Tim Keller’s thick sin

In Every Good Endeavor (EGE), published in 2012, Dr Tim Keller argues that Christians should “make common ground with non-Christians to do work that serves the world…to accomplish enormous good” (EGE p192). The “work” and “good” to which he refers are actions undertaken to correct societal injustice. He elaborates more fully on such actions in another book, Generous Justice (2010). In Every Good Endeavor, he also refers to this work euphemistically as “engaging the popular culture in all its aspects” (EGE p170f). Keller’s goal is to convince his readers that Christians are called by God to act individually, corporately as churches, and in concert with non-Christians and secular organizations, to correct social injustice and improve the culture. Everything that Keller writes in Every Good Endeavor appears to be a pretext toward that agenda.

To support his argument, he dilates on the biblical doctrine of Common Grace (EGE p186f), saying “through his common grace God blesses all people so that Christians can benefit from and cooperate with non-Christians” (EGE p191). He also says, “God gives out gifts of wisdom, talent, beauty and skill according to his grace – that in a completely unmerited way” (EGE p191). Keller wants his readers to lose any hesitancy regarding engagement with popular culture as he convinces them that God has strewn many blessings therein.

Thus Keller warns, “…without [this] understanding of common grace, Christians will believe they can live self-sufficiently within their own cultural enclave” (EGE p191). He adds that his understanding of common grace will lead Christians “to freely and humbly work with others who may not share our faith, but can be used greatly by God to accomplish enormous good” (EGE p192). In placing the words “self-sufficiently” and “own enclave” in opposition to “freely” and “others”, Keller implies that selfishness motivates those Christians who do not share his understanding of social justice.

He laments that “Christians’ reaction to popular culture in the last eighty years has been some form of disengagement rather than engagement”, which he attributes to a “thin” view of common grace and a “thin or legalistic view of sin as a series of discreet acts of non-compliance with God’s regulations, which can be removed from your life through separation and discipline” (EGE p192). Keller accuses such Christians as having a “lack of understanding of the thoroughness and richness of Christ’s gracious work for [them]” (EGW p193). He further condemns them as being prone to the belief that “we must (and can) earn our salvation” while also saying that they need to understand “a view of sin that is easier to conquer through conscious effort” (EGE p193). Thus Keller contradicts himself in his effort to seduce the reader away from separation.

He offers what he terms a “thick view of sin” which re-conceptualizes sin as “a compulsive drive to produce idols” (EGE p193). Here Keller employs one of his trademark topics, idolatry, saying “everything we do wrong, every cruel action, dishonest word, broken promise, self-centered attitude – stems from” idolatry (EGE p134). He adds that idolatry is “the basis for personal sin and problems” (EGE p135). He uses this concept to undermine the conviction of Christians who value separation and personal discipline to avoid sin. He says such Christians may be “fooling” themselves because “the complex organic nature of our sin will still be at work making idols out of the good things in our lives – such as moral goodness, financial security, family, doctrinal purity or pride in our culture” (EGE p193). He wants to convince Christians that what they believe to be a Scriptural call to separation and discipline may not be a good thing but actually bad, an idol. He concludes, “A theologically thick view of sin, by contrast…should lead neither to withdrawl nor to uncritical consumption, but rather to humble, critical engagement with the culture” (EGE p193).

Keller accordingly offers a “New Conception of Work” (EGW p183f) which calls Christians to “be very engaged with the cultural and vocational world of non-Christians” adopting “a stance of critical enjoyment of human culture and its expressions in every field of work” (EGW p197). To accomplish this, Christians must “learn to recognize the half-truths and resist the idols…and recognize and celebrate the glimpses of justice, wisdom, truth, and beauty we find all around us in all aspects of life” (EGE p197).

Concerning the doctrine of Common Grace, Scripture is clear that God “maketh the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45, Job 25:3). Jesus says that this should call all believers to love and pray for the lost (Matthew 5:43-48), just as we are to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19-20). God as creator orders and sustains his creation for all of mankind, not just believers (Hebrews 1:2, 3; John 1:1-4). He also ordains governmental authority for all (Romans 13:1ff). All are born with a conscience, the Law written on their hearts (Romans 2:15). Keller, however, expands upon this simple teaching in his attempt to justify the kind of extensive engagement with the popular culture and involvement with non-Christians in laboring for social justice that is a hallmark of his ministry. He ignores  Paul’s warning to the Ephesians, “walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise redeeming the time because the days are evil…Therefore do not be unwise but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:15,17)

In Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5, Paul equates covetousness with idolatry. Everywhere else in Scripture, sin is described in terms of discreet acts of disobedience to God’s Law (Ephesians 4:25 to 5:5 for example) which come out of the heart of man (Jeremiah 17:9) In the Christian psychotherapy industry the notion of idolatry or idol-making has all but replaced the concept of discreet acts of personal sin emanating from a wicked heart.  This is the supposedly new theoretical basis for problem-centered, insight-oriented counseling. It is, however, simply Freud’s pagan anti-biblical concept of the dynamic unconscious dressed up in biblical language. It is not the understanding of sin revealed to us in Scripture. It has no place in so-called Christian counseling or as an argument against personal discipline and separation from worldly temptations.

Keller says that his “thick” view of sin makes sin “easier to conquer through conscious effort”.  That “effort” is the recognition of one’s own idols, followed automatically by the ability to conquer due to this new insight. This is popular in so-called Christian counseling. Such a notion of cause and cure of problems rests on the supposed ability of the counselor to discern the idol in the heart of his client. The therapist claims to be able to know the heart of his client. Scripture says that this ability is the sole prerogative of God, who alone knows (Psalm 44:21, I Kings 8:39), searches (1 Chronicles 289:9; Jeremiah 17:10), opens (Acts 16:14) and tests (Jeremiah 12:3) the heart of man. The claim of the counselor to do what only God can do is one of the major erroneous pillars of the insight-oriented psychotherapy industry – both secular and so-called Christian. It is truly a foundation built on sand. (Matthew 7:26,27)

Note that Keller’s re-conceptualization of sin rejects “specific acts of non-compliance” in favor of “a compulsive drive of the heart” to produce idols. “Specific acts” denotes agency. Agency denotes personal responsibility. “Compulsive drive” denotes alien causation. Alien causation denotes victimization, the opposite of personal responsibility. Scripture clearly reveals that God holds man personally responsible for his sinful acts. The over-arching paradigm of explanation for personal problems today is that of victimization. This reflects the significant contribution of Freud’s theory to Keller’s understanding of human behavior. Even though exceedingly popular today in both the church and secular society, it is decidedly wrong.  Placing blame on “compulsive drives” does not lead to repentance. For the seeker sensitive blame is the antidote to repentance.

Scripture repeatedly describes separation as a good thing. Believers are called to separate themselves from the unclean (Leviticus 15:31), evil workers (Numbers 16:21), heathen filthiness (Ezra 6:21), pagan intermarriage (Ezra 9:1, 2), the influence of foreigners (Nehemiah 13:3), and the things of the world (1 John 2:15). Believers are called to “be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness…wherefore come out from among them and be ye separate saith the Lord” (2 Corinthians 6:14, 17). Keller accuses Christians who practice biblical separation of being idolaters. He labours to convince his readers that what Scripture calls good in describing separation as an inevitable mark of sanctification, is actually evidence of selfish legalism characteristic of Pharisees.

Every Good Endeavor appears to be a pretext for Keller’s larger agenda of social justice. To convince his readers that they are called by God to participate with non-Christians in bringing justice to society, he extensively expands the notion of God’s common grace, re-conceptualizes sin as a compulsive drive to produce idols, and presents psychotherapeutic “conscious effort” as the answer to personal sin.  He attempts to convince his readers that things like moral goodness, doctrinal purity, personal discipline, and separation from the world of evil temptations are actually bad fruits. He does this with considerable skill as he mixes truth with error using language and phraseology that lulls the casual reader away from biblical truth. Keller’s writing requires all the Spirit-led searching of Scripture that a Berean can muster; if only because of his massive popularity and influence, that work must be done.

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