Earlier this year, Pastor Matt Recker expressed concern that New Calvinists such as Tim Keller are allowing cultural renewal and social action to dethrone the Great Commission. The real thrust of this concern—and of Pastor Recker’s disagreement with Pastor Keller—has to do with the nature and content of the gospel. The question is important enough to merit taking a closer look at the discussion.
Perhaps I should make it clear that I am grateful for both Matt Recker and for Tim Keller, though I am about to disagree with the latter. Both have attempted to defend the truth—especially the truth of the gospel. Nevertheless, I concur with Recker’s assessment that Keller’s discussion of the gospel tends to obfuscate its meaning and leads toward a pattern of ministry that partially displaces the gospel with a program of social improvement.
The problem is apparent in Keller’s 2003 discussion, “What Is the Gospel?” He begins by trying to define the gospel from three perspectives, which he calls normative, situational, and existential. The normative perspective emphasizes the historical aspect of the gospel, namely, the public, historical events of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. By these events, Jesus accomplishes everything that is necessary for our salvation. The situational perspective focuses on the kingdom of God, which Keller sees as a counterculture that contradicts the world’s values. The presence of the kingdom changes the way that the believing community lives within society to counter such evils as (among others) poverty, disease, and racism. The existential perspective deals with the forgiveness and transformation of individual sinners who believe.
Keller’s first and third perspectives should never be contrasted. The gospel has to address two problems: both the provision and the application of salvation. What Keller calls the normative perspective is largely a statement of how salvation was provided, while his existential perspective deals with its application and results. These are two sides of the same coin.
The real contrast is between both of these and Keller’s situational perspective, which he grounds in a sort of loose, biblical theology of the kingdom. Keller sets up a division between Paul, who understood the gospel mainly in terms of justification through faith, and the gospel writers, who (per Keller) made the gospel virtually synonymous with the kingdom of God. This gospel of the kingdom is what leads Keller to believe that matters such as poverty, disease, race, and class are all gospel issues. He is quite clear at this point: “The gospel is not just (as is often thought) the message of how you can get individual forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus.”
Keller’s approach to defining the gospel is, however, flawed in several ways. First, it sets up a disparity between the gospel of personal salvation as taught by Paul and the gospel of the kingdom as envisioned by the evangelists (and by Jesus). But Paul himself disallowed any such contrast, clearly insisting that he received his gospel directly by revelation from Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:12). Surely Jesus would not have revealed a different gospel to Paul than the gospel that He Himself had taught. Whatever else we say about the gospel, we must see fundamental continuity between the gospel of Jesus and the gospel of Paul.
A second flaw with Keller’s approach is that it is based upon a highly subjective reading of the gospel narratives. From references in the evangelists, Keller pieces together a kind of theology of the gospel based upon hints and verbal allusions that are anything but clear in themselves. It is as if Keller has done his reading with a list of code-words in hand, and wherever he finds one of these code-words mentioned in proximity to the word kingdom, he registers the passage in his theology of the gospel. At the same time he appears not to observe those references that presume the presence of a glorified Christ ruling from Jerusalem on David’s throne over an earthly, Jewish, millennial kingdom. The result is that Keller’s collation of kingdom with gospel immanentizes circumstances that are only normative for the not-yet of the eschaton.
Another flaw in Keller’s approach is that, while privileging a subjective reading of the gospel narratives, he virtually ignores the single most important biblical passage for defining the gospel. That passage is 1 Corinthians 15, and it is a key for several reasons. First, it actually intends to offer a definition of the gospel. That is the point of the passage. Second, its definition is unambiguous. Granted, it is germinal and needs to be fleshed out with other biblical references, but it certainly provides the framework for a clear and complete definition of the gospel. Third, as didactic literature the passage aims to teach directly rather than leaving the reader to draw inferences from circumstantial narratives.
What is Paul’s understanding of the gospel? It is that Christ died for our sins and arose from the dead. For what sins did Christ die? Unquestionably for personal sinful acts of the sort that he rebukes throughout 1 Corinthians and his other epistles. How is this gospel applied? By receiving and holding fast to it—i.e., through personal faith. This gospel is most certainly “the message of how you can get individual forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus.”
Certainly sin affects all of creation. Because of sin, humans are not at peace with themselves. They are not at peace with each other. They are not at peace with the created order, which has been cursed for their sake. Sin does produce psychological, social, and environmental effects.
These effects, however, are not the fundamental problem The fundamental problem is that sin has pitted humans against their Creator. They have broken His law and become traitors to His universal rule, attacking not only His ordinances but His person. The offense is infinite, the guilt is infinite, and the penalty, if it is to be just, must also be infinite. The gospel is the message that God has graciously met the terms of this penalty and provided atonement through the mediatorial cross-work of Christ. His blood provides redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation. Those who believe on Him are credited with His righteousness and, on that basis, declared to be righteous.
In the long run, the gospel has effects that reach the psychological, social, and environmental disasters that sin has created. To address those areas as if they were the gospel itself, however, is to miss the point. The gospel is exactly about the forgiveness of personal guilt, without which no gospel of the kingdom could ever exist.
To this gospel, Keller, in the name of the kingdom, adds a program of social activity. His approach leapfrogs the question of whether Christians might use social activity as a tool to gain a hearing for the gospel—a question upon which Christians have differed. Keller goes further. He thinks that social activity is actually part of the gospel. By confusing social improvement with gospel proclamation, Keller ends up diluting—and thus obscuring—the very gospel that he hopes to defend. This error is more than incidental.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Come, Thou Precious Ransom
Johann Olearuis (1635–1711), tr. by August Crull (1846–1923)
Come, Thou precious Ransom, come,
Only Hope for sinful mortals!
Come, O Savior of the world!
Open are to Thee all portals.
Come, Thy beauty let us see;
Anxiously we wait for Thee.
Enter now my waiting heart,
Glorious King and Lord most holy.
Dwell in me and ne’er depart,
Though I am but poor and lowly.
Ah, what riches will be mine
When Thou art my Guest Divine!
My hosannas and my palms
Graciously receive, I pray Thee;
Evermore, as best I can,
Savior, I will homage pay Thee,
And in faith I will embrace,
Lord, Thy merit through Thy grace.
Hail, hosanna, David’s Son!
Help, Lord, hear our supplication!
Let Thy kingdom, scepter, crown,
Bring us blessing and salvation,
That forever we may sing:
Hail, hosanna! to our King.