He said to her, “Go, call your husband and come here.” -John 4:16
For quite a while, now, conservative reformed pulpits have been quiet about subjects that, in our political context, are controversial. This is particularly the case with abortion.
Here is a short explanation by Tim Keller, the retired founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City, justifying his own silence on abortion. He gave this explanation back in 2008 (correction, it was in 1999; H-T to M.D. Perkins) when we first wrote about it on Baylyblog.1
Note that this subject goes much deeper than the politics of abortion. Abortion is the backdrop, but speaking about abortion, Tim Keller demonstrates his method of twisting the nature of Gospel preaching until there is no place for the Law in the proclamation of the Cross. Preaching the law is no schoolmaster to Christ. It is only “religion.”
Here is an excerpt from Pastor Keller’s article:
by Tim Keller
We will be careful with the order in which we communicate the parts of the faith. Pushing moral behaviors before we lift up Christ is religion. The church today is calling people to God with a tone of voice that seems to confirm their worst fears. Religion has always been outside-in—”if I behave out here in all these ways, then I will have God’s blessing and love inside.” But the gospel is inside-out—”if I know the blessing and grace of God inside, then I can behave out here in all these ways.”
A woman who had been attending our church for several months came to see me. “Do you think abortion is wrong?” she asked…
I said that I did.
“I’m coming now to see that maybe there is something wrong with it,” she replied, “now that I have become a Christian here and have started studying the faith in the classes.”
As we spoke, I discovered that she was an Ivy League graduate, a lawyer, a long-time Manhattan resident, and an active member of the ACLU. She volunteered that she had experienced three abortions. “I want you to know,” she said, “that if I had seen any literature or reference to the ‘pro-life’ movement, I would not have stayed through the first service. But I did stay, and I found faith in Christ. If abortion is wrong, you should certainly speak out against it, but I’m glad about the order in which you do it.”
This woman had had her faith incubated into birth in our Sunday services. In worship, we center on the question “what is truth?” and the one who had the audacity to say, “I am the truth.” That is the big issue for postmodern people, and it’s hard to swallow. Nothing is more subversive and prophetic than to say Truth has become a real person!
Jesus calls both younger brothers and elder brothers to come into the Father’s arms. He calls the church to grasp the gospel for ourselves and share it with those who are desperately seeking true spirituality. We, of all people, ought to understand and agree with fears about religion, for Jesus himself warned us to be wary of it, and not to mistake a call for moral virtue for the good news of God’s salvation provided in Christ.”
Keller is a master wordsmith, choosing and using words with the precision of an opthamologist’s laser beam. When Pastor Keller refers to preaching against the slaughter of the unborn as “pushing moral behaviors,” he’s telling us what he thinks most preachers are trying to accomplish by opposing and condemning the slaughter of the unborn as a part of their ministry of the Word.
What parishioner would choose a pastor who uses the pulpit to “push moralism?” What preacher opposing the slaughter of the unborn would recognize his difficult work in Keller’s summary phrase “pushing moral behavior?”
Change the wording only slightly, though, and things look different. Instead of saying those who preach against abortion are “pushing moral behavior,” might we say they are “opposing the slaughter of innocent children?” Would that be permissible to Pastor Keller?
There’s another place where Keller’s language is revealing. He tells us that, before she was converted, this sister in Christ murdered three of her unborn children.
Yet that’s not how he put it.
Remember that this sister is now a follower of Jesus Christ. She has learned of our Lord’s grace and mercy. So is now finally the time to speak of abortion’s awful reality? Is now the time to lead her to acknowledge the horror of her murder of her little ones, bringing her sin under God’s law so she may see the full gravity and grace of God’s forgiveness?
Theoretically, speaking to her of the murder of her little ones is no longer “pushing moralism,” right? She’s now seen Christ lifted up on His Cross and she’s embraced Him by faith. So, again, is now the time when we preach to her the evil of mothers murdering their own children?
Apparently not, because even now when she’s confessed faith in Christ, Pastor Keller excuses her infanticide by speaking as if she’s the victim. Not her three babies.
Note how he puts it:
…she had experienced three abortions.
“Experiencing three abortions” is a far cry from hiring someone to murder three of your children.
Keep in mind that Pastor Keller isn’t even talking to this new sister in Christ. Rather, he’s talking to Christians about how to witness to Christ. He’s talking to pastors about how to preach the Gospel. Even from the relative safety of an in-house discussion among fellow believers and men ordained to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament, Keller’s language denies the utter depravity of what our sister did to her own little ones, as well as her moral agency in paying for their murder.
How would Pastor Keller speak of the other parties to these child-murders? Would he say that they, too, had merely “experienced abortions?” What about the doctor this woman hired? Did she (or he) merely “experience” these abortions? And the nurses paid to assist the baby-killer? Are they to be pitied for the many child-slaughters they are paid to assist with each week? Have they also merely “experienced abortions?”
This language is a far cry from the pastoral care the prophet Nathan lovingly brought to King David after David committed adultery with Bathsheba, also murdering her husband:
Then the LORD sent Nathan to David. And he came to him and said, “There were two men in one city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a great many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb Which he bought and nourished; And it grew up together with him and his children. It would eat of his bread and drink of his cup and lie in his bosom, And was like a daughter to him. Now a
traveler came to the rich man, And he was unwilling to take from his own flock or his own herd, To prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him; Rather he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
Then David’s anger burned greatly against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die. He must make restitution for the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing and had no compassion.”
Nathan then said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘It is I who anointed you king over Israel and it is I who delivered you from the hand of Saul. I also gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your care, and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added to you many more things like these! Why have you despised the word of the LORD by doing evil in His sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon'” (2 Samuel 12:1-9).
In love leading David to repentance, Nathan did everything possible to maximize David’s righteous indignation against the evil.
Only when he’d drawn the matter out with great pathos did Nathan proceed to make it clear to David that he was the man who had committed these heinous sins. Must we really point out to the eminent Keller and all his disciples that this exposure of King David’s sin was God and His prophet’s love? This call to repentance by Nathan the Prophet was not his moralistic self-righteousness—what Keller disses and condemns as “religion.”
There’s much else that could be said about this statement of Pastor Keller’s strategy and tactics for dealing with the great wickedness of child slaughter across our culture by not preaching against it in our churches.
In fact, here are some questions pointing to other concerns I have with Keller’s preaching advice and understanding of the place of the Law in Gospel ministry.
If this is how we are to approach abortion, is there any indication we should approach any other violation of God’s Moral Law in a manner different from abortion? Say, for instance, lying? Stealing? Fornication? Idolatry? Sodomy?
Should we expect that our silence on these other sins will also result in new believers setting up an appointment with us to ask us whether we think sodomy is wrong? Will they come into our office to inquire whether we think fornication is wrong? What about greed and theft and embezzlement and pride and selfishness—must we really avoid condemning any of these sins for fear of straying into that great evil Keller condemns as “pushing moral behavior?”
Even if we accept Pastor Keller’s approach to Gospel preaching, what about the diaconal ministry of the church to the least of these—those unborn children being slaughtered around the corner from our worship facilities? Are our deacons also to be gagged?
Too, what about congregational prayer? During those intervening months while our sister was worshiping with Redeemer each Lord’s Day morning, was there never a time when Pastor Keller prayed for God to bring an end to the sacrifice of our nation’s children to Molech? Was there never an announcement in Sunday morning worship of the need for men and women of God to volunteer to do sidewalk counseling at the abortuaries of New York City? Did Keller gag any such announcements even in his bulletins handed out Sunday mornning, or any of his congregation’s online communications?
Another question: Is Sunday worship only for evangelism? Is it never for God’s Covenant People?
If it’s even partly for God’s Covenant People, must there be no proclamation of the Law of God from Keller’s pulpit, calling God’s people to sanctification?
Finally, are we to understand that there is no sin—none at all—that God uses to lead a sinner to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ? How is a sinner to come to know his or her need of the blood of Jesus Christ if the Gospel ministry of the Word doesn’t expose his wickedness? How is he to come to Christ if God’s law may not be used as a schoolmaster leading him to the Cross?
In the book of Acts, we see the Apostolic preaching of the Cross and the glorious fruit it produced, whether in Athens or Jerusalem. But note very carefully how sin is ground zero of that preaching.
For instance, here the Apostle Peter brings his Gospel sermon on the Day of Pentecost to an end:
(Peter said) “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?”
Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.”
And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!”
So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:36-41)
Peter concluded his sermon with two proclamations explicitly designed to produce the effect that the people were cut to the heart. This was the Apostle Peter’s faithful preaching of the Gospel, and the fruit it produced was that those hearing him repented, believed, were baptized, and were added to Christ’s Church.
The Apostle Peter preached, “This Jesus whom you crucified.” The Apostle Peter exhorted them to “repent” and “be saved from this perverse generation.”
As I’ve thought about Pastor Keller’s call to pastors to protect the Gospel and reject “religion” by not mentioning abortion in their preaching, I’ve wondered whether there may not be other better reasons for his counsel than his explanation above? Maybe it’s not sin he thinks should be kept out of Gospel sermons, but only specific sins commonly exploited by conservative politicians for political ends?
But if this is his real goal—to avoid identifying with the Republican Party or conservative politics—he would do better to say that, precisely. Then allow the argument to proceed from there.
At that point, we could engage a number of other issues related to that strategy.
Sadly, almost every form of wickedness has become a political issue in our day. Is the idolatry of the state also unmentionable? How about materialism? Divorce? The denial of the Image of God in man that’s at the core of Green politics? Is sodomy not a political issue?
Must we wait quietly in our offices hoping and praying for visits from new converts before we unburden our consciences and finally ‘fess up to our true convictions about each of these stumbling blocks that lead our sheep to Hell?
When did we decide that, in our preaching of the Gospel, we would no longer trust in the power of the Holy Spirit? Every one of us should be scandalized by Pastor Keller’s betrayal of the grace of the law in Gospel preaching.
This is a large part of the true impact of Tim Keller on the Church of Jesus Christ in our time.