Tim Keller: hundreds of sermons, but no repentance...

A longtime pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) sent me an e-mail with an excerpt from a Yelp review of Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Going over there, I read all the reviews and here are some interesting excerpts...

...the church is mostly white and Asian. ...Since this is NYC I have to ask where are the African Americans, Puerto Ricans and other cultures? ...the congregation again not the pastors fault they seem to be focused on making money and their careers and not on God at all. God is there to bless their agendas this is how they seem to operate

So the culture of the church and focus of the congregation seems to be on White and Asians who make good money and have high end careers rather than on God. A huge basic of the Christian faith is death to self. Now you are a new person and your focus is to please God not yourself. But at Redeemer in the congregation when you hear testimonies that are approved by the pastoral staff they usually start with their professional credentials. I do not see any death to self but actually the opposite. Look at what I can do "for God' because of my high income and education.

And:

Even though I (now) have a good church in Chicago, I still log onto my Redeemer sermons account, sit back with my journal, and listen and write as his soft voice and "it's not about you" message deflate whatever frustration, tension, hurt, or disappointment I come to the table with.

And:

And I'm not even a Christian. ...That's right.  I'm one of those pluralist Christian-y-Buddhist-y-New-Age-y fusions who has a hard time finding a Christian church that accepts all of me (I know, Unitarian Universal much?) or a pastor that is smart, logical, and sounds like an Ivy League professor. ...Even if you're not Christian, go to hear a great orator hearken back to the Roman Forum.

And:

My impression of IAM (Redeemer's International Arts Movement) is that it's an international arts movement looking at art as a means of reconciliation in the world -  artists as reconcilers.... which resonates with my image of artists as story tellers and truth tellers in society... people to create visions of the future, to sense change and currents in society and cry out for the oppressed in the world... 

And:

I've been listening to his sermons online on and off for more than 10 years ...We have to pay for the online ones but it's nothing compared to transportation/parking fee... Back when I used to physically go there, I loved the music part of the service because people who sing/play music there are sooo talented.

And:

The thing my friend and I found disconcerting was the distinct lack of black and latino at Redeemer. It seemed more of a nice, midwest megachurch with lots of Asians and whites making up the majority of the congregation. Perhaps this is due, in part, to Redeemer's srong nexus with Campus Crusade-a very mid-American, evangelical movement that targets a largely educated, upper-middle-class audience.

Finally from the review dated 1/17/2011:

My husband and I regularly purchase and listen to his sermons. ...I haven't ever heard anyone speak of repentance at Redeemer -ever. Again I have listened to hundreds of sermons and been to at least a hundred services both on the West and East sides.

No one wants to be judged by some of his friends. Still, when you read all these unsolicited reviews, the uniformity of themes is telling. What these reviewers, both believers and unbelievers, write conforms to my experience of the PCA, generally: a Campus Crusade white and Asian culture that is success-driven, very soft, and never speaks of repentance.

This is the reason Tim Keller is every PCA pastor's hero. He's pulled it off better than anyone.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and fifteen grandchildren.

Comments

Personally, I have heard Tim Keller preach and speak about repentance - yes, even using that word - but it is quickly renamed in the sermon so as to be more relatable for his listeners. It may be that such renaming becomes revision and the strength of the concept of repentance is watered down.

Your post did make me reflect on a recent discussion we had at our Bible study. We had been looking at Matt 5-7 for a number of weeks, and when we got to the last section we had been given to study (7:13-29), one of the application questions we had been set was to consider how, in contrast to those spoken of in vv21-23, we could be assured that we were true disciples of Christ. There was strong resistance to the idea that we could look at our fruit of obedience. Instead, there was an immediate jump to trusting in Christ as our assurance.

Now, I don't disagree with the latter answer, but, as I tried to say on the night, the passage clearly says that we are to take our response to Jesus' commands into consideration - not just whether we obey, but how we obey. To my mind, if we don't see evidence of true discipleship there, we are to go back to Christ, repent, cry out for a heart of obedience and then obey.

After that, I read an article by Tim Keller on the Sermon on the Mount. I love what Tim Keller highlighted, but I also saw a very weak emphasis on obedience. Jesus, on the other hand, clearly considers obedience essential (5:17-20; 7:13-14, 19, 21, 23, 24, 26). So, whether Tim Keller preaches on repentance or not, I would suggest that due to emphasising "the sin underneath the sin", he de-emphasises "the sin on top of the sin". And that is a serious reduction of the biblical message, even as he works against reductionism in other areas.

This is the article I was referring to:
http://issuu.com/gospeldelta/docs/the_inside-out_kingdom_-_tim_keller

Re-reading it, I would be more careful in my comment above if I were to write it again. In the article he mentions repentance and near the end says a true Christian loves to study the Word of God and to have Jesus tell him what to do and where to change. I still believe there is an emphasis in Tim Keller's teaching on sin in general and not enough on sin in particular, and I do wonder whether overall he is more interested in speaking about the sin of the older brother than the sin of the younger brother...

But I need to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling more than I need to get to the bottom of this.

I have found by listening to Keller that he goes the long way in his arguements. To the point one can think he is what he ain't.
Like this..http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/is-tim-keller-weak-on-wrath

I appreciate the warnings I receive here about Tim Keller, and they have helped me interact with his stuff with a degree of caution that is good, but I have still found his writing to be encouraging and helpful. I attended Redeemer once while passing through NYC, and I remember hearing an excellent and doctrinally sound sermon on Acts 4, as well as being bothered by music that was far more of a performance than a leading of the congregation in worship. I take issue with the commenter who is frustrated with the absence of Black and Latino voices though--not because this isn't frustrating, but because this is the PCA we're talking about. And not just the PCA, but conservative reformed churches in general. We may not have the "Asian" component down here in South Carolina, but the "rich" and "White" are sure enough true. You would have a hard time finding a richer or whiter church in my city than the one I go to- and you would also have a hard time finding a more biblically sound one. Redeemer is full of rich White and Asian people because conservative reformed churches are full of rich White and Asian people. Presbyterianism has a strong Korean component that is just a matter of history. I think convicting Tim Keller of the sins of our entire corner of protestantism is a bit much. The best part of the above post is "This is the reason Tim Keller is every PCA pastor's hero. He's pulled it off better than anyone."

Sorry, reading the above I need to clarify a point. I do not mean to remotely imply that there is any kind of good connection between "rich, White, and Asian" and "Biblically sound." I do mean to point out that the two are not mutually exclusive. I am really bothered by the lack of racial diversity in the reformed church, especially Southern presbyterianism, and I think owning up to the racism of our past is a pressing need.

Who charges for sermon downloads? I don't know if I'm missing something but that seems like selling tickets to service. Can you imagine trying to scalp tickets to an Easter service? It's not like he needs the money. That should be a massive red flag to anyone interested in Redeemer.

>>I do not mean to remotely imply...

Dear Roger,

Understood.

Though at some point, somewhere, sometime, it would be good if we Reformed people were to ask ourselves whether Jesus would hang with rich whites and would preach gently to us, with pronounced erudition, about the necessity of our getting in touch with our narcissism and learning to be a bit less selfish and moralistic? I mean, I can see why you and I would choose such a church, but Jesus?

And if Jesus wouldn't, why do we?

Any spiritual or theological tradition whose history and present culture is bound to wealth and racism is not likely to have the Holy Spirit working in it. And really, which Reformed churches want the Holy Spirit working within us? We are intensely risk-averse and have no aspirations higher than the pursuit of religious excellence.

Thus we hire Brits and Scots with doctorates for our pulpits and we choose music directors who will mark the worship of the church with all the signs of good breeding. (But they have to be good at maintaining plausible deniability about their own homosexuality and the homosexuality of the musicians and organists who help them maintain all those signs of good breeding.)

Last night, we had a worship service that's become something of a tradition here at Clearnote Church, Bloomington, in which we pick up the story of Jesus's last week, starting with His cleansing of the Temple. Thus we read most of Matthew 21:12 through Matthew 26:16, interspersing comments, improving the text, and hymns. Obviously, the question at the front of every soul's mind was whether, if we had walked through those actions and stories and judgments with Jesus that week, we would have plotted His murder? Or humbled ourselves and loved Him with an undying love?

I'd recommend this tradition to every rich Presbyterian church. Sadly, though, it's incomprehensible that it could ever happen in our rich, white, cultured, educated, and smug tall-steeple Presbyterian churches. Picture Jesus' condemnation of whitewashed sepulchres filled with dead men's bones being improved by the pastor of First Presbyterian Jackson or Columbia or Second Pres Memphis or Fourth Pres Bethesda or Park Cities Pres Dallas or Redeemer Pres in any city of the country.

Yet we tell ourselves we have the best preaching and the best music ministry in town. 

Love,

Last night I happened to find a Keller sermon called "Idols of the Heart". In it, Keller quoted Luther's 95 Theses, point one: All of life is about repentance. Yet, Keller was also specific, pointed, and very practical in how one identifies sin and addresses is it in Christ. You've taken a comment from an anonymous Yelp review and made it a headline of your own. And yet, the article mentioned by Anthony above (http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/is-tim-keller-weak-on-wrath) refutes the point pretty soundly.

>>(the first of Luther's 95 Theses is) All of life is about repentance.

Dear Brent,

Actually, that's a poor summary of Luther's first thesis. But leaving that to the side...

A couple months ago, someone forwarded me Desiring God's defense of Tim Keller you provided the link for up above. I wasn't convinced by either the stats or the examples. Among other things, explaining or defending the doctrine of God's wrath is not the same as proclaiming His wrath.

Jonathan Edwards proclaimed God's wrath and Hell. Jesus proclaimed God's Wrath and Hell. We should model our preaching after Jesus.

Baylyblog has a bunch on Tim Keller's defective doctrine of Hell. This doctrine couldn't be more intimately bound up with the doctrine of God's wrath. If someone had demonstrated we'd misunderstood Tim Keller on Hell, we'd be open to someone making the case that this woman who's bought and listened to hundreds of Tim Keller's sermons and attended many worship services at Keller's different venues reporting to us:

I haven't ever heard anyone speak of repentance at Redeemer -ever. Again I have listened to hundreds of sermons and been to at least a hundred services both on the West and East sides.

Of course, not preaching repentance would go well with preaching explanations and defenses of the doctrine of God's wrath; explanations such as this Keller sermon excerpt used by Desiring God to prove Keller preaches the wrath of God:

There are a lot of people who struggle mightily with this whole idea. They say, “If God is a God of love, he doesn’t send people to hell. If God is a God of judgment, he can’t be a God of love. I can’t reconcile the two things.” Yet the Bible insists that not only is God a God both of love and wrath—not only do those two things not conflict with each other, but they actually establish each other. One without the other is nonsense. One without the other is meaningless. If you actually try to somehow extract, remove surgically, excise the Christian message of the wrath and judgment of God, what you actually have is nothing left at all.

Contrast this with the following excerpts from Edwards's sermons, none of which are taken from "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God":

(The wicked) will have no strength in their hands to do anything to appease God, or in the least to abate the fierceness of his wrath. They will not be able to offer any satisfaction: they will not be able to procure God's pity. Though they cry, God will not hear them. They will find no price to offer to God, in order to purchase any favor, or to pay any part of their debt.

And:

Whoever thou art, whether young or old, little or great, if thou art in a Christless, unconverted state, this is the wrath, this is the death to which thou art condemned. This is the wrath that abideth on thee; this is the hell over which thou hangest, and into which thou art ready to drop every day and every night.

And:

Flatter not thyself, that if these things shall prove true, and the worst shall come, thou wilt set thyself to bear it as well as thou canst. What will it signify to set thyself to bear, and to collect thy strength to support thyself, when thou shalt fall into the hands of that omnipotent King, Jehovah? He that made thee, can make his sword approach unto thee. His sword is not the sword of man, nor is his wrath the wrath of man. If it were, possibly stoutness might be maintained under it. But it is the fierceness of the wrath of the great God, who is able to baffle and dissipate all thy strength in a moment. He can fill thy poor soul with an ocean of wrath, a deluge of fire and brimstone; or he can make it ten thousand times fuller of torment than ever an oven was full of fire; and at the same time, can fill it with despair of ever seeing an end to its torment, or any rest from its misery: and then where will be thy strength? What will become of thy courage then? What will signify thine attempts to bear?

John the Baptist preached:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Matthew 3:7-12)

And finally, our Lord Himself:

I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him! (Luke 12:4, 5)

There is a certain tone of voice that's very different in the preaching of Edwards, John the Baptist, and our Lord.

Desiring God promotes Jonathan Edwards and Tim Keller. One of these two is not like the other.

Love,

Keller's message regarding God's wrath is pitched to avoid offending the unrepentant. He wields the sword of the Spirit in such a way as to make sure it does not cut.

"I take issue with the commenter who is frustrated with the absence of Black and Latino voices though--not because this isn't frustrating, but because this is the PCA we're talking about. And not just the PCA, but conservative reformed churches in general. We may not have the "Asian" component down here in South Carolina, but the "rich" and "White" are sure enough true."

Well, sure.

As a black PCA TE who was ordained in the Metro NYC Presbytery and served at Redeemer NYC right out of seminary, there are few things more boringly obvious about the PCA (and the wider conservative reformed world) than its rich, Asian/white-ness. It's almost too plain to say.

But let's cut through the dismissive superficial acknowledgement of that fact and say the truer thing: we love it this way. In matters of race and class in the church, we almost always choose comfort over the cross. We hate the discomfort of being with too many who aren't like us. We hate it because we hate cross bearing. PCA churches - northern, southern, urban...take your pick - are where conservative Reformed Christians go to make their stand against the God who delights in diversity. Racial and cultural comfort is the sine qua non of our tribe and when the church planting gurus teach planters about demographic target markets (read rich Asian/white gentrifiers), they are admitting as much.

Almost from day one, it was clear to me that I was a black mascot, a token symbol up front that soothed baby boomer white guilt and allowed Redeemer to say, 'See, we have negroes here. We're not so bad.' But here's the dirty little secret that every black and Latino PCA person knows: our churches are perfectly content have our color, just not our culture. Let a black man raise concerns and questions around unexamined areas of race, let the discussion get beyond symbol into the very substance of exactly how PCA churches work against Christ honoring inclusion, the violent impulse of institutional self-preservation will show itself. A formerly 'safe negro' is now a menace and 'ideological' threat to the delicate, easily frightened sensibilities of white PCA leadership.

This is probably hard to hear but these are hard issues when we get beyond the generic rhetoric of reconciliation, diversity et al. It's the kind of nitty gritty stuff you have to meet head on when you're a part of a multi ethnic expression of Christ's body.

The Yelp commenter is right in her dismay. In a major global city with more non-white than white people, 'flagship' mega-churches, with a demonstrable absence of two large, nearly ubiquitous ethnic groups, are a visible affront to and denial of the barrier breaking power of the gospel.

It is dreadfully tedious to see people using "we" when they mean "you." When you say "we love it this way" I'm slightly suspicious that you meant "you", not "we." And it is rather insular to take NYC and project it onto a national denomination. I've been members of two PCA churches and while there were a couple of black and hispanic members we didn't have any Asian members. One of the two churches tended to rich, the other not at all. Don't worry, you're hardly the only one who takes his experience and projects it across entire denominations.

When you say " the God who delights in diversity" it makes you sound a bit like a Marcionite as I don't see God delighting in diversity in the Old Testament. And He doesn't change when the New Testament rolls around.

"Let a black man raise concerns and questions around unexamined areas of race, let the discussion get beyond symbol into the very substance of exactly how PCA churches work against Christ honoring inclusion, the violent impulse of institutional self-preservation will show itself."

On the other hand the fact that a black brother in Christ makes an argument hardly means that we are obligated to find it compelling. And when you say "change your culture in order to make me feel comfortable" it really isn't very different from other people who church shop looking for a good youth program with a gym or a singles "ministry" or whatever it is that person wants. And if I attend a Reformed church in another country should I tell those folk to change their culture, as expressed in their church? Or in this country if I should attend an AMEC church should they change their culture or worship to conform to my comfort and preference?

"A formerly 'safe negro' is now a menace and 'ideological' threat to the delicate, easily frightened sensibilities of white PCA leadership." Isn't that a little bit risk averse way of really meaning not only the leadership but the average person sitting in the pews? Which would be a Kellerite way of saying the thing.

A Christ honoring church is not one that shops for insurance ethnicities. It is one that will endeavor to love and show courtesy to whoever comes through the door, regardless of race. If a member wants to share his perspective it should be permitted with courtesy but it isn't required to be accepted if it isn't compelling. The PCA shouldn't be trying to alter themselves to pursue groups, be it Swedes, blacks, SCV members or even those of us with GAR members in our pasts.

BTW if we want to delight God we won't focus on diversity, we'll focus on repentance and obedience and faith. If we focus on those we can have reconciliation.

One last BTW, I'm not in the PCA anymore and I'm not even especially fond of the PCA, it is probably my second least favorite NAPARC denomination.

>>It is dreadfully tedious to see people using "we" when they mean "you." When you say "we love it this way" I'm slightly suspicious that you meant "you", not "we." 

Dear David,

I'm very sorry to be dreadfully tedious to you, but those of us who preach often say "we" when we condemn groups and their sins because we see ourselves in the sin, first. We preach to ourselves, first.

Thus we mean "we," not "you."

Love you brother,

Tim,

I wasn't referring to you but thanks for the info. If Mr. Robinson means that he too is guilty of wanting the PCA to be rich/white/Asian then I'll be a bit surprised, particularly as he seems eager to make the PCA resemble him instead and thinks that would be a virtuous thing. As Rex Harrison used to sing (sort of) "why can't a woman be more like a man"...

>>He doesn't change when the New Testament rolls around.

Uh David, does your Bible have this in it: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

And how about the Apostle Paul resisting the Apostle Peter to his face when he switched where he was sitting in the church potluck—have you read that story?

Christianity is the fulfillment of the radically egalitarian inclusivity that the world promises, but never delivers. Every tribe and nation.

Let me also say that dear Pastor Mark Robinson is precisely right in everything he wrote, but held himself back from saying more that would have made most of us consider him a hero. I've known him for years and he's one of the only men I've ever met who called Tim Keller and his fan-girls and boys on their theological unfaithfulness. Honor him as a prophet, please.

Thank you, and love,

Tim,

God is all inclusive to the repentant but never talks about diversity. You have it backwards. There is no Jew nor Greek. The diversity advocate says there is both Jew and Greek. (or Asian if you like). The church is catholicity, not diversity.

I would say that Pastor Robinson was precisely right if I thought he was. You hear prophecy, I hear the spirit of the age. Of course you have the advantage of knowing him, I am forced to be content to know his words on the screen and nothing else.

Love

Thanks, Tim. I don't speak German, but apparently Luther said that Jesus "called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance." I thought Keller explained that powerfully and faithfully. His whole message was about repentance (though this particular message was not given at Redeemer). I agree that wrath is tied to repentance. I'm not sure I agree that we must model all our preaching on that of Jesus. My friends who promote "storying" on the mission field believe this follows directly from Jesus' use of parables. Yet, Jesus used parables because he was... well, Jesus. There was a purpose of keeping things from certain hearers, which was a judgment on them. We should not "hide" gospel truths... as Jesus did. Is it possible he also communicated judgment in a way which we should approach somewhat differently? Machen acknowledges that it is the Spirit which must convict. (And I'm remembering that someone said even Machen's friends found him difficult to like.) How is a modern ear more likely to hear the Spirit's conviction? Through the already stereotyped in-your-face approach, or through a Biblically reasoned, sober assessment of our common, idolatrous hearts?

Machen acknowledges that it is the Spirit which must convict....How is a modern ear more likely to hear the Spirit's conviction? Through the already stereotyped in-your-face approach, or through a Biblically reasoned, sober assessment of our common, idolatrous hearts?

That's an interesting shift from the sovereignty of the Spirit to what amounts to the sovereignty of the preacher (or is it the audience?) over the words spoken in place of God's words.

It's also striking you brought up man's idolatrous heart - a trope of Keller's where idol preaching is done most effectively through the avenues of the New York Times, Hollywood, and Harvard...meanwhile, sexual idols expressed in feminism/egalitarianism, infanticide, and pornography are left largely unscathed. Even when Keller speaks of pornography, he can only speak in therapeutic terms where the idolater struggles with self-hate making it impossible for a sinner to begin assenting to what his sin is and engage in repentance. Also telling is what he'll highlight as child sacrifice in New York City (start around 26:00) while leaving out what is more obviously child sacrifice.

He's right about how prevalent idolatry is -- more right than he lets on -- but he carefully misses the most obvious forms. And if idolatry is at the heart of man's problem, he is denying opportunities for repentance even while talking about repentance. That's why a word search in sermons isn't necessarily a good indicator.

As for Mark Robinson's comments, I am reminded of Revelation 7:9 and Revelation 5:9.
Speaking as an outsider, admittedly, but dealing with diversity can be hard work. In our city, the leading Baptist church was wanting to reach out into a very poor 'sink estate' (housing project) and realised that getting the people along to their own city church was going to be a struggle in every way imaginable. So they chose instead to support a church in the area itself, realising that things would need to be done differently, and got as its pastor someone who in a previous life had done time for burglary and violence!
I wonder if Mark Robinson would be on stronger ground if he were challenging the PCA to church-plant in specifically African-American areas, and in ways that acknowledged the (significant) cultural differences which would be involved. From what I can tell the SBC has made a specific effort to work in this way. Disagreements with this POV welcome.

I'm coming in rather late, but other people might, like me, find this with a google search.

1. I read Pastor Robinson's point as being that more black faces in the pews would be perfectly acceptable in PCA churches, but useless in itself. Rather, what is missing is poor people, or even middle-income people. There aren't poor whites either, but you can't tell that just by looking. Liberals are similar; their ideal is to associate with people who except for skin color are identical to themselves. The PCA probably doesn't care about skin color either--- they really do have neither Jew nor Greek, but they do have educated vs. uneducated, rich vs. poor, orderly life vs. disorderly life.

2. For Brent: the point running throughout Luther's 95 Theses is that a Christian will never get rid of his sin entirely, either by his own efforts or with the help of God and the Church. Indulgences were just one example of where the Church had gone wrong on that point, though a clear one: paying a certain sum of money to the Church in exchange for wiping out sins doesn't work. The first thesis summarizes that: for his entire life, the Christian will be changing ("repenting", metanoia), and no one become a saint, perfect, finished. (I'm up on this because I've been homeschooling my kids with the Theses, reading them myself for the first time. They're great for homeschooling--- highly relevant theology, history, rhetoric, and vocabulary all combined.)

@Eric - thanx, this does make more sense of Mark Robinson's point.

Add new comment