Preach to Change Them In Their Seats – Tim Keller

Preach to Change Them In Their Seats – Tim Keller March 1, 2009

Video of this talk is now available to watch here:

Tim Keller – Preaching the Gospel from Newfrontiers on Vimeo.

Earlier in the week, Tim Keller spoke at a Newfrontiers event. He gave three posts, and I was there taking notes. There were over 800 people there to hear him. As usual these notes are colored a bit by my own perceptions, and so do not necessarily reflect exactly what he said.

 This talk was very inspiring. Regular readers of my blog will know I often blog about preaching so it is no surprise that I found the talk fascinating.

Perhaps because he was standing just beneath where the Doctor actually preached, he appropriately started by talking about Lloyd-Jones. He told us thaat The Doctor had said it was the fact that no one personality type became a christian that led him to believe. Tim made the point that he himself is really different than Mark Driscoll and they are both different from Terry. There is not one kind of person that evangelical Christianity always appeals to. Keller confessed to being a a cynical person, and said that there are not too many charismatic cynics!

He explained that he was not wanting to build a new foundation for us in our consideration of preaching, just to tweak us with four principles:

1. Preaching must be gospel centered

Tim explained that he had reservations about the popular way we tell the gospel as “two ways to live”. He argued that in Western culture we must make sure people know there are in fact three ways to live.

“God’s way” vs “Mans Way” is commonly what we say. But it is more clarifying to show people that we can live in either morality, immorality or the gospel. Or put another way, we can live in religion, irreligion or by grace. He drew this out of the story of the Prodigal son. One son was clearly alienated. The other is compliant and obedient trying to please his father but they were both alienated from the father. Both are lost. You can be lost by obeying God as well as by disobeying God.

We try to be our own savior and lord by running off and doing our own thing or by coming to church and praying, and studying the Bible. If you do that believing that God is now going to have to save you and answer your prayers because of how good you are then Jesus is an example, helper, model but he is not your savior. If you are trying to be your own savior and lord you will say “How dare you let bad things happen to me”. If you simply say “come to Jesus and follow him” you are inviting people to become the elder brother.

Tim explained that Romans 1 is about pagans and sex, drugs and rock and roll. But Romans 2 is turned on the people passing judgment on them all. Chapter 1 is the younger brother, 2-3 are the older brother. In the sermon on the mount Jesus says “there are two ways to live” – house on rock or on sand. In the sermon it’s people who pray and people who think they will be heard for their many words who are on the sand. It’s people who give for reward vs. those who do it for no reward. In the sermon the two ways are the “good life” and the way of the gospel. i.e. the sermon is against legalism and religion. I obey therefore I am accepted vs. I am accepted because of the work of Jesus on the cross wholly and completely by grace and so I obey out of that.

Religion brings fear – I have to do this or God will get me. Gospel brings gratitude. There is poise to a gospel person who suffers. If you are religious and suffer then you will be angry at God since you think you have “earnt” his blessing. The gopsel tells us “I am more wicked than I ever dared imagine but I am also more loved than I ever could have imagined.” This brings a bold humility. A religious person is always either smug or despondent.

Some people fear that preaching against legalism won’t help the younger brother. Unless the secular person hears you deconstructing legalism they won’t understand the difference. There is a gracious way to live that doesn’t turn you into a Pharisee. This has to be in everything you preach.

2. Preaching must be Christ centered

In order to be gospel centered no matter what the text is about you have to bring people to Jesus. If we are just preaching about how to live your life we are preaching synagogue sermons. We must show people the way to Jesus’ salvation. Our default mode is to go back to self-justification.

Tim then joked, “I’m a Presbyterian so I don’t hear God as often as you do”! But went on to tell us how years ago he was reading Romans 1:16 and suddenly a thought came: “He who through preaching is righteous will die a thousand deaths every Saturday night” Tim said “even Presbyterians know where that came from!”

He then explained that we have to bang the gospel into peoples heads continually as Luther said. We must get to Jesus. There is a tendency to think that you give them great information and then they are going to go out into the world and use what you taught them to change their life. BUT instead, he believes sermons should be:

3. Life changing on the spot

Its there in their seats that they will be changed. When Jesus came back from the dead and did a biblical seminar, we are told in Luke 24 that he showed them they didn’t know how to read the scripture because the bible is all about him. The theme of covenant, Kingdom, exile, all those themes find their climax in Jesus. E.g. Jesus was exiled for us. When Paul says give, he says “because of what Jesus did for us”. His generosity is where our wealth and security is.

I have to see Jesus to change me. When you see Jesus in a new way or sense his salvation this will change you on the spot.

4. Culturally transforming

Christians don’t do a good job of this. People who are not believers who hear you need to be persuaded. We say to unbelievers “you’re wrong”. We believe this and that, you in the world don’t, we are right and you are nowhere near right now, let us pray! We are negative and combative and blunt. There is another way to go.

Every culture has some things they hate. In the Middle east they love what the gospel says about sex and hate what it says about forgiveness. Here in London, they hate what we say about sex and love what we says about forgiveness and reconciliation. Some doctrines are found appealing (called “a”), others are seen as offensive (called “b”). If you want to preach “b” doctrines that are disarming, you have to float them on a boat of “a” doctrines. We must preach to win people. A lot of people hate the idea of God as judge and punisher.

Keller cited a Croat theologian who would say something like “Many think of you believe that belief in a God of vengeance and wrath leads to violence. This shows you have never suffered yourself. If you had seen your village ravaged and friends and relatives raped, and males murdered, then if you don’t believe in a God who is going to put all things right the only alternative is to pick up the sword yourself and smite the people that did that. The only way to live in peace with enemies is to know that God will be just. If you don’t understand that you have lived a very sheltered life.”

Here peacemaking is the “a” doctrine that he floated the “b” doctrine of judgement and justice on.

Tim gave another example of a missionary in Korea who found that when she spoke of sovereignty and predestination in that culture that it was easily acceptable and enabled her to build a bridge to grace which on its own was incomprehensible. Tell them that aspects of what they believe is good and right, but then win them and lead them to Christ.

In personal relationships he said we should have a strong bias towards listening. Say “I really need to know what your biggest problems with Christianity are.” You have to be in heavy listening mode till they say “you are articulating my objections better than I can!” When you have connected with their disagreement then you can begin to answer it. They need to be saying “You really do understand where I am coming from…”

He gave an example of how to float predestination to a Christian. “Why are you a Christian and your friend isn’t” “because I repented” “why?” then eventually, “Are you saying there is something better about you?” If not, then you believe in predestination…. GRACE requires predestination. In the west, grace is the front door. Don’t bring them in the back door!

Keller then alluded to a section on preaching from Jonathan Edwards “Thoughts on Revival”. He said that preaching is about bringing Christ to bear on the heart. In the sermon there is an act of worship. God takes the word of the preacher and gives a person a vision of Jesus that shapes the heart on the spot. We are looking for a divine supernatural light. You can know honey is sweet without tasting it. But we need the sense of the sweetness – give them a taste of Jesus and you will see them change on the spot. I have not been able to identify that quote, despite the wonderful If YOU can help us, send me an email.

UPDATE- Dave Bish responded in less than an hour, and said that the honey quote can be found online. In fact Edwards said something similar about honey many times, so it would seem there was another place where it is more related to preaching during revivals.

UPDATE – Joe Rigney has posted some more information about this piece on Edwards.

Keller also mentioned that the Doctor made a comment on that Edwards sermon and as a result he was ambivalent about people taking notes. He asks if it is just information or an act of worship? We should be seeing Jesus. I couldn’t find the Doctor’s quote either but this one has a similar sentiment:

The life of Christ is in us! It is not theory, it is a life-giving teaching, it is a life-imparting teaching. If I am preaching in the Spirit, as I pray God I am, I am not only uttering words to you, I am imparting life to you, I am being used of God as the channel of the Spirit and my words bring life and not merely knowledge. Do you accept that distinction? I am almost afraid sometimes for those of you who take notes, that you may just be getting the words and not the Spirit. I am not saying that you should not take notes, but I do warn you to be careful. Much more important than the words is the Spirit, the life; in Christ we are being taught, and built up in Him. So that in a sense, though you may forget the words, you will have received the life, and you go out aware of the life of God, as it were, pulsating within you. David Martyn. Lloyd-Jones, Christian Unity (Studies in Ephesians, Chapter 4, Verses 1 Through 16) (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1972), 114.

UPDATE I then got another email from the Bish telling me that I had already linked twice to the Edwards quote in question (!) I should clearly have searched my own site…Anyway, here it is with a URL you can visit:

“The first and primary object of preaching is not only to give information. It is, as Edwards says, to produce an impression. It is the impression at the time that matters, even more than what you can remember subsequently. In this respect Edwards is, in a sense, critical of what was a prominent Puritan custom and practice. The Puritan father would catechize and question the children as to what the preacher had said. Edwards, in my opinion, has the true notion of preaching. It is not primarily to impart information; and while you are writing your notes you may be missing something of the impact of the Spirit. As preachers we must not forget this. We are not merely imparters of information” Jonathan Edwards and the Crucial Importance of Revival by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

Keller recommended a couple of books – Christ Centered Peaching by Brian Chapel, and Graham Goldsworthy Preaching the Whole Bible.

He also suggested his own Christianity Today article on the gospel in all its forms

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