Third Way Gospel: Tim Keller’s Proposal

Third Way Gospel: Tim Keller’s Proposal September 17, 2012

Tim Keller proposes a Third Way gospel. And he thinks our era, because it is largely unchurched and Christianity is not our culture, needs a focus on gospel renewal or revival. Revival is needed not just because of our time but also because it focuses on the heart, that is, on personal response to God in Christ. Keller’s chp in Center Church on the work of gospel renewal (chp 6), has a good sketch of the elements of a Welsh revival small group meeting, and they are elements that personalize the gospel intensely.

Question: Do you find most people to be “irreligious” or part of Keller’s view of “religion”? Do you think the widespread cultural teaching of unconditional love — by parents, by pastors, etc — leads less to religion and more to irreligion? How does the gospel of acceptance by Keller distinguish itself from others who propose a gospel that God loves us? Do the gospel sermons in Acts work the gospel through the theme of performance vs. acceptance on the basis of God’s work for us?

So what is this Third Way gospel? The first way is the way of irreligion, a theme Keller does not focus on so much. Irreligion is ignoring God, and it is widespread in our culture — in fact, all over the globe. Keller’s pet emphasis in all his gospel preaching and in all the books of his I have read is religion. Before I get to his widely-accepted definition (I’ve seen it in Greg Boyd, among emergents, in Billy Graham, etc), I have to say that the term doesn’t work for me because I see Christianity as one of the world’s great religions. I grew up being told that we didn’t have a religion — like the Catholics and Methodists — we believed. However this term found its footings, it has, and for now “religion” often means man-centered or man-created religious beliefs and practices.

So three ways to approach God:

1. Irreligion: ignore God.
2. Religion: perform before God.
3. Gospel/grace: acceptance on the basis of what God has done for us.

For Keller religion is about performance. An exceptionally lucid exposition of Keller’s peformance=religion approach can be found in J.D. Greear’s Gospel book, a book about which we blogged some time back. Anyway, Keller contrasts religion with gospel, which here means “grace” and “love” and “acceptance in Christ alone,” and so I want now to sketch Keller’s approach, and first is Religion and after the “vs.” the Gospel.

Religion: I obey, therefore I’m accepted. vs. Gospel: I’m accepted [by God]; therefore I obey.

Motivation is fear and insecurity vs. grateful joy.
I obey to get things from God vs. I obey to get God — to delight in God.
When circumstances go wrong, anger vs. struggle but knowing God is in control.
When criticized, furious or devastated vs. struggle but know my identity is in God.
Prayer life petition vs. presence with God.
Self view swings from confidence to lacking confidence vs. lost but accepted in Christ. Humility based confidence.
Identity and self worth are achievement based vs. Christ, who he is and what he has done.
I produce idols to sustain my hope and confidence vs. not needing idols since Christ is all.

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  • What’s interesting is that in his book Reason for God, he kinda deconstructs the category of “religion” in the chapter on pluralism because of the way it is used in common discourse to separate out “religious” reasoning from “secular” reasoning, which is supposedly neutral and available to everybody. Think Cavanaugh’s “Myth of Religious Violence.” I basically think that’s a helpful move. The category of religion is inherently flawed. At the same time, he reintroduces the notion, acknowledging his earlier move, as a helpful heuristic device in terms of distinguishing Christianity’s grace-based approach to “salvation” and union with God, than other more performance-oriented “religions” and ideologies, as well as many people’s common misunderstandings of Christianity. While I don’t generally like the category of “religion” I do find making some sort of distinction like that very helpful in preaching. Also, I have heard Keller preach against both religion and irreligion and emphasize both as equal problems in other contexts. Still, I have found that preaching harder against “religion” to be effective as a way of making my good little church-kids understand they need saving just as much as the “bad kids” as well as letting the “bad kids” know that they’ve been misunderstanding the good news of God. To be honest, this kind of thinking might be old hat for a lot of us, but for some people it’s genuinely revolutionary. In our performance-driven culture, the idea that grace or approval is earned in some way is deeply-ingrained in us, especially in our youth. What’s interesting is that teaching this properly actually is a great way of combatting so much of the narcissism associated with the generalized teaching about unconditional love that gets thrown around. This third-way Gospel is always connected to the preaching of the cross which points to the costly nature of that non-performance-based love. That love is nothing we can brag about because we’re particularly special, but something from which we can derive a humbled, confident, self-forgetfulness.

    As something of a side-point, the irreligion, religion, and Gospel categories have always reminded me of Kierkegaards 3 life-stages: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. Coincidence?

  • Owen

    Interesting how much “Religion: I obey, therefore I’m accepted. vs. Gospel: I’m accepted [by God]; therefore I obey.” sounds like Sanders’ covenantal nomism discussion. Not at all implying Keller meant to enter this discussion; I really appreciate Keller’s work overall. Nevertheless, like the comment above regarding a parallel with Kierkegaard, it’s another reminder of ‘nothing new under the sun’.

  • Scott

    I don’t really have much to contribute to this conversation, just to say that the “religion vs relationship” or “religion vs gospel” distinction is getting old and overplayed.

  • Sam

    I generally accept what Keller is trying to do here, but I am not particularly pleased with his use of the word “religion.” I’m not entirely sure why that word fell out of positive usage, particularly among evangelicals (particularly with the positive connotations it has in Scripture). If I could, I would ask Keller, “If I’ve accepted what Christ has done, how then do we obey?” The things we do as obedience following grace seem to be “religion.” Religion is the necessary “outward” or “physical” actions we do to display and grow our “inner” or “spiritual” reality. In other words, you can’t have gospel without religion. You need both. Inner and outer, physical and spiritual. It’s all very “incarnational.” And biblical. 🙂

  • Luke Allison

    I really think this whole thing comes down to NPP vs Classical Perspective on Paul.
    The CPP has pragmatic value: it has worked for the lay person as a means of seeing the heart of God’s relationship to humanity. It especially has worked for counseling.

    The NPP is right, I think, but it has yet to develop a pragmatic expression of its truths, from what I can tell.
    The CPP obviously substitutes a Western, almost Freudian view of the inner life into 1st Century texts, which is extremely relevant to the average person coming into a church or a counseling session. Scripture can easily be twisted slightly to accommodate this perspective. Keller makes the entire Hebrew Bible about Jesus’ substitutionary death for sins. It’s what makes him popular: he’s able to take ancient stories and somehow turn them to tell the story of Jesus’ atonement. And in some sense that what the authors of the New Testament were doing too.

    So I think the key here is all of us who think the NPP is the correct lens working out some highly practical theological conclusions that can also work for the common person.

  • scotmcknight

    Luke, you are dead-on, brother. The issue then is which view of Paul is most accurate to the Bible?

  • Rick

    “The issue then is which view of Paul is most accurate to the Bible?”

    Is it either/or? Doesn’t Michael Bird hold to a combo of both?

    Perhaps Keller is right, but so are the NPP folks.

  • Luke Allison


    Perhaps this is a future book proposal? Something that can match the psychological power of the whole “trying to get to heaven through works vs. grace” paradigm of Keller and others.

    I feel like this is the primary argument from lay-folk and non-scholarly-types against the NPP: “My experience as a believer matches Romans 7:7-25 exactly. So how can it not be what Paul meant?”
    It’s a bit of a sacred cow.

  • Scot McKnight

    Rick, the NPP folks don’t deny salvation by grace, but they don’t make the primary obstacle to be the performance mode of religion Keller speaks of here. I would make the primary obstacle pride and self-rule, and I know the Old Perspective (CPP of Luke on this thread) would turn pride into self-righteousness, but I just don’t see that as a primary problem. Pride, self-rule, usurpation –as I sketch in King Jesus — are more fundamental. Performance emerges from a view of Judaism and works in Pauline thought.

  • It makes me crazy when Christians try to claim that what they are doing is somethign other than “religion.” Its a straw man, they inventing a new definition of religion so they can claim they’re not in it.

  • Marshall

    Here’s Greg Boyd: “One of the greatest mistakes people make is assuming they can draw conclusions about the nature of God from life’s experiences.” (Is God To Blame? p.153). If the Spirit isn’t active in my actual life, what can I ever know about it? How would I be supposed to look at scripture in any grounded way? On the other hand, four pages later he advises, “Let go of the ‘Why’ question and Confront Evil.” So go figure.

    That is to say, I think #3 is the way to live a Kingdom life.

  • Luke Allison

    Marshall # 11,

    I don’t think Dr. Boyd would ever say that the Spirit isn’t active in your actual life.
    But I really don’t get what point you’re trying to make. Could you elaborate, please?

  • I see what Keller is saying and agree except that I would entirely do away with his first category, the “irreligious”. Strictly speaking, yes, there plenty of people who ignore Yahweh and Jesus, but many of then are nevertheless highly religious. As Bob Dylan said, “you gotta serve somebody.” So, while they ignore the Christian version of “God” they nonetheless remain in a relationship with whatever mysterious force lies behind their compulsion to achieve more, do more, be more, and the hope that rest/peace/Shalom lies just on the other side of the horizon.

    When I get cut off in traffic and miss the green light is root of my anger pride, or is there a deeper reason that I feel I need to assert my own worth? Do I act out of the sense of shame that demands I get there on time, or do I act out of an inner grace, a knowledge that my worth does not depend on my accomplishments? Does my God DEMAND of me, or does my God give grace sufficient to cover my shame in every conceivable circumstance? Everyone lives, in every moment, according their answer to this question.

    So it’s not as simple as believing that “Jesus loves me,” yet… it is. I I believe that I am accepted and loved and yet become angry with any person who creates an obstacle between me and what I HAVE to do (get to work on time, spend time with my family, earn that raise, etc., etc.,) then my belief has been shown to be worthless. It will burn away and leave me with nothing. Yet, if I really, deeply, KNOW that there is nothing I can ever do (or not do) that will change the reality of God’s unconditional love for me, then I am in that same moment perfectly freed to respond with compassion instead of anger at the one who has impeded me. If I have faith that I am ultimately held firm by love, then I need no demand from others to attain what I think I need.

    I don’t think that pride and a desire to self-rule. Are themselves the root obstacle. What happens when we ask WHY? Why are we prideful? WHY do we demand self-rule? It seems to me that these describe our efforts to surmount the obstacle, rather than the root obstacle itself.

    I may sound crazy here, but bear with me. What if… What if there is no obstacle? What if God really actually does steadfastly love unconditionally? What if, in eating from the tree of “the knowledge of Good and Evil,” we do not so much “fall” but become acutely aware of just how far above us God is? What if God still loves us unconditionally and continues to seek us in the garden, but, in our SHAME, we hide from him? What if sin is not that which keeps God from us, but which keeps us from wanting Him to be near. us and mparts the same shame to others by demanding of them as if they need to be “more” to find peace and rest and joy?

    If the above is the case then God is 100% love, we have 100% free will, salvation is 100% grace, and faith consists most concretely in actions, not cognition. Christ’s death atones for the debt that we could never shake, even though God has been promising his love and faithfulness fo all of time.

  • Marshall

    Luke #12:
    I completely don’t see why it would be a “mistake” to see God’s nature in experience of reality, either either our common objective experience or my particular personal one.
    Religion: God lives in some other place where I go to in my head sometimes.
    Gospel: To my listening ears, all nature sings and around me rings the music of the spheres.

  • Nate (13) – some where in looking at pride, shame, desire for self-rule as sources impeding our ability to internalize grace, we need to factor in the deep heart-wounds we have all experienced to varying degrees. It’s more than generic factors of pride (hubris) or simle shame but the deep lies that we internalize that “You are not _______ enough to be accepted/loved/valued.” The same lie can drive one to reject any idea we are loved or, at the opposite extreme, drive us to over-excell but still feel we lack enough to be accepted. The atonement may as complete as it will ever be but my ability to internalize that grace can be impacted by unhealed heart wounds. “To the degree we internalize disgrace, we may struggle to internalize grace.”

  • Ben Thorp

    While I understand the frustration over Keller’s use of the word religion, I think that he is using it in the way (in my experience) that many people outside of the church use it – a formalised set of beliefs, structures, behaviours and activities. It is, for most people, a pejorative term. The more accurate term would probably be “religiosity” .

  • Ben P.

    one theme/definition of sin I see in scripture, especially in the OT is the category of idolatry. Keller explains idolatry as essentially performance, drawing on folks like Luther. NPP seems to say this is “psychologizing” the bible, bringing in Luther’s guilty conscience to the text, etc. But is it? I think Keller is on to something when he sees in humanity an innate need to “justify” your existence. And I do think the idolatry theme in the bible does speak to this core existential need.

  • Scot,

    What’s interesting is that in various other places, Keller explains religion and irreligion as exactly, “pride or self-rule.” It’s an attempt to be your own lord and savior, usurping God’s kingship. That’s one of the most common preaching points I’ve heard him make. I think both can be used.

    PS. Bird is the man. Yes, he takes both NPP insights as well as OPP to formulate a bit of third-way that deals with some of the very valid problems with both perspectives. Good times can be had by all here.