fbpx

Preaching by Timothy Keller (Book Review)

preaching-keller

If you’re a preacher, you’ve probably got a short list of individuals and authors you look to for encouragement and advice. For me, these includes a few personal friends and mentors, as well as a number of well-known individuals. There’s a great deal I’ve learned about preaching from the works of Charles Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, from listening to men like Daniel Akin and Matt Chandler.

And then there’s Tim Keller. One of the things I appreciate about Keller is the fact that he holds his hearers’ attention without drawing too much attention to himself. He loves words and wordplay, but he’s not trying to entertain you (even though his humor is quite disarming)—he wants you to understand the Bible on its own terms, and to see Jesus in every jot and tittle. So when Keller set out to write a book on preaching itself, I was intrigued. Would he focus primarily on mechanics? Study habits? The C.S. Lewis saturation point in each sermon?

In Preaching, Keller chooses to take a different approach than other authors writing on the subject by primarily looking at Word ministry philosophically, asking readers to consider how preaching serves the Word of God, reaches people, and is a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.

Methodology and showing them Jesus

The first section of the book addresses the best methods for preaching. Keller encourages making expository preaching your typical approach, as it best “expresses and unleashes our belief in the whole Bible as God’s authoritative, living, and active Word” (35).

Topical preaching, on the other hand, can be helpful at times, and even necessary, but a steady diet of it doesn’t leave people appreciating the scope of God’s Word, nor grasping the Spirit’s power. Most importantly, it fails to show hearers how all of Scripture is about Jesus. He writes:

Try reading only one chapter out of a Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo novel without reading anything before or afterward in the book. Would you be able to understand and appreciate the chapter?  Certainly you would learn about the characters, and some relatively complete narrative action or subplot could take place within the portion of the book you have read. But much would be inexplicable, because you wouldn’t know what came before, and many things that the author was doing in the chapter would be invisible if you didn’t see how the story played out. That is what it is like to read and preach a text of the Bible and not show how it points to Christ. If you don’t see how the chapter fits into the whole story, you don’t understand the chapter. (59)

Someone can give a great, inspirational message, but if Jesus isn’t there, if he isn’t made known, preaching hasn’t happened.

Contending for contextualization

The bulk of Preaching deals more with the issue of contextualization. Readers familiar Keller’s other works know that this is a hobbyhorse of his. Why? Because we don’t seem to understand what is meant by it.

By contextualization, he does not mean conforming and compromising the truth in order to make it palatable for a 21st century audience—instead, he means communicating the truth in ways that they can actually comprehend. Though there are some who adamantly deny we should do this at all, we are wise to remember that “no one can present a culture-free formulation of biblical truth”:

The moment you open your mouth, many things—your cadence, accent, vocabulary, illustrations and ways of reasoning, and the way you express emotions—make you culturally more accessible to some people and force others to stretch and work harder to understand or even pay attention to you. (102)

I was reminded of this reality a few months ago when speaking at a church in another community, and one illustration I made—referencing Calvin and Hobbes—just didn’t resonate. Because it was a very friendly and smaller group, there was a lot more freedom to adjust on the fly as I was preaching. So I asked, “How many of you know what I’m talking about right now?”

One person. That was, on my part, poor contextualization (though, honestly, one that probably couldn’t be helped), in the same way it would be were I to use the word “sanctification” with the grade four and five kids in our children’s ministry without explaining what it means.

Identifying the spirit of the age—correctly

But Keller goes one-step beyond simply reminding us that we need to remember where we are, but also reminds us of the need to correctly identify the spirit of the age. What Keller argues is that we are actually not in a post-modern age, but in a late-modern one. Citing Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age, he writes that,

…secular people are not more objective, but instead have embraced a new, constructed web of alternate beliefs about the nature of things that are not self-evident to all, are no more empirically provable than any other religious beliefs, require enormous leaps of faith, and are subject to their own array of serious problems and objections. (124-125)

What makes late-modernity unique, though, Keller says, is:

Nonsecular cultures are overt about their faith, and their members acknowledge the faith nature of their convictions. Many late modern secular people, however, don’t see or grant the leaps of faith they are taking.

And that is what presents the great challenge to preaching in our day. This has been put before our eyes in the most graphic way possible by the Planned Parenthood video scandal. They’re edited. They can’t be trusted. Think about the services women wouldn’t have access to without Planned Parenthood? A fetus is human, but not a person… On and on the arguments go, all seemingly without anyone taking a moment to really think about what’s being said.

That is the late-modern worldview at work. And that is what our preaching needs to combat. But even as we do, it’s wise to remember that, as Keller writes, “you are at odds with a system of belief far more than you are at war with a group of people. Contemporary people are the victims of the late-modern mind far more than they are its perpetrators. Seen in this light, the Christian gospel is more of a prison break than a battle.” (155-156)

Edifying the believer and reaching the unbeliever

Preaching matters not simply because it’s something we’ve always done, but because of what it does in people—or more correctly, what the Spirit of God does through in people through faithful preaching. When the Bible is faithfully preached, some people are challenged in how they have been living and believing. Others are strengthened and given new hope. Others still find the message abhorrent and want nothing to do with it. And this can happen all in the same sermon!

And that’s why this book matters, and why anyone engaged in any form of preaching ministry should carefully consider what Keller has to say in it. Preaching is not a book on “how to preach the Tim Keller way”. And for that I am grateful. It is a book about the primacy of preaching, a call to put our trust in God’s word on display, and to rely on the Spirit to work through our preaching as we strive to show Jesus as the real answer to those the late-modern mind cannot answer.


Title: Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism
Author: Timothy Keller
Publisher: Viking (2015)

Buy it at: Amazon | Westminster Bookstore

Romans 8-16 For You

Romans 8-16 for you

By now, if you haven’t checked out the growing God’s Word For You series of devotional commentaries from The Good Book Company, I honestly don’t know if anything I say about the latest edition, Timothy Keller’s Romans 8-16 For You, will convince you.

Nevertheless, you really should check them—and this volume in particular—out.

Like Romans 1-7 For You and the other volumes in this series, Romans 8-16 For You offers readers an engaging, thoughtful and practical look at one of the most contentious books of the Bible. And more specifically, one of the more contentious passages in one of the most contentious books of the Bible. For Romans is not a book with a, shall we say, light touch, and Keller fully embraces this in his treatment of the text.

Encourages and challenges the heart and mind

It’s important, once again, to remember: this is not a detailed commentary (though it does quote from many of them, including John Stott’s The Message of Romans, and Leon Morris’ The Epistle to the Romans). But the strength of Romans 8-16 For You is not in the thoroughness of its commentary; rather it’s in how the text encourages and challenges both the heart and mind.

One of the best examples comes toward the end of this volume as Keller digs into Paul’s practical teaching, the implications of his grand theology found in chapters 1–11: how do Christians relate to the government? This is an especially important question in our day, as western nations race back to the worldview of ancient Rome and Christians face public scorn, prosecution, and eventually persecution, for refusing to compromise on their convictions. For many, it’s sorely tempting to take our ball and go home, hunker down in the bunker, or whatever other metaphor for disengaging from the culture at large you prefer. Yet, this is exactly what, according to Keller, Paul encourages us not to do.

The command for every Christian is to submit to civil government, appears to be absolute, Keller writes, which isn’t helped by Paul’s putting “the command in negative terms, ie: what the Christian is not to do: ‘He who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted,’ and to do so is to ‘bring judgment’ (v 2). The strength of this statement intensifies when we realize that Paul was talking of a very non-Christian government—the pagan Roman empire.”

Remember, the Roman emperors were no fans of Christianity. The Christians caused too much trouble. Their presence was disruptive, they kept insisting that their religion was the only right one, and that could not stand. But this is the sort of state Paul told his original readers to submit to—a state that hated them! Thus, “the default position of the Christian (every Christian) to the state (any state) is to submit.”

But, there were hints, Keller argues, that this submission was not absolute. Instead, although we are to submit and engage in civil matters—paying our taxes, voting, serving in public office, and so on—we are also to evaluate the state. “Paul’s radical principle is: we obey our government out of our Christian conscience, out of our obedience to God alone.”

So let’s consider for a moment: how does our attitude toward our governments reflect this radical principle? Do we submit begrudgingly in certain areas? Do we submit our taxes correctly, even when we know reporting everything means we may have to pay instead of receiving a return? Do we pray for our political leaders, or curse them? And when we speak out against the errors of our governments (as we should), do we do so with a gentle word, or with harshness (Proverbs 15:1)? In other words, even when we disagree, do we treat them with respect:

…we are not only to comply with civil authorities, but to do so in a way that shows them respect, honor, and courtesy. This is the same issue we face in the family and the church. We are to treat parents, ministers, and civil magistrates with deference. Even when the individuals in these positions are not worthy of much respect, we show respect to the authority structure that stands under and behind them.

Intended for application

As with the other volumes of the God’s Word For You series, Romans 8-16 For You is designed for application. Readers will find it most beneficial as they read this book with a Bible and journal alongside it, and really wrestle with the application questions provided throughout. Read it with the expectation of being encouraged and convicted, but be prepared to do something with those moments of conviction. Think with “sober judgment” (Romans 12:3) and what you read and discover lead to a change of heart, mind and actions.


Title: Romans 8-16 For You
Author: Timothy Keller
Publisher: The Good Book Company (2015)

Buy it at: Westminster Books | Amazon

Romans 1-7 For You by Timothy Keller

romans-for-you-Keller

Romans: it’s one of the most intimidating, confusing, and powerful books in the entirety of Scripture. In its 16 chapters, the apostle Paul casts a sweeping vision God’s redemptive purposes—”how God in the gospel makes sinners righteous, but also how this most precious gift of God is enjoyed in our lives,” writes Tim Keller in Romans 1-7 For You, “how it produces deep and massive changes in our behavior and even in our character.”

In his typical irenic fashion, Keller unpacks the message of the first seven chapters of Romans, helping us see the beauty of the gospel and our desperate need for it.

The gospel is for everyone

One of the most challenging issues we face reading Romans—and indeed, all of Scripture—is Paul’s emphatic decree that all of humanity is lost in when confronted by the justice of God.

That we are all, “without excuse,” with no hope to be found in moralism or pleas of ignorance. “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Paul wrote in Romans 3:22-23. But he doesn’t leave us without hope. For while all have sinned and continually fall short of the glory of God, all who are saved “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). Moralism doesn’t justify, nor does ignorance. Instead, it is only God’s grace, the gift of redemption found in Jesus. And this is such good news for all of us:

God does not set his justice aside; he turns it onto himself. The cross does not represent a compromise between God’s wrath and his love; it does not satisfy each halfway. Rather, it satisfies each fully and in the very same action. On the cross, the wrath and love of God were both vindicated, both demonstrated, and both expressed perfectly. They both shine out, and are utterly fulfilled. The cross is a demonstration both of God’s justice, and of his justifying love (Romans 3:25-26).

Who is the man in Romans 7—believer or unbeliever?

Although all of Keller’s examination of Romans 1-7 is sound and edifying, perhaps no portion was more helpful to me personally than reading his view of the “wretched man” of Romans 7:7-25. Paul’s exposition of the effects of sin, the desire to do what is right, but being confounded by sin, has left many scratching their heads. Was he talking about Paul the unbeliever or Paul the believer?

Keller believes—and I would be inclined to agree—that Paul was writing of his then-present experience as a Christian, and the conflicting desires we all wrestle with. He writes:

We have, in some sense, “multiple selves.” Sometimes we want to be this; sometimes we want to be that. Morally, most people feel “torn” between diverse selves as well. Freud went so far as to talk about an inner “libido” (filled with primal desires) and a “superego” (the conscience filled with social and familial standards). The great question we all face is: I have divergent desires, different “selves.” Which is my true self? What do I most want?

This is helpful for so many reasons (and not simply because of confirmation bias). The point of Paul’s writing about these truths, that he continued to struggle with sin—and if anything, as he grew older, became increasingly aware of his own sinfulness—is to push us toward deeper dependence upon the Lord Jesus.

We are not justified and then left to our own devices to grow in holiness. If, to borrow an analogy, the gospel merely reset our righteousness back to zero, instead of giving us Christ’s, we’d still be damned. We do not do the things we want to do, and we do the things we don’t want to do. Paul’s point is simple, Keller says: “The unbeliever cannot keep the law (v 7-13); but neither can the believer!”

When we read God’s law properly, and when we look at our own lives honestly, we can only conclude that we are “wretched.” Without accepting this, we will never grasp the glory of the gospel. We will never truly appreciate the gospel of received righteousness. Only if our hearts truly cry at our wretchedness can we then know the hope and liberation of looking away from ourselves and to what God has done. Who will rescue Paul, and us? “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v 25).

For the good of your soul

Like the other volumes in the For You series, Romans 1-7 For You is not an exhaustive study of Paul’s epistle, nor is it intended to be. As I described the recently released Judges For You, this is a devotional commentary. Use it like one.

Allow Keller’s insights in Romans 1-7 For You to inform your study. Glean helpful insights and illustrations to use in sermons or small group studies. But even as you do, read it with the good of your soul in mind, recognizing afresh all Christ has done on your behalf, and grasping anew the glory of the gospel in Romans.


Title: Romans 1-7 For You
Author: Timothy Keller
Publisher: The Good Book Company (2014)

Buy it at: Westminster Books | Amazon

6 quotes Christians need to let lie fallow

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

We Christians do love our quotes—and there are so many brilliant ones to choose from! But by golly, we sure do seem to be a repetitive bunch. Far too often, we’re using the same quotes, over and over.

And over.

So yesterday, inspired by a friend’s lament of the increased use of the Samwise “everything sad is coming untrue” quote from Lord of the Rings, I took to the Interwebs to get your feedback, asking what you believe are the most over-used quotes from Christian authors.

Here are the top answers:

1. “We are far too easily pleased…” From C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

2. John Piper’s mission statement. From Desiring God (and pretty much everything else he’s ever written and/or preached since):

“God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”

3. “He is no fool…” From The Journals of Jim Elliot:

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

4. “More wicked… but more loved.” Tim Keller’s gospel summary, from multiple books and sermons:

“We are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope.”

5. C.S. Lewis’ trilemma. From Mere Christianity:

‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

6. The one which Martin Luther never actually said. But the ideas can definitely be gleaned from his work:

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him. Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.

You can see why they’re quoted so often. They’re conceptually brilliant and (in most cases) captivating in their simplicity. But there are two dangers with quoting these so frequently:

We risk cheapening their meaning. And when that happens, powerful truths become pithy sentiments. 

That’s the first danger. The second is it reveals we may not be diversifying our reading in a healthy fashion. When we all read the same books, by the same people, quoting the same things, we risk creating a homogeneous intellectualism. And when this happens, we risk losing our ability to think critically, as well as the joy of discovering ideas that come from outside our normal spheres of influence.

Counterfeit Gods by Timothy Keller (Book Review)

In recent years Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, has become quite a prolific author. And his latest offering may be his most important book yet. Counterfeit Gods explores the empty promises by the idols found in the human heart—sex, money, power, pride—and our only hope of experiencing true satisfaction and fulfillment in the gospel.

Why and How we Make our Counterfeit Gods

“[An idol] is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give,” wrote Keller (p. xvii). It’s a broad definition, but fitting because, as Keller wrote, “Anything in life can serve as an idol, a God-alternative, a counterfeit god” (p. xvi).

It’s easy for us to think about idols as being statues in a temple somewhere “over there” (wherever that is). But if it’s true that anything can be an idol, it’s not nearly so simple. “The biblical concept of idolatry is an extremely sophisticated idea, integrating intellectual, psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual categories.” (p. xix). Romantic love, sex, physical beauty, moral virtue, intellectual ideologies, profit, self-expression… “There are idols everywhere” (p. xxi).

They are the things we love, trust and obey, even at the expense of our relationship with Jesus. “Idols dominate our lives,” Keller wrote.

Throughout the book, Keller illustrates the insidiousness of idolatry through the biblical accounts of Abraham, Jacob, Zacchaeus, Naaman, Nebudchadnezzar and Jonah. The lives of each show us a pattern of idolatry:

  • For Abraham, his son Isaac had the potential to be a powerful idol
  • Jacob’s idol was love as illustrated by his obsession with Rachel and behavior reminiscent of an addict.
  • For Zacchaeus, it was money
  • For Naaman, success
  • Nebudchadnezzar, glory & power

And then there’s Jonah. His idols were perhaps the most complex of all

Revealing Our Hearts

Jonah had a personal idol. He wanted ministry success mor than he wanted to obey God. [He] was shaped by a cultural idol. He put the national interests of Israel over obedience to God and the spiritual good of the Ninevites. Finally, Jonah had a religious idol, simple moral self-righteousness. He felt superior to the wicked, pagan Ninevites. He didn’t want to see them saved. Jonah’s cultural and personal idols had melded into a toxic compound that was completely hidden from him. It led him to rebel against the very God he was so proud of serving. (p. 136)

As we read Keller’s exposition on each of these figures, we are forced to consider our own hearts. What has the potential to displace God as the One whom we love, trust and obey?

Jonah’s heart is laid bare as his rages against the Ninevites positive response to his preaching (and what a simple message it was: “God’s going to kill you. Bye.”). Instead of praising God for the mercy He shows, he laments and demands that God kill him.

“Jonah shows us that it is one thing to believe the gospel with our minds, and another to work it deep into our hearts so it affects everything we think, feel, and do,” wrote Keller. “He is still being largely controlled by idolatry” (p. 145).

So what happens to us when the stresses of life  become to much to bear? What is the true nature of my heart when the experience of life presses down on us? These are important questions—ones too important to not take time to consider. Pointing us back to Jonah’s story, Keller reminds us that the book of Jonah ends with a question:

God asks Jonah: “Shouldn’t your love be like mine? Will you come out of your self-absorption and idolatry and begin to live for me and for others?” We wait for an answer, and it never comes! Because the book ends. (p. 152)

So why don’t we get an answer? “It’s as if God aimed an arrow of loving rebuke at Jonah’s heart, set it a-fly, and suddenly Jonah vanishes, leaving us in it’s path” (p. 153).

The question for us is, when our idols are revealed, are we willing to change?

If we are, then we must look to the Ultimate Jonah and to his sign, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (p. 153)

Discovering the Solution to our Counterfeit Gods

Throughout Counterfeit Gods, Keller illustrates that idols cannot be simply removed: They must be replaced. But what will replace them? All too often, when we put an idol to death, another one crops up to take its place. So food might be replaced with physical fitness. A desire for the affection of a spouse with the attentions of children. But these will never satisfy. Idols must be replaced by God himself.

“If you uproot the idol and fail to “plant” the love of Christ in its place, the idol will grow back,” wrote Keller (p. 172). But even as we repent of our idolatry and grow in our love for Christ, it’s still a struggle. It demands patience. Putting idols to death is hard work but as Keller, quoting John Newton wrote,

I find that to keep my eye simply on Christ, as my peace and my life, is by far the hardest part of my calling. . . . It seems easier to deny self in a thousand instances of outward conduct, than in ceaseless endeavors to act as a principle of righteousness and power. (pp. 176-177)

But, the one who knows the difference between outward conformity and inward transformation is the one who “is on the road to freedom from the counterfeit gods that control us” (p. 177)

Counterfeit Gods will challenge you to discover which path you are on. Are you on the one that leads to freedom from the control of idols or the one that leads to the despair that comes from their empty promises?

Read the book. Engage the questions that will confront you and embrace the only hope we have for freedom from our counterfeit gods: Jesus Christ.

Book Review: The Prodigal God

The parable of the prodigal son is one of those stories that everyone knows: A man had two sons. The younger of the two approaches his father and demands his inheritance, despite his father being very much alive and well. He leaves his home and spends all he has on reckless living. As a famine hit the land, he finds himself in need, and gets a job feeding pigs. While longing to eat the pig’s slop, he begins to pine for his father’s house, remembering how well even the servants were treated. So , he returns home, prepared to ask forgiveness and for a job, but his father goes much further than anyone expects—He welcomes him back into the family, and throws a party to celebrate the son who was lost, but is found.

For many of us, that’s about where we stop. The wayward son returns home and there is much joy. Timothy Keller in The Prodigal God reminds us that the parable doesn’t end there—and we have much to learn from the older brother who remained behind and was seemingly obedient to his father.

In this short work, Keller lays out the essentials of the Christian message, the gospel, and how this parable helps us to understand the Bible as a whole. The whole of the Bible is really speaking to two kinds of people: The “reckless spendthrifts” (the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary definition of “prodigal”), licentious sinners, the broken and wayward—the younger brother of the parable—and the self-righteous, religious folk who try to earn their way into God’s grace through morality and strict obedience, but no joy—the elder brother. And more often than not, we’re both at the same time.

Keller rightly asserts that while Jesus was neither on the side of the irreligious nor the religious, “he singles out religious moralism as a particularly deadly spiritual condition” (page 13).

Jesus, Keller says, shows us that while one son stayed and the other left, both were lost. And while the younger realized that he had lost his way, we’re left wondering about the elder son. Jesus doesn’t finish the story. Why does he leave it on a cliffhanger? “[B]ecause the real audience for the story is the Pharisees, the elder brothers” (page 28, emphasis mine). In doing so, Jesus is pleading with the Pharisees to understand the real message behind the parable: That their strict conformity to rules with no joy—their religious moralism—is blinding them to the reality of their own hearts. That for those of us who have a tendency toward the posture of the elder brother, we must be careful that our careful obedience to God’s law doesn’t “serve as a strategy for rebelling against God” (page 37). We must not obey to get things from God, or begin to think that He owes us because we, like the elder brother, “have never disobeyed!” While the younger brother’s rebellion is “crashingly obvious,” says Keller, “the elder brother who is more blind to what is going on” (page 47).

Keller redefines lostness, not simply as irreligious or licentious behavior, but also as a bitter resentment, joyless servitude, and a constant lack of assurance of God’s love. This lack of assurance is particularly devastating as shows us that we do not seek God’s love, but the affirmation of others. Those of us who lean toward the elder brother mentality can’t always see just how damaging our condition is, and “desperately need to see themselves in this mirror” (page 66).

From here, the subject shifts to the gospel. We can be free of our younger and elder brother tendencies as we “gaze in wonder at the work of our true elder brother [Jesus]” (page 89). In Jesus, we have hope that we can return home to the Father, and that we, too, can rejoice in the new creation when He comes again.

What I appreciate most about The Prodigal God is that in it, Keller doesn’t let me off the hook. He shows me my tendencies (I err on the side of the elder brother—shocking, I know), but doesn’t pat me on the head and say, “There, there… you’re a pain, but God loves you anyway.” He doesn’t call me to pull myself up by my spiritual bootstraps and do better.

He points me to the gospel.

There is no question that Timothy Keller is a pastor who deeply loves people and loves the gospel. And he knows that it’s only the gospel that will bring us to repentance, empowering and enabling us to live transformed lives.

The Prodigal God is a sobering and impassioned reminder that the gospel is “not just the ABC’s of the Christian life, but the A to Z of the Christian life” (page 119).  Through the gospel, we can be freed of our younger and elder brother tendencies, and respond rightly to what God has done—with joyful obedience, faithful service and confidence in our status as His children.


Out of the archives.

The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller (Book Review)

The parable of the prodigal son is one of those stories that everyone knows: A man had two sons. The younger of the two approaches his father and demands his inheritance, despite his father being very much alive and well. He leaves his home and spends all he has on reckless living. As a famine hit the land, he finds himself in need, and gets a job feeding pigs. While longing to eat the pig’s slop, he pines for his father’s house. He remembers how well even the servants were treated. So, he returns home, prepared to ask forgiveness and for a job. But the father goes much further than anyone expects. The father welcomes his son back into the family.

He celebrates the son who once was lost, but now is found.

For many of us, that’s about where we stop. The wayward son returns home and there is much joy. In The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller reminds us that the parable doesn’t end there. It is not the story of just one son, but two. And we have much to learn from the older son who remained behind and was seemingly obedient to his father.

Two kinds of lost people

The Prodigal God is a primer on the gospel. It shows how the parable helps us to understand the Bible as a whole. In that, Keller shows that the Bible speaks to two kinds of people.

There are the “reckless spendthrifts” (the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary definition of “prodigal”), licentious sinners, the broken and wayward. The younger brother of the parable is the picture of this type.

There are also self-righteous people who try to earn their way into God’s grace through morality and strict obedience. People who have religious behavior, but no joy. This is the elder brother.

More often than not, we’re both at the same time.

Keller asserts that Jesus was neither on the side of the irreligious nor the religious. Instead, “he singles out religious moralism as a particularly deadly spiritual condition” (page 13).

Jesus, Keller says, shows us that while one son stayed and the other left, both were lost. And while the younger realized that he had lost his way, we’re left wondering about the elder son. Jesus doesn’t finish the story. Why does he leave it on a cliffhanger? “[B]ecause the real audience for the story is the Pharisees, the elder brothers” (page 28, emphasis mine). In doing so, Jesus is pleading with the Pharisees to understand the real message behind the parable. Strict conformity to rules with no joy—their religious moralism—is blinding them to the reality of their own hearts.

Obedience matters, of course. But we must be careful our obedience to God’s law doesn’t “serve as a strategy for rebelling against God” (37). We must not obey to get things from God. Likewise, we have to avoid thinking God owes us because we, like the elder brother, “have never disobeyed!”

While the younger brother’s rebellion is “crashingly obvious,” says Keller, it is “the elder brother who is more blind to what is going on” (47).

Redefining losteness

Keller redefines lostness, not simply as irreligious or licentious behavior, but also as a bitter resentment, joyless servitude, and a constant lack of assurance of God’s love. This lack of assurance is particularly devastating as shows us that we do not seek God’s love, but the affirmation of others. Those of us who lean toward the elder brother mentality can’t always see just how damaging our condition is, and “desperately need to see themselves in this mirror” (page 66).

From here, the subject shifts to the gospel. We can be free of our younger and elder brother tendencies as we “gaze in wonder at the work of our true elder brother [Jesus]” (page 89). In Jesus, we have hope that we can return home to the Father, and that we, too, can rejoice in the new creation when He comes again.

A gospel call to “younger” and “elder” brothers

What I appreciate most about The Prodigal God is that in it, Keller doesn’t let me off the hook. Keller’s work shows me my tendencies, but doesn’t pat me on the head and say, “There, there… you’re a pain, but God loves you anyway.” And it doesn’t call me to pull myself up by my spiritual bootstraps and do better.

Instead, this book points me to the gospel.

There is no question that Timothy Keller is a pastor who deeply loves people and loves the gospel. And he knows that it’s only the gospel that will bring us to repentance, empowering and enabling us to live transformed lives.

The Prodigal God is a sobering and impassioned reminder that the gospel is “not just the ABC’s of the Christian life, but the A to Z of the Christian life” (page 119).  Through the gospel, we can be freed of our younger and elder brother tendencies, and respond rightly to what God has done—with joyful obedience, faithful service and confidence in our status as His children.


Note: this article was first published in April 2009. It has been updated for style and content.