April 24, 2014

Center Church and common grace

by Jon Anderson

Center Church is Timothy Keller’s text book for pastors. It is Keller’s goal that this book be used to help pastors “maximize their fruitfulness for the sake of the gospel,” and there is no doubt that this book will have a lasting impact on evangelicalism.

And there is much that is helpful in Center Church (CC). Yesterday I summarized the book, and you should really read today’s post in light of that. And I noted that there are three major areas of disagreement that I have with the approach to pastoral ministry presented in CC:

  • Contextualization—this immediately shapes our view on the methods of evangelism and equipping, how the church is built, who gets the credit for building the church, and how we evaluate ministry efforts
  • Common Grace—this immediately shapes our view on the cultural mandate of the church and the goal of the church in the world
  • The Church—the definition of who makes up the church has an immediate impact on how the gospel is manifested to the world

Today’s post will focus on that second point:

CC and Common Grace

The biblical doctrine of common grace highlights the love of God shown to His enemies.  It both extols God’s gracious character and the urgent need of the unbeliever to repent.  Common grace, as seen in God’s revelation of Himself through general revelation, the work of the conscience, and undeserved gifts given to the righteous and the unrighteous always point toward God’s desire for repentance, and the lack of excuses for unbelief.  CC simply follows Abraham Kuyper’s view of progressive common grace which affirms that God’s common grace can be seen in the increasing progress of human existence in this cursed creation.  According to Keller, part of God’s mission for the church is to help promote human flourishing.  This view depreciates the value of special grace in the power of conversion, and it distracts the church from the great commission.

CC repeatedly emphasizes the need for the church to do whatever is for the good of “human flourishing” or for the “common good” or the “good of humanity” or “human thriving” (i.e., pp. 24, 47, 89, 170, 195—even modified by “as the Bible defines it”, 199, 200, 201, 202—three times, 210—twice, 227, 235—twice, 236—four times, 238, 246, 253, 339).  I acknowledge that where the gospel is embraced by a society, human beings flourish as God designed.  However, I am more concerned that where the church pursues the common good outside the special revelation of the gospel, she is eventually prevented from fulfilling the great commission.  This view makes a gospel out of common grace rather than special grace.

Keller has long been indebted to Abraham Kuyper’s influence as a theologian and a cultural thinker.  He rightly puts Kuyper in the Transformationist camp on the issue of how the church responds to the culture and admits that he has “a Transformationist slant” (195).  Keller expresses appreciation of the Transformationist model and affirms them for “giving guidance to Christians in business or public service—particularly a Christian vision of human flourishing” (200).

Kuyper manuscripting his “lectures on Calvinism”

Keller is simply following Kuyper here.  In 1902, Kuyper articulated common grace in the first volume of his work on common grace called De Gemeene Gratie.  After explaining special grace as regeneration and removal of sin from the heart in sanctification, he says:

But common grace does nothing of the sort.  It keeps down but does not quench.  It tames, but does not change the nature.  It keeps back and holds in leash, but thus, as soon as the restraint is removed, the evil races forth anew of itself.  It trims the wild shoots, but does not heal the root.  It leaves the inner impulse of the ego of man to its wickedness, but prevents the full fruition of wickedness.  It is a limiting, a restraining, a hindering power, which brakes and brings to a standstill (I, p. 242).

Here, Kuyper’s definition of common grace is biblical.  But, in the second volume of De Gemeene Gratie, Kuyper maintains his previous definition of common grace under the label of constant common grace, adding a new dimension which he calls progressive. Kuyper states:

Yet common grace could not stop at this first and constant operation.  Mere maintenance and control affords no answer to the question as to what end the world is to be preserved and why it has passed throughout a history of ages.  If things remain the same why should they remain at all?  If life were merely repetition why should life be continued at all?… Accordingly there is added to this first constant operation of common grace…another, wholly different, operation…calculated to make human life and the life of the whole world pass through a process and develop itself more fully and richly… (II, p. 601).

The constant [operation] consists in this that God, with many differences of degree, restrains the curse of nature and the sin of the human heart.  In contrast with this the progressive [operation] is that other working through which God, with steady progress, equips human life ever more thoroughly against suffering, and internally brings it to richer and fuller development’ (II, p. 602).

For Kuyper, the difference between constant common grace and progressive common grace is that in the first operation, God works apart from man, but in the latter, man becomes an “‘instrument and colaborer with God’ (II, p. 602).” This pursuit of God—to work against suffering and bring humanity into a richer and fuller development—seems to be the same goal that Keller is after in his pursuit of human flourishing.  Kuyper and Keller agree that God is doing a work outside of the gospel (as do I), but then Keller’s position affirms two unavoidable implications: 1) that every culture (think of it as a conglomerate of fallen men) always has predispositions toward truth and what is good, and 2) what unbelieving man can do for human flourishing must become the goal of the church as well.

Is Any Culture Predisposed to Aspects of the Truth?

Keller believes that God, by virtue of common grace, has instilled in every culture things that are good and pleasing to Him.  Because of this common grace, Christianity must also praise the culture appropriately with the gospel where the world promotes human flourishing.

Keller writes:

Because the city has potential for both human flourishing and human idolatry, we minister with balance, using the gospel to both appreciate and challenge the culture to be in accord with God’s truth. (87)

This can be seen throughout the three sections of CC, but perhaps never so clearly as the discussion about how to bring offensive gospel doctrines into a culture with the least offense.  Allow me to quote Keller at length:

To enter a culture, another main task is to discern its dominant worldviews or belief systems, because contextualized worldviews or belief systems, because contextualized gospel ministry should affirm the beliefs of the culture wherever it can be done with integrity.  When we enter a culture, we should be looking for two kinds of beliefs.  The first are what I call “A” beliefs, which are beliefs people already hold that, because of God’s common grace, roughly correspond to some of the Bible’s teaching (which we may call “A” doctrines).  However, we will also find “B” beliefs—what may be called ‘deafeater’ beliefs—beliefs of the culture that lead listeners to find some Christian doctrines implausible or overtly offensive.  “B” beliefs contradict Christian truth directly at points we may call “B” doctrines. (123)

Keller goes on to describe the “A” doctrines as logs and “B” doctrines as stones.  In order to get them down the river (his analogy), lash the logs together and float the offensive stones on the logs.  So, Keller’s view of common grace is that God has so revealed Himself that there are areas where every unbelieving culture will naturally enjoy and affirm something that agrees roughly with the truth.  It is these areas which afford the Christian the place to affirm the unbeliever.  According to Keller, finding where we can affirm unbelievers in their unbelief is necessary, or else we will never have power to persuade them of the gospel:

In our gospel communication, we enter the culture by pointing people to the overlapping beliefs they can easily affirm (123)

… we should take great care to affirm the “A” beliefs and doctrines (124)

And most surprising:

Our criticism of the culture will have no power to persuade unless it is based on something that we can affirm in the beliefs and values of that culture. (124)

Examples of “A” doctrines and “B” doctrines were love toward your neighbor and prohibitions on sexual immorality.  The Manhattan culture is declared to embrace loving the neighbor as an “A” doctrine and to reject sexual purity as a “B” doctrine.  A Middle Eastern culture would be exactly the opposite.  How any unbeliever in Manhattan loves his neighbor in the biblical sense—let alone how any unbeliever outside the Manhattan culture has never lusted in the way Jesus prohibits in Matthew 5:27-30—I have no idea.  More than that, appealing to common grace as a basis for affirming the ungodly in their unbelief is a twisted and wicked approach to evangelism.

Paul took the opposite position regarding the affirmation of cultural virtues, practices and customs.  1 Corinthians 1:17 says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.”  He continues to mention this sophistic rhetoric throughout this and the next chapter with terms like ‘wisdom’ (verse 22; which contrasts the simple preaching of the gospel because that was viewed as foolishness by those who loved sophistry), ‘superiority of speech’ (2:1), and ‘persuasive words of wisdom’ (2:4).  This is a clear statement about Paul’s approach to using pop cultural persuasion and techniques in order to spread the gospel.

Notice the parallel between Keller’s appeal to Christians in the publishing houses, art, movies, and music, and that of the Corinthian’s fascination with sophistic rhetoric. The rhetoric of Aristotle, Demosthenes, or Cicero would have been entirely accessible to Paul for use if he had so desired.  Instead of adopting Corinthian rhetoric—let alone being neutral towards it—Paul rejected the use of it as a threat to the work of God.  Instead of promoting the work of God, the appeal to what unbelieving cultures affirm undermines the work of God.

For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.  I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.  (1 Corinthians 2:2-5)

In fact, when the “A” doctrine and “B” doctrine distinction is employed, who knows whether the positive response to the message is due to sinners placing their faith in your wisdom and ability to float stones on logs, or on the power of God?

Here is the only justification I found in CC for the idea that common grace makes (let alone ‘requires’) an unbelieving culture praiseworthy:

…we see in Romans 1 and 2 that all human beings possess a primordial knowledge of God.  In Romans 2:14-15, Paul states that God’s law is written on the heart of every human being.  All people have an innate sense of the righteousness of honesty, justice, love, and the Golden rule.  Because we are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-28), all people know at some deep level that there is a God, that we are his creatures, and that we should serve him and are accountable to him.  There is ‘general revelation’ or ‘common grace’—a non-saving knowledge and likeness of God that he grants to all those who bear his image—present in some way in every culture. (108-9; from chapter 9, titled “Biblical Contextualization,” pp. 108-117)

The remainder of page 109 is dedicated to explaining that because of common grace we need to respond to the culture with balance between appreciation or “enjoyment” and  “appropriate wariness.”  Keller uses the realities of common grace, general revelation (Romans 1:18-21) and the human conscience (Romans 2:14-15) to justify his view that common grace is as crucial for opening the doors for the gospel as special grace is powerful [Keller writes: “Our criticism of the culture will have no power to persuade unless it is based on something that we can affirm in the beliefs and values of that culture” (124)].

Shockingly, this is something that Paul (or any other author of Scripture) never does!  Instead of affirming unbelievers, Paul teaches that common grace indicts the sinner’s soul.  Paul rebukes the unbeliever precisely because of the general revelation he has rejected.  The unbeliever is without excuse.  He knows that what he does is wrong, and heartily gives approval to others who sin against God in similar ways (Romans 1:32).  Therefore, the conscience never becomes a basis for affirming the unbeliever.  When Paul mentions the accusing and defending motion of the conscience (Romans 2:15), he is proving that Gentiles will know why they are guilty at judgment (Romans 2:12-16).  Additionally, every indictment of another for violating a righteous standard proves the sinner is aware of and accountable to that standard.  Paul proves that because of common grace, the sinner has no excuse, with or without Scripture (Romans 2:1; 3:19).

Keller’s appeal to common grace as a justification for affirming culture is very dangerous.  Not only does it depreciate God’s special grace which comes to men and women who have no merit before God, it also blurs the essential doctrines of the gospel.  Wherever common grace is viewed as essential to pre-evangelism, God’s special grace is minimized.  It makes a virtue of an unbeliever’s contribution to human flourishing, while the gospel exposes hostility to the truth and calls for repentance.

Why Does Secular Work Glorify God?

Due to common grace, the labors and advances of a culture can make the world a better place to live.  Keller says, “The Bible teaches that all our work matters to God.  The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers believed that ‘secular’ work is as valuable and God honoring as Christian ministry” (331).  There are many passages that teach this (e.g. Tit 2:9-10; Eph 6:5-8; Col 3:22-25). The question is, “Why does secular work glorify God?”  For Keller, the reason is that this secular work increases human flourishing, and serves humanity at large.  In other words, it glorifies God because it makes the world a better place to live.  He writes:

When we use our gifts in work—whether by making clothes, building machines or software, practicing law, tilling fields, mending broken bodies, or nurturing children—we are answering God’s call to serve the human community…  A robust theology of creation—and of God’s love and care for it—helps us see that even simple tasks such as making a shoe, filling a tooth, and digging a ditch are ways to serve God and build up human community.  Our cultural production rearranges the material world in such a way that honors God and promotes human flourishing. (331)

According to Keller, therefore, with the goal of honoring God and promoting human flourishing, unbelievers can please God and honor Him in their work in the same way that believers can.  In other words, work glorifies God the same way whether someone possesses the Holy Spirit or not.

Allow me to compare Beethoven and Bach as examples of those who have successfully made this world a better place to live.  Many people appreciate their music to one degree or another.  However, Beethoven was not a professing believer, and though he wrote some music for the church in Vienna, lived in opposition to God’s gospel.  Bach was singularly devoted to writing church music that glorified God, intentionally serving the Christians who worshipped at his church every week.  By virtue of common grace, God is glorified by the fact that men can listen to either musician and enjoy the music they have written.

However, distinct from Beethoven, Bach glorifies God in a special way when he writes in order to exalt God’s saving work (special grace is involved here).   The same is true when listeners enjoy the significance of Christ’s sufferings as they listen with faith (special grace is also involved here) to the St. John Passion for example.  So we can see that human flourishing is not a sufficient test of whether one’s labors are pleasing to the Lord or not.

Additionally, let me highlight the difference between the purpose of common grace for Keller and for the Bible.  Keller would see common grace in the fact that Beethoven’s music made the world a better place, and I see common grace in the fact that God sustained Beethoven’s life for decades in spite of his rebellion against God’s righteousness, in hopes of bringing him repentance.  Namely, common grace was given to Beethoven in the form of the nature around him (Romans 1:18-20), works of the law written on his heart in the form of a conscience (Romans 2:14-15).  Beethoven’s deafness is due to common grace in the Romans 2:4 sense.  He should have been snuffed out for his godless life long before, but God showed grace by tampering with what was precious to him, wooing him to repent.

Keller would look at Beethoven and see common grace in that the world is a better place because of the 9th Symphony.  In Keller’s view, God is using believers and unbelievers alike to increase human flourishing, making it tragic if believers failed to applaud the 9th and miss out on God’s act of redeeming the culture.  The real tragedy, in my view, is to ignore how God uses common grace as a testimony of His goodness and as an indictment against the excuse of men for their unbelief.  Beethoven’s deafness was due to common grace just as much as his natural talents.  Keller’s definition has no category, it would seem, for God tampering with human flourishing in order to bless man eternally.  It’s as though Keller’s view of common grace can only be grace if there is no eternity!

Instead of viewing work through the lens of human flourishing, the Bible highlights how work can uniquely glorify God.  The character and demeanor of the Christian stand out from the pagan, so that the doctrine of God our Savior is adorned as true and powerful in the work of His children.  For the Christian, secular labor demonstrates the beauty of God’s eternal salvation, not the temporal welfare of man:

Urge bondslaves to be subject to their own masters in everything, to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith so that they will adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect. (Titus 2:9-10)

CC’s philosophy confuses the calling of the church to be witnesses for Christ (a ministry of special grace) with the secular vocation of those who make up the church (a benefit of common grace).  In this model, vocational training becomes on a par with equipping and evangelism.  The confusion of common and special grace introduces a foreign purpose to the church’s mission.  Slowly but surely the ministry of special grace becomes eclipsed by the benefits of common grace.  After all, how would a pastor tell the proverbial ‘Beethoven’ who sits in on the church’s services that God has so graciously sustained him and tolerated him this long in order to bring him to repentance (the message of special grace), while on the other hand, his achievements in the musical world are actually increasing human flourishing?  If the latter is believed to be the God-ordained mission of the church, bold preaching of repentance is no longer possible.

Does the Church Have a Social Mandate?

This may sound like a question that should be answered in the third section, dealing with CC’s ecclesiology.  However, it truly belongs here, because Keller’s social mandate seems to be rooted in the doctrine of common grace.  Throughout large portions of the City section (chs. 7-18) of CC, Keller is evaluating positions and approaches to the culture.  He believes that the mission of the church must be balanced between the great commission and the cultural mandate to advance human flourishing.  He writes:

We teach Christians to integrate their faith and their work so that they can be culture makers, working for human flourishing—the common good. (47)

…numbers do not always equate to influence.  Even if 80 percent of the population of a country are Christian believers, they will have almost no cultural influence if the Christians do no live in cultural centers and work in culture-forging fields such as academia, publishing, media, entertainment, and the arts.  The assumption that society will improve simply by more Christian believers being present is no longer valid.  If you care about having an influence on society, evangelism is not enough. (185)

But effective churches will be so involved in deeds of mercy and justice that outsiders will say, “We cannot do without churches like this.  This church is channeling so much value into our community that if it were to leave the neighborhood, we would have to raise taxes” (305; but he make similar statements on pp. 81, 223-24, 236, 331, 334-35).

Things like clean water, dental work, changing business, art, music and publishing for the better may certainly be good for humanity in this life. But is this to be the missio Dei (God’s mission) for the church?  As good as these things may be, I’m convinced that this is a terrible distraction from the true mission of the church.  To clearly understand the mission of the church, let’s look at the early chapters of the book of Acts.

After His resurrection, Christ spent 40 days with the disciples, teaching them about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:1-3).  After all the discussion about the kingdom (verse 3), the disciples ask about the presence of the kingdom.  Jesus tells them that the timing of the kingdoms arrival is not for them to know.  Then, He proceeds to tell them that they need to wait in Jerusalem until the promised Holy Spirit comes (1:4-5).  Notice what happens with these two pieces of information in the minds of the disciples:

So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, ‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.’ (Acts 1:6-8)

The mandate is about being witnesses, testifying to the resurrection.  The mandate of the church is about testifying to the gospel until He returns (Keller agrees).  The mandate of the church is exclusively about testifying and not about establishing ‘shalom’ or cultural renewal in some sort of kingdom sense (Keller doesn’t agree).  After receiving the commission to witness, the apostles remain undistracted.  Instead of leading the church into cultural renewal, they point to the only One who can restore the creation.  The apostolic message is repent and believe so that Christ can come and reverse the curse placed on this earth.  Peter proclaimed,

Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time  (Acts 3:19-21; cf. Rom 8:18-25).

Peter preached that cultural renewal was a work of Christ by virtue of His imminent return as King.  Keller, however, believes that our pursuit of cultural renewal, social justice, mercy ministry, and human betterment are based on the fact that Jesus created and redeemed body and spirit:

First, word and deed go together theologically.  The resurrection of Jesus shows us that God not only created both body and spirit, but that he will also redeem both body and spirit.  The salvation Jesus will eventually bring in its fullness will include liberation from all of the effects of sin—not only the spiritual effects but physical and material ones as well.  Jesus himself came both preaching the Word and healing and feeding.  The final kingdom will be one of justice for all.  Christians can faithfully proclaim the gospel through both words and deeds of compassion and justice, serving the material needs of people around us even as we call them to faith in Jesus. (322)

In order to justify the cultural mandate, Keller seems to take passages about the church’s mission to care for the saints and then apply them to the unbelieving poor in society.  On the first page of the book, Keller affirms mercy ministry to the poor as ‘fruit’ because of Romans 15:28.  However, as the previous two verses show, this ministry wasn’t to unbelievers, but instead for “for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem.”  These Gentiles were sharing in their physical possessions for the benefit of Christians they had never met who were undergoing famine conditions.

On page 228, Keller writes that Jesus calls his disciples to renew the culture based on Matthew 5:13.  Yet, in Matthew’s context, being a salty Christian doesn’t earn the world’s favor (as in the case of cultural renewal for the common good), but the world’s animosity because of the offense of righteousness (Matt. 5:10) and Christ (Matt. 5:11-12).  Keller believes the illustration is meat being preserved by salt.  However, Jesus tells us exactly what aspect of salt he is referring to.  Jesus isn’t using salt to talk about preservation any more than melting ice on the road.  He says that Christians are to be salty, and “if the salt has become tasteless” (5:13) then we have a problem.  Christians doing cultural renewal aren’t salty; they taste like philanthropists of all stripes.  Christians walking in righteousness (5:6, 10-12, 19-20) are salty, distinctive in flavor among the world.

In chapter 25, Keller gives a systematic defense of mercy and justice ministries to the community outside the church.  The texts appealed to include the example of Martha serving a meal in Luke 10:40 (323).  Unfortunately for Keller and Martha, Mary was the example to follow and Martha, the example to avoid (Lk. 10:41-42).

On page 323, Keller appeals to Acts 6:2.  Here the apostles declare that they cannot neglect the Word and prayer, but the needs of the saints must be met as well.  Notice that the needs were among “the disciples” (Acts 6:1).  Specifically, there was some tension between the Hellenistic widows and the Hebrew widows, since the Hellenized widows were being overlooked.  As always, the need was in-house, among the people of God.  The widows here are declared to be “disciples” in verse 1.  In James 1:27, the combination of “orphans and widows” is reminiscent of the OT triad, “orphan, widow, and alien.”  These had no means of provision because they had no husband who was working his inherited portion of the promised land.  Even an alien, a convert from Egypt, Moab, Phoenicia, etc., would be in the same position.  They would only be there because they converted to worship and serve Yahweh, and they we depend on the mercy and care of the fellow faithful Israelites (cf. Deut. 10:18-19; 24:19-22).

Furthermore, Paul defines a widow as a woman who “has fixed her hope on God” and is devoted to prayer (1 Tim. 5:5).  Widows were only to be cared for by the church when they had an established reputation of godliness, a demonstrable faith, and no one in their own household to care for them (vv. 9-16).  Certainly individual Christians will be compassionate towards the lost and must be characterized by good deeds (Gal. 6:10), but I find no biblical evidence for the church’s so-called social mandate.

Christ didn’t ask us to reverse the curse, set the creation free, or cause times of refreshing.  Only He can do that.  He has asked us to minister to the saints and testify of the resurrection until He returns.

bluesbrothers on a missionCan Unbelievers Fulfill the Missio Dei?

I recently read about some of the homeless in Philadelphia.  Two different groups attempted to come alongside a charitable organization to help these people.  On the one hand, churches in the greater Philly area raised some money to buy them some things, one of which was microwave popcorn.  On the other hand, the mafia showed up and handed out brand new bicycles to kids, a turkey to each family, and gave thousands of dollars to the organization.  After considering the fact that these people had no microwaves, let alone electricity, the author (Shane Claiborne) wrote, “I thought to myself, I guess God can use the mafia, but I would like God to use the church.”

This raises an important question.  Can unbelievers fulfill the purpose of the church and please the Lord?  Keller seems to answer yes and no.  He would ultimately say no, of course.  But he repeatedly affirms the necessary balance of remaining in the center of the Word mandate and the Deed mandate (see the previous and next section).  Yet unbelievers regularly perform the Deed mandate.  Keller is burdening the church with a mandate that doesn’t require the Holy Spirit.  Not only are these two—Christians and the world—at odds, lacking any harmony or shared passion (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1), but those who don’t have Christ or His Spirit cannot do anything beneficial in the spiritual sense.

Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).  Whatever the unbeliever can do—no matter how beneficial it is because of common grace—can’t be called ‘fruit.’  And Paul said, “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:6-8).  Whatever the unbeliever does accomplish, it is never submissive to God’s authority or pleasing to Him.

It appears impossible to avoid one of two implications.  If the church is called to fulfill a task that unbelievers can and do already you are left with two options.  Either a) the church ought to focus on what cannot biblically be called fruit, submission, or anything pleasing to God, or b)unbelievers don’t need the church, the gospel, or Christ’s Spirit to accomplish half of the missio Dei!   The former is too preposterous to consider, and the latter leaves you wandering, “Why should the church focus on this so-called social mandate?”  Let the spiritually dead take care of that work, because not only can they, but they will be able to do a better job of it.  Why wouldn’t we take care of what the church alone can be a part of by God’s special grace—the evangelization of souls?

Are the ‘Word’ and ‘Deed’ Mandates Compatible?

What is very concerning in these quotes is the fact that there is nothing uniquely Christian in the call to influence culture.  There is nothing distinctively spiritual about channeling value into the community (331), or the influence on society that goes beyond the gospel because “evangelism is not enough” (185).  What I mean by that is that, due to a shared Kuyperian view of common grace, natural man has been given the ability to make society better, via music, art, publishing, medicine, politics, etc.  Then, this area of natural ability called ‘cultural renewal’ or ‘cultural transformation’ is raised up as the missio Dei, the legitimate mandate for the church’s focus in this world.  In fact, Keller believes that the cultural mandate and the gospel mandate are equal in importance and can co-exist:

Although these factors [evangelism and cultural renewal/social justice] are mutually strengthening, the specialists and proponents of each element will almost always pit them against the others.  Thus, evangelists may fear that a social justice emphasis will drain energy, attention, and resources from evangelism. (82)

I am arguing that a church can robustly preach and teach the classic evangelical doctrines and still be missional.  That is, it can still have a missionary encounter with Western culture and reach and disciple unchurched, nontraditional nonbelievers in our society. (271)

Beyond the cultural mandate’s lack of biblical merit, the assertion that both emphases can coexist is quite interesting.  They aren’t compatible for one simple reason—the work that Christ is doing in the world makes His servants hated by the world, while the work of cultural betterment is both pursued and praised by the world.  Of course these two can’t coexist.  What Christian isn’t going to gravitate toward cultural work, away from bold and unaccepted evangelism, when God is equally pleased by cultural work (according to CC’s theological vision) that is applauded by the world?

Keller’s theological vision seems to be at odds with foundational Christianity.  Christ never teaches that following His word will make us attractive to the world, but rather that we will be hated by the world.

If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.  Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.  But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me. (John 15:18-21)

Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Tim. 3:12)

[Paul was] strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)

The true mission of the church, and truly following Christ will never be popular, attractive, or accepted by the world.  However, social work that relieves a city’s tax expense is not only accepted and praised by the world, but it is also pursued by the unbelieving philanthropists in all walks of life.  Certainly such a popular endeavor is not compatible with a fidelity to Christ that will always be despised by the world.  Compromising the great commission by addition comes with a terrible cost.

A pastor in South Africa recently commented that he hasn’t heard of a single missionary from the States who has come there to do church planting in the last five years.  Each missionary has been focused on mercy ministry.  Of course, it sounds plausible that these two goals (‘word’ and ‘deed’) could coexist, but that plausibility is denied by the texts above.

The Implications of Keller’s View of Common Grace

I believe that the following are necessary implications of Keller’s view of common grace.  Although Keller may not agree that these are necessary implications, I don’t see how they can be avoided with his theological foundation.

1.  This view distracts the church from Gospel work.  I don’t see any biblical warrant for the social mandate being added to the great commission.  Besides, no church can possibly be faithful to both word and deed mandates when the word mandate promises persecution, and the deed mandate promises appreciation.  These two mandates are entirely of a different spirit.

2.  This view ends up depreciating special grace.  If you believe that to promote human flourishing is half of the great commission for the church, then you must admit that not only are many unbelievers accomplishing God’s will for the world, but so are the cults.  Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are doing a fine work of making the world a better place, as well as apostate religions like Roman Catholicism.  As Van Til wrote, “A theory of common grace based on a natural theology is destructive of all grace, common or special” (Common Grace and the Gospel, 145).  The world accomplishes the social mandate by virtue of common grace.  When added to the great commission, the reality of common grace dilutes the message of special grace.  According to CC, the compelling power of the gospel is seen in a function that relates to common grace—the world appreciates a church that does the same social work that they do.  According to the Bible, the compelling power of the gospel is seen in a function that relates to special grace—power over sin and practical holiness of those in the church.

Tomorrow I will write about Center Church’s view of the church.

Jon Anderson


Jon teaches Greek at The Expositors Seminary. He is also the college pastor at Grace Immanuel Bible Church in Jupiter, Florida.
  • Nelis

    Great insight and review. Thanks!

  • Andrew

    Jon, in my experience, blog comments are not the place for theological discussion, so I am posting the following for the sake of future readers (in the spirit of Proverbs 18:17) rather than to initiate substantive exchange. I am grieved to say that I think you misunderstand and misrepresent Keller in this post, though I found your critique of the cultural mandate worthy of consideration. I read your reviews of CC as a critique of a ‘rick-warrenized’ reading of him, rather than an interaction with his quite theologically and biblically sophisticated ideas. I want to only touch on one issue briefly: you impugn Keller for confusing common and special grace, but here are a couple of places you’ve misunderstood his use of these doctrines: 1) Keller is not saying “A” doctrines are held at a heart level (remember: we’re talking ‘common’ not ‘special’ grace). In the few Keller sermons that I’ve heard, he often places his ‘call to repentance’ just after he’s exposed how shallow the cultural commitment to the “A” doctrine really is. Here are some helpful examples of floating an “B” doctrine on an “A” doctrine: call for repentance (“B” doctrine) by showing that they aren’t really loving their neighbour (“A” doctrine). Or: show why God hates divorce (“B” doctrine) by explaining how it is unloving (“A” doctrine). I’m not convinced that apostolic preaching is straight “B” doctrines, as you suggest. 2) You confuse use of “A” doctrines with ‘affirmation of cultural virtues’, whereas for Keller the former is a species of the latter. ‘Cultural virtues’ are a broader category than ‘common grace virtues’ (“A” doctrines). The latter are those virtues held as such by both the Scriptures and culture. Thus, sophistic rhetoric is not an example of an “A” doctrine in Keller’s terms – and so 1 Corinthians 1-2 is not a critique of how Keller is encouraging us to use common grace virtues (“A” doctrines) in gospel ministry. /// Wish you had provided a more balanced reading of Keller here, though your seeker-sensitivizing of him will help your readers with temptations in that direction. Thanks, Andrew

    • Jonathan Anderson

      Thanks for you comments Andrew. I agree this isn’t the format for extensive interaction because the medium is so limited. I’ll go ahead and respond, also for the sake of future readers 🙂

      [Yes, its true, I don’t know how to make a smiley face on the computer, proving my second sentence!]

      Keller states, “Our criticism of the culture will have no power to persuade unless it is
      based on something that we can affirm in the beliefs and values of that
      culture” (124). He telling us that the areas where a culture in sin lines up with biblical truth (i.e., he says that Manhattan has affinity for loving your neighbor, not sexual purity; Muslim countries have affinity for sexual purity but not loving the neighbor and turning the other cheek…) we “have no power to persuade” until we can affirm that notion or propensity. In other words, due to common grace there are areas where unregenerate people excel. I agree with this IF… (a big if)) he were to mean that they excel in secular things like medicine or architecture. But when he means that the world, unsaved society in general, will obey certain biblical doctrines, he is violating Romans 8:7-8.

      You say that Keller isn’t affirming that they hold these doctrines from the heart. Think about what you are saying and go back and read pages 123-24. If the culture really isn’t obeying the righteous obligation of sexual purity or brotherly love from the heart, then to affirm them the way Keller calls us to is dishonest flattery. Not only that, but it undermines their need for the exclusive righteousness that comes from Christ.

      Finally, by expanding the missio dei far beyond the biblical definition, he opens the door for the unbeliever to contribute to the missio dei through their medicine, architecture, and any skill that makes the world a better place. It’s as the though common grace of the unbeliever’s natural abilities can contribute to the special grace of world evangelism. This can’t coexist for any lengthy period of time with the great commission. Wherever Christians buy into this, they will abandon the great commission with its persecution from the world and devote themselves to the social commission with its applause from the world.

      • Andrew

        Jon, thanks for this response. I now have a glimmer of hope that a blog can facilitate at least a tiny bit of theological discussion. I am in general agreement with your last paragraph (on ‘missio dei’).

        Re: common grace virtues as glorifying to God: I’m glad you pointed me back to CC’s chapter 10, where the section you highlighted is entitled, “Challenging and Confronting the Culture”! His topic is how to proclaim the gospel in light of ‘common grace virtues’, that is, how to proclaim the gospel to people that we know God has been morally preserving. In the Reformed tradition, the doctrine of common grace includes both ‘secular’ skill like medicine and art, as well as ‘moral’ goodness.

        Your worry seems to be that this means people are not totally depraved. But this is simply a misunderstanding of the doctrine of common grace. It may help you understand Keller’s discussion if I mention a distinction implicit in Reformed discussions of common grace: the early Reformers distinguished ‘internal’ and ‘external’ conformity to God’s law. What’s the difference? Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 91 implies that internal conformity involves trusting God and doing something for his glory – while ‘external’ conformity means obeying without faith and out of wrong motives. So affirming ‘common grace virtues’ does not contradict the doctrine of total depravity.

        The doctrine of total depravity does not consist in the claim that people are as bad as they could be. No, people are not as bad as they could be – because God has given common grace to preserve a kind of external conformity to his law (often associated with the 2nd use of the law). Hope this helps.

        • Jonathan Anderson


          We probably agree more than I imagined. However, I’m wondering if you are tracking with my concern about Keller’s view of common grace.

          First, I have no qualms about appreciating and expressing gratitude to an unbeliever for skills that they have been given by God even if they don’t thank Him for those gifts (a speech pathologist, a composer, an athlete, etc.). That doesn’t conflict in my mind with the biblical doctrine of depravity. Perhaps you had me pegged as a follower of Hoeksema, which I’m not.

          Second, when Keller expands the missio dei to something as broad as what promotes human flourishing, the speech pathologist’s success with my child, Beethovern’s composition of his ninth symphony, and the dominance of Michael Jordan in the 90s are not only praiseworthy, but they help promote the improvement of society in a common grace way. Here is where the problem comes. Keller would say that this not only aids the special great mandate of evangelism, but it is necessary for it. Scripture however doesn’t exalt the unbeliever with his contribution to society and thank him for helping with the great commission, it calls to repent for not giving thanks to the One who gave him that skill. Common grace, in Scripture, is pointed out to the unbeliever as a reason that he is without excuse and must repent. This is why I think those Romans 1-3 passages (midway through the article) as so helpful.

  • Greg Pickle

    Very helpful. Thanks for the work you put into reviewing this!

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