Is the Gospel the Center of the Church or is Jesus? Dialoguing with Tim Keller’s Center Church

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Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher with the subtle promise that I would review it. I assure the reader this however has had no influence on my interactions with this book!

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Tim Keller is a pastor/theologian/writer/thinker who I much admire. His influence -significant in scope and generous in presence – makes him an essential dialogue partner for me in the future of the church in N. America. His humility as a churchperson is worthy of utmost respect. And so I see his book Center Church as a watershed for us evangelicals as we navigate the future of the church in North America. It offers a comprehensive ecclesiology to anyone formed out of evangelical convictions. It provides a rationale for doing and being church that has been lacking within evangelicalism. It offers a vision of the church which is going to clarify the what’s, why’s, and how’s of church life for many evangelicals. So for all these reasons it’s a book to buy and put on every church pastor/leader’s shelf.

Having said all this, I have my differences. And so I want to dialogue with Tim Keller’s book the next several months and offer an alternative vision for being and doing church in N. America (this vision is in many ways displayed in my upcoming Prodigal Christianity written with Geoff Holsclaw). In many ways, at least doctrinally, I find myself affirming what Tim Keller affirms about Jesus Christ, salvation, culture and Mission. But, again, there’s a difference. We come from distinctly different traditions, approaches to culture, and Mission. We’re both evangelicals but Tim is from the more “Reformed” side of the room. I am from the “Holiness” side. Tim’s more a Kuyperian when it comes to culture. I’m Yoderian/Hauerwasian (I just way over over characterized the both of us). He’s associated with The Gospel Coalition and that group of scholars and pastors. I find myself more and more enmeshed in the newer group called Missio Alliance (although there are plenty of Reformed friends here as well). He’s a large city Presbyterian church pastor, I’m a pastor of small C&MA missional community, recently demoted (just kidding ;) )to overseeing all our church plants and preaching less than once a month. We’re different and that’s a good thing. And so I think reviewing Tim Keller’s Center Church (probably 6 posts or so) will help clarify for me and others what an evangelical Anabaptist Holiness vision for the church might look like.  It might clarify for some of us the questions we face as we think about what God is doing in the world through His people, the church of Jesus Christ. So here goes, post one on Tim Keller’s Center Church.

One of the guiding principles of Tim Keller’s Center Church, is that the gospel is the center of the church. For Keller, the Center Church is “gospel” centered, “city” centered, and “movement” centered. Each one of these “centered” commitments requires balance, being centered in the commitment. Yet it is the gospel centered commitment which takes pre-eminence. The commitment to the city and the wider movement of God is really the outworking of the gospel at the center of the life of the church. On the back cover of the book is a great summation of Keller’s making the gospel the center: “the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ changes everything from our hearts to our community to the world. It completely changes the content, tone and strategy of all that we do.” “Because the gospel is endlessly rich,” Keller writes, “it can handle the burden of being the one “main thing” of a church.” (p.36). For Tim Keller then, this gospel is so rich it reaches into every context and life experience. For Keller, the church’s center begins with the gospel.

Keller’s gospel is well defined. Unsurprisingly, this gospel is that we have been saved out of no merit of our own through the substitionary death of Christ by which through faith we are pardoned from the wrath of God and declared righteous – made right with God. Keller is clear about this. From this understanding of the grace of God as revealed and given to us through Christ’s atoning death, everything is changed. Keller then proceeds to expound marvelously the various experiences of this grace moment in all areas of life. And from this gospel flows a grace culture that carries the gospel into the rest of the world. It changes and revolutionizes every experience of life and culture. How this happens is what Keller calls contextualizing the gospel. It is not “one size fits all” understanding of the gospel (p. 37). To all this I say, this is the best exposition and outworking of the Reformed penal view of the atonement I’ve read in a long time –maybe ever.  It is compelling and I love it. This is Tim Keller at its best.

Yet two questions emerge for me from Keller’s reading of the gospel and church. 1.) Is this really contextualizing the gospel? Or is it interpreting/translating all of life experience through a singular understanding of the gospel learned in the German Reformation? And 2.) Should the gospel be the center of the church or should it be Jesus, the Living Christ?

Regarding question no. 1.) I suggest that Tim Keller is really translating the singular Reformed understanding of salvation into various experiences we have in the West. This is good and helpful, especially for those of us who are culturally (or sinfully) conditioned to think we have to “earn” merit in the world and with God, and who sense our own guilt, inadequacies and failures to approach God on our own. This too is a human condition and the Reformed version of salvation is marvelous in response to this. But it is not all of salvation. Indeed, “the gospel that I have proclaimed to you,” as Paul said in 1 Cor 15:1, is that God has fulfilled his promises to Israel in Christ to rule the world and make the world right. In Christ, God has become King, and He has reconciled the whole world to Himself  in Christ (2 Cor 5:19) so that now “if you confess with your lips Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9). The gospel begins and is “Jesus the Messiah has been made Lord” and in and thru Him all things are being made right. Certainly the gospel of justification by faith falls under the Lordship of Christ, but we enter in through submitting to His reign and rule over our lives from which all things are made right in our relationship with God and in the whole world. To the extent we limit the gospel to justification by faith, we limit all the rest of what God is doing individually and in the world and into which we are called to participate.

My question then for the reader is, is Tim Keller really showing us how to contextualize the gospel? or is he narrowing it?  What say you? Fair question eh?

Regarding question no. 2.) I believe Jesus the Incarnate Lord, is the center of the church. He is the one around whose presence and redeeming work we gather. The church that centers itself around the gospel (as pastor Keller articulates it) becomes focused around the preaching and application of this gospel from a pulpit. The church becomes individualized in the appropriating of this gospel individually. We lose the sense that the church is called into being as a people before His reign and that we are the extension of His presence in the world in everyday life. This aspect of the gospel I argue tends to become secondary instead of an integral outworking of what it means to be in Christ’s Kingdom, submitting to His Lordship in our lives and in the world.

I argue for a different vision of the church (with Holsclaw in Prodigal Christianity). I suggest the church gathers around the presence of the living Christ. This happens at the Eucharist, the proclaiming of the gospel (notice I hold onto the this tightly), reconciliation, being with the least of these, being with the children, the gifts of the Spirit, praying together submitting to His Kingdom. In each of these practices, His presence is birthed in us socially in a special way (I am “with” you). His rule/authority is made manifest over the powers of sin, death and evil, and so as we leave and go out into the world, we extend this very presence by doing the same things (table fellowship, proclaiming gospel, reconciling, being with the least of these/children, giftings and prayer) in our neighborhoods where He is already at work as living King over heaven and earth (Matt 28:20). As such, I argue, we do not gather around the proclaiming of the gospel, we gather around the Incarnate living presence and rule of Christ extended into our midst. (I realize I have short-formed this and opened myself up to accusations which I answer in prodigal Christianity and two forthcoming articles).

My question for the reader is then, Does the church gather around the gospel (Center Church) or around the presence of the Living Lord? Or have I just got this wrong? Help me out here!
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Posted in Incarnational, Missional, Missional Ecclesiology, Neo-Reformed, Tim Keller
23 comments on “Is the Gospel the Center of the Church or is Jesus? Dialoguing with Tim Keller’s Center Church
  1. len says:

    You mean I get to be first in the pulpit today? ;) On question No 2 dave, I suspect that this is another reason why Reformed theology is not as well suited to a post-Christendom context. Reformed theology tends to ask the church question, not the God question — too easily mired in ecclesiology, not as ready to work at theology. I wonder if this grows in part from their (strong and healthy) emphasis on the cultural mandate. The questions devolve more readily to practice — and sometimes, to pragmatics.

    • Brad says:

      Are you serious? I see the exact opposite in Reformed Theology. They ask the God question and they are utterly captivated by that question and if anything stray away from pragmatics and toward doctrine and theology. Am I mis-understanding you?

  2. Bob says:

    Keller’s gospel is well defined. Unsurprisingly, this gospel is that we have been saved out of no merit of our own through the substitionary death of Christ by which through faith we are pardoned from the wrath of God and declared righteous – made right with God.

    I think this is limiting the Gospel. When you read through Acts, “preaching the Gospel” is usually summarized by the short-hand “Christ risen from the dead”. Certainly, the Atonement happened but Jesus’ own words about his mission in the world are less about cancelling sin and more about imparting new life.

    As you said, making the Gospel about sin turns it inward–my sin being forgiven. Making the Gospel about resurrection and new life turns it outward towards something larger than me–what is this new life and how can I enter into it?

    • Brad says:

      Or, how can my new life be better. Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration are all vital parts of the gospel.

      The new Reformer’s have wisely focused on the cross and emphasized it in a culture that is okay with sin. It is only by repeatedly coming to the cross that we can hope to see our sin as God does. New life is only possible when we recognize sin for what it is and then repent of it.

      You cannot over-emphasize the cross especially in today’s church where tend to love the resurrection and overlook the cross as something that is just an inconvenience on the way to resurrection Sunday.

  3. Dan Jr. says:

    Good start David,

    I too respect Keller. I always appreciate his tone and graciousness. Still I have two contentions with Keller’s book:

    One is that proclaiming the Gospel somehow has become solely interchangeable with preaching. This causes a significant neglect on community (body life) and our faithful witness in the way we live with each other. I’ve come across (up close and personal) too many Kellerite/Driscolite churches that know how to preach “Gospel-everything” but don’t show very much interest in living out the Sermon on the Mount. I suspect this is connected to their narrowness of the gospel.

    Second, His framing of the Gospel seems to scooch the Incarnation to the periphery. The wonder and scandal that God would take on human flesh and show us how to live is pushed to the background as well. I believe this directly effects their posture and approach to missionality.

    • David Fitch says:

      Dan,
      Both your points are excellent and helpful. The second point is where I’d like to dig deep .. and drill down to the core of what the incarnation means for the formation of the church in the world. The more I read history, patristics, the Scripture (of course) I am convinced we are His people, extending His presence (i..e His reign) by the Spirit, in practicing a way of life driven by Eucharist, proclaiming gospel, reconciliation, being “with” the least of these, Kingdom prayer and the gifts of the Spirit in the authority of the community to build up His body in the world.

  4. Jacob says:

    I think you are right to see the distinction between Gospel and Jesus centered. Reformation theology is derived out of a specific context and while still true and applicable, it isn’t holistically Good News in the sense that it isn’t contextual. Rather, the Incarnate God with us, breathing Kingdom life into us and through us making all things right. Now that is worth a community organizing around.

  5. Andrew Arndt says:

    Great post. I’ll be following.

    For my part, I think we err in making a distinction. I would say that we gather around the presence of the Risen Christ, but to speak of him at all (whether in word or sacrament) is to proclaim the very good news of his Lordship, established and now extended into the world through us, his Body. We need a less antagonistic and more synthetic view.

    Two cents.

  6. Jeff Y says:

    Dan,

    Really appreciate your irenic tone (I struggle with this in offering diverging views). And, I also appreciate your points. I am a big Keller fan but I’m not Reformed. But, I wonder if your take on Keller’s gospel and contextualization is too narrow. Yes, grace salvation is at the heart. But, I don’t think Keller would disagree that Jesus as King is not fundamental to the gospel; nor that incarnational living in serving others as Jesus did is not also part of that – even from his book. Having read Ministries of Mercy – I think that he connects all these. While preaching is prominent I don’t think it’s all he focuses on (perhaps my impression is from his other writings as well). To me, when Keller says “gospel” he would focus on atonement theology, but I also think he would include those other aspects of Christ and that the gospel is the story of Christ. I also agree with NTW’s take on How Jesus Became King and how Jesus’ life described in the gospels is also the gospel. I suspect part of this may be more semantics but perhaps not entirely. Just my thoughts (I haven’t had time to go back through my past reading of Center Church).

    I may be incorrect about this and do appreciate your observations. But, I’m not so sure these differences are much more than subtle nuances – though I do largely with the items you list as of central to Christ and a Christ-centered life.

    • David Fitch says:

      Jeff Y.,
      I agree that pastor Keller would affirm “Jesus is King” and incarnation as mode of engagement, just like I would affirm the substitionary atonement and the necessity of preaching. There are differences however in the way we place them in our eccelsiology and how we articulate the outworking of these matters in ecclesiology. To me these differences are critical as we seek to engage a culture that has gone post-Christendom.

  7. Juliet says:

    “I believe Jesus the Incarnate Lord, is the center of the church. He is the one around whose presence and redeeming work we gather. The church that centers itself around the gospel (as pastor Keller articulates it) becomes focused around the preaching and application of this gospel from a pulpit…” I found this very insightful. I wonder if organizing ourselves around the gospel versus the person of Jesus Christ may give the world the impression that we are gathered around a doctrine, whereas centering ourselves around Jesus Christ bears witness to the living Messiah who is Lord over all and actively engaged with His people in this world.

  8. Ben Boles says:

    In Shaw and Van Engen’s book “Communicating God’s Word in a Complex World” they remind us that we need to focus on the Source who wrote the word not worship the text on the page. I agree we need to make sure our focus is on Jesus as the center as we live out and proclaim the gospel.

  9. Stephen Gonzalez says:

    Hey David,

    I think I am starting to understand the distinctions of emphasis of how you’d say gospel or how’d say Tim Keller would.

    I listen to all voices, reformed, even now more anabaptist (just found out what that was like 4 weeks ago). I’ve grown in my understanding of the gospel by learning from people who chose to emphasis other parts over the other. And usually seeing in scripture how they are both intrically connected.

    I have a question, you defined the gospel as, ” God has fulfilled his promises to Israel in Christ to rule the world and make the world right in Christ”

    Do you have issues with someone taking that farther and saying God’s plan to renew the world doesn’t start at Israel but after the fall of Adam through the seed of Eve. Not to discredit Israel of course. But sometimes I struggle with people saying their emphasis is right when others say their emphasis is right. Because you can clearly show both from the story. I think the cry for atonment for sin and the cry for us to be reconciled to God as King to live under his gracious rule starts both at the fall of Adam. And you can’t have one w/o the other.

    Even as I read the book of Acts I can’t help but see Jesus death and resurrection as central and in his death is clearly implied it was for atonement of sin if not plainly said it’s so we can forgiven/justified for sinning again God.

    Think you can speak on that for me please?

    Thank you

  10. Erol says:

    Hi David,

    I think your readers need to understand that Dr. Keller and Presbyterians like me have a different doctrine of the church, from other Calvinistic brothers in the broader so-called “reformed” movement. Because Keller is sacramental, he understands the preaching of the Gospel as the “means” by which the Holy Spirit creates faith, and through the sacraments of Baptism, new converts and children of believers are added to the visible church. This is contra-Baptist/Anabaptist and will always sound strange to broader evangelicals. This is why preaching, the Supper and Baptism in the visible church are so important to us. If you read the Westminster Confession 25.2 you will get a feel for how important Keller takes this “narrow” view of the church…

    WCF: 2. The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

    You can read more of the WCF at my blog.
    http://confessionalism.wordpress.com

    Thanks for the post!

  11. Jon Coutts says:

    Thought I haven’t read Keller that seems like a very helpful analysis and response. Your focus on the presence of the living Lord, and overarching emphasis on reconciliation (within which “gospel” as salvation/justification makes sense) seems absolutely right.

    One thing I’d like to probe further, however, is the implication in some of the (rather common) language that the church is an extension of the incarnation. The incarnate Christ is also the ascended Christ, and so is present now in a new way, connected to but distinct from the incarnation. Thus we see the reconciling presence of the living Christ through the lens of Pentecost (which is incredible to read with culture(s) in mind).

    I guess by flagging this I’m identifying a nervousness about possible triumphalism or over-realized eschatology (and the cross-cultural dangers that come with them), while taking on board the gains of your poignant incarnational/missional pushback to the emphases of Keller and TGC.

  12. davidfitch says:

    Jon Coutts,
    Thanks for the interaction. Your cautious words are part of the protestant consensus. We protestants are intensely worried about triumphalism that could result from associating the church too closely with either Christ, the incarnation or the Kingdom. I’m doing all three! But the reason why the protestant worry (that comes from the Roman Christendom posture that took that association to its extreme and into a posture of hierarchical control) is overcome for the Anabaptist is that we believe that the meaning of the incarnation is humility (Phil 2), non coercion. The church is formed through submission to Jesus as Lord. Once we “usurp” Christ, seek to make His power our own, exalt ourselves to a position of worldly power (as opposed to the throne of the lamb),the Kingdom is lost, the extension of the incarnation – the presence of Christ – is lost. These dynamics are incredibly important throughout the NT in the extension of the KIngdom … all the way to the book of Revelation!!
    Thanks for coming on the blog. Hope this helps.

  13. David
    The church should be centered on the good news. If the gospel is that Jesus came to earth to clean up the mess, by dying and rising again, and has risen to glory as Lord of all, from where he has sent his Spirit to establish the Kingdom among his people, then centering on the gospel is centering on Jesus. The problem arises if the gospel become forgiveness ofs in and a ticket to heaven for me. If the gospel is centered on Jesus, the church can be centered on the gospel and Jesus.

  14. Al Ngu says:

    I absolutely agreed that we should focus and follow Christ as the center of our church planting & building. I am a huge Keller fan, but I totally agree that Center church seems to gravitate to “Gospel” which is fantastic, but Christ should be the center of attention & not gospel. Gospel is the means to the end. The end is Christ.

  15. Ben P. says:

    Thanks for the post, you bring up good points! But I’m not sure I agree that Keller’s vision is “individualistic.” As he articulates in his book, I think he would agree that the gospel certainly entails the renewal of all creation under Jesus as Lord. And its not just lip service either, Redeemer has a huge commitment to serving the city, being among the least of these, impacting culture through work, etc. But as I’ve heard keller say, the “individual” aspect of justification by faith is the “tip of the spear,” where the gospel makes its impact at personal renewal. certainly the spear is useless if it is just a disembodied spearhead. would it be fair to say that “Jesus is Lord” is the spear and the justification by faith is the spearhead?

  16. Brad says:

    The “good news” is Jesus and Jesus is “the good news”.

  17. Miguel says:

    I think centering on the Gospel vs. centering on Jesus is a false dichotomy. You cannot have one without the other, and you absolutely cannot separate the two. If Jesus is not the center of your Gospel, then your gospel is not the one He proclaimed. If your church is centered on Christ, the Gospel is ever-present. If your church is centered on the Gospel, it must be therefore pointing to Christ in all things. Personal salvation/justification by faith may not be the entirety of the Gospel, but it is most certainly the heartbeat of it, because a Christ apart from his person and work is not the Christ of scripture.

  18. Jon Coutss says:

    The humble self-giving character of the incarnation(al church) is no doubt going to contradict much of the worry about triumphalism. But I am trying to suggest that there is a theological category overlooked too easily in the language of church-as-extension-of-the-incarnation, and this has substantive effects beyond mere pride or seizure of power. The ascension is this further resistance by Christ of the temptation to set up the Kingdom on the backbone of earthly powers (including tribalism), and along with Pentecost is his replacement of what we’d all have wished for–Jesus reigning in Jeruasalem–for what to him obviously seems provisionally better: the scattering of Christian communities across cultures. I am not negating your post at all, just pushing for substantial benefits of widening the theological emphases.

  19. Brent says:

    Amen, Miguel!

    The gospel is Christ crucified (for your sins) and risen (as Lord). By only emphasizing either point, you commit an egregious error. I haven’t read Keller’s book to know if he only emphasizes the former, but I am very skeptical that he does, having read other books of his and listened to many of his sermons. Christ risen, as Lord, is very important to his theology that I have heard in the past.

    I agree with Brad as well. The culture wants very badly to hear that Christ is risen, but to truly understand the cross is very difficult for it. It is because of this that I believe that if either point is emphasized more than the other, it ought to be the former. Still, the former implies the latter…if Christ removes your sins, then he is your Lord.

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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