To this gospel, Keller, in the name of the kingdom, adds a program of social activity. His approach leapfrogs the question of whether Christians might use social activity as a tool to gain a hearing for the gospel—a question upon which Christians have differed. Keller goes further. He thinks that social activity is actually part of the gospel. By confusing social improvement with gospel proclamation, Keller ends up diluting—and thus obscuring—the very gospel that he hopes to defend. This error is more than incidental.
Earlier this year, Pastor Matt Recker expressed concern that New Calvinists such as Tim Keller are allowing cultural renewal and social action to dethrone the Great Commission. The real thrust of this concern—and of Pastor Recker’s disagreement with Pastor Keller—has to do with the nature and content of the gospel. The question is important enough to merit taking a closer look at the discussion.
Perhaps I should make it clear that I am grateful for both Matt Recker and for Tim Keller, though I am about to disagree with the latter. Both have attempted to defend the truth—especially the truth of the gospel. Nevertheless, I concur with Recker’s assessment that Keller’s discussion of the gospel tends to obfuscate its meaning and leads toward a pattern of ministry that partially displaces the gospel with a program of social improvement.
The problem is apparent in Keller’s 2003 discussion, “What Is the Gospel?” He begins by trying to define the gospel from three perspectives, which he calls normative, situational, and existential. Thenormative perspective emphasizes the historical aspect of the gospel, namely, the public, historical events of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. By these events, Jesus accomplishes everything that is necessary for our salvation. The situational perspective focuses on the kingdom of God, which Keller sees as a counterculture that contradicts the world’s values. The presence of the kingdom changes the way that the believing community lives within society to counter such evils as (among others) poverty, disease, and racism. The existential perspective deals with the forgiveness and transformation of individual sinners who believe.
Keller’s first and third perspectives should never be contrasted. The gospel has to address two problems: both the provision and the application of salvation. What Keller calls the normative perspective is largely a statement of how salvation was provided, while his existentialperspective deals with its application and results. These are two sides of the same coin.
The real contrast is between both of these and Keller’s situationalperspective, which he grounds in a sort of loose, biblical theology of the kingdom. Keller sets up a division between Paul, who understood the gospel mainly in terms of justification through faith, and the gospel writers, who (per Keller) made the gospel virtually synonymous with the kingdom of God. This gospel of the kingdom is what leads Keller to believe that matters such as poverty, disease, race, and class are all gospel issues. He is quite clear at this point: “The gospel is not just (as is often thought) the message of how you can get individual forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus.”