Is Tim Keller Weak on Wrath?
I may have been the first blogger to accuse Tim Keller publicly for what I perceived to be his passive (and weak) view of God’s wrath in the wake of his book The Reason For God (2008). My response was swift and stinging, and Keller got a taste of my own blog wrath. I vividly remember writing lines like: “It apparently is no fearful thing to fall into the hands of the god of this book,” and other jabs of critique. I hit publish, and ten minutes later a close friend contacted me and asked that I pull my blog post for its uncharitable tone. I did, but rather reluctantly.
That night the Spirit worked such a deep conviction I have rarely experienced since. I was brought to tears over the resentment I felt in my heart that led me to write what I did. The next day I awoke from a very poor sleep and wrote a clear and succinct apology email to Dr. Keller, asking for his forgiveness on my post and for my tone (a post he likely never would have seen given my trivial blog platform). In either case, I informed him what I said, and he kindly responded with forgiveness.
That experience forever shaped how I communicate online, but it has not changed the fact that I have been on the front lines of the blogosphere in the preservation of the relevance of God’s judgment. If we do not protect God’s wrath, we lose the bad news, and if we lose the bad news, we lose the good news — we lose the gospel.
But can we trust Keller here?
Since 2008, I’ve read all of his books with a critical eye for this truth (maybe too much so). But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I began working through his 35-year sermon corpus at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. What I found in those archives has changed my view of Keller’s ministry, specifically on the point of God’s activity in judging sinners. And while I wouldn’t cross every “t” or dot every “i” the way Dr. Keller expresses God’s judgment, I have come to the inescapable fact that when Tim Keller steps up to the pulpit, the reality of God’s active wrath is real, it’s essential to the faith, and it’s at the forefront of his consciousness.
But instead of offering you a list of anecdotes to this conclusion, let me simply provide you with a few summary statistics, made possible by the John Piper and Tim Keller sermon archives from Logos Bible software.
Piper serves as a good control here because nobody questions his priority on God’s active wrath throughout his entire pulpit ministry. Few have preached this priority more consistently.
The easiest way to search for this theme is to find every mention in a sermon to an explicit mention of “wrath” near the word “God.” No two terms, in such close proximity, better stress God’s activity in judgment, and in this particular search we find all the references to phrases like “wrath of God,” “God’s wrath,” even “wrathful God,” “God poured out his wrath,” etc.
I’ll start with a search of Piper’s manuscript archive (1980–2009). From this collection of 1,232 sermon manuscripts, 244 sermons appear in the search result — 19.8% of his sermons making at least one explicit mention of God’s wrath.
Next, I use this identical search query in Keller’s sermon transcript archive (1989–2009). From this collection of 1,212 sermons, 159 sermons appear in the search result — 13.1% of his sermons making at least one explicit mention of God’s wrath.
Three initial observations can be made of these stats alone.
First, Keller is not Piper when it comes to preaching God’s wrath. Who is? Even the wonderful and biblically rich sermons of the great Charles Spurgeon contain mentions of God’s wrath less frequently than Piper (886 of 5,053 sermons — 17.5%)!
Second, the gap between Piper and Keller isn’t nearly as wide as I originally expected, and the gap between Spurgeon and Keller is much narrower than I would have guessed. The gap between Piper and Keller narrows even further in a search for references where “God” appears near words for “judge” (“judge,” “judgment,” etc). In this search it’s Piper 25.2%, Spurgeon 24.5%, Keller 22.1% (though for a variety of possible variants, this second search is less conclusive).
Third, and maybe most importantly, it becomes clear that Keller is not shy about God’s active wrath in his sermons.
Now before anyone accuses me of opening the door to Reformed preacher trading cards with a complete set of sermon stats on the back, these stats can only offer so much. More importantly than what the numbers say, what did Keller himself say in those sermons? And what was he saying about God’s wrath prior to his book published in 2008? Is God active or is God strictly passive in judging sinners? Probably an entire book could be written on this, but a few prominent excerpts jump out.
The first excerpt is taken from Keller’s sermon, “Why Doesn’t Life Make Sense? His Justice” (October 25, 1992):
There are a lot of people who struggle mightily with this whole idea. They say, “If God is a God of love, he doesn’t send people to hell. If God is a God of judgment, he can’t be a God of love. I can’t reconcile the two things.” Yet the Bible insists that not only is God a God both of love and wrath—not only do those two things not conflict with each other, but they actually establish each other. One without the other is nonsense. One without the other is meaningless. If you actually try to somehow extract, remove surgically, excise the Christian message of the wrath and judgment of God, what you actually have is nothing left at all.
God’s active work in judgment is essential to the faith, essential for understanding the work of Christ, and essential for establishing God’s love. Without God’s wrath, God’s love is hollowed of all meaning, and (paradoxically) God’s character is maligned.
In a sermon on Gethsemane eight years later, this point gets even more personal [“The Dark Garden” (April 2, 2000)]. There Keller candidly explained the wrestling of his own soul.
Years ago, when I was a young minister, it was in the garden of Gethsemane that I came finally to grips, I made my peace as it were (it’s a strange way to put it), with the wrath of God. That might shock some of you that a preaching minister was struggling with the very idea of a God of wrath, a God who sends people to hell. The very idea of it was something that really I struggled with and I wrestled with. I hope that doesn’t shock you, but I did.
Then, it was studying the garden of Gethsemane when I finally came to peace with it because I realized the reason why people get rid of the idea of hell and wrath is because they want a loving God. They say, “I can’t believe in hell and wrath because I want a more loving God.”
I came to realize in the garden of Gethsemane that if you get rid of the idea of hell and wrath, you have a less loving God. . . . If you don’t believe in wrath and hell, it trivializes what he has done. If you get rid of a God who has wrath and hell, you have a god who loves us in general, but that’s not as loving as the God of the Bible, the God of Jesus Christ, who loves us with a costly love.
God’s active judgment on sinners, the topic of hell, is a hard truth, and for many it takes a long time to embrace it. Keller speaks from his own wrestlings with this internal struggle.
Finally, here’s an excerpt from his sermon on Matthew 9:9–17 [“Mercy, Not Sacrifice” (September 17, 1995)]. Keller ended the sermon with this open invitation:
Jesus eating with these sinners is something that will just knock you flat if you understand it. It means no matter what you’ve done, no matter who you are, the distinction that Jesus recognizes is not between the good and the bad. The only distinction that divides humanity now is between the proud and the humble. That’s the only one that counts. It’s the only one that matters.
Are you willing to say, “Lord Jesus, I am not worthy. You don’t owe me a good life. You don’t. You owe me nothing but wrath.” The minute that happens, he rushes in to eat with you. If you say, “You owe me a good life,” the minute that happens, he says, “I have not come for you.” Wow! That’s Christianity. That’s the gospel. That’s simple. That’s profound.
Other examples and excerpts could be multiplied from those many Keller sermons to demonstrate that, for him, God’s active wrath is essential to understanding God, grace, the gospel, and the Christian faith.
Dr. William Schweitzer, a fine Jonathan Edwards scholar, and a Presbyterian pastor in Gateshead, U.K., is one of Keller’s critics. In his evaluation of Keller’s writings, Schweitzer rightly claims there are “three basic questions concerning the doctrines of judgment and hell: who sends people to hell, who keeps them there, and who metes out the punishment in hell? The traditional and biblical answer to all three questions is God. God sends people to hell, God keeps them there, and God inflicts the punishment in hell” (89–90).
Yes, but in addition to these categories the Reformed tradition has affirmed a fourth dimension of God’s judgment, a passive judgment, whereby God allows the sinner to self-harden and self-condemn (Romans 1:24–28). God, from his position of “righteous judge,” can choose to withdraw his sin-restraining power from sinners; thereby he “gives them over to their own lusts . . . whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves” (Westminster Confession 5.6). Keller knows this, too, and chooses to stress this “passive judgment” in his books.
But in the very next sentence of his critique, Schweitzer makes a sweeping and overstated conclusion: “Keller’s teaching for postmoderns, on the other hand, gives a rather different set of answers. Man sends himself to hell, man never asks to leave hell, and man inflicts upon himself the punishment of hell.”
Such an absolute conclusion over Keller’s ministry can only be supported by ignoring his 35-year investment in the pulpit, surely a significant oversight.
A Simple Amen
More could be said, but I’ll stop here, and simply add my amen to Keller’s recent Twitter response.
I’ve seen the proof for myself in his sermon archive.
So why do I bring all this up? I bring this up as an opportunity for self-reflection by those of us called to communicate God’s truth in the world today.
Preachers, take a moment to count up your own sermons. In how many sermons do you explicitly preach about the wrath of God (and not merely the language of “judgment”)? How long has it been since you reminded your hearers that God sends people to hell, God keeps them there, and God inflicts the punishment in hell?
Pastors, take a good look at your website. Does God’s wrath make it anywhere on the language there? It’s tragically easy to overlook this important theme in how we talk about our church’s beliefs, to talk about being saved but not explaining what we’re saved from. (Schweitzer’s own church website, under “Beliefs,” makes no mention of God’s wrath or future judgment.)
Fellow bloggers and social media friends, look back on what you’ve published in the last year. How often does God’s wrath find explicit mention in your posts and tweets?
An honest evaluation of our personal habits and shortcomings should always precede our evaluation of others.
My fruitful research into Keller’s sermons still does not answer every question I have about why he prefers to stress God’s passive judgment in his books. But this study of his sermons does answer the question about whether or not Keller’s overall ministry is weak on God’s active wrath. It’s not, though it has taken me several years and the investment of many hours of listening and reading his sermons to discover this for myself.
Among those of us who cherish the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are commanded by our Savior to be kind and charitable toward one another, challenging to each other, but also encouraging to one another, as we together hold out the hardest reality in the universe: It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, who actively judges rebel sinners for their cosmic treason.
Anyone willing to stand behind a pulpit to proclaim this truth, and then to plead with sinners to trust in the Christ who absorbed God’s wrath on behalf of sinners, has my respect. Tim Keller is such a man.