Monday, November 3, 2008

Timothy Keller on The God of Extravagant Grace

The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, Timothy Keller (Dutton, 2008)

Reviewed by Derek Melleby

About five years ago a college student gave me a recorded sermon by Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. It seemed that every time I met with this student he was talking about what he was learning from Pastor Keller. In fact, he connected almost everything I said to an illustration in Keller’s messages. Finally, I asked to borrow one of the tapes. I still have it. It’s now become a bit of a joke. Although my friend still asks for it when we talk, I refuse to give it back. (Thankfully, the sermon the student let me “borrow” is now available for free at Redeemer’s website!) I am always both challenged and encouraged by Keller’s sermons. After all, isn’t that what a good sermon should do?

In the past year, Keller has published two books that have expanded his influence in the church and around the world. He is a master at connecting Biblical truth to life. One would think that in an age of mega-churches and information galore, there would be more resources available that do this well. But, sadly, it’s not often the case. Some books explain the Bible brilliantly, but fail to make connections to the here and now. Other resources are big on life experiences but don’t offer biblical depth. Not so with Keller. Keller’s strength is that he doesn’t allow Christian doctrine or biblical teaching to remain abstract. If what the Bible teaches isn’t livable, it’s nothing at all and Keller refuses to keep the Gospel in the realm of “ideas.” The Gospel isn’t an idea or advice, it is the Truth of the person, Jesus. But it takes someone like Keller to make these connections in a way that makes sense and leads to change.

Keller’s first book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, was a New York Times bestseller. The book was structured around the common objections to the Christian faith that he hears most often as a minister in New York City. He discovered early on in his ministry that most people weren’t necessarily rejecting the God of the Bible, but were either (1) ignorant to the basic message of the Gospel, or (2) rejecting a simplistic, narrow understanding of it. The Reason for God was Keller’s attempt to show that you can think and be a Christian at the same time. Not everyone will agree with all the arguments that Keller makes in this book, but everyone should agree with this: Keller has graciously and humbly offered good reasons for why people believe in God, the Bible, and Jesus.

Keller’s second book, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith is much shorter but carries just as much weight as his first. Had I borrowed this book from my college student friend, I would never, ever have given it back! This is a book I will read and re-read and give as a gift to many friends.

The Prodigal God is a short reflection on one of Jesus’s most known parables: The Prodigal Son found in Luke 15. This is the story of the “younger son” (brother) who asks for and then wastes his father’s inheritance on “wayward living.” The younger brother is “lost” but returns to the surprising open arms of his father. A party is thrown, the father’s son was lost, but now is found! Keller is quick to point out that the parable should be called The Two Lost Sons, noting that there is another son in the story. The elder brother refuses to join his younger brother’s party because he had lived a life of “keeping all the rules” but the father had never had a feast in his honor. Here’s the punch line: both brothers are lost! You can be lost and disconnected from God like the younger brother: by rejecting the Father, wasting your life, living by your own rules, being your own God. Or you can be disconnected from God like the elder brother: by trying to keep all the rules, living a life that looks pleasing to God on the outside, but on the inside is motivated by the desire for control and self-salvation. The younger brother and the elder brother were both motivated by trying to control their father and be their own gods. Keller explains:

“Jesus’s great Parable of the Prodigal Son retells the story of the entire Bible and the story of the human race. Within the story, Jesus teaches that the two most common ways to live are both spiritual dead ends. He shows how the plotlines of our lives can only find a resolution, a happy ending, in him, in his person and work.”

Here is the central question that Keller’s book (and Jesus’s parable) forces the reader to ask: What are my motivations for being good? Keller explains that this parable radically redefines sin and lostness. Sin is not just doing something wrong, but it could also be doing something right for the wrong reasons. Those who are “lost” are not just people who are obviously immoral, addicted to drugs or sex or money. The lost are those who reject the father and desire control of their own lives. They are people who want the blessings of God but not God. Keller concludes:

“Jesus does not divide the world into the moral ‘good guys’ and the immoral ‘bad guys.’ He shows us that everyone is dedicated to a project of self-salvation, to using God and others in order to get power and control for themselves. We are just going about it in different ways. Even though both sons are wrong, however, the father cares for them and invites them both back into his love and feast... The gospel is distinct from the other two approaches: In its view, everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognize this and change.”

Like anything that is true, Jesus’s message in this parable is simple and profound and will only be grasped when given time to germinate in our hearts and minds. Keller’s insight into the deeper meaning of The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a seed worth planting, one that has the potential to grow a people God longs for: a people of humility and extravagant grace. If the Gospel we preach and teach does not naturally lead to living lives marked by humility and grace, Keller’s masterpiece invites us to “recover the heart of the Christian faith.”

Related Links:
Learn more about The Prodigal God at the book's website.

Listen to Tim Keller's sermon the inspired the book (right click to download)

Read Byron Borger's excellent review and comparison of Keller and Henri Nouwen!

Read Walt Mueller's review of The Reason for God


schez said...

lest we forget, Keller's first book is Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road - not The Reason for God. A good book of what it means to love your neighbor in word and deed.

schez said...

by the way - thanks for the "hot off the presses" review!!!

Derek Melleby said...

Thanks for pointing out Keller's other excellent book.

I think if you read the paragraph again you will notice that I was refering to this year (2008)... Keller's first book "this year" was The Reason for God.

But yes, of course, "Ministries of Mercy" must not be forgotten... the book and the practice!!