I chanced upon a post in which the author, Michael, says that Tim Keller, in his book, The Prodigal God, is preaching a “different Gospel.”
This is serious stuff because if he is, Keller is under God’s curse according to Galatians 1:8.
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!
Is Tim Keller under God’s curse?
In response to a comment on his post, Michael says, that Keller is “redefining the key parts of the gospel.” If this is so, then Keller may be under God’s curse. The parts of the gospel that Michael claims Keller is redefining are “the gospel [of] sin” and the gospel of repentance.
Redefining the Gospel of Sin?
Michael’s beef with Keller is he thinks Keller is calling the elder brother’s obedience a sin, that the elder brother needs to repent from doing good.
I’m not sure what to say. Keller asserts nothing like this. It’s baffling that someone could walk away from The Prodigal God with this notion–Keller is such a clear writer. This is like mistaking the moral failing of the nine ungrateful lepers as having leprosy.
Michael has misread Keller for some reason and he writes three long posts explaining Keller’s “egregious errors.” Of course Keller never says that the older brother is condemned for his obedience. He says that the elder son is lost because the motivation behind his obedience is sinful. Michael seems to struggle to wrap his mind around this idea saying that “Obedience, whatever the motivation, is never wrong.”
I suppose Michael is right in a sense. If you can isolate the act from the motive, the act itself is not inherently wrong. But Keller is not condemning an isolated act of obedience, he’s talking about the foundational motivation, which is inseparable from the act.
I won’t go so far as to say that acts of obedience are insignificant, but the motivation behind them is far more important. With an obedient act, you can cover up wickedness. Polonius from Shakespeare’s Hamlet said as much.
T’is too much proved, that with devotion’s visage and pious action we do sugar o’er / the devil himself.
We need not rely on Polonius an authority on Truth. Let’s go to the Bible.
In Genesis 4, both Cain and Able brought a sacrifice to the Lord, but Cain’s was rejected. There are several ideas as to why God did not look upon Cain’s sacrifice with favour; one of the most likely reasons has to do with Cain’s motivation. He may have been sacrificing as an act of appeasement–they pagan motivation. The foundation of Canaanite worship was appeasement–bribing the gods to bring fertility and to protection. Cain’s sacrifice may have been an obedient act, but God saw his heart an rejected the sacrifice.
OK, perhaps motivation was not the issue with Cain’s sacrifice. It could have been that God didn’t like vegetables. How about Deuteronomy 10:12-17:
And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good? 14 Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. 15 Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.
The Lord requires obedience; verses 12 and 13 couldn’t be clearer; but in verse 16, it clearly states that the Lord requires more than just obedience–he wants the circumcision of the heart. Obedient acts are fine, but God really wants an obedient heart. In verse 17 we learn that God will will take no bribe. God is clearly saying that he doesn’t want the motivation of obedience to be love and not appeasement.
Let’s go to Jesus himself. In Matthew 5-7 we have The Sermon on the Mount. Again and again, Jesus says that righteousness is not achieved through mere obedience. To be considered righteous, not committing adultery will not cut it–we can’t even look at someone with lust.
Keller is not redefining the gospel. Keller’s condemnation of the elder brother is completely consistent with the gospel. He is not condemning the older brother for being obedient. He is saying that the elder brother is lost because he merely obeyed. He was good so that he could have the inheritance. The father wanted his love. He wanted the elder brother to wash the dishes after the party.
My Eldest Son
To get my eldest son to do the dishes after dinner was almost always a battle. He didn’t think it was fair that on his day for this duty we I had dirtied a huge roasting pan. He didn’t think that it was his turn, because he did it last Thursday and he deserved to skip his turn tonight. The variety and complexity of arguments never ceased to amaze me. It wasn’t always a fight, but even when he obediently set about doing the dishes there was always a grudging attitude.
One Thanksgiving he came back from college. I had prepared a huge meal for nearly 20. At the end of the meal, he got up and did all of the dishes, refusing any help. I was shocked. What happened to my son? He was living on his own, going to school. Because he had very little income, he had been eating cabbage cooked with olive oil. salt and pepper. When he lived under my roof, he had no idea how much money and effort went into feeding him. Now he knew and he was grateful. His gratitude led to behaviour far beyond obedience.
This is the behaviour of the youngest son. This is the behaviour that the father wants from his eldest son.
Support for the Righteous Elder Brother
Michael believes that the elder brother was never lost.
His argument rests on the context of the Parable of the Prodigal son. It is preceded by two other parables about lost things being found–the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. Michael says that in these parables, the lost sheep and coin represent “a sinner who repents.” The other sheep and coins that did not go missing represent “the righteous persons who need no repentance.” The third parable must be understood in the same way.
Michael correctly understands the importance of reading verses in context, but to get the context he only went back to verse Luke 14:3. He should have gone back to verse 1.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Jesus’ audience is really important here–we have sinners and Pharisees. But Luke doesn’t just say that the Pharisees where there, he tells us what they were thinking. Jesus has something to say to both of these groups. To the sinners, he wants to say that God earnestly seeks them. Simple. He does this with two and one-half parables.
What does Jesus want to communicate the Pharisees? Michael would have you believe that Jesus wants to tell them to keep up the good work. If you are at all familiar with the Bible, Jesus never tells the Pharisees to keep up the good work. As a matter of fact, he frequently tells them that they are less righteous than the sinners. The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14 is one example.
In his telling of these three parables, Jesus wants to address what the Pharisees are thinking. That’s why Luke tells us they were muttering to themselves. It’s the same thing that the older brother is muttering as he stands outside the party.
Michael insists that we must view the third parable as exactly parallel to the first. I’m not sure why we would impose parallelism on the third when an extended application to the Pharisees makes so much sense given the audience. Jesus and/or Luke are reinforcing the joy at the recovery of the lost with the parallel to the first two, then extending the story to the condemnation of the Pharisees. Bam! Brilliant! This is a mike-drop moment that reinforces not just what our heavenly father is doing sinners, but what he’s doing for the self-righteous. He’s inviting them in.
The father says, “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Come in an enjoy it. The elder brother refuses. If this isn’t lost, I don’t know what is.
Redefining Repentance and Salvation
According to Michael, Keller is also under God’s curse because he, Keller, claims that the father of the prodigal son accepts him before he repents. He claims that Keller writes “that repentance is not needed for forgiveness, but rather comes after forgiveness.” He says that
“Keller incorrectly teaches that salvation precedes repentance, while also changing what we are to repent from.”
Tim Keller believes there is nothing that we do to earn our salvation–not even the act of repentance. This idea expands God’s Grace. I understand that there are some Christian denominations that place more emphasis on human agency than others. Keller does not belong to one of these denominations. It seems as if Michael does. The God’s Sovereignty/Human Free Will debate has gone on for a long time and, these days, the general consensus from both sides is that both are true, it’s just that but one is a little truer, and it’s not a salvation issue.
Michael seems to be saying it is a salvation issue. If he is, he is also claiming that most of Christ’s church, both past and present, is, along with Keller, under God’s curse.
Let’s look at the parable to see the relationship between repentance and salvation.
Where is the turning point in this story? According to Glen Skrivener over at the Gospel Coalition the “real change in the prodigal—both his change of status and of heart—happens in the arms of the father. That’s where repentance occurs.” This is consistent with Romans 5: 8.
8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
The father runs to the lost son with open arms and joyfully embraces him before he can even get a word of repentance out of his mouth. I don’t think that it is too much of a stretch to say that salvation comes to everyone in exactly the same way–the way presented by this picture of the son wrapped in the father’s arm. The younger son is repentant; he is saved. Where is the elder brother? He’s standing outside.
I’m actually baffled that someone can see the picture of the elder brother standing outside the part muttering, furious with his father and brother, and say that the guy is just fine.
Flannery O’Connor’s wonderful story “Revelation” is about an elder brother who receives a vision where she sees all sorts of people moving up toward heaven. There’s a large batch of elder brothers who
were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.
Tim Keller’s book, The Prodigal God, was such a blessing to me. I was much more like the elder brother than the younger. I was good. Reading it I had a whole new appreciation for the heights and depth and breadth of God’s Grace. I would wish the same experience to Michael and his readers.
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