Keller on the Gospel

Keller on the Gospel September 10, 2012

“The gospel,” Tim Keller, “is not everything.” Yet he also says, “Because the gospel is endlessly rich, it can handle the burden of being the one ‘main thing’ of a church.” I am glad that an increasing number of pastors and theologians are pushing hard against the notion that the gospel is the rudimentary thing we believe but soon as possible leave it behind so we can advance to the deeper things of Scripture. In his book, Center Church, from which the quotes above come (pp.29, 37), Keller outlines how he understands the gospel as the main thing. He’s right: the gospel is the center of the church.

You will probably know that I have outlined the gospel in The King Jesus Gospel, where I put forth a case that we have to think not only about how to define the gospel but also what method we use in defining it. Many have a “method of assumption”: since they already know what the gospel is they simply define it and add Bible references to prop up their definition. Most define it as the soterian gospel. I proposed in KJG that there are three spots in the New Testament that we must use if we are to be faithful: 1 Cor 15, the sermons in Acts (which are nearly always not discussed), and the Gospels as the gospel itself. Keller’s approach is pure soterian, and what I have at times called a covenant soterian. To use some jargon, the covenant soterian wants both a historia salutis (creation, fall, restoration) and an ordo salutis (either the doctrines of grace or the “plan of salvation”). Keller’s approach equates gospel with the plan of salvation in its biggest senses.

What do you think of Keller’s sketch of the gospel and its central themes here? Do you think it adequately squares with 1 Cor 15, the sermons in Acts, or the Gospels as the gospel?

Here are Keller’s main themes:

1. The gospel is good news, not good advice; it is something to be declared.
2. The gospel is good news that we have been rescued. We are rescued from the wrath of God. We are rescued from sins: psychological, social, physical, and vertical/spiritual.

[Here the soterian, at the personal or “Me” level, dominates for the whole point of the gospel becomes salvation, personal salvation first and then cosmic, but the first note is not christology.]

3. The gospel is good news about what has been done by Jesus Christ to put right our relationship with God. [Justification.]

4. Keller pushes another important idea: the gospel is not the same as the results of the gospel. Here is pushing against making the gospel about ethics, and in particular justice; instead, the gospel is about salvation and the result of that salvation is justice (which he does not minimize as flowing from true grace).

[Problem: 1 Cor 15 makes Jesus’ death “for our sins” so we must say that forgiveness and salvation are the result of the gospel too. I agree with Keller: the gospel and its results must be distinguished. I disagree in this: salvation, too, is a result, leading us to say the gospel is declaring something about Jesus — he is Lord, he is Messiah, he is Savior — and not just the result of salvation he brings. Would you agree that making the gospel about salvation confuses gospel with its results?]

Keller: “The gospel, then, is preeminently a report about the work of Christ on our behalf — that is why and how the gospel is salvation by grace…. It is news that creates a life of love, but the life of love is not itself the gospel” (31). [Again, observe the gospel is about the “work” of Christ, that is his saving work. There’s much more to be said here, but so far I’m not seeing any reason for the word “Messiah” to be used nor the word “Lord.”]

5. There are two equal and opposite enemies of the gospel: religion and irreligion; legalism and antinomianism. He will develop this more in a later chapter so I will wait until then, but at this point I must say this is framed by a theory of how to understand works and how Paul understands Judaism/Pharisaism and legalism… all points that are in dispute today.

6. Finally, Keller says the gospel has chapters, and there are four:

6.1 Where did we come from? God: the one and the relational.
6.2 Why did things go wrong? Sin: bondage and condemnation.
6.3 What will put things right? Christ: incarnation, substitution, restoration. [Where’s the resurrection? This is where defining the problem is important: if the problem is death, resurrection and life rise to the heights. This is also why ignoring the sermons in Acts leads to missing crucial elements, namely, resurrection.]

6.4 How can I be put right? Through faith: grace and trust. [Why are repentance and baptism so disregarded in so many of these discussions?]

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  • kierkegaard71

    Scot, to your last question on section 6.4 about the neglect of repentance and baptism: I have spent much time as a member of a conservative Presbyterian church like Keller’s, although not as an advocate of infant baptism. My working theory is that baptism is neglected because the “normal” embrace of the gospel by the children of Christian parents is so temporally detached from the event of baptism by design. Keller and the like are such strong evangelicals with an emphasis on the conversion experience, yet baptism cannot play a role in conversion because of Presbyterian systematic theological conclusions on the role of baptism as it relates to the child.

  • scotmcknight

    kierkegaard71, that one on baptism I can understand for the Presbyterians, but why so little presence of repentance when it comes to the sufficient and necessary response? It tends to make me think that justification by faith has led to the diminishment of baptism and repentance.

  • phil_style

    2. “The gospel is good news that we have been rescued. We are rescued from the wrath of God”

    I know we’ve all heard the criticisms of this kind of atonement formulation a hundred times… but each time I see the “issue” framed this way I cannot help but think that critics of this forumla have a point.

    It might just be the choice of language, but one wouldn’t be being too dismissive, I think, for pointing out the strangeness of this scenario where God rescues us from Himself…..

  • Scot, is this a fair analogy (with some biblical overtones)…the announced gospel is all about God becoming King through Jesus the “Christ.” Picture the invasion, the battle and the victory of the resurrection. Jesus ascends and is installed as King of Kings and Lord of Lords and in that exaltation liberally gives out the spoils of war. The Gospel *to be declared* is the Victory Won; the benefits of the gospel received by humanity are the spoils of war. The Gospel then is all about God in Christ and we humans don’t enter the benefits of the gospel victory until we repent of any form of self-salvation and believe the Gospel announcement that the Messiah got the job done. The Gospel is good news whether anyone ever believes it or not.

  • Rick

    Here is another way Keller has summed it up in the past:

    “The ‘gospel’ is the good news that through Christ the power of God’s kingdom has entered history to renew the whole world. When we believe and rely on Jesus’ work and record (rather than ours) for our relationship to God, that kingdom power comes upon us and begins to work through us.”

  • Luke Allison

    One important distinctive to remember is that Keller SEEMS (I stress that because he’s surprised me before) to subscribe to the traditional view of Paul, which in turn leads to a traditional understanding of Pauline theology, which in turn leads to a certain conception of Jesus (as Scot has pointed out in his review of King’s Cross). Everything comes back to “are you good enough to get into heaven” or “do you think you can save yourself.”

    It’s a particular formulation, and the strange thing is that it WORKS for lots and lots of folks. I think that’s why so many people have been loath to grab hold of the New Perspective on Paul: the old perspective works pretty well. Romans 7 seems to describe most peoples’ experience as Christians, etc. The pragmatic concern is first and foremost.

  • Scot, I appreciate the question. Before we all throw Keller under the bus as a pure soterian let’s remember in the same context he says, “The danger in answering only the first question (“What must I do to be saved?”) without the second (“What hope is there for the world?”) is that, standing alone, the first can play into the Western idea that meet individual spiritual needs for freedom from guilt and bondage. It does not speak much about the goodness of the original creation or of God’s concern for the material world, and so this conception may set up the listener to Christianity as sheer escape from the world.”

    It seems that Keller is trying to construct a middle way, much in the same way you did with King Jesus Gospel, where there is a balance for the individual and the whole. I think he is communicating something a bit more nuanced than what is presented here.

    That being said, I think your critiques in bold above hold water and it would be interesting to hear Keller’s response to them. They are the same ones that I have.

  • A few thoughts:
    1. Keller writes and preaches a lot. He’s defined the Gospel a number of times, with many different nuances and shades in each one. Yes, he’s soterian, and covenant soterian. (Oh well, I think the Bible is decently soterian myself.) Still, as the dude who quoted Keller points out, Keller’s got some range to him.
    2. phil_style- Yes, God rescues us from his own wrath. Or rather, God rescues us from the place we’ve put ourselves, which is in the way of his wrath. Bear in mind that God’s wrath, which is all over the Bible, is God’s judicial opposition and hatred of all that is God-defying and creation-defacing. We defy God and deface creation through sin. God should have wrath against that. At the same time, he loves us which motivates him to save us from the place of emnity in which we have landed ourselves.
    3. Yes, Keller’s preaching is thoroughly pragmatic. It works. I think it’s biblically faithfully, but on top of that, I’ve seen it work. I’ve seen it work in my life. I’ve seen it work in my family’s life. I’ve seen it work in the lives of my friends and students. It’s good stuff.
    4. As for Old Perspective and New Perspective- Based on his Galatians study, I think he’s OPP but he takes NPP insights into consideration as forming the real cultural background and ecclesiological concern driving the letter.

    Welp, that’s all I’ve got for now.

  • Luke Allison

    Derek Rishmawy,

    “Yes, Keller’s preaching is thoroughly pragmatic. It works. I think it’s biblically faithfully, but on top of that, I’ve seen it work. I’ve seen it work in my life. I’ve seen it work in my family’s life. I’ve seen it work in the lives of my friends and students. It’s good stuff.”

    Which is of course significant. And perhaps proof that the Spirit is alive and moving within every stream of thought.
    However, I have seen him read an awful lot into his teaching on the Hebrew Scripture. He’s creative and relevant (and his use of literature and art is phenomenal), but I think he stretches the text to make his point quite a bit.
    All that said, I hope he keeps doing what he’s doing, because people are coming to know Christ from very disparate backgrounds in NYC through the ministry of Redeemer.

  • Scot McKnight

    Derek, the issue is what does “kingdom” mean? Is it redemptive power at work or (also) a socio-political reality in Israel’s story?

    And, this is a definitive book for Keller. What he says about gospel has got to be his core ideas; I believe it is. We’ve got more on gospel from Keller in further posts.

  • Jon G

    Scot…thanks for this post.

    Question…has the invitation been given, either personally or through intermediaries, to have Keller engage with your KJG position? The silence from him on this crucial discussion is maddening and I just wanted to know how close you two are to discussing it (not that it’s my business, I’m just curious).


  • Pat

    “Many have a “method of assumption”: since they already know what the gospel is they simply define it and add Bible references to prop up their definition.”

    Very true. I find people who hold to assumptions are very difficult to converse with.

  • First of all, I have to come clean on something: I type way too fast. I’d like to apologize for my illiteracy right off the bat.

    Second, Luke, I get ya. It’s one of those weird things where, even when I see him do something with a text I’ve been surprised, (and a little suspicious of), I still end up having my heart melted, convicted of sin, and loving Jesus just a little more. I kinda just give it slack because of the audience he’s preaching to and because it’s such dang good preaching.

    Third, Scot, (you don’t mind if I call you ‘Scot’, do you?), how about a redemptive power at work that manifests itself with socio-political force in Israel’s history, and a continued, but modified way in the history New Covenant people that Jesus inaugurates in his life, death, and resurrection? Does that work?

  • Gabriel

    I do not see a problem with the absence of “resurrection” in the summary “Incarnation, substitution and restoration” because these terms as Keller explains wants to answer the question: How does Jesus save? and surely both substitution and restoration encompass what the resurrection means. Christ rising from the dead and defeating it was something we couldn’t do. The resurrection restore life unto us and creation.

  • Scott, I agree that making the Gospel about salvation confuses the Gospel with the results of the Gospel. In other words, if we want to make about one thing lets make about Jesus, who is both Lord (King) and Saviour (Healer).

    2. The gospel is good news that we have been rescued. We are rescued from the wrath of God

    Were Jesus’ life, teachings, healing and deliverance ministry merely a prelude to the one really important thing he did – namely, die? It doesn’t seem to me that the Gospels divide up and prioritize the various aspects of Jesus’ life in this way. Infact, Mark’s Gospel begins with the statement “The beginning of the good news (euangelion) about Jesus the Messiah”(1.1). Then Mark goes on to explain the entire life, teachings, ministry, death AND resurrection of Jesus.

    Let me suggest that everything Jesus did was about one thing – overcoming evil with love. Hence, every aspect of Jesus was centered on atonement — that is, reconciling us to God and freeing us from the devil’s oppression. This is to view the atonement more in a Christus Victor light, which is to view justice holistically and ontologically as appeasing God by destroying death and restoring to him all of creation. Justice is thus restorative rather than retributive. God is appeased since his creation is transformed into that which he desires it to be. Hence a huge emphasis on the resurrection and new life in Christ.

  • Paul,
    It’s not that all of these things were “merely” the prelude to the one important thing he did. At the same time, the Gospels do prioritize his works, words, etc. and do lay a central emphasis on his death and resurrection. In fact, as one NT scholar put it long ago, the Gospel of Mark, in many ways, reads like a passion narrative with an extended introduction in that fully half of the Gospel is dedicated to the last week of Christ. Also, I agree that just is more than just retributive, but is also restorative. Pitting the two against each other is a mistake, though. To quote an old paper I wrote:
    “God’s atoning act through the Cross transcends strict retributive exchange, not by ignoring, but by fulfilling the claims of justice and pushing past them to the gift of God which is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 6:23b) God did not simply want to deal with sin, he wanted to save sinners. God did not only want to be vindicated as just, but instead wanted to be both “just and the justifier of one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom. 3:26) Wrath is dealt with to be sure, but it is dealt with in Christ in order to clear the path for the gift of the Spirit which enables us to live new, reconciled lives now which will issue in the final total restoration of our selves through the gift of Resurrection. “God pours himself out for us, not in an economic exchange, but in an excess of justice and love.” The gift of God far outweighs the trespass of man. (Rom. 5:16) The penal, retributive justice of God has a more-than-retributive goal; it aims at the “restoration of community and eternal peace” with God and others.”
    Believe me, I’m all for a holistic approach that incorporates Victory elements as well as boldly asserts the necessity of the Resurrection (that’s part of what my paper was about), but denying, down-playing or sidelining the retributive component is a mistake that, in fact, empties the other elements of their force. The ontological must come through the moral. The alienation from God that we experience is not primarily ontological, but rather moral emnity that leads to ontological results. (The wages of sin is death.) To view it the other way round is contrary to the biblical narrative as well as makes the mistake of attributing the flaw to our created nature, rather than our sin nature. Finitudes wasn’t a problem before fallenness, therefore the Cross must come before the Resurrection.

    Well, I’ll leave off there.

  • DRT

    I continue to think that the problem we have is in the word “salvation”. To me, the soterians inherently limit this word, while the context is quite expansive.

    The second big problem word is repentance, and sin (or two words). If sin is reduced to personal error, and repentance a turning away from that error, it is too prone to missing the idea that folks are following the wrong path/leader. It is not so much that we are somehow evil for following the wrong path, but that we have followed the wrong path and now have been told the good news of the right path to follow. This applies at all levels (individual, group, societal and world).

    John W Frye#4 strikes a strong resonance with me, but I fear the language will still suffer from the two points above. In other words, someone with a soterian ME mindset will also agree with it but for different reasons.

    The last big problem is the idea of “Wrath of God”. While it is quite true that the true king will definitely vanquish his enemies, if we consider the enemy to be what we do then he does it one person at a time. But if the enemy is not the person doing the wrong, but the wrong thing being followed then we have a different story.

  • DRT

    Sorry for being incompetent with italics…..

  • “The last big problem is the idea of “Wrath of God”. While it is quite true that the true king will definitely vanquish his enemies, if we consider the enemy to be what we do then he does it one person at a time. But if the enemy is not the person doing the wrong, but the wrong thing being followed then we have a different story.”

    Does it make sense to talk about actions being enemies? The concept of an enemy is a personal one, but actions are not persons.

    Also, what you follow is related to loyalty and disloyalty, or rather idolatry and rebellion. Following that which is not God is an act of rebellion. By definition, the people who perform rebellious acts are rebels, in the same way that those who act as enemies make themselves enemies.

    I’m trying to understand where you’re going with this. I’ve got a sense, but I’m not sure.

  • DRT

    Hi Derek,

    For your benefit, I am not arguing for a purely corporate salvation, though I do argue for context being key in determining an individual’s eventual judgment (though the outcome of that judgment continues to be a rather difficult thing to ascertain, particularly on the downside).

    As far as actions being enemies, with what I just said it may clue you in to my thinking. It is quite clear to me that there is no absolute action that is the same in all contexts. If pushing someone is bad in random malicious intent, pushing someone out of the way of a runaway car is good.

    So it is not the action, per se, it is the thing that is being followed that is evil or sin. If evil and sin are intrinsically derived, out of malice, hatred, etc, then those actions are manifestations of following the wrong lord.

  • DRT

    ..and I should have continued.

    So, following the wrong lord is something that we must not do, and we are judged on this, with context taken into account. If we are evil and follow evil things out of the wrong motives, and as our heart is searched we will be discovered and all will be found out. But the true enemy that the true Wrath of God is aimed at is not us, though we will be judged, but the enemies.

  • DRT

    ..and to continue again, since the ADD meds wore off for today…

    Think of it this way. All those people who have good motives and are basically good people, like I like to think about myself, are led by the the wrong lord from time to time. If there were no wrong lords out there then, objectively, I would probably do less “bad things”.

    Temptation is everywhere, and we succumb to it from time to time. From my perspective god wants all people to come into his kingdom and be rid of these things. Not for the idea of them not doing bad actions, but that his way of life is truly better than the other ways of life. I believe that, yet I fail. I wish I lived in the kingdom where those things did not exist….

  • DRT


    and the final enemy is death.

  • scotmcknight

    John, I like your summary… I’ve been tied up today and not been able to read the blog except in fits and starts and missed yours.

  • Speaking of the Gospel, Scot, did you see CT’s editorial on the sinner’s prayer? Your KJG gets a nod.

    As for your main question, I still don’t see the bifurcation between the Gospel as Christology and the Gospel as soteriology as very helpful. In 1 Cor 15 I see lots of soteriology. I still keep thinking you’re reacting to conversionism but in terms that sound like your against conversion itself. I know you’re not, so why does it sound that way? Did you ever tease out the relationship of new birth to your KJG? That might be the hearing aid I need.

  • Ben Pun

    I’ve been preaching through Exodus in my church, and one thing that I observe is that in Exodus, salvation is primarily about rescuing Israel from slavery/Egypt so that God will get glory/so that Israel will know God. Salvation/Rescue of Israel is key to what salvation is. NT writers clearly see Jesus as fulfilling/completing the Exodus story. Scot, you say that individual salvation is a result of the gospel, but it seems to me that salvation, whether for Israel for the church, is so closely tied to the good news of what Christ does and who he is that it is impossible to extricate it from gospel itself. I think our response to what God has done in Christ: our progressive sanctification, ethics, justice (what I think Keller is talking about when he talks about “results of the gospel”) is a different category that our salvation. 1 Cor 15 says Jesus died for our sins, but it doesnt say that Jesus died so that we might do deeds of justice, do good works, etc. Paul puts “for our sins” in a different category i think.

  • Derek you said “God’s atoning act through the Cross transcends strict retributive exchange, not by ignoring, but by fulfilling the claims of justice and pushing past them to the gift of God which is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

    There is a tendency to view justice as you have suggested, which is both retributive and restorative, often valorizing the former to lead to the latter. I find this deeply troubling. Here are couple reason why I believe it a mistake to suggest that we need a retributive model of justice in relation to atonement.

    1.It fails to view justice Christologically. Jesus teachings of not returning an ‘eye for eye‘, praying for those who do wrong to us, stand in stark contrast to Plato’s concepts of justice, which everyone getting what they deserve.

    “The gospel announces a new relationship of God based on grace,forgiveness, and love, and this emphasis virtually eclipses the concept of retributive punishment. The father of the prodigal son does not say, “Here comes my son; before I receive him back, I must make sure that the family sees justice done.” DFD Moule, Punishment and Retribution:Delimiting Their Scope in NT Thought

    2. It makes God beholden—to his own sense of honour (Anselm), law and/or justice (the Reformers), anger and wrath. In effect, God is under the law. To be more charitable, we might say that he must act consistently with his perfectly just character, which cannot minimize the seriousness of sin by letting it go unpunished. (The entire book of Hosea seems to stand in contrast to the idea of God being bound by the law. See Hosea 11)

    3. It says sin must be paid back by punishment—the torment of the sinner satisfies God’s need for wrath. The justice he requires is specifically retributive. Since no one can ever satisfy such wrath or repay the eternal debt for themselves—let alone for third parties—the punishment for mankind’s collective sin-debt could only be extracted by someone of eternal nature and divine purity. Hence, the incarnation.


4.It paints God as retributive—the picture of God derived from penal substitution looks vindictive and untrustworthy, repulsed by sinners and rather different than the Father’s heart as portrayed perfectly by Jesus. For some, it reflects an angry and unbending facet of God’s character that is inconsistent with the compassionate Father of the prodigal son who exacts no fee for re-entry into the family. 

    “As loving Creator, God has no intrinsic need to punish us before forgiving us. Rather, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, God is always waiting with open arms to forgive.”
    — Paul R. Eddy, The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views

    5.It distorts divine justice—such a God shows us a form of justice that requires an eye for an eye and spawns a retributive penal system, incites domestic violence, and failed experiments in parental “tough love” (nothing like the prodigal father). 


6.It pits Father against Son—or the Father’s wrath against the Son’s forgiveness, even though behind this there is a pact rooted in love’s search for a solution that honours justice (so that God can both justify and be just—Romans 3:26).

    A god who demands the child –sacrifice of his own son to satiate his own wrath? That is NOT Jehovah; that is Molech. God was not punishing Christ on the cross. He was IN Christ, reconciling the world to Himself.
    — Archbishop Lazar Puhalo

  • Jesse Thompson

    Mr. McKnight,

    You asked, “Would you agree that making the gospel about salvation confuses gospel with its results?” I would not agree, and I cite the following as reasons: with regards to salvation being what we are to “tell” as “good news”, Psalm 96:2 (“tell of his salvation from day to day”, Note: I will be using the ESV for my references), Isaiah 52:7 (“who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation”, i.e. good news=peace=happiness=salvation), Isaiah 61:1 (“good news” = “liberty to the captives”), Nahum 1:15 (“who brings good news, who publishes peace”, i.e. “good news” = “peace”); with regards to the “good news” being not just the Person of Jesus but also the work of salvation he accomplished, Acts 10:36 (where it is clearly stated that the good news concerns “peace through Jesus Christ”), Acts 20:24, Romans 1:16 (where it is “the power of God unto salvation,” not just gospel), Ephesians 1:13 (“the gospel of your salvation”), Eph 3:6 (“partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” not “as a result separate from the gospel, which is not the gospel itself”), and 2 Timothy 1:10 (again, “through the gospel” not “merely as a result of the gospel”). However, we cannot separate the work of Christ in salvation from the Person of Christ himself, because it is only through imputation of Christ’s righteousness that we are saved (2 Corinthians 5:21, Romans 5:2) and it is only “in Christ Jesus” that “there is therefore now no condemnation” (Romans 8:1), and Psalm 35:3 puts it quite clearly when David addresses the LORD, saying, “Say to my soul, “I am your salvation!” (ESV). The gospel is both the good news of the results of the cross (the death and resurrection of Christ for our sins, meaning, for the forgiveness of, atonement for, propitiation for, expiation of, imputation of righteousness that is alien to, and salvation from our sins), as well as the good news of the Person who died on the cross (Jesus, who is: our peace, Micah 5:5, Romans 5:2; our good news, Mark 1:1 “the gospel of Jesus Christ”; and our Salvation, Luke 1:69, Luke 2:30, Luke 19:9, Acts 4:12, Acts 7:25, 1 Thessalonians 5:9, 2 Timothy 2:10, 2 Timothy 3:15, Hebrews 2:10, Hebrews 5:9, Revelation 7:10, 12:10, and 19:1). The gospel is not good news if it doesn’t save us but merely results in salvation (b/c then we’re left searching for what connects words preached to salvation from the wrath of God), and it is not good news if it is not God himself who is the gospel, because only God can appease his own wrath perfectly by giving “his only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). John 3:16 alludes to the work of the cross being salvific (“he GAVE his only Son, so that…”, emphasis mine) AND directly references the person of the cross as being salvific (“that whoever believes in HIM should not perish but have eternal life”, emphasis mine).