I had heard so much about this book, and about Timothy Keller after the whole splash that The Reason for God made; but I put off reading it in a fit of perverse contrariness (book lovers, beware how you rave to friends; your well-meant but condescending pressure may just set them off the book, if for no better reason than sheer human nature! I dread to think how many friends I may have unwittingly turned off from my favourite books in this manner.) Sure, I put it on my to-read list, but loudly proclaimed that I had plenty of other good books to read, and wasn't in any particular hurry to start on this one, just because it seemed so wildly popular. Misguided hipster mentality or just plain pig-headed?
Grudgingly, when a copy was actually pressed upon me--how more direct could you get--I overcame my prejudice and opened the book.
It was a familiar feeling (I'm afraid) of realizing that my silly assumptions or prejudices made me miss out on something good. I'd had this experience with Greg Gilbert's deceptively simple What is the Gospel, years ago, as I documented here; but apparently I hadn't gotten wiser since!
My favourite passage from The Prodigal God was Keller's explanation of the gospel, versus Christianity as a religion:
"Religion operates on the principle of 'I obey--therefore I am accepted by God.' The basic operating principle of the gospel is 'I am accepted by God through the work of Jesus Christ--therefore I obey.' "
Basically, the mentality that equates good deeds as a way to earn ourselves something good (or save ourselves from something bad) is a very natural aspect of human nature, a far cry from the grace and mercy of the gospel, and something we actually have to actively let go of: "...A fundamental insight of Martin Luther's was that 'religion' is the default mode of the human heart."
Keller discussed the significance of the parable of the sower (Matthew 13) in this light:
"There are three groups of people who 'receive' and accept the gospel, but two of the groups do not produce changed lives. One set of people do not have the endurance and patience to handle suffering, while another group continues to live an anxious, materialistic life. The only group of people who produce changed lives are not those who have worked harder or been more obedient, but those who 'hear the word of God and understand it.' (Matthew 13:23) Bonhoeffer insisted that people whose lives remained unchanged by God's grace didn't really understand its costliness, and therefore didn't really understand the gospel. They had a general idea of God's universal love, but not a real grasp of the seriousness of sin and the meaning of Christ's death on our behalf. In the end, Martin Luther's old formula still sums things up nicely: 'We are saved by faith alone [not our works], but not by faith that remains alone.' "
I love the emphasis on understand. Not those who simply 'respond in the right way', which is all too easily the emphasis we may unconsciously end up with when teaching this parable (this makes me look back uneasily on when I taught this in Sunday School. Oh gosh. I wonder what kind of ideas my kids got?) Because when we truly understand, when we grasp the significance of what the gospel is trying to tell us about ourselves and about God, how can we not respond?
Along this line, Keller reminiscences about a woman he met whose response to the grace of the gospel was " 'That is a scary idea! Oh, it's good scary, but still scary.' "
Asked 'why scary?' her reply was: " '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 it is really true that I am a sinner saved by sheer grace--at God's infinite cost--then there's nothing he cannot ask of me.' She could see immediately that the wonderful beyond-belief teaching of salvation by sheer grace had two edges to it. On the one hand it cut away slavish fear. God loves us freely, despite our flaws and failures. Yet she also knew that if Jesus really had done this for her--she was not her own. She was bought with a price."
Wow. Just let that sit for a while.
I enjoyed Keller's ability to present truth with disarming simplicity and clarity, something which to me C.S Lewis will forever epitomize, and which never fails to give me a thrill whenever I find it in other writers. Here he wrote about the gospel in a way which addressed both readers who came from non-Christian as well as Christian backgrounds, in a fresh and insightful manner--something which is challenging to say the least. In my own limited experience of writing for this blog I have yet to achieve that!
I have yet to read his other works (Counterfeit Gods, of which I've heard much praise for, will probably be the next, unless any Keller fans out there has a better recommendation!)--but I think I'm going to enjoy this writer.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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