Tag Archives: Tim Keller

The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson, A Review

How do you know if you are truly a Christian? Can you be sure about that?

In our 21st century age, we tend to look down upon Christians of earlier eras, particularly the Puritans. Their world seems so far removed from ours. But such an opinion only reveals our chronological snobbery. A wealth of wisdom lays hidden with the Puritans, that we need to need to hear from today. The assurance of one’s salvation is one area of wisdom we need to recover from those Puritans,

If you ever read the writings of the English Puritans, they often speak of the tension between “legalism” and “antinomianism,” in the Christian life. On one side, is the tendency to reduce Christianity to a set of rules and regulations to follow, a bunch of “do’s and don’ts” (legalism). On the other, is the tendency towards lawlessness, a faith that has no real regard for the commands of God (antinomianism). What Christian does not wrestle with that tension today?

Between these two extremes, it can sometimes be like walking a tightrope, maintaining a sense of balance to keep from falling down one way or the other. We have plenty of controversies in church history that testify as to how difficult it is to maintain that sense of balance.

Martin Luther was accused of being a libertine by his Roman Catholic opponents, while his Papal accusers were accused of their own “works-righteousness.” Anne Hutchinson was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for her claim that the Puritan fathers were teaching a “covenant of works” as opposed to a “covenant of grace.” Late 20th century evangelicals argued over the “Lordship Salvation” versus “Free Grace” controversy. In recent years, megachurch pastor Andy Stanley told his congregation that they must “unhitch” themselves from the Old Testament, largely because of the Old Testament emphasis on law, causing quite an uproar.

In all of these controversies, the assurance of one’s salvation has hung in the balance. At the core of this, the relationship between Law and Gospel is something with which every new generation must wrestle.

Sinclair Ferguson, in his The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters, looks at one of these controversies in church history, as a lens on which to try to tease out how this balance might be properly maintained. The “Marrow Controversy” was an otherwise forgotten controversy over an otherwise forgotten book, by Edward Fisher, a Puritan author from the 1640s, entitled The Marrow of Modern Divinity.

The Whole Christ centers around the story of an early 18th century Scottish preacher, Thomas Boston. Early in his preaching career, Boston was frustrated by the lack of positive response to his preaching message, among the callous in his Scottish congregation. Yet Boston took great comfort in reading Edward Fisher’s book, when he stumbled across it one day, while visiting someone else’s home. Fisher’s book sought to find a way between legalism and antinomianism (a term which means, “against the law”). The abbreviated title, “The Marrow,” meant that Fisher was trying to get at the innermost substance of the Gospel. Boston credited The Marrow for correcting his own posture towards the Gospel, and it revolutionized his ministry.

So, when the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland banned the book in 1720, as promoting antinomianism, some 80 years after it was first published, a theological fire erupted. Thomas Boston and his like-minded preacher friends protested the ban. These pastors, known as the “Marrow Men,” did not view the book as dangerous at all, but rather saw its message as liberating with the truth of the Gospel. The censure of the church, which subsequently was never revoked (even to this day!), would not stop the “Marrow Men,” for they sought to republish The Marrow of Modern Divinity, with some notes added by Thomas Boston, in 1726.

Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ endeavors to explain the “Marrow” debate that engulfed the early 18th century Church of Scotland, as a means to help us today to properly understand the relationship between the Law and the Gospel. There are a couple of added, standout benefits gained from Sinclair Ferguson, from this book:

The last issue, regarding the assurance of salvation, is something that still needs sharpening in our day. For on one side, it is very easy to have a false assurance of one’s salvation, by presuming upon the grace of God, and thereby leading a life of recklessness, marked by a distinct lack of holy living. If you dwell among Christians who act one way on Sunday, but who act completely different on the other days of the week, you will know exactly what this means.

We may think we have a right standing before God, when in fact, we have merely fooled ourselves, placing our own demands and wishful thinking upon God. On the other side, we can become so restless concerning our final state before God, that we lack confidence in the power of God to save sinners. In our insecurity about “going to hell” we forget about the love of God, which brings us into the joy of God’s presence. People who fret and fret over whether their faith is fully acceptable, in the sight of God, reveals this sense of spiritual insecurity.

Sinclair Ferguson takes us on a trip through church history, that might not be familiar to readers. Ferguson draws connections between the teachings of the medieval church, similar teachings found in contemporary Roman Catholicism, and other crucial theological figures, such as the 16th century French/Swiss Reformer, John Calvin, and the 19th century Scottish “heretic” John McLeod Campbell. But this is not theological history to satisfy certain intellectual curiosities. Instead, Ferguson weaves a theological tale that will assist the reader in avoiding common pitfalls, that can easily derail the life of any Christian.

The forward of The Whole Christ, written by Tim Keller, helps to orient the reader to understand the book’s purpose, regarding how the Law and the Gospel relate to one another. Keller writes that Ferguson “wants to help us understand the character of this perpetual problem—one that bedevils the church today. He does so in the most illuminating and compelling way I’ve seen in recent evangelical literature.” But the book’s audience should not be restricted to pastors, for The Whole Christ seeks to set out a reasoned, biblical approach to how a balance between legalism and license can be lived out.

How can this be done?  By preaching the whole Christ. A proper understanding of the Gospel, in its fullness, is the antidote that helps believers to avoid a sense of making the Christian faith into following a list of do’s and don’ts. It also helps us to avoid a faith, where we can fool ourselves to think that we can do whatever we want, with no restraints upon our conscience. The subtle danger, as Ferguson tells us, is that often we can have a very “orthodox” sounding theology, but that on the inside, our hearts’ disposition is completely out of whack. The way the message is presented is just as important as the message itself.

By emphasizing the whole Christ, Ferguson insists that it is all too easy to separate Christ Himself from the benefits He gives to the believer. A proper grounding for the assurance of our salvation is found in loving God for who He is, and not simply for what He gives us.

The last few chapters of The Whole Christ explore the details of what it means to have the assurance of one’s salvation. These chapters make for the densest reading in the book, but it forced me to read slowly and think more carefully. Does one have an unhealthy preoccupation with anxiety about their eternal state? Or does one settle for a kind of presumptive expectation of salvation, when actually, their hearts are far, far from God? Sinclair Ferguson endeavors to find the right balance and nuance, to get at the truth.

Again I ask: What genuine Christian does not struggle with these matters? But notice how easy it is to trick ourselves. If I find myself easily condemning other Christians for their “loose-living,” that might be an indication of legalism in my own heart. On the other hand, if I am quick to dismiss the rigidity of how another Christian seeks to be obedient to God, it might be a good sign of a latent antinomian spirit residing in me.

What is the solution to avoiding these spiritual traps? Knowing the whole Gospel: The Whole Christ. How do we equip ourselves to fully understand and implement this truth?

One way would be reading The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson. I listened to the audiobook format, but if you like a video teaching format, you should consider the video teaching series, available at Ligonier Ministries. The clarity of doctrinal teaching that Ferguson offers is exceptional. I have read through the entire book once, and several other parts multiple times, and I continue to learn vital Scriptural truths to be applied to my walk with Christ, in every chapter. This is a book to savor, and re-read, so that the Scriptural truths it conveys might become imprinted upon our hearts.

  • ….

UPDATE: September 26, 2019, 10am

This just came in…. a debate between William Lane Craig and Gregory Boyd on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). Haven’t viewed it yet, but it looks to be very good, and quite relevant to the topics covered in The Whole Christ.  I side with William Lane Craig here, but Gregory Boyd is probably one of the most able critics, whose perspective should be taken seriously by other Christians. I see the PSA view as complementing the Christus Victor view of the atonement, and not a contradiction.


The Tim Keller Controversy at Princeton: And What It Means for the Church

OOOOPS!!  It was a shocker when the Oscars mistakenly first awarded Best Picture to “La La Land,” instead of “Moonlight.” But who would think that a leading Protestant seminary would do the same type of thing? (photo credit: Kevin Winter/ Getty Images)

Normally, when a theological seminary gives an award to someone in the greater community, the announcement brings about as much excitement as saying how many millimeters your grass has grown up so far this spring. But when the prestigious Princeton Theological Seminary announced that Tim Keller, a New York City pastor, was to be awarded the esteemed Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness… and then later rescinded the offer, it created quite a stir.

Tim Keller is probably one of the most well-known, conciliatory voices in the conservative evangelicalism movement. His books on the Bible, marriage, and particularly, apologetics, like Reason for God and Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical, have helped millions to better understand how the Gospel of Jesus Christ effectively relates to the challenges of living in a postmodern culture. The Gospel Coalition, an organization that Keller helped to found, is a “go to” resource for many evangelicals, for encouragement, Bible teaching, and cultural analysis.

Interestingly, Keller in the past has had his critics on the extreme conservative side. Keller’s openness to some aspects of evolutionary creationism has come under a suspicious eye, for some, while others have branded his book, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Justas uncritically paving the way towards an embracement of socialism. But most evangelical Christians, who know anything about Tim Keller, regard him as a gracious and thoughtful spokesperson for evangelical faith, even if there is disagreement on relatively minor matters, according to Richard Mouw, former president at Fuller Theological Seminary, and a past recipient of the very same Kuyper prize, awarded at Princeton Seminary.

Tim Keller

Tim Keller: A type of evangelical thinker who models the kind of irenic approach to Christian apologetics, that Veracity tries to follow.

However, when some members of the Princeton Seminary community realized that Keller was a member of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), a Christian denomination that does not confer ordination on women, or practicing gay or lesbian people, they became angry over the Seminary’s plans to honor Keller with the Kuyper award, leading to the rescinding of the award offer. Apparently, you just can not make everybody happy. As a type of compromise, Keller has still been invited to speak on the topic of mission at the seminary, an invitation which he graciously accepted. Yet the controversy regarding Keller forebodes several signs, that do not look good for the health of the Christian community in America in our day. I will list four, but see if you agree with these assessments:

  • Oversimplifying Complex Points of View. Keller’s position on both women’s ordination and gay/lesbian ordination was the stated reason for rescinding the award. Issues concerning how men and women relate to one another, and how the church can best address the concerns of the LGBTQ community, are quite complex, so it seems rather flatfooted for dissenters at Princeton to base their protest over Keller’s theology of ordination. While it is true that the large majority of evangelicals do oppose both women’s and gay/lesbian ordination, there is also a significant voice among evangelicals that opposes gay/lesbian ordination, but believes that the question regarding women’s ordination is still a matter of vigorous debate. Yet there is even another debate among Christians as to what constitutes ordination in the first place. Presumably, Tim Keller’s wife, Kathy Keller, who at one time advocated for women’s ordination, but now opposes it, would never be eligible for the Kuyper award, per the dissenters at Princeton. Keller’s dissenters at Princeton do not seem to be aware of these divergent, complicated factors, apparently out of step with the discussion in the evangelical church body at large. Jim Daly, of Focus on the Family, insightfully remarks that Princeton Seminary needs Tim Keller more than Keller needs Princeton. Is Princeton in danger of unnecessarily conflating complex issues together?
  • The Intolerance of Tolerance. For years, progressives in various churches have complained that conservatives have shut down conversations on sensitive, controversial issues. So, it seems strange that progressives at Princeton would attempt to try to “marginalize” a moderate figure like Tim Keller. Even a few progressive types, like Jonathan Merritt, of the Religion News Service, believes that Princeton’s actions are over the top, observing that Keller is no misogynist and no bigot. So, when did an attempt to maintain fidelity to the long standing traditional interpretations of Scripture make someone a misogynist or bigot?
  • The Flipping of “Orthodoxy” Upside Down. For much of the 19th and early 20th century, Princeton Theological Seminary was self-consciously the guardian of conservative evangelical orthodoxy. Abraham Kuyper, for whom the Princeton award is named for, was one of the distinguished leaders of confessional evangelicalism, in the latter 19th century and early 20th century, at one time the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Kuyper’s doctrinal commitments mirror much of what Keller’s denomination, the PCA, believes. Some even argue that Kuyper negatively would be greatly more conservative than Tim Keller. Is it not strange that if Abraham Kuyper were alive today, that he would not be eligible to receive an award that bears his name?
  • The Polarization of American Christianity. It is as though the extremes on both sides, conservative and progressive, are getting more extreme, and those who propose a more measured, moderate approach to sensitive issues, are caught in the crossfire. Will divisive rhetoric continue to polarize Christians, or will voices be allowed to emerge that promote dialogue and unity, while preserving orthodox faith?

While there are some at Princeton who begrudgingly will allow Tim Keller to come and speak, anyway, we here at Veracity have no hesitation in offering the kind of thoughtful engagement with contemporary issues that Tim Keller offers to the church, as well as the largely secular folks at Google. Here is Keller’s talk at Google last year, articulating the main ideas found in Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (be sure to hear the question that is relevant to the fundamental concern of the dissenters at Princeton, and Keller’s response, starting at the 52:45 mark).

UPDATE: March 29, 2017


The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

A steep, dugout embankment defending Redoubt #1, off of Quarterpath Road, where Confederate troops waited for advancing Federal soldiers to attack from Tutter's Mill Pond below, during the Battle of Williamsburg. Sadly, relatively very few of my fellow Williamsburg neighbors even know that this place even exists.

A steep, dugout embankment defending Redoubt #1, off of Quarterpath Road, where Confederate troops waited for advancing Federal soldiers to attack from Tutter’s Mill Pond below, during the Battle of Williamsburg. Sadly, relatively very few of my fellow Williamsburg neighbors even know that this place even exists.

Does the American national tragedy over the Civil War have something to teach us about how we are to read the Bible?

As a kid, I grew up near the remains of an oft-forgotten, Civil War battlefield. Whenever I ran among the dugout, redoubt embankments, I always kept in mind the warnings of neighbors to be careful, as there was likely to be found unexploded ordinance somewhere underneath my feet.

On the same day, hundreds of miles away, when Mexico was resisting the French on May 5, 1862, remembered now as Cinco de Mayo, Federal forces met Confederate forces just east of my town, for the Battle of Williamsburg, with nearly 4,000 casualties among both sides. Within a couple of years, the significance of that battle faded, displaced in memory by placenames like Antietam and Gettysburg.

Efforts to preserve the battlefield from being run over by suburban housing developments have been somewhat, moderately successful, though the land, as well as the intellectual debates that the led up to the war, have sometimes been forgotten. I often wonder myself, if such a national crisis could have been averted, without such terrible bloodshed.
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Tim Keller on the Book of Romans

We have been studying Paul’s letter to the Romans in the small group my wife and I are in. Romans is loaded with great stuff, arguably the most “theological” of all of the New Testament.

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, is a favorite here on Veracity.  Years ago, Keller pastored a church in nearby Hopewell, Virginia, less than an hour from where we live, long before he wrote his highly acclaimed The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. In my opinion, if you were looking for just one book that you could give to a non-believer today that effectively demonstrates the best apologetic argument for the Christian Gospel, The Reason for God stands at the head of the list.

Keller recently finished contributing to the God’s Word For You series from the Good Book Company on the Book of Romans(Chapters 1-7 and Chapters 8-16). I have not read Keller’s treatment in these books yet (here are some sample reviews, #1 and #2), but I appreciate what he has to say in the following three and a half minute video about why it is important for Christians to read the Book of Romans. Keller is very much “Reformed” in his theology, but not over the top. For example, Keller really likes C.S. Lewis. He is my type of guy…. gotta love the bald thing he has going, too…..

If you like that, you should look into Keller’s God’s Word For You study on the Book of Judges.


Podcasts for the Thinking Christian

Plumb LineJohn’ s recent post on William Lane Craig’s Defender Series of podcasts brought to mind that I should update my list of recommended podcasts for the thinking Christian (here is an earlier list John and I have discussed).  I do not have the time to read books as much as I would like, but the marvel of MP3 players is that I can download audio files and listen to them while I work in the yard or drive to and from work.

John’s suggestion of William Lane Craig as the “graduate school” for the next step following after Dick Woodward’s Mini Bible College is very appropriate. Dick was an amazing teacher who continues to impact the world through his unique ability to “put things on the bottom shelf” for people by exploring the basic contours of the Bible. Dr. Craig then makes it more in-depth in terms of helping you grasp and develop your own understanding of God (theology) founded on Scripture and then applied in terms of being able to offer a rational defense of the Christian faith (apologetics).

But just as there are fine and different academic graduate schools out there, there are different “graduate school” approaches to theology and apologetics. For example, Dr. Craig is probably one of the leading Christian apologists alive today, such that atheist Richard Dawkins awkwardly still refuses to debate him. But Dr. Craig is known for his “Middle Knowledge” approach to the issue of God’s sovereignty vs. free will. He is also known for his classical/evidentialist approach to apologetics.  Without digging too much into those things right now, let me just say that not everybody is totally with Dr. Craig on these issues. But, PLEASE, do not let that dissuade you from digging into William Lane Craig! He is awesome! It is just important to know that there are other approaches that Christians take to these issues. You might want to check out some of the other podcast resources available to get a flavor of what is out there. So here we go!

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