Sunday, 8 December 2013

Keller & McKnight on "Christians and the Law"

Timothy Keller (left) Scot McKnight (right) 
I went through a weird phase in college.

I know what you're thinking.... (Trust me it's not that bad.) 
The statement 'going through phase in college' is usually synonymous to experimentation with sex, drugs, and rock n' roll. I wouldn't blame you for thinking along those lines. It's kind of what is assumed by the term ‘phase’. Let me shed some more light on your thoughts. I went through a weird phase in Bible College; although as any former Bible college student could tell you, that could still mean a lot of things.

My 'phase' was listening almost exclusively to the sermons of Timothy Keller. There is a lot to like! Timothy Keller is the Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Keller's church is a success story in a city not typically known for large churches. I believe that much of the success of Redeemer Presbyterian can be credited to the care and attention that is placed on engaging the congregation through preaching. Keller, in my opinion, is one of the top preachers and communicators in the world today. He has the unique ability to mine the depths of culture in creative and relevant ways in order to craft his sermon to answer objections and questions before they are ever asked. Keller is poetic, insightful, and a great example of leadership in the church context today. 

I listened to Keller knowing that he had a background in the Reformed movement. I have a lot of respect for my Calvinist friends but I've always landed in the Arminianism camp. This has never really prevented me from listening to Keller. (nor should it) I thought, "I know how to filter out these flower obsessed Calvinists." That was my first mistake. Being in my first year of Bible college, I was naive enough to think that I could narrow a Reformed perspective down to TULIP. (Big mistake.)

I found myself being redirected by Reformed thinking in the area of "the law" and its relationship to “what is the Gospel". I found that I began to subtly think that the Gospel message did not require any performance on my part. I remember, during this 'phase', getting a lot of life out of a faith alone approach to my Christian walk. The requirements of Scripture became an 'impossible ideal'-the message being: we can never be good enough and what we really need is grace to free us into an imputed righteousness. The Gospel is presented in a Reformed lens as grace alone by faith alone. “[The] assumption is that justification is the gospel. The Calvinist crowd in the USA … has defined the gospel in the short formula: justification by faith.”[1]

Dr. Timothy Keller describes his approach:

I have come to realize that my sermons need to follow a different outline:  

1.Here is what the text says 
2.Here is how we must live in light of it 
3.But we simply cannot do it 
4.Ah—but there is One who did! 
5.Now, through faith in him, you can begin to live this way. 
In nearly every text of Scripture a moral principle can be found, shown through the character of God or Christ, displayed in the good or bad examples of characters in the text, or provided as explicit commands, promises, and warnings. This moral principle is important and must be distilled clearly. But then a crisis is created in the hearers as they understand that this moral principle creates insurmountable problems. I describe in my sermons how this practical and moral obligation is impossible to meet. The hearers are led to a seemingly dead end, but then a hidden door opens and light comes in. Our sermons must show how the person and work of Jesus Christ bears on the subject. First we show how our inability to live as we ought stems from our forgetting or rejecting the work of Christ. Then we show that only by repenting and rejoicing in Christ can we then live, as we know we ought. [2]  

I was really attracted to this teaching. It didn't take any effort to convince me that I wasn't good enough and in desperate of grace. (For the record, I am still convinced of my failings and need of grace.) What Keller convinced me of during this 'phase' was that I could never be good enough. It's impossible. This meant that all of my dutiful efforts to pursue righteousness are only a form of performance and striving outside of the imputed righteousness of Christ. What I really needed was to remember that Christ lived the perfect life and the Gospel freed me from the moralistic burden of the Law.

My suspicion is that Keller in his approach is rehashing the journey of Martin Luther. Martin Luther was a sixteenth century Reformer who was tortured with guilt for his inability to be good enough, but discovered the beautiful grace of God. “This message of grace and forgiveness has been a life-changing one to many people over the ages since Luther rediscovered it, but it has often been tragically accompanied by a message of fear and condemnation itself. Luther, for example, preached that one must face the horrors of wrath before one could come to grace. In other words, he believed that everyone needed to be forced to go through the horrible struggle he did before they could hear about grace. Ever since then, there has been a long history of revival preachers who have proclaimed this “pre-gospel” of fear, threat, and condemnation—telling people the bad news so they could then receive the good news, wounding people first, so they could then heal those wounds.”[3] Keller does a fantastic job convincing us of the inability to be righteous apart from ‘the finished work Jesus’. All that we need to do, according to Keller, is to receive righteousness as a gift. Now, it should be noted that Keller has nuanced his position to the exhortation to live in light of the positional and imputed righteousness and justification that you have already received. I don’t think for a second that Keller is promoting a cheap grace, or taking a ‘whatever’ approach to holiness and discipleship.

The issue(s) I take to Keller’s approach are:

(1) By emphasizing the impossibility to live in light of the text, the demands of discipleship are muted. 
(2) The Gospel becomes subservient to Soteriology. (how to get saved) 
(3) Jesus is made to be an ‘exclusive substitute' rather than an ‘inclusive substitute’. To put it crassly, Jesus’ demands of discipleship are meant to drive us to repentance for our inability rather than grace to live out the Kingdom here and now. 
(4) It’s a misreading of Paul and Judaism. (we will discuss this below in the summary thoughts)

Dr. Scot McKnight provides some clarity and insight to the discussion in his latest book, The Story of God Commentary: Sermon on the Mount. 

"It is hard not to point a finger at Martin Luther for creating a counterforce between law and gospel. In fact, contrasting the two — one to condemn and one to bring grace — is at the heart of the Lutheran dialectic, or how the Lutheran is taught to read the Bible. Nothing can be achieved by obedience to the law; all that can be achieved is achieved in Christ. The Reformed, those who follow from Calvin, involved themselves in a more nuanced way in the issue of how the law and the gospel are related. A good example of this approach is found in a statement by John Stott: “the law sends us to Christ to be justified, and Christ sends us back to the law to be sanctified.” There is considerable debate over this issue among evangelicals today. 
This problem is created by tidy systematic formulas, and I appreciate the nuances and discussions and light that systematicians sometime shed, but in this case something has gone terribly wrong. The immediate problem is that the debate often assumes that law demands performance while the gospel expects only faith. Beside the importance of what the New Perspective on Paul brings to this discussion, not the least of which is a radical reshaping of how Judaism worked as a religion and that “works of the law” are not just Torah but the special laws that separated the Jew from the Gentile, the contrast Paul makes between works of the law and faith does not result in the latter not having law or performance. After all, in one of his quintessential statements in Ephesians 2:8 – 10, Paul overtly argues Christians are created by God “to do good works” (which is performance by any other name). 
As one sympathetic to the Anabaptists I believe in salvation by faith and not by works, and to their credit the Anabaptists have always taught the demand of discipleship in a way more emphatically central than most. Radical distinctions, often made by major theologians in the Protestant traditions, between justification and sanctification are unwise because they are not grounded in the Bible. The Torah is God’s revelation to God’s people and to be read as God’s gracious demand. God graciously reveals what God wants, but God unfolds that demand over time so that it is completely revealed only in Christ; God graciously provides the power for us to do what Jesus teaches as we live in the Spirit in the light of the coming kingdom; and God graciously demands how God wants us to live in the Sermon and in the ethical exhortations of the New Testament." [4] 
McKnight has put his finger on the Gestalt shift that I experienced in the transition out of my ‘phase’. The Gestalt shift I speak of is the revelation that the Gospel is way bigger than a soteriology. According to McKnight, “the Gospel is the declaration that Jesus is Lord, King and as Lord and King Jesus rescues his people (1 Cor 15:3-5). The Gospel is a message about Jesus first and foremost and not first a message about us and our salvation.”[5] The King saves us, but the Gospel is news about the arrival of the King and our participation in the Kingdom. Disciples of King Jesus are called to follow, to do good works, to take up our Cross, and to participate with Christ in the establishment of the Kingdom. 

This Gestalt shift to what McKnight has called the “King Jesus Gospel” has implications beyond a Reformed perspective. Arminianism has been just as guilty of reducing the Gospel to Soteriology- or 'how to get saved'. A recent example of this is the work of Dr. Andrew Farley in his book, “The Naked Gospel”. Farley makes the case that ‘Jesus plus anything equals nothing’. Andrew rehashes the ‘impossible ideal’ approach that is very similar to Keller’s, although not as nuanced. Farley makes the claim that, “we can interpret Jesus’ teachings as literal but contextualize them as being directed at people who were still under the law. (Galatians 4:4-5)”[6]Farley is suggesting we view Jesus' teaching as irrelevant to those who are under "grace". To be completely honest, I was kind of shocked and unnerved to encounter an approach to "The Gospel" that divorces Jesus from his teaching. I can agree with Farley that salvation is a free gift and that we are justified by our faith in Jesus, but the Gospel is bigger than how to get saved. Justification does not mean that the call to follow Christ has been muted. I find I diverge from Farley exactly where I diverge from Keller. (see above) We are not saved from works, but rather into ‘a faith that works’. 

Summary thoughts….
How can we avoid falling into the ditch of reducing the Gospel to merely a conferred status and creating a counterforce between the Law and the Gospel ?  I have a two fold suggestion. (feel free to add your own in the comments)

1. The New Perspective on Paul.

“Paul’s critique of the law is well known. Recent scholarship has helpfully drawn attention to the fact that Paul is not opposing good works here (i.e., acts of love and mercy) as a typical Lutheran reading would claim, rather Paul is ultimately arguing for works of love. This “new perspective on Paul,” as it is called, stresses that both Jesus and Paul saw fulfillment of the law as embodied in compassion rather than in legal ritualistic observance.”[7] 

The following points can be named as the New Perspective on Paul's most important insights:

(1) Paul’s thinking should not be understood as an answer to individual plights of conscience but as a salvation-historical orientation and revolves around the question of the status of the Gentiles in the people of God. 
(2) The picture  of Judaism as a religion of “works righteousness” is a negative foil for the interpretation of Pauline theology that in no way does justice to ancient Judaism and therefore [this old way of reading Paul] also distorts the stance of Paul toward the Judaism of his time. 
(3) Paul does not fundamentally polemicize against the doing of good works but criticizes Israel’s appeal to identity markers that demarcate it from other peoples and ground its status as the chosen people.[8] 

2. Viewing the work of Christ as ‘inclusive substitution’ or ‘representative redemptive solidarity’. 

This is to say that everything about Christ’s work is not instead of us, but rather on behalf of us! Jesus is "the pioneer of [our] salvation" (Heb 2:9-10). As "pioneer" (arch egos), Jesus is not a substitute that takes our place in the salvation event, but the one who "goes first," who goes ahead of us in death and resurrection as the originator and founder of the way of our salvation. Jesus comes to show us a better way; a way that disciples are to imitate. Darrin W. Snyder Belousek expounds on this:

In one respect, Jesus' death (and resurrection) does "for us" that which we cannot do for ourselves. By the power of God, the cross of Christ cleanses us of sin, removes our guilt, and frees us both from the weight and chain of sin and the ultimate end of sin in death. That is the "objective" aspect of atonement, and in that sense we may speak of a "substitutionary" atonement of God-in-Christ "for us." In another respect, however, Jesus' death (and resurrection) does "for us" that which it renders us capable of doing likewise. It gives us the example to follow, showing us both what is the true sacrifice we are to make (not the offer of a substitute victim in our name on an altar but rather the offer of our very own lives in the name of Jesus in devotion to God) and how we are to love our neighbour and overcome evil with self-sacrificial love. In both respects, the death (and resurrection) of Jesus is an event of salvation that we ourselves enter by baptism "into Christ." In both respects, therefore, Jesus' death and resurrection involves us - it is "for us" but not "instead of us" [9]
Thanks for reading.

Works Cited

1. McKnight, Scot. The King Jesus Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011) 33, (e-version)


3. Flood, Derek. Healing the Gospel (Eugene: Cascade books, 2012) 22. (e-version)

4. McKnight, Scot. The Story of the Bible Commentary: Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013) 153. (e-version) 

6. Farley, Andrew. The Naked Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) 91.

7.  Flood, Derek. Healing the Gospel (Eugene: Cascade books, 2012) 41. (e-version)

8. Schröter,Jens. From Jesus to the New Testament: Early Christian Theology and the Origin of the New Testament Canon (Baylor, 2013),134. 

9. Snyder Belousek, Darrin W. Atonement, Justice and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2012),746. (e-version) 


  1. Paul Walker, I find your reflections relevant towards clarifying nuances of Pentecostal soteriology from construals commonly stressed via the current Reformed resurgence. For this reason, it difficult for us to skirt around the issue that what we are moreover discussing here is the framing of Christian life issues through the “law/grace” dichotomy current popularized via the so-called hyper/radical grace movement. More specifically, I am referring to its tendency to construe and frame any soteriological understandings as “law-based” other than whatever easily falls within ultra-Reformed stress on forensic categories and/or construals of early Protestant emphasis on “imputed righteousness.”

    If I may, I want to provide just one small clarification on what I think would be a better way of defining the meaning of “soteriology,” and then provide several other affirming responses to your posting. Hence, may I suggest you consider, in order to even more strengthen the weight of your reflections, to consider a broader definition of “soteriology” than rather as simply the idea of “how to get saved.” For indeed— this is the real point of what you are driving at: a Pentecostal understanding of soteriology comprises the whole Christian life. This is why a number of Pentecostal theologians stress here our Wesleyan influence; that for us salvation does not refer to simply a single point in time when we are justified. Rather, reflecting broader Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Wesleyan nuances— we view all of Christian life as journey through the “way of salvation” (Wesley’s phrase).

    For us, soteriology is not about becoming “saved,” but rather about the whole salvific journey of Christian life— and consequently, whatever habitual disciplines or practices we might identify as helpful towards fostering our progression along this saving journey. And— it is right here that the current Reformed resurgence, specifically in its hyper/radical grace categories, consistently identifies as “law based” religion. I will back to this in a moment.

    Second, there has appeared over past years ample theological convergence, of which Pentecostal theology has played a contributing role— that both the Roman Catholic stress on “imparted righteousness” (and hence why soteriology implies a lifelong salvific process) and the traditional Protestant (especially in its Reformed nuances) stress on “imputed righteousness (hence, a focus on the regenerative power of the “new birth”) are in themselves, inadequate theological constructs. A full orbed Christian soteriology must comprise both emphases. In his book, Justified in the Spirit: Creation, Redemption, and the Triune God (Eerdmans, 2010), Frank Macchia provides an excellent analysis on how the pneumatological orientation in Pentecostal spirituality provides a highly constructive bridge for bringing these two perspectives into a more healthy synthesis and hence, more balanced understanding of Christian soteriology. Macchia thus demonstrates how it is the Holy Spirit as the “substance of justification,” who “embraces” us, meaning “justifying” us as participants in God’s triune life and mission (pp. 4-5, 8-12, 293-294).

  2. PART 2
    Third, Macchia’s discussion well confirms your reached conclusion on the relevancy of “New Perspective” understandings of Paul’s doctrine of justification. This is because in similar matters, Macchia’s insight into the weakness of past Protestant justification theology leads him also to stress that the doctrine of justification is more about becoming incorporated into both God’s life AND mission— than about knowing that our sins are forgiven. Therefore, Macchia stresses, as “New Perspective” literature often does, that justification is really more about God incorporating us into the heterogeneous reality of His new covenant people. You have moreover correctly drawn out the New Perspective insight that a basic wrong posture of the Jews to the law, which Jesus and Paul had addressed was not simply that they were striving to be right with God through keeping it, but rather using the law as a cultural/ ideological identity marker of their presumed right standing before God.

    Paul, this is why I find you are indeed powerfully on target concerning an essential weakness of current Reformed “radical grace” preaching and teaching, which commonly approaches Bible texts via that five-step template (e.g., “We must live like this but we cant! Ah— but Jesus does!” So by resting in Him so can we!”). You have done well in pointing out the danger of constantly feeding believers with nothing more than this basic sermonic/theological template. For too often it leads to a devaluation of the role of habit, practice, and discipline within the processes of spiritual growth, and thereby also a triumphalistic (stressing the “now” over the “not yet” reality of God’s kingdom) spirituality.

    My experience however is with their pre-occupations with matters of guilt, sin-consciousness, condemnation, performance orientations, and wanting to thus construe the experiences of salvation and justification as primarily about becoming free from condemnation— much of the current Reformed resurgence (along with hyper/radical grace proponents) find itself ill-eased towards “New Perspective” insights because it essentially overturns the Reformed preoccupation with a narrow forensic understanding of Christian life (hence, e.g., resting in the “finished work” of Christ).

    Incidentally, James Dunn (Anglican “New Perspective” Pauline scholar) has a very relevant essay in the latest Pneuma issue (“’The Letter Kills, but the Spirit Gives Life’ (2 Cor. 3:6) Pneuma 35 [2013]: 163-179). Dunn suggests that the antithesis Paul makes between the “letter” and the “Spirit” is not between the law itself and the Spirit, but rather between treating the law “only at the gramma level” (e.g., at the surface level; “letter” (Greek “gramma”) and the new way of responding to the law through the Spirit. Dunn then concludes by suggesting implications this discussion raises on diverse issues, beginning with how we read the Bible. Can we read with appreciation towards the polyvalent meanings biblical metaphors often present us, or are we stuck with just the “letter,” meaning a very wooden, literalistic and hence deadening reading. Or do we insist on only reading Scripture via our received church (or as often the case today, “movement/network” we identify with) tradition, or can we let the Spirit speak in contrast to how our communal paradigms alone might shape our reading?

  3. PART 3
    But getting back to the issues at hand, Dunn then alludes to, and as is often discussed in New Perspective literature, this “new way” is essentially bound up in categories of how we now relate to people different from us— beginning within the church of Christ. Which brings us back to the important New Perspective insight that justification is not so much about having our sins forgiven before God (though this is part of it) but rather more importantly about God justifying us at the common table of fellowship with Himself and all his people, regardless of their diverse differences). This brings us back again as to why the declaration of justification is indeed immediately missiological in purpose: when God declares us justified, He immediately declares us labourers with Him in mission.

    Yes indeed Paul. The “gospel” is not a plan of salvation or explanation on how we get “saved,” but rather: the proclamation that God has made through the power of His Spirit, that Jesus is Lord over all creation.

    Finally, what am I really driving at? Only this. Ultimately, regardless of our diversely identified traditions (Reformed, Wesleyan, Calvinistic, Armenian, Protestant, Roman Catholic or Orthodox, Pentecostal, Evangelical, etc), our separate movements towards thoroughly Christian comprehension of salvation, the Gospel, and justification requires ecumenical dialogue, cross-fertilisation, and transformation towards theological convergence.

  4. So you're saying that Lutherans believe that Paul opposes works? "Recent scholarship has helpfully drawn attention to the fact that Paul is not opposing good works here (i.e., acts of love and mercy) as a typical Lutheran reading would claim..."

    I'm a Lutheran and we say that.

  5. Replies
    1. I am quoting Derek Flood in the passage you shared. By "Lutheran" I believe he is referring to a straight sort of reading & teaching of Martin Luther.

      I understand that in many ways Lutheranism has departed & strongly disagreed with much of Luther's teachings and examples. So I don't discount that you have not encountered the classic Lutheran dialectic, as the movement has made some significant shifts in the past 50 years.