Someone I know from online recently wrote a viral article for First Things where he gently critiques the approach of Tim Keller. His primary critique was of the ‘winsome’ and purported ‘third wayism’ that Keller has operated with for the last couple of decades, and even further back. My friend, James Wood, made some appeal to sociological analysis as a way into making his critique of Keller. In nuce, the argument was that Keller’s winsome approach may have had some resonance in the last decade or so, but that we have moved into times that aren’t as receptive to Christian “niceness.” Indeed, Wood has critiqued further that the Keller approach may have never been an effective strategy of outreach to begin with (or maybe that’s just me reading my own hagiography into these things).
I’m going to be blunter (what’s new). Things seem less nuanced than this to me, even though I understand that people convinced of being “faithfully present” and winsome won’t have ears to hear this (at least until the Eschaton). As I read the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, what I find is a God who, while Fatherly and Lovely, doesn’t shrink back, who doesn’t “contextualize” in such a way that He comes off as “winsome” when confronting the sins of His people; not to mention the sins of the world in general. Indeed, when God confronts sin, whether that be in the OT or NT, it always involves blood and judgment. Some might push back and say: “well, that’s because God accommodated Himself to the Ancient Near Eastern culture His covenant people inhabited, and mediated judgment, under His theocracy, under the strictures dictated by said conventions and customs of the time.” Indeed, but He established the New Covenant in the blood of Christ, and that remains the reality, with the scars in Jesus’ hands, feet, and side in tow for all eternity. In other words, even though the once and for all bloody sacrifice has been made for all of humanity, it is this sacredly shed blood that stills cries out as the blood of the Sacrifice, the blood of the Passover that always already confronts and contradicts us sinners with the very life and power of God as witness both against us even as He is for us. In other words, He is indeed, as Barth underscores, the ‘Judge judged,’ but since we remain ‘simultaneously justified and sinner’ until we are finally rescued from these ‘bodies of death,’ since we continue to inhabit a battled-body that is fighting between the things of the Spirit and the things of the flesh, God in Christ by the Holy Spirit confronts us, He persuades and convinces us, He convicts us of our sin, constantly, calling us to the repentance that Christ first won for us in His vicarious humanity. So, because God loves us, because He is merciful and gracious, He doesn’t leave us in the squirminess of our sins; note:
Again the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Son of man, cause Jerusalem to know her abominations, and say, ‘Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: “Your birth and your nativity are from the land of Canaan; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. As for your nativity, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed in water to cleanse you; you were not rubbed with salt nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you, to have compassion on you; but you were thrown out into the open field, when you yourself were loathed on the day you were born. “And when I passed by you and saw you struggling in your own blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ Yes, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I made you thrive like a plant in the field; and you grew, matured, and became very beautiful. Your breasts were formed, your hair grew, but you were naked and bare. “When I passed by you again and looked upon you, indeed your time was the time of love; so I spread My wing over you and covered your nakedness. Yes, I swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine,” says the Lord God. “Then I washed you in water; yes, I thoroughly washed off your blood, and I anointed you with oil. I clothed you in embroidered cloth and gave you sandals of badger skin; I clothed you with fine linen and covered you with silk. I adorned you with ornaments, put bracelets on your wrists, and a chain on your neck. And I put a jewel in your nose, earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown on your head. Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen, silk, and embroidered cloth. You ate pastry of fine flour, honey, and oil. You were exceedingly beautiful, and succeeded to royalty. Your fame went out among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through My splendor which I had bestowed on you,” says the Lord God.
God is God. God is Holy, and commands us to be ‘holy as He is Holy.’ In Christ His ‘conversation is with grace seasoned with salt,’ but it is blunt and-in-your-face nonetheless. We might be prompted to think of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well; or maybe Jesus and the moneychangers; or perhaps his tirade against the Pharisees and their “dead man’s bones”; or maybe we might think of the Apostle Paul calling out the guy having potentially incestuous relations with his mom, and handing him “over to satan”; or maybe the way Paul confronted Peter for his hypocrisy in Galatia. Not to mention the brutal reality of the cross of Christ, and the holiness demanded there; or the book of Revelation, with particular reference to chapter 19. Or what about the author to the Hebrews chiding the Hebrew Christians for ‘trampling the blood of Christ under foot and counting it a vain thing?’
The point is that there is an urgency to God’s holiness such that the Christian must bear witness to it in all con-versations of life. We aren’t worried about being winsome, but that doesn’t mean we have to be mean or nasty either. It does mean that we are not of those who shrink back and fail to testify, speaking the truth in love, that God is God, that God is Holy, and demands holiness of all people; that is if people are going to ‘see Him.’ God is gracious and patient with us ‘desiring that none of us perish,’ and it is precisely because of this that the Christian doesn’t waste time thinking of “strategies” in regard to how to relate to the world in non-offensive ways. Indeed, if the Christian is genuinely bearing witness to Christ in the world, they will be considered foolish and weak precisely because the Christian is bearing witness to the scandalous reality of the cross of Christ. At the very crux of the cross God’s holiness is on display, and this is exactly what the world, and cultures writ large find so offensive.
At the end of the day, we all stand before the Lord, even as Christians. There is a Bema judgment seat for Christians, and we will be held to account for what we did with what God has given us in Himself in Jesus Christ. I am uninterested in wasting time, I’m here to redeem the time, and then beatific vision.