May 30, 2023

Tim Keller’s Last Word on Forgiveness

Perhaps it’s fitting that Tim Keller’s last book was Forgive: How Should I and How Can I?. In an era in which secular thinkers such as historian Tom Holland, and cultural commentator, Douglas Murray, worry about the loss of Christian virtues once taken for granted, this book seems a fitting final rejoinder to where we are going culturally.

And it does exactly what Tim Keller did for the bulk of his ministry: it infuses a deep gracious call for spiritual transformation in the midst of a confused and harsh culture. I am sure there is a rush on Keller’s books now that he has died, with people buying up a collection or two. Don’t overlook this one.

A well-known sermon by Keller, based on an equally well-known Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ sermon – The Demon Is In Too Deep – was his attempt to show how much things have changed in our culture.

The good doctor, speaking in London in the 1950s preached about the demon-possessed child who had stymied the disciples’ exorcism attempts, and who Jesus ends up being the answer for. But first, Jesus shows that this is no ordinary demon. It’s an ornery horned one.

“The demon was in too deep,” says Lloyd-Jones. Keller showed how Lloyd-Jones equated the depth of the problem with the equally abyss-like situation facing the church in the West. The post-Christian setting already in London in the 1950s was such that the ordinary methods of Christian evangelism and apologetics were no longer as effective. This new-fangled cultural demon was in too deep to be drawn out by surface level engagement.

Keller crafted a ministry in New York and around the world, on this premise, seeking to navigate a culture in which the demon is in even deeper than it was in the 1950s. Or in other words, a world in which non-Christians are non-Christian in a different way to the way they used to be.

Previously they had been non-Christian in a decidedly “Christian” way. But in recent decades, that has changed. Now they are non-Christian in a different way altogether; a post-Christian way.

The subtitle of this book is the giveaway. In preparation for an evangelistic talk at a high school recently (I’d decided to speak on the same parable of Jesus’ that is the launchpad of the book, that of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35), I googled some blogs on the topic.

One observation caught my eye in what was an otherwise solid piece of writing. It was this: “We all know we should forgive.” To which Keller’s riposte, in a more urbane, baritone, and yes – winsome –  manner, was “Hold my beer!

Keller no longer assumed that people thought they should. Forgive, that is. Perhaps it’s possible, but is it palatable?  And he proffered good reason why this assumption no longer stands. He could see how deeply ingrained the secular demon was. The air we breathe, as Glen Scrivener’s wonderful book so vividly reminds us, is still Christian, but that air is getting thin. Thin and toxic.

As a cultural exegete par excellence, Keller deftly, and in a manner that is accessible to the layperson, unpacked why the “should” of forgiveness has drained away. It’s his cut-through that many of us are going to miss the most. While many of us dabble around the edges, he plunges into the depths of the problem.

He reminded us that the “should” of forgiveness is now often seen as an impediment to mental, social and spiritual health in individuals and in society more widely.

In the #MeToo age, the church’s message of forgiveness is viewed as both a mask for power, and a convenient “get-out-of-jail-free” card” waved by abusers. Forgive and forget right? That’s been the church’s schtick for centuries and we’re not gonna take it anymore! Keller totally got that tension. He had a pastoral heart that went to the 90 per cent of the iceberg under the tip.

That was Keller’s great strength in a post-Christian age. He was not afraid to sit and let us stew a little. No spoilers here, but his unpacking of the story of Rachel Denhollander, the US gymnast – and Christian – who was abused by her coach along with hundreds of other young girls, is confronting. He took the very issue of abuse, that critics claim is Christianity’s weak point in the forgiveness debate, turning it on its head in the process. Not by minimizing abuse, but by maximising it beyond even what secular justice seekers advocate.

This approach allows us to sit in the emotional space, rather than leap to give a solution. This cultural exegesis explains exactly why the “deep demon” is viewed as an angel of light, a refusal to be victimised any longer.

However, and contrary to the claims of some of his Christian detractors, his biblical exegesis was, as ever, just as sound. The unpacking of not just the story of the unforgiving servant, but the biblical story of forgiveness from “go to woah” is clear and compelling.  And in true Keller style he maintained the tension of the Old Testament teaching on forgiveness in the context of a holy God, with the New Testament resolving of that tension in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

This means that the “how can I?” of forgiveness is presented in a way that is both intellectually and existentially compelling. As always, with the best of his work, the conclusion we reach is “Even if I don’t think this is true, I wish that it were.” Keller was concerned that we were headed towards a fragile, fractured culture, one in which the old pagan honour/shame paradigm would entrap the West, as it still entraps other settings around the non-Christianised world.

This makes this book something akin to his writings on prayer, work and apologetics. First and foremost he was a preacher, not taking to the pen too quickly in his career. Consequently there is a clarity and ease to his writing that engages us conversationally. You can hear that famous baritone – which we now lament the absence of – imploring us gently “Knowing all of this, why wouldn’t you want to forgive?”

Having read Collin Hansen’s biography of Keller a few months prior to his death, I concur that Keller was not an original thinker per se, but both a compendium of the ideas of great thinkers, and an accessible, pastoral conduit to those of us grappling with this matter.

Does the central thesis work? Can we ferret out the demon? Well, being an unoriginal thinker myself, as I said, I tested it out at that school, putting together a “should” and “can” framework off the basis of that parable. I wove it into a forgiveness story of my own. Does that sound pragmatic? Perhaps? But it was humbling to see and then hear the response of many of the teens afterwards.

Could I have gotten ChatGPT to churn out something on forgiveness? Yep. Could it have elicited the same response? Definitely not. There’s something compelling, and increasingly arcane, about true gospel forgiveness. Something that no amount of data harvesting and organising can discover.

ChaptGPT may only be “this many” days old, but already the cultural demon is in way too deep to be rooted out by anything less than a direct hotline to heaven. It took the mind – and heart – of a seasoned pastor like Keller, to expose the shattered nerve-ends of the post-Christian rapacious, unforgiving, cancelling culture, while simultaneously offering healing to that same wound.

In an age of increasing unforgiveness, in which the “should” and the “can” are fast disappearing I pray Keller’s successors can simultaneously would and heal us – and our culture – in the way he did so richly during his lifetime.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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