I’ve mentioned Tim Keller here before. He’s an influential Christian leader known for his love for the city and winning cities for Christ – Christianity Today just did a cover story on him. For me, the thing I love about him is his focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ.
His most recent book is The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. To him, the heart of the Christian faith is a God who is “prodigal” defined as “recklessly extravagant”. While most of us see the son as prodigal because of his “recklessly extravagant” lifestyle, Tim prefers to see a God who is prodigal because of his “recklessly extravagant” grace. The focus of Christianity ought to be on our Father’s recklessly extravagant grace, not on man. The heart of Christianity is the love of the Father.
On page 115, he writes:
We habitually and instinctively look to other things besides God and his grace as our justification, hope, significance, and security. We believe the gospel at one level, but at deeper levels we do not. Human approval, professional success, power and influence, family and clan identity- all of these things serve as our heart’s ‘functional trust’ rather than what Christ has done, and as a result we continue to be driven to a great degree by fear, anger, and a lack of self-control. You cannot change such things through mere willpower, through learning Biblical principles and trying to carry them out. We can only change permanently as we take the gospel more deeply into our understanding and into our hearts. We must feed on the gospel, as it were, digesting it and making it part of ourselves. That is how we grow.
The last part of this quote relates to something I’ve been thinking a bit about occasionally since the first part of this post last year. Pastor Prince recently did a series on the High Priest’s garments and 2 Corinthians 3:18 was emphasized throughout. The reason he was teaching on the High Priest’s garments was because Jesus is our High Priest and focusing on Jesus, beholding Him and His glory, would transform us into His likeness. A constant refrain throughout the series was that we don’t get transformed through our willpower or efforts or “behaviour modification”, but through beholding the glory of Jesus Christ. This is not a very common view of how change occurs in the Christian church, yet this is something that Tim Keller seems to agree with above.
In most churches, change is seen to come mainly through doing things like reading the Bible more or praying more or fasting more. It comes through exerting more of one’s effort. If we face sin, we just have to try harder to overcome it. We have to change our lifestyle so we don’t succumb to sin. We have to resist sin with all our might. Now, unlike many pro-New Creation bloggers who tend to baulk at any hint of willpower being involved in change, I do think there’s a certain element of truth in the above and a certain role that the will and our efforts play in our transformation. I don’t think it’s true to say we just have to let go and let God. At least, not all the time. That’s because I clearly see in Scriptures Paul’s exhortation to do this or that. He does tell believers to stop doing this and start doing that. That is, I see Paul talking about behaviour modification and using one’s willpower and efforts – for how else are we to do this or stop doing that but through our willpower and efforts and changing our behaviour? So I think it’s an over-reaction to not see that our will and efforts have a part to play. On the other hand, I think there’s a great danger in taking our eyes away from the gospel and failing to see that the more we focus on the gospel, the more we’re changed and get the power to change.
So I don’t think it’s an either-or thing. Both meditating on the gospel and exerting our will to change are biblical and needed. But the power to change comes from the gospel. And this has not been emphasized enough in the church as a whole. Many of us have a worldview that leaves the gospel behind when we’re Christians. We assume that we don’t need to hear the gospel regularly because we’re already Christians. “Now that we’re Christians,” we think, “we can move on to other things. We don’t need to hear the gospel (i.e. the message of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection) all the time. The gospel is for unbelievers and well… occasionally for believers to remind us that we’re not saved by our efforts. But surely we shouldn’t always hear the gospel preached in the church and shouldn’t always study about the gospel in the Bible, should we!”
And there’s where I think the majority of the church has got it wrong. The emphasis of church has got to be on the gospel of Jesus Christ. The message that is heard in churches nowadays has to be totally saturated with the gospel message. That’s because the heart of Christianity is the Father’s love as shown in gospel of Jesus Christ, and it’s this message that saves us and gives us the power to live for God. Learning biblical principles, using our willpower and efforts are all good, but all that has to be firmly grounded in the message of the gospel and ought never to be the main emphasis of any church or discipleship program. There ought only to be one overwhelming emphasis: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
While I learned grace (for justification/salvation) first through other authors, New Creation church has furthered my understanding of the importance of making grace and the gospel of Jesus Christ the focus of our sanctification or the Christian life – in fact, the whole of Christianity. The gospel is not just for unbelievers. It’s for believers too. Whatever we get is because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And that’s why I’m not ashamed of attending a church that preaches the gospel of Jesus Christ in an overwhelming fashion. I think all churches should do this.
“Tim uses the gospel surgically on the heart. The gospel is what we need to come to faith and also what we need to grow”, it was said of Tim here. I think the exact same thing can be said of Pastor Prince.
“That’s because I clearly see in Scriptures Paul’s exhortation to do this or that. He does tell believers to stop doing this and start doing that. That is, I see Paul talking about behaviour modification and using one’s willpower and efforts – for how else are we to do this or stop doing that but through our willpower and efforts and changing our behaviour?”
Yes, Paul does exhort us Christians to do this or that BUT he did not say do this or that by using one’s own willpower and efforts.
When we think that our OWN willpower and efforts are involved, we are setting ourselves up for failure because our focus will be unconsciously shifted from the power of the gospel onto our OWN power, which is no power at all.
In Romans 7, Paul tells us clearly that our own willpower will fail for “I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” (v15, NLT)
We should always be Christ-conscious and not self-conscious. Yes, we should work hard to show the results of our salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear but it is so important to always remember that this is because God is working in us, giving us the desire and the power to do what pleases him. (Phi 2:12-13)
I believe that God does not control our will such that we have no responsibility whatsoever. Nor does He will for us. We control our will and thus it’s our willpower, not God’s. Whatever actions we do is us exercising our will. If not, we can claim that we’re not responsible for anything. Believing that our will and willpower is involved, of course, doesn’t mean that everything is dependent upon us and our will.
In a sense, it’s our doing. But seen from another perspective, it’s God giving us the power to do so. God is both sovereign, yet we also have responsibility. How it can be so, I don’t know, for this is a mystery.
When an unbeliever is called to believe in Christ to be saved, he’s exhorted to use his will to believe. He has the responsibility to do so. Yet, the Bible also says that faith itself is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8). Eventhough we know that the very ability to have faith is actually a gift of God and not due to his will or efforts, we still tell the believer that it’s his decision and choice. It’s his responsibility.
We don’t tell him, “Oh, you don’t want to believe in Christ? That’s OK. It’s not your willpower involved after all. Just wait for God to give you the power to believe.” No, the call is to believe now and they are exhorted to believe as though they can do so.
In my opinion, there’s no contradiction between telling a person that he has to believe and acknowledging that even his faith is a gift of God. In the same way, there’s no contradiction between telling a person to change and acknowledging that the power of change comes from God.
I think the more we focus on Christ and behold Him, the more there will be that power over sin and breakthrough in one’s life. Surely, it’s not in focusing on our our efforts or strength or will that will give us the power. But to say that the will or our willpower has no place whatsoever in victory over sin is, in my opinion, over-reacting against a Christianity that lacks that focus on Christ and instead going to the opposite extreme of the spectrum.
Regarding Philippians 2:13, I think this proves my point that the will involved is ours. God works in us to will. He works in our lives by giving us the power and desire to do this or that. But it’s our will performing the action because we’re not puppets. It’s just like if my friend gives me money to buy an ice-cream. The money to buy the ice-cream belongs to my friend, but I am the one who bought it. In the same way, God gives us the power to live for Him. But we use our will (which is empowered by God) to live for Him. Our will definitely has a part to play. But it is not the be all and end all of godliness. To say so is to boast in buying the ice-cream when it was my friend who actually gave me the money to do so. But on the other hand, to say that my will has no part to play at all in godliness is to say that having the money is as good as having the ice-cream and there’s no need to buy the ice-cream. If so, then any sinner who continues sinning can claim that it’s not really their fault because their will has no part to play because God didn’t give them the strength in the first place. Of course, that’s faulty thinking.
Ultimately, I think we agree more with each other than not if you believe, as you have written, that “we should work hard to show the results of our salvation”. Maybe we’re just disagreeing over semantics – the definition of will and willpower. At least, your admission that “we should work hard” contradicts a “let go and let God” view that change always comes through us not trying at all.
I’ve the privilege to attend Tim Keller’s church & hear him in person twice–once in 2007 and once just 3 months ago. Now I buy his sermons in MP3 format from the church website–only those that are on the month-by-month 50% discount list.. (haha.. al cheapo).. [Works out to be much cheaper than JPrince’s sermons… btw].
I fully agree with you that some of the more immature NCC-ers ‘balk’ at words that speak of ‘effort’ or ‘work’. Actually it’s only wrong if we think that these effort or work will earn us credit with God. But some form of initiative and decision and action is definitely indicated in our realizing the full implications of our salvation in the here and now. If a NCC-er actually reads through the epistles, he’ll see it very clearly for himself.
The epistles are littered with exhortations such as to ‘put on’, ‘put off’… to walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh… etc. ‘Set your hearts on’… ‘be all the more diligent’.. ‘be diligent to be found by him’… ‘run that you may obtain it’… etc.
It’s like driving a car to a distant destination. It’s the car’s engine and the gas that’s going to get you there (power of the gospel and the Holy Spirit, the grace of God), but you’ve got to actually get into the car and start the ignition, drive it and navigate (human will and cooperation; a labor of love).
“1Th 4:1 Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to live and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. ”
This phrase ‘to please God’ is often misunderstood by Christians. Tim Keller pointed out an important difference between ‘PLEASING God’ and ‘APPEASING God’.
In the first place we need to know that it is totally because of our RESTING IN what Christ has done that we can even begin to contemplate ‘pleasing’ God at all. If not for Christ’s cloak of righteousness upon us, there isn’t a single thing we do that won’t get burnt up immediately under God’s holy gaze, like some driest of hay.
Next, take for instance, supposing your teenager spills coke on your laptop. He is apprehensive of your anger and in an effort to APPEASE you, he decides to wash your car–wash it & polish it spic and span, even vacuum the interior.
But if your teenager, for no reason at all, not because you expect him to, not even because he is later going to ask a favor of you, suddenly decides to wash your car for you–wash it and polish it spic and span, even vacuuming the interior… Simply because he enjoys a warm relationship with you & he LOVES you… How would his action make you feel? You would be surprised, and feel absolutely LOVED.
I think in our Christian service, aim to do what the teenager has done in the 2nd scenario–do what will warm God’s heart, unasked, without expecting anything in it for yourself, but just so that you know it will make Him feel so LOVED.
I think that when we say “let go and let God”, there are many people who mistakenly think that what we mean is that we have no will or willpower of our own, and we are just like puppets being controlled by God which as stillhaventfound rightly says so, we are not.
My personal point of view is that when we make the gospel of Jesus Christ the focus of our Christian walk, then we live out Phil 2:12–13 ie. we will work hard to show the results of our salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear for God is working in us, giving us the desire and the power to do what pleases him.
Yes, I agree with stillhaventfound that while God is working in us, He does not force us to do but we have to respond to Him giving us the desire and power, and then we do. However, my comment was really about cautioning against being self-conscious ie. there is a danger that pride will set in when we think that we control our will and thus it is our will performing the action.
Yes, our will is involved but its involvement, in reality, is passive because we did not generate the desire and power to do but God did. The role of our will is akin to that of a valve in a blood vessel, opening up to let the blood flow through. Our will doesn’t generate the flow but it can sure block it.
I have been thinking over the past two days about how to explain clearly the role of our will when the word “Breathe” kept rising in my spirit.
While you were reading this comment up till this very moment, have you noticed that you were and still are breathing? Were you consciously commanding yourself to breathe or were you just breathing without really thinking about the fact you were breathing?
I don’t know about you but most of the time, I am not even conscious of the fact that I am breathing! I only notice my breathing when I am NOT AT REST or doing something strenuous.
Similarly, that is how Phil 2:12-13 works. When we are resting in the grace of God, our will and God’s will become one; and we do, without being conscious of the fact that we are doing!
But what about the part of “working hard”? Interestingly, Paul also talked about working hard in Hebrews 4:11 – “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest”. When you see the word “therefore”, you have to check out the preceding verses to find out why we have to “therefore”:
Hebrews 4:9-10 (NKJV)
9There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. 10 For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His.
Why do we have to work hard to enter His rest? Because when we enter His rest, we cease from our own works; “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Therefore, we should work hard to let go and let God.
Good you replied here coz I can’t comment on your website without using a google account.
You wrote, “there are many people who mistakenly think that what we mean is that we have no will or willpower of our own”. Actually, the implication in your response when you responded above “Yes, Paul does exhort us Christians to do this or that BUT he did not say do this or that by using one’s own willpower and efforts” made me wonder if you think we don’t have a will of our own. After all, you seem to deny that we use our will / willpower / efforts to fulfill the exhortations of Paul in this sentence. My point is that if we don’t use our will / willpower / efforts, then what exactly do we use?
I totally agree with you that the gospel has to be central. That’s the main point in my whole post. I disagree with placing the emphasis on what we do. But I will not deny that there’s a place for exhorting Christians to do this or that. To say there’s a role in Scripture for preachers to tell us to do this or that, is not to say that it has a central role. It’s simply to say that there is a role. The central role has to be focusing on the gospel of what Jesus did for us in His death and resurrection, not what we ought to do for Him.
And of course there’s no denying that the power to live for Him comes through Him and comes through focusing on what He did for us.
I disagree that our will is passive. It is very active. But does it mean that anyone who believes that the will is actively involved in doing God’s work or resisting sin – that such a person thinks that the power to do God’s work and resist sin comes from himself and not God and that such a person is thus proud and overly self-conscious? I think that’s going a bit too far and an unfair accusation.
I’m big on preaching that focuses on the gospel of Jesus, rather than preaching that focuses on what we’re exhorted to do for God. However, occasional focus on the exhortations of Scripture is not wrong. I will not criticize such exhortations as promoting self-consciousness or pride or as implying that we’re in control of our own lives. Of course, if the preaching always focuses on what we have to do for God then I think the preacher or church has missed the centrality of the gospel in all of Scripture and the Christian life.
While I’m also against preachers constantly emphasizing that we have to be more Christlike, I think there’s a place for that – not a central place, of course. I would like to see preachers focusing more on how Jesus took our place and how in Him we’re perfect and righteous. But I cannot over-react and say there’s no place for preaching that we need to be more Christlike in our character. In the very passage that we’ve been discussing – Philippians 2 – Paul talks about us imitating Christ!
I also disagree with your “breathing” metaphor. You asked, “Were you consciously commanding yourself to breathe or were you just breathing without really thinking about the fact you were breathing?”
The reason why I disagree with the metaphor is because breathing comes naturally, as you hinted. You’re right to say that we didn’t command ourselves to breath. If we have to command ourselves to breath, then there’s something wrong. We have to be constantly alert all the time and probably will not be able to sleep!
But aren’t Scriptures full of exhortations and commands? If good works flow automatically or unconsciously as Christians focus on Christ, there would be no need for exhortations in the New Covenant. Unlike breathing, Paul actually has to command us to be like this or like that!
I agree with you that there are times (maybe most of the time, who knows?) when we behave most like Christ when we’re totally unconscious of doing so and only conscious of Christ. And there are times when the more we focus on living for Him and trying to do better, the more frustrated we get. In these times, I accept the breathing analogy. However, I think it’s extremely reductionistic to view the whole of the Christian life like that and to say that it always works just one way. To me, Scripture is more nuanced than that.
You said “But aren’t Scriptures full of exhortations and commands? If good works flow automatically or unconsciously as Christians focus on Christ, there would be no need for exhortations in the New Covenant. Unlike breathing, Paul actually has to command us to be like this or like that!”
Paul did exhort us to do this or do that but I think the key is in HOW we do the this and that. Continuing with my breathing metaphor, it’s like Paul exhorts us to breathe and we can breathe naturally, totally unconscious of the fact we are breathing or we can consciously will ourselves to breathe.
Actually, you hit the nail on the head when you said “there are times (maybe most of the time, who knows?) when we behave most like Christ when we’re totally unconscious of doing so and only conscious of Christ. And there are times when the more we focus on living for Him and trying to do better, the more frustrated we get.”
This is exactly my point that ideally our Christian life should be in the “zone” where “we behave most like Christ when we’re totally unconscious of doing so and only conscious of Christ”, although the reality is that “there are times when the more we focus on living for Him and trying to do better, the more frustrated we get.”
This is like what I have read in newspapers interviews in which top athletes (like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan) talked about a certain exceptional performance of theirs and they describe it as being “in the zone” where they are not really conscious of what they were doing, they simply just did and all the putts drop into the hole and every shot swishes through the net.
Of course, they don’t operate like that most of the time but I’m sure they wish they do! Similarly, in terms of my Christian life, I wish that I am always in the zone of only being conscious of Christ although the reality is that I’m not.
“…ideally our Christian life should be in the “zone” where “we behave most like Christ when we’re totally unconscious of doing so and only conscious of Christ”
I agree with you here. But I think we have to understand that we live in an imperfect world. As you say, that’s the ideal. Both you and I find ourselves in areas where we’re still imperfect and areas where we still have to consciously make a decision whether we want to do this or that. Sometimes we don’t even feel like going to church or praying or praising God. Sometimes we’re confronted with difficult choices on whether to sin or not to sin. Even Pastor Prince often talks about his struggles (e.g. on the road) and full credit to him for doing so.
Is everything so easy that we unconsciously do the right thing always? Most probably in the future when we’re totally perfect, but not now.
I think it was Pastor Prince who said once that he never wanted his wife to trust in him fully that he would never cheat on her. Not because he fears he would. But he recognizes that he’s not perfect. So we all face a lot of temptations that requires our effort and will to resist. And I think he never wanted his wife to think he’s perfect so that his wife can help him also to be faithful to his marriage.
Regarding Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, they got to that stage because of years and years of hard work and sacrifice. They did not automatically get to the level where they can unconsciously play so well except through a lot of training and discipline.
So to me your breathing analogy only works for perfect people – of which none of us are. For imperfect people, there will still be many times where we need to consciously live for Him and resist sin. As we grow, we’ll grow more into that “zone” in more and more areas of life. Then we’ll look back and one day and see how far we’ve traveled. When before it was hard for us to do this or that, it now comes naturally and unconsciously for us.
But I think it’s dangerous to give Christians the idea that the whole of the Christian life comes so naturally, and that any conscious effort to please God or resist sin is merely being self-conscious and proud.
I’m thrilled by what I heard by Pastor Prince yesterday regarding how the difficulties and minuses of life builds perseverance in us. I think this perspective of the Christian life has been lacking a lot in his preaching ministry because his emphasis is on different areas. So I’m glad to see him talk about this area. God brings us through the difficulties in life in order to mold us and conform us to his image. And the more we become like him, the more we will unconsciously live for Him. In that sense, the Christian life is a life of journey.
gamine and SHF,
SHF: Is this the same Tim Keller. Carlisle Alliance Church. Their website being
If it is then, I’m a little bit more “Al-Cheapo” than gamine. I download his podcast via itune for free. The link for the itune is
You just need itune and download the sermons.
I have to say itune is a fantastic place to find sermons. Ps Prince, Ray Bevan, Charles Nieman, etc
PS: This is not in any way related to the topic discussed.
No, this Tim Keller I’m talking about is from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City :)