Tim Keller, ‘Center Church,’ “Ch 4. Gospel Renewal,” Reflection

In the fourth chapter of Center Church, ‘Gospel Renewal’, Keller examines what happens when the gospel takes effect in the life of the individual and a community.  The gospel is no longer simply an intellectual concept: now it is a “life giving force.”  When gospel renewal takes effect, (as if for the first time) a light is shining on a person’s sin, and on their deep rooted idolatry and attempts at self-justification. This new self-sin-awareness creates a strong ache to experience spiritual, psychological and even physical healing.  Renewal occurs when the individual abandons their self-loathing and modes of self-justification, and surrenders to Christ in faith that only He provides that healing and new life.  This results in a profound and overwhelming knowledge of divine grace and love.  Keller makes a distinction between the (unconverted, or at least spiritually anaemic) religious Christian who intellectually understands the gospel and grace, and the truly renewed Christian who has a “new clarity” about what it means to rest in the work of Christ, and “a new experience of actually doing it with our heart.” (p54.)

“Corporate gospel renewal” is Keller’s phrase for revival, which is “an intensification of the normal operations of the Spirit (conviction of sin, regeneration and sanctification, assurance of grace) through the ordinary means of grace (preaching the Word, prayer, and the sacraments)” (p54.)  While revival should see the conversion of new believers, one of its main functions is to see the spiritual energising and heart enthusiasm of already existing church communities who had sunk into the apathy and cynicism of religiosity: revival brings the Christian community and its individuals back towards having a deep transformative knowledge of  divine grace and love.

All churches should desire revival because, in all likeliness, while their members might have once known the gospel, it is quite likely many have also forgotten.  This forgetting is not necessarily an intellectual forgetting – although it might be.  Rather, in most cases it is a “deep psychological forgetting.”  A bible believing Christian might be able to rattle off the doctrines like grace and the atonement, but at the same time be operating in serious modes of self-justification, idolatry or self-loathing.  They might be able to articulate their belief in God’s love for humanity, quoting chapter and verse, and at the same time hold on to hatred and un-forgiveness for a Christian brother or sister.

The solution to this dilemma is a kind of preaching and teaching that doesn’t simply teach the gospel as doctrine, but as a renewing force that changes lives.

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Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:5, that the gospel he preaches is one that is “the power of God.”  Churches should expect this power to be at work.  Of course to be able to do this, the preacher and teacher needs to deeply know that renewal in their own lives.  If you find yourself as a preacher/teacher experiencing “dry toast” faith – then you need to experience gospel renewal yourself.  Go on a retreat, fast and pray, see a spiritual adviser, repent of your sins, take a holiday.

Revivals and Catechism

Keller goes on to discuss the nature of revivals.  In my Australian state of Victoria there were several recorded revivals such as: the Warnambool and Portland revival of 1858; the 1861 revival in Daylesford; 1863 revival in Fitzroy; and through the evangelists “California” Taylor and Matthew Burnett, to name a few (for a comprehensive examination of revivals in Australia see Robert Evan’s work.   Revivals have happened at different times and places across the world under different conditions.  Keller points out, however, that revival often does not occur under the razzle-dazzle spiritual context that one might expect.  He points us to the book by Gary Parrett and J.I. Packer who encourage churches to re-embrace and reinvent catechism (catechism is a summary of the major doctrines of faith often used as a curriculum to prepare people for baptism or confirmation.  A modern catechism is Alpha).

I have become converted to the importance of catechism.  After leading a large university and school aged congregation through the 2000s, I have come to see the consequence of not having a structured bible and discipleship curriculum.  In response to what I thought they needed, I preached through Bible books and topics, set small group material, and used guest speakers from the local bible college for camps.  But at the end of the day, some very smart kids can still have a vague grasp of the gospel.  Why? Because if I teach you calculous and you have not yet grasped division and multiplication, then you probably haven’t understood the calculous – all you have had is the sensation of being treated as a serious student of maths.  Catechism is the obvious compliment to a responsive teaching curriculum.  Catechism should improve your chances at helping your congregation stand strong in the face of the challenges to their identity and the allures of the culture and competing world views. Christians need to learn the Christian faith, with the same pedagogical approaches that they learn to do the three Rs.

Keller’s discussion of catechism comes as part of a bigger argument around genuine revival.  He warns against the shallow individualistic revivalism in the contemporary church that gets many conversions but fewer long term disciples.  But he also warns against a culture of no conversions: having no opportunity for people to respond.

The Heart

The church – especially the non-charismatic church – needs reminding that “gospel renewal focuses on the heart.”  As Romans 10:9 says, you need to believe in your heart as well as confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord.  By “heart,” Paul (and Keller) mean not just our emotions but that deep place within us that drives our decisions, our longings and convictions.  The act of calling Christians to revival is consistent with the Bible; Jeremiah called the circumcised Israelites to “circumcise your hearts” (Jer 4:4; 31:33),  Paul contrasts the outward and inward life of the believer and required that disciples have hearts that are circumcised by the Spirit (Rom 2:28-29 see also Phil 3:3 and Jesus’ words in John 3:7).  A heart response is required for genuine repentance to take place.  This kind of heart faith is required for all believers new converts and old.

What Keller ultimately wants is “balanced revivalism – a commitment to corporate and individual renewal through the ordinary means of grace – [this] is the work of the church.” And it is crucial because of the unfortunate reality that “it is possible (even common) for a person to be baptized, to be an active member of the chruch, to subscribe to all biblical doctrines, and to live according to biblical ethics, but nonetheless to be wholly unconverted.” (p.60).

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