Can Jesus Forgive Sins Without Transforming the Economy? (A Response to Tim Keller)

Can Jesus Forgive Sins Without Transforming the Economy? (A Response to Tim Keller) December 21, 2017

"Sermon-On-The-Mount-Carl-Heinrich-Bloch-19th_C," ideacreamanuelaPps, Flickr C.C.

Jesus didn’t come primarily to solve the economic, political, and social problems of the world. He came to forgive our sins.

— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) December 18, 2017

Tim Keller knows better. On a week when a bunch of old white guys just voted to give themselves a giant tax giveaway, it looks pretty tone deaf for an old white guy to spend his political capital pushing back against social justice Christianity. You were supposed to be the reasonable Calvinist, Tim! Yes, I saw the adverb “primarily” in his first sentence. Yes, I read Keller’s book Generous Justice and cited it multiple times in my ordination papers and my first book. Maybe Keller came across one too many self-righteous Magnificat tweets this Advent. There’s always a hidden subtweet in every tweet.

In any case, the argument Keller makes in Generous Justice is what I would use to critique the false dichotomy he creates in this tweet. In a nutshell, Generous Justice explains why a straightforward evangelical gospel of God’s mercy ought to make Christians into the most ardent advocates for the poor and marginalized. So why did Keller write this tweet in a way that perpetuates the false presentation of the social gospel and the evangelical gospel as zero-sum alternatives to one another?

Why didn’t he say that Jesus solves the economic, political, and social problems of the world by forgiving our sins (which is the thesis of Generous Justice)? That would have been a lot more thought-provoking. I could cosign that statement as long as we understand that sin is not a privatized system of demerit for rule-breaking but rather a global spiderweb of imprisoning toxicity in which we are all trapped.

The spiderweb of dehumanization sin releases has many dimensions: social Darwinism, helicopter parenting, white supremacy, patriarchy, the military industrial complex, etc, all spun into debilitating power by humanity’s shame, envy, resentment, greed, gluttony, and other global sins. The reason we’re locked into these dehumanizing systems is because our sin has entrapped us in dehumanizing mentalities. Our sin teaches to say “That’s just the way things are” about the economic, political, and social problems of our world rather than saying, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

To be fully liberated from our sin would mean getting unstuck from social Darwinism, helicopter parenting, patriarchy, and all the rest. If all the people who profess Christ were actually unstuck from the toxic global spiderweb, our nation would experience radical social, political, and economic transformation.

Keller’s tweet followed a series of tweets in which he was describing where he thinks real change comes from. Does it come from endless commentary on economic, political, and social problems? Or does it come from heart transformation? There are many woketivists on the Internet who wrap themselves up in perfectly correct rhetoric so they don’t have to make any actual life changes to divest from their participation in injustice. I absolutely agree with Keller that our focus as pastors should be on changing people’s hearts. Systems need to change too. Both/and.

So here’s my question to Keller and others like him. Why is the gospel he preaches failing so badly to change the hearts of white evangelicals? Why have they not been “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37) by the cross in such a way that their lives are subsequently defined by grace and generosity? People whose hearts have been melted by their unconditional pardon from God don’t bitch about their taxes and berate the poor. People who have had their hearts cut by God’s grace can no longer look at the world in terms of social Darwinism and moralistic meritocracy. If the fruit is rotten, then what’s wrong with the seed?

How did “forgiveness of sins” become the entitlement of comfortable confidence in one’s personal infallibility and callous indifference to other’s suffering? It’s hard not to conclude that white evangelicals just don’t take their own sins all that seriously. As Jesus says, “He has has been forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47). If God’s “forgiveness for my sins” becomes my self-justification which I then leverage to exonerate myself from caring about the social, economic, and political problems of the world, then I have not received the Christian gospel. The power of the gospel lies in its obliteration of my self-justification and my palpable experience of God’s mercy. That is the rocket fuel for my transformation into an expression of God’s generous justice.

So if Jesus’ forgiveness of sins is having the effect that Tim Keller claims it should in Generous Justice, then it should result in the radical transformation of our economy insofar as Christians participate in it. Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35 describes the purpose of forgiveness. In the story, a king unconditionally forgives a servant a debt of ten thousand talents of gold and then the servant immediately jacks up one of his fellow servants for a debt of a hundred denarii. The clear implication is that the king forgives his servants’ debts so that they will forgive each others’ debts. In other words, it’s an economic revolution in which  a debt-based system is replaced by a grace-based one.

If this is the way that God’s grace is supposed to work, then how could Jesus possibly forgive our sins without completely transforming our economy? If white evangelicals’ hearts were actually “enflamed” by the debt that they have been forgiven by God, then they would have thrown all their weight into the Jubilee 2000 campaign two decades ago to lobby the World Bank to forgive all the debts countries in the Global South had racked up under dictatorships so they could start fresh and actually afford to educate their children and pave their highways. Imagine what a radical global economic transformation would have taken place if white evangelicals saw Jesus’ forgiveness of their debts as inspiration for insisting upon the biblical practice of jubilee.

I think part of the problem is that the white evangelical gospel of penal substitution has far too narrow an understanding of what Jesus does to our sin: receiving God’s punishment for it. When I read the Bible, I see a whole lot of verbs and metaphors for how Jesus liberates us from sin. Jesus’ cross exposes our sin; it conquers our sin; it talks back to our sin; it pays for our sin; it absorbs our sin; it shows solidarity with our victimhood at the hands of other peoples’ sin; and most importantly, it sets us free from sin. We need all the verbs and their accompanying metaphors.

If our sin is something different than the source of the “social, political, and economic problems of the world,” then we have far too small a definition of sin. This is what happens when sin is defined in exclusively vertical terms as breaking God’s rules rather than understanding sin as anything that causes harm (injustice) or makes us harmful (idolatry). If white evangelical Christians are going to experience the heart transformation that Tim Keller wants us to experience, then our gospel needs to have a full understanding of sin and a full understanding of what Jesus does with it. I imagine that the people of Keller’s Redeemer Church are living out the vision that he casts in Generous Justice, but too many white evangelicals are self-satisfied and indifferent to the world’s suffering because they haven’t experienced the fullness of God’s forgiveness.

Check out my book How Jesus Saves the World from Us!

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