The Gospel for the City: Tim Keller’s “Dwell” Remarks in The City

The first print edition of The City, a journal from Houston Baptist University, is out.  Robert Sloan, the former president of Baylor University and a courageous and visionary Christian leader, heads up HBU and shares a few words about the journal.  The first issue is quite promising and will be of interest to pastors, laypeople, and scholars alike.

Here’s a nice excerpt from Tim Keller’s article, “The Gospel for the City” (no link available),  which originated from a talk at the Dwell conference some months back:

“I take a page from Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death and define sin as building your identity–your self-worth and happiness–on anything other than God.  That is, I use the Biblical definition of sin as idolatry.  That puts the emphasis not as much on ‘doing bad things’ but on ‘making good things into ultimate things.’  Instead of telling them they are sinning because they are sleeping with their girlfriends or boyfriends, I tell them that they are sinning because they are looking to their romances to justify and save them, to give them everything that they should be looking for from God.  This idolatry leads to anxiety, obsessiveness, envy, and resentment.  I have found that when you describe their lives in terms of idolatry, postmodern people do not give much resistance.  Then Christ and his salvation can be presented not (at this point) so much as their only hope for forgiveness, but as their only hope for freedom.” (The City, 28-29)

There is evidence of piercing insight in this quotation.  Sin certainly does spring from idolatry.  This is a biblical emphasis and one that I need to incorporate into my evangelism (and theology, beyond mere practice).  At the same time, it seems that one has to be careful about tailoring one’s biblical proclamation to the taste buds of unbelievers.  The Bible certainly does present sin as “doing bad things”.  Keller is right that “bad things” proceed from corrupted hearts that wish to worship anything but God, and I can see that he’s attempting to avoid gospel proclamation that presents sin merely as a collection of forensic sin events, but I would want to leave a bit more room by which to approach sin as both idolatry and moment-by-moment evil that forensically offends a holy and majestic God.

I should note that the approach sketched above by Keller is that which he uses with unchurched people.  He doesn’t preach this way to every lost person he meets.  One needs to be careful, though, that no matter who one speaks with, one shares the full biblical perspective on sin.  We will certainly nuance our proclamation depending on whom we speak with (think about how evangelism of a Mormon and a Buddhist differs in places), but we nonetheless need to speak a robust gospel with a full picture of sin.  Keller, I think, probably does this, and likely does it far more faithfully and fruitfully than I do, but I would simply want to state these concerns at the outset as we Christians pursue faithful gospel proclamation to the lost around us.

  • Ryan Hill

    Owen…I like the new blog, it looks great.

  • Warren Kesselring

    Owen, I just ran across your blog. While I like Tim Keller and, like yourself, give him the benefit of the doubt, I agree that the spotlight of God’s righteousness needs to expose both the inner idolatry and the external outworking. In my limited experience, the danger of telling young, unmarried lovers simply that “they are sinning because they are looking to their romances to justify and save them” is twofold: 1) Vocally or internally, they are likely to brush it off b/c “you can’t judge our hearts.” 2) “Sin as misprioritization” is not as convicting as “sin as disobedience/rebellion.”

  • owenstrachan

    Ryan–thanks much for the feedback. I’m glad you stuck with me! You’ve been an encouragement to me over the years on this blog. I check yours and am impressed with the level of thought. Hope you’re doing well.

    Warren–thanks for this comment. I would say more, but I think that you’ve said it very well. I agree completely. Good to hear from you.