Tim Keller, ‘Center Church,’ “Ch. 3, The Gospel Affects Everything.” Reflection


We have seen that the gospel is not everything, meaning it must be distinguished as an announcement of news, distinct from its results and implications, and that the gospel is not a simple thing, meaning it cannot be packaged in a single standard form.  My third contention, that the gospel affects virtually everything, builds on these two statements. (p.46)

In this chapter Keller shows how the gospel is not supposed to be a conceptual end in itself, but rather, as Leslie Newbigin writes, it functions like “a set of lenses, not something we look at, but for us to look through.”    Keller continues, “…the gospel creates an entire way of life and affects literally everything about us.  It is a power that creates new life in us (Colossians 1:5-6; 1 Peter 1:23-25).

The Richness of the Gospel

Keller presents a gospel summary from scholar Simon Gathercole which is based on Paul and the Gospel writers.

1. The Son of God emptied himself and came into the world in Jesus Christ, becoming a servant.

2. He died on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice

3. He rose from the grave as the first-fruits of a whole renewed world.

This summary is then expanded on with a neat three part idea:

The incarnation and the “Upside-down” aspect of the Gospel:

    • Jesus was the King who became a servant
    • His kingdom had an upside-down economy (the first shall be last etc…)
    • This pattern imitates Christ’s salvation (Phil 2:1-11)
    • He “won” by losing everything
    • The gospel creates a new kind of servant community
    • This challenges worldly notions of class, racial, and economic superiority

The atonement and the “Inside-out” aspect of the Gospel

    •  The outward signs of covenant matter less than the inward transformation that occurs
    • God’s kingdom “is not a matter of eating or drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17)
    • Not obey God so that he will love and accept me…
    • But know that God loves me so that I want to obey.
    • “Religion is outside in, but the gospel is inside out”

The resurrection and the “Forward-back” aspect of the Gospel

    • “Jesus is resurrected but we are not.  He has inaugurated the kingdom of God, but it is not fully present.”
    • The coming of the Messiah stage 1:
      • “he saved us from the penalty of sin and gave us the presence of the Holy Spirit, the down payment of the age to come (2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 1:13-14)”
    • The coming of the Messiah stage 2:
      • “He will come to complete what he began at the first coming, saving us from the dominion and very presence of sin and evil.  He will bring a new creation, a material world cleansed of all brokenness.”
    • “Christians now live in light of the future reality”
    • Evangelism should be telling the gospel and preparing for the judgment
    • Justice is motivated by the view that God will ultimately end all suffering
    • This understanding should prevent Christians from “dominion theology” which is the triumphalist delusion that the Church should (and can) take over society.  It should also prevent Christians from hiding away in a religious cave.

Keller then applies all this to suggest the ministry and values threads that should be evident in a church that takes this seriously. The inside-out atonement views of the church should lead it to want to do evangelism and church planting (making it look evangelical charismatic); the upside-down incarnation views should lead it to put emphasis on community, small groups, financial giving, sharing of resources, living with the poor (making it look anabaptist); and the forward-back resurrection views should lead it to want to get involved in the city, the neighbourhood, workplace ministry, and cultural engagement (leading it to look like a mainline church).   The message of the Center Church hypothesis is that churches should aim to embrace all of these qualities.

Keller then finishes the chapter by showing how “the gospel is not the ABC but the A-Z of the Christian life.”  He reminds us of the common errors made with the gospel (discussed in an earlier chapter) that it is not legalistic nor is it antinomian (law avoiding).  The gospel involves simultaneously realising  your utter sinfulness and your utter acceptance before God because of Jesus.

The gospel addresses everything.  Keller gives a series of test examples:

  • Discouragement and depression, Love and relationships, Sexuality, Family, Self-control, Race and culture, Witness, Human authority, Guilt and self-image, Joy and humour, Attitudes toward class.

The question is, “how do I get our church to embrace this kind of thinking?”  Keller’s answer, “There must first be a life-changing recovery of the gospel – a renewal in the life of the church and in the hearts of individuals.  We call this gospel renewal.”

The challenge for churches

Whether it’s an established church or a church plant, it is difficult to embrace and live out the whole vision that Keller is suggesting.  It requires highly gifted leadership and a commitment to disciple first, and implement programs later.  The danger is that churches will try and be a “Center Church” by starting a justice or evangelism program, or run a workplace ministry conference etc…  Programming a correction has always been a popular but not very effective strategy for mainline churches.  What I want to do when I plant the church in Northcote, is have a very well planned and executed discipleship strategy for the church, with the goal of seeing people find joy in Jesus, love for the church, and ultimately gospel renewal.     I guess this discipleship strategy will involve some programming, but the idea is that this will go to the source of the problem which is the need for renewal in the hearts of the people.  To mix pastoral ministry metaphors: for the people who have “dry toast” faith (joyless), they need to have the concrete smashed by gospel renewal.

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