> e-newsletter home > subscribe > send to a friend > unsubscribe  
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!

page :: 1 : 2 : 3

by Tim Keller, Senior Pastor, Redeemer Presbyterian Church

(continued from page 1)
One of the most important ways to get a hearing from post-modern people and to wake up nominal or sleepy Christians is to preach the gospel as a "third" distinct way from both irreligion and religion. Religion is "if I obey I will be accepted." Irreligion is "I don't really have to obey anyone but myself." The gospel is "since I am accepted, I will obey."

Religion is 'outside in': "if I work hard according to Biblical principles, then God will accept/bless me". The gospel is 'inside out': "because God has accepted/blessed me, I work hard to live according to Biblical principles". Religion (explicitly in other faiths and implicitly in legalistic Christianity) makes moral/religious observance a means of salvation. Even people who believe in the Christian God can functionally 'base their justification on their sanctification' (Lovelace). Thus a prime need is to distinguish between general 'religion' and gospel Christianity as well as overt irreligion. Why? (1) Many professed Christians aren't believers--they are pure 'elder brothers' (Luke 15:11ff.) and only making this distinction can convert them. (2) Many, many real Christians are elder-brotherish--angry, mechanical, superior, insecure--and only making this distinction can renew them. (3) Modern and post-modern people have rejected religion for good reasons and will only listen to Christianity if they see it is different.

But in Jesus day he preached against both the Pharisees and the Sadducees. At the heart of the gospel is the 'propitiation' of God's wrath by the substitutionary life and death of Christ, so that his children by faith no longer fear the judicial, retributive wrath of God ever again (Rom. 8:1). This cuts against not one but two alternatives--in NT times terms--both legalistic 'Pharisees' and liberal 'Sadducees'. Liberal Sadducees don't believe in a God of wrath who needs to be propitiated, but legalistic, Pharisees don't really believe in a God whose wrath has been propitiated. Sadducees don't feel the need to be justified; Pharisees are trying to turn aside God's condemnation with their own righteousness, functionally "basing their justification on their sanctification" as Richard Lovelace wrote. Sadducees are irreligious, much or most of the Bible not recognized as valid; Pharisees are highly religious, adding all sorts of rules and regulations to make the law of God do-able.

Legalism and leniency are therefore not just equally bad and wrong but they are basically the same thing. They are just different strategies of 'self-salvation'. Each kind of person is basically being their own Savior and Lord. In a local church, both a ministry that is loose about doctrine and winks at disobedience and sin and a ministry in which there is scolding and 'tightness'--lack any kind of spiritual power, authority, and joy that brings people into life change. They are both the same thing. The only way into a ministry that sees people's lives change, that brings a joy and power and electricity without authoritarianism--is a preaching of the gospel that deconstructs both legalism and leniency equally.

One of the most important ways to get "Sadducees" to listen to a presentation of Christianity is to deconstruct Phariseeism. The way to get anti-nomians to listen to the law is to distinguish the gospel from legalism. Why? Modern and post-modern people have been rejecting Christianity for years thinking that it was indistinguishable from moralism (and in many of its incarnations it is indistinguishable!) Religious people who don't understand the gospel have to bolster their own sense of worthiness by convincing themselves they are better than other people. This leads them to exclude and condemn others. The vast majority of people in NYC who are hostile to Christianity don't know any other kinds of churches. Only if you show them there's a difference--that what they rejected isn't real Christianity--only then will they even begin to think and listen again and give it 'one more look'.

Non-Christians will always automatically hear gospel presentations as just appeals to become moral and religious--unless in your preaching you use the good news of grace against legalism.

Some claim that to constantly be striking a 'note of grace, grace, grace' in our sermons is not helpful in our culture today. The objection goes like this: "Surely Phariseeism and moralism is not a problem in our culture today. Rather, our problem is license and antinomianism. People lack a sense of right or wrong. It is 'carrying coal to Newcastle' to talk about grace all the time to post-modern people". But I don't believe that is the case. Unless you point to the 'good news' of grace the people won't even be able to bear the 'bad news' of God's judgment. Also, as noted, unless you critique moralism, many irreligious people won't know the difference between moralism and what you are offering.

Tertullian said, "Just as Christ was crucified between two thieves, so this doctrine of justification is ever crucified between two opposite errors." Tertullian meant that there were two basic false ways of thinking, each of which "steals" the power and the distinctiveness of the gospel from us by pulling us "off the gospel line" (Gal. 2:14) to one side or the other. These two errors are very powerful, because they represent the natural tendency of the human heart and mind. These "thieves" can be called moralism on the one hand, and or relativism on the other hand.

The gospel opposes both religion and irreligion. On the one hand, "moralism/religion" stresses truth over grace, for it says that we must obey the truth in order to be saved. On the other hand, "relativists/irreligion" stresses grace over truth, for they say that we are all accepted by God (if there is a God) and we have to decide what is true for us. But "truth" without grace is not really truth, and "grace" without truth is not really grace. Jesus was "full of grace and truth". Any religion or philosophy of life that de-emphasizes or lose one or the other of these truths, falls into legalism or into license and either way, the joy and power and "release" of the gospel is stolen by one thief or the other. The real gospel gives us a God far more holy than a moralist can bear (since your morality is only a filthy rag before him) and far more loving than a relativist can imagine (since his love cost him dearly).

Since Paul uses a metaphor for being "in line" with the gospel, we can picture gospel renewal failing when we keep from walking "off-line" either to the right or to the left. However, before we start we must realize that the gospel is not a half-way compromise between the two poles--it does not produce "something in the middle", but something different from both. The gospel critiques both religion and irreligion (Matt.21:31; 22:10).

In Galatians 2:14, Paul lays down a powerful principle. He deals with Peter's racial pride and cowardice by declaring that he was not living "not in line with the truth of the gospel". From this we see that the Christian life is a process of renewing every dimension of our life-- spiritual, psychological, corporate, social--by thinking, hoping, and living out the "lines" or ramifications of the gospel. The gospel is to be applied to every area of thinking, feeling, relating, working, and behaving. Notice, Paul did not say, "you are breaking the no-racism law!" though that is perfectly true. However, it is not the best way to think. Paul asks neither "what is the moral way to act?" nor does he say "we don't need to order our steps at all!" but rather he asks: "what is the way to live that is in-line with the gospel?" The gospel must be continually "thought out" to keep us from moving into our habitual moralistic or individualistic directions. We must bring everything into line with the gospel.

The main problem, then, in the Christian life is that we have not thought out the deep implications of the gospel, we have not "used" the gospel in and on all parts of our life. Richard Lovelace says that most people's problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel--a failure to grasp and believe it through and through. Luther says, "The truth of the Gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine ...Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually." (on Gal.2:14f).

So "religion" just drains the spiritual life out of a church. But you can "fall off the horse" on the other side too. You can miss the gospel not only through legalism but through relativism. When God is whoever you want to make him, and right and wrong are whatever you want to make them--you have also drained the spiritual life out of a church. If God is preached as simply a demanding, angry God or if he is preached as simply an all-loving God who never demands anything--in either case the listeners will not be transformed. They may be frightened or inspired or soothed, but they will not have their lives changed at the root, because they are not hearing the gospel. The gospel shows us that God is far more holy and absolute than the moralists' god, because he could not be satisfied by our moral efforts, even the best! On the other hand, the gospel shows us that God is far more loving and gracious than the relativists' god. They say that God (if he exists) just loves everyone no matter what they do. The true God of the gospel had to suffer and die to save us, while the god of the relativist pays no price to love us.

The gospel produces a unique blend of humility and boldness/joy in the convert. If you preach just a demanding God, the listener will have "low self-esteem"; if you preach just an all-loving God, the listener will have higher self-esteem. But the gospel produces something beyond both of those. The gospel says: I am so lost Jesus had to die to save me. But I am so loved that Jesus was glad to die to save me. That changes the very basis of my identity--it transforms me from the root. Legalistic churches reform people's behavior through social coercion, but the people stay radically insecure and hyper-critical. They don't achieve the new inner peace that the grace of God brings. The more relativistic churches give members some self-esteem and the veneer of peace but in the end that is superficial too. The result, Archibald Alexander said, is like trying to put a signet ring on the wax to seal a letter, but without any heat! Either the ring will affect the surface of the wax only or break it into pieces. You need heat to permanently change the wax into the likeness of the ring. So without the Holy Spirit working through the gospel, radically humbling and radically exalting us and changing them from the inside out, the religion either of the hard or soft variety will not avail.

So we see that we must move away from the typical 'conservative evangelical' preaching which basically says: "Irreligion and immorality is bad; moral living is very good; Christianity is best." Of course it is better to not rob and kill, whether you are a Christian or not! But gospel preaching is careful to show the 'dark side' of morality, so that non-Christians (who see the dangers of religiosity and self-righteousness) will realize the gospel is something else, and so that Christians will not be trapped in the lifelessness of moral self-effort. The following are some examples of how to treat subjects contrasted with both religion and irreligion. (They are often called 'moralism' and 'relativism' below.)

a. Discouragement. When a person is depressed, the religious say, "you are breaking the rules--repent." On the other hand, the irreligious say, "you just need to love and accept yourself". But (assuming there is no physiological base of the depression!) the gospel leads us to examine ourselves and say: "something in my life has become more important than Christ, a pseudo-savior, a form of works-righteousness". The religious will tend to work on behavior and the irreligious will tend to work on the emotions, but the gospel works on the heart.

b. Suffering. Moralistic persons have a major problem when suffering strikes them. Why? The whole point of moralism is to put God in one's debt. Moralistic people feel that God owes them a safe life because of their goodness. So when suffering hits us, the moralistic heart is forced to either feel terrific anger toward God (if you feel you have been living up to moral standards) or terrific anger toward yourself (if you feel you haven't been living up.) You will either think "I hate God" or "I hate myself" or you will swing back and forth between both poles. Relativistic/hedonistic persons are more likely to become bitter against life or God, since they don't feel they deserve troubles in life. The gospel approach to suffering is different. On the one hand the gospel humbles us without being mad at God. Jesus, the very best person who ever lived suffered terribly. This demolishes the idea that good people should have good lives and bad people have bad lives. If God himself was willing to become involved in terrible suffering of life out of love--then we should not think ourselves exempt. On the other hand, the gospel affirms us out of feeling guilty or mad at ourselves. Jesus suffered and died for us, 'while we were yet sinners.' The trouble we are experiencing at the moment might be designed to 'wake us up', but it can't be a quid pro quo punishment for our sins. Jesus got the punishment for our sins. If we realize that we are accepted in Christ, then (and only then) will suffering humble us and strengthen us rather than embitter and weaken us. As others have said: Jesus suffered, not that we might not suffer, but that when we suffer we could become like him.

c. Witness to non-Christians. The liberal/pragmatist approach is to deny the legitimacy of evangelism altogether. The conservative/moralist person does believe in proselytizing, because "we are right and they are wrong". Such proselytizing is almost always offensive. But the gospel produces a constellation of traits in us. a) First, we are compelled to share the gospel out of generosity and love, not guilt. b) Second, we are freed from fear of being ridiculed or hurt by others, since we already have the favor of God by grace. c) Third, there is a humility in our dealings with others, because we know we are saved only by grace alone, not because of our superior insight or character. d) Fourth, we are hopeful about anyone, even the "hard cases", because we were saved only because of grace, not because we were likely people to be Christians. d) Fifth, we are courteous and careful with people. We don't have to push or coerce them, for it is only God's grace that opens hearts, not our eloquence or persistence or even their openness. All these traits not only create a winsome evangelist but an excellent neighbor in a multi-cultural society.

d. "Right living". Jonathan Edwards points out that "true virtue" is only possible for those who have experienced the grace of the gospel. Any person who is trying to earn their salvation does "the right thing" in order to get into heaven, or in order to better their self-esteem (etc.). In other words, the ultimate motive is self-interest. But persons who know they are totally accepted already do "the right thing" out of sheer delight in righteousness for its own sake. Only in the gospel do you obey God for God's sake, and not for what God will give you. Only in the gospel do you love people for their sake (not yours), do good for its own sake (not yours), and obey God for his sake (not yours). Only the gospel makes "doing the right thing" a joy and delight, not a burden or a means to an end.

(continued on page 3)

page :: 1 : 2 : 3