Tim Keller is no stranger to saying some rather enigmatic things on social media. Over the past few years especially, he has made some rather grand-sweeping statements that might betray a level of rhetorical flair for some, but leave the careful reader puzzled. Some of this is simply due to the fact that what sounds fairly intelligible at first blush is, at times, rather senseless (e.g., “It’s true that we must bring the gospel to the city. But we should also recognize how much the city brings the gospel to us.”). In other instances, what he says is simply incorrect and at odds with the witness of Scripture, which is the substance of this particular blog post.
Tim Keller recently tweeted, “Jesus’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending Bible-believing religious people of His day. However-our churches do not have this same effect which can only mean one thing. Our preaching and practices are not declaring the same message that Jesus did.”
This is one of those tweets that tends to be “red meat” for a particular brand of modern evangelicalism. The trend for many today is to knock hard against the “establishment church,” in that nearly everything they say and do is believed to be some sort of quasi-revival of 20th century fundamentalism. The term du jour of the erudite social-medialites is Christian Nationalism. Reject the modern psychoanalytic framework, evolution, gender ideologies, and egalitarianism? Congratulations. You’ve just qualified for broad enough criteria that you are likely considered a Christian Nationalist. While Keller himself may not imbibe these same sentiments of you, it is oddly coincidental that many who would find these sorts of tweets to be profound. All of that aside, the simple question we should be asking, is if Keller’s statement here is true.
The first claim he makes is that Christ’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing religious people of His day. One need not look very far to find numerous examples of the contrary in Scripture. We find men like Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee (Jn. 3:1) and a member of the Sanhedrin (Jn. 7:50-51), who by all measurable criteria, would be considered a Bible-believing religious person of Christ’s day. While it is clear Nicodemus had difficulty grasping what Christ was saying in their exchange in John 3, what is also clear is that he was indeed drawn to Christ’s teaching.
We also find other notable examples, such as Simeon the Levite (Lk. 2:25-34), Anna the prophetess (Lk. 2:36-38), and others if we take into account the book of Acts (such as the apostle Paul, and very likely, members of the Sanhedrin who would be leaders, scribes, and priests). If we take Keller to mean “devout” people who believed the Scriptures, there are even more examples of this (Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Elizabeth, the men of Acts 2:5 who were cut to the heart and believed in 2:37-39, the many added to the early church as the apostles taught in the temple). We could likewise assert that in times of antiquity, many people were clearly “religious,” yet they did not believe in the One true God (see Acts 17:16-34).
Additionally, it must be stated that the people Christ offended were not Bible-believing religious people. They may be considered “religious people” in the pejorative sense of that phrase, but they certainly were not those who trusted in the Scriptures and believed their account. Routinely we find Christ chastising the “religious” for their unbelief of God’s Word. In John 5:39-46, one finds that Christ Himself cuts past all of the pretenses by demonstrating that though they devoutly read Scripture, they do not believe it. In John 8:30-47, we find much the same as Jesus speaks to those following Him. He instructs them that if they continue in His Word, they will truly prove to be His disciples. Yet again, they reject His teachings, proving instead to be children of their father, Satan (see esp. vv. 43-47).
All throughout His ministry to the Jews, Christ presumed a knowledge of Scripture (Matt. 22:31). We see this clearly enough with His abundant quotations of the Old Testament for the purpose of explicating that He was the promised Messiah to come. But it must be noted: it was on this basis that Christ confronted their unbelief. In other words, it was not because they believed the Scriptures that they were offended; they were offended because they didn’t believe the Scriptures. If they had believed the Scriptures, Christ is very clear in saying, “You would believe that the Father sent me.”
Yet a more subtle issue arises when we consider the fact that Christ was never impressed with the multitudes gathering around Him, who would be considered the “irreligious” if we take Keller to mean people who were not those with positions of influence and authority within the synagogue. At multiple points, the “irreligious” were not too impressed with His teachings, but were instead, rather impressed with the miraculous phenomena He performed. It’s rather important to point out that Christ did not entrust Himself to men, irreligious or religious, for He knew what was in their hearts (Jn. 2:24).
Out of the ten lepers healed, only one returned (Lk. 17:11-18). The rich young ruler went away sorrowful because he could not part with his possessions and follow Christ (Lk. 18:18-23). Of the many disciples of Christ from the 5,000+ men and women fed, nearly all of them turned away from following Him after His teachings on being the bread of life (Jn. 6). Most notably, many (irreligious and religious) who shouted, “Hosanna in the highest!” upon Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem would be the very same people to later shout, “Crucify Him!”
With regard to Tim Keller’s second claim that, “…our churches do not have this same effect which can only mean one thing. Our preaching and practices are not declaring the same message that Jesus did,” this again falls short on basic tests of logic. More importantly though, it falls short of Scripture’s actual teachings on the matter. It is abundantly clear that the “religious” Keller seems to be targeting here did not believe because they were not of Christ’s sheep (Jn. 10:22-30). It was not due some winsomeness found within Christ, the abundance of miracles He performed, or any stately appearance that He held, that some came to faith and others didn’t. It was solely due to the electing love of the Father that any came to be effectually drawn to Christ’s teaching, because Christ’s sheep hear His voice.
To deal with the more substantive part of Keller’s argumentation though, which seems to be that he is placing primacy on the manner in which modern preachers and teachers handle the Word and how people live, there are several short observations to be made. For one, there are a multitude of reasons why the irreligious may not be drawn to the teaching and preaching of the Scriptures in our modern era, thus, Keller’s statement is overly hyperbolic. To reduce it down to one is actually fallacious reasoning, as it assumes Christ’s prerogative was to reach the “irreligious” over and above the “religious,” when the contrary has already been demonstrated.
One of the reasons why the irreligious aren’t flocking to the church may simply be what was highlighted above; they are not drawn to preaching and teaching of the Word simply because they are not Christ’s sheep, and therefore, they do not hear His voice. It is not particularly difficult to understand that we are living in an “out of season time,” where people will not endure sound doctrine (2 Tim. 4:2-3). Virtually every doctrine under the sun is currently up for debate within the broader church and it seems that there is no end in sight to this for the time being. In light of that, it paints a woefully naïve picture to suggest that the one and only reason why religious-nones are not flocking to the church to hear the preaching of the Word is due to the fact that preachers are teaching a contrary message to Christ’s own.
One reason may in fact be due to poor teaching and preaching and the lives of hypocritical, professing Christians. I don’t think many people would disagree that there are several inept pastors and people pretending to be pastors, who are, in fact, unqualified at best, and wolves at worst. Undoubtedly, many do not declare the same message that Christ did. It is also clear that many who profess Christ do not faithfully model that in their lives, and the practice of some churches is indeed antithetical to Christ’s own. However, to suggest these are the sole reasons is untenable, especially considering that many pastors and congregants are faithfully preaching the same message and seeking to live out their faith in accord with the Scriptures.
More to the point though, truth is qualitatively true, regardless of hypocritical people, false teachings, and whether or not people believe it to be true. In light of this, the onus is on every man, woman, and child to submit themselves to the authority of the Scriptures. But we’re not living in a Christianized culture any longer, where certain truths are taken for granted even within the Evangelical world. We are living in a post-Christian culture, which denies nearly every fundamental tenet of the Christian faith, but especially denies those truths most evident in natural revelation (e.g., gender norms, sexuality, etc.). Holding these teachings often gets one labeled as persona non grata in the public marketplace of ideas simply by virtue of saying Scripture is true in what it claims.
Much of what would fall under the purview of “preaching and practices [that] are not declaring the same message that Jesus did,” as our culture understands it, is not even remotely biblical. The popular sentiment on the person and work of Jesus Christ is little different than the beach bum who “lives and lets live” with regard to societal sins, beliefs, and a general mindlessness of God. More clearly, the Jesus that the irreligious conceive of is not the Jesus of Scripture, and no amount of cow-tailing it to the culture will somehow make Scripture’s teaching on things like human sexuality more palatable for unbelievers. This would also be an appropriate time to distinguish between a mere assent to what Scripture teaches, and a genuine belief in what they teach. This is one of the vital doctrines of the Reformation, where the Reformers noted that one must not only have the right facts about the gospel, they must also assent to them, and then trust in them to have what constitutes as a genuine faith, or belief—even in Scripture itself (i.e., notitia, assensus, fiducia).
In this, I believe Keller roundly misses the mark, as he assumes that somehow the fault is in the preaching of the Word and the lives of Christians rather than a godless, reprobate people who are God-haters at heart, who reject God and His ways (Rom. 1:18-32). This is what brings me to my actual critique of Keller, which is that he is overly fixated with what might bring offense to unbelievers. This is what led Keller to speak to a crowd of atheists and not give a clear answer on the question posed to him regarding Hell awaiting those who reject Christ. This is also what has given him reason to suggest that a man like Steven Colbert can give a [sic] winsome portrayal of the Christian faith. In clearer candor, this is not a new problem with Keller, and many who hold his same views.
Yet the fundamental issue at hand is that the very task of the church is in fact to simply proclaim the gospel, and subsequently, to teach obedience to that gospel, trusting that Christ Himself will see to drawing in His sheep. Those who believe in Him will hear His Word. Those who do not will be offended over it and consider it foolish (1 Cor. 1:23). In all of it, my point is relatively simple: the sentiments of the nineties and early two-thousands evangelical approach to evangelism has proven to be a rather inept way of reaching the lost. Much like the Jews who rejected Jesus in His incarnation did so on the basis of unbelief, they do so today. Much like the Gentiles reject Jesus on the basis of seeing the Christian faith as folly, still do so today as well. Simply preaching Christ crucified is enough to make one unpopular amongst the “irreligious” and the “religious” alike who do not trust in Christ and reject His Word, yet in our day and age, one need only say something as simple as, “A man is a man and a woman is a woman,” to offend. The task, therefore, is still the same regardless: preach the Word and let the chips fall where they may.