Pastor Tim Keller, Gospel preaching, and abortion...

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"...even from the relative
safety of an in-house discussion among fellow believers and men
ordained to the ministry of
the Word and Sacrament, his language seems to deny our sister's moral
agency and the utter depravity of what she did to her own little ones."

(Tim, w/thanks to Joel) For quite a while, now, conservative reformed pulpits have been quiet about subjects that are controversial in our political context--particularly abortion. Here is a short article written by the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian (PCA) in New York City giving Pastor Tim Keller's explanation of this silence. The subject goes much deeper than the politics of abortion, to the very heart of our understanding of the Gospel and the place of the Law in Gospel proclamation and Lord's Day worship. First, this excerpt from Pastor Keller's article, followed by a response.

“Religion-less Spirituality” by Tim Keller

We will be careful with the order in which we communicate the parts of the faith. Pushing moral behaviors before we lift up Christ is religion. The church today is calling people to God with a tone of voice that seems to confirm their worst fears. Religion has always been outside-in-"if I behave out here in all these ways, then I will have God's blessing and love inside." But the gospel is inside-out-"if I know the blessing and grace of God inside, then I can behave out here in all these ways." A woman who had been attending our church for several months came to see me. "Do you think abortion is wrong?" she asked...

I said that I did. "I'm coming now to see that maybe there is
something wrong with it," she replied, "now that I have become a
Christian here and have started studying the faith in the classes." As
we spoke, I discovered that she was an Ivy League graduate, a lawyer, a
long-time Manhattan resident, and an active member of the ACLU. She
volunteered that she had experienced three abortions. "I want you to
know," she said, "that if I had seen any literature or reference to the
'pro-life' movement, I would not have stayed through the first service.
But I did stay, and I found faith in Christ. If abortion is wrong, you
should certainly speak out against it, but I'm glad about the order in
which you do it." This woman had had her faith incubated into birth our
Sunday services. In worship, we center on the question "what is truth?"
and the one who had the audacity to say, "I am the truth." That is the
big issue for postmodern people, and it's hard to swallow. Nothing is
more subversive and prophetic than to say Truth has become a real
person! Jesus calls both younger brothers and elder brothers to come
into the Father's arms. He calls the church to grasp the gospel for
ourselves and share it those who are desperately seeking true
spirituality. We, of all people, ought to understand and agree with
fears about religion, for Jesus himself warned us to be wary of it, and
not to mistake a call for moral virtue for the good news of God's
salvation provided in Christ."

* * *

Tim Keller is a master with words. Choosing and using them with the
precision of an opthamologist's laser beam, when Pastor Keller refers
to preaching against the slaughter of the unborn as "pushing moral
behaviors," he's telling us what he thinks most preachers are trying to
accomplish by opposing the slaughter of the unborn as a part of their
ministry of the Word.

What parishioner would choose a pastor who uses the pulpit to "push
moralism?" What preacher opposing the slaughter of the unborn would
recognize his difficult work in the summary phrase "pushing moral

But change the wording only slightly and things look different.
Instead of saying those who preach against abortion are "pushing moral
behavior," say that they are "opposing the slaughter of innocent
children," and we find ourselves more sympathetic toward the preachers
Pastor Keller is seeking to correct.

There's another place where the precision of Pastor Keller's language is revealing.

Later in the paragraph, Pastor Keller tells us that, before she was
converted, this sister in Christ murdered three of her unborn children.
Yet that's not how he put it.

She's a follower of Jesus Christ, now.
She's learned of His grace and mercy. So is this the time to speak of
abortion's awful reality? Is this the time to lead her through sin to
repentance? Theoretically, speaking to her of the murder of one's own
offspring is no longer "pushing moralism" since she's now seen Christ
lifted up on His Cross and she's embraced Him by faith. So again, is now the time when we
preach to her about child-slaughter?

Apparently not, because even now when she's confessed faith in Christ, Pastor Keller seems to excuse her
infanticide by speaking as if she's the victim--not her three unborn
babies. Note how he puts it:

...she had experienced three abortions.

"Experiencing three abortions" is a far cry from hiring someone to murder three of your children. Keep in mind, though, that
Pastor Keller isn't even talking to this new sister in Christ. No, he's
talking to Christians about how to witness, as well as other pastors about how to preach. So even from the relative
safety of an in-house discussion among fellow believers and men ordained to the ministry of
the Word and Sacrament, his language seems to deny our sister's moral agency and the utter depravity of what she did to her own little ones.

How would Pastor Keller speak of the other parties to these
child-murders? Would he say that they had "experienced abortions?"
What about the doctor this woman hired? Did he or she merely
"experience" these abortions, also? And the nurses paid to assist the
baby-killer--are they to be pitied for the abortions they "experience"
each week?

This language is a far cry from the pastoral care the prophet Nathan
lovingly brought to King David after David committed adultery with
Bathsheba and murdered her husband:

Then the LORD sent Nathan to David. And he came to him and said, “There
were two men in one city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man
had a great many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing except
one little ewe lamb Which he bought and nourished; And it grew up
together with him and his children. It would eat of his bread and drink
of his cup and lie in his bosom, And was like a daughter to him. Now a
traveler came to the rich man, And he was unwilling to take from his
own flock or his own herd, To prepare for the wayfarer who had come to
him; Rather he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the man
who had come to him.”

Then David’s anger burned greatly against the man, and he said to
Nathan, “As the LORD lives, surely the man who has done this deserves
to die. He must make restitution for the lamb fourfold, because he did
this thing and had no compassion.”

Nathan then said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the LORD God of
Israel, ‘It is I who anointed you king over Israel and it is I who
delivered you from the hand of Saul. I also gave you your master’s
house and your master’s wives into your care, and I gave you the house
of Israel and Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have
added to you many more things like these! Why have you despised the
word of the LORD by doing evil in His sight? You have struck down Uriah
the Hittite with the sword, have taken his wife to be your wife, and
have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon'" (2 Samuel 12:1-9).

In lovingly leading David to repentance, Nathan did everything possible
to maximize David's righteous indignation against the evil.

Only when he'd drawn the matter out with great pathos did Nathan
proceed to make it clear to David that he was the man who had committed
these great sins. And again, this was God and His prophet's love--not their moralistic self-righteousness or hatred.

There's much else that could be said about this short statement of
Pastor Keller's recommendations for how we approach abortion in our churches, today. Let me suggest
some questions that point to other concerns I have with his argument:

If this is how we are to approach abortion, is there any indication we
should approach any other violation of God's Moral Law in a manner
different from abortion? Lying? Stealing? Fornication? Sodomy? Idolatry?

Will we
have the new believers setting up an appointment with us to ask us
whether we think all of these other things are wrong, too?

Even if we accept Pastor Keller's approach to Gospel preaching, what
about the diaconal ministry of the church to the least of these--those unborn children being slaughtered around the corner from our worship facilities? What about congregational prayer? During those intervening months during which our sister was worshiping with Redeember each Lord's Day morning, was
there never a time when Pastor Keller prayed for God to bring an end to the sacrifice of our nation's
children to Molech? Was there never an announcement in Sunday morning
worship of the need for men and women of God who would picket the
abortuaries in New York City? Not even an announcement in the bulletin
or church newsletter?

Is Sunday worship only for evangelism--never for God's Covenant
People? And if it's partly for God's Covenant People, is there no place
for the Law of God being used for a tool of sanctification in the
preaching of the church?

Finally, are we to understand that there is no sin--none at
all--that God uses to lead a sinner to the grace of our Lord Jesus
Christ? How is a sinner to come to know his or her need of the blood of
Jesus Christ if the Gospel ministry of the Word doesn't expose his
wickedness? How is he to come to Christ if God's law may not be used as a
schoolmaster leading him to the Cross?

In the book of Acts, we see the Apostolic preaching of the Cross and
the tremendous evangelistic fruit it produced, whether in Athens or
Jerusalem. And sin is ground zero of that preaching. For instance, note
how the Apostle Peter brings his evangelistic Pentecost sermon to an

(Peter said) "Therefore let all the house of Israel
know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ--this Jesus
whom you crucified."

Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to
Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?”

Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of
Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the
gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children
and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to

And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!”

So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:36-41)

Peter concluded his sermon with two proclamations explicitly
designed to produce the effect that the
people were cut to the heart, repented, believed, were baptized, and
were added to Christ's Church: He said "This Jesus whom you crucified;"
and he also exhorted them to "repent" and "be saved from this perverse

As I've thought about Pastor Keller's counsel concerning mentioning abortion
in witnessing and as a part of Lord's Day worship proclamation, I've wondered whether there may not be
other better reasons for his counsel than his explanation above? Maybe it's not sin he thinks should be kept out of Gospel sermons, but specific sins commonly exploited by
conservative politicians for political ends?

But if this is his real
goal--to avoid identifying with the Republican Party or conservative
politics--he would do better to say that, precisely, and let the
argument proceed from there. Then we could engage a number of other
issues related to that strategy; say, for instance, that almost
every evil of our day is a political hot potato. Is the idolatry of the state also unmentionable? How about materialism? Divorce? The
denial of the Image of God in man thats at the core of Green politics? Sodomy? Must we wait quietly in our offices hoping and praying for visits from new converts before we unburden our consciences and finally 'fess up with our true convictions about each of these stumbling blocks that lead our sheep to Hell?

If we have time on our hands, it may be a good debate to have, and it might help some of us to grow in our thinking about the nature of the power of the Holy Spirit
in Gospel preaching. But I must say: I'm quite uneasy about what Pastor Keller has written. Quite, quite uneasy, bordering on scandalized.

As it now stands, it's hard to see how Pastor Keller's evangelistic
preaching strategy won't end up being a denial of the Law of God serving as a
schoolmaster to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. And every preacher alive knows that Pastor Keller's strategy comports quite well with the preaching methodology that will lead to the least amount of conflict in our congregations. But also, the least chance of a secret session meeting while we're on vacation with an offer of suitable remuneration in exchange for our resignation when we get home.