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A Preacher's Perspective on Timothy Keller's The Reason for God

Reviewing books of interest to preachers from the Christianity Today book-of-the-year awards

Sometimes a good book makes all the difference. On the eve of the 1996 U.S. Open Golf Championship, my friend, Steve Jones, read a book on legendary golfer, Ben Hogan. The book showed Jones how to improve his practice and his focus. Jones won the tournament by one stroke! Afterwards, he told a reporter: "I don't think I would have won the Open without reading that book."

I recently read a book that has the potential to do for our preaching what the Hogan book did for Steve Jones' golf game. Ironically, it is not a book on preaching. Timothy Keller's book The Reason for God: Belief in An Age of Skepticism (Penguin/Dutton) received the 2009 Christianity Today Book of the Year award in the Apologetics/Evangelism category. The judges called it "the best apologetics book of the new millennium." Therein lies its value. Keller models for preachers the way to talk to people in a world that he claims "is getting both more religious and less religious at the same time." He says: "In many cases I have to put on my philosophy-professor hat in order to be a good pastor to people" (p. 144). If you, like me, need help with this, Keller's book will give your preaching a boost.

I have long admired Keller's ability to speak meaningfully to Christians and non-Christians in the same conversation. In fact, he has said for years that if preachers will speak as if non-Christians are present in our worship services, then more and more non-Christians will find their way into our worship services. The Reason for God shows how to present the gospel in all of its fullness to both groups. The subtitle might as well have read: "Preaching in an Age of Skepticism."

Yes, the gospel of Jesus Christ is Keller's relentless focus. In my preaching as of late, I find myself using his powerful summary statement of the gospel: "The Bible says that Jesus came on a rescue mission for creation. He had to pay for our sins so that someday he can end evil and suffering without ending us" (p. 30). Then, when it comes to receiving the benefits of Christ's work, Keller observes: "God's grace does not come to people who morally outperform others, but to those who admit their failure to perform and who acknowledge their need for a Savior" (p. 19).

One of Keller's most helpful ideas involves a distinction between two forms of rebellion against God. He explains: "One form is being very bad and breaking all the rules, and the other form is being very good and keeping all the rules and becoming self-righteous" (p. 177). So, argues Keller, the Bible presents both "religion (in which you build your identity on your moral achievements) and irreligion (in which you build your identity on some other secular pursuit or relationship)" as sin. This was not "news" to me when I read it. But it helped me think with greater clarity about the condition of the people to whom I preach.

If your preaching needs help with defending the validity of the ideas Scripture proclaims, then there is no better helper than Timothy Keller.

About three years ago, I moved from a university community in the intermountain west to an affluent suburban community in the midwest. One of the surprises was how religious and how nice all the non-Christians are in my new place of ministry. Not only that, many of these folks who politely ignore or reject Christ prove to be stellar citizens. They conduct their personal business with integrity and get behind the local food drive and community service projects. Keller has helped me construct a biblical framework for understanding the condition of these religious folks.

Keller makes a helpful distinction between religion and the gospel. He observes: "Religion operates on the principle 'I obey—therefore I am accepted by God.' But the operating principle of the gospel is 'I am accepted by God through what Christ has done—therefore I obey'" (pp. 179-80). Then, he frames the gospel in a fresh way: "The Christian gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me. This leads to deep humility and deep confidence at the same time" (p. 181). Exactly! I have been using Keller's words in my preaching because they are simple, concise, accurate, and a fresh alternative to the ways I often explain the gospel.

Keller has also reminded me that Christians need to hear the gospel as much as non-Christians do. Christians "often fail to make use of the resources of the gospel to live the lives they are capable of in Christ" (p. 185). He proceeds, then, to articulate the meaning of Christ's death and resurrection in a way that connects with both Christians and non-Christians. Along the way, he demonstrates how to provide concise answers to common objections. For example, when someone objects that the cross is "divine child abuse," Keller responds by pointing to our belief that Jesus is God. "God did not, then, inflict pain on someone else, but rather on the Cross absorbed the pain, violence, and evil of the world into himself" (p. 192).

Keller also presents some fresh ways to talk about the resurrection of Jesus. For starters, he learned from reading N. T. Wright that the idea of an individual bodily resurrection was almost inconceivable in all of the dominant worldviews of the time. What was so radical about the resurrection was "the idea of an individual being resurrected, in the middle of history, while the rest of the world continued on burdened by sickness, decay, and death" (p. 207). Yes, "the first Christians had a resurrection-centered view of reality" (p. 208). This provided them with hope and with an impetus to "care deeply about justice for the poor, alleviating hunger and disease, and caring for the environment" (p. 211). When was the last time I preached about the resurrection in those terms?

Furthermore, how well do I cast a vision for the kind of world that believers will one day enjoy because of the resurrection of Jesus? Here again, Keller is immensely helpful. For example, he writes: "At the end of the final book of the Bible, we see the very opposite of what other religions predict. We do not see the illusion of the world melt away nor do we see spiritual souls escaping the physical world into heaven. Rather, we see heaven descending into our world to unite with it and purify it of all its brokenness and imperfection" (p. 222). That will preach!

So far, I have interacted with what Keller does in the second half of his book. In the first half he deals with seven of the biggest problems that the twenty- and thirty-somethings in his ministry context—New York City—have with Christianity. His treatment of these seven models what to say and how to say it. When someone claims that all major religions are equally valid and basically teach the same thing, Keller asks: "Do we really want to say that the Branch Davidians or religions requiring child sacrifice are not inferior to any other faith?" (p. 7). When another mocks Christianity for being too narrow and exclusive, Keller replies: "It is no more narrow to claim that one religion is right than to claim that one way to think about all religions (namely that all are equal) is right. We are all exclusive in our beliefs about religion, but in different ways" (p. 13).

On the problem of a God of judgment also being a God of love, Keller's approach is almost counter-intuitive. He says: "All loving persons are sometimes filled with wrath, not just despite of but because of their love" (p. 73).

Keller has also helped me see the value of presenting compelling lines of reasoning for the Christian faith as "clues" rather than as "proofs." There are no proofs of God that will convince all rational persons. But there are "divine fingerprints" in many places (p. 127). Rational persons may explain away these clues. But, notes Keller, those who argue against the existence of God go right on using the very resources—language, reason, ways of arguing—that "make far more sense in a universe in which a God has created and supports them all by his power" (p. 141).

Much more waits for diligent preachers who want to deal with doubt as honestly and as effectively as possible. Page after page, I kept saying, "I never thought of explaining it that way."

For decades, Haddon Robinson has taught preachers that ideas can be developed in one of three basic ways: explanation (What does this mean?), validation (Is it true?), and application (What difference does it make?). He has often pointed out that C.S. Lewis is the master of the validation question. If your preaching needs help with defending the validity of the ideas Scripture proclaims, then there is no better helper than Timothy Keller—a pastor who has been called "the C.S. Lewis of our generation." Take some time to work through The Reason for God. You will be more adept at communicating the timeless ideas of Scripture to the people of our age.

Steve Mathewson is senior pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, lllinois. He is also director of the doctor of ministry program at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.

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