Tim Keller is the extraordinarily gifted pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, and author of The Reason for God, The Prodigal God, and the upcoming Counterfeit Gods. I’ve greatly benefited from Keller’s writing and was looking forward to hearing what he had to say.
Keller’s session, Leading People to the Prodigal God, was in large part a summary of The Prodigal God. This is by no means a bad thing, because the book is excellent.
“The thing that shocks ministers is the high level of spiritual deadness in congregations,” said Keller. A tiny amount of people do anything, as far as service and giving are concerned. There’s a great deal of back-biting, and territorial attitudes within ministry.
“Spiritual vitality is still the big problem.” It’s a problem because people are trying to be their own savior.
“There are two ways to be your own savior. One is by being very, very, very bad [and just doing whatever you want]. The other is by being very, very, very good.”
This seemed to catch the crowd’s attention—the reality that those who are outwardly obedient may be just as hopelessly lost as those who openly reject and mock the gospel. “The ‘good’ boy [in Luke 15:11-32] is lost not in spite of his goodness, but because of it.” He’s lost because he’s trusting in his performance to give him right standing with his father.
But this is not the gospel. The gospel is neither religion nor irreligion. It’s something altogether different. As Keller rightly points out, religion says “I obey, therefore God accepts me.” But the gospel says, “God accepts me, therefore I will obey.”
“Gospel believers obey to get more God. They delight in Him. Elder brothers believe they’re getting leverage over God [through their works] and become self-righteous and proud,” said Keller. “Functionally, they don’t believe in Jesus as Savior.”
And because our self-image is rooted in our performance instead of Christ, as an “elder brother” figure, we are absolutely devastated by criticism. We become furious with God. But, Keller adds,” If you’re furious with God, it’s because you believe God owes you.”
So how do we destroy our inner “elder brother”? We must get to a new level of repentance. Repentance, not just for the things we’ve done wrong, but “repentance for the reasons [behind] the things you’re doing right.”
“The main thing separating you and God is not your sin, but your damnable good works,” said Keller.
So we must repent for believing that God will owe us if we do “enough.” For finding our value in our performance, rather than in Him.
We must see that there was a cost to bring the prodigal son back. Atonement had (and has) a cost—and it’s high. Our atonement required Jesus—God—to die on the cross. There’s no higher cost.
But “when you recognize the cost, it destroys your self-righteousness.”
Keller ended his message with five points to combat spiritual deadness within our churches:
- Work this into your own hearts. You can only replicate what you are.
- Communicate beyond biblical principles to the gospel. Don’t simply say, “Tithe! The Bible says so,” or give seven steps to being a better Christian husband, but appeal to the cross of Christ in all things. “Because Christ died for you, you can be generous…”
- Go through this training with your leaders. (Incidentally, this point and the next felt a bit like a commercial for t Prodigal God study guide and DVD)
- Empower leaders to go through this with group leaders or go through it with the whole church.
- Pray that spiritual vitality would be renewed and would take hold.
So why this message at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit?
Because of the conference’s strong emphasis on social justice and the call to end systemic extreme poverty, this message could not have been more timely. Many have taken hold of the “end poverty now” line, and that’s not a bad thing. I work for an organization that’s greatest desire is to see poverty eliminated as people come to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. But it’s easy to fall into the “Lord, Lord, look at all I did for you” trap.
To become enamored with our performance, rather than enamored with our amazing God. And if we do that, we will miss the beauty of God’s reconciling work.