All posts by Tim Keller

Tim Keller is the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Manhattan, New York. He is also co-founder and vice president of The Gospel Coalition. For more resources by Tim Keller visit Redeemer City to City.

The Counterintuitive Calvin

So what did I do last summer vacation? I continued to do something that I started January 1 of this year. Late last fall I came upon a plan for reading through all of John Calvin's Institutes---his four-volume, 1,500-or-so-page systematic exposition of the teachings of the Christian faith---in one year. Calvin and Martin Luther together were the two leading lights of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Today, however, Calvin has a dismal reputation as a pinched, narrow-minded, cold, and cerebral dogmatician.

I knew much of this image was caricature, and, while over the years I had read a good deal of the Institutes, I treated the books like an encyclopedia or dictionary that one dipped into to learn about specific topics. I had never read it straight through, consecutively, until this year when I began the program, which allots an average of six pages a night, five nights a week, for an entire year. Almost immediately I was amazed by several things.

True Work of Literature

First, it is not just a textbook, but also a true work of literature. It was written in Latin and French and is a landmark in the history of the French language. Calvin was a lawyer and seems at time to relish debate too much (a flaw he confesses in his letters). But despite such passages, even in English translation it is obvious that this is no mere textbook, but a masterpiece of literary art, sometimes astonishing in its power and eloquence.

Second, it is nothing if not biblical. Even if you don't agree with what Calvin is saying, you will always have to deal with one or two dozen texts of Scripture, carefully interpreted and organized as he presents his case to you. To describe these volumes as "theology" or "doctrine" is almost misleading---it is mainly a Bible Digest, a distilled readers' guide to the main teachings of the Scripture and how they fit together.

Third, the Institutes are, I think, the greatest, deepest, and most extensive treatment of the grace of God I have ever read. I was struck by how many times Calvin tells us that the foundation of real Christian faith is both grasping with the mind and sensing on the heart the gracious, unconditional love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Over and over again he teaches that you are not truly converted by merely understanding doctrine, but by grasping God's love so that the inner structure and motivation of the heart are changed.

So in Institutes I.3.1 he argues that, while you may know a lot about God you don't truly know God until "reverence [is] joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. . . . Unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him." In other words, you don't have true saving knowledge of God until you long to obey him, out of a desire to please and delight him because you are pleased and delighted with him for his grace. Calvin adds that in a Christian soul "this restrains itself from sinning, not out of dread of punishment alone; but because it loves and reveres God as Father. . . . Even if there were no hell, it would still shudder at offending him." (I.3.2 )

When Calvin comes to his three chapters on what it means to live a Christian life (III.6-7), again grace is at the forefront. He taught that the briefest statement of the Christian life is this---"You are not your own; you were bought with a price." (1 Cor. 6:19-20) Because you were saved by sheer grace ("you were bought with a price"), now your new principle of life is "you are not your own." You no longer live for yourself, but for God and for your neighbor. All of the Christian life is the working out of that verse, that grace, and that new principle of joyful self-donation.

When Calvin applies this principle of gracious self-donation to our relationships with other people, he argues that we should treat even those who deserve nothing but disdain as if they were the Lord himself.

Say [about the stranger before you] that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits which God has bound you to himself. . . . You will say, "He has deserved something far different from me." Yet what has the Lord deserved? . . . Remember not to consider men's evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them." (III.7.6)

When Calvin comes to his well-known doctrine of predestination, it is important to see where he places it. He does not deal with the doctrine under Book 1 where he treats God, or even Book 2 where he addresses sin and Christ. He waits until Book 3, which is about "How We Receive the Grace of Christ" through the Holy Spirit. Calvin insists that the opposite of the doctrine of predestination is not the idea of free will but the teaching that we are saved by our good works. He argues forcefully that, unless you see your saving faith is a gift from God to you, not from you to him---you have not yet grasped how free his grace is. You will ever so slightly believe that you are a Christian because you were more humble, open, and repentant than those who have not believed. But, Calvin reasoned, if you see your salvation is 100 percent by grace you will embrace and be both humbled and comforted by the truth of predestination.

Astonishing Doxology

Last (and here our modern evangelical terminology fails us) Calvin's writings are astonishingly "doxological." We might be tempted to say "inspirational" or "devotional" or "spiritual," but to use such Hallmark greeting card phrases doesn't do them justice. Calvin's writings don't read at all like a theological treatise, but like a man's meditating on the Scripture before God. The language is filled with reverence and awe, and often tenderness. That means that, despite the close reasoning of so many parts of the material, Calvin was all about the heart.

Indeed, he taught that our biggest problem is there. "For the Word of God is not received by faith if it flits about in the top of the brain, but when it takes root in the depth of the heart . . . the heart's distrust is greater than the mind's blindness. It is harder for the heart to be furnished with assurance [of God's love] than for the mind to be endowed with thought." (III.2.36)

To furnish our hearts with more of that assurance is the ultimate purpose of the Institutes, and I can say, personally, that it is fulfilling its purpose in me this year.

This article originally appeared in Redeemer Presbyterian Church's monthly Redeemer Report.

Catechesis Miscellanies

In order to help us get the most value out of New City Catechism, I offer some final introductory thoughts.

First, it is important to understand the purpose of NCC---its goal is to introduce the almost-lost pedagogical method of catechesis to a new generation, and to direct and motivate far more people to study and learn the longer and historic catechisms than are doing so now. There are three features of NCC that we hope will accomplish this. One is its form as a free app. It means that people will be able to study and memorize the catechism within the fabric of their current, overly busy daily lives. It means that pastors and leaders who want to take a group or class or church through it will not need to make any purchases at all, but will only need to work out ways to use the catechism within their church's pathways of discipleship and training. A second feature is the language. We carefully sought to use modern but not colloquial language, seeking to be accessible but also graceful in style, but also harking back and using the style and language of the historic catechisms where possible.

The other crucial feature of NCC is its brevity. It is an intermediate catechism. It distills older catechisms but, by necessity, leaves a great deal out. While some might find it disconcerting that there is not more information about various subjects, to have a longer catechism would undermine its very purpose. NCC exists to draw in the masses of people who would never taste the richness of the catechism if they didn't have one that is far more economical in words and style. Having tasted NCC, we trust many will go on to at least read and study the historic catechisms. In part because of its brevity, NCC is less detailed than older catechisms and therefore can be used in a variety of churches.

Second, to appreciate NCC it will be critical to remember that catechisms are primarily instructional instruments, not creedal standards. So it shows no more disrespect to the Westminster Catechisms to write a new catechism than, for example, to write a new Sunday school curriculum. In the centuries after the Reformation in Britain hundreds and hundreds of catechisms were produced. While the Heidelberg and Westminster catechisms were intentionally written to be confessional documents, binding doctrinal standards, the vast majority of catechisms were designed to do Christian formation.

Enormous Benefits

The formative, educational genius of catechesis is largely lost today. Learning a catechism is sometimes seen as "mechanical," as "rote learning" that some would say belongs to an earlier era. However, those who use catechesis have come to see the enormous benefits. Catechesis teaches basic mental discipline. Mastering and memorizing a body of content is usually not immediately rewarding. That in itself is a way of practicing the reality that God's truth is true whether it is personally fulfilling at the moment or not. Also, catechism teaches a lost art---the art of meditation and slow reflection. Memorization requires you to pay attention to every word, even every comma. The slow turning over of every word leads to depths of new insight.

Another powerful feature of catechesis is that it teaches us not only the right answers but also, more fundamentally, the right questions. Thomas Torrance observes that the less conversant we are with a body of knowledge, the less we even know what questions to ask. Knowing enough to ask the right questions then moves us down into the truth more swiftly and surely. Here is where catechesis excels.

[T]he Catechism . . . is an invaluable method in instructing the young learner, for it not only trains him to ask the right questions, but trains him to allow himself to be questioned by the Truth, and so to have questions put into his mouth which he could not think up on his own, and which therefore call into questions his own preconceptions. In other words it is an event of real impartation of the Truth (Thomas Torrance, The School of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church, Wipf and Stock: 1996, xxvi).

Last, it would be helpful to understand that NCC is written with a view to 17th-century British pastor Richard Baxter's vision for the role of catechesis---as not something only for the ambitious few or for children but as a normal feature of Christian life. In Reformation Pastors: Richard Baxter and the Ideal of the Reformed Pastor (Paternoster, 2004), J. William Black tells how Baxter and the Worcestershire association of pastors had put into place a program of vigorous expository preaching, only to be disappointed with the results in people's lives. Baxter wrote, "We finde by sad experience, that the people understand not our publike teaching, though we study to speak as plain as we can, and that after many years preaching, even of these same fundamentals, too many can scarce tell anything that we said" (Black, 174). Baxter began his famous program in which every family in the church participated in catechesis under regular pastoral care, discipleship, and visitation.

Black shows that Baxter's success was not reproduced elsewhere, because no one other pastor could pull off the Herculean feat of effectively, personally catechizing 16 families a week, year after year (188-189). But while the details of Baxter's system need not be reproduced, his basic idea is sound---catechesis should be used as broadly as possible in the congregation as a foundational way to instruct and form people. New City Catechism is designed to help churches realize this way of instructing people in the way of Christ.

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We encourage you to join the one-year campaign to delight in the attributes and work of God by learning New City Catechism. Subscribe to weekly updates via e-mail orRSS on the New City Catechism blog, or follow along using the learning tools and tracking reports available by visiting newcitycatechism.com and by downloading the iPad app.

Why Write New Catechisms?

In the first article on this subject, we outlined how crucial the practice of catechesis is for the church particularly when surrounded by a culture antagonistic to Christian teaching and truth. But, we may ask, "Why write new catechisms? What's wrong with the older ones?"

After the high tide of the early centuries, the ministry of catechesis diminished until the Reformation, when there was an explosion of catechism writing. T. F. Torrance edited a book that contains only catechisms that were used widely in the Reformed churches of Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries, and he provides ten. (See The School of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church, James Clarke, 1959.) A first thought of a reader of this volume may be, "They all agree on basic doctrine---then why so many?" The answer can be found in the first lines of Torrance's introduction: "The catechisms set forth Christian doctrine at its closest to the mission, life, and growth of the church from age to age, for they aim to give a comprehensive exposition of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the context of the whole counsel of God and the whole life of the people of God."

So the first reason to produce multiple catechisms is that they must serve the whole people of God, and that has always meant catechisms for beginning, intermediate, and advanced learners. There were simple catechisms for very young children, more intermediate ones for those being admitted to the Lord's Supper, and advanced ones for adults and Christian ministers. For example, Calvin's Geneva Catechism (1541) was accompanied by the Little Catechism (1556).

Errors of Our Age

A second reason is that catechisms have always been connected to the "mission of the church." This may be surprising, since today we think of catechesis as strictly a form of education for Christians. It is that---but of necessity catechisms are selective in how much time is devoted to each aspect of Christian teaching. It is quite evident---if you take the time to read through many catechisms---that each seeks to fortify against the ascendant theological errors in the culture at the time.

Richard Baxter and others of his time saw catechesis as a way not merely to disciple but also to bring people to conversion. So new catechisms were always needed, not in order to change basic doctrine, but to present doctrine in ways that equip people to address the idols and answer the errors of the age.

When the church has gone through a period of reformation there has always been a renewal of catechesis. If we are going to see our people live holy lives in the midst of a post-Christian and anti-Christian culture, we will need to write new catechisms that fit their capacities and equip them for Christian living in the world. We should be frank with ourselves that the even the "shorter" catechisms of the past---such as the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1648) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563)---are now too long for the average contemporary adult to master, and even in Presbyterian and Reformed churches where these are official standards, relatively few people are being immersed in them.

One of the reasons to develop intermediate catechisms like New City Catechism is to fill a gap between children's catechisms and the longer and more extensive older ones. New City Catechism is short---52 questions and answers, one for every week of the year. It is based on Calvin's Geneva, and the Westminster Catechisms, and perhaps most of all on the Heidelberg. As such it gives people a strong dose of each, introducing them to the practice of catechesis, and developing in them an appetite and capacity for going deeper. It can therefore be used by church leaders as a bridge toward teaching members the older and more extensive catechisms of their respective denominations.

John H. Westerhoff, the editor of a book tracing the history of catechesis, argues that we are in the midst of a change period in history as significant as those of the first, fourth, and sixteenth centuries---all times when new catechisms were written. He concludes that it is time for catechesis again. I believe he is right.

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Go to newcitycatechism.com for more information and to download the free interactive iPad app or use the online catechism tool. Starting next week on October 22, you can join the one-year campaign to delight in the attributes and work of God by learning New City Catechism. Next Monday, you can subscribe to weekly updates via e-mail or RSS on the New City Catechism blog.

Why Catechesis Now?

The church in Western culture today is experiencing a crisis of holiness. To be holy is to be "set apart," different, living life according to God's Word and story, not according to the stories that the world tells us are the meaning of life. The more the culture around us becomes post- and anti-Christian the more we discover church members in our midst, sitting under sound preaching, yet nonetheless holding half-pagan views of God, truth, and human nature, and in their daily lives using sex, money, and power in very worldly ways. It's hard to deny what J. I. Packer and Gary Parrett write:

Superficial smatterings of truth, blurry notions about God and godliness, and thoughtlessness about the issues of living---careerwise, communitywise, familywise, and churchwise---are all too often the marks of evangelical congregations today (Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, 16).

This is not the first time the church in the West has lived in such a deeply non-Christian cultural environment. In the first several centuries the church had to form and build new believers from the ground up, teaching them comprehensive new ways to think, feel, and live in every aspect of life. They did this not simply through preaching and lectures, but also through catechesis. Catechesis was not only for children, but also for adult converts and even for leaders---all of whom were grounded in gospel truth by mastering, in dialogical community, material composed for their particular capacities and needs.

In the heyday of the Reformation, church leaders in Europe again faced a massive pedagogical challenge. How could they re-shape the lives of people who had grown up in the medieval church? The answer was, again, many catechisms produced for all ages and stages of life. Martin Luther and John Calvin both produced two, as did John Owen. The Puritan Richard Baxter produced three.

Almost Complete Loss

But in the evangelical Christian world today the practice of catechesis, particularly among adults, has been almost completely lost. Modern discipleship programs are usually superficial when it comes to doctrine. Even systematic Bible studies can be weak in drawing doctrinal conclusions. In contrast, catechisms take students step by step through the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer---a perfect balance of biblical theology and doctrine, practical ethics, and spiritual experience.

Catechesis is an intense way of doing instruction. The catechetical discipline of memorization drives concepts in deep, encouraging meditation on truth. It also holds students more accountable to master the material than do other forms of education. Some ask: why fill children's heads---or for that matter, new converts'---with concepts like "the glory of God" that they cannot grasp well? The answer is that it creates biblical categories in our minds and hearts where they act as a foundation, to be gradually built upon over the years with new insights from more teaching, reading, and experiences. Catechesis done with young children helps them think in biblical categories almost as soon as they can reason. Such instruction, one old writer said, is like firewood in a fireplace. Without the fire---the Spirit of God---firewood will not in itself produce a warming flame. But without fuel there can be no fire either, and that is what catechetical instruction provides.

Catechesis is also different from listening to a sermon or lecture---or reading a book---in that it is deeply communal and participatory. The practice of question-answer recitation brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning. It creates true community as teachers help students---and students help each other---understand and remember material. Parents catechize their children. Church leaders catechize new members with shorter catechisms and new leaders with more extensive ones. All of this systematically builds relationships. In fact, because of the richness of the material, catechetical questions and answers may be incorporated into corporate worship itself, where the church as a body can confess their faith and respond to God with praise.

Our people desperately need richer, more comprehensive instruction. Returning to catechesis---now---is one important way to give it.

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On October 15, The Gospel Coalition in partnership with Tim Keller will launch New City Catechism---a joint adult and children's catechism consisting of 52 questions and answers adapted from the Reformation catechisms.

Changing the City with the Gospel Takes a Movement

When a church or a church network begins to grow rapidly in a city, it is only natural for the people within the ministry to feel that God is making a difference in that place. Often, however, what is really going on is "Christian reconfiguration." When churches grow, they typically do so by drawing believers out of less vital churches. This can be a good thing if the Christians in these growing churches are being better discipled and if their gifts are being effectively deployed. Nevertheless, if this is the key dynamic, then the overall body of Christ in the city is not growing; it is simply reconfiguring. Reaching an entire city, then, takes more than having some effective churches in it, or even having a burst of revival energy and new converts. Changing the city with the gospel takes a movement.

When a gospel city movement occurs, the whole body of Christ grows faster than the population so that the percentage of Christians in the city rises. We call this a movement because it consists of an energy that extends across multiple denominations and networks. It does not reside in a single church or set of leaders or in any particular command center, and its forward motion does not depend on any one organization. It is organic and self-propagating, the result of a set of forces that interact, support, sustain, and stimulate one another. We can also call it a gospel ecosystem. Just as a biological ecosystem is made of interdependent organisms, systems, and natural forces, a gospel ecosystem is made of interdependent organizations, individuals, ideas, and spiritual and human forces. When all the elements of an ecosystem are in place and in balance, the entire system produces health and growth as a whole for the elements themselves.

Can we produce a gospel city movement? No. A movement is the result of two sets of factors. Take for example, a garden. A garden flourishes because of the skill and diligence of the gardener and the condition of the soil and the weather. The first set of factors---gardening---is the way we humanly contribute to the movement. This encompasses a self-sustaining, naturally growing set of ministries and networks, which we will look at in more detail below.

But the second set of factors in a movement---the conditions---belong completely to God. He can open individual hearts ("soil") to the Word ("seed") in any numbers he sovereignly chooses. And he can also open a culture to the gospel as a whole ("weather"). How does God do this? Sometimes he brings about a crisis of belief within the dominant culture. Two of the great Christian movements---the early church of the second and third centuries and the church in China in the twentieth and twentieth first centuries---were stimulated by crisis of confidence within their societies. The belief in the gods of Rome---and belief in orthodox Marxism in China---began falling apart as plausible worldviews. There was broad disaffection toward the older "faiths" among the population at large. This combination of cultural crisis and popular disillusionment with old ways of belief can supercharge a Christian movement and lift it to greater heights than it can reach in a culture that is indifferent (rather than hostile) to Christians. There can also be catastrophes that lead people of a culture to look to spiritual resources, as when the Japanese domination of Korea after 1905 became a context for the large number of conversions to Christianity that began around that time.

In short, we cannot produce a gospel movement without the providential work of the Holy Spirit. A movement is an ecosystem that is empowered and blessed by God's Spirit.

What is the ecosystem that the Holy Spirit uses to produce a gospel city movement? I picture it as three concentric circles:

First Ring --- Contextual Theological Vision

At the very core of the ecosystem is a way of communicating and embodying the gospel that is contextualized to the city's culture and is fruitful in converting and discipling its people, a shared commitment to communicating the gospel to a particular place in a particular time. Churches that catalyze gospel movements in cities do not all share the same worship style, come from the same denomination, or reach the same demographic. They do, however, generally share much of the same basic "DNA": they are gospel centered, attentive to their culture, balanced, missional/evangelistic, growing, and self-replicating. In short, they have a relative consensus on the Center Church theological vision---a set of biblically grounded, contextual strategic stances and emphases that help bring sound doctrine to bear on the people who live in this particular moment.

Second Ring --- Church Planting and Church Renewal Movements

The second layer is a number of church multiplication movements producing a set of new and growing churches, each using the effective means of ministry within their different denominations and traditions.

Many look at cities and see a number of existing churches, often occupying building that are nearly empty. It is natural to think, "The first thing we need to is to renew the existing churches with the gospel." Indeed, but the establishment of new churches in a city is a key to renewing the older churches. New churches introduce new ideas and win the unchurched and non-Christians to Christ at a generally higher rate than older churches. They provide spiritual oxygen to the communities and networks of Christians who do the heavy lifting over decades of time to reach and renew cities. They provide the primary venue for discipleship and the multiplication of believers, as well as serve as the indigenous financial engine for the ministry initiatives.

Third Ring --- Specialized Ministries

Based in the churches, yet also stimulating and sustaining the churches, this third ring consists of a complex of specialty ministries, institutions, networks, and relationships. There are at least seven types of elements in this third ring.

1. A prayer movement uniting churches across traditions in visionary intercession for the city. The history of revivals shows the vital importance of corporate, prevailing, visionary intercessory prayer for the city and the body of Christ. Praying for your city is a biblical directive (Jer 29:4-7). Coming together in prayer is something a wide variety of believers can do. It doesn't require a lot of negotiation and theological parsing to pray. Prayer brings people together. And this very activity is catalytic for creating friendships and relationships across denominational and organizational bounderies. Partnerships with Christians who are similar to and yet different from you stimulates growth and innovation.

2. A number of specialized evangelistic ministries, reaching particular groups (business people, mothers, ethnicities, and the like). Of particular importance are effective campus and youth ministries. Many of the city church's future members and leaders are best found in the city's colleges and schools. While students who graduate from colleges in university towns must leave the area to get jobs, graduates form urban universities do not. Students won to Christ and given a vision for living in the city can remain in the churches they joined during their school years and become emerging leaders in the urban body of Christ. Winning the youth of a city wins city natives who understand the culture well.

3. An array of justice and mercy ministries, addressing every possible social problem and neighborhood. As the evangelicals provided leadership in the 1830s, we need today an urban "benevolent empire" of Christians banding together in various nonprofits and other voluntary organizations to address the needs of the city. Christians of the city must become renowned for their care for their neighbors, for this is one of the key ways that Jesus will become renowned.

4. Faith and work initiatives and fellowships in which Christians from across the city gather with others in the same profession. Networks of Christians in business, the media, the arts, government, and the academy should come together to help each other work with accountability, excellence, and Christian distinctiveness.

6. Systems for attracting, developing, and training urban church and ministry leaders. The act of training usually entails good theological education, but a dynamic city leadership system will include additional components such as well-developed internship programs and connections to campus ministries.

7. An unusual unity of Christian city leaders. Church and movements leaders, heads of institutions, business leaders, academics, and others must know one another and provide vision and direction for the whole city. They must be more concerned about reaching the whole city and growing the whole body of Christ than about increasing their own tribe and kingdom.

When all of these ecosystems elements are strong and in place, they stimulate and increase one another and the movement becomes self-sustaining.

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This article is an excerpt from Tim Keller's new book, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, released today by Zondervan.

The Faith to Doubt Christianity

Believing has both a head and a heart aspect, so while some non-Christians will need more help with one than the other, we can't ignore either one.

So what can we say when we are called upon to present the reasons why we believe?

First, I try to show that it takes faith to doubt Christianity, because any worldview (including secularism or skepticism) is based on assumptions. For example, the person who says, "I can only believe in something if it can be rationally or empirically proven" must realize that this itself is a statement of faith. This "verification principle" cannot actually be proven rationally or empirically, making it an assertion or a claim, not an argument. Furthermore, there are all sorts of things you can't prove rationally or empirically. You can't prove to me that you're not really a butterfly dreaming you're a person. (Haven't you seen The Matrix?) You can't prove most of the things you believe, so at least recognize that you have faith. I normally make this point by considering an objection to Christianity, to show that at the heart is some sort of faith assumption.

Let's take the example of suffering---someone will say, "I can't believe in God, because how could a good God allow such suffering?" Put another way, they are saying, "I know for a fact that there can't be any good reason that a good God would allow this specific thing to happen." Really? There could be all sorts of good reasons why God allowed something to happen that caused suffering, despite our inability to think of them. If you've got an infinite God big enough to be mad at for the suffering in the world, then you also have an infinite God big enough to have reasons for it that you can't think of.

Arguing with God

You have to show people that it takes faith to doubt Christianity. C. S. Lewis argued with God before his conversion that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But then he asked himself, "But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? . . . Atheism turns out to be too simple" (Mere Christianity, Book 2, Part 1). In the natural world the strong eat the weak, and there's nothing wrong with violence. Where do you get the standard that says the human world shouldn't work that way, that says the natural world is wrong? You can only judge suffering as wrong if you're using a standard higher than this world, a supernatural standard. If there's no God, you have no reason to be upset at the suffering in this world. It takes faith to get mad at this world.

A gospel-shaped apologetic starts not with telling people what to believe, but by showing them their real problem. In this case we are showing secular people that they have less warrant for their faith assumptions than we do for ours. We need to show that it takes faith even to doubt.

British critic and former atheist A. N. Wilson wrote about losing his faith as a young man, influenced by British intellectual society, which assumed only stupid people actually believe in Christianity. "As a matter of fact however," he argues, "it is materialist atheism that is not merely an arid creed but totally irrational. Materialist atheism says we are just a collection of chemicals, and it has no answer whatsoever to the question of how we should be capable of love, or heroism, or poetry if we are simply animated pieces of meat."

A campus evangelist I once heard during the Vietnam protests pushed atheist students to recognize the clash between their moral relativism in regards to sex, and their moral absolutism with regards to international genocide. They had no answers. If there's no God, everything is permitted. Without God we're left with no basis for all that is most important to our lives: human dignity, compassion, justice. We have a problem.

Believing the Beauty of the Gospel

Which brings us to the final point, the solution to our problem. At some point you need to tell the Christian story in a way that addresses what people most want for their own lives, what they are trying to find outside of Christianity, and show how Christianity can give it to them. Alasdair MacIntyre said this about narratival apologetics: "That narrative prevails over its rivals which is able to include its rivals within it, not only to retell their stories as episodes within its story, but to tell the story of the telling of their stories as such episodes." Read that sentence again.

There is a way of telling the gospel that makes people say, "I don't believe it's true, but I wish it were." You have to get to the beauty of it, and then go back to the reasons for it. Only then will many believe, when you show that it takes more faith to doubt it than to believe it; when what you see out there in the world is better explained by the Christian account of things than the secular account of things; and when they experience a community in which they actually do see Christianity embodied, in healthy Christian lives and solid Christian community.

Editors' NoteThis is a cross-post from Tim Keller's blog at Redeemer City to City.

In Defense of Apologetics

Apologetics is an answer to the "why" question after you've already answered the "what" question. The what question, of course, is, "What is the gospel?" But when you call people to believe in the gospel and they ask, "Why should I believe that?"---then you need apologetics.

I've heard plenty of Christians try to answer the why question by going back to the what. "You have to believe because Jesus is the Son of God." But that's answering the why with more what. Increasingly we live in a time when you can't avoid the why question. Just giving the what (for example, a vivid gospel presentation) worked in the days when the cultural institutions created an environment in which Christianity just felt true or at least honorable. But in a post-Christendom society, in the marketplace of ideas, you have to explain why this is true, or people will just dismiss it.

Is Apologetics Biblical?

There are plenty of Christians today who nevertheless say: "Don't do apologetics, just expound the Word of God---preach and the power of the Word will strike people." Others argue that "belonging comes before believing." They say apologetics is a rational, Enlightenment approach, not a biblical one. People need to be brought into a community where they can see our love and our deeds, experience worship, have their imaginations captured, and faith will become credible to them.

There is a certain merit to these arguments. It would indeed be overly rationalistic to say that we can prove Christianity so that any rational person would have to believe it. In fact, this approach dishonors the sovereignty of God by bowing to our autonomous human reason. Community and worship are important, because people come to conviction through a combination of heart and mind, a sense of need, thinking things out intellectually, and seeing it in community. But I have also seen many skeptics brought into a warm Christian community and still ask, "But why should I believe you and not an atheist or a Muslim?"

We need to be careful of saying, "Just believe," because what we're really saying is, "Believe because I say so." That sounds like a Nietzschean power play. That's very different from Paul, who reasoned, argued, and proved in the Book of Acts, and from Peter, who called us to give the reason for our hope in 2 Peter 3:15. If our response is, "Our beliefs may seem utterly irrational to you, but if you see how much we love one another then you'll want to believe too," then we'll sound like a cult. So we do need to do apologetics and answer the why question.

No Neutral Ground

However, the trouble with an exclusively rationalistic apologetic ("I'm going to prove to you that God exists, that Jesus is the Son of God, the Bible is true," etc.) is that it does, in a sense, put God on trial before supposedly neutral, perfectly rational people sitting objectively on the throne of Reason. That doesn't fit with what the Bible says about the reality of sin and the always prejudiced, distorted thinking produced by unbelief. On the other hand, an exclusively subjectivist apologetic ("Invite Jesus into your life and he'll solve all your problems, but I can't give you any good reasons, just trust with your heart") also fails to bring conviction of real sin or of need.

There will be no joy in the grace of Jesus unless people see they're lost. Thus a gospel-shaped apologetic must not simply present Christianity, it must also challenge the non-believer's worldview and show where it, and they, have a real problem.

Editors' NoteThis is a cross-post from Tim Keller's blog at Redeemer City to City.

Making Sense of Scripture's 'Inconsistency'

I find it frustrating when I read or hear columnists, pundits, or journalists dismiss Christians as inconsistent because "they pick and choose which of the rules in the Bible to obey." Most often I hear, "Christians ignore lots of Old Testament texts---about not eating raw meat or pork or shellfish, not executing people for breaking the Sabbath, not wearing garments woven with two kinds of material and so on. Then they condemn homosexuality. Aren't you just picking and choosing what you want to believe from the Bible?"

I don't expect everyone to understand that the whole Bible is about Jesus and God's plan to redeem his people, but I vainly hope that one day someone will access their common sense (or at least talk to an informed theological adviser) before leveling the charge of inconsistency.

First, it's not only the Old Testament that has proscriptions about homosexuality. The New Testament has plenty to say about it as well. Even Jesus says, in his discussion of divorce in Matthew 19:3-12, that the original design of God was for one man and one woman to be united as one flesh, and failing that (v. 12), persons should abstain from marriage and sex.

However, let's get back to considering the larger issue of inconsistency regarding things mentioned in the Old Testament no longer practiced by the New Testament people of God. Most Christians don't know what to say when confronted about this issue. Here's a short course on the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament.

The Old Testament devotes a good amount of space to describing the various sacrifices offered in the tabernacle (and later temple) to atone for sin so that worshipers could approach a holy God. There was also a complex set of rules for ceremonial purity and cleanness. You could only approach God in worship if you ate certain foods and not others, wore certain forms of dress, refrained from touching a variety of objects, and so on. This vividly conveyed, over and over, that human beings are spiritually unclean and can't go into God's presence without purification.

But even in the Old Testament, many writers hinted that the sacrifices and the temple worship regulations pointed forward to something beyond them (cf. 1 Sam. 15:21-22; Ps. 50:12-15; 51:17; Hos. 6:6). When Christ appeared he declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19), and he ignored the Old Testament cleanliness laws in other ways, touching lepers and dead bodies.

The reason is clear. When he died on the cross the veil in the temple tore, showing that he had done away with the the need for the entire sacrificial system with all its cleanliness laws. Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice for sin, and now Jesus makes us clean.

The entire book of Hebrews explains that the Old Testament ceremonial laws were not so much abolished as fulfilled by Christ. Whenever we pray "in Jesus name" we "have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus" (Heb. 10:19). It would, therefore, be deeply inconsistent with the teaching of the Bible as a whole if we continued to follow the ceremonial laws.

Law Still Binding

The New Testament gives us further guidance about how to read the Old Testament. Paul makes it clear in places like Romans 13:8ff that the apostles understood the Old Testament moral law to still be binding on us. In short, the coming of Christ changed how we worship, but not how we live. The moral law outlines God's own character---his integrity, love, and faithfulness. And so everything the Old Testament says about loving our neighbor, caring for the poor, generosity with our possessions, social relationships, and commitment to our family is still in force. The New Testament continues to forbid killing or committing adultery, and all the sex ethic of the Old Testament is re-stated throughout the New Testament (Matt. 5:27-30; 1 Cor. 6:9-20; 1 Tim. 1:8-11). If the New Testament has reaffirmed a commandment, then it is still in force for us today.

The New Testament explains another change between the testaments. Sins continue to be sins---but the penalties change. In the Old Testament sins like adultery or incest were punishable with civil sanctions like execution. This is because at that time God's people constituted a nation-state, and so all sins had civil penalties.

But in the New Testament the people of God are an assembly of churches all over the world, living under many different governments. The church is not a civil government, and so sins are dealt with by exhortation and, at worst, exclusion from membership. This is how Paul deals with a case of incest in the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 5:1ff. and 2 Cor. 2:7-11). Why this change? Under Christ, the gospel is not confined to a single nation---it has been released to go into all cultures and peoples.

Once you grant the main premise of the Bible---about the surpassing significance of Christ and his salvation---then all the various parts of the Bible make sense. Because of Christ, the ceremonial law is repealed. Because of Christ, the church is no longer a nation-state imposing civil penalties. It all falls into place. However, if you reject the idea of Christ as Son of God and Savior, then, of course, the Bible is at best a mishmash containing some inspiration and wisdom, but most of it would have to be rejected as foolish or erroneous.

So where does this leave us? There are only two possibilities. If Christ is God, then this way of reading the Bible makes sense. The other possibility is that you reject Christianity's basic thesis---you don't believe Jesus is the resurrected Son of God---and then the Bible is no sure guide for you about much of anything. But you can't say in fairness that Christians are being inconsistent with their beliefs to follow the moral statements in the Old Testament while not practicing the other ones.

One way to respond to the charge of inconsistency may be to ask a counter-question: "Are you asking me to deny the very heart of my Christian beliefs?" If you are asked, "Why do you say that?" you could respond, "If I believe Jesus is the resurrected Son of God, I can't follow all the 'clean laws' of diet and practice, and I can't offer animal sacrifices. All that would be to deny the power of Christ's death on the cross. And so those who really believe in Christ must follow some Old Testament texts and not others."

This article originally appeared in Redeemer Presbyterian Church's monthly Redeemer Report.

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An Agenda for Recovering Christianity in America

See part one in this series, Why Is Christianity on Decline in America?

Ross Douthat's Bad Religion attributes Christianity's decline in the United States to:

  1. political polarization that has sucked churches into its vortex;
  2. the sexual revolution that has undermined the plausibility of Christian faith and practice for an entire generation;
  3. globalization that has made the exclusive claims of Christianity seem highly oppressive;
  4. materialism and consumerism that undermines commitment to anything higher than the self; and
  5. alienation of the cultural elites and culture-shaping institutions from Christianity.

What, if anything, can we do about the decline of Christianity? This question has triggered an entire generation of books and blogs. Douthat's book is mainly descriptive and critical. He even admits that the book was "written in a spirit of pessimism." Yet he rightly responds that for any Christian, "pessimism should always be provisional." So in his last chapter he very briefly proposes four factors that could lead to the "recovery of Christianity."

First, he speaks of the "postmodern opportunity." The same relativism and rootlessness that has weakened the church is also proving exhausting rather than liberating to many in our society. Even in the academy, postmodern theory is now widely seen as being in eclipse, and there is no "next big thing" on the horizon. Douthat wonders about the possibility of a kind of revolution from above---that is, a revival of Christianity among cultural elites.

Second, he notes the opposite impulse at work, the "Benedict option"---a new monasticism that does not seek engagement with culture but rather the formation of counter-cultural communities that "stand apart . . . and inspire by example rather than by engagement." Douthat suggests that these first two measures should not be seen as completely opposed and, indeed, could benefit by being paired with one another, otherwise engaging the culture can become accommodation and being an example can become separatism and sectarianism.

Third, he cites "the next Christendom," meaning the explosively growing Christian churches of the former Third World could evangelize the West. Under the first two proposals Douthat can name some existing efforts that hold promise, but this factor is much more than a dream. In European and North American cities literally thousands of new churches and missions have already begun under the leadership of African, Latin American, and Asian Christians.

Finally, he proposes that "an age of diminished [economic] expectations"---along with the devastation of the sexual revolution and the exhaustion of postmodern rootlessness---could lead to the masses again looking to Christianity for hope and help. A church that could welcome them, he warns, would need three qualities. First, it would have to be political without being partisan. That is, it would have to equip all its members to be culturally engaged through vocation and civic involvement without identifying corporately with one political party. Second, it would have to be confessional yet ecumenical. That is, the church would have to be fully orthodox within its theological and ecclesiastical tradition yet not narrow and harsh toward other kinds of Christians. It should be especially desirous of cooperation with non-Western Christian leaders and churches. Third, the church would not only have to preach the Word faithfully, but also be committed to beauty and sanctity, the arts, and human rights for all. In this brief section he sounds a lot like Lesslie Newbigin and James Hunter, who have described a church that can have a "missionary encounter with Western culture."

It is worth noting that each of these positive measures takes aim at one or two of the factors that have led to decline. The Benedict option seeks to break the hold of political polarization on the church. The postmodern opportunity aims to re-engage the cultural elites. The next Christendom has already strongly undermined the contention that Christianity merely reflects Western culture and imperialism. And if there is an "age of diminished expectations," it could erode both the materialism and even the sexual licentiousness (which always works best in the midst of material plenty) that have undermined faith.

But how successful will these be? I don't know, but I think these are the right strategies and responses. Why? First, each of the proposals addresses one of the five barriers to faith in our culture, so we should at least attempt to deal with them. Second, though treated briefly, these are essentially the same ideas that others such as Newbigin and Hunter have proposed. That confirms them in my mind. Third, as many readers know, I simply think these are features of a biblical ministry.

Near the very end of this book, Douthat (whom I have not met as of this writing) very kindly used our Redeemer Presbyterian Church as a good example of some of the things he proposes for the church in our time. When I read it I was startled, then humbled, then strongly overwhelmed by a sense that, for all God's kindness to us over the years, we at Redeemer are so far from realizing our goals and aims. It actually discouraged me for several days until I noticed a little quote by G. K. Chesterton that Douthat cites near the end of his book. In The Everlasting Man Chesterton surveys the many forces over the last 2,000 years that threatened and should have destroyed Christianity.

"'Time and again,' Chesterton noted, 'the Faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs.' But each time, 'it was the dog that died.'"

Editors' Note: This is a cross-post from Tim Keller's blog at Redeemer City to City.

Why Is Christianity on the Decline in America?

I had the pleasure of reading the manuscript of Ross Douthat's new book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (The Free Press, 2012), slated to be released on April 17. I am going to honor the publisher's request that I not quote or review the book until it is published because it is still being edited. Nevertheless, I want to interact with Ross's basic ideas because I think they are provocative and because this is essential reading for all Christians seeking to understand Christianity's relationship to culture in the U.S.

Everyone agrees that our culture has become far more secular and hostile to Christian faith over the past two generations, but what are the factors causing that change? Many in the evangelical and Reformed world see the decline starting in the early 20th century when most of the mainline denominations and their affiliated academic institutions and foundations fell into the hands of theological modernists and liberals. But it can't be as simple as that.

In his first chapter Douthat looks at four figures---Reinhold Niebuhr for powerful mainline Protestantism, Billy Graham for rising Evangelicalism, Fulton Sheen for popularly engaged Catholicism, and Martin Luther King, Jr. for the prophetic African-American Church of the Civil Rights era---who at mid-20th century showed the cultural and institutional strength of nearly all branches of Christianity. But by the beginning of the 21st century all four branches of Christianity are fragmented, declining, and in disarray, while the number of Americans who say they have no religious affiliation or even belief in God steadily climbs. Robert Putnam, in American Grace, nuances this a bit when he argues that the mainline church began declining first, in the late 1960s and 1970s, while the Evangelical church began doing so by the 1990s. Catholics have been battered with a different set of problems and so has the African-American church, but they are also definitely losing influence and people.

Five Social Catalysts that Changed the Church

In his second chapter, Douthat attributes the change to five major social catalysts that have gained steam since the 1960s:

First, the political polarization that has occurred between the Left and Right drew many churches into it (mainline Protestants toward the Left, evangelicals toward the Right). This has greatly weakened the church's credibility in the broader culture, with many viewing churches as mere appendages and pawns of political parties.

Second, the sexual revolution means that the Biblical sex ethic now looks unreasonable and perverse to millions of people, making Christianity appear implausible, unhealthy, and regressive.

Third, the era of decolonization and Third World empowerment, together with the dawn of globalization, has given the impression that Christianity was imperialistically "western" and supportive of European civilization's record of racism, colonialism, and anti-Semitism.

The fourth factor has been the enormous growth in the kind of material prosperity and consumerism that always works against faith and undermines Christian community.

The fifth factor is that all the other four factors had their greatest initial impact on the more educated and affluent classes, the gatekeepers of the main culture-shaping institutions such as the media, the academy, the arts, the main foundations, and much of the government and business world.

How does Ross Douthat's analysis compare with some older thinkers? Lesslie Newbigin blames the marginalization of Christianity in the West on the outworking of the 18th century Enlightenment---which promoted the sufficiency of individual human reason without faith in God---for a great deal of the shift. In this he understands historical patterns as being caused by ideas and intellectual trends working their way out through a society's institutions. I see no reason why Newbigin's history-of-thought approach and Douthat's sociology-of-knowledge approach cannot both be right.

A third kind of analysis could easily find the faults within the church itself. As H. Richard Niebuhr points out in his essay, "The Independence of the Church," the church becomes weak and even corrupt whenever it becomes successful in a culture. This is an important factor to add. For example, why did the mainline and the evangelical church get co-opted by American political parties and lose credibility? Wasn't this due to a lack of robust, vital orthodoxy within them? If all these approaches are right and complementary, Christianity in the West has been the victim of "a perfect storm" of trends, factors, and forces.

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Editor's Note: This post was originally published April 9, 2012 at Redeemer City to City.