Ministry Can Be Dangerous to Your Spiritual Health

Dr. Timothy Keller

Ministry places enormous pressures on one’s integrity and character, pressures which require extra vigilance and a deeper understanding of one’s need for God. 

It is always gratifying to see Christians become active in church ministry rather than remain mere consumers of spiritual services. There is nothing so fulfilling as to see lives touched and changed through your service, whether you are a volunteer, lay leader, church officer, or staff member. 

But the Bible sounds a cautionary note. By its very nature, Christian leadership involves
extolling the glory and beauty of God above all else. It means pointing others to God’s worth and beauty even when your own heart is numb to any sense of divine love and glory. As someone who ministers to others, how will you survive when that happens? Following are two things to remember.

The right thing to do

The first—and right—thing to do is to watch your heart with far more diligence than you would have otherwise, and to be very disciplined in observing regular times of daily prayer. In these times you may find your heart warming to God’s reality. Prayer can fan the flame of that reality, allowing you to speak to others out of your daily sustenance from God.

Even so, your heart may continue to feel spiritually dry or dead for an extended period. Such a condition requires that you keep your regular times of prayer even more diligently. Humbly acknowledge your dryness to God and set your heart to trust him and seek him despite it and
during it. This deliberate act is itself a great step of spiritual growth and maturity. When you speak to God about your dryness, rather than avoiding prayer times, it reminds you of your weakness and dependence upon his grace for absolutely everything. It drives home the importance and preciousness of your standing in Christ.

The wrong thing to do

The second—and wrong—thing is to rely not on prayer and your relationship with God but on the excitement of ministry activity and effectiveness. In this way you can begin to lean more on your spiritual gifts than on spiritual grace. In fact, you may mistake the operation of spiritual gifts for the operation of spiritual grace in your life. Gifts are abilities God gives us to meet the needs of others in Christ’s name—speaking, encouraging, serving, evangelizing, teaching, leading, administering, counseling, discipling, organizing. Graces, often called spiritual fruit, are beauties of character—love, joy, peace, humility, gentleness, self-control. Spiritual gifts are what we do; spiritual fruit is what we are. Unless you understand the greater importance of grace and gospel-character for ministry effectiveness, the discernment and use of spiritual gifts may actually become a liability in your ministry. The terrible danger is that we can look to our ministry activity as evidence that God is with us or as a way to earn God’s favor and prove ourselves.

If our hearts remember the gospel and are rejoicing in our justification and adoption, then our ministry is done as a sacrifice of thanksgiving—and the result will be that our ministry is done in love, humility, patience, and tenderness. But if our hearts are seeking self-justification and desiring to control God and others by proving our worth through our ministry performance, we will identify too closely with our ministry and make it an extension of ourselves. The telltale signs of impatience, irritability, pride, hurt feelings, jealousy, and boasting will appear. We will be driven, scared, and either too timid or too brash. And perhaps, away from the public glare, we will indulge in secret sins. These signs reveal that ministry as a performance is exhausting us and serves as a cover for pride in either one of its two forms, self-aggrandizement or self-hatred.

Here’s how this danger can begin. Your prayer life may be nonexistent, or you may have an unforgiving spirit toward someone, or sexual desires may be out of control. But you get involved in some ministry activity, which draws out your spiritual gifts. You begin to serve and help others, and soon you are affirmed by others and told what great things you are doing. You see the effects of your ministry and conclude that God is with you. But actually God was helping someone through your gifts even though your heart was far from him. Eventually, if you don’t do something about your lack of spiritual fruit and instead build your identity on your spiritual gifts and ministry activity, there will be some kind of collapse. You will blow up at someone or lapse into some sin that destroys your credibility. And everyone, including you, will be surprised. But you should not be. Spiritual gifts without spiritual fruit is like a tire slowly losing air.

So let’s examine ourselves. Is our prayer life dead even though we’re effective in ministry? Do we struggle with feeling slighted? Are our feelings always being hurt? Do we experience anxiety and joylessness in our work? Do we find ourselves being highly critical of other churches or ministers or coworkers? Do we engage in self-pity? If these things are true, then our ministry may be skillful and successful, but it is hollow, and we are probably either headed for a breakdown or doomed to produce superficial results. Abraham Kuyper wrote that Phariseeism is like a shadow—it can be deepest and sharpest closest to the light.

Christian ministry changes people. It can make us far better or far worse Christians than we would have been otherwise, but it will not leave us unchanged.

Copyright © 2007, by Timothy Keller, Redeemer Presbyterian Church.  This article first appeared in the Redeemer Report, March 2007. We encourage you to use and share this material freely—but please don’t charge money for it, change the wording, or remove the copyright information.

Wisdom and Sabbath Rest

By Timothy Keller

Leadership is stewardship—the cultivation of the resources God has entrusted to us for his glory. The Sabbath gives us both theological and practical help in managing one of our primary resources— our time.

In Ephesians 5, Paul invokes the biblical concept of wisdom:

“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” —Ephesians 5:15–17

The King James Version translates verses 15–16 as, “walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” Living wisely (or circumspectly) is to a great degree a matter of how we spend our time.

So what does this verse tell us? First, the word “redeem” is drawn from the commercial marketplace. It means, essentially, to “make a killing” in the market, or to spend so wisely and strategically that the returns are many times that of the investment.

Second, Paul’s phrase “the days are evil” doesn’t simply mean his readers were living in bad times. When Paul speaks of “the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4), he means the time between the first coming and the second coming of Christ. It’s the overlap between the old age and the new kingdom age, a time when Christians are spreading the gospel and being a witness to the kingdom. Thus, Christians are solemnly obliged not to waste time. Time-stewardship is a command!

However, applying the principle of “making the most of every opportunity” from a kingdom perspective may be harder today than ever. Especially in global cities, we find more pressure, fewer boundaries, and less stability in our daily work than perhaps ever before. Part of the issue is how connected we are through technology. Part of it is globalization, which creates such enormous economic pressures that everybody is pushed to their limits. Employers are trying to get so much productivity out of workers that many of us are being asked to go beyond what is really fair and right.

Even though technology and contemporary idols have created longer and longer work weeks, “do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” Discern God’s will. Long ago someone told me that God does not give you more to do in a day than you can actually do, and I’ve wrestled with that for many years. We may feel there’s way too much to do, but some of it is not his will. The pressure is coming from you, or your employer, or your friends, or your parents, or someone else besides God!

Sabbath Principles

One of the fundamental principles of the Bible when it comes to time management is the Sabbath. If we are to be an “alternate city” (Matthew 5:14–16), we have to be different from our neighbors in how we spend our time outside of work; that is, how we rest. So what is the Sabbath about?

According to the Bible, it is about more than just taking time off. After creating the world, God looked around and saw that “it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). God did not just cease from his labor; he stopped and enjoyed what he had made. What does this mean for us? We need to stop to enjoy God, to enjoy his creation, to enjoy the fruits of our labor. The whole point of Sabbath is joy in what God has done.
Writer Judith Shulevitz describes the dynamic of work and Sabbath rest this way:

My mood would darken until, by Saturday afternoon, I’d be unresponsive and morose. My normal routine, which involved brunch with friends and swapping tales of misadventure in the relentless quest for romance and professional success, made me feel impossibly restless. I started spending Saturdays by myself. After a while I got lonely and did something that, as a teenager profoundly put off by her religious education, I could never have imagined wanting to do. I began dropping in on a nearby synagogue.

It was only much later that I developed a theory about my condition. I was suffering from the lack [of a Sabbath]. There is ample evidence that our relationship to work is out of whack. Ours is a society that pegs status to overachievement; we can’t help admiring workaholics. Let me argue, instead, on behalf of an institution that has kept workaholism in reasonable check for thousands of years.

Most people mistakenly believe that all you have to do to stop working is not work. The inventors of the Sabbath understood that it was a much more complicated undertaking. You cannot downshift casually and easily. This is why the Puritan and Jewish Sabbaths were so exactingly intentional. The rules did not exist to torture the faithful. They were meant to communicate the insight that interrupting the ceaseless round of striving requires a surprisingly strenuous act of will, one that has to be bolstered by habit as well as by social sanction.

In the Bible, Sabbath rest means to cease regularly from and to enjoy the results of your work. It provides balance: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:9–10). Although Sabbath rest receives a much smaller amount of time than work, it is a necessary counterbalance so that the rest of your work can be good and beneficial.

God liberated his people when they were slaves in Egypt, and in Deuteronomy 5:12–15, God ties the Sabbath to freedom from slavery. Anyone who overworks is really a slave. Anyone who cannot rest from work is a slave—to a need for success, to a materialistic culture, to exploitative employers, to parental expectations, or to all of the above. These slave masters will abuse you if you are not disciplined in the practice of Sabbath rest. Sabbath is a declaration of freedom.

Thus Sabbath is about more than external rest of the body; it is about inner rest of the soul. We need rest from the anxiety and strain of our overwork, which is really an attempt to justify ourselves—to gain the money or the status or the reputation we think we have to have. Avoiding overwork requires deep rest in Christ’s finished work for your salvation (Hebrews 4:1–10). Only then will you be able to “walk away” regularly from your vocational work and rest. 

Sabbath is the key to getting this balance, and Jesus identifies himself as the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27–28)—the Lord of Rest! Jesus urges us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28–29). One of the great blessings of the gospel is that he gives you rest that no one else will.

Sabbath “Practicals”

In practical terms, how do we figure out how much time we need for Sabbath rest, and how do we spend that time? The following are a few suggestions or guidelines, by no means exhaustive.

What is the ideal amount of time off from work?
The Ten Commandments require one day (twenty-four hours) off each week. When God gave these commandments, the Hebrews had been working from sunup to sundown, but the gift of the Sabbath was to stop working at sundown on Friday and rest until sundown on Saturday.

If you look at the Scripture, there’s nothing that says you have to confine yourself to a forty- or fifty-hour work week. I suggest that to be within the biblical boundaries, you need to have at least one full day off, and the equivalent of an additional half-day off during the week.

For example, if your work and commute take up almost all of your weekdays but you have a full weekend off, with church participation on Sundays, then that is probably a sufficient Sabbath. Or if you get one full day off per week, and perhaps three evenings free after 6:00 p.m, you can live a pretty balanced life. This still allows quite a lot of hours for work during the week.

What counts as time off?
Of course, ”making the most of every opportunity” is not simple. It never has been simple. Yes, two hours spent in prayer with God will produce far more spiritual benefits than watching an old Cary Grant movie; yet, recreation is something you must have! Mental refreshment is part of a balanced diet for the body and soul, so prayer cannot replace all recreation, exercise, and so on. Sabbath encompasses several different types of rest, as outlined below.

1. Take some time for sheer inactivity.
Most people need some time every week that is unplanned and unstructured, in which you can do whatever you feel like doing. If your Sabbath time is very busy and filled with scheduled activities of “recreation” and ministry, it will not suffice. There must be some cessation from activity or exertion. This pause in the work cycle is analogous to Israel’s practice of letting a field lie fallow every seventh year to produce whatever happened to grow (Leviticus 25:1–7). The soil rested so over-farming would not deplete its nutrients and destroy its ability to keep producing. Whatever came up in the soil came up. You need some unscheduled time like that every week to let come up—out of the heart and mind— whatever will.

2. Take some time for avocational activity.
An avocation is something that is sheer pleasure to you, but that does require some intentionality and gives some structure to your Sabbath rest. In many cases an avocation is something that others do for ”work,” which is analogous to occasionally planting a different crop in a field to replenish the nutrients and make the soil more fertile for its normal crop. Include these elements:

  • You need some contemplative rest. Prayer and worship are a critical part of Sabbath rest, from any perspective. Regular time for devotion, reading the Scripture, and listening to God forms the basis for inner rest and provides time away from the more exhausting exertions of life.
  • You need some recreational rest. The Puritans and others were rightly skeptical of recreations that required spending a great deal of money and time and exertion, because those types of recreations exhaust people. Be careful that recreation really refreshes.
  • You need to include aesthetic rest. Expose yourself to works of God’s creation that refresh and energize you, and that you find beautiful. This may mean outdoor things. It may mean art—music, drama, and visual art. God looked around at the world he made and said it was good, so aesthetic rest is necessary for participating in God’s Sabbath fully.

3. Consider whether you are an introvert or an extrovert.
When planning your Sabbath rest, ask yourself what really “recharges” you. This self-assessment can help you determine how relational your Sabbath time should be. Introverts tend to spend their energy when out with people and recharge their batteries by being alone. Extroverts tend to spend energy in personal work and recharge their batteries by getting out with people. If you are a real introvert, be careful about trying to maintain all of your community-building relationships during your Sabbath time. That would be too draining. On the other hand, relationship-building could be one of the greatest things a true extrovert could possibly do. Don’t try to imitate an introvert’s Sabbath rhythms if you are an extrovert or vice versa! Recognize that some avocational activities take you into solitude, while some take you out into society.

4. Don’t necessarily count family time as Sabbath time.
Do a realistic self-assessment of “family time” and how it affects you. Family time is important, but parents need to be very careful that they don’t let all of their regular Sabbath time be taken up with parental responsibilities. (Introverts especially will need time away from the kids!) Keeping all of these things in good balance may be virtually impossible when your children are very young, but this too will pass.

5. Honor both micro- and macro-rhythms in your seasons of rest.
Israel’s Sabbath cycles of rest-and-work included not only Sabbath days but also Sabbath years and even a Year of Jubilee every forty-nine years (Leviticus 25:8–11). This is a crucial insight for workers in today’s world. It is possible to voluntarily take on a season of work that requires high energy, long hours, and insufficient weekly-Sabbath time. A new physician has to work long hours in a residency program, for example, and many other careers (such as finance, government, and law) similarly demand some sort of initial period of heavy, intense work. Starting your own business or pursuing a major project like making a movie will require something similar. In these situations you have to watch that you don’t justify too little Sabbath by saying you’re “going through a season”—when in actual fact that season never ends.

If you must enter a season like this, it should not last longer than two or three years at the most. Be accountable to someone for this, or you will get locked into an “under-Sabbathed” lifestyle, and you will burn out. And during this “under-Sabbathed” time, do not let the rhythms of prayer, Bible study, and worship die. Be creative, but get it in.

Brainstorm Ideas with Others

As soon as Christian communities start defining specific rules for what everyone can and can’t do on the Sabbath (like traveling, watching television, or recreation, for example), we begin to slip into legalism. Observing Sabbath rest along with a community can be beneficial, but keep in mind that people differ widely in their temperaments and situations.

It may be helpful to find other Christians in your field of work and ask them how they handle the need for rest, leisure, and restoration. Inquire about their weekly or seasonal rhythms. You will probably discover one or two ideas that are really helpful. If you can, bring these people together to brainstorm in person.

We live in a broken world, and some employers do relentlessly exploit their employees. Dealing with situations like these is difficult, but being part of a community made up of wise Christians in your field can help you correctly assess your work situation and your alternatives.

“Injecting” Sabbath into our Work Lives

I have come to see that if you develop the foundation and inner rest of Sabbath, it will not simply make you more disciplined about taking time off, but it will also lead you to be less frantic and driven in your work itself. This is perhaps the most important application of Sabbath, where we can truly act as a counterculture, and here’s how it works.

Associated with the Sabbath laws were “gleaning laws,” such as Leviticus 19:9, in which field owners were not allowed to “reap to the very edges” of their fields. They had to leave a percentage of grain in the field for the poor to come and harvest. Sabbath, then, is the deliberate limitation of productivity, as a way to trust God, be a good steward of yourself, and declare freedom from slavery to our work.

In concrete terms this is the hardest thing to do, because it’s a heart matter. Personally, this has meant deliberately setting fewer goals for myself in a given day and week, rather than harvesting “out to the edges.’”

In global cities, many people are stingy with their money yet freely give their bodies away. By contrast, we Christians are stingy with our bodies and generous with our money. Likewise, many people are willing to mortgage their souls to work, but at a certain point Christians have to say, “I’m willing to set fewer goals, not go up the ladder as fast, and even risk not accomplishing as much, because I have to take Sabbath time off. And ultimately, I don’t need to be incredibly successful. I can choose this path of freedom because of the inner rest I’ve received from Jesus Christ through what he has done for me.”

You have to actually inject this Sabbath rest into your thinking and into your work life. Some of our work worlds are institutionally structured toward overwork. Sometimes you have to “pay your dues” in the early stages of your career when you’re in a season of hard work (as I mentioned previously) or are trying to gain some credibility in your field. When you’re more established in your field, you may be able to moderate your workload. However, at some point, even if that doesn’t happen, you will have to trust God and honor Jesus—who is Lord of the Sabbath—by practicing Sabbath and risk “falling behind” in your career.

It may happen that you will fall behind, and yet retain your sanity. Or it may be that God will allow you to keep moving ahead in your career despite your practice of Sabbath and the “gleaning” principle. It is up to him.


The purpose of Sabbath is not simply to rejuvenate yourself in order to do more production, nor is it the pursuit of pleasure. The purpose of Sabbath is to enjoy your God, life in general, what you have accomplished in the world through his help, and the freedom you have in the gospel—the freedom from slavery to any material object or human expectation. The Sabbath is a sign of the hope that we have in the world to come.


Copyright © 2007 by Timothy Keller, © 2011 by Redeemer City to City. This article is adapted from a leadership training session at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in 2007. We encourage you to use and share this material freely—but please don’t charge money for it, change the wording, or remove the copyright information.

Preaching in a Secular Culture

By Timothy Keller
This article outlines four ideas that in my experience are at the core of preaching effectively in a secular culture. If you seek to communicate the gospel to both the Christians and non-Christians in your midst, I encourage you to pursue all four elements in your own preaching.

1. Preach to Christians and Non-Christians at the Same Time

The Gospel is the Root of Both Justification and Sanctification
Much of modern church-growth literature presupposes that we cannot minister to both Christians and non-Christians at the same time. In this view, “evangelistic” messages call upon non-Christians but bore Christians, and “teaching” messages appeal to Christians but confuse, bore, or offend non-Christians. This means a church may have to settle for one approach or the other, and as a result they may be limited in their biblical faithfulness as well as their reach.

Some churches have tried to solve this problem through distinct “seeker services,” held at a different time than discipleship-oriented services. But this approach has not been without problems: many seekers stay in the seeker services long-term, never getting fed more challenging material. And since the majority of attendees at the seeker services are usually Christians, the believers get stuck in elementary Christianity as well.

I believe the problem is theological, not methodological. Indeed, it is impossible to combine Christians and non-Christians in a coherent way unless the preacher and leaders understand that the gospel is not just the way people are justified, but also the way they are sanctified. You see, the typical approach to the gospel is to see it as the ABC’s of Christian doctrine, or merely the minimum truth required to be saved, but to rely on more “advanced” biblical principles for progress in the Christian life. If that were the case, then we truly could not focus on both evangelism and spiritual formation at the same time. However, Martin Luther understood that the gospel is not only the way we receive salvation but is also the way to advance at every stage in the Christian life. This is why the first of Luther’s Ninety- Five Theses was “All of life is repentance.”

Jonathan Edwards, in his Religious Affections, argues that belief and behavior are inextricably linked and that any failures in Christians are due to unbelief. The antidote to unbelief is a fresh telling of the gospel.

Preaching, therefore, is not either for evangelism or edification, because all of us have the same underlying problem. If a sermon is Christ-centered in its exposition and application, and if it is oriented toward dismantling the unbelief systems of the human heart and toward retelling and using the gospel on the unbelief, then it will be illuminating to non-Christians even though it was aimed primarily at Christians. 
Working it Out
We live in a society in which people are skeptical of any kind of truth at all. In contrast to earlier eras, which accepted revealed truth or honored reason and scientific truth, many people today can’t simply receive a set of teachings without seeing how Christianity “works,” how it fleshes out in real life.

This has implications for all of us. For Christians who are surrounded by today’s secular culture, it is important to hear the preacher dealing winsomely and intelligently with the problems of non-believers on a regular basis. This helps them address their own doubts and is also excellent “training” in sharing their faith. The evangelism programs of earlier eras do not always adequately prepare Christians for dealing with the wide range of intellectual and personal difficulties people have today with the Christian faith.

In a similar way, when the preacher speaks to believers, the non-Christians present come to see how Christianity works in real-life situations. For example, if you are preaching a sermon on the subject of materialism, and you directly apply the gospel to the materialism of Christians, you are doing something that both interests and profits non-Christians. Many listeners will tend to make faith decisions on more pragmatic grounds. Instead of examining the faith in a detached intellectual way, they are more likely to make a faith commitment through a long process of mini-decisions, by “trying it on” and by seeing how it addresses real problems.

Practices of Preaching to Secular People
Some practical tips for preaching:

  • Solve all problems with the gospel. In this way, non-believers hear the gospel each week and believers have their issues and problems addressed with the beauty of the gospel.
  • Beware of assumptions. Do not assume that people all have the same premises. Avoid exhorting point D if it is based on A, B, and C, without referring to A, B, C. Constantly lay groundwork statements about the authority of the Bible or the reasons we believe.
  • Engage in apologetics. Try to devote one of the three or four major sermon points to non- believers. Keep in your head a list of the most common objections people have to Christianity. More often than not the sermon text has some implication for how to address those objections.
  • Provide applications for both parties. When providing sermon applications, address both non-Christians and Christians, almost in a dialogue with them. For example, “If you are committed to Christ, you may be thinking this, but the text answers that fear.” Or, “If you are not a Christian or not sure what you believe, then you surely must think that this is narrow-minded, but the text speaks to this very issue.”
  • Be authentic. Young, urban, and secular people in particular are extremely sensitive to anything that smacks of artifice or glitzy showmanship. Beware of sermons, or anything in the worship service, that is too polished, too controlled, or too canned.
  • Be conscious of alienating language. Secular listeners will be turned off if they hear the preacher use non-inclusive gender language or make cynical remarks about other religions or use religious jargon, language that only Christians understand.
  • Expect, and respect, doubt. Always treat people’s doubts about Christianity with respect. Beware of ever giving the impression that Christianity is devoid of doubts or that only less-than- intelligent people would doubt its truth. It is important to acknowledge the presence of doubters, to say in effect, “I know this Christian doctrine sounds outrageous.”
  • Address the wider community. Be mindful in your demeanor and preaching of the needs and concerns of the wider community, not just the Christian community. Show how the grace of God favors the poor, marginalized, and outsiders. Celebrate deeds of justice and mercy and common citizenship in the community.
  • Draw on cultural references. Manhattanites do not know or trust the Bible very much, so it is important for me to know their cultural references, read what they read, and answer the questions they are asking from the Bible. I generously document and support my points with corroborating opinions from the very books and periodicals that New Yorkers read. Often I can show them how the Bible was addressing these issues long before the contemporary authority did.
  • Read across the spectrum. If you read just one perspective on a subject, you tend to be naive and overconfident. If you read a second, contradictory perspective that deconstructs the first view, you become cynical and discouraged. But if you read a spectrum of four or five different perspectives, you find your own view and voice and often get rather creative ideas. I regularly read different viewpoints and imagine what a conversation about Christianity with the writer might sound like.

2. Preach Grace, Not Moralism

What Drives the Heart
Let’s look at an example of a problem you might address with a secular audience: dishonesty. How does the gospel answer this problem and how does it work out in real life?

Jonathan Edwards identified two kinds of moral behavior: ”common virtue” and “true virtue.” The “common virtue” of honesty may be developed out of fear, either societal (“If I lie I’ll be caught and exposed”) or religious (”If you are not honest, God will punish you”). It could also be cultivated by pride, which again could be cultural (“Don’t be like those terrible dishonest people”) or religious (“Don’t be like those sinners; be a decent and godly person”).

By no means does Edwards intend to be scornful of common virtue. Indeed, he believes in the “splendor of common morality” as the main way God restrains evil in the world. Nevertheless, there is a profound tension at the heart of common virtue, because if fear and pride are what motivate a person to be honest, but fear and pride are also at the root of lying and cheating, it is only a matter of time before such a thin moral foundation collapses.

Thus, common virtue has not done anything to root out the fundamental causes of evil; it has restrained the heart but not changed the heart. And this “jury-rigging” of the heart creates quite a fragile condition. Indeed, through all the sermons and moral training you received throughout your life, you were actually nurturing the roots of sin within your moral life. This is true whether you grew up with either liberal or conservative values.The roots of evil were well protected beneath a veneer of moral progress.

So what is the mark of honesty as a “true virtue?” It is the commitment to truth and honesty not because it profits you or makes you feel better but because you are smitten with the beauty of the God who is truth and sincerity and faithfulness. It is when you come to love the truth, not for your sake but for God’s sake and for its own sake. True honesty grows when you see him dying for you, keeping a promise he made despite the infinite suffering it brought him. That kind of virtue destroys both pride (Jesus had to die for me!) and fear (Jesus values me infinitely, and nothing I can do will change his commitment to me). In this way my heart is not just restrained, but rather its fundamental orientation is transformed. 

The Sin Beneath the Sins
Underneath all of our behavioral sins lies a fundamental refusal to rest in Christ’s salvation. According to Martin Luther,

All those who do not at all times trust God in His favor,grace and good-will,but seek His favor in other things or in themselves, do not keep the [First] Commandment, and practice real idolatry, even if they were to do the works of all the other Commandments... combined.

And as this Commandment is the very first, highest and best, from which all the others proceed, in which they exist, and by which they are measured and directed, so also its work, that is, the faith or confidence in God’s favor at all times, is the very first, highest and best, from which all others must proceed, exist, remain, be directed and measured.

Luther says that if we obey God’s law without a belief that we are already accepted and loved in Christ, then in all our good deeds we are really looking to something more than Jesus to be the real source of our meaning and happiness. We may be trusting in our good parenting or moral uprightness or spiritual performance or acts of service to be our real and functional “saviors.” If we aren’t already sure God loves us in Christ, we will be looking to something else for our foundational significance and self-worth. This is why Luther says we are committing idolatry if we don’t trust in Christ alone for our approval.

The first commandment is foundational to all the other commandments. We will not break commandments two through ten unless we are in some way breaking the first one by serving something or someone other than God. Every sin is rooted in the inordinate lust for something which comes because we are trusting in that thing rather than in Christ for our righteousness or salvation. We sin because we are looking to something else to give us what only Jesus can give us. Beneath any particular sin is the general sin of rejecting Christ’s salvation and attempting our own self-salvation.

The Gospel vs. Moralism
Thomas Chalmers wrote this:

The best way of casting out an impure affection is to admit a pure one... It is only when, as in the Gospel, acceptance is bestowed as a present, without money and without price, that the security which man feels in God is placed beyond the reach of disturbance. Only then can he repose in Him as one friend reposes in another...The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one.

Before I understood the premise of heart affections and the power of preaching to uproot and reorient our affections, my sermons followed this approach:

+ Here is what the text says
+ Here is how we must live in light of that text
+ Now go and live that way, and God will help you.

I came to realize over time that I was doing exactly what Edwards said would not work. I was relying on fear and pride to prompt obedience to God. Although I was doing it indirectly and unconsciously, I was employing preaching to trick the heart instead of reorienting the heart.

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

+ Here is what the text says
+ Here is how we must live in light of it
+ But we simply cannot do it
+ Ah—but there is One who did!
+ Now, through faith in him, you can begin to live this way.

In nearly every text of Scripture a moral principle can be found, shown through the character of God or Christ, displayed in the good or bad examples of characters in the text, or provided as explicit commands, promises, and warnings. This moral principle is important and must be distilled clearly. But then a crisis is created in the hearers as they understand that this moral principle creates insurmountable problems. I describe in my sermons how this practical and moral obligation is impossible to meet. The hearers are led to a seemingly dead end, but then a hidden door opens and light comes in. Our sermons must show how the person and work of Jesus Christ bears on the subject. First we show how our inability to live as we ought stems from our forgetting or rejecting the work of Christ. Then we show that only by repenting and rejoicing in Christ can we then live as we know we ought.

Case Studies
Let’s look at a few examples. For example, let’s say we want to use the text on David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 18-20 to talk about friendship. We might describe two marks of a true friendship: friends always let you in and never let you down. Friends are transparent and open with one another, and are also committed to serving one another’s needs.

If you end the sermon saying, “Now go and do likewise,” you have preached a moralistic—and unrealistic—sermon. You have not uncovered the real barriers to friendship: fear (of vulnerability) and pride (inferiority or selfishness). These rooted sins in my heart make me a poor friend or keep me from making and keeping friends.

So how can I overcome these deeper sins and become a true friend? Only through seeing Jesus as the ultimate friend (John 15:12-14) and by looking at the cross, the ultimate act of friendship. Jesus “let us in.” How much more vulnerable can you get than what he did there? His arms are open to us. They were nailed open for us. Until you see and grasp deep down this ultimate act of friendship, you will never be a friend to others. Only the cross can give you the security to be open and vulnerable to others but also the humility to serve others rather than your own selfish desires.

Or take the 2 Samuel text on King David and Bathsheba. We can easily yield insights from the passage about the dangers of sexual temptation or moralize about the seductiveness of physical beauty, and relate it to the culture we live in today. Pornography, eating disorders, and adultery can all be linked to the danger of making an idol out of beauty. But how do we end this kind of sermon: “Go and be careful”? This exhortation might be technically correct, but it is hardly adequate.

Instead, you can start with the moral principle, but then go a few steps further:
+ How we must live. The power of physical beauty over us must be broken. Look at the devastation in our society and in our lives. The inordinate focus on image and beauty distorts women’s view of themselves and demoralizes aging people. It sabotages men by cheating them of great prospects for a spouse, who are overlooked for superficial reasons, as well as by causing them to substitute pornography for real relationships. What must we do? Don’t judge a book by its cover. Avoid pornography. Focus on beautiful character qualities in others instead of physical traits.

+  But you can’t. You know as well as I do that this is not possible. First, we desire physical beauty to cover our own sense of shame and inadequacy. Second, we are afraid of our own mortality and death. Evolutionary biologists and Christians agree that the desire for physical beauty is a desire for youth, and its hold over us is so great that we will never overcome our problem simply by trying harder.

+  But there was One who did. There was one who was beautifully sinless and perfect and enthroned in heaven, and yet who willingly gave it all up to take on the “very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2). He became ugly, “despised and rejected” (Isaiah 53) that we might become beautiful in God’s sight and get the only beauty that will really last (Colossians 1:22; Ephesians 5:27).

Only now can we change. Only as we see what Jesus did for us will our hearts be melted and freed from the belief that we can judge a book by its cover. Only when we embrace the beauty of eternity with him can we be freed from our fear of mortality.

3. Preach Christ from Every Text

Rich, Not Rote
It is now commonly understood that preachers must put the individual text into its whole-Bible context and preach Christ from every part of the Bible. Though I am a fierce proponent of this view, there is a danger that our preaching of Christ in every text will become a rote, intellectual exercise that merely rehearses the entirety of biblical theology; that may begin to sound the same every week; and that may omit an application to the listener’s heart. The preacher’s goal is not an intellectual or abstract one— rather, the goal is to change hearts with the gospel.

Old Testament professor Tremper Longman compares reading the Bible to watching a movie in which the shocking conclusion is so startling that it forces the viewer to go back and re-interpret everything he has already seen. The second time around, now that you know the ending, you can’t help but interpret every statement and every encounter in terms of the ending. You can’t not think of the ending any more when you watch the beginning and middle of the movie. The ending sheds light on everything that went before.

Similarly, once you know that all the lines of all the stories and all the climaxes of the inter-canonical themes converge on Christ, you simply can’t not see that every text is about Jesus. For example:

+  Jesus is the true and better Adam who passed the test in the garden and whose obedience is now imputed to us (1 Cor. 15).

+  Jesus is the true and better Abel who, though innocently slain, has blood that cries out for our acquittal, not our condemnation (Heb. 12:24).

+  Jesus is the true and better Abraham, who answered the call of God to leave all that was comfortable and familiar out of obedience to God.

+  Jesus is the true and better Isaac, who was not just offered up by his father on the mount but was in the end sacrificed for us all. God said to Abraham, “now I know you love me, because you did not withhold your son, your only son whom you love, from me.” Now we can say to God, “now I know that you love me, because you did not withhold your son, your only son whom you love, from me.

+  Jesus is true and better Jacob, who wrestled with God and took the blow of justice we deserved. Now we, like Jacob, only receive the wounds of grace to wake us up and discipline us.

+  Jesus is the true and better Joseph, who sat at the right hand of the king, and used his power to forgive and save those who betrayed and sold him.

+  Jesus is the true and better Moses who stands in the gap between the people and the Lord, who mediates a new covenant (Heb. 3).

+  Jesus is the true and better Job—the innocent sufferer who then intercedes for his foolish friends (Job 42).

+  Jesus is the true and better David, whose victory against Goliath was imputed to his people, even though they never lifted a stone to accomplish it themselves.

+  Jesus is the true and better Esther, who didn’t just risk losing an earthly palace but a heavenly one, and who didn’t just risk his life but gave it—to save his people.

+  Jesus is the true and better Jonah who was cast out into the storm so the rest of the ship could be brought in.

There are, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: It is either about me or about Jesus. It is either advice to the listener or news from the Lord. It is either about what I must do or about what God has done.

Jesus is the true temple, the true prophet, the true priest, the true king, the true sacrifice, the Lamb, the Light, the bread. The Bible is not about you—it is about him.

In 1 Peter 1:10–13 the gospel is stunningly described as something that “even angels long to look into.” After all these centuries, wouldn’t the angels have the gospel down pat? Why would they love to look into the salvation of God? Because it is endlessly rich. There are endless implications, applications, and facets to it. We have just begun to scratch the surface.

4. Aim at the Heart (Not the Emotions, or Even the Mind)

Affections vs. Emotions
It has been said that the heart is not so much the center of emotions as it is the control center of one’s personality, where you make your decisions and decide on the direction of your life. No one expounded this in greater detail than Jonathan Edwards, and one of his most enduring contributions is his Religious Affections. Instead of accepting the typical Western division of will versus emotions, Edwards gave a more central place to the heart and spoke of the heart’s “affections,” by which he meant “the inclination of the soul” to like or dislike, to love or reject.

The affections are, of course, related to emotions, but they are not the same thing. For example, we feel the emotion of anger when we are insulted, because we have set our affections too fully on our own reputation, human acclaim, or approval. The affections are what Edwards called the most ”vigorous and sensible exercises” of the heart; and in the Bible true religious affections are called the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-26).

Edwards’s contribution is especially important regarding the unity of the faculties. He refused to pit one’s understanding and one’s affections against each other. Gracious affections are raised up only when a person has a spiritual understanding of the true nature of God. In other words, if a person says, “I know God cares for me, but I am still paralyzed by fear,” Edwards would reply that you don’t really know that God cares for you, or the affection of confidence and hope would be rising within you.

Useful vs. Beautiful
Now we can see how important this is for preachers. If Edwards is right, there is no ultimate opposition between “head” and “heart.” We must not assume, for example, if our listeners are materialistic that they only need to be exhorted to give more. Though guilt may help with the day’s offering, it will not alter one’s life patterns. If people are materialistic and ungenerous, it means they have not truly understood how Jesus, though rich, became poor for them. They have not truly understood what it means to have all riches and treasures in Jesus Christ. It means their affections are causing them to cling to material riches as a source of security, hope, and beauty. Thus in preaching we must present Christ in the particular way that he replaces the hold of competing affections.This takes not just intellectual argument but the presentation of the beauty of Christ. Edwards defined a nominal Christian as one who finds Christ useful, while a true Christian is one who finds Christ beautiful for who he is in himself.

This understanding profoundly affected Edwards’ own preaching. In one of his sermons, he insisted that “the reason why men no more regard warnings of future punishment is because it doesn’t seem real to them.” This was, for Edwards, the main spiritual problem and the main purpose of preaching. The goal of our preaching is not just to make the truth clear but to make the truth real. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in an article on how Edwards affected him, wrote:

The first and primary object of preaching is not only to give information. It is, as Edwards says, to produce an impression. It is the impression at the time that matters, even more than what you can remember subsequently. In this respect Edwards is, in a sense, critical of what was a prominent Puritan custom and practice. The Puritan father would catechize and question the children as to what the preacher had said. Edwards, in my opinion, has the true notion of preaching. It is not primarily to impart information; and while you are writing your notes you may be missing some-thing of the impact of the Spirit. As preachers we must not forget this. We should tell our people to read certain books themselves and get the information there. The business of preaching is to make such knowledge live.”

Bringing Truths Home
This concept is not just Edwards’ innovation. The Bible itself is not a series of didactic essays but an enormous collection of diverse literary forms: stories, poetry, dramas, apocalyptic visions, all different ways to bring truths home to the heart.

By way of example, a recurring biblical theme is our sinful tendency to “forget” the Lord and our need to “remember” him, his laws, and commandments. This is not a matter of intellect and information. The problem is that the information we already know becomes “unreal” to us without continual covenant renewal ceremonies.

In 2 Peter 1:8–9 we read that we need to “grow in goodness, self-control, perseverance, kindness, and love” and that the person who is not growing in these things “has forgotten that he was cleansed from his past sins.” Peter does not say that a lack of growth in character is a simple lack of willpower or commitment, nor does he admonish his readers to try harder. Rather, he says they have forgotten that they were cleansed from their sins. This cannot mean that the people had lost mental awareness that they had been forgiven. It must mean that, as Edwards says, they had lost the “sense on the heart” of the costliness of grace. It wasn’t spiritually real to them, and they were not being affected by the truth.

A second example is Psalm 103, which is not actually a prayer but rather a sermon to the soul. David is addressing his own heart: “O my soul, forget not all his benefits.” David knows that the glories and benefits of salvation have become unreal to his heart. He knows he tends to forget. Psalm 103 is an example of what 2 Peter 1:8–9 says we all must do. We must preach the gospel to ourselves. We must go back to the gospel and make it real to our own hearts.

Fire the Imagination                        
The aim of preaching is not just to stir up feelings but to illuminate the imagination with truth. Imagination or illustration refers to the preacher’s ability to evoke mental images in the mind of the listener. For example, when we use the word “justification,” no mental picture is evoked in the hearer’s mind. But when we speak of “our advocate pleading his finished work before the bar of God,” we have elicited an image in the mind of the audience. We are stirring up the imagination and warming the heart.

In 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, Paul gives us a remarkable example of what we’ve been saying. He wants the people to give an offering to the poor, but he doesn’t put pressure directly on the will (“I’m an apostle and this is your duty to me”) or pressure on the emotions (stories about how much the poor are suffering). Instead, Paul vividly and unforgettably says, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” In this way, he is calling them to remember (“you know the grace of our Lord Jesus”) and uses a powerful image, bringing Jesus’ salvation into the realm of wealth and poverty. He moves them by a spiritual recollection of the gospel that asks them to think on Jesus’ costly grace until they are changed into generous people by the beauty of the gospel in our hearts.

If you have been preaching (or even hearing sermons preached) for long enough, you know that you cannot aim at the heart of the listener without having the gospel work anew in your own heart every time you preach. Call yourself to remember the gospel; aim the gospel at your own affections first; and you will be well on the way to reaching others. 


Copyright © 2005 by Timothy Keller, © 2011 by Redeemer City to City. This article is adapted from a leadership training session in 2005. See also Keller’s book Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (Viking, 2015).

Kingdom-Centered Prayer

By Timothy Keller

Throughout the Old and New Testaments and church history, every spiritual awakening was founded on corporate, prevailing, intensive, kingdom-centered prayer. We cannot create spiritual renewal by ourselves, but we can “prepare the altar” and ask God to send his Holy Spirit to change our hearts, our churches, and our communities.

Christians are used to thinking about prayer as a means to get their personal needs met. More mature Christians understand prayer as a means to praise and adore God, to know him, to come into his presence and be changed by him. But the corporate aspect of prayer is not well known. How do we pray, repent, and petition God as a people?

Spiritual Awakening and Renewal in the Old Testament

Throughout the Old Testament, the people of God continually fall into periods of spiritual stagnation and then cultural accommodation to the idol worship and practices of surrounding pagan societies. Then there is a turning to God, the raising up of new leaders, and a “covenant renewal”—a restoration of spiritual vision and vitality.

This pattern is especially visible in the book of Judges, but it continues throughout the reign of the kings, the captivity, and the return from exile. Just as Israel was constituted a people with the reading of the law and the taking of the covenant oath at Mount Sinai, so the people must periodically remember who they are, renew the covenant, and return to the Lord. Sinai-like covenant ceremonies occur again before entering Canaan (Joshua 24), before choosing the first king (1 Samuel 12), and after the return from exile (Nehemiah 8–9). Less formal but crucial renewal movements are continually happening (you can find a string of them in Judges 3:7–11; 3:12–15; 4:1–4; 6:7–10; and 10:6–16).

If we look at all of these various revivals, we are first struck by how different they are. Some are formal ceremonies. Some seem to be spontaneous. Some are led by a strong central leader, and some seem to bubble up from the grassroots. But one thing is stated over and over again: the people “cried out to the Lord.” It is the only factor that is always present in every revival. It is corporate, intense, prevailing prayer—not for personal needs, but for the presence and reality of God among his people.

Spiritual Awakening and Renewal in the New Testament

Even in the New Testament under the leadership of the apostles, it is evident that there is still a need for continual renewal. Just as Israel’s election as God’s people was demonstrated at Mt. Sinai, so the church is constituted by the descent and filling of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. But just as Israel is continually called to Sinai-like covenant renewals, so the church, even when it doesn’t seem to be in major decline, receives fresh fillings of the Holy Spirit. “Mini-Pentecosts” happen in Acts 4:31; 7:55; 8:17; 10:44; and 13:9. What do these have in common?

It is very easy to get distracted by the three unusual phenomena of the day of Pentecost: the mighty sound like “a violent wind” (v. 2); the visible “tongues of fire” over each person (v. 3); and speaking “in other tongues” (v. 4), which each member of the multiethnic audience could understand in his or her native language (v. 6). Speaking in tongues happens in some of the other Spirit-filling occasions, but not all, nor even most. The central, abiding characteristics of Pentecost are that they were together in prayer (Acts 1:14; 2:1), they were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:4), and therefore they “began to speak” (2:4) “declaring the wonders of God (2:11).”

Compare this with two other incidents in Acts after Pentecost. In Acts 4:31, like Pentecost, there is a period of prevailing prayer (4:24) and then a powerful shaking as everyone senses the presence of God descending. But unlike Pentecost there are no tongues of fire or speaking in tongues. What results again are boldness (an assurance of God’s love and reality) and the ability to speak the word of God (v. 31).

The incident in Acts 7:55–56 is interesting, because it is an individual experience. As Stephen is about to be executed, he raises his eyes to heaven (v. 55), as the believers in 4:24 raised their voices to God. He gets the same assurance and boldness, the sense of God’s reality and presence called “the fullness of the Holy Spirit.” This allows him to face persecution in a completely Christ-like way, with courage and forgiving love toward his executioners.

In summary, what do all of these incidents have in common? We see that there is a continual need to renew the fullness of the Spirit. We see also that the fullness, in general, is connected to prevailing prayer, especially in the face of a challenge.

What is Spiritual Renewal?

Spiritual revival, or renewal, is a work of God in which the church is beautified and empowered because the normal operations of the Holy Spirit are intensified. The normal operations of the Spirit include conviction of sin (John 16:8), enjoyment and assurance of grace and of the Father’s love (Rom. 8:15–16), access to the presence of God (John 14:21–23; 2 Cor. 3:17–18), and creation of deep community and loving relationships (Eph. 4:3–13).

This view differs or opposes three other common views:

  1. The popular charismatic notion of revival, which sees revival as essentially the addition of extraordinary operations of the Holy Spirit (miracles, healings, prophecy, revelations).
  2. The popular fundamentalist view that revivals are simply especially vigorous seasons of evangelistic activity. A “revival” is taken to mean an evangelistic crusade or a city-wide mission, etc.
  3. The popular secular view that revivals are primitive, emotionally cathartic events, occurring among uneducated people subject to psychological manipulation by evangelists.

Instead, the marks of revival are the following.

First, there is an outpouring of the Spirit on and within the congregation, so that the presence of God among his people becomes evident and palpable.
When this happens, “sleepy” or stagnant Christians “wake up.” That is, there is a new and deeper conviction of sin and repentance—not just for major “behavioral sins” but for attitudes of the heart. They experience a far more powerful assurance of the nearness and love of God, with the end result that Christians become both humbler and bolder at the same time. The more deeply one feels his or her debt of sin, the more intensely he or she feels the wonder of the payment on their behalf.

Nominal Christians, or Christians in name only, begin to realize they don’t actually have a living relationship with Christ by grace, and they get converted. When this begins to happen, it electrifies people. Long-time members are getting up and talking about being converted or speaking of Christ in radiant terms or expressing repentance in new ways. The early stages of renewal shake up other nominals and “sleepers” into renewal. Corporately, there is a sense of more passion and freedom and the presence of God in the worship services.

Second, as a result of this outpouring of the Spirit, new people are brought into the church, and it begins to grow.
On the one hand, the renewed believers create a far more attractive community of sharing and caring and, often, great worship. There is the beautified community of the King. This can attract people from the outside.

On the other hand, Christians who begin to experience God’s beauty, power, and love put their relationship with Christ and the church first in their lives, and they become radiant and attractive witnesses—more willing and confident to talk to others about their faith, more winsome (less judgmental) when they do so, and more confident in their own church and thus more willing to invite people to visit it. As a result, there are numerous conversions—sound, lasting, and sometimes dramatic. Significant, even astounding, church growth occurs.

Many churches in America grow rapidly, but almost completely through transfer growth. When that is the case, renewal dynamics are not strong in the church. But in revival, conversions are not a trickle. In the U.S. from 1857–1859, a revival brought over a half a million new people into the church. In New York City, it is a well-attested fact that nearly all the churches grew 50 percent in membership in that two- to three-year period. In Northern Ireland during this same period, 100,000 new converts (nearly a third of the population) joined the church. It is estimated that 10 percent of the entire population of Wales and Scotland were converted during the same time.

Third, there is a full impact on the community surrounding the church and even the broader culture.
Revivals produce waves of people who become involved in works of social concern and social justice. Major social justice movements, such as abolitionism, had strong roots in the revivals. The reason for this is that real holiness changes the private and public lives of Christians. True religion is not merely a private matter, providing internal peace and fulfillment. Rather, it transforms our behavior and our relationships.

The 1904–05 revival in Wales created many social changes. Life in the coal pits was transformed; workers and management engaged in prayer meetings on company time. Poor Law Guardians (who administered relief) commented that many working people came to take aged parents home from the workhouses where they had been sent so “inconsiderately.” Longstanding debts were paid, stolen goods returned, and crime rates plummeted.

In summary, these three marks of revival may be small or large, long or short, dramatic or quiet, widespread or localized. They are subject to different degrees, but when these renewal dynamics are in place, the effects above will be seen. Without these dynamics in place, a church can grow in numbers but not in vitality, and thus the growth will not have lasting results.

Many churches in America do grow rapidly, but there are tell-tale symptoms of lifelessness. Most or all of the growth may be by transfer, not conversion. There is no deep conviction of sin or repentance, and thus few people can attest to dramatically changed lives. Also, the growth of many churches makes no impact on the local social order, because people do not carry their Christian faith out into their use of wealth, their work, or their public lives. Without deep renewal of the gospel in our hearts, our external lives will be sealed off from what we believe, and our beliefs will never result in concretely changed living.

How Does Spiritual Renewal Come?

There is much to say about this, but we will concentrate on what is, biblically and historically, the one nonnegotiable, universal ingredient in times of spiritual renewal: corporate, prevailing, intensive, kingdom-centered prayer. What is that?

1. It is focused on God’s presence and kingdom.
Jack Miller talks about the difference between “maintenance” and “frontline” prayer meetings. Maintenance prayer meetings are short, mechanical, and totally focused on physical, personal needs inside the church. But frontline prayer has three basic traits: A request for grace to confess sins and humble ourselves; a compassion and zeal for the flourishing of the church; and a yearning to know God, to see his face, to see his glory.

It is quite clear when listening to a prayer meeting whether these traits are present. Most interesting is to study biblical prayer for revival, such as in Acts 4 or Exodus 33 or Nehemiah 1, where these three elements are evident. Notice in Acts 4, for example, that the disciples, who had been threatened, did not ask for protection for themselves and their families, but only for boldness to keep preaching!

2. It is bold and specific.
The history of revivals shows one or a few or many who take the lead in praying fervently for renewal. Their pattern is Moses (Exodus 33), who pitched a tabernacle outside Israel’s camp, where he and others prayed for God’s presence and to see his glory.
Such prayer need not (indeed, usually does not) begin as an organized church program, but rather it is a private field of strong exertion and even agony for the leaders. The characteristics of this kind of prayer include pacesetters in prayer, who spend time in self-examination. Without a strong understanding of grace, this can be morbid and depressing. But in the context of the gospel, it is purifying and strengthening. They “take off their ornaments” (Ex. 33:1–6). They examine themselves for idols and set them aside.
They then begin to make the big request—a sight of the glory of God. That includes asking for a personal experience of the glory and presence of God (“that I may know you,” Ex. 33:13); for the people’s experience of the glory of God (v. 15); and that the world might see the glory of God through his people (v. 16). Moses asks that God’s presence would be obvious to all: “What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” This is a prayer that the world would be awed and amazed by a show of God’s power and radiance in the church, that it would truly become the new humanity that is a sign of the future kingdom.

3. It is prevailing and corporate.
By this we simply mean that prayer should be constant, not sporadic and brief. Why? Are we to think that God wants to see us grovel? Why do we not simply put our request in and wait? But sporadic, brief prayer shows a lack of dependence, a self-sufficiency, and thus we have not built an altar that God can honor with his fire (see 1 Kings 18). We must pray without ceasing, pray long, pray hard, and we will find that the very process is bringing about that which we are asking for—to have our hard hearts melted, to tear down barriers, and to have the glory of God break through. We need sustained, repeated prayer.

Building an Altar

Let’s return to Stephen’s “mini-Pentecost” in Acts 7. When Stephen was dragged before a human court, he was condemned unjustly and was about to be executed. But he was filled with the Holy Spirit (v. 55). How so? We are told, “full of the Holy Spirit, he looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him . . . While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed... ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’” (vv. 55–57, 59–60).
What happened? First, he prayed. He looked up.
Second, by the power of the Holy Spirit, something Stephen knew with his mind became real to his heart. He saw Jesus standing at God’s right hand. This refers to his work as our Advocate (1 John 2:1 says we have an advocate with the Father, one who speaks in our defense—Jesus Christ the Righteous One. He is the propitiation for our sins). At the very moment that an earthly court was condemning him, he realized that the heavenly court was commending him.
In other words, the “fullness” he experienced was an experience of the gospel. At that moment, he got an extremely vivid, powerful sight of what he already knew intellectually—that in Christ we are beautiful in God’s sight and free from condemnation (Rom. 8:1; Col. 1:22). The Spirit took that intellectual concept and electrified his entire soul and mind and heart and imagination with it.
Third, Stephen, although only for a moment, was able to exhibit the new humanity that God is creating. He had courage. He forgave his oppressors. He faced his accusers not just with boldness, but with a calmness and joy. That is spiritual renewal. It is not simply an emotional experience—it is a heart- changing and therefore life and practice-shaping work of the Holy Spirit.
A good image for seeking the fullness of the Spirit is the concept of “building a life altar.” In the Old Testament, an altar was built and a sacrifice placed on it, and then God sent his fire to burn up the sacrifice (e.g., 1 Kings 18). This is a great illustration of the dynamics of personal revival and spiritual renewal. Paul uses it when he tells us to make ourselves a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1–2). We cannot create spiritual renewal—we can only prepare the altar and the sacrifice. Only God can send the fire.
If we look at Acts 1, we see Jesus helping the disciples build an altar. There are at least four parts to this process.

A renewed church is vision-driven.
In Acts 1:6–8, Jesus repairs their faulty vision of what he is going to do in the world. They were looking for a political campaign, and he tells them about the nature of the kingdom, which will spread through his disciples as they become his witnesses and ambassadors. The vision is that through our words we will bring people under the kingship of Christ, which will heal and repair all things.
A renewed church is gospel-driven.
In Acts 1:9–11, Jesus ascends to heaven, and the angels tell the disciples that now the knowledge of his ascension should empower them. As in the incident with Stephen, it is only as we “preach the gospel to ourselves” about our standing in Christ that the Holy Spirit takes that truth and catches it on fire in our hearts, creating times of amazing assurance that equip us for service.
A renewed church is prayer-driven.
In Acts 1:14, we see the disciples uniting in corporate, prevailing prayer. It is only in prayer and through prayer that the Holy Spirit takes up the vision and the gospel and makes them fiery realities in the centers of our being.
A renewed church is leader-driven.
In Acts 1:15–26, we see the disciples asking for God to raise up leaders. Personal and corporate revivals occur through leaders which God identifies and equips.

How, then, can we as leaders “build an altar,” seeking our renewal as a church and a people by the power of the Holy Spirit? Let’s begin now.

  • First, pray that your church grasps its own vision in a new way. Take time to thank God for your church, for what it has done in your life, and for what you see it doing in the lives of others and in your community. Ask God to help you better understand and grasp what he is calling you to do to reach your city. Pray that your small group and outreach ministries will give people a deeper appreciation of your church’s vision and an experience of real community.
  • Second, pray that your worship services this season will be particularly anointed, that the truth of the gospel will be unusually vivid and spiritually real to all hearers—believers and non-believers— and that God’s presence would be evident.
  • Third, pray that your seasons and services of prayer would not be just a passing program but would signal a greater emphasis on and practice of corporate prayer within your church.
  • Fourth, accept your leadership role in the church. Even if you are not an officer—even if you think of yourself as a “volunteer”—you, as an active worker and servant, are a model to those less committed.

Take time to pray for yourselves, that you could enter a season of self-examination. Ask that you may be, with full gospel assurance, nonetheless hard on yourself. Ask that God would show you ways in which you don’t represent Christ as you should, in your relationships, in your work life, in your family life, in your habits and attitudes, and in your relationships within the church. Take time to pray for yourselves, that God will make things you know about the gospel in your head real to your heart, and changing the way you live where you need to change.

Copyright © 2005 by Timothy Keller, © 2012 by Redeemer City to City. This article was first used for a leadership training session in 2005. We encourage you to use and share this material freely—but please don’t charge money for it, change the wording, or remove the copyright information.

Why Plant Churches?

By Timothy Keller

A vigorous and continuous approach to church planting is the only way to guarantee an increase in the number of believers, and is one of the best ways to renew the whole body of Christ.

The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for (1) the numerical growth of the body of Christ in a city and (2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city. Nothing else—not crusades, outreach programs, parachurch ministries, growing megachurches, congregational consulting, nor church renewal processes—will have the consistent impact of dynamic, extensive church planting. This is an eyebrow-raising statement, but to those who have done any study at all, it is not even controversial.

The normal response to discussions about church planting is something like this:

A. “We already have plenty of churches that have lots and lots of room for all the new people who have come to the area. Let’s get them filled before we start building any new ones.”

B. “Every church in this community used to be more full than it is now. The churchgoing public is a shrinking pie. A new church here will just take people from churches that are already hurting and will weaken everyone.”

C. “Help the churches that are struggling first. A new church doesn’t help the existing ones that are just keeping their noses above water. We need better churches, not more churches.”

These statements appear to be common sense to many people, but they rest on several wrong assumptions. The error of this thinking will become clear if we ask, “Why is church planting so crucially important?”

We Plant Churches Because We Want to be True to the Biblical Mandate.

1. Jesus’ Essential Call was to Plant Churches
Virtually all of the great evangelistic challenges of the New Testament are basically calls to plant church- es, not simply to share the faith. The Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20) is a call not just to “make disciples” but to baptize. In Acts and elsewhere, it is clear that baptism means incorporation into a worshiping community with accountability and boundaries (cf. Acts 2:41–47). The only way to be truly sure you are increasing the number of Christians in a town is to increase the number of churches.

Why would this be? Much traditional evangelism aims to get a “decision” for Christ. Experience, however, shows us that many of these decisions disappear and never result in changed lives. Many decisions are not really conversions but are only the beginning of a journey of seeking God. (Other decisions are very definitely the moment of a “new birth,” but this differs from person to person.) Only a person who is being evangelized in the context of an ongoing worshiping and shepherding community can be sure of finally coming home into vital, saving faith. This is why a leading missiologist like C. Peter Wagner can say, “Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven.”

2. Paul’s Whole Strategy was to Plant Urban Churches
The greatest missionary in history, Saint Paul, had a rather simple twofold strategy. First, he went into the largest city of a region (cf. Acts 16:9, 12), and second, he planted churches in each city (cf. Titus 1:5—”appoint elders in every town”). Once Paul had done that, he could say that he had “fully preached” the gospel in a region and that he had “no more place . . . to work in these regions” (cf. Rom. 15:19, 23). This means Paul had two controlling assumptions: (a) that the way to most permanently influence a country was through its chief cities, and (b) the way to most permanently influence a city was to plant churches in it. Once he had accomplished this in a city, he moved on. He knew that the rest that needed to happen would follow.

“But,” many people say, “that was in the beginning. Now the country (at least our country) is filled with churches. Why is church planting important now?”

We Plant Churches Because We Want to be True to the Great Commission.

Consider these facts:

1. New Churches Best Reach New Generations, New Residents, and New People Groups
First, younger adults have always been disproportionately found in newer congregations. Long-established congregations develop traditions (such as time of worship, length of service, level of emotional responsiveness, sermon topics, leadership style, emotional atmosphere, and thousands of other tiny customs and mores) that reflect the sensibilities of longtime leaders from the older generations who have the influence and money to control church life. The automatic maintenance of such habits does not reach younger generations effectively.

Second, new residents are almost always reached better by new congregations. Older congregations may require a tenure of ten years before someone is allowed into places of leadership and influence, but in a new church, new residents tend to have equal power with longtime area residents.

Third, new sociocultural groups in a community are always reached better by new congregations. For example, if new white-collar commuters move into an area where the older residents were farmers, it is likely that a new church will be more receptive to the myriad needs of the new residents, while the older churches will continue to be oriented to the original social group. Also, new racial groups in a community are best reached by a new church that is intentionally multiethnic from the start. For example, if an all-Anglo neighborhood becomes 33 percent Hispanic, a new, deliberately biracial church will be far more likely to create “cultural space” for newcomers than will an older church in town.

Finally, brand-new immigrant groups nearly always can be reached only by churches ministering in their own language. If we wait for a new group to become assimilated into the local culture, we will wait for years without reaching out to its members. Note: Often a new congregation for a new people group can be planted within the overall structure of an existing church. It may be a new Sunday service at another time, or a new network of house churches that are connected to a larger, already existing congregation. Although it may not technically be a new independent congregation, it serves the same function.

In summary, new congregations empower new people and new peoples much more quickly and readily than can older churches. Thus they always have and always will reach them with greater facility than long-established bodies can. This means not only that we need church planting so that frontier regions or unevangelized countries can become Christian, but also that Christian countries will have to maintain vigorous, extensive church planting simply to stay Christian!

2. New Churches Best Reach the Unchurched—Period
Dozens of denominational studies have confirmed that the average new church gains most of its new members (60–80 percent) from the ranks of people who are not attending any worshiping body, while church- es over ten to fifteen years of age gain 80–90 percent of new members by transfer from other congregations. This means the average new congregation will bring six to eight times more new people into the life of the body of Christ than an older congregation of the same size.

Although established congregations provide many things that newer churches often cannot, older churches in general will never be able to match the effectiveness of new bodies in reaching people for the kingdom. Why would this be? As a congregation ages, powerful internal institutional pressures lead it to allocate most of its resources and energy toward the concerns of its members and constituents, rather than toward those outside its walls. This is natural and to a great degree desirable. Older congregations have a stability and steadiness that many people thrive on and need. This does not mean that established churches cannot win new people. In fact, many non-Christians will be reached only by churches with long roots in the community and the marks of stability and respectability.

On the other hand, new congregations, in general, are forced to focus on the needs of its nonmembers, simply to get off the ground. Because so many of a new church’s leaders came very recently from the ranks of the unchurched, the congregation is far more sensitive to the nonbeliever’s concerns. Also, in the first two years of our Christian life, we have far more close, face-to-face relationships with non- Christians than we do later. A congregation filled with people fresh from the ranks of the unchurched will thus have the power to invite and attract many more nonbelievers into the church’s life and events than will the members of the typical established body.

What does this mean, practically? If we want to reach our city, should we try to renew older congregations to make them more evangelistic, or should we plant lots of new churches? That question is surely a false either-or dichotomy. We should do both! Nevertheless, the above shows that, despite the occasional exceptions, the only broad-scale way to bring many new Christians into the body of Christ in a permanent way is to plant new churches.

To throw this into relief, imagine that Town A, Town B, and Town C are the same size, and they each have a hundred churches of one hundred persons each. In Town A, all the churches are more than fifteen years old. The overall number of active Christian churchgoers in that town is shrinking, even if four or five of the churches get very “hot” and double in attendance. In Town B, five of the churches are fewer than fifteen years old. They, along with several older congregations, are winning new people to Christ, but this only offsets the normal declines of the older churches. Thus the overall number of active Christian churchgoers in that town is staying the same. Finally, in Town C, thirty of the churches are under fifteen years old. In this town, the overall number of active Christian churchgoers is on a path to grow 50 percent in a generation.

“But,” many people say, “what about all the existing churches that need help? You seem to be ignoring them.” Not at all.

We Plant Churches Because We Want to Continually Renew the Whole Body of Christ.

It is a great mistake to think that we have to choose between church planting and church renewal. Strange as it may seem, the planting of new churches in a city is one of the very best ways to revitalize older churches in the vicinity and renew the whole body of Christ. Why?

First, the New Churches Bring New Ideas to the Whole Body
There is plenty of resistance to the idea that we need to plant new churches to reach the constant stream of new groups and generations and residents. Many congregations insist that all available resources should be used to find ways of helping existing churches reach them. There is, however, no better way to teach older congregations about new skills and methods for reaching new people groups than by planting new churches. It is the new churches that have freedom to be innovative, so they become the Research and Development Department for the whole body in the city. Often the older congregations have been too timid to try a particular approach or absolutely sure it would “not work here,” but when the new church in town succeeds wildly with that new method, the other churches eventually take notice and gain the courage to try it themselves.

Second, New Churches are One of the Best Places to Identify Creative, Strong Leaders for the Whole Body
In older congregations, leaders emphasize tradition, tenure, routine, and kinship ties. New congregations, on the other hand, attract a higher percentage of venturesome people who value creativity, risk, innovation, and future orientation. Many of these men and women would never be attracted or compelled into significant ministry apart from the appearance of these new bodies. Often older churches “box out” people who have strong leadership skills but who cannot work in more traditional settings. New churches in a city thus attract and harness people whose gifts would otherwise not be utilized in the work of the body. These new leaders eventually benefit the whole body in the city.

Third, the New Churches Challenge Other Churches to Self-Examination
In general, the success of new churches often challenges older congregations to evaluate themselves in substantial ways. Sometimes it is only in contrast with a new church that older churches can finally define their own vision, specialties, and identity. Often the growth of the new congregation gives the older churches hope that “it can be done,” and it may even bring about humility and repentance for defeatist and pessimistic attitudes. Sometimes a new congregation can partner with an older church to mount ministries that neither could do by itself.

Fourth, the New Churches May be an “Evangelistic Feeder” for a Whole Community
The new church often produces many converts who end up in older churches for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the new church is very exciting and outward facing but is also very unstable or immature in its leadership. Some converts cannot stand the tumultuous changes that regularly come through this new church, and they move to an existing church. Sometimes the new church reaches a person for Christ, but the new convert quickly discovers that he or she does not fit the socioeconomic makeup of the new congregation and gravitates to an established congregation where the customs and culture feel more familiar. Ordinarily, the new churches of a city produce new people not only for themselves but for the older bodies as well.

In summary, vigorous church planting is one of the best ways to renew the body of Christ in a city, as well as the best single way to grow the whole body of Christ in a city.

There is one more reason why it is good for the existing churches of a region to initiate or at least support the planting of churches nearby.

We Plant Churches as an Exercise in Kingdom Mindedness.
All in all, church planting helps an existing church best when the new congregation is voluntarily birthed by an older “mother” congregation. Often the excitement and new leaders and new ministries and additional members and income wash back into the mother church in various ways and strengthen and renew it. Although there is some pain in seeing good friends and valued leaders go away to form a new church, the mother church usually soon experiences a surge of high self-esteem and an influx of new, enthusiastic leaders and members.

However, a new church in the community usually confronts churches with a major issue—the issue of “kingdom-mindedness.” New churches, as we have seen, draw most of their new members (up to 80 percent) from the ranks of the unchurched, but they will always attract some people out of existing churches. That is inevitable. At this point, the existing churches, in a sense, have a question posed to them: “Are we going to rejoice in the 80 percent—the new people the kingdom has gained through this new church—or are we going to bemoan the situation and resent the three families we lost to it?” Our attitude to new church development is a test of whether our mindset is geared to our own institutional turf or to the overall health and prosperity of the kingdom of God in the city.

Any church that is more upset by its own small losses than grateful for the kingdom’s large gains is betraying its narrow interests. Even so, as we have seen, the benefits that new church planting offers to older congregations is very great, even if not initially obvious.

If we briefly glance again at the objections to church planting in the introduction, we can now see the false premises underlying the statements. Objection A assumes that older congregations can reach newcomers as well as new congregations, but to reach new generations and people groups will require both renewed older churches and lots of new churches. Objection B assumes that new congregations will reach only currently active churchgoers, but new churches do far better at reaching the unchurched, and thus they are the only way to increase the “churchgoing pie.” Objection C assumes that new church planting will only discourage older churches. There is a possibility of some initial discouragement, but for many reasons new churches are one of the best ways to renew and revitalize older churches. And a final objection assumes that new churches work only where the population is growing. In actuality, they reach people wherever the population is changing. If new people are coming in to replace former residents, or new groups of people are coming in even though the net population figure is stagnant, new churches are needed.

New church planting is the only way that we can be sure we are going to increase the number of believers in a city, and it is one of the best ways to renew the whole body of Christ. The evidence for this statement is strong—biblically, sociologically, and historically. In the end, a lack of kingdom-mindedness may simply blind us to all this evidence. We must beware of that.

Final Note: Historical Lessons

If all this is true, there should be lots of evidence for these principles in church history—and there is!

In 1820, there was one Christian church for every 875 U.S. residents. From 1860 to 1906, U.S. Protestant churches planted one new church for every increase of 350 in the population, bringing the ratio by the start of World War I to just one church for every 430 persons. In 1906 over a third of all the congregations in the country were less than twenty-five years old. As a result, the percentage of the U.S. population involved in the life of the church rose steadily. For example, in 1776, just 17 percent of persons in the United States were categorized as “religious adherents,” but by 1916 that figure had risen to 53 percent.

After World War I, however, especially among mainline Protestants, church planting plummeted for a variety of reasons. One of the main reasons was the issue of turf. Once the continental United States was covered by towns and settlements, with churches and church buildings in each one, there was strong resistance from older churches to any new churches being planted in “our neighborhood.” As we have seen above, new churches are commonly very effective at reaching new people and growing during their first couple of decades. The vast majority of U.S. congregations peak in size during the first two or three decades of their existence and then remain on a plateau or slowly shrink. This is due to the factors mentioned above: they cannot assimilate new people, or groups of people, as well as new churches can. However, older churches have feared the competition from new churches. Mainline church congregations, with their centralized government, were the most effective in blocking new church development in their towns. As a result, the mainline churches have shrunk remarkably in the last twenty to thirty years.

What are the historical lessons? Church attendance and adherence overall in the United States are in decline. This cannot be reversed in any other way but the way it originally had been so remarkably increasing. We must plant churches at such a rate that the number of churches per 1,000 in the population begins to grow again, rather than decline as it has since World War I.


Copyright © 2002 by Timothy Keller, © 2009 by Redeemer City to City. We encourage you to use and share this material freely—but please don’t charge money for it, change the wording, or remove the copyright information.

Ministry and Character

By Timothy Keller

Once we have embarked upon a life of ministry, we will be confronted with agonizing and persistent questions like “How am I doing?” and “How will I know how I’m doing?” At the unconscious (and conscious) levels, we begin flailing about for a way to answer those questions. One of the keys to the rest of your life as a minister is to find a way to answer them. What test will you use?

The Test of Success

Because many of our everyday practices and business models operate on the premise of success, bottom lines, profits, and assets, we are prone to gauge ministerial effectiveness in the same way.
The Rise of Success Criteria
Today there is far more pressure than ever before on ministers to be “successful.” The very idea of success is something of a new way to judge ministers. The older criteria for evaluation had more to do with doctrinal accuracy, loyalty, and consistency of discharging duties. But no one can deny that these measurements have been eclipsed by the criteria of success. Today’s churches and congregations seek successful ministers and dismiss less successful ones. It is also true that ministers hold themselves to the standards of success of increasing numbers and expanding budgets.
The Anatomy of Success
According to Avery Dulles, the modern notion of ministerial success is not so much about simple church growth as it is about the minister’s ability to attract large numbers of people by his personal appeal, and then to create powerful religious experiences for them. I suppose this should not come as a surprise, since it’s a direct result of the expressive individualism of modern Western culture, which has replaced the community-first loyalties of former generations. Individuals have been taught to be consumers, not only of retailers and merchants, but also of institutions and organizations. They will go to a church only if (and as long as) its worship and public speaking is riveting and attractive.
Individuals have been shaped by the culture to think of their own happiness and prosperity first and to avoid letting commitments to any group or institution become a barrier to finding personal fulfillment. The concepts of service and sacrifice are viewed as psychologically unhealthy. Even if a Christian is able to shed this radically individualistic worldview at a personal level, the culture pushes him or her in this direction anyway. The jobs landscape alone plays a major role in the isolation and consumerism of individuals: today’s jobs demand long hours, extended travel, and often multiple moves to different cities, not to mention that companies can fire employees at the drop of a hat. It is, therefore, quite difficult and unlikely for one to “stay put,” to avoid transience, and to commit long term to a community. This means even community-minded Christians are constantly moving to new places and “church shopping” once they get there. It is nearly impossible, with our insidiously individualistic lenses, to look for a new church in terms of where to serve instead of how it meets the needs of our family. It is culturally improbable to think in terms of long-term service to a Christian community, or of where your gifts and calling might fit in. Instead, we all tend to naturally think and act like a consumer, not a servant.

The Church’s Embrace of Success
During the 1970s and 1980s, one of the most influential schools of thought in seminary circles was the “church growth” movement founded by Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner. For more than twenty years, there was a seemingly never-ending stream of books written at the popular level for pastors on “how to grow your church.” At first only evangelical churches embraced the movement, but eventually even mainline churches, faced with dwindling numbers, began to heed it as well. This movement brought many good and probably permanent changes into the modern-day ministry. But it also put an enormous amount of pressure on the average pastor. The impression given by these popular church growth books (and there were hundreds produced during a twenty year span!) was that church growth was the product of following a series of “ten steps” or achieving attainable measurements, the result of which left pastors feeling that if their church was not growing then they must be incompetent. Many critics, looking back on the movement of those years, have rightly surmised that it was in large part influenced by the general cultural drift toward individualism and consumerism. It was in some forms and in some ways an over-adaptation to the broader culture.

The Test of Faithfulness

In the 1990’s there began to be a major pushback to the church growth movement, resulting again in the printing of books that this time stressed faithfulness rather than growth as the primary test of ministerial effectiveness. This movement has also passed into our practice of ministry in the West and had a very good effect.
One of the leading proponents of this reaction to church growth has been Eugene Peterson. For the pastor under the pressure of success-oriented criteria, Peterson’s books are like a cool breeze in the desert. He stresses the classical resources of pastoral theology and emphasizes the traditional pastoral duties: the cultivation of the inner life through contemplation and prayer, the recovery of the art of providing spiritual counsel and direction to another, and the building of intimate church community through visitation and other practices. Peterson vehemently opposes the notion of pastor-as-CEO and presses for a pastor-as-shepherd model. He provides a much-needed counter-balance to the excesses of the church growth era of the 1970s and 80s. Some have pointed out, however, that Peterson’s model can also induce guilt, because it is almost unrealistic in its demands for solitude, prayer, and unhurried pastoring in a hyper-paced world.

Another way in which the church has experienced backlash to the success criteria has been the missional church focus, such as The Gospel and Our Culture network led by Darrell Guder, Craig Van Gelder, and George Hunsberger, as well as a variety of other thinkers. These thinkers have been heavily influenced by the Anabaptist tradition and by Alasdair MacIntyre, author of the seminal book After Virtue; great emphasis is given to the building of robust, counter cultural Christian communities and the pastoral skills that such communities require. This sensibility meshes well with Eugene Peterson’s work and its reaction to the megachurch movement.

For all its needed corrections, it is important not to oversimplify the successful-versus-faithful continuum. It is also helpful to realize that such classification is not new. In Charles Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students written nearly 150 years ago, Spurgeon wrote that it takes more than faithfulness to make a minister:

“Certain good men appeal to me who are distinguished by enormous [passion] and zeal, and a conspicuous absence of brains; brethren who would talk for ever and ever upon nothing—who would stamp and thump the Bible, and get nothing out of it all; earnest, awfully earnest, mountains in labor of the most painful kind; but nothing comes of it all... therefore I have usually declined their applications.”

This is a painful paragraph. Notice that Spurgeon has obvious affection for these men. He is not ridiculing them and says they are, in fact, faithful and deeply committed to the work of the minister, but because “nothing comes of it all” he declines their application to his college for ministers. In other words, he doubts God has called them, because when they teach there is little or no learning, and when they evangelize there are few or no conversions. Therefore, it is an oversimplification to say that faithfulness is either the preferred criterion (as compared to success), or that it should be the sole criterion.

The Test of Fruitfulness

I would propose then, that a more biblical gauge of ministerial evaluation than faithfulness or success is fruitfulness. From the depiction of the Hebrew nation as a vineyard to Jesus’ famous “abide in the vine” speech, it is hard to miss the analogy of fruitfulness in the Bible. More specifically to pastors, the apostle Paul outlined fruitfulness as the test for his emerging ministry:

  • First, there is the fruit of new converts to the gospel. Paul told the Roman Christians that he desired to come and preach in Rome “that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles” (Rom. 1:13).
  • Second, there is the fruit of godly character that a minister can see growing in Christians under his care. This character is called the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22). And good deeds such as mercy to the poor is called “fruit” (Rom. 15:25-27).

Biblical theology guarantees that God’s word and those who have been called to minister his word will bear fruit. Why? The doctrine of election! In Acts 18:9-10, God told the apostle Paul that his ministry would be successful: “Keep on speaking... because I have many people in this city.” When Paul preached, “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). Many ministers of the gospel, however, have used the doctrine of election to rationalize the lack of fruit in their ministry. But actually, the doctrine of election assures fruit. “You did not choose me, but I chose you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (John 15:16). If you are called to the ministry, then you will bear fruit, fruit guaranteed by the calling and election of God.
The biblical analogy of fruitfulness is often extended as a metaphor and likened to gardening. In gardening, the skills and faithfulness of the gardener represent only two factors in determining the overall success of the garden. The fruitfulness of the garden will vary greatly in response to other conditions, such as soil composition (some groups of people have a greater hardness of heart), weather conditions (God’s sovereign Spirit), and seasonal activity. In 1 Corinthians 3:6 Paul used the gardening and seasonal metaphor when he wrote that some ministers plant, others water, and still others reap the harvest.This helps us understand that a seed-sowing season could easily be mistaken for fruitlessness. It also allows us to contemplate the importance of farmer-like patience (James 5:7-8) and to have “expectancy as well as patience.” We must take the long view of our work, while at the same time being deeply concerned by any sustained season of fruitlessness.

In summary, the church growth movement provided many important and lasting contributions to modern-day ministry. Likewise, the reaction to the church growth movement has helped us, especially Protestants, recover ancient resources that emphasize pastoral contemplation, spiritual direction, and community building. In the end, however, the biblical paradigm of fruitfulness is probably our best criterion for ministerial evaluation, while also allowing us to benefit from the literature on both church growth and faithfulness.

The Causes for Fruitlessness

It goes without saying that a criterion of fruitfulness will challenge us to look for causes of any long-term lack of fruit. As alluded to earlier, a possible cause may be that one has not truly been called to be a pastor. Most often, however, the causes can be traced to the roots of pride, indulgence, cowardice, or hypocrisy.

Pastoral Pride
As in most other areas of life, pride is often the culprit for a lack of fruitfulness, because its insidious grip entangles us in many areas.
First of all, pride makes us more concerned with popularity and applause than with fruitfulness. Although, as we have seen, we complain about the pressure of success criteria, we put it on ourselves out of pride. Pride makes us compare ourselves to other ministers, creates envy, and as a result, allows for very little mutual dependence and encouragement among pastors. If your church flourishes in the more visible ways of numbers and programs and finances, you will be overly happy about it and tempted to derive your self-worth from it rather than from who you are in Christ. This misplaced identity can lead to a domineering spirit and unwise decision making. If, on the other hand, your church is not flourishing in these more visible ways, you may become excessively discouraged. Why? Because your pride evaluates your self-worth on the progress of your church rather than on your identity in Christ. So being both excessively inflated or overly deflated by visible success is caused largely by pride and a lack of orientation to the gospel. Your worth and identity rises and falls not on being a rescued and loved sinner, but on being an effective minister.
Secondly, pride makes us defensive when criticized. We don’t make it safe for people to give us negative feedback. We become angry or argumentative, such that people avoid giving any type of critical feedback. Or, because the critic has a bad attitude or has exaggerated what is wrong (one of which is usually the case), our defensive pride focuses on these things in order to dismiss any truth in the critique and avoid the pain of repentance. In this way, the changes required to make us more effective never occur.

A third form of pride that can derail ministers is a type of tribal arrogance that elevates our own church models and denominational traditions above others and makes us scornful of those with different theological opinions.
For helpful insights into pastoral pride, I recommend the reading of George Whitefield’s Journals. He wrote the Journals when he was a very popular preacher in his 20s, and his early popularity led him into being more obstinate and uncharitable in his remarks and ministry than he should have been. Years later, having matured in both his ministry and humility, he edited the Journals and had many of his intemperate and proud statements removed.

Pastoral Indulgence
We must tread carefully here. Many pastors are workaholics, driven by harmful motivations. But it seems to me that our culture’s spirit of expressive individualism has affected ministers in the extremes of either overwork or idleness. While many ministers in previous generations tended to sacrifice without complaint, even when being treated unjustly by others, there are many more now who are not willing to make much in the way of sacrifices. One example of this is how unwilling many pastors are to accept positions at small, rural or inner-city churches that show little promise of advancement or higher salaries. Another example is how unproductive many pastors are; outside of very large churches, ministers do not have supervisors in the normal sense, and one of the results can be a lack of industriousness and the opportunity for self-indulgent time wasting. There are greater extremes of this in the ministry than perhaps with any other job, for obvious reasons. If you are an investment banker you may overwork or you may find ways to work moderately, but it is hard to be self-indulgent and undisciplined and remain an investment banker.
This is a tough balance to strike. Many are rightly calling churches to task for how they have taken advantage of ministers (by paying them an inadequate salary, by robbing them of all privacy, by imposing unrealistic expectations on them, etc.) But there are plenty of other pastors today who lack much of a spirit of self-denial at all. The church ministry allows both kinds of persons—so wildly different from each other—to work for years before either their overwork or idleness is discovered.
Pastoral Cowardice
Cowardice, one of the more subtle forms of pride, is putting your own needs ahead of the needs of others. Like pride, cowardice reflects a lack of orientation to the gospel and is the temptation to look to the approval of others instead of the work of Christ for your justification and significance. Cowardice is one of the ways a lack of orientation to the gospel keeps us from Christ-like character—in this case, courage. It will be surprising to the new minister how often the office demands courage.
Since a major part of a minister’s job is publicly proclaiming the truth of God’s word and since the idea of absolute truth has been eroded in the postmodern era, it should come as no surprise that the role of a minister requires courage. As one who has been preaching since 1975, I can say that in the last two generations, the Christian message has become increasingly unpopular to the average American. The concepts of truth, authority, sin, and salvation are seen as outdated and irrelevant. Furthermore, the concepts of judgment, the wrath of God, and the reality of hell are seen as dangerous and extreme. To preach on these things outside of the shrinking enclaves of very traditional or conservative people takes courage.
Even the audience of traditional, conservative people, however, where the majority of evangelical churches exist, requires its own brand of courage. Pastors will often find a great deal of resistance if they preach on the specific besetting sins typical of their neighborhoods, such as racism, materialism, hypocrisy, or self-righteousness. Congregants would prefer that the pastor speak about “how bad it is getting in our society—out there.“ If you preach to matters closer to home, it will take courage. Pastoral work continually brings up situations in which powerful people in the church need to be lovingly confronted. Leadership of any institution requires continual decision-making, some of which are bound to unsettle or displease some party in the church.
Beware of counterfeit courage. By this I mean that some pastors, while claiming to have “the courage of their convictions,” are actually practicing a false courage that alienates. They seem to relish confrontation. They may even preach on unpopular subjects regularly and with flair. They seldom shrink from telling someone he or she is in the wrong. But many of these pastors have a large “back door” of people who feel abused and who have left the church. When this becomes a regular occurrence, the “courage” may really be a form of pastoral pride, and thus their ministry alienates. True courage, born of the gospel, neither relishes conflict nor avoids it. A person secure in Christ does not need to win arguments or please others for his personal assurance. While it is true that godly courage may result in people complaining or leaving the church, there should not be a steady stream of such people. So if no one ever leaves your church, or conversely if a lot of people do, you are probably lacking in pastoral courage.

Pastoral Hypocrisy
Perhaps the greatest dilemma of the pastor—or any Christian leader—is the danger of hypocrisy. By this I mean that, unlike other professionals, we as ministers are expected to proclaim God’s goodness and to provide encouragement at all times. We are always pointing people toward God in one way or another, in order to show them his worth and beauty. That’s the essence of our ministry. But seldom will our hearts be in a condition to say such a thing with complete integrity, since our own hearts are often in need of encouragement, gospel centeredness, and genuine gladness. Thus, we have two choices: either we have to guard our hearts continually in order to practice what we are preaching, or we live bifurcated lives of outward ministry and inward gloominess.

The ministry will make you a far better or far worse Christian than you would have been otherwise.

In this way, the ministry will make you a far better or a far worse Christian than you would have been otherwise. But it will not leave you where you were! And it will put enormous pressure on your integrity and character. The key problem will be preaching the gospel while not believing the gospel. As ministers, we must be willing to admit that ministerial success often becomes the real basis for our joy and significance, much more so than the love and acceptance we have in Jesus Christ. Ministry success often becomes what we look to in order to measure our worth to others and our confidence before God. In other words, we look to ministry success to be for us what only Christ can be. All ministers who know themselves will be fighting this all their lives. It is the reason for jealousy, for comparing ourselves to other ministers, for needing to control people and programs in the church, and for feeling defensive toward criticism. At one level we believe the gospel that we are saved by grace not works, but at a deeper level we don’t believe it much at all. We are still trying to create our own righteousness through spiritual performance, albeit one that is sanctioned by our call to ministry.

The Priority of Character

What can we conclude from the harrowing ride we have just taken on the spiritual dangers and pitfalls intrinsic to the ordained ministry? It is this. All the causes of either visible or pending failure stem from a failure to cultivate the inner life. Look at the list of the causes of fruitlessness. They are the results of failing to know ourselves, failing to believe the gospel, and forgetting the truth of God’s word. Thus, we must cultivate the work of the inner life.

The Priority of the Inner Life Over the Outward Ministry
It’s important to begin by saying that often ministry failures can be traced to a lack of true calling to the ministry—which is a subject for another article. Apart from that foundational flaw, however, most ministry failure stems from a neglect of the inner life and communion with God. Secondary problems, such as a minister’s insufficient training or misguided approach, usually do not become full-fledged failures unless they are accompanied with—and thus magnified many times over—by failures of inner life and character. So while it may create problems if a young minister imposes an inappropriate model on a church, it probably won’t be disastrous unless he begins to interpret opposition as a threat to his identity of a successful minister, in which case he would respond with insecurity and drive people out needlessly.

The Priority of Character Over Gifts
Christian leadership is mobilizing God’s gifts to accomplish God’s goals in God’s way. Leadership involves developing our strengths in order to articulate the vision, persuade people to follow, and keep them all working together. The main thing a Christian leader needs above all these, however, is spiritual maturity.
Scottish minister Robert Murray M’Cheyne was reputed to have told other leaders, “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.” Before his death in 1843, M’Cheyne preached his last sermon on Isaiah 60:1, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.” He went home to bed with a fever and died a week later. After his death a letter was found in his bedroom, part of which read:

“I hope you will pardon a stranger for addressing to you a few lines. I heard you preach last Sabbath evening, and it pleased God to bless that sermon to my soul. It was not so much what you said, as your manner of speaking, that struck me. I saw in you a beauty of holiness that I never saw before. You also said something in your prayer that struck me very much. It was ‘Thou knowest that we love Thee.’ Oh, sir, what would I give that I could say to my blessed Saviour, ‘Thou knowest that I love Thee!’”

What a wonderful, enduring testimony of what is most needed in a pastor!
Biblical Examples
In 1 Corinthians 13 we see a clear example of the need for Christian character over Christian ministry or giftedness. The church in Corinth was a growing congregation, blessed with abundant gifts in tongues (13:1), prophecy (13:2), teaching, generosity, and social concern (13:3). Yet the remaining verses reveal all the ways in which the Corinthian church was ungodly. They were impatient and proud (13:4), envious, critical, rude, jealous, self-absorbed, and egotistical. Not only did Paul point out these issues as the underlying causes of their problems, he went so far as to say that it was possible to have all of these gifts in a dynamic church and yet be “nothing.” Most commentators agree that a literal interpretation is necessary, that Paul is saying it is possible to do miracles by the power of God and have revelations and not even be a Christian! We see this in the case of Judas the disciple, who evidently did perform miracles but was one who didn’t truly know Jesus (Matthew 7:21-22). In other words, it is possible to do ministry through the power of God without any grace in the heart or without knowing his true love that “never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8).
This is also why Jesus said, “By their fruit ye shall know them” rather than “by their gifts.” Love, joy, peace, and humility cannot grow and flourish when our hearts are far from God; but teaching, evangelism, counseling, and leading can. The danger is that we can look to our ministry activity as evidence that God is with us or as a way to earn God’s favor. The reference in 1 Corinthians 13 to gongs and cymbals probably refers to pagan worship at the temples of Demeter and Cybele, in which a loud show of noise and commotion was used to attract the favor of the gods. According to Paul, it is possible to do Christian ministry in the same way. If we are remembering the gospel, if we are rejoicing in our justification, then our ministry will be a sacrifice of thanksgiving; the result will be acts done in love, humility, patience, and tenderness. But if our hearts are not solely centered in the saving work of Jesus and if we are not speaking the gospel into our hearts regularly, we will by default seek to control God and to attract his favor with our “clanging cymbals” of service, noted by the telltale signs of impatience, irritability, pride, hurt feelings, jealousy, and boasting (1 Cor. 12-14). We will identify with our ministry and make it an extension of ourselves. We will be driven, scared, and either too timid or too brash. And perhaps, away from the public glare, we may be engaging in secret sins.


We must beware of identifying with our ministry and making it an extension of ourselves. Until we see this, we may be successful in the short term but may begin to see the telltale signs of fruitlessness: cowardice, hypocrisy, indulgence. We are clashing our cymbals, and the results are the noise of hurt feelings, a critical spirit, consuming anxiety, and persistent joylessness in our work.

Godly Character Covers the Gaps in Our Giftedness
There are three basic roles or functions that a Christian minister has—preaching, counseling, and leading. No one is equally gifted in all three areas, and yet we must do them all. So we have gaps in our gifts, areas where we are obligated to work harder to compensate for our lack of giftedness. Most leadership literature teaches us to compensate for our gaps by surrounding ourselves with people who have complementary gifts. That is certainly helpful, if you can pull it off. But there is another, more surefire way to cover the gaps—with godliness. What do I mean? You may be rather ineloquent, but if you are very godly, there will be a wisdom and insight that is attractive to others. You may lack the temperament and skills to be an effective counselor, but if you are very godly, there will be a sympathy and love that shines through and proves effective.You may be very disorganized and not very dynamic in your personality, but if you are very godly, there will be a humility about you that will command people’s respect. In other words, your godly character fills in the gaps left by a lack of giftedness. In fact, people who are multi-gifted are at a disadvantage in that people usually think they are more spiritually mature than they really are. This is because it is their talent, not their holiness, that is covering all the bases in their ministry.

Godly Character Covers the Dark Side of Our Gifts
Without deep godliness and character, spiritual gifts can trip us up not only by their absence or weakness, but also by their presence and strength. What do I mean? A pastor with strengths in the prophetic gifts of ministry will tend to be impatient and may not be wise in the diplomacy necessary to get things done. A pastor with strength in the priestly gifts of ministry may be very warm but not very efficient or organized. A pastor with strengths in the kingly gifts of ministry may be extremely organized but may lack vision or courage to take risks and may be inclined to put goals ahead of people’s needs. Again, most of the leadership literature tells us how to handle any gift-deficient areas. But it almost never warns about the gift-rich areas. Gifts without compensatory godliness will lead to blind spots and blunders.
As we have seen, engaging in Christian ministry will make you a much better person or a much worse person than you would have been otherwise. You will not remain static; you will be growing and changing. And thus, the question of “How am I doing?” does not have to be a pestering plumb line but can serve as a personal reminder to pursue godliness, cultivate fruitfulness, work diligently, trust completely, and preach confidently.

Copyright © 2002 by Timothy Keller, © 2011 by Redeemer City to City. This article was first used for a leadership training session in 2002. We encourage you to use and share this material freely—but please don’t charge money for it, change the wording, or remove the copyright information.

The Missional Church

By Timothy Keller

The rapid decline of Christendom since the end of WWII has instituted an even greater need for “missional” churches to engage the surrounding community and retell the culture’s stories through the context of the gospel.

The Need for a Missional Church

In the West for nearly a thousand years, the relationship of European Christian churches to the broader culture was a relationship known as “Christendom.” The institutions of society “Christianized” people and stigmatized non-Christian belief and behavior. Though people were Christianized by the culture, they were not necessarily regenerated or converted with the gospel. The church’s job was then to challenge persons into a vital, living relation with Christ.

There were great advantages and yet great disadvantages to Christendom. The advantage was a common language for public moral discourse with which society could discuss what was “good.” The disadvantage was that Christian morality without gospel-changed hearts often led to cruelty and hypocrisy. Think of how the small town in Christendom treated the unwed mother, for example. Also, under Christendom the church often was silent against the ruling classes’ abuses of the weak. For these reasons and others, the church in Europe and North America has been losing its privileged place as the arbiter of public morality since at least the mid-nineteenth century. The decline of Christendom has accelerated greatly since the end of World War II.

British missionary Lesslie Newbigin went to India around 1950. There he was involved with a church in a very non-Christian culture. When he returned to England some thirty years later, he discovered that the Western church now found itself in a non-Christian society as well, but it had not adapted to its new situation. Though public institutions and the popular culture of Europe and North America no longer Christianized people, the church still ran its ministries assuming that a stream of Christianized, traditional/ moral people would simply show up at worship services. Some churches certainly carried out evangelism as one ministry among many, but the church in the West had not become completely missional—adapting and reformulating absolutely everything it did in worship, discipleship, community, and service so as to be engaged with the non-Christian society around it. It had not developed a missiology of Western culture, the way it had done with other nonbelieving cultures.

One of the reasons much of the evangelical church in the United States has not experienced the same precipitous decline as the Protestant churches of Europe and Canada is because in the United States there is still a heartland with remnants of the old Christendom society. There the informal public culture, though not the formal public institutions, still stigmatizes non-Christian beliefs and behavior. There is a “fundamental schism in American cultural, political, and economic life. There’s the quicker-growing, economically vibrant . . . morally relativist, urban-oriented, culturally adventuresome, sexually polymorphous, and ethnically diverse nation. . . “And there’s the small-town, nuclear-family, religiously oriented, white-centric other America, [with] . . . its diminishing cultural and economic force. . . . [T]wo countries.” In conservative regions, it is still possible to see people professing faith and the church growing without becoming missional. Most traditional evangelical churches can win to Christ only people who are temperamentally traditional and conservative. As Wolff notes, however, this is a shrinking market, and eventually evangelical churches ensconced in the declining, remaining enclaves of Christendom will have to learn how to become missional. If they do not, they will decline or die.

We don’t simply need evangelistic churches; rather, we need missional churches.

The Practices of a Missional Church

Speak in the Vernacular
In Christendom there is little difference between the language inside and outside of the church; technical biblical terms are well known inside and outside church life. Documents of the early U.S. Congress, for example, are riddled with allusions to and references from the Bible. In a missional church, however, these terms must be explained.

The missional church:

  • avoids “tribal” language, stylized prayer language, unnecessarily pious evangelical jargon, and archaic language that seeks to set a spiritual tone.
  • avoids “we-they” language, disdainful jokes that mock people of different politics and beliefs, and dismissive, disrespectful comments about those who differ with us.
  • avoids sentimental, pompous, “inspirational” talk.
  • avoids talking as if nonbelieving people were not present. If you speak and discourse as if your whole neighborhood were present (and not just scattered Christians), eventually more and more of your neighbors will find their way in or be invited.

Unless all of the above is the outflow of a truly humble-bold, gospel-changed heart, it is all just marketing and spin.

Enter and Retell the Culture’s Stories with the Gospel
In Christendom it is possible to simply exhort Christianized people to do what they know they should. There is little or no real engagement, listening, or persuasion. Often, along with exhortation there is a heavy reliance on guilt to motivate behavior change. In a missional church, the preaching and communication always assume the presence of skeptical people and consequently engage their stories.

  • To enter the culture’s stories means to show sympathy toward and deep acquaintance with the literature, music, theater, and other arts expressing the existing culture’s hopes, dreams, heroic narratives, and fears.
  • To retell the culture’s stories is to show how only in Christ can we have freedom without slavery, and embrace of the other without injustice. The older culture’s story called on people to be a good father/ mother, son/daughter, and to live a decent, merciful, good life. Now the culture’s story calls people (a) to be free and self-created and authentic (note the theme of freedom from oppression); and (b) to make the world safe for everyone else to be the same (theme of inclusion of the “other”; justice). 

Theologically Train Laypeople for Public Life and Vocation
In Christendom you can afford to train people solely in prayer, Bible study, and evangelism—private world skills—because they are not facing radically non-Christian values in their public life. In a missional church, the laity needs theological education to “think Christianly” about everything and to work with Christian distinctiveness. They need to know three things: (a) which cultural practices manifest common grace and are to be embraced, (b) which practices are antithetical to the gospel and must be rejected, and (c) which practices can be adapted/revised.

  • In a missional situation, the renewing and transformation of the culture through the work of laypeople with distinctively Christian vocations must be lifted up as real kingdom work and ministry, along with the traditional ministry of the Word.
  • Christians will have to use the gospel to demonstrate true, biblical love and tolerance in the public square toward those with whom we deeply differ. This tolerance should equal or exceed that which groups with opposing views show toward Christians. The charge of intolerance is perhaps the main “defeater” of the gospel in the non-Christian West.

Create Christian Community that is Countercultural and Counterintuitive
In Christendom, “fellowship” is basically just a set of nurturing relationships, support, and accountability. In a missional church, however, Christian community must go beyond that to embody a counterculture, showing the world how radically different a Christian society is with regard to sex, money, and power.

  • In sex. We avoid both the secular society’s idolization of sex and traditional society’s fear of sex. We also exhibit love rather than hostility or fear toward those whose sexual life-patterns are different from ours.
  • In money. We promote a radically generous commitment of time, money, relationships, and living space to social justice and the needs of the poor, the immigrant, and the economically and physically weak.
  • In power. We are committed to power sharing and relationship building among races and classes that are alienated outside of the body of Christ. A missional church must be deeply and practically committed to deeds of compassion and social justice and deeply and practically committed to evangelism and conversion.

Practice Christian Unity as much as Possible on the Local Level
In Christendom, when “everyone was a Christian,” it was perhaps necessary for a church to define itself over against other churches—that is, to gain an identity you had to say, “We are not like that church over there or those Christians over here.” Today, however, it is much more illuminating and helpful for a church to define itself over against “the world”—the values of the non-Christian culture.

  • It is very important that we do not spend our time bashing and criticizing other kinds of churches. That criticalness simply plays into the common “defeater” that Christians are all intolerant.
  • While we have to align ourselves in denominations that share many of our distinctives, at the local level we should cooperate with, reach out to, and support the other congregations and churches in our area. This will raise many thorny issues, of course, but our bias should be in the direction of cooperation.

A Case Study
This concept of the missional church goes beyond any program; the practices described here have to be present in every area of the church. 

For example, what makes a small group missional? A missional small group is not necessarily one that is doing some kind of specific evangelism program (though that is to be encouraged). Rather, (1) if its members love and talk positively about the city/neighborhood, (2) if they speak in language that is not filled with pious tribal or technical terms and phrases, nor with disdainful and embattled verbiage, (3) if in their Bible study they apply the gospel to the core concerns and stories of the people of the culture, (4) if they are obviously interested in and engaged with the literature, art and thought of the surrounding culture and can discuss it both appreciatively and critically, (5) if they exhibit deep concern for the poor, generosity with their money, purity and respect with regard to the opposite sex, and humility toward people of other races and cultures, and (6) if they do not bash other Christians and churches—then seekers and nonbelieving people will be invited and will come and stay as they explore spiritual issues.

Copyright © 2001 by Timothy Keller, © 2009 by Redeemer City to City. We encourage you to use and share this material freely—but please don’t charge money for it, change the wording, or remove the copyright information.

The Centrality of the Gospel

By Timothy Keller

The gospel is the central element in the Christian life and continually renews the believer and the Church. Outlined in this article are fifteen ways in which the gospel impacts the believer and eight ways it nurtures the Church.

In Galatians 2:14, Paul lays down a powerful principle. He deals with Peter’s racial pride and cowardice by declaring that he was not living “in line with the truth of the gospel.” From this we see that the Christian life is a process of renewing every dimension of our life—spiritual, psychological, corporate, social—by thinking, hoping, and living out the “lines” or ramifications of the gospel. The gospel is to be applied to every area of thinking, feeling, relating, working, and behaving. The implications and applications of Galatians 2:14 are vast.

Part I: Implications and Applications

Implication #1 - The Power of the Gospel

First, Paul is showing us that bringing the gospel truth to bear on every area of life is the way to be changed by the power of God. The gospel is described in the Bible in the most astounding terms. Angels long to look into it all the time (1 Peter 1:12). It does not simply bring us power, but it is the power of God itself, for Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16). It is also the blessing of God with benefits that accrue to anyone who comes near (1 Cor. 9:23). It is even called the very light of the glory of God itself: “they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ... For God... [has] made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4, 6).

After the gospel has regenerated us and we are converted, it is the instrument of all continual growth and spiritual progress: “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth” (Col. 1:6). Here we learn several things: (1) The gospel is a living thing (cf. Rom 1:16), like a seed or a tree that brings more and more new life—bearing fruit and growing. (2) The gospel is “planted” in us so as to bear fruit only as we understand its greatness and implications deeply—understood God’s grace in all its truth. (3) The gospel continues to grow in us and renew us throughout our lives—as it has been doing since the day you heard it. This text helps us avoid either an exclusively rationalistic or mystical approach to renewal. On the one hand, the gospel has a content—it is profound doctrine. It is truth, and specifically, it is the truth about God’s grace. But on the other hand, this truth is a living power that continually expands its influence in our lives, just as a crop or a tree would grow and spread and increasingly dominate an area with roots and fruit.

Implications #2 - The Sufficiency of the Gospel

Second, Paul is showing that in our Christian life we never “get beyond the gospel” to something more advanced. The gospel is not the first step in a stairway of truths; rather, it is more like the hub in a wheel of truth. The gospel is not just the ABCs but the A to Z of Christianity. The gospel is not the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom but the way we make all progress in the kingdom.

We are not justified by the gospel and then sanctified by obedience; rather the gospel is the way we grow (Gal. 3:1–3) and are renewed (Col. 1:6). It is the solution to each problem, the key to each closed door, the power to take us through every barrier (Rom. 1:16–17). It is very common in the church to think as follows: “The gospel is for non-Christians. One needs it to be saved. But once saved, you grow through hard work and obedience.” But Colossians 1:6 shows that this is a mistake. Both confession and “hard work” that is not arising from and in line with the gospel will not sanctify you—they will strangle you. All our problems come from a failure to apply the gospel. Thus when Paul left the Ephesians he committed them “to the word of his grace, which can build you up” (Acts 20:32).

The main problem in the Christian life, then, is that we have not thought out the deep implications of the gospel; we have not “used” the gospel in and on all parts of our life. Richard Lovelace says that most people’s problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel—a failure to grasp and believe it through and through. Luther says, “[The truth of the Gospel] is also the principal article of all Christian doctrine. . . . Most necessary is it therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually.” The gospel is not easily comprehended. Paul says that the gospel does its renewing work in us only as we understand it in all its truth. All of us to some degree live around the truth of the gospel but do not “get it.” So the key to continual and deeper spiritual renewal and revival is continual rediscovery of the gospel. The discovery of a new implication or application of the gospel—seeing more of its truth—is an important stage of any renewal. This is true for either an individual or a church.


The two “thieves” of the gospel

Since Paul uses the metaphor of being “in line” with the gospel, we can consider that gospel renewal occurs when we keep from walking “off line” either to the right or to the left. A key for thinking out the implications of the gospel is to consider the gospel a third way between two mistaken opposites. However, we must realize that the gospel is not a halfway compromise between these two poles—it produces not something in the middle but something different from both.

Tertullian, a Christian writer in the second and third centuries, said, “Just as Christ was crucified between two thieves, so this doctrine of justification is ever crucified between two opposite errors.” He meant that there were two basic false ways of thinking, each of which “steals” the power and the distinctiveness of the gospel from us by pulling us to one side or the other of the “gospel line.” These two errors are very powerful, because they represent the natural tendency of the human heart and mind. (The gospel is “revealed” by God [Rom. 1:17]—the unaided human mind cannot conceive it.) The “thieves” can be called moralism or legalism on the one hand and hedonism or relativism on the other hand. Another way to put it is: the gospel opposes both religion and irreligion (see Matt. 21:31; 22:10). On the one hand, moralism/religion stresses truth without grace, for it says that we must obey the truth in order to be saved. On the other hand, relativism/irreligion stresses grace without truth, for it says that we are all accepted by God (if there is a God) and we have to decide what is true for us. But “truth” without grace is not really truth, and “grace” without truth is not really grace. Jesus was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Any religion or philosophy of life that deemphasizes or loses one or the other of these truths falls into legalism or license, and either way, the joy and power and release of the gospel are stolen.

The moralism-religion thief. How does moralism/religion steal joy and power?

Moralism is the view that you are acceptable (to God, the world, others, yourself) through your attainments. Moralists do not have to be religious but often are. When they are, their religion is pretty conservative and filled with rules. Sometimes moralists have a view of God as very holy and just. This view will lead either to (a) self-hatred (because they can’t live up to the standards) or (b) self-inflation (because they think they have lived up to the standards). It is ironic that inferiority and superiority complexes have the very same root. Whether the moralist ends up smug and superior or crushed and guilty just depends on how high the standards are and on his or her natural advantages such as family, intelligence, looks, willpower. Moralistic people can be deeply religious—but there is no transforming joy or power.

The relativism-irreligion thief. How does relativism steal joy and power?

Relativists are usually irreligious, or else they prefer what is called “liberal” religion. On the surface, they are more happy and tolerant than moralistic/religious people. Although they may be highly idealistic in some areas (such as politics), they believe that everyone needs to determine what is right and wrong for themselves. They are not convinced that God is just and must punish sinners. Their beliefs in God will tend to picture him as loving or as an impersonal force. They may talk a great deal about God’s love, but since they do not think of themselves as sinners, God’s love for humankind costs him nothing. If God accepts us, it is because he is so welcoming or because we are not so bad. The gospel’s concept of God’s love is far richer and deeper and more electrifying.

What do both religious and irreligious people have in common?

They seem so different, but from the viewpoint of the gospel, they are really the same.

They are both ways to avoid Jesus as Savior and keep control of their lives.
Irreligious people seek to be their own saviors and lords through “worldly” pride. (“No one tells me how to live or what to do; I determine what is right and wrong for me!”) But moral and religious people seek to be their own saviors and lords through “religious” pride. (“I am more moral and spiritual than other people, so God owes it to me to listen to my prayers and take me to heaven. God cannot let just anything happen to me—he owes me a happy life. I’ve earned it!”) The irreligious person rejects Jesus entirely; the religious person uses Jesus as an example and helper and teacher—but not as a Savior. In her novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor’s main character Hazel thinks “that the way to avoid Jesus [is] to avoid sin.” These are two different ways to do the same thing—control one’s own life. (Note: Ironically, moralists, despite all the emphasis on traditional standards, are in the end self-centered and individualistic, because they have set themselves up as their own savior. Relativists, despite all their emphasis on freedom and acceptance, are in the end moralistic, because they still have to live up to [their own] standards or become desperate. And often they take great pride in their own open-mindedness and judge others who are not.)

They are both based on distorted views of the real God.
The irreligious person loses sight of the law and holiness of God, and the religious person loses sight of the love and grace of God; in the end they both lose the gospel entirely. For the gospel is that on the cross Jesus fulfilled the law of God out of love for us. Without a full understanding of the work of Christ, the reality of God’s holiness will make his grace unreal, or the reality of God’s love will make his holiness unreal. Only the gospel—that we are so sinful that we need to be saved utterly by grace— allows us to see God as he really is. The gospel shows us a God far more holy than the legalist can bear (he had to die because we could not satisfy his holy demands), and yet far more merciful than a humanist can conceive (he had to die because he loved us).

They both deny our sin—and therefore lose the joy and power of grace.
It is obvious that relativistic, irreligious people deny the depth of sin, and thus the message “God loves you” has no power for them. But although religious persons may be extremely penitent and sorry for their sins, they see sins as simply a failure to live up to standards by which they are saving themselves. They do not see sin as the deeper self-righteousness and self-centeredness through which they are trying to live lives independent of God. So when they go to Jesus for forgiveness, they go only as a way to cover over the gaps in their project of self-salvation. And when people say, “I know God is forgiving, but I cannot forgive myself,” they mean that they reject God’s grace and insist that they be worthy of his favor. So even religious people with “low self-esteem” are actually in their state because they will not see the depth of sin. They see it only as rule-breaking, not as rebellion and self-salvation.

A Whole New Way of Seeing God

Christians have adopted a whole new system of approach to God. They may have gone through both religious and irreligious phases in the past, but they have come to see that the reasons for both their irreligion and their religion were essentially the same, and essentially wrong! Christians come to see that both their sins and their best deeds have all been ways of avoiding Jesus as Savior. They come to see that Christianity is not fundamentally an invitation to become more religious. A Christian comes to say, “Though I have often failed to obey the moral law, the deeper problem was why I was trying to obey it. Even my efforts to obey it have been just ways of seeking to be my own savior. In that mindset, even if I obey or ask for forgiveness, I am really resisting the gospel and setting myself up as savior.” To “get” the gospel is to turn from self-justification and rely on Jesus’ record for a relationship with God. The irreligious don’t repent at all, and the religious repent only of sins; Christians also repent of their righteousness. That is the distinction between the three groups—Christians, moralists (religious), and pragmatists (irreligious).

Without a knowledge of our extreme sin, the payment of the cross seems trivial and does not electrify or transform us. But without a knowledge of Christ’s completely satisfying life and death, the knowledge of sin would crush us or move us to deny and repress it. Take away either the knowledge of sin or the knowledge of grace and people’s lives are not changed. They will either be crushed by the moral law or run from it in anger. So the gospel is not that we go from being irreligious to being religious but that we realize that our reasons for both our religiosity and our irreligiosity were essentially the same and essentially wrong. We were seeking to be our own savior and thereby keep control of our own life. When we trust in Christ as our Redeemer, we turn from trusting either self-determination or self-denial, either hedonism or moralism, for our salvation.

A Whole New Way of Seeing Life

Paul shows us, then, that we must not simply ask in every area of life, “What is the moral way to act?” but “What is the way that is in line with the gospel?” The gospel must be continually thought out to keep us from moving into our habitual moralistic or individualistic directions. We must bring everything in line with the gospel. 

Note: Relativists (as noted above) are ultimately moralistic, and therefore they can be respectful only of other people who believe everything is relative! But Christians cannot feel morally superior to relativists.

Part II: The Key to Everything

The gospel is the way that anything is renewed and transformed by Christ—whether a heart, a relationship, a church, or a community. It is the key to all doctrine and to our view of our lives in this world. Therefore, all our problems come from a lack of orientation to the gospel. Put positively, the gospel transforms our hearts and thinking and approaches to absolutely everything.

The Gospel and the Individual

Approach to discouragement. When a person is depressed, the moralist says, “You are breaking the rules—repent.” On the other hand, the relativist says, “You just need to love and accept yourself.” Without the gospel, superficialities will be addressed instead of the heart. The moralist will work on behavior and the relativist will work on the emotions themselves. But (assuming there is no physiological basis for the depression) the gospel leads us to examine ourselves and say, “Something in my life has become more important than God, a pseudo-savior, a form of works- righteousness.” The gospel leads us to repentance, not to merely setting our will against superficial issues.

Approach to the physical world. Some moralists are indifferent to the physical world and see it as “unimportant.” Other moralists are downright afraid of physical pleasure, and since they are seeking to earn their salvation, they prefer to focus on sins of a physical nature like a failure to discipline sex and the other appetites. These are easier to avoid than sins of the spirit like pride. Therefore, moralists prefer to see sins of the body as worse than other kinds. The legalism that results usually leads to a distaste of pleasure. On the other hand, the relativist is often a hedonist, someone who is controlled by pleasure and makes it an idol. The gospel leads us to see that God has created both body and soul and so will redeem both body and soul, although under sin both body and soul are broken. Thus the gospel leads us to enjoy the physical (and to fight against physical brokenness, such as sickness and poverty) yet to be moderate in our use of material things.

Approach to love and relationships. Moralism often makes relationships into a “blame game.” This is because a moralist is traumatized by criticism that is too severe and maintains a self-image as a good person by blaming others. On the other hand, moralism can use the procuring of love as the way to “earn our salvation” and convince ourselves we are worthy persons. That often creates what is called “codependency”—a form of self-salvation through needing people or needing people to need you (that is, saving yourself by saving others). On the other hand, much relativism reduces love to a negotiated partnership for mutual benefit. You relate only as long as it is not costing you anything. So the choice without the gospel is to selfishly use others or to selfishly let yourself be used by others. But the gospel leads us to do neither. We do sacrifice and commit ourselves, but not out of a need to convince ourselves or others that we are acceptable. We can love the person enough to confront when that’s needed, yet stay with the person even when it does not benefit us.

Approach to suffering. Moralism takes the “Job’s friends” approach, laying guilt on yourself. You simply assume, “I must be bad to be suffering.” Under the guilt, though, there is always anger toward God. Why? Because moralists believe that God owes them. The whole point of moralism is to put God in your debt. Because you have been so moral, you feel you don’t really deserve suffering. Moralism tears you up, for at one level you think, “What did I do to deserve this?” but on another level you think, “I probably did everything to deserve this!” When the moralist suffers, then, he or she must either feel mad at God (because I have been performing well) or mad at self (because I have not been performing well) or both. On the other hand, the relativist/pragmatist feels justified in avoiding suffering at all costs—lying, cheating, and broken promises are okay. But when suffering does come, the pragmatist lays the fault at God’s doorstep, claiming that he must be either unjust or impotent. The cross shows us, however, that God redeemed us through suffering. God suffered not that we might not suffer but that in our suffering we could become like him. Since both the moralist and the pragmatist ignore the cross, they will both be confused and devastated by suffering.

Approach to sexuality. The relativist sees sex as merely biological and physical appetite. The moralist tends to see sex as dirty or at least a dangerous impulse that leads constantly to sin. But the gospel shows us that sexuality is to reflect the self-giving of Christ. He gave himself completely without conditions, so we are not to seek intimacy while holding on to control of our life. If we give ourselves sexually, we are to give ourselves legally, socially, personally—utterly. Sex is to happen only within a totally committed, permanent relationship of marriage.

Approach to one’s family. Moralism can make you a slave to parental expectations, while relativism sees no need for family loyalty or the keeping of promises and covenants if they do not “meet my needs.” The gospel frees you from making parental approval an absolute or psychological salvation, for it points to how God becomes the ultimate Father. Then you will neither be too dependent on nor too hostile toward your parents.

Approach to self-control. Moralists tell us to control our passions for fear of punishment. This is a volition-based approach. Relativism tells us to express ourselves and find out what is right for us. This is an emotion-based approach. The gospel tells us that the free, unconditional grace of God “teaches” us to “say no” to our passions (Titus 2:12) if we listen to it. This is a whole-person approach, starting with the truth descending into the heart.

Approach to witness. The pragmatist would deny the legitimacy of evangelism altogether. The moralist person does believe in proselytizing, because “we are right and they are wrong.” Such proselytizing is almost always offensive. But the gospel produces a different constellation of traits in us: First, we are compelled to share the gospel out of generosity and love, not guilt. Second, we are freed from fear of being ridiculed or hurt by others, since we already have God’s favor by grace. Third, we learn humility in our dealings with others, because we know we are saved by grace alone, not because of our superior insight or character. Fourth, we are hopeful about everyone, even the “hard cases,” because we ourselves were saved only because of grace, not because we were likely people to be Christians. Fifth, we are courteous and careful with people. We don’t have to push or coerce them, for it is only God’s grace that opens hearts, not our eloquence or persistence or even their openness. All these traits create not only a winsome evangelist but an excellent neighbor in a multicultural society.

Approach to human authority. Moralists will tend to obey human authorities (family, tribe, government, cultural customs) too much, since they rely so heavily on their self-image of being moral and decent. Relativists will obey human authority either too much (since they have no higher authority by which they can judge their culture) or else too little (they may obey only when they know they won’t get caught). That means either authoritarianism or anarchy. But the gospel gives you both a standard by which to oppose human authority—if it contradicts the gospel—and an incentive to obey the civil authorities from the heart, even when you could get away with disobedience.

Approach to human dignity. Moralists often have a pretty low view of human nature—they mainly see human sin and depravity. Relativists, on the other hand, have no good basis for treating people with dignity. Usually they have no religious beliefs about what human beings are. (If people are just chance products of evolution, how do we know they are more valuable than a rock?) But the gospel shows us that every human being is infinitely fallen (lost in sin) and infinitely exalted (in the image of God). So we treat every human being as precious, yet dangerous!

Approach to cultural differences. Moralists tend to be very proud of their culture. They easily fall into cultural imperialism and attach spiritual significance to their cultural norms. This happens because moralistic people are very insecure; they take the eternal law very seriously but know deep down they cannot keep it. Therefore, they use cultural differences to buttress their sense of righteousness.  Relativists, on the other hand, believe every culture should be accepted on its own terms and that every cultural expression is equally good. The gospel teaches us to discern the good and the bad in every culture and enables us to love and honor one another across cultural differences. Every person is made in the image of God, so every culture will reflect that image of God in unique ways. At the same time, every culture, including our own, is subject to the fall and exhibits cultural idols, so we can feel morally or culturally superior to no one.

Approach to guilt. When you say, “I can’t forgive myself,” it means there is some standard or condition or person that is more central to your identity than the grace of God. If you cannot forgive yourself, it is because you have failed your real god, your real righteousness, and it is holding you captive. The moralist’s false god is usually a god of their imagination that is holy and demanding but not gracious. The relativist’s false god is usually some achievement or relationship. God is the only God who forgives—no other “god” will.

Approach to self-image. Without the gospel, your self-image is based upon living up to some standards—whether yours or someone else’s imposed upon you. If you live up to those standards, you will be confident but not humble. If you don’t live up to them, you will be humble but not confident. Only in the gospel can you be both enormously bold and utterly sensitive and humble. For you are both perfect and a sinner!

Approach to joy and humor. Moralism eats away at joy and humor—because the system of legalism forces you to take yourself (your image, your appearance, your reputation) very seriously. Relativism, on the other hand, will tend toward cynicism as life goes on. This cynicism grows from a lack of hope for the world: in the end evil will triumph—there is no judgment or divine justice. But if we are saved by grace alone, then the very fact of being Christian is a constant source of amazed delight for us. There is nothing matter-of-fact about our lives, no “of course” to our lives. It is a miracle that we are Christians, and we have hope. So the gospel that creates bold humility should give us a deep sense of humor. We don’t have to take ourselves seriously, and we are full of hope for the world.

Approach to “right living.” Jonathan Edwards points out that “true virtue” is possible only for those who have experienced the grace of the gospel. Any person who is trying to earn their salvation does “the right thing” in order to get into heaven, or in order to better their self-esteem, or for another essentially self-interested reason. But persons who know they are totally accepted already do the right thing out of sheer delight in righteousness for its own sake. Only in the gospel do you obey God for God’s sake and not for what God will give you. Only in the gospel do you love people for their sake (not yours), do good for its own sake (not yours), and obey God for his sake (not yours). Only the gospel makes doing the right thing a joy and delight, not a burden or a means to an end.

The Gospel and the Church

Approach to ministry in the world. Moralism tends to place all the emphasis on the individual human soul. Moralistic religionists will insist on converting others to their faith and church but will ignore the social needs of the broader community. On the other hand, “liberalism” will tend to emphasize only amelioration of social conditions and minimize the need for repentance and conversion. The gospel leads to love, which in turn moves us to give our neighbor whatever is needed—conversion or a cup of cold water, evangelism and social concern.

Approach to worship. Moralism leads to a dour and somber kind of worship that may be long on dignity but is short on joy. A shallow understanding of “acceptance” without a sense of God’s holiness, on the other hand, can lead to frothy or casual worship. (Meanwhile, a sense of neither God’s love nor his holiness leads to a worship service that feels like a committee meeting!) But the gospel leads us to see that God is both transcendent and immanent. His immanence makes his transcendence comforting, while his transcendence makes his immanence amazing. The gospel leads to both awe and intimacy in worship, for the Holy One is now our Father.

Approach to the poor. The pragmatist tends to scorn the faith of the poor and see them as helpless victims needing expertise. This is born out of a disbelief in God’s common grace to all. Ironically, the secular mindset also dismisses the reality of sin, and thus anyone who is poor must be oppressed, a helpless victim. Moralists, on the other hand, tend to scorn the poor as failures and weaklings. They see them as somehow to blame for their situation. But the gospel leads us to be (a) humble, without moral superiority, knowing that we were spiritually bankrupt but have been saved by Christ’s free generosity; (b) gracious, not worried too much about “deservingness,” since we didn’t deserve Christ’s grace; and (c) respectful of believing poor Christians as brothers and sisters from whom we can learn. It is only the gospel that can bring people into a humble respect for and solidarity with the poor.

Approach to doctrinal distinctives. The “already” of the New Testament makes us bold in our proclamation. We can most definitely be sure of the central doctrines that support the gospel. But the “not yet” requires charity and humility in nonessential beliefs. That is, we must be moderate about what we teach except when it comes to the cross, grace, and sin. In our views, especially our opinions on issues that Christians cannot agree on, we must be less unbending and triumpha- listic (believing we have arrived intellectually). It also means that our discernment of God’s call and will for us and others must not be propagated with overweening assurance that our insight cannot be wrong. (Unlike pragmatists, we must be willing to die for our belief in the gospel; unlike moral- ists, we must keep in mind that not every one of our beliefs is worth fighting to the death for.)

Approach to holiness. The gospel’s “already” means we should not tolerate sin. With the presence of the kingdom, we are made “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). The gospel brings us the confidence that anyone can be changed, any enslaving habit can be overcome. But the gospel’s “not yet” means that our sin remains in us and will never be eliminated until the fullness of the kingdom comes. So we must avoid pat answers, and we must not expect quick fixes. Unlike moralists, we must be patient with slow growth or lapses and be aware of the complexity of change and growth in grace. Unlike pragmatists and cynics, we must insist that miraculous change is possible.

Approach to miracles. The “already” of the kingdom means that power for miracles and healing is available. Jesus demonstrated the kingdom by healing the sick and raising the dead. But the gospel’s “not yet” means that nature (including us) is still subject to decay (Romans 8:22–23) and thus sickness and death remain inevitable until the final consummation. We cannot expect miracles and freedom from suffering to be such normal parts of the Christian life that we will glide through our days with no pain. Unlike moralists, we know that God can heal and do miracles; unlike pragmatists, we do not aim to press God into eliminating suffering.

Approach to church health. The “already” of the kingdom means that the church is now the community of kingdom power. It is therefore capable of mightily transforming its community. Evangelism that adds “to their number daily those who [are] being saved” (Acts 2:47) is possible! Loving fellowship that destroys “the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) between different races and classes is possible! But the “not yet” of the kingdom means Jesus has not yet presented his bride, the church, “as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish” (Ephesians 5:27). We must not then be harshly critical of imperfect congregations nor jump impatiently from church to church over perceived blemishes. Error will never be completely eradicated from the church. The kingdom’s “not yet” also means to avoid an overly severe imposition of church discipline and other means to seek to bring about a perfect church today.

Approach to social change. We must not forget that Christ is even now ruling in a sense over history (Ephesians 1:22–23). The “already” of grace means that Christians can expect to use God’s power to change social conditions and communities. But the “not yet” of sin means there will be “wars and rumors of wars.” Selfishness, cruelty, terrorism, and oppression will continue. Christians harbor no illusions about politics nor expect utopian conditions. The “not yet” means that Christians will not trust any political or social agenda to bring about righteousness here on earth. So the gospel keeps us from the overpessimism of fundamentalism (moralism) about social change and also from the overoptimism of liberalism (pragmatism).

All problems, personal or social, come from a failure to apply the gospel in a radical way, a failure to get “in line with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). All pathologies in the church and all its ineffectiveness come from a failure to let the gospel be expressed in a radical way. If the gospel is expounded and applied in its fullness in any church, that church will begin to look very unique. People will find in it both moral conviction yet compassion and flexibility.


Copyright © 2000 by Timothy Keller, © 2009 by Redeemer City to City.    
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