Keller’s Galatians for You (Review)

In his book, Galatians for You, Dr Tim Keller offers to help us get to grips with the meaning of Galatians, and to show how it can transform our hearts and lives. The purpose of this review is to show why we should reject Keller’s offer, for he presents an unreliable and misleading interpretation the apostle Paul’s letter.

Galatians for You is one volume in God’s Word for You, a series of Bible commentaries published by The Good Book Company. Galatians coverThe editor states his central aim for the series to be: Bible centered, Christ glorifying, relevantly applied, and easily readable (p7). Keller says, ‘The book of Galatians is dynamite’ the study of which will leave the reader ‘enjoying a deep significance, security and satisfaction’ (p9) having created ‘a radical new dynamic for personal growth, for obedience, for love’ (p10).

The commentary is easily readable and compact, comprising only 185 pages. Keller says: ‘In the letter to Galatians, Paul expounds in detail what the gospel is and how it works’ (p11). As he exegetes Galatians line by line, he more or less fulfills the editor’s goals in the first 100 pages. There he is generally Bible centered, but when he begins application on the next 85 pages, he falls into the same error as did the Galatian Judaizers about which Paul is ‘so emotional’ (p13).

Even the first one hundred pages contain suggestions of the flaws present in his other books, though some of his exegesis of Galatians is accurate. For example, he rightfully describes Jesus as ‘a rescuer’ (p16) and states that ‘you need a rescue’ (p17), even going on to say that ‘we need a complete rescue’. However, he fails to tell the reader from what or whom we need to be rescued. God’s wrath is never mentioned. He typically presents ‘fear, anxiety and guilt (the sense of condemnation and curse) will always be attached to different gospels’ (p23). But he fails to present this as a description of the Holy Spirit’s work in convicting of sin. ‘He will convict…of sin and righteousness and judgment.’ (John 16:8)

The courage to be vulnerable
In the midst of his explanation of amazing grace, he turns from being Bible centered to say that ‘we must have the courage to be vulnerable and speak personally about what the gospel means to us’, including how we think and feel, and our ‘complete Christian fulfillment’, for this will help ‘heart-focused cultures and temperaments’ to ‘see the attractiveness of Christianity’ (p35).

We are told that the gospel leads to cultural and emotional freedom. ‘Moralistic religion tends to press its members to adopt very specific rules and regulations for dress and daily behavior’ (p42). Keller suggests that Christians are culturally free to dress and behave in any way they like, provided they love their neighbor. ‘Second, the gospel leads to emotional freedom. Anyone who believes that our relationship with God is base on keeping up moral behavior is on an endless treadmill of guilt and insecurity.’ The reader is encouraged to reflect on the question: ‘Do you ever feel guilty or insecure in your relationship with God?’ (p43).

A discussion of the apostle Peter’s ‘mistake’ in chapter 2 provides Keller with the opportunity to comment on contemporary worship. ‘It is very hard for Christians from churches with emotional expressiveness and modern music not to feel superior to churches with emotionally reserve and classical music, and vice versa’ (p55). He supports the view that cultural differences in music used in church are merely a matter of personal preference that has no spiritual significance. He is encouraging his readers, without any scriptural backing, to accept the modern contemporary worship scene that is overwhelming the church.

Keller talks about ‘the sin of nationalism’ and concludes that ‘Peter’s racial pride was grounded in fear’. He follows this judgment of Peter’s heart with the usual therapeutic conclusion that Peter needed ‘to be loved and strengthened in order to get the courage to do right’ (p56). Keller’s devotion to the concept of man having an empty love-tank waiting to be filled is apparent throughout this commentary on Galatians.

Insight-oriented psychotherapy
Instead of the scriptural emphasis on the new creation which accompanies our justification, Keller follows the thinking of insight-oriented psychotherapy in his repeated advice to consider felt-needs. ‘If I am being angry and unforgiving, what is it that I think I need so much? What is being withheld that I think I must have… to be a person of worth?’ (p69). He is based in the concept of idol-exchange (promoted by Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation and David Powlison) as the process of sanctification. ‘How will you replace that false savior with your true Savior next time you’re tempted?’ (p70). ‘To help you diagnose your own heart, ask yourself: What causes me to feel despair in life?’ (p81). Keller completely ignores the biblical warnings against man making judgments of the heart (Jeremiah 17:9, I Kings 8:39, Matthew7:1, 2). He continually advocates the therapeutic lie that we can ‘diagnose’ our own heart and that of others if we only follow certain techniques and accept his understanding of motives.

As he approaches page 100, Keller begins to speak of ‘promised intimacy’ (p96), and assumes an unbiblical dichotomy between mind and heart. He says that ‘the work of the Son…is something we can have without feeling. But the work of the Spirit consists in us being completely moved’ (p100). He ignores Scripture’s teaching of the believer having been ‘united with Him in His death’ (Romans 6:5) and presents a view of the Holy Spirit more characteristic of Pentecostal error than of Scripture. It would appear that he presents this false separation of the work of the Holy Spirit, from the work of the Son, in hopes that the reader will accept the man-centered therapeutic base of the rest of the commentary. From here on, the book becomes more difficult to read as it becomes less logical and largely based on psychological theory with its resultant therapeutic practices. As a child of God, ‘we don’t walk in fear of anyone or anything; our Father owns the place… We live with heads held high. Our sonship removes the fear of missing fulfillment or losing approval that is at the root of much of our disobedience’ (p101). Typical of psycho-therapeutic theory, Keller continually blames sin on ‘fundamental insecurity’ (p107).

Words are not sufficient
He promotes another common error so destructive on the mission field today as he teaches that faith comes ‘mainly through relationships’ rather than through ‘arguments, information and books’ (p110). Scripture is clear that the Gospel has come to us in history and in words; yet Keller joins those saying ‘words are not sufficient… not even most important… people have to be able to look into our hearts’ (p110). Keller joins those placing the inter-personal behavior of fallen man as the agent of persuasion regarding ‘the truth of Christ’. He goes on to say, ‘Paul is not urging them to be… right, but… joyful’ (p110). Contrary to Keller, Scripture emphasizes the Word of God in salvation. ‘Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever’ (1 Peter 1.23). God has promised that his Word, which is more powerful than a double edged sword, will not return to him void but shall accomplish his purposes (Isaiah 55.11).

Keller then psychoanalyzes even the Galatian false teachers as he blames their false teaching on their own felt-needs and empty love-tanks. ‘This means that they need, emotionally, to have people who emotionally need them… the false teachers simply want to be built up by building the Galatians up’ (p113).

Religious people
Keller continues with typical therapeutic statements such as ‘religious people are very touchy and nervous about their standing with God. Their insecurity makes them hostile to the Gospel’ (p128). He goes on: ‘The Lord Jesus was most bitterly opposed by the religious leaders… it was law-reliant teachers within the church undermining gospel freedom. It is the same today…’ (p128). Elsewhere, Keller tells his readers that, ‘Jesus dismantles the whole religious paradigm’ (Kings Cross, p41). And in The Reason for God, he provides a biblical critique of religion (p58). But Keller’s critique of religion, and religious people, is a caricature. Theologian Dr Iain Campbell, in his essay, ‘Keller on “Rebranding” the Doctrine of Sin’, explains that because Jesus opposed the false, unbiblical religion of the Pharisees, ‘this does not mean that he had no interest in institutional religion; there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that true faith and biblical religion are mutually exclusive. Keller has done the church a disservice with the suggestion that faith in Christ is the end of religion. It is actually the beginning.’ (Engaging with Keller, p54).

But perhaps Keller means self-righteous Pharisees when he speaks of these ‘religious people’. If this is the case, Scripture directly contradicts his foolish assumption about ‘religious people’ being ‘nervous’. Luke 18:9 says that Jesus spoke the parable about the Pharisee and the Publican ‘to those who were confident of their own righteousness’. Jesus, who truly knew the hearts, did not agree with Keller’s diagnosis. Scripture consistently describes the offense of the gospel as natural to man because of our pride and confidence in self. Nowhere does the Bible suggest that anyone is hostile to the Truth due to ‘insecurity’.

Gospel Freedom
Interpreting the first fifteen verses of Galatians 5, Paul tells the Galatians ‘that Christians need not fear any condemnation because of their failure to keep the law, because they are righteous in Christ… Everything about the Christian gospel is freedom. Jesus’ whole mission was an operation of liberation’ (p131). Developing his theme, Keller says ‘that law-keeping religion is really slavery’ (p132). He then makes this statement: ‘But here Paul once more makes his radical claim that pagan idolatry and biblical moralism (ie: keeping the laws of the Bible) are basically the same thing. The Galatians had been amoral liberals, and now they were about to become very moral conservatives’ (p133). Keller statement is suggesting to his reader that biblical morality, which he defines as keeping the laws of the Bible, is the moral equivalence of pagan idolatry. The clear inference is that God’s moral law, which reflects God’s holy character, is no better than pagan idols. Keller again reveals his intense dislike of ‘very moral’ conservative Christians; those who are born again and who strive to keep the moral law of God. In The Reason for God, Keller calls born again Christians fanatics, ‘intense Christian… intense moralists or, as they were called in Jesus’ time, Pharisees’ (p57).

Keller’s flawed, heretical interpretation makes no distinction between the ceremonial law, which was fulfilled by Christ and has passed away, and God’s moral law, which is eternal and applies to all people for all time. True Christian believers, who accept God’s moral law as a rule for life, as outlined in the Westminster Confession of Faith, are obligated to keep the law. Our Lord said: ‘For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5.18-19).

A self-help technique
Keller constantly portrays the Christian life as leading ‘to tremendous peace and balance’ (p139). Yet Scripture always describes the Christian life as does Paul in Romans 5:3, 4 saying that we now ‘rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope’. Keller sees the Gospel itself as a self-help technique. ‘The gospel devours the very motivation you have for sin. It completely saps your very need and reason to live any way you want’ (p143). He sees all of life as based on felt-needs. The Christian life is therefore continual psychoanalysis. ‘Why did I even want to lie… I’m free to lie. But there’s no need to lie… why would I want to? Choose a sin you are struggling with. Why do you want to sin in this way?’ (p144). Keller sees his power to analyze the ‘why’ (rather than the cross) as the answer to the problem of sin.

He rambles on saying that ‘the motivation for morality is fear-based’ (p145) and ‘the main problem our heart has is …our over-desires for good things’ (p146). Like most insight-oriented psychotherapists, Keller gives no evidence for this; it simply has the ring of ‘deep things’ (p146) that he tries unsuccessfully to claim as the subject of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He even advises the reader to ‘preach the gospel of grace and acceptance to yourself to undermine these over-desires’ (p150). Because the gospel is a self-help technique to Keller, the last 35 pages in his Galatians commentary becomes utterly exhausting for any believer to even peruse. These pages are best described by John Bunyan’s Christian as he tells Evangelist about Mr. Worldly Wiseman:

‘He bid me with speed get rid of my burden; and I told him it was ease that I sought. And, said I, I am therefore going to yonder gate to receive further direction how I may get to the place of deliverance. So he said that he would show me a better way, and short, not so attended with difficulties as the way, sir, that you sent me in; which way, said he will direct you to a gentleman’s house that hath skill to take off these burdens. So I believed him, and turned out of that way into this, if haply I might soon be eased of my burden. But when I came to this place, and beheld things as they are, I stopped for fear (as I said) of danger; but I now know not what to do.’ Any real believer will stop by page 150 of Keller’s commentary and cry out for Evangelist as ‘the hill, it seemed so high, and also that side of it that was next the wayside did hang so much over, that Christian was afraid to venture farther, lest the hill should fall on his head.’ (Pilgrim’s Progress)

The remaining portion of Keller’s book is filled with advice such as: ‘We have to ask ourselves not just what we do wrong, but why we do it wrong’ (p156). Keller warns, ‘Just to say no [to sin] without examining the motives underneath wrong behavior can actually be part of a new form of seeking self-righteousness, as we seek to justify ourselves by saying no to ungodly attitudes and actions’ (p156). Scripture teaches the opposite: ‘For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age’ (NIV Titus 2.11-12).

According to Keller, ‘the gospel creates a whole new self-image which is not based on comparison with others’ (p159). We are informed that ‘both the superior complex and the inferior complex are, at root, born of insecurity and inferiority… How can I analyze which I am?’ (p161) Keller offers a series of questions to help the reader undertake an auto-psychoanalysis (p161).

Keller continues: ‘Apart from the gospel, I will be forced to be superior or inferior… because of the nature of my self-image’ (p162). The reader is told, ‘you have to use the gospel by preaching to yourself… if, for example, you find yourself being very defensive around someone, you must use the gospel at that very moment, saying to yourself: “What you think of me is not the important thing. Jesus Christ’s approval of me, not yours, in my righteousness, my identity, my worth.” (162-163)

In effect, Keller has turned the gospel into a psychotherapeutic tool that we must use to improve our self-image, and to feel good about ourselves.

The Christian Life
Keller tells the reader that the Christian life ‘is not primarily about meetings, programs or even conversions, but doing good to the person in front of you, giving him or her what is best for them… whatever love discerns as their needs. Of course, we share the gospel and evangelize, but only as a means to the end of loving them… we must not confine ourselves to evangelism and discipling. We are to love in deed as well as word… Christian ministry includes helping at a rehabilitation home just as much as explaining to someone how to give your life to Christ.’ (p178) Keller is placing social work on a par with preaching the gospel of salvation. Note the contrast between Keller’s view of the Christian life and the apostle Paul. The letter to the Galatians is about our Lord Jesus Christ, ‘who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of God and our Father’ (Galatians 1.4). For a sinner to be delivered or rescued from sin is paramount. Keller’s advice surely illustrates how little emphasis he places on preaching the gospel of salvation from sin. The Apostle Paul wrote: ‘For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2.2).

In Galatians for You, Keller begins with an orthodox exegesis of Paul’s letter. When he comes to Galatians 4, he states, ‘These verses set before us two contrasts. One is between gospel faith and worldly religion (v8-11)… the other is between gospel ministry and worldly ministry (v12-20)’ (p103). Keller then actively pursues worldly religion (psychoanalytic theory) and worldly ministry (social action), all the while pretending to present gospel faith and gospel ministry. He accomplishes this by relying on psychodynamic theory to interpret Scripture. Thus he revises the message of Scripture in ways so resonant with our modern culture that the revision is hardly visible. He tries to make Scripture say that insight oriented psychotherapy (heart diagnosis), the prescription of therapeutic works (idol-exchange), and social activism (community organization) are all requirements for the Christian life. In so doing, Keller offers his readers exactly what the Judaizers offered the Galatians! He offers a different gospel which is really no gospel at all (Galatians 1:6,’7) however bewitching it may appear. (Galatians 3:1)

You can learn more about Dr Tim Keller, Pastor Mark Driscoll and Pastor John Piper in the book, The New Calvinists (2014), published by The Wakeman Trust and Belmont House Publishing. The book is available from The Metropolitan Tabernacle bookshop or from Amazon  More on John Piper and his Christian Hedonism at The Real John Piper website