NOTE: Fourteen years ago, on October 15, 2008, this article on Pastor Tim Keller’s preaching philosophy concerning abortion was first published on Baylyblog.com. Over on Sanityville earlier today, a brother asked what Pastor Keller said about preaching against abortion, so it seemed a good time to resurrect this piece. Retired and fighting cancer, Pastor Keller is not the problem, now. Instead, the problem we face today is the majority of Reformed pastors who took Pastor Keller’s preaching philosophy and ran with it; who copied it and now lead Presbyterian and non-Presbyterian churches around the world.
(Tim, w/thanks to Joel) For quite a while now, conservative reformed pulpits have been quiet about subjects that are controversial in our political context—particularly abortion. Here is a short article written by Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian (PCA) in New York City, giving his explanation of this silence. The subject goes much deeper than the politics of abortion. It goes to the very heart of our understanding of the Gospel and the place of the Law in Gospel proclamation and Lord’s Day worship.
First, this excerpt from Pastor Keller’s article, followed by a response. “Religion-less Spirituality” 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 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.
Tim Keller is a master with words. Choosing and using them with the precision of an opthamologist’s laser, 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 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?” On the other hand, what preacher opposing the slaughter of the unborn would recognize his difficult work in the summary phrase “pushing moral behavior?”
Change the wording only slightly and things look different. Instead of saying those who preach against abortion are “pushing moral behavior,” say that they are “opposing the slaughter of innocent children.” With this turn of phrase, suddenly we find ourselves more sympathetic toward the preachers Pastor Keller is condemning.
There’s another place where the precision of Pastor Keller’s language is revealing. Later in this same paragraph, Pastor Keller tells us that, before she was converted, this sister in Christ murdered three of her unborn children—although that’s not how he put it.
She’s a follower of Jesus Christ now. She’s learned of His grace and mercy. So is this the time to speak of abortion truthfully? Is this the time to lead her through sin to repentance? Theoretically, speaking to her of the murder of one’s own offspring is no longer “pushing moralism” since she’s now seen Christ lifted up on His Cross, and embraced Him by faith. So again, is now the time when we teach her the truth about child-sacrifice and the mother’s moral agency in that bloodshed?
Apparently not, because even now when she’s confessed faith in Christ, Pastor Keller seems to excuse her infanticide by speaking as if she’s the victim—not her three little 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, though, that Pastor Keller isn’t even talking to this new sister in Christ. Rather, he’s talking to Christians about how to witness, as well as other pastors about how to preach. So even from the relative safety of an in-house discussion among fellow believers and men ordained to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament, his language hides our sister’s moral agency and the depravity of what she did to her own little ones.
How would Pastor Keller speak of the other parties to these child-murders? Would he say that they had “experienced abortions?” What about the doctor this woman hired? Did he or she merely “experience” these abortions, also? And the nurses paid to assist the baby-killer—are they to be pitied for the many abortions they “experience” each week?
This language is a far cry from the pastoral care the prophet Nathan lovingly brought to King David after David committed adultery with Bathsheba, then murdered 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 leading David to repentance, Nathan did everything possible to maximize David’s righteous indignation against the evil he himself had committed. 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 great sins. And this was God and His prophet’s love—not any moralistic self-righteousness or hatred.
There’s much else that could be said about this short statement of Pastor Keller’s recommendations for how we approach abortion in our churches today. Let me suggest some questions that point to other concerns I have with his argument:
If this is how we are to approach abortion, is there any indication we should approach other violations of God’s Moral Law in a manner different from abortion? Lying? Stealing? Fornication? Sodomy? Idolatry? Can we depend upon other new believers setting up an appointment to ask us whether we think sodomy or lesbianism is wrong, explaining they would have left the church at the beginning of the first worship service they attended if they had been condemned from the pulpit?
Even if we accept Pastor Keller’s approach to Gospel preaching, what about the diaconal ministry of the church to the least of these—to those unborn children being slaughtered around the corner from Redeemer’s worship facilities? What about congregational prayer? During those intervening months during our sister was worshiping with Redeemer each Lord’s Day, 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 who would picket the abortuaries in New York City? Not even an announcement in the bulletin or church newsletter?
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 tremendous evangelistic fruit it produced, whether in Athens or Jerusalem. And sin is ground zero of that preaching. For instance, note how the Apostle Peter brings his evangelistic Pentecost sermon 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, repented, believed, were baptized, and were added to Christ’s Church: He said “This Jesus whom you crucified;” and he also exhorted them to “repent” and “be saved from this perverse generation.”
As I’ve thought about Pastor Keller’s counsel concerning mentioning abortion in witnessing and as a part of Lord’s Day worship proclamation, 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 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, and let the argument proceed from there. Then we could engage a number of other issues related to that strategy; say, for instance, that almost every evil of our day is a political hot potato. 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? Sodomy?
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, unspoken, and deeply personal pastoral convictions about each of these stumbling blocks that lead our sheep to Hell?
If we have time on our hands, it may be a good debate to have, and it might help some of us to grow in our thinking about the nature of the power of the Holy Spirit in Gospel preaching. But I must say: I’m quite uneasy about what Pastor Keller has written. Quite, quite uneasy, bordering on scandalized.
As it now stands, it’s hard to see how Pastor Keller’s evangelistic preaching strategy won’t end up being a denial of the Law of God serving as a schoolmaster to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. And every preacher alive knows that Pastor Keller’s strategy comports quite well with the preaching methodology that will lead to the least amount of conflict in our congregations. But also, the least chance of a secret session meeting while we’re on vacation with an offer of suitable remuneration in exchange for our resignation when we get home.
NOTE: Several months after this article was published, Pastor Keller finally spoke of the sin of abortion in a sermon.