Prayer by Timothy Keller

9780525954149

There’s no shortage of good books on prayer. Martin Luther’s Simple Way to Pray, Answers to Prayer by George Müller, CH Spurgeon’s The Pastor in Prayer, A Call to Pray by J.C. Ryle… These are some of the finest books on prayer I’ve read, and Christians would be doing themselves a disservice in not reading them.

While there are many wonderful classic books on prayer, I’ve noticed a severe lack of good modern books on the subject. Most modern books tend to fall into a couple of categories: wicked and stupid. The wicked ones accuse people who pray things like “if it’s Your will” of being cowards who are afraid to pray boldly. The stupid ones encourage us to pray like pagans.

And then Tim Keller went and wrote a book on prayer. Keller, “wicked,” and “stupid,” are words that do not belong together. And he only further proves this in Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God

Theology before practice

Keller offers us something different with Prayer—he doesn’t jump straight into the mechanics, but instead begins by helping readers understand prayer. He puts developing a right theology of prayer ahead of principles for its practice. This is important because most of us (likely) don’t have an articulated theology of prayer that goes beyond “I pray because I’m supposed to.”

While that’s true, there’s significantly more to it than that. Prayer, Keller explains, is both an instinct and a spiritual gift. “As an instinct, prayer is a response to our innate but fragmentary knowledge of God… As a gift of the Spirit, however, prayer becomes the continuation of a conversation God has started” (50). So, on an instinctual level, the “I’m supposed to” is correct—we just don’t understand why. This instinct is why prayer is a nearly universal phenomenon; regardless of their specific beliefs, nearly all humans have a concept of prayer, though the forms and purposes differ drastically.

But in describing prayer as a gift of the Spirit, Keller wants us to understand that prayer is both a conversation and encounter with God. It’s not “plunging into the abyss of unknowing and a state of wordless unconsciousness,” but something tethered to God’s Word, the place from which we learn of and hear from God. Thus, “if the goal of prayer is a real, personal connection with God, then it is only by immersion in the language of the Bible that we will learn to pray, perhaps as slowly as a child learns to speak” (55).

Keller’s continual emphasis on keeping prayer connected to the Bible is important, and something sorely lacking today. What he doesn’t advocate for is a type of rote “just pray what the Bible says,” but to pray through the Scriptures as Luther encourages in his teaching on the subject. To let the Word guide and shape our prayers.

Leaning on the wisdom of the past

Perhaps what I enjoy most about Prayer—beyond the simple, practical principles provided—is the fact that Keller doesn’t attempt to be original (which is what gets us all into so much trouble). Instead, he leans heavily on the wisdom of those who have gone before us—Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Owen, Edwards, Torrey, and, more recently, Lewis, Clowney, and Packer (with a dash of the Westminster Catechism thrown in for good measure).

Could one ask for better influences?

This is where the book’s strong emphasis on being tethered to the Word in prayer comes from. Augustine, the Reformers, the Puritans, and faithful modern saints understood this better than many of us do today. We tend to give a verbal hat tip, whereas they see the Scriptures as vitally important to our prayer life. Luther advocates for a spiritual riffing off of the Word in prayer—taking the words of, say, the Lord’s Prayer and making them our own. Calvin encourages us to hold a joyful fear of God in prayer; to always be reverential in our stance toward Him and pursue humility as we pray. And Clowney likewise suggests “prayer involves an honesty that has no real parallel in human relationships” (135)

We repeatedly come to this conclusion throughout the book: if prayer is both an instinct and a gift, we need to pray in light of what God has said about Himself—and about us.

Awe, intimacy, and struggle

All that being said, prayer is not “easy.” There are seasons when I have a very strong and healthy prayer life, but often it feels perfunctory and powerless. Often my own sinfulness, stubbornness, and even some insecurity are the cause. When the weight of the world feels as though its pressing down, it’s difficult to even know where to begin. When prayer feels forced and feeble, it’s hard to muster up the power to continually pursue it.

And yet, this is what God desires of us. He wants us to embrace the struggle. because “prayer is awe, intimacy, struggle—yet the way to reality. There is nothing more important, or harder, or richer, or more life-altering. There is absolutely nothing so great as prayer” (32).

As I read this book, I continually found myself surprised by how much I needed to underline; it’s rare to find a page in my copy where I don’t have a note, squiggle or marking of some sort because I was confronted or challenged by what I’d just read. And yet, I did not walk away from the book disheartened.

Keller’s message, far from the pray more harder of so many of the “wicked” and “stupid” books available today, challenges us, but reminds us of the grace of God. This is what I believe those struggle in their prayer life desperately need. They don’t need another book to beat them up. They need encouragement and guidance. This is what Prayer offers. It is rich in its theology, winsome in its approach and wise in its application. There may be few good modern books on prayer, but Prayer is one of them—and among the finest I’ve read of any era.


Title: Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God
Author: Timothy Keller
Publisher: Dutton (2014)

Buy it at: Westminster Bookstore | Amazon

Romans 1-7 For You by Timothy Keller

romans-for-you-Keller

Romans: it’s one of the most intimidating, confusing, and powerful books in the entirety of Scripture. In its 16 chapters, the apostle Paul casts a sweeping vision God’s redemptive purposes—”how God in the gospel makes sinners righteous, but also how this most precious gift of God is enjoyed in our lives,” writes Tim Keller in Romans 1-7 For You, “how it produces deep and massive changes in our behavior and even in our character.”

In his typical irenic fashion, Keller unpacks the message of the first seven chapters of Romans, helping us see the beauty of the gospel and our desperate need for it.

The gospel is for everyone

One of the most challenging issues we face reading Romans—and indeed, all of Scripture—is Paul’s emphatic decree that all of humanity is lost in when confronted by the justice of God.

That we are all, “without excuse,” with no hope to be found in moralism or pleas of ignorance. “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Paul wrote in Romans 3:22-23. But he doesn’t leave us without hope. For while all have sinned and continually fall short of the glory of God, all who are saved “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). Moralism doesn’t justify, nor does ignorance. Instead, it is only God’s grace, the gift of redemption found in Jesus. And this is such good news for all of us:

God does not set his justice aside; he turns it onto himself. The cross does not represent a compromise between God’s wrath and his love; it does not satisfy each halfway. Rather, it satisfies each fully and in the very same action. On the cross, the wrath and love of God were both vindicated, both demonstrated, and both expressed perfectly. They both shine out, and are utterly fulfilled. The cross is a demonstration both of God’s justice, and of his justifying love (Romans 3:25-26).

Who is the man in Romans 7—believer or unbeliever?

Although all of Keller’s examination of Romans 1-7 is sound and edifying, perhaps no portion was more helpful to me personally than reading his view of the “wretched man” of Romans 7:7-25. Paul’s exposition of the effects of sin, the desire to do what is right, but being confounded by sin, has left many scratching their heads. Was he talking about Paul the unbeliever or Paul the believer?

Keller believes—and I would be inclined to agree—that Paul was writing of his then-present experience as a Christian, and the conflicting desires we all wrestle with. He writes:

We have, in some sense, “multiple selves.” Sometimes we want to be this; sometimes we want to be that. Morally, most people feel “torn” between diverse selves as well. Freud went so far as to talk about an inner “libido” (filled with primal desires) and a “superego” (the conscience filled with social and familial standards). The great question we all face is: I have divergent desires, different “selves.” Which is my true self? What do I most want?

This is helpful for so many reasons (and not simply because of confirmation bias). The point of Paul’s writing about these truths, that he continued to struggle with sin—and if anything, as he grew older, became increasingly aware of his own sinfulness—is to push us toward deeper dependence upon the Lord Jesus.

We are not justified and then left to our own devices to grow in holiness. If, to borrow an analogy, the gospel merely reset our righteousness back to zero, instead of giving us Christ’s, we’d still be damned. We do not do the things we want to do, and we do the things we don’t want to do. Paul’s point is simple, Keller says: “The unbeliever cannot keep the law (v 7-13); but neither can the believer!”

When we read God’s law properly, and when we look at our own lives honestly, we can only conclude that we are “wretched.” Without accepting this, we will never grasp the glory of the gospel. We will never truly appreciate the gospel of received righteousness. Only if our hearts truly cry at our wretchedness can we then know the hope and liberation of looking away from ourselves and to what God has done. Who will rescue Paul, and us? “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v 25).

For the good of your soul

Like the other volumes in the For You series, Romans 1-7 For You is not an exhaustive study of Paul’s epistle, nor is it intended to be. As I described the recently released Judges For You, this is a devotional commentary. Use it like one.

Allow Keller’s insights in Romans 1-7 For You to inform your study. Glean helpful insights and illustrations to use in sermons or small group studies. But even as you do, read it with the good of your soul in mind, recognizing afresh all Christ has done on your behalf, and grasping anew the glory of the gospel in Romans.


Title: Romans 1-7 For You
Author: Timothy Keller
Publisher: The Good Book Company (2014)

Buy it at: Westminster Books | Amazon

6 quotes Christians need to let lie fallow

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

We Christians do love our quotes—and there are so many brilliant ones to choose from! But by golly, we sure do seem to be a repetitive bunch. Far too often, we’re using the same quotes, over and over.

And over.

So yesterday, inspired by a friend’s lament of the increased use of the Samwise “everything sad is coming untrue” quote from Lord of the Rings, I took to the Interwebs to get your feedback, asking what you believe are the most over-used quotes from Christian authors.

Here are the top answers:

1. “We are far too easily pleased…” From C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

2. John Piper’s mission statement. From Desiring God (and pretty much everything else he’s ever written and/or preached since):

“God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”

3. “He is no fool…” From The Journals of Jim Elliot:

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

4. “More wicked… but more loved.” Tim Keller’s gospel summary, from multiple books and sermons:

“We are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope.”

5. C.S. Lewis’ trilemma. From Mere Christianity:

‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

6. The one which Martin Luther never actually said. But the ideas can definitely be gleaned from his work:

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him. Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.

You can see why they’re quoted so often. They’re conceptually brilliant and (in most cases) captivating in their simplicity. But there are two dangers with quoting these so frequently:

We risk cheapening their meaning. And when that happens, powerful truths become pithy sentiments. 

That’s the first danger. The second is it reveals we may not be diversifying our reading in a healthy fashion. When we all read the same books, by the same people, quoting the same things, we risk creating a homogeneous intellectualism. And when this happens, we risk losing our ability to think critically, as well as the joy of discovering ideas that come from outside our normal spheres of influence.

The Death of the Mushy Middle

(Can’t see the video? Click through to the site)

#TGC11 Day 1 Reflections—Plus Free Stuff!

Emily and I took a few minutes last night to chat about the first day of The Gospel Coalition’s national conference. Sufficed to say, we had an awesome time. But for a few details on why we felt this way, as well as some info on a book giveaway that starts today, watch the video:

Update: As I mentioned in the video, I hadTWO copies of Don’t Call It a Comeback to give away (reviewed here Monday).

The winners have now been selected and notified via email. Thanks for entering!

Tim Keller: Getting Out #TGC11

Tim Keller spoke next from Exodus 14.

*Update* The audio is available for download here. Video can be viewed below:

A few selections from my notes follow.


Not only want to preach to you but also teach you something about preaching the Old Testament

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Red Sea crossing to the rest of the Bible. There are at least two-dozen direct references to it in the OT, and innumerable references in the NT.

When you go to Luke 9, the transfiguration, Jesus is talking to Moses and Elijah about His departure, about His death in Jerusalem, but the Greek word there is “Exodus,”—Jesus’ death on the cross is the greater exodus.

Hebrews uses the Red Sea crossing as a paradigm for Christian faith.

If there is one passage that the Bible invites us to read in light of Christ, it would be this one [Exodus 14].

Salvation is about getting out: [Read more…]

The Bible’s Not About You…

 

…so who’s it about?

This excerpt from a message by Tim Keller (quoting from Sinclair Ferguson’s Preaching Christ in the Old Testament) was a great reminder for me as a writer, and occasional preacher:

If Jesus isn’t at the heart of the message, it’s nothing worth saying.

HT: Jared Wilson

Around the Interweb (04/11)

Michael Spencer 1956-2010

On Monday April 5, Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk, went home to stand before his Savior after a grueling four-month-long battle with cancer. He was 53.

I did not know Michael personally, but got to know a bit about him by reading his blog. I found him to be interesting, thought-provoking and sometimes frustrating. Not because of his demeanor—on the contrary, he struck me as one who modeled how Christians should behave online—but because much of the time I couldn’t get a good read on him. I couldn’t always tell where he stood.

But he always got me thinking. And for that, I’m grateful.

Michael’s book, Mere Churchianity, is coming out in September, courtesy of Waterbrook/Multnohmah. Consider preordering a copy.

Looking at the list of tributes to Michael, I wonder if he understood the impact he was having in the lives of so many?

In other news

RE:Sound released a new record by Red Letter. Go listen to samples and download.

Tim Challies on the writer’s life

Trevin weighs in as a voice of reason as a couple people continue to lose their minds over John Piper inviting Rick Warren to Desiring God’s National Conference.

The Gospel Coalition has just launched a new book review site.

ChristianAudio.com’s free audiobook of the month is Stuff Christians Like by Jonathan Acuff. Download this and enjoy a solid 4 hours of laughter. Use coupon code APR2010 when purchasing.

In case you missed it

Here are a few of this week’s notable posts:

Proud Devoted and Dead

A review of Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods

The Stupidity of the Intelligent

Spurgeon on Faith & Obedience

Book Review: Counterfeit Gods by Timothy Keller

Title: Counterfeit Gods
Author: Timothy Keller
Publisher: Dutton

In recent years Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, has become quite a prolific author. And his latest offering may be his most important book yet.

Counterfeit Gods explores the empty promises by the idols found in the human heart—sex, money, power, pride—and our only hope of experiencing true satisfaction and fulfillment in the gospel.

Making Gods

“[An idol] is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give,” writes Keller (p. xvii). It’s a broad definition, but fitting. As Keller rightly says, “Anything in life can serve as an idol, a God-alternative, a counterfeit god” (p. xvi).

It’s easy for us to think about idols as being statues in a temple somewhere “over there” (wherever that is). But if it’s true that anything can be an idol, it’s not nearly so simple. “The biblical concept of idolatry is an extremely sophisticated idea, integrating intellectual, psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual categories.” (p. xix). Romantic love, sex, physical beauty, moral virtue, intellectual ideologies, profit, self-expression… “There are idols everywhere” (p. xxi).

They are the things we love, trust and obey, even at the expense of our relationship with Jesus. “Idols dominate our lives,” says Keller.

Throughout the book, Keller illustrates the insidiousness of idolatry through the biblical accounts of Abraham, Jacob, Zacchaeus, Naaman, Nebudchadnezzar and Jonah. The lives of each show us a pattern of idolatry: For Abraham, his son Isaac had the potential to be a powerful idol; for Jacob, his grandson, it was love as illustrated by his obsession with Rachel and behavior reminiscent of an addict. For Zacchaeus, it was money. For Naaman, success; Nebudchadnezzar, glory & power. And Jonah—well, his idols were perhaps the most complex of all. [Read more…]

Around the Interweb (12/20)

The Many Ways of Destroying the Church

The ways of destroying the church are many and colorful.  Raw factionalism will do it.  Rank heresy will do it.  Taking your eyes off the cross and letting other, more peripheral matters dominate the agenda will do it–admittedly more slowly than frank heresy, but just as effectively over the long haul.  Building the church with superficial ‘conversions’ and wonderful programs that rarely bring people into a deepening knowledge of the living God will do it.  Entertaining people to death but never fostering the beauty of holiness or the centrality of self-crucifying love will build an assembling of religious people, but it will destroy the church of the living God.  Gossip, prayerlessness, bitterness, sustained biblical illiteracy, self-promotion, materialism–all of these things, and many more, can destroy a church.  And to do so is dangerous: ‘If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple (1 Cor. 3:17).  It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

D.A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry: Leadership Lessons from 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 83-84.

HT: Timmy Brister


In other news

5 things the Church can learn from the fall of Myspace

Tim Keller on dealing with harsh criticism

Russell Moore—Avatar: Rambo in Reverse

An update on Pastor Matt Chandler’s condition


In case you missed it

Here are a few of this week’s notable posts:

A review of Alexander Strauch’s Leading with Love 

Vintage Jesus is Vintage Driscoll—a review of the Vintage Jesus DVD Curriculum

This is War (a Christmas Carol from Dustin Kensrue)

A biographical sketch of Charles Wesley

Sunday Shorts (10/25)

tim-kellerCounterfeit Gods—The Personal Story

Tim Keller shares his story of ministry idolatry:

Like many younger ministers I worked far too many hours, never saying “no” to anyone’s request for my pastoral services. When salary increases were offered to me, I turned them down. When administrative help was offered to me, I declined. I was quite proud of being the kind of person who worked very hard, never complained, and never asked for any help. This regularly brought me into conflict with my wife, who rightly contended that I was neglecting my relationships to her and to my young sons. It also led to health problems, although I was only in my early thirties…

It wasn’t until I began to search my heart with the Biblical category of idolatry that I made the horrendous discovery that all my supposed sacrifices were just a series of selfish actions. I was using people in order to forge my own self-appreciation. I was looking to my sacrificial ministry to give me the sense of “righteousness before God” that should only come from Jesus Christ.

HT Justin Taylor


Book Giveaway at Devotional Christian

Tony Kummer’s giving away 22 top devotional books—and it’s a pretty wonderful selection!


Martin Luther’s Here I Stand—Free at The Listener’s Bible

In celebration of Reformation Day (October 31st), The Listener’s Bible store is offering a free download of Martin Luther’s Here I Stand, narrated by Max Mclean. Here’s the product description:

In the late afternoon of April 18, 1521, in the city of Worms, Germany, Martin Luther, a 37 year-old Catholic monk was called to defend himself before Charles the Fifth, the Holy Roman Emperor. The speech he delivered that day, Here I Stand, marked the beginning of the Reformation, a critical turning point in Christian history, that decisively altered the spiritual map of the world.

In this recording, Max McLean introduces the events leading up to the Diet of Worms: Martin Luther’s prayer the night before he delivered his speech; Luther’s stirring defense; the Catholic church’s rebuttal; and, Luther’s final heartfelt response.

This offer is available until November 1.


In case you missed it

Here are a few of this week’s notable posts:

Dug Down Deep, impressions on the first chapter of Josh Harris’ forthcoming book—and Josh Harris linked back with some really kind words!

O2: Breathing New Life Into Faith, reviewing Richard Dahlstrom’s new book on building a sustainable faith

Be Intolerant of the Right Things, thoughts on D.A. Carson’s “The Intolerance of Tolerance

J.I. Packer: What is a Christian? a passage from Packer’s classic work, “Knowing God”

Sunday Shorts (08/16)

Read the Gospels: JC is not PC

John MacArthur provided a brilliant editorial in the Washington Post this week abuot Jesus. Here’s the opening:

Let’s be brutally honest: most of Jesus’ teaching is completely out of sync with the mores that dominate our culture.

I’m talking, of course, about the Jesus we encounter in Scripture, not the always-gentle, never-stern, über-lenient coloring-book character who exists only in the popular imagination. The real Jesus was no domesticated clergyman with a starched collar and genteel manners; he was a bold, uncompromising Prophet who regularly challenged the canons of political correctness.

Read the whole thing here. Seriously, it’s fantastic!

Two-Kingdom Theology and Neo-Kuyperians

No, it’s not the plot of a new alien invasion film, it’s a post from Kevin DeYoung’s blog about the merits and dangers of two-kingdom theology and neo-Kuyperianism (of course!). Here’s an explanatory note from Kevin’s article:

In broad strokes, the two kingdom folks believe in a kingdom of this world and a kingdom of Christ. We have a dual citizenship as Christians. Further, the realm of nature should not be expected to function and look like the realm of grace. Living in the tension of two kingdoms we should stop trying to transform the culture of this world into the kingdom of our Lord and instead focus on the church being the church, led by it duly ordained officers and ministering through the ordinary means of grace.

On the other hand, neo-Kupyerianism (intellectual descendants of the Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper) argue that every square inch of this world belongs to Christ. Therefore, his Lordship should be felt and manifested in politics, in the arts, in education, in short, everywhere. Because the work of Christ was not just to save sinners but also to renew the whole cosmos, we should be at work to change the world and transform the culture.

There’s some extremely interesting points made in the article, so do read the whole thing, but I found this point particularly helpful:

Perhaps there is a–I can’t believe I’m going to say it–a middle ground. I say, let’s not lose the heart of the gospel, divine self-satisfaction through self-substitution. And let’s not apologize for challenging Christians to show this same kind of dying love to others. Let’s not be embarrassed by the doctrine of hell and the necessity of repentance and regeneration. And let’s not be afraid to do good to all people, especially to the household of faith. Let’s work against the injustices and suffering in our day, and let’s be realistic that the poor, as Jesus said, will always be among us. Bottom line: let’s work for change where God calls us and gifts us, but let’s not forget that the Great Commission is go into the world and make disciples, not go into the world and build the kingdom.

Alright, go read the article at Kevin’s blog. And when you’re done, you can read a response article from the fine folks at White Horse Inn.

Out of the Archives: Keeping the 10 Commandments

Keeping the 10 CommandmentsJ.I. Packer is one of modern Christianity’s greatest minds—the author of countless books, including Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, Growing in Christ, and arguably his best-known work, Knowing God. There are few men who are more influential theologically on Evangelical Christianity than Packer. So when I saw Keeping the 10 Commandments at the bookstore, I had a hunch it would be a worthwhile read.

Sufficed to say, I was not disappointed.

By many, the 10 Commandments are seen as irrelevant; as “rules” that prevent us from having any fun. In this short work, an excerpt from Growing in Christ, Packer shows us that these commandments are not rules to be followed; they are commands to be lived to bring us joy…

Read the rest of this review.

In case you missed it

Here are a few of this week’s notable posts:

Book Review: What’s He Really Thinking? A book that does the unthinkable: Encourages women to embrace men for being men.

Up the (Willow) Creek: Tim Keller Reflecting on Tim Keller’s session at the Willow Creek Leadership Summit, Leading People to the Prodigal God

Up the (Willow) Creek: Harvey Carey Harvey Carey wants the church to do more than sit on the sidelines. He wants it to get into the game.

Book Review: The Prodigal God

The parable of the prodigal son is one of those stories that everyone knows: A man had two sons. The younger of the two approaches his father and demands his inheritance, despite his father being very much alive and well. He leaves his home and spends all he has on reckless living. As a famine hit the land, he finds himself in need, and gets a job feeding pigs. While longing to eat the pig’s slop, he begins to pine for his father’s house, remembering how well even the servants were treated. So , he returns home, prepared to ask forgiveness and for a job, but his father goes much further than anyone expects—He welcomes him back into the family, and throws a party to celebrate the son who was lost, but is found.

For many of us, that’s about where we stop. The wayward son returns home and there is much joy. Timothy Keller in The Prodigal God reminds us that the parable doesn’t end there—and we have much to learn from the older brother who remained behind and was seemingly obedient to his father.

In this short work, Keller lays out the essentials of the Christian message, the gospel, and how this parable helps us to understand the Bible as a whole. The whole of the Bible is really speaking to two kinds of people: The “reckless spendthrifts” (the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary definition of “prodigal”), licentious sinners, the broken and wayward—the younger brother of the parable—and the self-righteous, religious folk who try to earn their way into God’s grace through morality and strict obedience, but no joy—the elder brother. And more often than not, we’re both at the same time.

Keller rightly asserts that while Jesus was neither on the side of the irreligious nor the religious, “he singles out religious moralism as a particularly deadly spiritual condition” (page 13).

Jesus, Keller says, shows us that while one son stayed and the other left, both were lost. And while the younger realized that he had lost his way, we’re left wondering about the elder son. Jesus doesn’t finish the story. Why does he leave it on a cliffhanger? “[B]ecause the real audience for the story is the Pharisees, the elder brothers” (page 28, emphasis mine). In doing so, Jesus is pleading with the Pharisees to understand the real message behind the parable: That their strict conformity to rules with no joy—their religious moralism—is blinding them to the reality of their own hearts. That for those of us who have a tendency toward the posture of the elder brother, we must be careful that our careful obedience to God’s law doesn’t “serve as a strategy for rebelling against God” (page 37). We must not obey to get things from God, or begin to think that He owes us because we, like the elder brother, “have never disobeyed!” While the younger brother’s rebellion is “crashingly obvious,” says Keller, “the elder brother who is more blind to what is going on” (page 47).

Keller redefines lostness, not simply as irreligious or licentious behavior, but also as a bitter resentment, joyless servitude, and a constant lack of assurance of God’s love. This lack of assurance is particularly devastating as shows us that we do not seek God’s love, but the affirmation of others. Those of us who lean toward the elder brother mentality can’t always see just how damaging our condition is, and “desperately need to see themselves in this mirror” (page 66).

From here, the subject shifts to the gospel. We can be free of our younger and elder brother tendencies as we “gaze in wonder at the work of our true elder brother [Jesus]” (page 89). In Jesus, we have hope that we can return home to the Father, and that we, too, can rejoice in the new creation when He comes again.

What I appreciate most about The Prodigal God is that in it, Keller doesn’t let me off the hook. He shows me my tendencies (I err on the side of the elder brother—shocking, I know), but doesn’t pat me on the head and say, “There, there… you’re a pain, but God loves you anyway.” He doesn’t call me to pull myself up by my spiritual bootstraps and do better.

He points me to the gospel.

There is no question that Timothy Keller is a pastor who deeply loves people and loves the gospel. And he knows that it’s only the gospel that will bring us to repentance, empowering and enabling us to live transformed lives.

The Prodigal God is a sobering and impassioned reminder that the gospel is “not just the ABC’s of the Christian life, but the A to Z of the Christian life” (page 119).  Through the gospel, we can be freed of our younger and elder brother tendencies, and respond rightly to what God has done—with joyful obedience, faithful service and confidence in our status as His children.


Out of the archives.

Up the (Willow) Creek: Tim Keller

Willow-Creek

tim-kellerTim 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. [Read more…]