A friend of mine and I often joke around about the 2 categories that you can divide everyone into: Cops and Bandits. In other words, those who want everyone to toe the line and those who love to cross the line. It’s fun to guess which group people fall into. Funnily enough you can actually subdivide these 2 groups (with my % estimates, just for a laugh):

  • Cops who are happy being cops (20%)
  • Cops at heart who just pretend to be bandits (40%)
  • Bandits at heart who actually pretend to be cops (10%) – though I’m not quite sure i know any of these!!
  • Bandits who are happy being bandits (30%)

Now this does have some spiritual significance, believe it or not.

Tim Keller’s books will undoubtedly be much more familiar to regular Q readers than Wade Bradshaw’s. But in some ways, I see his most recent pair (The Reason for God and The Prodigal God) as just as paradigm challenging when it comes to gospel ministry.

One of the things I think preachers really do not give enough thought to is the issue of application. We know we must do it – a sermon without applications is a lecture (which may or may not be fascinating). A lot of the time we don’t know how to do it (the whole business of hermeneutics stands somewhat intimidatingly in the way). But even then, once we’ve worked out our applications, without perhaps having indulged in the intricateand hyper-specifics of the grids associated with the Puritans, there’s a rather unsettling feeling at the back of the mind.

I’ve worked on the text; I’ve thought about the context ad inf.; I’ve considered at length what I’m saying, where I’m saying, to whom I’m saying it. But the question is, ‘will what I say be specifically Christian?’ In other words, will it be seen as integral to the gospel of grace?

Keller, in many talks as well as these books, has articulated what others have said and thought for centuries (not least, since Luther’s gospel breakthrough), but he does so in such a fresh way that it is definitely worth engaging with if not yet done so. Taking the Parable of the 2 brothers (aka Prodigal Son) in Luke 10 as a kind of template for how people naturally think, Keller articulates that there are 2 fundamental challenges to the gospel not 1.

The church thus has been quick to identify the problem of the rebellious, younger son. It’s easy to spot a rebel – especially if you’re a churchgoer. And religious types don’t like rebels very much, just as cops take a rather dim view of bandits. The problem is that this can lead to an abject failure to look in the mirror. You see, for too long, going to church has been associated with being good – which has inevitably lead to its reputation for smugness, hypocrisy and self-righteousness: precisely the problems of the Older Brother in Jesus’ parable. And Keller’s insight is to see how his action is just as much a rejection of the father’s love in the parable as that of the younger son. Both want their father’s money – their inheritance – the only difference is that the younger one wants it now, while the older one will flint-facedly wait till the old man dies. The Rebellious and Religious – both sinners.

LOTR TreebeardSo Keller asks:

So whose side is Jesus on? In The Lord of the Rings, when the hobbits ask the ancient Treebeard whose side he is on, he answers: “I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side… [But] there are some things, of course, whose side I’m altogether not on.” [The Two Towers – p577] Jesus’ own answer to this question through the parable (Prodigal) is similar. He is on the side of neither the irreligious nor the religious, but he singles out religious moralism as a particularly deadly spiritual condition. (p13)

The point of mentioning this book in particular here, and the reason it is a paradigm shifter, is that it forces us to consider better how we preach to the religious, for that is too often the natural inclination of the majority of congregation members. And even those who started out as younger sons can drift into being older sons, even years after they began a relationship with their father.

As one of my teachers in seminary put it, the main barrier between Pharisees and God is “not their sins, but their damnable good works.” (p77)

Keller tells this story, the perfect illustration for the difference between works righteousness and works of faith.

Once upon a time there was a gardener who grew an enormous carrot. So he took it to his king and said, “My lord, this is the greatest carrot I’ve ever grown or ever will grow. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” The king was touched and discerned the man’s heart, so as he turned to go the king said, “Wait! You are clearly a good steward of the earth. I own a plot of land right next to yours. I want to give it to you freely as a gift so you can garden it all.”
And the gardener was amazed and delighted and went home rejoicing. But there was a nobleman at the king’s court who overheard all this. And he said, “My! If that is what you get foracarrot – what if you gave the king something better?” So the next day the nobleman came before the king and he was leading a handsome black stallion. He bowed low and said, “My lord, I breed horses and this is the greatest horse I’ve ever bred or ever will. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” But the king discerned his heart and said thank yo, and took the horse and merely dismissed him. The nobleman was perplexed. So the king said, “let me explain. That gardener was giving me the carrot, but you were giving yourself the horse.” (p60)

The aim of course is for all – whether the religious sinner or the rebellious sinner – to find the extraordinary assurance, acceptance and transformation that Christ offers. A life will never be the same if one remembers that (but oh, how forgetful we are!). And therefore ANY and even EVERY application must be in the context of the 3rd way to live: not rebellious, not religious, but redeemed.

Some years ago I met a woman who began coming to church at Redeemer. She said that she had gone to church growing up and had never before heard a distinction drawn between the gospel and religion. She had always heard that God accepts us only if we are good enough. She said that the new message was scary. I asked her why it was scary, and she replied:

If I was saved by my good works then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through. I would be like a taxpayer with ‘rights’ – I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life. But if I am a sinner saved by sheer grace – then there’s nothing he cannot ask of me…
…From the outside that might sound coercive, like a grinding obligation. From the inside the motivation is all joy. Think of what happens when you fall in love. Your love makes you eager for acceptance from the beloved. You ask, ‘do you want to go out?’ or maybe even ‘will you marry me?’ What happens when the answer is ‘yes’? Do you say, ‘Great! I’m in! Now I can act any way I want?’ Of course not. Now you don’t even wait for the object of your affection to directly ask you to do something for them. You anticipate whatever pleases and delights them. There’s no coercion or sense of obligation, yet your behaviour has been radically changed by the mind and hear to the person you love.
(p182, The Reason for God)

If I find anymore paradigm shifters, I’ll post about them. But just to sum up:

  • Wade Bradshaw: THE NEW STORY (where we know better than God) has replaced THE OLD STORY (where we know God isn’t really there)
  • Tim Keller: 3 WAYS TO LIVE – always preach with 3 groups in mind: The Religious, The Rebels and The Redeemed.
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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Gavin McGrath

    Excellent posting, Mark. You are spot on here: both in terms of the paradigm shift for all of us and a necessary week-in-week re-calibration of most preaching. Thanks!

  2. John

    Because it fits well in here – Keller did a seminar series a while back that is freely(!) available called “Preaching Christ to a Postmodern World.” I can not recommend it enough, it has completely changed the way I go about teaching prep, and one of the main points that struck home is the idea of preaching “3 ways” rather than 2. Here’s a link where you can get the series from iTunesU: http://deimos3.apple.com/WebObjects/Core.woa/Browse/rts-public.1674108893

  3. markmeynell

    They are certainly very good talks – especially enjoyed the interaction between Keller & Clowney.
    Thanks for the link

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