Rebranding Sin – Campbell, Keller and how to present the Good News that we are all sinnners!

Iain D. Campbell on Keller and Rebranding the Doctrine of Sin


Many thanks to all those who responded in one way or another to the initial review of Engaging with Keller.  I won’t repeat again the points made, but instead I want to take the authors at their word and take the opportunity to reflect theologically upon the particular criticisms made.  Being a logical person with a Western linear mind, I begin with the first chapter, Dr Iain D Campbell’s ’Keller and the rebranding of sin’.

In my view this is the best written and the most coherent of all the chapters.  Indeed it gave me some hope for the rest of the book – a hope that was sadly to be dashed.   Again I have to declare an interest and bias. Iain D is a friend, and I regard him as one of the Free Church’s best preachers and theologians.  He has a great mind, works hard and has an ability to communicate through preaching and which is exceptional.   He even likes to cycle!  What’s not to like?!   So you can imagine the reluctance in which I enter this debate.  Yet as he points out, this is not about the personalities involved, but rather the issues that are raised.   I don’t like it but for the rest of this review, instead of using Iain D and Tim (my natural inclination) I will revert to the more academic (and respectful) formula of Campbell and Keller.

Campbell begins by pointing out that we need to look at the words that people write because that is the stock in trade of the theologian.   He correctly cites Keller’s view that many contemporary people do not understand the concept of sin and that it therefore has to be rebranded so that they can be helped to understand.  He also correctly points out that rebranding means that the content remains the same, although the presentation is altered.  So far so good.

The Reason for God

Campbell then moves on to look at The Reason for God, and especially chapter 10 where Keller deals with the doctrine of sin.   “Keller wants to move his readers away from the idea that sin can be defined merely in terms of breaking divine rules; that is, in breaking the commandments of God.  He instead defines sin as that which replaces God in giving a person his or her identity.  Sin is ‘not just the doing of bad things, but the making of good things into ultimate things.’”    Whilst praising Keller for expressing sin in a way which contextualises and contemporises the Gospel story, Campbell then asserts “Ironically, however his greatest weakness is his failure to ground his insights in the biblical narrative itself”.

Is this fair?  What is the evidence for this somewhat astonishing assertion?  I say astonishing because I have read all of Keller’s works and found their greatest strength to be that they are grounded in the biblical narrative.  Perhaps Campbell is just referring to The Reason for God but if so he is being selective and unfair.  He complains that the chapter on sin contains some ten pages of text before the Bible is even mentioned.  There are two problems with this – firstly on the same criteria Dr Campbell could himself be accused of not providing a biblical grounding it is eight pages into his chapter before he even mentions the bible, and this in a book written for Christians!

Secondly he fails to recognise that The Reason for God is written for non-Christians who do not accept that the Bible is the source of authority and belief.   They should do, but they don’t.  Should we expect every book for non-Christians to begin with a chapter on why they should accept the Bible as the Word of God?

However that does not mean that because Keller does not cite chapter and verse, his explanation is not grounded in biblical narrative.  I frequently engage in debate and discussion with non-Christians, and whilst the backbone, heart and substance of what I say is grounded in the biblical narrative, I often do not say that it is.  You do not cite the bible as an authority to people who do not accept it as an authority.  That does not mean that you do not use the bible, or that you do not regard it as an authority, or that you are undermining it.   It seems to me that Campbell is not thinking clearly here and is getting Keller completely out of context.   To state that ‘it is passing strange that the Bible is not called as an authority on the nature of sin as the fundamental problem of the world’, is to betray a misunderstanding of who is being addressed and worse to imply that Keller is getting his teaching about sin from something other than the Bible.

Campbell makes this accusation more explicit in the following sentence when he adds, ”If it had been, then perhaps Keller would not have been so quick to dismiss a definition of sin as a breaking of Gods rules”.  The implication being that if only Keller taught the Bible, rather than seeking to be trendy to reach people, then he would have avoided walking into this false presentation/teaching. It is always disappointing when an evangelist or preacher in speaking to non-Christians has to keep looking over his shoulders for heresy hunters amongst his Christian brethren.  When this happens it is a danger that although in theory speaking to non-believers, the evangelist ends up addressing believers!

The trouble is that Campbell is again not being fair in his assertion and implication.  Keller nowhere denies that sin is a breaking of Gods rules.  In fact he specifically affirms that.  He just simply states that there is more to it than that and that we need to present the teaching about sin in a different way to those who don’t accept either that there is a God, or that there are any rules from that God.   To be fair Campbell recognises that Keller does not deny that sin is breaking Gods law (which then makes you wonder what the fuss is about).  However he says that by absolutising the prohibition of idolatry this becomes problematic because its subjectivises and relativises the issue.  Again I am puzzled as to what exactly the issue is here – or what that even means!   I happen to think the prohibition on idolatry is pretty absolute and is a primary motif of both the Old and New Testament.  So Keller has that right.  And yes, sin is both subjective and relative.  It is a fundamental error to regard the Bible as a moral rulebook that we can have a tick checklist against to see how we are doing.

Campbell’s suggestion that Keller shifts the focus in a subtle manner away from “the God against whom sin is committed, and whose law had been broken, to the way in which men and women have carved out other gods for themselves” does not make any sense.  He is setting up, as he does far too often in this chapter, a false dichotomy.  Keller’s point is precisely that in setting up other gods for ourselves we are rejecting the God of the Bible and thus rejecting his standards and laws.  That surely is what sin is.  Rebellion against God.  Putting ‘I’ at the centre, rather than God.  We break the law by making idols.  It is difficult to see what Campbell’s real difficulty is here.

What confuses me even more is the way that Campbell keeps setting out what he sees as the dangers and then assures us that Keller would not deny this.  This results in much of the chapter warning about strawmen.   For example in the discussion on the cross Campbell acknowledges that Keller does not deny that sin needs a cure and that it is vital for us to know what the cure is.  He also declares “Keller’s definition of sin as a false identity ultimately fails: by itself, it cannot explain the cross”.  But where did Keller say it could?  This is classic strawman argumentation.   Campbell knows that Keller believes in penal substitution and yet writes in such a way as to suggest some doubt about it.

Counterfeit Gods

Campbell then goes on to look at some of the teaching in Counterfeit Gods.   This time he does not accuse Keller of not using the biblical narrative, instead he says that he uses ‘a skilful interplay’ of the biblical narrative.  Might this be because Counterfeit Gods is primarily addressed to Christians?

Campbell points out “for Keller, idolatry is not simply one expression of sin, but the root out of which every sin arises.  He critiques Keller’s use of Romans 1:21 and 25 to point out that idolatry is the fundamental problem of the human heart.   Having given a fair summary of Keller’s teaching he then makes the somewhat brutal criticism that Keller, in telling people that ‘if they don’t serve God they are not, and can never be as free as they aspire to be’, sounds more like ‘a life coach than a gospel preacher.  The primary focus of the gospel is to restore our relationship with God, not our personal wellbeing.”  This is neither helpful nor accurate.  Why?

Again there is the false dichotomy.  What is more important to our personal well being than our relationship with God?  Besides which the accusation that Campbell makes against Keller, could just as easily be made against Jesus, and those in Campbell’s (and my) own tradition.  Was it not Jesus who told us ‘know the truth and the truth shall make you free”?    Is it not the case that many in the Reformed tradition, especially in the Scottish Highlands have used the incentive of Hell to encourage people to believe and be free from the wrath to come?  Was it wrong for them to preach this?  Were they in so doing denying that ‘the primary focus of the gospel is to restore our relationship with God?  The irony for me is that Campbell using this language of relationship could just as easily be accused by some nitpickers of sounding like a life coach or a relationship counsellor, rather than a gospel preacher.  And they would be wrong.  Just as Campbell is wrong to make this unfair and intemperate accusation.

Let me remark at this point on one of the main criticisms that Campbell has of Keller – that he is too subjective.  The idea seems to be that God has set us a clear objective standard and that Keller, by focusing on idolatry of the heart, is somehow muddying the waters by making it all subjective.  Again this may be my own stupidity (not an impossibility!) but I just don’t get it.   Surely when we speak about sin there is always an objective and subjective component?   When God says do not commit adultery, surely that is not restricted just to the objective fact of sex outwith marriage?  Does Jesus not teach that it includes lust?  And who is going to define or make the rules for lust?  Does admiring a pretty woman constitute lust?  For some men it may, for others it may not.   When we preach hell, surely there is a subjective component?  When we preach about our relationship with God surely there is a subjective component?  Whilst Campbell makes much of the subjectivity of Keller’s focus on idolatry, I think he is making too much and trying to build a case against Keller out of nothing.  Besides which Keller’s focus on idolatry is also objective in that he believes in an objective real God, and objective real humans beings who are created to have an objective real relationship with that God.   Indeed his whole presentation is based upon that objectivity.

Let me throw in another observation here – since we are on subjectivity and objectivity.  It strikes me that many of the criticisms of Keller are highly subjective.  Some people don’t like the way he presents things.  It does not fit well with them. It is not what they are used to.  The danger is that they then look for something objective to object to, and to explain and justify their feelings.  It doesn’t feel quite right, so there must be something wrong.  Although I am not saying this is the motivation of Campbell, it is one that I have come across many times.  The bottom line is that what (or who) we like and don’t like often has a great deal to do with what we identify as wrong and dangerous.

Back to Campbell.  He disagrees strongly that Paul’s basic thesis in Romans 1 is that idolatry is the basic human problem.  He goes so far as to say that this reverses Paul’s argument that the idolatry arises out of sin, which is breaking Gods law, rather than idolatry leading to sin.  Campbell argues ‘the idolatry is the symptom, not the cause’. Again this seems to me a fairly pointless ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg’ argument.  And it shows that Campbell just does not get Keller’s argument about idolatry.  Keller is not talking about idolatry as creating literal idols that we then set up in temples and worship.  He is talking about idolatry as rejecting God, not glorifying him as God, not giving thanks to him and replacing God with our own idols – thus our foolish hearts become darkened and this then leads on to other sins.  Which is precisely what Paul argues.

Campbell then moves on to suggest that in Counterfeit Gods “although there is reference to God’s unconditional love and costly grace, alongside references to Jesus’s costly death, there is little explanation here of what the gospel actually means, or what it is that Jesus actually did.”  But this comes across as desperate cherry picking; trying to find something to accuse Keller of being unsound.  I am fully aware that Keller deals with different themes in different books, but I think it is unwise and not fair to complain that a full explanation of the gospel is not in every book (although I would argue that the gospel is in every book, just not in the particular nuanced way that Campbell would like).  It kind of reminds me of the days when I would go and preach somewhere and someone would always point out that I had not preached the full gospel because I had not mentioned one of the three ‘’r’s” (no – not reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic, but ruin by the fall, redemption by the son, regeneration by the Spirit).

Campbell goes on to state “the nature of sin is not idol-making but law breaking, of which the manufacturing of idols is a specific example”.  I’m afraid that this only makes sense if Campbell thinks that Keller literally means ‘the manufacturing of idols’.  Which of course he does not.    When idolatry is seen as of the heart, it is not either/or but both/and.  Sin is both law breaking and idol making.  We break Gods law because we set up other idols.  Human beings are made to worship.  We will worship either the Triune God or some other thing (idol).  To worship an idol is sin. To do so is to break Gods law.

Therefore it is wrong for Campbell to argue that ‘the condition of man under sin is much more serious than Keller’s presentation would suggest.  We do not simply manufacture idols.  We are enslaved in a condition of implacable opposition to God.”  Campbell is again setting up false opposites.  Surely Keller’s point is that by loving something/one more than God we are enslaved in an implacable opposition to God?  In fact it is at this point that Campbell is the one in greater danger of undermining the seriousness of mans opposition to God.  How so?

It could just as easily be argued that by suggesting that mans problem is just breaking a few rules then sin could easily be sorted.  Just go and keep the rules.  Indeed, that is what every religion and religious person seeks to do.  Keller’s position is much more robust and biblical – we can’t keep the rules because we do not love the rule maker – we have made ourselves (or others) alternative rule makers.  Campbell hoists himself with his own petard – in complaining that Keller’s presentation may make for a less robust doctrine of sin, he himself presents teaching about sin in such a limited way that it could just as easily be argued that he is in danger of making a less robust doctrine of sin.

Let me explain what I mean – and why I found this the most helpful part of Campbell’s chapter.  Not because it is right, but because it made me reflect on how we teach about sin.   Now I know that Campbell holds a robustly biblical and orthodox view of sin, but I do (graciously) point out that the presentation of sin just as rule breaking, has caused and continues to cause many problems, and that Keller’s emphasis on idolatry of the heart is much more likely to get to the heart of the matter.  In our own Free Church (and other Reformed) tradition it is far too often assumed that we just have to mention sin, and define it as law breaking, and then we are free to present Christ as the remedy.  But heart conviction takes a lot more than that.  It is the Holy Spirit who convicts of sin, righteousness and the judgement to come.  On the Day of Pentecost we read, “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart”.  I don’t think it is too subjective at all to say that we want heart preaching of the Word in the power of the Spirit, which convicts people that they love other idols more than God.  Keller does not offer us a programme or even a model of how we should do that, but he has at least convicted me that the one size fits all of much contemporary reformed preaching on sin, is not the best way to go.  It is possible to present the biblical teaching about sin in different ways that enhance, rather than undermine the doctrine.  I am thankful to Keller for showing many of us that it can be done.

The Prodigal God

Campbell now moves on to talk about Sin as lostness, as Keller teaches in The Prodigal God.  He admits that it might seem like nit picking to quibble with the title, but then goes on it do it anyway.  I’m afraid it is nit picking, especially as Keller is quite precise and clear in explaining what he means. Personally I was not over enamoured with the title, but that was a matter of taste rather than theology.    Campbell then goes on to give a fair, accurate and generally appreciate summary of The Prodigal God.  However he does have some problems with the exegesis.

Again I found the main criticism a little confusing.  “But where Keller is less than helpful, and, indeed, misleading, is in his over-spiritualising of other details of the narrative”.   Campbell confuses ‘spiritualising’ with using the text to open up a whole series of applications and issues.  Much as the Shorter Catechism in expounding the Ten Commandments goes well beyond the actual commandments themselves but by taking them in the context of the whole bible gives a fuller biblical explanation.  Given that Keller was writing a whole book on this one chapter I am not surprised that at times he goes off at a tangent to explore other themes suggested by the story.  But I don’t believe it warrants the criticism made.  If you want over-spiritualising then I would suggest reading Augustine will sometimes give you a good doze.  Or I can recall one house meeting I was at in Lewis where one of the elders present asked ‘what is the meaning of the 18 inch gap round the top of the ark’- and a lively discussion ensued!    The view of Jesus as the true elder brother may be speculative, but I have heard a whole lot worse speculative teaching than that.  And I think there is plenty warrant for seeing Jesus as the friend who sticks closer than a brother, or to see him as the firstborn over all Gods children and thus our true elder brother.

More serious for Campbell though is his understanding that Keller, in warning about the sin of the elder brother, is asserting that the sin of moralism can be defined without recourse to Gods law.  This would be serious if it is what Keller says.  Except again he does not do what he is accused of.  It seems as though Campbell is asserting that Gods rules are only external.  We know that that is not true.  It is out of the heart that evil thoughts, etc. come.   Keller says, “There are two ways to be your own Saviour and Lord.  One is by breaking all the moral laws and setting your own course, and one is by keeping all the moral laws and being very, very good”.   Campbell says of this statement “Even allowing for the rhetorical flourish, the statement is misleading”.  Again, I may be as thick as a brick but I just can’t see that.  The statement is 100% correct.  I know plenty people who reject Gods moral laws and make themselves their own saviours.  And I know many people who accept (at least outwardly) Gods moral laws and make themselves their own saviours.  That is all Keller is saying.  It is perfectly scriptural and clear.

Campbell goes on to imply that Keller defines sin without reference to Gods law, which is to say the least inaccurate.  He then contradicts himself by criticising Keller for not providing a full atonement theory in The Prodigal God.  Why is this a contradiction?  Because Campbell has already critiqued Keller for bringing things into Luke 15 which are not there, and he admits that Luke 15 does not deal with the atonement theory.  So why does he want him to bring it in now?  It seems a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t!

The criticism them moves on to another level when Campbell describes Keller’s statement that “the basic operating principle of the Gospel is ‘I am accepted by God through the work of Jesus Christ – therefore I obey” as running the risk ‘of minimising that very work, and thereby, to minimize the problem with which it deals”.  This is not immediately obvious and in fact is a rather strange complaint.  By that criterion any one-sentence summary of the Gospel could be accused of minimising the work.   For those faced with the dangers of works righteousness and religious legalism, Keller’s summary is excellent (and he was not of course the first to make that summary).  There are many people who think that if they can just obey, just do the right religious thing, then somehow they will be saved.  Keller points out that we need to obey Gods law, but that we cannot do so without Christ.  We obey because Christ has obeyed.   That is wonderful news and not a minimisation of the gospel at all.

Kings Cross – Sin as Self-centredness –

Campbell now moves on to Keller’s Kings Cross.   Again he gives a good and fair summary of the book and offers genuine appreciation.  He points out that in the book Keller identifies sin as being innate self-centredness.  He particularly notes Keller’s division between religion and gospel. Religion says ‘if I perform, if I obey, I’m accepted’.  The Gospel says, “I’m fully accepted in Jesus Christ, and therefore I obey”.   However Campbell thinks that Keller goes to far when he asserts that Jesus came to abolish religion.  “This does not mean that Jesus had no interest in institutional religion; there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that true faith and biblical religion are mutually exclusive.  Keller has done the church a disservice with the suggestion that faith in Christ is the end of religion, it is actually its beginning”.  There are two obvious things wrong with Campbell’s critique at this point.  Firstly he is confusing two different definitions of religion; the one Keller uses of works righteousness, and the other of biblical religion.  You will note the neat change of words in the above quote.  Keller does not doubt that Christ came to establish ‘biblical religion’ and it is rather odd to accuse him otherwise.  Again Campbell is creating confusion where there is none.  Secondly it is strange that given his earlier criticism of Keller not giving a biblical narrative for his assertions, Campbell here makes assertions without offering any biblical evidence.  Personally I would love to see the biblical evidence for faith in Christ being the beginning of religion!

Campbell is on more solid ground when he critiques Keller’s understanding of the Sabbath as being fulfilled in Christ.   I agree with his understanding of the Lord’s Day as the Christian Sabbath, although the case is not quite as black and white as he makes out. I find it slightly ironic that Campbell later quotes the foremost and most influential proponent of the Sabbath as being fulfilled in Christ, Don Carson, against Keller.  As far as I am aware Keller has not written a great deal on the Sabbath and I am not even sure what his position is.   But I know what Carson’s is.  One that Campbell and presumably the other authors of this book would repudiate.  I look forward to the next volume warning us about the dangerous teachings of Don Carson!

Although Campbell then goes on to praise Keller for his handling of the atonement in Mark, the old problem still arises “Our derangement is not merely our self-centredness; it is our law breaking.  We have contracted guilt in the same way as Christ must atone for it: through the curse of a broken law”.  To Campbell, even though Keller is correct on the atonement, he is wrong on sin because he does not always describe it as law breaking.  It does become like a broken record.  And again the answer is the same.  It is not either/or but both/and.  We are self-centred and because of that we break the law of God.  Christ did atone for us by keeping the law, but he did so precisely because he was not self-centred and gave himself for us.  There is no contradiction in using both forms and given that Campbell acknowledges that Keller accepts that sin is law breaking, it is very difficult to see precisely what the problem actually is.

I also find referring to the ‘objective problem of disobedience’ and contrasting it with the ‘subjective problem of self-centredness’ an unnecessary conflict.  Surely disobedience is also to some degree subjective, and self-centredness is to some degree objective?  Campbell is making statements about objectivity in some areas and subjectivity in others, which really have no biblical or logical, rational, and which themselves seem highly subjective!

Campbell regards Keller’s alleged rebranding of the cross as not being deep enough or forensic enough, because Campbell says that self-centredness is a symptom not a reason for our condition.  I’m not sure that he can provide biblical warrant for his continued assertion that sin is primarily law breaking, and every other aspect of it, idolatry, lostness, self-centredness is just a symptom.

Sin and Culture. 

In this final section, after having another wee dig at the lack of a full fledged treatment of the cross in each of Keller’s writings, Campbell now goes on to summarise what he considers to be Keller’s rebranding of the doctrine of sin, as being done in order to communicate to the culture.  Campbell thinks that this has resulted in something ‘substantive’ being lost.  But what?  According to Campbell it is simply that symptoms have been described as causes and basic biblical categories for sin have rarely been highlighted in Keller’s writings.  But which ones?  He names only two – sin as the breaking of Gods law, and fallenness in Adam as the primary condition of our lives.  But note the use of language.  They are not highlighted as much as Campbell would like – but they are there and Keller does believe and teach them.  So again I am wondering what the problem is?

Campbell quotes Keller saying, “of course a complete description of sin and grace must recognise our rebellion against the authority of God’s law”.  To Campbell this is confusing because if the culture does not accept this then how can Keller have the ‘culturally compelling theology’ that he wants.  This is where Campbell goes really wrong.  Because he is assuming (as do the other authors in this book) that the compelling motive for Keller is to create an acceptable theology for apologetic reasons, rather than a desire to remain faithful to biblical truth. They are wrong to make this assertion about motivation, without evidence.  And they are just as wrong to assume that biblical theology cannot be presented in a culturally relevant and compelling way.  It is this false dichotomy that seems to be the basis of this article and indeed the basis of this whole book.

Again let me make a general observation (i.e. I am not saying this about Iain D Campbell as I do not believe at all this is his motivation!).  The thinking can often be like this.  I present the gospel faithfully and it is not very popular and I am not being very successful.   I comfort myself by saying; this is a day of small things.  Along comes someone else who is presenting the same gospel and he appears to be a whole lot more successful and he is a lot more popular.  His books are in the New York Times Best seller list and many in the wider culture speak favourably of him.  Yet it is a day of small things. So what is often the instinctive reaction?  He must be doing something wrong.  He must be compromising.  It must be false. And such is the subtlety and psychological defensiveness of the human heart that it does not take long for us to justify our ministries by attacking others.  We set ourselves up as faithful watchdogs.   Yes, there are ‘successful’ ministries in terms of numbers etc. that are false, and if you look hard enough you will find faults in any ministry.  Yes, faithfulness does not always mean ‘success’ but neither does it mean ‘failure’.   McCheyne once wrote, “I would rather beg bread than want success”.  Is it really impossible for God to work in such a way that the wider culture is impacted?  It certainly seems as though it will never happen without some ‘faithful’ Christians somewhere sounding the trumpet about the decline and dangers of whatever success is happening outwith their own experience!

Back to Campbell.  He declares “this ultimately is where Keller’s rebranding leads – to an attempt to define sin not in terms of what it does to God, in robbing him of his glory, but of what it does to us, in robbing us of our wholeness”.  Again why either/or instead of both/and?  Even more interesting is the question of whether sin can be defined as robbing God of his glory.  How does my sin rob God of his glory?  Is it possible for a creature to rob the Creator?  Has the sin I committed today diminished the glory of God one iota?

Campbell suggests that Keller’s position leads to the situation where some sins are sins some of the time, others all of the time.  This again is very unfair.  Keller would not deny that sin is sin all of the time.  However particular actions may or may not be sin.  Eating ice cream/ making love or spending money, may or may not be sin, depending on the circumstances or depending on the heart.  Indeed this highlights one of the great advantages of Keller’s varied presentation of sin, rather than Campbell’s one way only presentation.  When sin is presented as only breaking Gods rules, then there is a danger that people do develop a tick box mentality.  I think for example of the man who proudly told me that he kept Gods law because he did not hang out his washing on a Sunday.  The fact that he did not love or follow Jesus did not seem to be that important to him.  He was a product of a culture in which relationship with God seemed to have been taught as keeping a set of rules. Keller’s approach, whilst including the rules, is much more biblical in that it also shows how it is a matter of the heart, not just external obedience.   I realise of course that Campbell also knows it is a matter of the heart and that there is no fundamental disagreement here about the substance – but we are talking about the presentation.  The irony is that presenting the teaching about sin in such a limited way could well end up with this kind of legalistic misunderstanding.  Keller’s approach is the healthier and more biblical approach.

What I found most disappointing in this whole chapter though is the following attempted example that Campbell gives: “Some websites, for example, have highlighted Keller’s ambiguity, wariness and discomfort over identifying homosexual practice as sinful.”  It is not worthy of him that Campbell resorts to website gossip as a means of condemnation. There are many things that are said on websites that should just be ignored, and certainly not used to make the suggestion here that Keller is compromising or weak.  I have a great deal of sympathy with Keller on this one.  He is on the front line in one of the most difficult areas of the world, New York City, where the gay rights movement are watching his every move.  To a lesser extent I have had to deal with this as well. You have to be as wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove.

I know Tim Keller’s views on this having discussed them with him and they are thoroughly biblical.  He is seeking to communicate the gospel in a culture where the enemies of the Gospel are seeking to trip him up and destroy him.  It is incredibly sad when those of us on the front line fighting the battle have to deal with sniper fire from our own ranks.   Ironically as I write this I have just received an anonymous letter in the post from ‘a Christian brother’ accusing me of being unbiblical and defending paedophilia because I suggested that it was wrong to beat up homosexuals!  Those who want to blast Keller because he does not condemn people from the sidelines in the way that they would like, but instead is involved (successfully) in the centre of the battle, should not be listened to.   And should not be cited.

Campbell goes on to ask, “Are we to rebrand the biblical doctrine of sin afresh in every cultural engagement”?  Of course!   We are to seek to teach the biblical doctrine of sin afresh in every new cultural engagement.   We are not entitled to change the biblical doctrine, but we are compelled to proclaim it in a way that is culturally relevant.  In fact if we do not wrestle with this and instead think that the way it was presented in our culture, or another culture, is the only and best way to do it in this culture, then in my view we are being lazy and unfaithful.

Campbell asserts, “Unless I am firm in my definitions, I will mislead in my presentation of the Gospel”.  The implication being that Keller is not firm in his definitions.  I think the evidence is that he is.    I also think that Campbell in limiting the definition of sin, as being primarily law breaking is in danger of ignoring the breadth of biblical definition that Keller makes full use of.   By his constant setting up false dichotomies that sound right, but on closer examination fall apart, he is in danger of accusing a brother of false teaching on the flimsiest of cultural interpretations.  For example he states that  ’the gospel is not about me, it is certainly for me, but it is about the God whom I have offended, and the about the Christ he punished in my place”.  Does Keller deny that the gospel is about God being offended or about Christ being punished in my place?  No.  So why does Campbell set it up as though he does?

Besides which surely it could also be said that the gospel is about me, at least in that it is about my sin, my need for redemption and my salvation.  The Son of God did after all love me and give himself for me.   And surely the Gospel is also for God and for Christ, because it brings glory to his name and a bride for his Son?

Campbell ‘fears’ that the foundational truths about sin have been obscured by Keller’s ‘rebranding’.  Those fears are unfounded.  Indeed the only obscurity is the attempt to imply that the clear biblical teaching of Tim Keller is somehow suspect.   I find it ironic that at the end Campbell uses a quote from Keller’s friend and colleague in the Gospel Coalition, Don Carson, in order to accuse Keller of ‘truncating the gospel’.   I know that Carson would not be happy at the use of this quote to attack a ministry that he values and appreciates.

Overall this chapter’s main strengths are its clear writing and logical and gracious assessment of some of Keller’s main works.  Its weaknesses are the continual false dichotomies which result in a misunderstood view of Keller’s position and Campbell’s own advocacy of a limited presentation of sin as only being the breaking of Gods law, without taking into account the other biblical dimensions.    It is clear that at least in some areas Campbell does not like Keller’s presentation and style – but there is little substance to the accusation made in the conclusion that Keller’s style leads to a truncating of the gospel.  In fact at times one actually wonders where Campbell disagrees with Keller in any substance at all.  The whole chapter reads like a somewhat strained attempt to find substantive disagreement, where there is in fact none.



  1. Not having read the book, or knowing much of Campbell, I would still venture to make two observations based on this article:

    First, to use a Kellerism, what we have here (in “Engaging with Keller”) is the discomfort of the Doctrinalists with one who is a Pietist-Culturalist. Keller’s facility in making biblical doctrine understandable, even palatable, to modern pagans sets many doctrine-focused pastor-theologians on edge, because he doesn’t use the traditional, carefully defined words and phrases of the Confessions and of dogmatics. Making matters worse for these doctrinalists is that Keller is not driving for the head, but for the heart. Thus the problem with his “subjective” formulations and expressions. Keller is aiming for heart-level conversion and repentance rather than simply crossing his theological T’s and dotting his I’s.

    Second, from what you have written, it appears that Campbell is examining everything Keller has written through the very limited lens of penal substitutionary atonement. This results in Campbell’s focus on sin as “breaking God’s law.” If sin is dealt with through Christ’s legal substitutionary work on the cross (emphasis on the legal aspect), then sin must be defined as primarily legal: that is, Adam’s original sin imputed to us, and our breaking God’s objective moral law through omission and commission. An exclusive focus on penal substitutionary atonement, then, has a great deal of trouble in factoring in how the cross deals with the more subtle, subjective aspects of heart-level sin. It also does a disservice to the broader apostolic teaching regarding Christ’s work as Propitiation, Reconciliation, and Redemption. Paul uses all four categories interchangeably and for various emphases (Atonement, Propitiation, Reconciliation, and Redemption). Keller’s emphasis seems to be more on Christ’s work as propitiation and reconciliation than as atonement, which is far from unbiblical, but is a divergence from the typical reformed presentation. If we are focusing on sin as heart-level rejection of God and turning to idols, then the solution in the Cross becomes more about God’s dealing with his own wrath at our rebellion and reconciling us to himself.

    1. Keller’s facility in making biblical doctrine understandable, even palatable, to modern pagans sets many doctrine-focused pastor-theologians on edge, because he doesn’t use the traditional, carefully defined words and phrases of the Confessions and of dogmatics.

      That’s an important point. It is very difficult to use the language of the confessions and be understood by secularists; it is difficult to move outside the language of the confessions without being misunderstood by confessionalists.


      1. But what trumps both is that the language used must be biblically shaped and the gospel declared must be Paul’s gospel – as he called it, ‘my gospel’, which is the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
        For that is the only gospel which is ‘life giving’ . Any other gospel [including the truncated ‘evangelical’ gospel!] will be like burying stones, rather sowing seed – which in the hands of the triune God has the power to create life, both in the secularist and the confessionalist.

      2. I certainly agree that we must be true to scripture – otherwise, what’s the point? So whatever language we use must be shaped by scripture. I don’t see any evidence that Keller has abandoned Paul’s gospel. So his words must be “biblically shaped.”

  2. An interesting post. A few thoughts –

    #It occurs to me that Keller has not offered a systematic theology, yet is being examined as if he is a systematic theologian. It isn’t helpful to suggest that we can learn everything about his theology from his popular books, and a few YouTube clips. He has, after all, preached numerous sermons that would have to be examined. Furthermore, he is a key part of “The Gospel Coalition. Any engagement with Keller would need to take note of the theology that he identifies with on that site.

    #Keller is primarily a preacher. What works as a sermon in New York might not be so helpful in Yorkshire. New Yorkers might need reminded that sin is more than law-breaking; others might need reminded that it is not less than law-breaking. Taking Keller out of his geographical context might not be helpful.

    #It’s true that popular ministries need not be compromising or making doctrinal errors; but it does not follow that they are doing everything right. Instead of interrogating Keller for error, it might be more helpful to warn less experienced ministers off following the models of “successful” ministries. Books and preachers should be read with a critical eye – but not merely to test for error. Readers also need to ask “does this writer offer good guidance for our ministry in our context”?

    #Finally, and frankly, there seems to be bad blood between some sections of the Reformed wing of evangelicalism and The Gospel Coalition. Personally, I do think that The Gospel Coalition runs the danger of becoming fashionable (although that danger has retreated somewhat since the “Elephant Room” fiasco).
    At the same time, it seems to me that TGC has helped keep evangelicalism in the US out of post-conservative post-evangelical waters (a look at the current catalogues of once conservative evangelical publishers reveals the depth of that danger). There are writers (like Anyabwile and De Young) who recognise perils of popularity. TGC produces good, helpful material (like Themelios).
    So I am at a loss to explain the hostility that some Calvinists feel towards TGC writers and speakers. Don’t we have enough enemies?

    G Veale

    1. @GVeale. Every single one of your observations is spot on. The galling thing about this whole ‘non-controversy’ is that everything you have said are things that should be self-evident to the particular people who wrote the “Engaging with Keller” book. Instead, they are either wilfully ignorant of them or else blinded by some kind of exceptionalism that will not allow them to apply the same basic principles they would apply anywhere else.

      As a side note, it might be worth mentioning for the purpose of context that Keller purposefully stayed under the radar for well over 15 years (Redeemer reached 1500 people within the first three) with an almost total media blackout precisely for this reason – that he was not interested in popularity.

      Moreover, the City to City training specifically avoids proposing any strict models based on Redeemer’s success – rather they draw together principles for skilfully contextualising the gospel in ‘any’ context, and step back in wonder when they see those same principles producing churches that in many ways look very different to Redeemer.

      There are valid ways to bring constructive criticism to bear on Keller but this effort seems to have failed in almost every way possible.

      Perhaps the biggest indictment I would want to bring to the book is that it’s authors really takes themselves very seriously indeed… not cool.

  3. I found TK’s teaching on idolatry highly insightful and enlightening for myself, as a believer, and it surely provides a great point of contact with the unbelieving world. As you say, this whole enterprise seems to be nit picking. You summed it up well… Not either/or but but/and. And is there not an argument from the OT (E.g. Deuteronomy), that the law was given to a redeemed people and that, in part, to keep them from idolatry? Indeed the annihilation of the Canaanites was both because they were evil and also to prevent Israel being led astray by their idolatry.

  4. I would make 2 points which lie in the background of this discussion on the nature of sin, both of which I would judge would be agreed by all 3 contributors – Keller, Campbell and Robertson:
    1. It would be hoped that this discussion would not suggest that it is not crucially important how we define sin. How we understand sin will shape the gospel we proclaim.
    2. Since sin’s effect on all of us, however we define it, is that we are dead; the gospel we proclaim must be ‘life giving’. A Gospel which is shaped by any other understanding of the nature and effect of sin, will not save; it will leave us dead in our sins.
    The seriousness of this matter presents itself with the responsibility that we must make every effort to ensure that the gospel which is being proclaimed/heard today – from the pulpits of our land which are commonly labelled ‘evangelical/reformed’ – is able to save from sin.

  5. “You’re not a sinner?! How unfortunate for you, Jesus only came to save sinners…”

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