Tim Keller: What are the risks for evangelicals?

Every Monday or Tuesday I download the latest sermon from Redeemer Presbyterian in New York. In June, Tim Keller began a two-month break. The other preachers at Redeemer are also excellent, but when I heard that Keller was speaking at the EMA Conference in London, England, I had to get my fix. So, I ordered the CD.


Keller spoke in a number of sessions:

  • What is an evangelical ministry?
  • What are the risks for evangelicals?
  • What is an evangelical ministry?
  • Ministry in the city

In this talk, “What are the risks for evangelicals?” Keller talks about what’s happening within the evangelical movement right now. There’s a new hostility toward evangelicals in culture, and post-evangelicals (the emerging church) are also expressing criticisms. How should evangelicals respond?

I’ve listened to this a couple of times now, and I think Keller says some really helpful things. Here are some highlights, along with my notes from the entire talk.


    • Evangelicalism used to occupy the middle ground between fundamentalism and liberalism. It was orthodox, pro-scholarship, and facing the world. Recently, evangelicalism has become more hostile and condemning of culture. A younger generation has given up on evangelicalism as a middle ground and are looking for a new consensus. This group goes by a number of names, such as post-evangelicals or the emerging church.
    • A new gospel is being preached about the Kingdom of God and Jesus Christ overcoming the evil powers forces of injustice in the world. [Update: This version of the gospel rarely talks about personal sin and God’s wrath.] The pendulum has swung the other way.
    • To respond, evangelicals must understand and practice biblical repentance as a result of believing the gospel. This will allow evangelicals to admit their sins, even if they disagree with 80% of the criticisms from the post-evangelicals, and even if the remaining 20% is expressed poorly. To the degree that we understand the gospel, we will be able to freely admit our shortcomings as an evangelical movement.
    • Don’t ever think that we can respond to legitimate criticisms of our practice by defending our doctrine. In defending our doctrines, we have not responded to the criticisms of our practices. Orthopraxy is part of orthodoxy.
    • It is necessary to draw boundaries. What really matters is how we treat the people on the other side of those boundaries. People are watching. We’re going to win the younger leaders if we are the most gracious, kind, and the least self-righteous in controversy. The truth will ultimately lose if we hold the right doctrines, but do so with nasty attitudes and a lack of love.
  • We need to approach the controversies with a repentant heart corporately and say, “Despite all the bad things that are being said here, there’s a core of truth here and we need to deal with it.”

Notes from “What are the risks?”

Review from Keller’s First Talk – What is an Evangelical Ministry?

Evangelicals are gospel people. They believe that the gospel essentials are the most important thing. There are many other things the Bible teaches, but we major in the gospel essentials. These things unite us:

  • We get the gospel from the Bible, and believe in the final, full plenary authority and clarity of Scripture.
  • We believe that the gospel is that we are saved by sheer grace alone through faith alone through the substitutionary work of Christ alone.
  • The gospel is activated by lives initially and constantly through repentance.

Today, we want to look at what the challenges are that face evangelicals today, and how we can effectively handle them.

What are the challenges that face evangelicals today?

We are entering into a greater time of criticism, both within our ranks and outside. This is a great opportunity for growth, and a teachable moment. You always learn and grow more from criticism if you know how to handle that criticism.

There is a backlash in the culture against evangelicals, and there is fragmentation and controversy and disunity within the culture as well.

a. Backlash within culture

For years, evangelicals were tolerated or ignored. There is now a sense that we are dangerous. Why is this happening?

To some degree, the situation is our fault (American’s fault). 25 years ago about half of evangelicals voted Democrat. Now about 80-90% vote Republican. Evangelical Christians are concentrated at the conservative end of the spectrum.

We are seeing a backlash:

  • The number of Christians who say they have no religious preference has always been miniscule – 3 or 4%. In the last 10 years that has almost tripled. There is an enormous backlash against the religious right.
  • When cultural influencers read books like The Next Christendom, describing a robust Christianity is growing at 7-10 times the population rate in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, they express panic and fear that we are going back to the dark ages.
  • Books from Hitchens and Dawkins and Harris take an aggressive stand against Christianity. There are also some influential books in America warning that if we have a recession, the Christian right will take over and we’ll be in the same position as Germany in the 1920s. Most of the reviews only say that this book goes a little over the top.

This hostility will continue within culture.

b. Fragmentation within evangelicalism

Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, and Carl Henry in the States, and John Stott in the UK, carved out a new space between liberalism and fundamentalism between the 1940s and 1960s.

Basically evangelicalism is this: The liberals are not orthodox in their theology, but are engaged with culture and scholarship. Fundamentalists are orthodox in their theology, but are separatist and anti-intellectual. Evangelicalism aimed to be orthodox but engaged, concerned with scholarship, and facing the world. And actually, it worked. This middle ground has been the most vital – until recently.

The rise of the Christian right has made many evangelicals more hostile and condemning to culture. Then you have the charismatic movement, which has been good in many ways but is sometimes anti-intellectual.

A younger generation – sometimes called the emerging church, sometimes post-conservatives or post-evangelicals, are saying, “The old consensus isn’t going to work anymore.” They are responding to the anti-intellectualism of the charismatic movement, and to the rigidity, self-righteousness, and political narrowness of the Christian right. And they are blaming it on classical evangelical doctrine.

They are looking for a new center and consensus.

In the older culture, people believed they had to be good, that there are moral standards, and that if there is a God he’s mad at them. Therefore the older gospel is that you have a problem with God and turns aside the wrath of God.

They say this gospel won’t work anymore, because people don’t believe they have a problem with God, and if we look within the church we see all kinds of problems and not many changed lives.

The new gospel is not that Jesus took away the wrath of God and that if you believe in him you can be forgiven. The new gospel is that the Kingdom of God is here. Jesus Christ has overcome the powers that are oppressing the world. By dying on the cross he has opened the way to a new way of life, allowing you to become an agent of peace and justice in the world. You become a Christian by entering into community and by a mixture of faith and work in making Jesus Christ Lord.

This gospel says to the non-Christian that we’re not about the wrath of God, we’re about a new way of life. It says to the unchanged evangelical that being a Christian is not just believing; it is following him.

We as classic evangelicals believe there are huge problems with that. When you change the gospel to deal with the powers, it ignores the problems within. As G.K. Chesterton supposedly said, the problem with the world is me. The problem with the world starts with our sin. The other problem is that we can’t be agents of reconciliation without a heart change. We can’t abandon being saved by grace alone through faith alone in favor of a program of works. It won’t lead us to sing, “My chains fell off, my heart was free. I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”

Dr. Richard Lovelace used to say that in history you see the pendulum swing like this: In times of low spiritual vitality, orthodox churches tend to detach justification from sanctification. That is, people say that they are saved without working that out in repentance. As a result, people are shaped by culture and not changed. Then the pendulum swings the other way, and people begin to load sanctification into justification. Some of the puritans did that; so does the higher life movement. That is happening again. The emerging church is, to some degree, loading sanctification into justification, when what we really have to do is repent.

How can we effectively handle these challenges?

How are we going to face this hostility from culture and fragmentation within? The general resource is the biblical doctrine and practice of repentance.

Luther began the 95 Theses that began the Reformation by writing this: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ he called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

Why did Luther say this? Nobody was bigger than Luther on the difference between faith and works. Religious people generally believe that God accepts them because of their good works. In other words, they base their sanctification on their justification. In which case, religious people are either sinners or they are loved at any given time.

Luther understood that the gospel – salvation by grace through faith through the substitutionary work of Christ alone – brings a paradoxical personal identity that nobody else has. We are simultaneously sinners (in ourselves) and completely accepted (in Christ) – simul iustus et peccator. We have Christ’s righteousness. We understand that we’re sinners but infinitely loved. We’re as loved now as we will be a million years from now.

This means that we are weaker and more sinful than we ever before believed, but also more loved and accepted than we ever dared hope.

If that is the case, the way that you can tell that you are a Christian who understands the gospel, rather than a religious person, is how you handle repentance. If you are religious, repentance is occasional and traumatic. It’s what you do to get out of the sin bucket into the love bucket. Repentance then becomes another weapon in your arsenal of self-salvation. It becomes a work. But you never know if you’ve been repentant enough.

But if you believe the gospel, then we understand that the gospel has nothing to do with our performance. This gives us the freedom to see sin everywhere in our lives. We don’t have to be in denial about sin in our lives. George Whitefield wrote:

I cannot pray but I sin — I cannot preach to you or any others but I sin — I can do nothing without sin; and, as one expresseth it, my repentance wants to be repented of, and my tears to be washed in the precious blood of my dear Redeemer. Our best duties are as so many splendid sins.

To the degree that we understand the gospel, we are free to admit the worst about ourselves finally. Repentance isn’t how we get right with God; it’s just the right response. It gives immediate assurance.

Lloyd-Jones tells the story of someone who says, “I was at your house the other day, and you weren’t home. A bill came due to you, and I paid it, so you’re off the hook.” Lloyd-Jones said that we would have no idea how to respond to this man, because we’re not sure if it was a package with postage due costing a few pence, or it could be back taxes due worth thousands of pounds. Until we know the size of our debt, we don’t know whether to say “thank you” or fall down and kiss his feet. The more we understand the size of our sin, we understand how loved we are.

My dear friends, most churches make the mistake of selecting as leaders the confident, the competent, and the successful. But what you most need in a leader is someone who has been broken by the knowledge of his or her sin, and even greater knowledge of Jesus’ costly grace. The number one leaders in every church ought to be the people who repent the most fully without excuses, because you don’t need any now; the most easily without bitterness; the most publicly and the most joyfully. They know their standing isn’t based on their performance.

All of life is repentance, and repentance increases joy. It’s not traumatic; it’s joyful and it’s healing.

What this means for us is that as we look at the criticisms we are getting, especially from inside, it’s like when I do marriage counseling. A husband and wife are both saying something critical about the other. In each case, 80% of what they are saying is wrong. And yet 20% is right. Yet with the 20% that is right, the way it’s expressed may be exaggerated, and the motivation may be wrong. It may be expressed outrageously. It’s almost impossible for each side to hear the truth.

What I say to them if they are Christians is, “If you believe the gospel, you will be humble enough and assured enough that you can admit your sin and admit the 20% that’s right without excuses or rancor. Just ignore all the exaggeration and bad motivation and admit that ‘what you say about this is right and I’m going to repent of it.’ If you both do this, it’s a tremendous opportunity for growth. If you don’t do it, it’s because you don’t believe the gospel no matter what you say.”

All the criticisms of the post-conservatives are wrapped in horrendous doctrinal proposals, and yet at the bottom there is usually a core of truth. It usually has to do with our practices.

Never believe that criticism of our doctrine is all that’s going on. It’s also criticism of our practices. And don’t think that by writing books defending your doctrine you’ve dealt with the criticisms of our practice.

So, for instance, we may be criticized for being unkind to homosexuals, that we don’t know how to be kind to them or pastor them. We may be told that we need to change our understanding of what the BIble teaches about homosexual practice. The answer to that is no, but the first part is true. We can hold to our doctrine and admit that we have been unkind. Can we do that?

Or, some may say that conservative evangelicals don’t care about the poor. So, we’re told we have to redo the entire gospel, so that Jesus Christ on the cross is only dealing with corporate, structural evil, and becoming a Christian is simply joining a community that is working for peace and justice. Our answer has to be yes and no: yes, we need to care about the poor in a way that we haven’t; no, we’re not going to re-engineer the gospel.

Can we go back through every single criticism wrapped in these horrendous doctrinal proposals and catch the core of valid criticism, no matter how poorly motivated and exaggerated? Is there any way we can do that? See, if we understand the gospel, we won’t get on our horse and say, “How dare you say that?”

There is a whole slew of younger leaders out there. They are watching us. We can’t avoid drawing boundaries. Everyone does it, and if they say you’re not doing it, then you’re drawing a boundary by saying you’re not doing it. But what matters is how we treat the people on the other side of the boundary. We’re going to win the younger leaders if we are the most gracious and the most kind and the least self-righteous in controversy toward people on the other side of the boundary.

Some may say, “They should care about truth and they shouldn’t care about things like that,” but doesn’t Jesus give them a warrant here when he says that we would be known by our love? Isn’t orthopraxy part of orthodoxy? Of course it is!

One of the worst things that has happened over the years is typified by the book Reforming Fundamentalism, a history of Fuller Seminary. At a certain point in Fuller’s history, they dropped their commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture. Here’s how it actually happened. It happened in the mid-1960s, not because there were two parties, one for and one against inerrancy. There was a group that believed in inerrancy, and there was a group that believed the Bible has errors in it. But then there was a group in the middle that actually believed in inerrancy but hated the attitudes of those who championed it. As a result they were just indifferent. As a result, the group that didn’t believe in inerrancy won.

I believe that is happening now. There are all kinds of people looking at the controversies, and saying, “I actually believe in the doctrine of those guys, but I absolutely their demeanor and tone of voice.” Therefore they’re just sitting out, and as a result the truth loses because of a lack of love.

Lastly, let me apply this to a few areas. Here are a few areas we’ll have to approach with a repentant heart corporately and say, “Despite all the bad things that are being said here, there’s a core of truth here and we need to deal with it.”

    • Class and race – We need to reflect biblically and theologically on class and race. Culture is always invisible to those within it. Don’t ask a fish to write an essay on water, because the fish will say, “What’s water?” Some years ago, an African-American friend said, “The trouble with you white Christians is that you don’t know you have a culture. We talk about black culture and a black way of preaching and a black way of music, but the way that you do things, that’s just the way it’s done.” Class is a bigger deal in the UK than it is in other countries. What you make, where you went to school, your accent, how to process and express emotion, how you dress – in each class, those things are different. The people who are down in the scale feel their exclusion here more than in other countries. If we recognize that we’re not doing a good job ministering to the working class, I don’t have the solutions, but why in the world aren’t we talking about that? We may expect people to get over it, but that’s putting sanctification before justification. You need to do something to adapt. The European future is a multi-racial one. You have to deal with this topic.
    • Corporate vs. individual – Here’s another one: unlike the progressive evangelicals who pit the individual against the corporate, we don’t have to. A robust Christian theology can pull together working for peace and justice in society with the old-fashioned gospel that says people need to be converted. There is no reason to pit these two against each other. It can be done. It worries me that very few movements are combining the two. Churches that focus on social renewal often can’t evangelize themselves out of a paper bag, and churches that focus on evangelism and discipleship often ignore caring for the needs of the neighborhood because they’re scared of taking resources away from evangelism. There is a way of integrating the two. Think about that, and be the first movement in the whole world of evangelicalism that really integrates the two.
    • Suffering – A lot of the younger evangelicals are, I think, afraid to suffer. They may be making doctrinal changes because they don’t want to look stupid in the eyes of the world. Repenting of that is important. We should understand our fear of suffering and persecution and repent of it. The Bible doesn’t just give us a joy that works in spite of suffering. It holds forth a joy that is enhanced by faithful suffering. Great line from Lord of the Rings: “Is everything sad going to become untrue?” The answer of the gospel is yes. Our eventual joy will be greater because of our current suffering. Nobody grows except through suffering.

From The Brothers Karamazov:

I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidian mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened with men.

Something so great is going to happen in the end that all of the suffering is only going to enhance the future and ultimate glory greater. It begins to happen as we embrace suffering faithfully.

If we embrace the gospel and we’re willing to repent and own the 20%, and we are gracious to our opponents, we will grow in a way that only repentant people can.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada