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

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!