scripture and is a psychological construct replacing the biblical concept of character (Romans 5:4). He sees the Gospel as centered on “our identity” and via this route, “a Christian… arrives at far higher self-esteem… and sense of worth.” This is because “identity always comes from the acclaim and accreditation of someone outside us” and we get this “only if God… grants us love.” He even uses the old sentimental saw: “There are some deeds that only we can do, some hands that only we can hold, some hurts that only we can heal” and goes on to say that this process will make us “the true selves we should be.”
He presents Christ as coming to “help people change from the inside out.” The phrase ‘inside out’ is used more than once in this book; Inside Out (1992) was the title of Larry Crabb’s best seller some years ago. Keller and Crabb have the same unbiblical view of man’s problem and its solution.
Keller reworks the anthropocentric false gospel of “Christian psychology” urging student preachers to “show listeners… all that [Jesus] came to do for us.” Thus Keller appeals to the natural selfishness of mankind saying, “Only in Christ can these aspirations be fulfilled. Only in Christ can any plot-line have a happy ending.” Only Jesus will “fit their intuitions and experiences.” If seeking wisdom and/or power, Christ is supposedly the place to find it. Yet Paul describes the desire for wisdom and power as characteristic of the unregenerate and thus evidence of the desire to be God. “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (I Corinthians 1:22,23).
Keller says that “the gospel… is always the solution to every problem and the way to advance.” “In Christ we have the affirmation we need— so we don’t have to look elsewhere. The ultimate giver, Jesus gives us the security and joy to give away our wealth.” Paul says, “We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing” (Romans 6:6).
Keller says that “a sermon that just tells people they should be generous because they have to is not dealing with the fears, false hopes, and lusts for approval and control that make people unwilling to give more.” Scripture nowhere suggests that it was due to lack of affirmation, security, and significance that caused the rich, young ruler to walk away from Jesus (Luke 18:18-30). Nor does Scripture indicate it was due to his fears, false hopes, and lust for approval. Scripture does not affirm the natural desires of man nor does it present Christ as the fulfillment of those desires. “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14,15). “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:44). This is a view of desire radically different from that of Keller and Greek philosophy.
Because the atheist Luc Ferry says that good deeds make “us feel worthy and significant”, Keller concludes that by giving “ourselves to God, our True Love, we will be free from fears, insecurity, and shame as well as free to forgive, love others, and to face suffering.” True to his foundation in the pagan Greek philosophy of Eros, he markets Christianity on the basis of personal gain as he attempts to convince the reader that “contemporary people are the victims of the late-modern mind far more than they are its perpetrators” (italics mine). According to Keller, “Christian communicators” need to understand that they preach to victims. According to Scripture, man is saved neither by Jesus’ love nor by His suffering. The believer is saved because God accepts the death of His Son as a propitiatory sacrifice turning aside God’s wrath on the sinner. “He made Him to be sin who knew no sin so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). Keller does not mention righteousness. Scripture says the Christian message goes to rebels whose sin is ever before them having done what is evil in God’s sight such that God is blameless in His judgment (Psalm 51:3,4). Therefore, Jesus said, “How often would I have gathered your children… but you would not” (Luke 13:34). There is no hint that Jerusalem and the Pharisees would have run to the shadow of His wings if only they had understood their culture and been taught how to re-order their loves. Israel was not waiting for a Messiah to redirect their loves. John the Baptist said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Paul said, “He became sin so that we could be righteousness” (II Corinthians 5:21). God did not send His Son to die so that we would see the upward climb is the better direction, re-order our loves, get rid of our idols of the heart, and climb Jacob’s ladder.
According to Keller, Christ came so that “the things that drive us and enslave us can do so no longer.” His man-centered gospel is focused on the fulfillment of felt-needs. “We can’t give our money away until we get new security and identity in Jesus. We can’t love our spouses rightly until we fill our inner neediness with the spousal love of Christ.” Excusing sin on the basis of an empty love tank, Keller says, “I put my ‘Isaacs’ ahead of Christ because I think they will give me more security and worth than he will.” The concern is “my acceptance… [makes me] really want to live like Abraham for the right, nondestructive reason.” And “Jesus is the angel [who] can come into your life and burn with his power and his beauty and his glory dwelling in you now. It is safe now.” For Keller, the issue is not “faith credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:22) nor is it Christ’s righteousness imputed to the sinner;
He knows how to appear Reformed so he labels chapter 3 as “Preaching Christ from All of Scripture.” However, the Christ he preaches is the Christ of Pope Francis and of counseling psychology as he terms Jesus “the world healer.” He briefly mentions God’s covenants, but concludes that “the covenant between God and his people [is both] conditional and unconditional.” He mentions no covenant by name and makes no distinctions. He then says that “Jesus came and fulfilled the conditions so God could love us unconditionally.”
According to Keller, “Romans 1 tells us we all must worship and serve something so we will be enslaved by created things until we break their grip on us.” The first chapter of Romans does not say this. Instead, it says we are without excuse. Having suppressed the Truth in unrighteousness, we will not acknowledge God though we know He is there. Thus we become fools while imagining ourselves to be wise and are then given over to the worship of created things. Again, Keller is presenting the Platonic, Augustinian, Roman Catholic view of turning to higher loves in order to break that grip. If Keller has ever read Luther’s Bondage of the Will, he has obviously rejected Luther’s fundamental premise.
Jesus as Better Example
Keller describes the unregenerate state in terms of “a world that no longer satisfies” and “trying to get an identity through performance.” The regenerate state is supposedly one in which “the world will become our home again” where we can “rest [in] God’s unconditional acceptance because Jesus experienced… cosmic emptiness.” And, “Once we had nothing to hide from God’s sight.” Again, he gives no Scripture on which to ground these statements because there is none. The Bible declares each of us guilty in God’s sight from the time of conception (Psalm 51:5). It is for this reason that nothing satisfies; we have everything to hide under the cover of Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
He describes Christ as “the ultimate leader”, as “the ultimate worker”, as the one “thrown into the ultimate storm” for our sin, and as the one who “fulfills circumcision.” He then assures the reader that Scripture presents a pattern of those “with power and worldly status [being] clueless about salvation while all the servants and underlings show wisdom.” However, he then presents Esther as a “type” of Christ seemingly clueless that his use of this Persian queen contradicts his prior statement as regards those “with power and worldly status.”
In this same confusing pattern filled with contradictions, he ridicules those who use David killing Goliath as an example of faith and courage, but in the next paragraph presents Jesus as facing “the ultimate giants” so that I can “have a deep security” and know that “I am already loved and acclaimed.”
Jesus as Abused Child
Keller repeatedly presents Christ as saving us by His suffering. “He subjected himself to abuse in order to make us whole.” He says that Jesus saves us from despair and agony because “he was thrown into the deepest despair and agony.” “Even though he was God’s Son, he was cast out and lost, so that you could be brought in.” And, “Point to the one who had a heartfelt prayer turned down in the garden of Gethsemane.” Jesus “became spiritually and utterly poor… mourned… wept inconsolably and died in the dark… was stripped of everything.” And, “Jesus… is rejected by all his loved ones [and] experiences the lostness of life without God.” (260) “[Jesus] was another little boy, born to a poor woman, who lived a life of rejection and at the end of his life was abandoned by his father. He also was dying of thirst, and he cried out and God did not answer.” And, “He became ugly that we might become beautiful.” And, “Jesus lost his security so we could have the ultimate security.” And, “Jesus knew what it was like to be poor, marginalized, and oppressed. Finally he was stripped naked and died of thirst and exposure on the cross. Seeing Jesus embrace you when you are spiritually poor helps you see that you are no better than the poor in any meaningful way. This will remove condescending attitudes.” According to all medical sources, crucifixion produces death by asphyxiation rather than by thirst and exposure. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the sin of pride is erased by visions of Jesus embracing anyone. Keller moves on to blasphemy in saying that “you and I obtain mercy… because he got none: not from Pilate, not from the crowd, not even from his Father.” Scripture teaches that we (like the tax collector in Luke 18:13) have no hope outside of the mercy-seat; to suggest that Christ ever needed mercy is blasphemous. Keller’s continual presentation of Jesus as a victim echoes Steven Chalke’s view of the atonement as cosmic child abuse.
Preaching does not recognize preaching as a calling but presents it as a craft. The craft appears so intimidating that most will surely acknowledge the greatness of its renowned author and consider the craft to be unattainable. Timothy Keller is “renowned for his insightful, accessible and erudite sermons” (jacket). It is this renown that makes what Keller believes so dangerous.
Keller more thoroughly reveals his basic doctrine in Preaching than ever before. Interestingly, his ideas are not newly formed. In 2004 he published an article, Deconstructing Defeater Beliefs: Leading the Secular to Christ. Therein he advocates preaching using “the culture’s own terms”, in a “clearer and stronger way”, addressing “personal freedom and identity”, presenting God as man’s “highest good”, and the Lord as “our ultimate beauty”. Rather than presenting Christianity as “true”, he says it must be “attractive”, convincing people that only via “its Story” can one’s life have a “happy ending”. As such, Preaching can be truly labeled as his manifesto of faith as well as his manual. For him, the Bible is neither authoritative nor sufficient, and worldly wisdom is necessary for a proper understanding and exposition of this faith. The agency of the Holy Spirit is minimal to non-existent while methods and techniques are paramount. His emphasis on cultural narratives is merely the psychological doctrine of environmental determinism brought forward in somewhat different dress and affirmed. Ignoring the distinction between believer and non-believer while insisting that all people have “deep aspirations for good” is more than a seeker-sensitive marketing ploy; it approaches universalism. Revealed here is the fact that Keller’s faith is fully in concert with that unbroken line of thinking from ancient mystery religions through pagan Greek philosophy, medieval mysticism, and Roman Catholic piety to the social gospel and the doctrinally unrestrained anti-propositional emergent church of today. Keller presents his false Christ, not as Savior from sin, but as the best means by which man can achieve personal satisfaction, security and significance. The faithful are presented as climbing from the mundane cares of the material world to the transcendent divine, becoming like God. His frequent reference to and ready reliance upon humanistic psychological concepts coincides with his refusal to acknowledge rebellion as the real problem of man. He depicts Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice on the cross as suffering victim in contrast to Scripture’s description: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” (Acts 2:23) The faith presented in this book is not the faith once delivered to the saints. It may be popular and trendy, even erudite as the book jacket says, but it is a faith that has little to do with Christianity.
This false gospel permeates much of the Christian church in 2016 and meets the world with none of the offense of the cross. The importance of Keller’s version of it lies in his influence on those churches and seminaries still claiming to be Reformed. His undermining of Reformed doctrine is subtle but complete. Satan clothed as an Angel of Light has taken Protestant churches far from the doctrine of Scripture recovered by Luther five hundred years ago. Few today know what he taught and few seem able to recognize the radical difference between Scripture and pagan philosophy. Luther is largely forgotten as lacking erudition, and we are taken in by that one described in Isaiah 14:14.
“I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.”
Those who walk by faith and not by sight wait for the fulfillment of Isaiah 14:15 when the arch-deceiver will be “brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit.”
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, and that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (I Corinthians 2:1-5)
Murray, Iain, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1988
Craddock, Frederick, As One Without Authority, Chalice Press, Atlanta, 1971
Lloyd-Jones, Martyn, Living Water: Studies in John 4, Crossway Books, Wheaton, 2009
Ryle, J. C., Holiness, CreateSpace Publishing Platform, Amazon.com, 2012
Plato, The Collected Dialogues, Eds: Hamilton, Cairns, Princeton University Press, Princeton
Nygren, Anders, Agape and Eros, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1953
Fox, Robin, Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, Basic Books, New York, 2015
Benedict XVI, General Audience, February 11, 2009, www.vatican.va
Powlison, David, Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair, Counseling Issues, Christian Counseling and Education Foundation, October 16, 2009
Crabb, Larry, Inside Out, NavPress, Colorado Springs, 2013
Luther, Martin, The Bondage of the Will, Baker Academic, Ada, Michigan, 2012
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