Mere Christians

Tim Keller (Author of Forgive)

Episode Summary

The legend on death, forgiveness, and fig leafs

Episode Notes

Jordan Raynor sits down with Tim Keller, Author of Forgive, to talk about the 4 actions that constitute true biblical forgiveness, how the gospel enables us to stop using work as a metaphorical fig leaf, and why mere Christians are going to be the ones most effective at making disciples in the next few generations.

Links Mentioned:

Episode Transcription

[0:00:05.4] JR: Hey everybody, welcome to the Mere Christians Podcast, I’m Jordan Raynor. How does the gospel influence the work of mere Christians, those of us who aren’t pastors or religious professionals but who work as X-ray technicians, preschool teachers and bailiffs, that’s the question we explore every week and today, I’m posing it to the one and only Tim Keller, the person who has had the most significant impact on my personal faith. If you don’t know him, Tim’s the founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, with more than 6,000 members.


He's also the New York Times bestselling author of some of the best books I’ve ever read, including Every Good Endeavor, The Prodigal God and The Reason For God. Tim and I recently sat down again. He’s a repeat guest here on the podcast, to talk about the four actions that constitute true biblical forgiveness in the workplace. We talked about how the gospel enables us to stop using our work and our careers as metaphorical fig leaves and we talked about why mere Christians, you guys listening right now, are the ones most likely to be most effective at the great commission in the next few generations.


Guys, you are in for such a treat with this conversation with Tim Keller.




[0:01:34.3] JR: Tim Keller, welcome back to the podcast. So good to hear your voice again, how are you doing?


[0:01:38.1] TK: I’m doing fine, really.


[0:01:39.2] JR: Yeah, any time your name comes up in conversations these days, first thing people asks us, how’s Tim’s health.


[0:01:45.5] TK: Yeah.


[0:01:46.4] JR: You were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, when was that? In June 2020?


[0:01:51.5] TK: Yeah, I mean, well, actually, it was more sooner than that but early 2020.


[0:01:55.2] JR: Yeah, how’s your health these days?


[0:01:57.9] TK: Well actually, I feel great. Now, the reason for that is because after two years of chemotherapy, which controlled the cancer then it stopped working, which is what chemo does with pancreatic cancer, there is no chemotherapy cure for it. They just controlled it, I am now getting a kind of immunotherapy.


I won’t go into detail with that, it’s not chemo. It’s basically trying to get your own immune system to fight the cancer and it’s in the early stages of it but the first results are actually kind of encouraging.


[0:02:27.6] JR: Good.


[0:02:28.8] TK: And Chemo makes you sick. This does not make you sick quite in the same way. It’s hard going in but then you don’t have to get sick every two weeks, which is what chemo did. So anyway, that’s just perhaps too many details. I’m actually doing quite well and yet in a sense, living from moment to moment because it’s the kind of cancer that any time, it’s expected.


It will just turn and nobody can stop it and it just starts to grow and therefore, I have to be ready to go. That’s the reason why, in some sense, spiritually speaking, it’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. It’s a very sweet time, spiritually. A, because I have a lot more time to spend with my wife than I ever have since we got married and B, because together we can get down and kneel and pray and spend far more time in commune with God than we ever did before and it’s been really sweet and yet, very difficult too.


[0:03:21.2] JR: Sure.


[0:03:22.5] TK: I have no complaints and I’m feeling perfectly good for this podcast.


[0:03:29.0] JR: I love it. Yeah, you wrote this incredible piece in the Atlantic. I think it was last year, like mid-2021 about you just published this book on death and then the reality of death is closer than ever before and you said that to your surprise, this season has been one of the most joyful. Talk a little bit more about why, how so?


[0:03:50.3] TK: Well, I guess the easiest thing to understand would be to say that by not being in some ways, always looking ahead to the next week because you have a trip or you have a deadline or you have your speaking engagement, there’s a sense in which, because you’re always looking ahead to the next thing, you got to get ready for it, you actually aren’t enjoying today.


Literally, you’re not smelling the roses, you’re not looking at the water. You can see water from my apartment where we’ve been for almost three years and you only just enjoy the sun on the water in the afternoon, which is one of the most beautiful things in the world and so we realized on the one hand, because the time was short and also because many of these things they were just absorbing me or just taking off me, it’s just taking out of the schedule for the first time in my life, or at least in my adult life that we have found that just enjoying the simple things.


[0:04:44.5] JR: Yeah.


[0:04:44.8] TK: Enjoying the day. But the other thing I’ve already alluded to and that is God is there and God is available not just to be believed in but to actually commune with, to encounter, to have a genuine relationship with, to sense A, of Romans 5:5 says, “The Holy Spirit sheds God’s love abroad in your heart” and that cannot mean just that the Holy Spirit helps you know that God loves you. It just can’t mean it, that’s just not what the metaphor means.


It means you actually feel it, it means you actually sense it, that’s the only thing the metaphor could mean and that’s the Presbyterian talking by the way here and I’m not a Pentecostal and that’s the other part of the joy. It is just that the greater time for and I guess impetus for communing with God, so it is a very sweet and joyful time.


[0:05:36.8] JR: You just published this terrific new book called Forgive. I think it’s the best book you’ve written in a few years. I loved it. Did you start writing this before or after your diagnosis?


[0:05:47.3] TK: After. I mean, that book on the resurrection and death that I put out a year before last, that I started before I found out I had cancer. So that’s the reason why I wrote the article in the Atlantic. There was an irony that here I was working on a book about not being afraid of death because of the resurrection and suddenly, I get cancer.


This book I started afterwards and was partly just a collaboration of brainstorming with my Penguin Random House publisher, actually it’s Viking Press which is part of Penguin Random House, my literary agent, my wife and myself, about what would be a way to meet a very important need in our culture right now but to be able to expound the word of God to do it and everybody agreed that forgiveness is in a kind of crisis right now, in our culture.


We really don’t know how to go about doing it, we’re not sure we ought to do it and it’s amazing, once you start writing a book like this, it’s amazing how often you suddenly realize that non-believing persons, you know, secular people are talking about all the time. This morning, you know I knew I was going to be doing this podcast with you today. This morning in the op-ed piece, it was not, yeah, it was an editorial in the New York Times, it was all about why we don’t give people second chances anymore.


[0:07:02.7] JR: Yeah.


[0:07:04.1] TK: That once we cancel you, you’re out, it doesn’t matter and that we actually have no social cultural way of doing forgiveness anymore and a lot of people are questioning that and so what I’m trying to do is you know, after 50 years of expounding the scripture, I’m trying to find things to write about that let me expound the scripture towards some kind of social cultural need that people really feel and forgiveness is one of them.


[0:07:30.6] JR: Yeah and you're obviously – don’t have to say this, welcome to come on to this podcast anytime to talk about whatever you want. But I do believe, this is particularly relevant to those of us mere Christians out in the workplace because there’s a lot of opportunities for forgiveness, and lack of forgiveness in workplace culture and I loved how practical this book is. You talked about these four actions that constitute true biblical forgiveness. Would you mind walking our listeners through those for actions, Tim?


[0:08:04.3] TK: Yeah, most people when they think of forgiveness, they’re actually thinking about this, well, there’s two vertical, you might say, and two horizontal actions. And one of the reasons why we’ve lost the ability in this, our culture to do forgiveness I think is because we’re thinking strictly on the horizontal level. Somebody has wronged me and now, what do I do about it?


But the vertical is, number one, I repent of my sins to God and then number two, God forgives me. So I have both a kind of humbling that happened to me because I admitted that I am a sinner and I deserve punishment but also an empowerment that comes from knowing that my sins are forgiven.


So those are the first two and it’s vertical. I ask God’s forgiveness, God gives me forgiveness through Christ and I don’t know how in the world you do the horizontal, unless you have the vertical. So then, as you mention there is four and the two horizontals are this, one is internally, I forgive the person but then, externally, that’s number three.


Number four is, I go to talk to that person to see if I can get that person to see what they did, perhaps to repent, perhaps to reconcile, perhaps to change. So I guess you could call those four things, asking God’s forgiveness, receiving God’s forgiveness, forgiving a perpetrator in your heart and then going and seeking some kind of reconciliation with the perpetrator.


[0:09:33.4] JR: Yeah.


[0:09:34.2] TK: And, they all fit together in the bible, and they’re all of a piece. If you forgive the person in your heart, you can only do that because you know that you’re a sinner too.


[0:09:45.3] JR: Yeah.


[0:09:45.9] TK: Then when you go to try to reconcile with them, you’re actually not going to get vengeance. So yeah, one of the things and I’ll just bring it out now is, one of the big problems that most people have in our culture is they feel like they have to choose between doing justice and forgiving.


They feel like if I forgive the person, then I’m not really telling them what they did wrong. I’m not trying to rectify things. I would say, I think what the bible would say is, unless you forgive them, you won’t pursue justice, you’ll pursue vengeance and you won’t get much justice because when you go to talk to them, you’re actually be doing it to try to make them feel terrible.


[0:10:20.5] JR: Yeah.


[0:10:20.4] TK: And they won’t say, “Oh, I see the error of my ways.” They’ll just get their backs up and they’ll get upset and then they’ll retaliate to you and on we go.


[0:10:27.4] JR: Yeah.


[0:10:27.9] TK: And so I think it’s a mistake to think that forgiveness is just one of those four, they all fit together and sometimes you never get the reconciliation, you never get repentance from the person who perpetrated it, but you still are giving him a chance because you’ve forgiven him in your heart. So when you go, you can be in a loving way, confronting, you know? Speaking of truth and love and I will say one more thing, in the workplace you mentioned.


[0:10:53.0] JR: Yeah,


[0:10:53.9] TK: Inside the church where everybody’s professing Christian, I think your duty to pursue the reconciliation to go tell people about what they’ve done wrong, I just think that that responsibility is greater. I think everybody in the church is a professing Christian, therefore, they should have done the vertical.


[0:11:12.8] JR: Yeah.


[0:11:13.0] TK: And if they should have done the vertical, then they ought to have the resources to repent and forgive.


[0:11:20.4] JR: Yup.


[0:11:19.6] TK: Very often if you go to a person who you think has wronged you, after you’ve forgiven them and you’re calling them to admit what they did wrong, very often they’ll find out that they’re kind of mad at you and that they may tell you something that you have done, that you might have to say, “I didn’t realize that and I am very sorry” and so the way you're able to overcome it inside the church is you both repent and forgive.


It doesn’t mean everyone’s equally at fault but you still could repent for whatever you contributed and inside the church I think is a lot of responsibility. When you’re at the workplace, especially with non-believers, I think that you certainly have to forgive in the workplace in your heart.


Otherwise, oh my goodness, with all the slights and all the places where people are not giving you credit for what you’ve done and that kind of thing, you could just be always be angry but when you go and talk to them, you have to do with care. If they’re not believers, they don’t have that same vertical dimension. They don’t have the same resources you do and you should do it with care and if they don’t respond then you know, Romans 12:18 says, “As much as it depends on you, live at peace with all men.”


[0:12:27.8] JR: Yeah.


[0:12:28.8] TK: And that’s the way of saying, you try your part and if they don’t respond, then that’s okay, you’ve done your part but you don’t keep adding them and beating them up and after them and all that. Now, I would say one other thing. When the law has been broken, when there’s sexual assault, when there’s embezzlement, when there is some other kind of misconduct that it doesn’t just break God’s law but also the civil law, that is different but you still aren’t supposed to pursue justice with vitriol and bitterness and all that sort of thing.


So there is a bit of a difference and yet, boy, I don’t know. You can’t have a marriage and you can’t have a decent work career if you don’t know how to forgive.


[0:13:07.5] JR: Yeah, I think it’s well said. Yeah and I think as we experience more that vertical forgiveness, clearly, to make us more forgiving horizontally whether it’s at work or at home, I think it also leads us to stop using our work as a sort of fig leaf. You talk about this in the book about the inadequacy of fig leaves. Explain what you mean by this and how it applies to our work, Tim.


[0:13:33.5] TK: Well, I got that idea from an old, old sermon I read. I think it was a George Whitefield sermon, where he talked about the fact that by making money or by being successful or even by keeping fit and so you look great, he called them fig leaves and what he’s referring to clearly is that in the very beginning of time when Adam and Eve sinned, they immediately had a sense that they weren’t right.


I mean, for the first time, they sensed that they were ashamed. They were ashamed because they knew they weren’t who they should be. In order to cover up that sense of unworthiness, in order to cover up that sense of being not what they should be, they made themselves a covering of fig leaves there and what that means is, they’re trying to cover up that sense inadequacy that all human beings know at their very bottom that is, they’re not who they should be.


That they’re not who they’re created to be and that’s the reason why work – I don’t want to be too – I don’t want to get into gender stereotyping. I would say that I think men in the workplace are a little worse than women at this, okay? I’m just trying not to stereotype women or men here but I do think that generally speaking, work is a little bit bigger fig leaf for men to some degree where they feel like I’m really okay because look, I have a great career and the point is if somebody gets in the way of one of your fig leaves, there can be an inordinate amount of anger towards the person.


[0:15:08.2] JR: Yeah.


[0:15:08.8] TK: Even if they’ve done wrong, you actually, you literally want to kill them, which show generally what they’ve done is they’ve ripped a fig leaf off and that’s where the metaphor comes from.


[0:15:18.8] JR: Yeah and I think this is a challenge for so many believers. We worked so hard to prove to the world that we’re successful, that we’re special, that we’re not a chump, right? And I’ve talked about this probably before but this was me at the beginning of my career and God used your work, Tim, to begin to heal me of this.


Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, Counterfeit Gods, specifically, these two books and through those books, I think I began to experience the gospel at a deeper level. I experienced the depths of my sin in Christ’s much greater mercy and forgiveness and it freed me from the need to be productive.


But ironically what I found over time is that an experience of forgiveness in God’s grace and mercy has actually led me to be more sustainably ambitious for my work because I want to do the work as it means of bringing God joy rather than as a need of constructing this metaphorical fig leaf. Does that resonate with you personally, Tim?


[0:16:19.3] TK: Yeah because the two great commandments in which all the God’s law can be summed into two great commandments, which is love God and love your neighbor and let’s face it, for a lot of us, when the career is really about loving yourself, really about getting over a sense of inadequacy, really about trying to build up your own glory or create your own righteousness or something like that, you're not doing it for God and you're actually not doing it for other people.


You're actually doing it for yourself and if that’s the case, then when someone wrongs you, it’s an opportunity I’ve seen with other people, that when someone wrongs you, you don’t want to say, “Ah, just forgive them and go on.” You do want to say, “Yes, you do need to forgive them but the reason you're having so much trouble doing it is perhaps your vertical sense of God’s grace that you are really standing in God’s grace rather than just something that you’ve earned through your hard work.”


The reason you’re having trouble with the horizontal forgiveness is your sense of God’s grace is weak and I think that’s what you were saying. You were saying that in the very beginning, part of the reason you’re so driven, if I could put words in your mouth.


[0:17:24.8] JR: Yeah, please.


[0:17:25.8] TK: Was just because that vertical dimension of being a wonderfully loved sinner, saved by grace and that’s your alderman identity, that just wasn’t as strong as it should be and as a result, you were trying to forge an identity somewhere, some other way.


[0:17:39.4] JR: That’s exactly right. But when the ambition is not about serving myself, right? Just serving the work as a means to serving others, it’s much more sustainable ambition and we talk a lot about this on the podcast. One of those ambitions for the work of – for myself and for our listeners is, it could be an effective means of carrying out the great commission and before I go, I want to call out something I just read in this great little ebook you published called, How to Reach the West Again.


We’ll make sure we put a link in the show notes about this. You pointed out, I want to read this quote. You said, “80% or more of evangelism in the early church was done by ordinary Christians.” In other words, not pastors or religious professionals but the mere Christians who were listening to this podcast. Do you think that’s going to be true over the next hundred years? That was true in the first centuries, what about the next couple of centuries. Do you think that’s going to continue to be the case?


[0:18:37.3] TK: Well, certainly in the next couple of generations. I don’t think I’m wise enough to predict that far ahead, okay? Thank you. You are showing me so much respect but that idea, in the very beginning of my – actually when I was at Gordon Conwell Seminary, almost 50 years ago, I read a book by Michael Green called, Evangelism in the Early Church and it was a scholarly book.


It was a book about how evangelism happened in the early church and that’s where I first saw that basically people didn’t evangelize by bringing their non-Christian friends to hear the great speaker.


[0:19:07.6] JR: Right.


[0:19:09.1] TK: It didn’t mean that there was in some public speaking. Obviously, you could see that in the book of Acts but buy and large, it wasn’t safe to bring a non-Christian to church because the church is very unpopular.


Christianity was far more persecuted than any other religion in the Roman Empire for a long time for various reasons, a lot of reasons and no, you didn’t bring your non-Christian friend to hear the great preacher on a Sunday. You didn’t do that.


He couldn’t actually and partly because of the persecution of the church. Basically, because of the hostility toward the church and the unpopularity of the church in public, most of the evangelism happened privately through colleagues, neighbors, friends, family members. I do think that as the church is getting, frankly, and even in the last five years, far less popular, far more vilified and to some degree because I think the world does hate the truth, to some degree because the church has really fouled up pretty badly. Jesus actually says, “Oh Lord”, Jesus says to his father in John 17, “Let them be one,” talking about His disciples, “That the world will know you sent me.” Which is a pretty amazing thing. In other words, “Father, the quality of the church’s love is going to be one of the ways the world knows that I really came to earth.”


And of course, since we’re not actually doing a very good job of showing the world that kind of love, that’s another reason but for various cultural and historical reasons, the church in all western countries is in eclipse. It’s in decline, it is becoming very, very unpopular and I think increasingly, the way evangelism is going to have to happen is, really through lay people, in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in their family relationships, that’s how it’s going to be done.


[0:20:58.9] JR: Amen and that’s why we’re here, encouraging those mere Christians to engage in the various places God’s placed them. Tim, three quick questions, we wrap up every podcast with. Number one, I’m curious which books you find yourself recommending or gifting most frequently these days?


[0:21:15.8] TK: There's a lot. I will just tell you the one that I’m reading right now that I love, that I’m going to be talking to people about all the time. It’s a bit of an intellectual book because it’s Princeton University Press but it’s a book called, Why We Are Restless, and it’s by a husband-and-wife professor team called the Storeys but it’s Storey, not storey, okay?


It’s actually looking at four French thinkers, so it’s looking at people like Fontaine and Pascal and Russo and looking at how they analyze why human beings are actually not happy and what they should do about it.


[0:21:56.5] JR: Super interesting.


[0:21:57.7] TK: It’s very interesting and I actually recommend it partly because it’s an intellectual history. I don’t think it’s for everybody but well, Jordan, I’ll just suggest, I think you would really, really like it and what it does is it goes into why we have a lot of the problems we have today. So it’s really, really good.


[0:22:14.8] JR: All right. Who do you most want to hear in this podcast talking about how the gospel shapes their work?


[0:22:21.8] TK: Hey, have you ever interviewed Francis Collins?


[0:22:24.8] JR: Sir, you know what? That was your answer the last time you were on and I just was emailing with Dr. Collins the other day. He’s confirmed again, he’s coming on, he’s waiting until he finishes his stint with the administration but we’re going to get Dr. Collins on.


[0:22:36.2] TK: I know, good. Well, he’s prominent. He’s also controversial. That’s only because anybody, anybody, after the pandemic, anybody in public health is controversial.


[0:22:46.6] JR: Yes.


[0:22:48.3] TK: But you know what’s really great about him is if you talk to him, he’ll say, “Well, we didn’t get it all right. We made mistakes.” I mean, you just see a Christianity in him and yeah, I would still say, he’s also been by the way, very helpful with helping me. You know, he’s a doctor even though, you know, I mean he’s not a practicing physician but he knows where all the best cancer treatments are and he’s been very helpful to me.


[0:23:13.2] JR: I’ll tell you what, that’s another great book. I can’t remember the name of his book off the top of my head.


[0:23:16.1] TK: The Language of God.


[0:23:18.0] JR: The Language of God. That’s so good, so good.

[0:23:20.7] TK: Right.


[0:23:21.6] JR: Hey, what’s one thing that you want to reiterate from our conversation, Tim, before we sign off?


[0:23:27.0] TK: Well, I think if you have been hurt by people. See, this is one of the reasons why forgiveness isn’t popular today. There are churches that have told people, who are talking about abuse and injustice, you have to forgive. But they use it as a way of silencing you. They’re trying to say, “Forgiveness means you don’t pursue justice, forgiveness means you just shut up.” If anybody tells you that, that’s not the biblical understanding of forgiveness. It just isn’t.


[0:23:56.2] JR: Yeah.


[0:23:56.4] TK: Because on the cross, Jesus Christ not only was loving us but he was also satisfying justice. He was paying the penalty for our sins. So on the cross, you have love and justice together and forgiveness is both loving the perpetrator and at the same time, seeking justice and so if anybody makes use of forgiveness and I have seen it happen unfortunately, in churches just try to silence people who have really been hurt, that’s a twisting of what the Bible actually teaches. So that’s my final exaltation.


[0:24:26.8] JR: That’s well said. Tim, I want to commend you for the exceptional gospel-centric work you have done throughout your career. Thank you for reminding us of the importance of forgiveness, how to do it and on a personal note, thank you for helping me mine the depths and breaths of the gospel throughout my career and I hear rumors that Cathy Keller is buying I Creator in You for her friends, so make sure you stay in touch.


[0:24:49.3] TK: Yeah, no, no. We have to get it right. I’m not sure we bought enough to put you actually on the New York Times bestseller list. Oh yeah, no. I mean, we have seven grandchildren, they’ve all got one and on we go.


[0:25:02.5] JR: I can’t wait to send you the sequel. Tim, by the way, guys, listen, the book is called Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? Great subtitle. Tim, thanks again for joining us.


[0:25:12.1] TK: Thank you.




[0:25:15.9] JR: Man, anytime I get to talk to Tim, it is a treat. I just got to say when we hung up, when we stopped recording, he took a minute just to encourage me in this work. He didn’t have to do that, we went over time, I knew he’s got a tight day today but that’s the kind of guy Tim is, and I love him for it.


Guys, if you’re enjoying the Mere Christian’s Podcast, do me a favor, go leave a review of the show on Apple Podcast, on Spotify, wherever you listen to this show. Thank you guys so much for listening. I’ll see you next week.