by Dr. E.S. Williams
The Rev. Tim Keller is one of the pillars of the New Calvinist movement. As the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, Keller claims to promote Reformed Christianity. He has served as Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, and regarded by many as a great Christian intellectual in the mould of C.S. Lewis. He has a reputation of being a deep thinking, conservative Christian leader—an expert in Christian apologetics, and skilled in arguments that demonstrate the truth of Christianity in a postmodern world. In a sermon on who is Jesus, Tim Keller helps his listeners to see Jesus Christ as ‘existentially satisfying’ and ‘intellectually credible’. His church holds that “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.”1
Keller earned a Master of Divinity degree from Gordon-Conwell Seminary in 1975 and then gained a Doctor of Ministry degree at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America the late 1970s. In 1989 he planted a church in the Manhattan borough of New York City. Under Keller’s leadership Redeemer Presbyterian Church has prospered and now has approximately 5,000 members. Keller has successfully planted many churches and the Redeemer Network, which follows Keller’s theology and philosophy, comprises around 150 congregations, scattered around the USA and in other countries.
Tim Keller is one of the founders of The Gospel Coalition. He is a best-selling author and popular conference speaker. He has written a number of books, including The Reason for God (2008), The Prodigal God (2009), and Generous Justice (2010). He is so highly regarded in evangelical circles that he was a keynote speaker at the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation held in Cape Town in 2010, which is probably the largest meeting of evangelical church leaders ever held. He has addressed the Evangelical Ministry Assembly in London—in 2007 he spoke on ‘What is an Evangelical?’ and in 2011 on ‘Preaching that Connects’. He gave the eulogy speech at John Stott’s memorial service in the USA.
Despite Keller’s massive reputation and popularity among evangelical Christians, we maintain that he does not proclaim the historic gospel of truth once delivered to the saints, but a gospel of his own making. Two examples demonstrate the truth of this assertion. First is Keller’s appearance before The Veritas Forum, and the second is his paper on ‘Deconstructing Defeater Beliefs: Leading the Secular to Christ’.
Keller before The Veritas Forum, interviewed by Martin Bashir
The Veritas Forum holds university events that engage students and faculty in discussions about life’s hardest questions and the relevance of Jesus Christ to all of life. In August 2011, Tim Keller was invited to deal with the subject, ‘The Reason for God? Belief in an Age of Skepticism’, drawing upon the arguments laid out in his book. Interviewed by NBC journalist Martin Bashir, Dr Tim Keller presents intellectually rigorous reasons why believing in God makes sense. In the course of the interview he is asked a series of questions having to do with Jesus Christ being the only way to God. Please view the video clip for it tells us much about Tim Keller and the flawed gospel he proclaims.
Ashamed of the Gospel of Truth?
In this interview what do we see? A great theologian defending the gospel of truth? An intellectual giant contending for the doctrines of the Bible? No. What we get is a glimpse of the real Tim Keller, for we no longer see an intellectual giant, but a confused, bumbling man that seems to be unwilling or unable to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.
His response to the question, Is Jesus the only way to God? is to prevaricate, for he says he can only answer a question about eternal salvation “if Jesus is who He says He is”. Why, is there some doubt in his mind? But this is the point. Right here Keller could have quoted Scripture to make clear that Jesus Christ is the only way to God. He could have quoted Jesus’ famous statement: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14.6). He could have quoted the apostle Peter: “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4.12). But he quoted neither text, for, as we shall see, Keller’s gospel is not based on Scripture.
Keller says to be a Christian means that your soul has to ‘get Jesus’. What does this mean? Is Jesus some commodity, like a bar of soap that you can ‘get’ from a supermarket shelf? And then he makes the remarkable statement, before a large audience, that God may have a trap door for unbelievers that “I haven’t been told about”? He is surmising that God may actually have a secret way to heaven for those who do not repent of their sins and place their faith in Christ. But Keller’s ‘trap door’ possibility is unbiblical and deeply heretical, for it implies that Christ died in vain. Christ said, “I am the Door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved” (John 10.9). “He who does not enter by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber” (John 10.1). There is only one Door to heaven, Jesus Christ.
Keller asserts that unbelievers are ‘miserable’ now, and in a billion years from now will still be miserable. Why? Because according to Keller, unbelievers ‘will eternally shrivel’. But Scripture says that on the Day of Judgment Christ will say: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25.41). So unbelievers will be not only miserable, but will be cast into hell with the devil and his angels. This is the message of Scripture.
And the final shock—the great theologian admits that he does not know what happens to unbelievers who die without Christ. He says: “If they die and they don’t have Jesus Christ, I don’t know what happens to them.” But how can he say he does not know when Scripture is clear? Is he ashamed of the gospel? Scripture says: “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3.36). The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) says that at the Last Judgment: “The wicked, who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.”
This interview tells us much about Tim Keller. Note that he did not once refer to Scripture. And the reason is obvious—Keller’s gospel is not based on Scripture. Before our eyes a so-called intellectual giant has shrivelled into a theological pigmy. He was faced with the difficult task of trying to make his flawed version of the gospel appear to be the gospel of truth, once delivered unto the saints. But this is an impossible task, even for the clever Rev Tim Keller.
Keller’s shaky foundation
In his article, ‘Deconstructing Defeater Beliefs: Leading the Secular to Christ’, Keller sets out to show the Church the kinds of arguments that should be used to make the gospel appear attractive to a postmodern society.2 The article is largely based on the ideas of philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who was Professor for Philosophy and Director of the Centre of Philosophy and Religion at the Catholic Notre Dame University from 1982 until 2010. Although Plantinga claims to be a Protestant, he is deeply sympathetic to the Catholic Church. In 1998 he published reflections on John Paul II’s encyclical On Faith and Reason. Plantinga argued that while some Protestants may be in less than enthusiastic agreement with all that the Pope has written, “they will (or should) regard both the Pope and Catholics generally as brothers and sisters in Christ—and as wonderful allies in precisely these areas of responding to contemporary non-Christian philosophy... we do not need to fight each other. We must make common cause with these fellow Christians...”3
So Keller’s article is based on the ideas of a philosopher who has spent three decades working in a Catholic University. Significantly the article, which purports to show Christians how the gospel should be taught, does not use Scripture, and there are no biblical references at all—Keller’s gospel is based on his ideas, not on Scripture.
To find out why people don’t believe the gospel, Keller did a survey of unbelieving under-25s in New York. One of the main reasons for unbelief, according to Keller’s survey, is the record of Christians, who are seen as hypocrites. According to unbelievers the Christian Church has a history of supporting injustices, of destroying culture, of oppression. Keller concedes that “there have been terrible abuses. But in the prophets and the gospels we are given tools for a devastating critique of moralistic religion. Scholars have shown that Marx and Nietzsche’s critique of religion relied on the ideas of the prophets. So despite its abuses, Christianity provides perhaps greater tools than the other religions do for its own critique.”4
Keller accepts the Christian faith has caused terrible abuses that have been justifiably criticised by Marx and Nietzsche. He makes the incredible statement that Karl Marx and Frederick Nietzsche, in their critique of Christianity, relied on the ideas of the Old Testament prophets. Nothing could be further from the truth. These two godless philosophers were driven by a deep hatred of Christ and committed to the destruction of the Christian faith. Indeed, the Encyclopaedia Britannica assesses Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity as follows: “At bottom the charge is always the same: Christianity is born of weakness, failure and resentment and is the enemy of reason and honesty...” In his essay The Madman, Nietzsche announces the death of God, and invites the reader to listen for the noise of the gravediggers burying the decaying corpse of God. And having declared the death of God, Nietzsche asserts that man is liberated from the moral law of God and free to produce a moral framework that is to his liking. Keller’s statement that Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity was based on the ideas of the prophets is wildly misleading.
Keller spends much of the article stressing the importance of making the gospel culturally sensitive. He asserts that man’s resistance to the Gospel is inherently cultural: “Every culture hostile to Christianity holds to a set of ‘common-sense’ consensus beliefs that automatically make Christianity seem implausible to people. These are what philosophers call ‘defeater beliefs’... Christianity is disbelieved in one culture for totally opposite reasons it is disbelieved in another.” He says that “it is widely assumed that Christianity can’t be true because of the cultural belief that American culture, based on Christianity, is unjust and corrupt.”5 The inference is that American culture causes people to reject the gospel of Christ.
But Scripture never mentions culture as a reason for people rejecting the light of the gospel. Scripture says: “An this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3.19-20). Our Lord Jesus Christ said to the unbelieving Jews: “But because I tell the truth you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God” (John 8.45-47).
Sharing the Gospel
Keller speaks of two parts in sharing the gospel. The negative aspect “means you have to show on the culture’s own terms (that is, by its own definitions of justice, rationality, meaning) that its objections to Christianity don’t hold up.” The positive aspect means “you have to show in line with the culture’s own (best) aspirations, hopes, and convictions that its own culture won’t be resolved or have ‘a happy ending’ outside Christ.”6 So in Keller’s thinking, preaching the gospel is all about understanding cultural issues. People must be shown that their best cultural aspirations will have a happy ending in Christ. But it is only Keller’s false Christ that causes cultures to have a happy ending. The Christ of the Bible transforms sinners, not a culture, into “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy” (1 Peter 2.9-10).
Keller’s sandwich approach to sharing the gospel
Keller advocates a three stage approach in presenting the gospel which he calls a sandwich approach. “First, the gospel must be presented briefly but so vividly and attractively (and so hooked into the culture’s base-line cultural narratives) that the listener is virtually compelled to say, “It would be wonderful if that were true, but it can’t be!” The second stage is to dismantle objections to Christianity and show why it can be true. The third stage is to present a longer explanation of the person and work of Christ.7
The idea that the gospel should be made so attractive that it appears to be too good to be true is contrary to Scripture. Scripture says the Cross of Christ is an offence to an unbelieving world. The Lord Jesus said that those who would be his disciples must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and obey his commands. The Christian life is hard and difficult; those who follow Christ will be hated by the world and “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3.12). Before becoming a follower of Christ we must count the cost.
Keller wants the gospel to be made so attractive that it seems almost too good to be true. But this is pure folly, for it leads to false disciples who come to Christ for what they can get out of it. The gospel is not a commodity that can be marketed with clever words and a vivid presentation. The apostle Paul preached “the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1.17-18). Paul’s speech and preaching “were not with persuasive words of human wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2.4).
Keller says the gospel must “be presented in connection with baseline cultural narratives - Jesus must be the answer to the questions the culture is asking. Don’t forget—every gospel presentation presents Jesus as the answer to some set of human-cultural questions... every gospel presentation has to be culturally incarnated, it must assume some over-riding cultural concern... Christianity must be presented as answers to the main questions and aspirations of our culture.” And Keller says the two main cultural concerns of contemporary people are concern for personal freedom and identity, and concern for unity in diversity.8
Keller’s assertion that Jesus Christ is the answer to the main questions and aspirations of our culture trivialises the work and person Christ. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647): “The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself, which he through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father, and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the Kingdom of Heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him.” Jesus Christ is our Saviour from sin and the wrath of God against all our wickedness, for he has made peace through the blood of his Cross (Colossians 1.20). He “gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from every lawless deed, and purify for himself his own special people zealous for good works” (Titus 2.14).
Keller’s gospel presentation
Keller gives an example of a brief gospel presentation.9 First, says Keller, we must explain why we are here. “God made a good, beautiful world filled with beings who share in this life of joy and peace by knowing, serving and loving God and one another.” Then we must explain what went wrong. “Instead, we chose to center our lives on ourselves and on the pursuit of things rather than on God and others. This has led to the disintegration of creation and the loss of peace—within ourselves, between ourselves and in nature itself. War, hunger, poverty, injustice, racism... and death are all symptoms.” Here we should note that Keller propagates a false view of the fallen nature of man, and therefore a false understanding of the nature of sin. In a review of Keller’s book The Reason for God (2008), in which he promotes the concept of theistic evolution, Lita Cosner makes the point: “Obviously, Keller’s view of sin is warped by his theistic evolutionary beliefs; in fact, he identifies ‘original sin’ not as due to Adam’s disobedience in Eden (as the Apostle Paul does in Romans 5), but as ‘humanity’s inherent pride and self-centeredness’” (p167).10
The next task in presenting the gospel, says Keller, is to answer the question: What puts the world right? “But though God lost us he determined to win us back. He entered history in the person of Jesus in order to deal with all the causes and results of our broken relationship with him. By his sacrificial life and death he both exemplifies the life we must live and rescues us from the life we have lived. By his resurrection he proved who he was and showed us the future—new bodies and a completely renewed and restored new heavens and new earth in which the world is restored to full joy, justice, peace and glory.” The final step, according to Keller, is to explain how we can be part of putting the world right. “Between his first coming to win us and his last coming to restore us we live by faith in him... He [Christ] puts us into a new community of people which gives a partial, but real, foretaste of the healing of he world that God will accomplish when Jesus returns.”
Here the comments of a former member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York, Jonathan Cousar, who attended Keller’s church for nearly 20 years, are relevant, for he has heard hundreds of Keller sermons. Cousar writes: “I went to Tim Keller’s church for nearly 20 years and in fact I left just last year because of my growing concern that the church and Tim were far more liberal, theologically and ideologically than I had ever imagined.” Cousar continues: “To sum up Keller’s theology most succinctly, Keller says ‘the primary purpose of salvation is - cultural renewal - to make this world a better place’. That statement should alarm any true evangelical or conservative Christian. And it must be understood that this one statement is central to all of Keller’s teachings.”11
Keller’s false gospel
The gospel that Keller is encouraging Christians to preach is not the gospel once delivered to the saints, but a false gospel. Note the words that Keller avoids in his gospel presentation—sin, rebellion, God’s wrath, judgment, holiness, justification by faith, repentance and so on. Keller presents the problem of mankind as choosing “to center our lives on ourselves, and this has resulted in the lost of peace—within ourselves, between ourselves, and in nature itself.” Here we see the depth of Keller’s heresy, for his gospel does not teach that mankind has rebelled against a holy God, and is under the wrath and condemnation of a righteous God who is too holy to look upon man’s sin. Keller’s gospel does not teach the total depravity of man, or that sin is an outrage against God. “Against you, and you only, have I sinned and done this evil in your sight” (Psalm 51.4). Keller’s gospel does not teach that unregenerate man is dead in trespasses and sins and walks “according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who works in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2.2). Keller’s gospel knows nothing of God’s holiness. Keller’s gospel does not teach that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1.18).
Keller’s gospel teaches that “by his sacrificial life and death he [Christ] both exemplifies the life we must live and rescues us from the life we have lived”. So the Jesus that Keller has invented is a Jesus who came to be an example, the one who shows us how we should live. Scripture teaches that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1.29). He came to die on the Cross of Calvary for the sins of his people. He came to lay down his life for sinners. He came to die that we might be forgiven and reconciled to God. Charles Wesley captured these gospel truths in his great hymn.
“He breaks the power of cancelled sin, He sets the prisoner free;
Keller teaches that purpose of the Christian life is to put the world right, to make the world a better place. Scripture teaches that purpose of the Christian life is to be transformed into the image of Christ, to take up the whole armour of God in order to stand against the wiles of the devil, and to preach the gospel to all nations. Christ said, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14.15). “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12.2).
God’s purpose is to redeem for himself a holy people, a royal priesthood, who will forever live with God and his Christ in the new heaven and new earth. “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21.1-4).
Tim Keller has a reputation for being a sound Protestant Christian leader. His teachings are widely propagated through The Gospel Coalition, the Redeemer Network, the Evangelical Ministry Assembly in the UK, and conferences around the world. The truth is that Keller does not abide by the orthodox doctrines of the Christian Church. He uses a pseudo intellectual, philosophical approach to propagate a man made gospel. He is promoting a false gospel that is far from biblical truth. Please look at the other articles on Keller, to be posted on this website shortly, in order to understand the full extent of his false teaching.
You will see that he is deeply ecumenical in approach and sympathetic to the Catholic cause. Indeed, his commitment to the Catholicism is so deep that Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York engages in mystical Catholic practices. He has such a low view of Scripture that he goes out of his way to promote the false doctrine of theistic evolution. He is so impressed with the idea of humanistic psychology that his church runs a fee charging counselling service that integrates psychological theories with Scripture. He is so taken with the ways of the world that he promotes a liberal political agenda. And the great tragedy of Tim Keller is that all this is done under the banner of Reformed Calvinism.
See also a series of the articles by Dr Paul M. Elliott of Teaching the Word Ministries.
Part 1. Tim Keller: Dangerously Influential
Part 2. Tim Keller’s Gutless ‘Gospel’
Part 3. Tim Keller’s False Gospel: Changing Both the Method and the Message
Part 4. Tim Keller’s False Gospel: A ‘Sandwich’ Made Without the Bread of Life
Discuss this article and other topics in our Discussion Board