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JUNE :: 2004  
:: Keller On Preaching in a Post-modern City I
How I Gathered the First 100 to My Church
An Episcopal Church Plant in Hackney, London

:: Ready? Assessing Church Planting Candidates

:: BOOKS: Multi-Cultural Church Planting
:: Get the RCPC Church Planter Manual
:: Got Church Planting in You? Find Out!

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by Tim Keller, Senior Pastor, Redeemer Presbyterian Church


In this issue, The Movement presents the first part of a two-part article on communicating the Gospel in the urban world.

At the heart of Redeemer's ministry and its philosophy of preaching to post-modern audiences is the conviction that "the gospel" is not just a way to be saved from the penalty of sin, but is the fundamental dynamic for living the whole Christian life--individually and corporately, privately and publicly. In other words, the gospel is not just for non-Christians, but also for Christians. This means the gospel is not just the A-B-C's but the A to Z of the Christian life. It is not accurate to think 'the gospel' is what saves non-Christians, and then, what matures Christians is trying hard to live according to Biblical principles. It is more accurate to say that we are saved by believing the gospel, and then we are transformed in every part of our mind, heart, and life by believing the gospel more and more deeply as our life goes on.

The gospel is "I am accepted through Christ, therefore I obey" while every other religion operates on the principle of "I obey, therefore I am accepted." Martin Luther's fundamental insight was that this latter principle, the principle of 'religion' is the deep default mode of the human heart. The heart continues to work in that way even after conversion to Christ. Though we recognize and embrace the principle of the gospel, our hearts will always be trying to return to the mode of self-salvation, which leads to spiritual deadness, pride and strife and ministry ineffectiveness.

For example, ministers derive more of their joy and a sense of personal significance from the success of their ministries than from the fact they are loved by God in Christ. Why? Their hearts are still operating on the principle--"if I do and accomplish all these things--then I will be accepted." (cf. Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire- "I have 10 seconds to justify my existence.") In other words, on one level, we believe the gospel but on another level we don't believe.

So why do we over-work in ministry and burn out? Yes, we are not practicing the Sabbath principle, but the deeper cause is unbelief in the gospel! Why are we so devastated by criticism? The person whose self-worth is mainly in his or her ministry performance will be devastated by criticism of the ministry record because that record is our very self and identity. The fundamental problem is unbelief in the gospel.

At the root, then, of all Christian failures to live right--i.e. not give their money generously, not tell the truth, not care for the poor, not handle worry and anxiety--is the sin under all sins, the sin of unbelief, of not rejoicing deeply in God's grace in Christ, not living out of our new identity in Christ. This means that every week in a different way the minister must apply the gospel of salvation by grace through faith through Christ's work. Thus every week the non-Christians get exposed to the gospel, and in its most practical and varied forms not just in a repetitious 'Four Spiritual Laws' way. That's what pragmatic post-moderns need.

Underneath our behavioral sins lies a fundamental refusal to rest in Christ's salvation and the drive instead to find our own. Martin Luther says the same. Here is an excerpt from Martin Luther Treatise Concerning Good Works (1520):

All those who do not in all their works or sufferings, life and death, trust in God's favor, grace and good-will, but rather seek His favor in other things or in themselves, do not keep the [First] Commandment, and practice real idolatry, even if they were to do the works of all the other Commandments, and in addition had all the prayers, fasting, obedience, patience, chastity, and innocence of all the saints combined.

Comment: Luther says if you look to your moral performance as the basis of your relationship with God, then you are breaking the first of the Ten Commandments: "Have no other gods before me." If you fail to grasp and believe the gospel of free justification through Christ's work you violate the first command. How could this be? Again from Luther:

If we doubt or do not believe that God is gracious and pleased with us, or if we presumptuously expect to please Him through our works, then all [our compliance with the law] is pure deception, outwardly honoring God, but inwardly setting up self as a false saviorÉ.Note for yourself, then, how far apart these two are: keeping the First Commandment with outward works only, and keeping it with inward [justifying faith]. For this last makes true, living children of God, the other only makes worse idolatry and the most mischievous hypocrites on earth...

Comment: Luther says that if we obey God's law without a belief that we are already accepted and loved in Christ, then in all our 'doing-good', we are really looking to something more than Jesus as the real source of our meaning, and happiness. We are trusting in our being a good parent, or being a good spouse, or our moral uprightness, or our spiritual performance, or our service to other people as our real "Saviors". If we aren't sure God already loves us in Christ, we will be looking to something else as our foundational significance and worth. This is why Luther says that we are committing idolatry (breaking the First commandment) if we don't thoroughly trust in Christ for our acceptability, even if we are otherwise totally moral and obedient to God.

And as this Commandment is the very first, highest and best, from which all the others proceed, in which they exist, and by which they are directed and measured, so also its work, that is, the faith or confidence in God's favor at all times, is the very first, highest and best, from which all others must proceed, exist, remain, be directed and measured...

Comment: All people sin in general because we are sinners, but why do we sin in any particular instance? Luther indicates the first commandment is foundational to all the others. Why? Because we will not break commandment 2-10 unless we are in some way breaking commandment One and serving some idol. Every sin is rooted in the inordinate lust for something which comes because we are trusting in that thing rather than in Christ for our righteousness or salvation. At the moment we sin it is because we are looking to something to give us what only Jesus can give us. Beneath any particular sin is the general sin of rejecting Christ-salvation and indulging in self-salvation.

What if you find that you have a habit of lying? What do you do about it?

Moralistic ways to stop lying: Fear: "I must stop doing this because God will punish me, he won't bless me." Pride: "I must stop doing this, because I'm a good Christian. I don't want to be like the kind of person who lies." In general, you will find that the more you simply lay Biblical principles on your heart, the more your heart resists it. (Rom.7:21--Paul says "When I [most] want to do good, evil lies close at hand.") The gospel way to stop lying: First, ask the question: "why am I lying in this particular situation?" The reason we lie (or ever do any sin) is because at that moment there is something we feel that we simply must have--and so we lie. One typical reason that we lie (though it is by no means the only one) is because we are deeply fearful of losing face or someone's approval. That means, that the 'sin under the sin' of lying is the idolatry of (at that moment) of human approval. If we break the commandment against false witness it is because we are breaking the first commandment against idolatry. We are looking more to human approval than to Jesus as a source of worth, meaning, and happiness. Under the sin of lying is the failure to rejoice in and believe in our acceptance in Christ. Under the sin of lying is a kind of heart-unbelief in the gospel (whatever we may tell ourselves intellectually.) As we will see below, anything you add to Jesus Christ as a requirement for a happy life is a functional salvation, a pseudo-lord, and it is controlling you, whether it be power, approval, comfort or control. The only way to change your habit of lying is to repent of your failure to believe the gospel, that you are not saved and acceptable by pursuing this goal and serving this master, but through the grace of Jesus Christ.

Consider this case study in light of this excerpt from the Belgic Confession (1561):

Therefore it is so far from being true that his justifying faith makes us remiss in a holy life, that on the contrary without it we would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation.

Comment: Unless we believe the gospel, we will be driven in all we do--whether obeying or disobeying--by pride ("self-love") or fear ("of damnation"). Mere moral effort without the gospel may restrain the heart but cannot truly change the heart. Mere moral effort merely 'jury rigs' the evil of the heart to produce moral behavior, out of self-interest. It would be possible to use fear and pride as ways to motivate a person to be honest, but since fear and pride is also the root for lying, it is only a matter of time before such a thin tissue collapses. Luther was right. If you are obeying the law without deep joy in your acceptance in Christ, you are not loving God with all your heart. You are not obeying God for God. You are being moral so that you can put God in your debt, so he owes you a comfortable life. You are being moral so that you can feel secure in your uprightness. You are being moral in the service of self-salvation, out of the fear and pride that arise without an identity built on Christ in the gospel.

What makes people honest? Generous? Jonathan Edwards tackled this over the years in his "Miscellanies" and then in his moral philosophy works; "Charity and Its Fruits", "Concerning the End for Which God Created the World", and "The Nature of True Virtue". He also says many relevant things about this in "Religious Affections". The following is my summary of his "gist".

There are two kinds of moral behavior: "common virtue" and "true virtue" Let's take one virtue: honesty. "Common" honesty is developed two ways. 1) First it can be inspired by fear. There is the secular version--"be honest--it pays!" or "if you are not honest, society will not work". There is also the religious version-- "if you are not honest, God will punish you!" These are all versions of the same motive, namely, that it is impractical to be honest. 2) Second, it can be inspired by pride. There is the secular conservative version--"don't be like those terrible dishonest people who hurt others and have no virtue!" or the secular liberal version--"don't be like these greedy people who don't work for the common good". There is also the religious version--"don't be like these sinners, these bad people. Be a good godly person". These are all versions of the same motive, namely, that I am better than these people who lie.

Edwards is by no means scornful of common virtue. Indeed, he believes in the 'splendor of common morality' (Paul Ramsay), which is the main way God restrains evil in the world. He does call it virtue and not sham. Nevertheless, there is a profound tension at the heart of common virtue. We just said that the main reason people are honest is due to fear and pride. But what is the main reason we are dishonest? Why do we lie? Almost always--it is out of fear or pride. So in common virtue, you have not done anything to root out the fundamental causes of evil. In 'common honesty' you have restrained the heart, but not changed the heart. You are doing an ingenious form of judo on yourself. (Judo depends on using the enemy's forward motion against him.) You have 'jury-rigged' the heart so that the basic causes of dishonesty are being used to make yourself honest. But this is quite a fragile condition. At some point you will find that honesty is not practical or humiliating and you will lie. Then you will be shocked. You will say, "I was not raised to do such a thing."

But the reason you did, was that all your life, through the sermons and moral training you had, you were nurturing the roots of sin within your moral life. This is true whether you grow up in a liberal-moral environment or a conservative-moral environment. The roots of evil are alive and well and protected underneath your moral-behavior progress. And some day they erupt and show themselves and we are shocked.

Luther told us that the essence of every sin is a desire to be one's own Savior and Lord in some particular way. It is to set up some idol which is the real way you are going to save yourself. It may even be a very 'religious idol' (cf. Judges 17:1-13). It may be a very religious life, but at the heart it is a way of using God as an object, rather than adoring him as being beautiful for who he is in himself. It is using obedience to God to achieve comfort, security, self-worth/status--therefore our 'virtue' is self-centered and conditional. It's a form of bargaining. It is using our virtue to put God in our debt--he now owes us. He must give us salvation and blessing. Therefore, our obedience is a way to save ourselves and control God. Edwards also understands 'common virtue' as an idolatrous effort at self-salvation, rather than a response to grace in which God is adored for his sheer beauty.

So Edwards says--what is true virtue? It is when you are honest not because it profits you or makes feel better, but only when you are smitten with the beauty of the God who is truth and sincerity and faithfulness! It is when you come to love truth-telling not for your sake but for God's sake and its own sake. But it particularly grows by a faith-sight of the glory of Christ and his salvation. How does 'true honesty' grow? It grows when I see him dying for me, keeping a promise he made despite the infinite suffering it brought him. Now that a) destroys pride on the one hand, because he had to do this for me--I am so lost! But that also b) destroys fear on the other hand, because if he'd do this for me while I'm an enemy, then he values me infinitely, and nothing I can do will wear out his love for me. Then my heart is not just restrained but changed. Its fundamental orientation is transformed.

(continued on page 2)

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