This booklet from Keller is an exposition of 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7.
‘What are the marks of a heart that has been changed by the grace of God?’ asks Keller. Paul condemns pride and boasting. We are after the trait of humility. Until the 20th century people said high self-esteem (pride) was the source of social and personal problems. More recently it has been low self-esteem that is seen as our big problem. This has been debunked by experts but is still deeply engrained in us. 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7 gives us a different approach to self-regard.
Keller looks first at ‘the natural condition of the ego’. Problem: he does not define ego and nowhere relates it to anything biblical – is it the soul? The flesh? The unregenerate heart? But he goes on: it has certain features: it is empty, painful, busy and fragile. [Not, note, anything necessarily sinful.]
Secondly Keller looks at ‘the transformed view of self’. Paul’s freedom is that he does not care what the Corinthians think of him, nor what he thinks of himself. He has found the secret of true gospel humility that doesn’t think of self so much as of others. ‘Both low self-esteem and pride are horrible nuisances to our own future and to everyone around us’.
[Notice: the emphasis is not on what God might think, but on the unpleasant effects of sin on ourselves and others.]
Wouldn’t you like to be the kind of person who comes second but is just glad for the person who comes first, without fretting about how it reflects on you? asks Keller.
Thirdly, how to get that transformed view of self. ‘What Paul is looking for, what Madonna is looking for [he has used a Madonna illustration early on], what we are all looking for, is an ultimate verdict that we are important and valuable.’
[Is that really what Paul, a first century pharisee, was looking for? Does the context of this passage even suggest that?]
However Paul has found the secret – the trial is over for him – he says that what counts is that it is the Lord who judges him. With Jesus Christ you get the verdict before the performance. In every other religion and in the secular worldview, performance leads to the verdict. Because in Christ God has imputed Christ’s perfect performance to me, I am free of having to perform to be accepted. I simply ask the Lord to accept me because of what Christ has done.
Now I may just be unlucky with Tim Keller. I remain disappointed. I have read a few of his books and there is much that is helpful, but the abiding impression is that the weight of his focus is on our psychological problems and the personal and social consequences of sin rather than the fact that we have offended a holy God.
This little piece is no doubt helpful in a way – but it is not the gospel. It is at best an application of one aspect of the gospel. The danger is that many might think it is the gospel. It treats Jesus as the great release mechanism from the performance treadmill (performance induced not even by a misguided desire to please God but to please others). Just as a few decades ago Jesus was preached as the ‘best trip’ now he is the best way of finding psychological freedom from the rat-race.
No doubt these may be the problems that Keller’s congregation faces on the surface, but books like this are not the gospel – not even the gospel articulated for a particular congregation. There is no mention of sin as against God, no mention of his displeasure and wrath against sin, no mention of the propitiation (even in modern language) needed by sinners and provided by the cross; no mention (in a booklet heavy on human judgements) of the great judgement to come.
I remain, shall we say, unconvinced by Mr. Keller.