“I Didn’t Know Scripture Well Enough to Preach Christ.”

Picture1I recently listened to the panel discussion from TGC’s 2011 national conference, “They Testify about Me: Preaching Jesus and the Gospel from the Old Testament.” I was struck by something Tim Keller said about the early years of his preaching ministry: “I realized I didn’t know Scripture well enough to preach Christ.”

This candid admission coming from this seasoned preacher resonated with me. I’m convinced that if my preaching will be both true to the text and focused on Christ, I must know the Bible better than I do now. I must saturate my heart and mind with all Scripture. As long as I am content to splash in the shallows—those passages I’m comfortable with—I will not grow in my ability to preach Christ from all Scripture. I must wade in above my head, exploring passages I know less about.

This summer there are two ways in which I seek to saturate my heart and mind with Scripture:

First, I’m listening to Scripture on audio nearly every spare moment of the day and night using the Bible.is ESV drama edition. Within the past two weeks, I have been able to listen to Exodus through 2 Samuel (seven OT books). The ESV drama edition brings the text to life with different vocal actors, background music and sound effects. Sometimes these effects can be distracting, but overall they have helped bring out the human side to the events and situations. Another advantage to reading the Bible this way is that it forces me to go much slower than I would if I were merely reading it on the written page. When I finish listening to the Bible this way, my plan is to listen to a different version (without the music, drama and sound effects).

Second, I have been developing a document entitled “Notes on the Whole Bible.” The document is organized by book of the Bible, with individual chapters as subheadings. I’m trying to focus my notes on big picture connections I see as I read the Bible. I’m not so tied to working on this that I feel like I have to be constantly writing as I listen to Scripture. But there are two main advantages to having this sort of document in progress. First, it forces me to articulate those big-picture connections I see as I read the Bible, ensuring that I’m not just hearing Scripture, but processing it. Second, it is a resource I can go to when I preach from those books of the Bible in the future.

My hope is that reading and writing about Scripture in this intensive way will not only help me become a better preacher, but help me know and love Jesus more.

Nothing Could Have a Greater Effect

As I prepare to preach from Exodus 2 this Sunday, I am keeping in mind these words:

So there is just one goal for a sermon–lift up Christ and his salvation. Christ likened himself to the serpent in the wilderness and spoke about his being “lifted up” (John 3:14-15). This vivid metaphor includes at least two elements. When Christ was lifted up he was: 1) crucified and 2) visible. The purpose of a sermon is to reveal the saving work of Christ vividly and powerfully to the spiritual “sight” of the hearers. Nothing could have a greater effect, for Jesus said, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). The preacher aims to be a vehicle for that drawing.

This statement is taken from Tim Keller’s lecture notes for his and Edmund Clowney’s doctorate of ministry course at Reformed Theological Seminary (2002). The audio of the entire course is available on iTunes U, and the 187-page notebook can be found here.

Keller: Gospel Complexity Demands Gospel Contextualization

This post continues my “digesting” of Keller’s book Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City.

Is the Gospel a simple thing? Yes and no. If by “simple” you mean “understandable,” then the Gospel certainly is simple. It was simple enough for me to understand when I was a preschooler. But there’s another sense in which we can say that the Gospel is not simple. It is complex and multifaceted. You can’t stuff it into a “one-size-fits-all” presentation. Where in Scripture do we find an ultimate paradigm for presenting the Gospel? Matthew, Mark and Luke conceive of salvation in terms of the “kingdom of heaven” or the “kingdom of God.” In contrast, John frames the Gospel in the words “eternal life.” Paul’s precise theological terminology–reconciliation, propitiation, redemption, adoption, etc.–reveals even deeper nuances of the Gospel.

So we see that the Gospel is complex in that the human authors of Scripture present it in different ways. But this does not mean we cannot identify its irreducible components. Indeed, this is what Keller does. He sees that “at the heart of all of the biblical writers’ theology is redemption through substitution.” A systematic theologian sees the Gospel essentially as God, sin, Christ and faith. Someone reading Scripture as grand narrative (the redemptive-historical method) sees the Gospel essentially as a story of God’s restoring fallen humanity to a right relationship with himself. In what sense, then, is the Gospel “complex”? It is complex in that you can’t see the whole thing from only one angle. Or, as Keller puts it, “A person can explain the gospel from beginning to end through any of these themes, but no single theme gives the full picture” (41).

How is the Gospel’s complexity an advantage to us? It is an advantage to us because we are complex creatures. The multi-dimensional quality of the Gospel speaks to the multi-dimensional make-up of human beings. The Gospel meets us on every front of our nature. We are broken in every way. The Gospel restores us in every way. Beyond this, different human cultures (and different people within those cultures) grasp truths in different ways. In the complexity of the Gospel, then, we see God’s grace and wisdom.

Keller argues that the Gospel’s complexity demands Gospel contextualization. There is no stock formula for presenting the Gospel. The bearers of the Gospel have the privilege and responsibility to choose which face of the diamond to display to their hearers. Keller cites Paul’s “contextualization” of the Gospel. To the Greeks, Paul “confronted their culture’s idol of speculation and philosophy with the ‘foolishness’ of the cross” (44). To the Jews, Paul “confronted their culture’s idol of power and accomplishment with the ‘weakness’ of the cross” (44).

Although Keller gives no formal definition of Gospel contextualization at this point in the book, it appears that contextualization is merely the choice each Christian must make about how to present the unchanging truth of the Gospel in a way that most directly speaks to the hearts of the listeners. What are their idols? What is their conception of salvation, and how have they been pursuing it? Contextualization is not tampering with the Gospel. Contextualization is not tickling the ears of the listeners. It is waking them up to the jolting reality that they are in desperate need of what Christ has done. If Keller is right, then we have no choice about whether or not we will contextualize the Gospel. Rather, it is a matter of whether we will do it intentionally. It is a matter of whether we will do it well.

Digesting “Theological Vision” in Keller’s Book, Center Church

Timothy Keller

Center Church, Timothy Keller’s recently published book, deals with a topic that is close to my heart. I love the church of Christ, and I am constantly interested in what the church should be and do. Because there is much to digest in Center Church, I have been working through it slowly.

Keller’s first chapter introduces the concept of theological vision, which Keller believes has been ignored or misunderstood in many books about the church. In this respect, Keller has been heavily influenced by Richard Lints (professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and author of Fabric of Theology). According to Lints, “the modern theological vision must seek to bring the entire counsel of God into the world of its time in order that its time might be transformed.” Theological vision, explains Keller, is the “middleware” between doctrine and methodologies (17). He defines theological vision as “a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history” (19).

While I understand completely Keller’s intent, I couldn’t help but squirm a bit at the way he put it here, specifically the words “restatement of the gospel.” Perhaps it would be less confusing to say that theological vision is a setting forth of the gospel’s implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history.

That clarification aside, I like what Keller is doing here. He is neither writing another book on ecclesiology, nor advocating a set of methods that has worked for Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Rather, what he suggests might mean even more work for pastors and church leaders. To develop theological vision for his own ministry, a pastor must reflect deeply and decisively on the gospel, his city’s culture, and his own theological tradition (denomination or movement). No church growth guru can do this work for him.

As I continue to read this book, I looking forward to Keller’s answers to some of these questions that begin to surface in my mind:

  1. Is it practical to expect that the average pastor with college or seminary level training will have the time and expertise to study (in addition to theology) his city’s culture, and formulate a theological vision for ministry that is both accurate and comprehensive enough to drive his methods?
  2. How can a pastor be a student of his culture?
  3. What is the right approach to “Christ and the culture?”
  4. Where does Keller find Scriptural justification for his emphasis on understanding the culture?