The Truncated Gospel Coalition
Tim Keller, co-founder and vice president of The Gospel Coalition, posted an essay titled “Pascal’s Method for Sharing the Christian Faith” on the Coalition website February 25, 2014. Before commenting on that essay, the reader is well advised to review the stated purpose of The Gospel Coalition:
In reviewing Keller’s essay, we should keep in mind the goals stated by these Founders We must ask whether his essay is consistent with the above goals. We then must ask whether these goals of the Gospel Coalition “glorify the Savior and do good for those for whom he shed his life’s blood”.
Keller’s essay expands on a quote from Blaise Pascal’s work Pensees:
“Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and show them that it is.”
Blaise Pascal is a man for whom Christians should be grateful due to his fine work in physics and mathematics (eg. Hydraulics and Pascal’s triangle). He is to be admired for his stand with the Jansenists against the Jesuits, but there is no suggestion that he expected his writings to be used as a guide for evangelism. Keller’s use of Pascal is similar to that of Sigmund Freud who attempted to use Pascal’s discoveries in hydraulics to make his theories regarding psychic ‘repression’ appear to be scientific. Keller uses Pascal to judge hearts as did Freud. When he claims that non-believers “fear it may be true” or “know instinctively that if Christianity is true they will lose control,” he is claiming divine insight which Scripture denies to him. Keller uses his supposed insight to justify his method of sharing the gospel.
He then goes on to propose a three-stage method by which Christianity can gain converts:
1) Practice life-style evangelism.
2) Present Christianity as non-threatening.
3) Present Christianity as useful both personally and socially.
In so doing, Keller ignores Scripture’s clear message that God alone can know and judge hearts. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it”? (Jeremiah 17:9-10) “God alone knows the hearts of all men.” (I Kings 8:39) The Christian must accept God’s description of the heart (Romans 3:9-18); this verdict stands in direct opposition to Keller’s “psychology of non-belief.” It is not Christianity as a system of philosophy but rather Christ Himself that man despises. Nowhere does Scripture allow for Keller’s description of fallen mankind as “fair-minded.” On the contrary, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (I Corinthians 2:14) Scripture stands in opposition to Keller’s psychoanalysis of unbelief.
Stage One: Practice Life-Style Evangelism
The first of the three “stages to bringing someone on the way to faith” is to “disarm and surprise them” by coming across as “well-informed, thoughtful, sensible, open-minded, helpful, and generous.” However, Scripture teaches that a man growing in the knowledge of Christ will increasingly see himself as “intemperate, irrational, and hypocritical.” Keller sees this believer in the process of sanctification as useless in evangelism. His essay cleverly avoids the fact that Paul labeled himself “chief among sinners” near the end of his earthly life as an apostle. In contrast to Keller’s ideal evangelist, the apostle Paul says, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this is what I keep on doing.” How could this man evangelize anyone? He would hardly “command [the] begrudging respect” that Keller seeks. Keller would join those in Corinth who said of Paul, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” (II Corinthians 10:10)
Stage Two: Present Christianity as Non-Threatening
Keller thinks that we need to make Christianity more attractive. Accordingly, we must convince non-believers that “only in Christ will their aspirations ever find fulfillment”; only in Christ will “the plot lines of their lives ever have a resolution and a happy ending.” Supposedly, if we present this line “in an effective way,” then some will say, “If Christianity really can give that, it would be wonderful.” Thus, the evangelist sells his product by promising its many advantages while avoiding mention of the wrath of God or the need for repentance. We are to say that Jesus saves from lack of fulfillment! With this kind of evangelism in mind, James Boice warned pastors that whatever they use to attract people must not only be continued but ever increased in order to hold them. (Matthew 13:21,22)
Stage Three: Present Christianity as Useful
After the lost (Keller never uses this term) have been “disarmed and surprised” and have heard “the great and attractive promises,” they will supposedly see that Christianity “has begun to make emotional and cultural sense.” Only then will they be able to “sit through [a] sustained discussion of the evidence and reasons for the truth of Christianity.” He will then see that Christianity has the “resources to powerfully address our social problems and explain human social behavior.” He will see that Christianity is ultimately more useful psychologically and socially than any other system of thought.
Keller concludes, “Only if their imagination is captured will most people give a fair hearing to the strong arguments for the truth of Christianity. Let’s appeal to heart and imagination as well as to reason”. Proclaiming the faith requires a shimmering personality adroitly offering the promise of personal and social needs-fulfillment. He gives little or no attention to “sin and the barrier it creates between God and us.” He says that Pascal “isn’t telling us to hide that,” but the real need is for “talk about the manifold and astonishing blessings of salvation.” Thus Keller sells a truncated “gospel” devoid of the law and devoid of any need for the Holy Spirit to produce conviction of sin leading to repentance. The faith is pitched as non-threatening and useful in a manner closer to that of the prosperity preachers than to the apostle Paul.
Keller’s gospel is well-crafted for popularity: Follow Christ because He will “fill holes and answer questions” and “powerfully address our social problems”. He seems “ashamed of the Gospel of Christ” (Romans 1:16) which is the likely explanation of his increasing popularity. As Paul unashamedly proclaimed the true Gospel, he faced increasing persecution, responding as follows: “Am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10)
In 1967, Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “Let us be clear. The Gospel, the way of salvation in Christ Jesus, is not merely meant to give us relief; it is not merely meant to give us help or experiences. Thank God it does do that…But we must be careful that we never say that the whole business of the gospel is just to give us some kind of relief. It is not. That is incidental. In our subjectivity, there is a terrible danger of becoming heretics.” (Living Water , Crossway 2009, p. 258) Keller presents the incidental as fundamental; thus his good news is truncated at best and heretical at worst.
Keller is the co-founder and vice-president of The Gospel Coalition. His essay was posted and remains on the TGC website thus speaking for the Coalition. The Coalition labels itself “a broadly reformed network of churches” but is hardly promoting “the ancient gospel of Christ” here. However “broadly” we draw the lines, Keller’s essay cannot be labeled as “Reformed.” Here, man’s needs are determining the Gospel rather than the Gospel defining man’s needs. As he claims to “look holistically” at the Christian message, he places his faith in worldly wisdom and contradicts the sufficiency of Scripture to give us “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (II Peter 1:3).
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God…Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” (I Corinthians 1:18-21)
Keller opposes so strongly the standards of the Reformation that we must wonder if the memory of the Reformers has completely faded from the Gospel Coalition. The memory of that Truth for which so many died five hundred years ago must be suppressed if his “method for sharing the Christian faith” is to be promoted. None of the martyrs in Foxe’s Book planned “to disarm and surprise” anyone. Much less did they try to make Christianity “attractive” such that “good men” would wish it were true. If Reformers were sure of anything, they were certain that no one was good and that no one seeks after God. (Romans 3:10-12) Luther answered the Diatribe of Erasmus leaving no uncertainty that the apostle Paul was correct in stating that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Christ did not sacrifice himself for men whose primary desire is for “fulfillment…and a happy ending.” The church was not formed to be a “multi-racial counter-cultural community to powerfully address our social problems.” It is an apostate church that advocates such diversions from “the ancient gospel of Christ” and could be made up only of those who “love the darkness because they don’t want their sins exposed.” (John 3:19,20)
Returning to the Gospel Coalition’s Founding Statement, we conclude that Christian leaders do not need this education in “principles and practices.” Instead, they need men like Martin Luther and Martyn Lloyd-Jones so concerned about the soul of man that they would risk everything to stand against the theology of Timothy Keller.
Keller versus Luther: An Addendum
The argument is not new. It is the same argument waged between Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther half a millennium ago. Is Christianity only a moral way of life selected by human reason from a variety of philosophies because of its benefits and attractions? Or is man condemned, totally unable to save himself by reason or any other method, and redeemed only by Divine Grace? Keller obviously sees man’s reason as did Erasmus, capable of choosing God. Luther concluded from Scripture that man’s will is in bondage to sin, incapable of choosing God. Thus he wrote The Bondage of the Will in response to Erasmus,
Keller’s essay could only be accepted by a Gospel Coalition and church that has “sold its birthright between Luther’s day and our own.” (Introduction to The Bondage of the Will translated by J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, Baker Academic, 1957, p.59). Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, and all the theologians of the Reformation stood united on man’s helplessness in sin and the sovereignty of God in grace. This was the theme of Luther’s challenge to Erasmus. Again, to quote from Packer and Johnston: “Surely no more important question confronts the Church today.” (p.61) If unsaved man can choose God, then we need methods by which such choosing can be facilitated and manipulated. This is what Keller apparently believes judging from what he advocates. In the face of this, the Gospel Coalition chooses to be indifferent to the fundamentals of Scripture and of the Reformed faith.
The Coalition is made up of men from Reformed seminaries (Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, Bryan Chapell, Julius Kim, Ric Cannada) and of pastors from Reformed churches (Kevin DeYoung, Mark Dever, Rick Phillips, John Piper). Wikipedia describes Don Carson as a “Reformed evangelical theologian.” These men cannot love the Truth as did Martin Luther; if such were the case, Keller would be openly challenged. Even T.S. Eliot said, “It is a very dangerous inversion to advocate Christianity, not because it is true, but because it might be beneficial.” Of all men, the leaders of the Gospel Coalition should know that it is Satan who hopes that we become ‘Christian’ because it gives such “manifold and astonishing blessings.” (Job 1:9-11) In other words, because of what we can get out of it, because our aspirations will find fulfillment.
What follows are quotes from Luther to Erasmus in Bondage of the Will which apply directly to Keller: (my comments in italics)
You, Erasmus, should simply say, “On the contrary, it is Scripture that lies, for man is not a liar in his reason and will but only in his flesh, so the best part (reason and will) is healthy and holy. (p. 309)
In the teeth of I Corinthians 2, you madly argue with empty words that a great power remains within man, which can know and apply itself to the things that belong to salvation! Is not this what Isaiah 5:20 describes as ‘calling darkness light’ ? (p.306)
“The law entered that sin might abound”. (Romans 5:20). How simple the statement is: “By the law is the knowledge of sin.” The law is therefore necessary to give knowledge of sin, so that proud man, who thought he was whole, may be humbled by the discovery of his own great wickedness, and sigh and pant after the grace set forth in Christ. (p.288)
You make God unjust if He damns any man, for He damns that which is very good and sound (ie. a fair-minded man simply searching for the right things); that is, innocent. According to your teaching, fallen man can and does still endeavor toward good. (p308)
“They that are in the flesh cannot please God. The carnal mind is death, at enmity against God. (Romans 8:5-8) The carnal mind is death itself and enmity itself, which cannot possibly please God. (p300)
“By the law is the knowledge of sin.” This is the fruit, the work, the office of the law; it is a light to the ignorant and blind, but one that displays the wrath of God. Another light is needed to reveal a remedy; this is the voice of the Gospel. How could reason point to Him, when it is itself darkness and needs the light of the law to show it its own sickness. (287)
You, Erasmus, lay down causes and grounds for the will of the creature, but not for the will of the Creator. (p209)
The ungodly are blinded and hardened by the flesh. The more men are instructed, the worse they grow. Men not only sin, but also despise grace, and it is as Christ says, “Light is come, but men love the darkness.” (John 3:19) (p241)
The brightest virtues among the heathen, the best works among the philosophers, the most excellent deeds among men are really flesh in the sight of God and minister to the kingdom of Satan. (p253)
How could reason conceive that faith in Jesus as Son of God and Son of Man was necessary! Indeed, it finds offence in such a statement. (Where is the offense of the cross in Keller’s methods?) (p187)
“The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not. (John 1:5) He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. (John 1:11) O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy children together, and thou wouldst not. (Matthew 23:27) ( If Jesus could not draw the crowds by presenting the “blessings”, what makes us think Keller will do so? “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’ From this time, many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” John 6:60,66)
None receive the offer of the mercy of God with joy and gratitude but those who are distressed and troubled at death, those in whom the law has already completed its work, that is, given knowledge of sin. Those that have not yet experienced the work of the law, who do not recognize their sin and have no sense of death, scorn the mercy promised by that word. (p169) (Luther did not ever believe men come to Christ via non-threatening sales techniques.)
The voice of the law is brought to bear only upon those who neither feel nor know their sins, as Paul says in Romans 3:20: “By the law is the knowledge of sin”. The word of grace comes only to those who are distressed by a sense of sin and tempted to despair.(168)
Reason thinks that man is mocked by an impossible commandment whereas I maintain that by this means, man is admonished and awakened to see his own impotence. The words of the law are spoken to illuminate the blindness of reason so that it may see that its own light is nothing and the power of the will is nothing. (p158) (Where are the words of the law in Keller’s presentation?)
Scripture describes man as corrupted and led captive and furthermore, as proudly disdaining to notice, and failing to recognize his own corruption and captivity. (p153) (Keller presents man as psychologically conflicted with unfulfilled aspirations.)
Stephen attacks directly, saying, “Ye uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 7:51) John Hus preached Matthew 16:18 that the gates of hell shall not prevail against My Church; yet they resisted and killed these men. Yet all the time, we cheerfully persuade ourselves and others that there are many good men in the world who will gladly embrace the truth if someone makes it plain. As if we did not know that the world is the kingdom of Satan, where over and above our natural blindness, we are under the dominion of evil spirits, hardened in our very blindness, fast bound in a darkness that is no more human, but devilish! (p131)
Nothing is more familiar among Christians than assertion. Take away assertions, and you take away Christianity. “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and encourage with great patience and careful instruction.” (II Timothy 4:2) (67)
In a word, what you say comes to this: that you do not think it matters a scrap what anyone believes anywhere, so long as the world is at peace. The Holy Spirit is no skeptic, and the things He has written in our hearts are not opinions, but assertions, surer and more certain than sense and life itself. (p70)
What chatters more than an empty head? (Augustine, De Civitate Dei 5:26 (p129)