Keller redefines the gospel

Early in his career Rev Tim Keller says he encountered a cultural allergy to the Christian concept of sin.[1] As a consequence he has spent much of his ministry attempting to redefine sin in a way that makes it less offensive and more culturally acceptable in a postmodern world.

 Redefining sin

In his best seller, The Reason for God (2008), Keller has a 14-page chapter devoted to ‘The Problem of Sin’.  He starts by informing his reader that ‘the concept of sin is offensive or ludicrous to many. This is because we don’t understand what Christians mean by the term.’[2]  To help his reader understand the doctrine of sin Keller refers to the famous Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, not to Scripture.

Soren Kierkegaard

Soren Kierkegaard

From his reading of Kierkegaard, Keller concludes: ‘Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity apart from God’, thereby correcting most people who ‘think of sin primarily as breaking divine rules’.[3] With the support of Kierkegaard, Keller asserts that ‘according to the Bible, the primary way to define sin is not just the doing of bad things, but the making of good things into ultimate things. It is seeking to establish a sense of self by making something else more central to your significance, purpose and happiness than your relationship to God’.[4]  But nowhere does the Bible say that sin is ‘making good things into ultimate things’.

To further support this contention, Keller refers to the movies Rocky and Chariots of Fire. He says that in both movies the main characters look ‘to athletic achievement as the defining force that gave meaning to their lives’.[5] Rocky2He says that ‘our need for worth is so powerful that whatever we base our identity and value on we essentially “deify”.’[6] Keller explains: ‘Every person must find some way to “justify their existence”, and to stave off the universal fear that they’re ‘a bum’… everyone is building their identity on something.’[7]

The Bible describes sin as the breaking God’s law (1 John 3:4). Sin is also defined as rebellion against God (Deuteronomy 9:7), which separates the sinner from God. ‘But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, So that He will not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue has muttered perversity’ (Isaiah 59.2-3).

Sin is an offense to God’s holy character, revealed in His holy law—all sin is primarily against God.  King David prayed: ‘And my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight’ (Psalm 51.3-4).

 The personal consequences of sin

Keller says that sin ‘destroys us personally’, by causing a loss of self-worth and threatening our identity. He writes: ‘Only if your identity is built on God and his love, says Kierkegaard, can you have a self that can venture anything, face anything.  There is no way to avoid this insecurity outside God… Identity not based on God also leads inevitably to deep forms of addiction.’[8]  In King’s Cross, Keller asserts: ‘the Bible says that our real problem is that every one of us is building our identity on something besides Jesus’.[9] He concludes that sin is something that makes us feel insecure—something that causes a loss of self-worth.

Scripture gives an entirely different understanding of the personal consequence of sin.  The apostle Paul shows that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, and therefore stand guilty before God (Romans3).  And so death reigns, ‘as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation’ (Romans 5).

 The eternal consequences of sin

In his chapter, ‘How can a loving God send people to hell?’ Keller explains what he believes to be the eternal consequence of sin. He writes, ‘the biblical picture is that sin separates us from the presence of God, which is the source of all joy and indeed of all love, wisdom or good things of any sort. Since we were originally created for God’s immediate presence, only before his face will we thrive, flourish and achieve our highest potential’. He asserts: ‘Hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity… In eternity, this disintegration goes on forever. There is increasing isolation, denial, delusion and self-absorption… The people in hell are miserable… they are utterly, finally locked in a prison of their own self-centredness… All God does in the end with people is give them what they most want.’[10]

In Keller’s eyes, God is the Source of All Good Things. Sin is something that separates us from this Source, and this means that we do not flourish or achieve our full human potential.  Indeed we feel miserable and insecure.  Hell is simply our freely chosen loss of contact with the Source of All Good Things into eternity.  Here we should emphasise that Keller does not mention the holiness of God, and so does not see sin as an offence against the holiness of God.

Scripture declares God’s wrath against sin. ‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness’ (Romans 1.18).  The Bible warns that sin brings judgement and condemnation (Romans 5.18). ‘The soul who sins shall die’ (Ezekiel 18.20), and ‘The wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6.23). The unregenerate sinner will stand before the judgement seat of God, and it’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10.31), for the Lord shall judge.  But Keller does not mention God’s wrath against sin, or the certainty of God’s righteous judgement and condemnation.

 The social consequences of sin

In his discussion of the social consequences of sin, Keller quotes the work of Michel Foucault, a French philosopher—a man who was influenced by the dialectical theories of Hegel and Karl Marx, and active in a number of left-wing groups involved in anti-racist Foucaultcampaigns. Keller writes that ‘the more we love and identify deeply with our family, our class, our race or our religion, the harder it is not to feel superior or even hostile to other religions, races, etc. So racism, classism and sexism are not matters of ignorance or lack of education. Foucault and others in our time have shown that it is far harder than we think to have a self-identity that doesn’t lead to exclusion’.[11]  The inference is that Christians need a self-identity that is inclusive; all forms of exclusion are portrayed as bad. But Scripture says, ‘Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? …Therefore, “Come out from among them, and be separate, says the Lord’ (2 Corinthians 6.14, 17).

After ten pages of human philosophising around ‘The Problem of Sin’, and only when discussing what he calls the cosmic consequences of sin, Keller refers to a verse from Scripture, Genesis 2.7, that says nothing about sin.  He completes the chapter with two long quotes from CS Lewis. Keller writes: ‘Here Lewis works from Kierkegaard’s definition of sin. Sin is not simply doing bad things, it is putting good things in the place of God.’[12]  So Keller’s redefinition of sin is based on human philosophy. His concept of sin, which downplays its seriousness in the eyes of a holy God, leads to a false understanding of salvation.


In The Prodigal God, Keller declares that sin is more than breaking a list of rules. He confidently asserts: ‘Sin is not just breaking the rules, it is putting yourself in the place of God as Savior.’[13] He writes: ‘You can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently. It’s a shocking message: Careful obedience to God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God.’[14]  He explains: ‘If you seek to control God through your obedience, then all your morality is just a way to use God to make him give you the things in life you really want.’[15]  Presbyterian theologian Richard Holst comments: ‘To say that “Careful obedience to God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God” is exegetically indefensible’.[16]

To which we could add, and deeply heretical, for it suggests that obeying God’s moral law is not really important. In the craftiness of his writing, and in total contradiction of the most basic teachings of Scripture, Keller wants us to believe that careful obedience to God’s moral law may in fact be a sign of rebellion. Here we have an example of the antinomianism that is part of Keller’s false gospel.

Contrary to what Keller would have us believe, every true believer knows that we are not saved by keeping the law; yet every believer delights in God’s moral law, for it is a reflection of God’s holy character.  The apostle Paul said: ‘For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man’ (Romans 7.22).  Every true believer strives to diligently obey God’s holy law. Our Lord said: ‘If you love Me, keep My commandments’ (John 14.15).  Moreover, Scripture defines sin as lawlessness. ‘Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness’ (1 John 3.4).  Our Lord Jesus fully obeyed God’s law in every respect, and teaches his disciples to do the same.

 Solution to the problem of sin

Keller offers his solution to the problem of sin. He writes: ‘We all are being pursued by guilt because we must have an identity and there must be some standard to live up to by which we get that identity… If Jesus is the Creator-Lord, then by definition nothing could satisfy you like he can, even if you are successful. Even the most successful careers and families cannot give the significance, security and affirmation that the author of glory and love can.’[17]  Keller is saying that Jesus gives us an identity that helps to overcome our guilt, and that makes us feel significant and secure.

Throughout King’s Cross, Keller presents Jesus as the Saviour who saves us from our innate self-centeredness. In The Reason for God he says that Jesus is the source of complete fulfilment. ‘Jesus is the only Lord who, if you receive him, will fulfil you completely, and, if you fail him, will forgive you eternally.’[18] But Keller’s gospel does not mention repentance.  In Keller’s mind, complete fulfilment is gaining meaningful self-identity and security that makes us feel good about ourselves, even when we fail. This is Keller’s false gospel—all you have to do is receive Jesus and he will give you significance, security and complete fulfilment, and if you fail, then he will forgive you eternally. But Jesus said: ‘I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish’ (Luke 13.3).

 Redefining repentance

In The Prodigal God (2009), we learn more about how Keller has removed repentance from the gospel of Christ.  He tells us that the prodigal son, ‘when he is literally down in the mud with the pigs, he “comes to his senses” and devises a plan’.[19] According to Keller, the prodigal son had worked out a business plan for repaying his father the debt.[20]  But Scripture says nothing about a business plan, on the contrary, it says that the rebellious son had come to his senses and made up his mind to confess his sin to his father. ‘I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants” ’ (Luke 15.18-19). The prodigal son, deeply aware of his sin against God and his father, understood his need for true repentance, and his father’s forgiveness.

But Keller gives us his amended version of the parable. The prodigal son, on his way home, is surprised to see his father running to meet him.  Keller interprets: ‘Flummoxed, he [the son] tries to roll out his business plan for the restitution. The father interrupts him, not only ignoring his rehearsed speech, but directly contradicting it.’[21] According to Keller, the father says: ‘I’m not going to wait until you’ve paid off your debt; I’m not going to wait until you’ve duly grovelled. You are not going to earn your way back into the family; I am going to simply take you back.’[22] According to Scripture:  ‘And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15.21). But Keller’s amended account of the parable has excluded the message of repentance.

Indeed, Keller describes repentance as grovelling, which he regards as unnecessary and demeaning. He presents the picture of a benevolent father who simply takes the son back. No mention of sin, no mention of confession, no need for repentance. Keller expresses it like this: ‘God’s love and forgiveness can pardon and restore any and every kind of sin or wrongdoing.’[23]  No repentance is needed.

It is not difficult to see that Keller has presented a false unbiblical view of sin that leads to a false view of salvation that is without repentance.  But Scripture urges the sinner to repent and turn away from his sins, and place his faith in Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

 Keller’s way of salvation

In The Prodigal God Keller attempts to explain what he means by salvation. He writes that Jesus ‘constantly depicts the salvation he brings as a feast… He left a meal—what we today call the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist—as a sign of saving grace.’[24] He elaborates further:  ‘A meal fuels growth through nourishment. The Lord’s Supper, also called Communion or the Eucharist, represents ongoing growth in God’s grace. In order to survive and grow, individuals must eat and drink regularly. That’s what we must do with the gospel of the grace of God.’[25]

Keller is saying that Jesus brings salvation through a feast, called the Eucharist. He states emphatically that ‘the Eucharist represents ongoing growth in God’s grace’.  But he does not tell his reader that there is a fundamental difference between the Lord’s Supper (Protestant) and the Eucharist (Catholic). In effect, he is promoting the Roman Catholic way of salvation through the Eucharist.  According to the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eucharist is morally necessary for salvation, for the Eucharist builds up Grace (“eternal life”) within a person. The Catechism of the Catholic Church strongly asserts the ‘Real Presence’ of Jesus’ body in the Eucharist.

The Protestant faith has an entirely different view of salvation. Jesus said: ‘You must be born again’ (John 3.7). A sinner is regenerated by the Spirit of God, repents deeply of his sin, turns to Christ in faith, and is born again of the Holy Spirit and adopted into the family of God.  The Lord’s Supper is a memorial of the sufferings and death of the Lord Jesus Christ in the symbols of bread and wine, and an expression of the unity of the Church as the Body of Christ.

 Redefining the Cross

Having offered us the Roman Catholic way of salvation through the Eucharist, in The Reason for God, Keller explains why Christ died on the Cross. He writes: ‘But when Jesus suffered with us he was indentifying with the oppressed of the world, not with their oppressors… God himself would come down off his ultimate throne and suffer with the oppressed so that they might be lifted up.’[26]  Keller asserts that ‘Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was an infinitely costly rescue operation to restore justice to the oppressed and marginalised’.[27]

Keller is presenting Jesus as a political saviour, who is especially concerned about the world’s poor and oppressed people.  He asserts that God came into the world to identify with the oppressed of the world ‘so that they might be lifted up’. He confidently asserts: ‘The ultimate purpose of Jesus is not only individual salvation and pardon for sin but also the renewal of this world, the end of disease, poverty, injustice…’[28] He writes: ‘God hates the suffering and oppression of this material world so much, he was willing to get involved in it and to fight against it.’[29] The inference is that Christ is instigating a political rescue for oppressed people.  But this is a false gospel, for Scripture says that Christ came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1.15), not to lead a socio-political revolution.

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  




[1] Tim Keller, Center Church, Zondervan, 2012, pp126-127

[2] Tim Keller, The Reason for God, Hodder & Stoughton, 2008, p159

[3] Ibid. p162

[4] Ibid. p162

[5] Ibid. p162

[6] Ibid. p163

[7] Ibid. p163

[8] Ibid. p165

[9] Tim Keller, King’s Cross, Hodder & Stoughton, 2011, p30

[10] The Reason for God, pp78-79

[11] Ibid. p169

[12] Ibid. p171

[13] Tim Keller, The Prodigal God, Hodder & Stoughton, 2008, p41

[14] Ibid. p37

[15] Ibid. p39

[16] Engaging with Keller, EP Books, 2013, C. Richard Holst, p188

[17] Reason for God, p172

[18] Ibid. p173

[19] The Prodigal God, p20

[20] Ibid. p21

[21] Ibid. p22

[22] Ibid. p23

[23] Ibid. p24

[24] Ibid. pp105-106

[25] Ibid. p114

[26] Reason for God, p195-96

[27] Ibid. p224

[28] Prodigal God, p110

[29] Ibid. pp112-113