Book Review: The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller

Keller, Timothy. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. New York: Dutton, 2008. Kindle edition.

Although Keller is a Reformed pastor in good standing with the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), he strays considerably from sound biblical doctrine and compromises the gospel in one of his better-known publications, The Prodigal God. More unfortunate is that few seem to realize this. This review will apply Scripture to correct the doctrinal errors in Keller’s The Prodigal God, for “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tm 3:16).[1]

It is not enough to simply recognize doctrinal errors; they must be corrected publicly. Any pastor who recognizes such errors, especially ones that pertain to the essentials of the faith, yet remains silent is derelict in his duty to uphold sound doctrine. This is why Paul tells Titus that an elder is to “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Ti 1:9). It is important to examine popular and influential works like The Prodigal God in light of what the Bible mandates in places such as 1 Thessalonians 5:21 and Acts 17:9-11.

The purpose and target audience of The Prodigal God are clearly stated by Keller in the introduction:

THIS short book is meant to lay out the essentials of the Christian message, the gospel. It can, therefore, serve as an introduction to the Christian faith for those who are unfamiliar with its teachings or who may have been away from them for some time.

This volume is not just for seekers, however. Many lifelong Christian believers feel they understand the basics of the Christian faith quite well and don’t think they need a primer. Nevertheless, one of the signs that you many not grasp the unique radical nature of the gospel is that you are certain that you do.

This book, then, is written to both curious outsiders and established insiders of the faith both to those Jesus calls “younger brothers” and those he calls “elder brothers” in the famous Parable of the Prodigal Son.[2]

Keller states that his book “lays out the essentials of the Christian message,” which he correctly identifies as the gospel, and it is for this reason that we will examine what Keller teaches about the gospel. The reader should keep in mind that Keller wrote this book for “seekers” and “curious outsiders” as well as “established insiders of the faith.” That Keller is writing to non-Christians as well as mature Christians is troublesome, considering the book’s doctrinal errors. We can also wonder why there aren’t more Christians calling Keller to give an account of his many false teachings in this book.

Throughout The Prodigal God Keller identifies the “curious outsiders” as the younger brother and the “established insiders of the faith” as the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. While Keller rightly identifies the elder brother in the parable as the Pharisees, he also calls them “established insiders of the faith,” which is confusing and misleading because the Pharisees adamantly rejected Christ. And while Scripture states that we are to “examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith” (2 Cor 13:5), Keller nevertheless calls them “established insiders of the faith.” One has to ask: What is the criterion Keller uses to identify the Pharisees as “established insiders of the faith?” And what “faith” is he referring too? We will take a closer look at this too and show from Scripture that in order to make this portrayal, Keller has to ignore—and often blatantly contradict—what the Bible teaches concerning the Pharisees.

One of the most troubling statements made by Keller in the introduction is that “one of the signs that you may not grasp the unique radical nature of the gospel is that you are certain that you do.” Not only is this absurd, it is troubling in light of what Keller says regarding the believer’s assurance of salvation in later chapters of the book. This statement is for the “established insiders of the faith” who “think they don’t need a primer” on the Christian faith. If it is true, though, that one of the signs you may not grasp the gospel is that you are certain that you do, then you can never be certain of your salvation. If you are certain that you have grasped the gospel message, then that is one of the signs that you may not have grasped it at all! This is a serious problem because understanding the gospel is necessary for salvation. Why else did Paul write, “Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”? (Gal 2:16). Is Paul’s confidence in having grasped the gospel to be taken as a sign that he has not grasped it at all? Why did John “write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God”? Answer: “That you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 Jn 5:13). The truth is that believers can be certain of their salvation because of what Christ has done on the cross. We will compare this statement further with what Keller describes as assurance later in this review.

The Elder Brother and the Pharisees

Keller’s portrayal of the elder brother is sure to leave his readers with an unbiblical understanding of the Pharisees. We will first look at what Keller says about the elder brother and then what he says concerning the Pharisees. We also need to consider why he portrays the Pharisees the way he does.

Keller and the elder brother

Keller correctly identifies who the elder brother in Jesus’ parable represents and to whom the parable is directed. He knows Jesus is using the elder brother as an illustration of the Pharisees and that he is directing his parable at them:

The second group of listeners was the “Pharisees and the teachers of the Law,” who were represented by the elder brother. (7)

So to whom is Jesus’s teaching in this parable directed? It is to the second group, the scribes, and Pharisees. (7)

It is because the real audience for this story is the Pharisees, the elder brothers. Jesus is pleading with his enemies to respond to his message. (27)

The elder brother gets no harsh condemnation but a loving plea to turn from his anger and self-righteousness. Jesus is pleading in love with his deadliest enemies. (74)

So while Keller correctly identifies the elder brother as representative of the Pharisees and even correctly calls them the “enemies” and the “deadliest enemies” of Christ, he also calls them “insiders of the faith”:

This book, then, is written to both curious outsiders and established insiders of the faith both to those Jesus calls “younger brothers” and those he calls “elder brothers” in the famous Parable of the Prodigal Son.” (Introduction)

The targets of this story are not “wayward sinners” but religious people who do everything the Bible requires. Jesus is pleading not so much with immoral outsiders as with moral insiders.” (8)

Keller identifies the Pharisees as both the “moral insiders” and “established insiders of the faith,” the same Pharisees who were the “deadliest enemies” of Jesus. While it may be true that many churches today have legalistic “elder brother Pharisees,” no legalistic Pharisee is “in the faith.” Keller applies the illustration of the elder brother to modern-day Christians, even though it’s impossible for a true Christian to be a legalistic Pharisee. Jesus is not directing his teaching to “insiders of the faith.” It appears that from Keller’s perspective it is possible to be an “established insider of the faith” and yet at the same time be an “enemy” of Jesus. Of course, a person can “profess” to be a Christian, attend a church every Sunday, and yet be a legalistic Pharisee, but Keller never makes this distinction.

Keller and Pharisees

So what does a Pharisee look like from Keller’s perspective? Keller identifies the Pharisees as the moral conformists who believe and obey the Bible and put the will of God and the community first. He blurs the line between a Christian believer and a Pharisee, which seems hard to do since they are polar opposites. In other words, Keller portrays the Pharisee as a picture of what Christians should be! He argues that the second group of listeners was the

Pharisees and the teachers of the law, who were represented by the elder brother… They studied and obeyed the Scriptures. They worshiped faithfully and prayed constantly. (7)

So to whom is Jesus’s teaching in this parable directed? It is the second group, the scribes, and Pharisees… The targets of this story are not “wayward sinners” but religious people who do everything the Bible requires. Jesus is pleading not so much with immoral outsiders as with moral insiders. (8)

Jesus’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing religious people of his day. (15)

So from the quotes above, we have the Pharisees depicted as the Bible-believing religious people of Jesus day who studied and obeyed the Scriptures and did everything the Bible requires. Let’s compare this with how the Bible describes the Pharisees and ask some basic questions.

First, even though the Pharisees read and studied the scriptures, did they believe and obey them? Note that the “Scriptures” the Pharisees had at the time was the Old Testament.

Jesus said to the Pharisees, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (Jn 5:46)

Jesus also said, “But you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:26-27).

The Pharisees did not believe Jesus and therefore did not believe what Moses wrote. They did not believe the Scriptures and they were not the “Bible-believing religious people of [Jesus’] day.” John Robbins writes, “It is a complete fiction to say that Orthodox Jews believe the Old Testament. Those who assert that unrepentant Jews believe the Old Testament call Christ a liar.”[3] In passages like John 10:26-27 Jesus plainly says that they did not believe because “You are not part of my flock.”

Second, did the Pharisees obey Scripture as Keller asserts? It is clear from Jesus’ own words that they did not obey. Jesus said they were lawless hypocrites: “Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Mt 23:26). Just as the reprobate cannot be the elect, a person cannot be both lawless and obedient at the same time. The Pharisees had an outward expression of obedience but they did not actually obey the Scriptures: “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men… You have a fine way of rejecting the commandments of God in order to establish your own tradition” (Mk 7:8-9). Unfortunately, Keller does not point any of this out and contradicts what the Bible says by stating that they were “religious people who do everything the Bible requires.”

And while Keller says that “they worshiped faithfully,” the Bible says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me” (Mk 7:6-7). The Pharisees may have been devoted false worshipers but Keller makes it appear as if they were faithfully worshiping the one true God.

Keller also knows that he can’t press every single detail literally from the metaphor:

Let me be careful to avoid a misunderstanding here. This story is a great metaphor of sin and salvation, but we can’t press every single detail literally. Neither Jesus nor any author of the Bible ever implies that any human being is flawless, without sin or fault, except Jesus himself.” (74)

While Keller gives this disclaimer he nevertheless continually draws out details from the parable that contradict the Bible. He is correct in saying that no “human being is flawless, without sin or fault, except Jesus himself,” yet he neglects what the Bible actually teaches concerning the true condition of man’s depravity. This is only part of the truth; which he continually betrays in what he writes about the Pharisees. This “Reformed” pastor undermines the Biblical doctrine of total depravity, especially when he attempts to make a distinction between the Pharisee and the true believer by claiming that the Pharisees are “being good”:

They key difference between a Pharisee and a believer in Jesus is inner-heart motivation. Pharisees are being good but out of a fear-fueled need to control God. They don’t really trust him or love him. To them, God is an exacting boss, not a loving father. (85)

So while Keller virtually erases the line between a Christian and Pharisee and actually applies the elder brother image to true Christians, he does make a distinction between Pharisee and true believer. Normally this would be helpful but unfortunately, he once again ignores what the Bible says and creates false distinctions and contradictions.

It would appear by and large that many young, restless, and reformed readers are not even batting an eye when they read this book. Let’s compare again Keller’s teachings with the Bible. He says that the Pharisees are “being good” but Jesus said, “no one is good except God alone” (Lk 18:19).

One might argue that Keller doesn’t exactly call them good in the quote, but rather he just says they are “being good.” This is still baffling! When were they ever “being good?” Was it when they “were persecuting Jesus” (Jn 5:16)? Or how about when they “were seeking all the more to kill him” (Jn 5:18)? Were they being good when Christ called them lawless hypocrites (Mt 23:26)? Or when he told them they were doing the desires of their father the Devil (Jn 8:48)? Were they being good when they were going to stone him (Jn 10:33)? Or was it when they cried, “Crucify him!” (Lk 23:21)?

Keller argues that the “key difference” is “inner-heart motivation.” It’s not repentance, it’s not faith in Christ, it’s not that one has Satan as their father and the other is the child of God, it’s not that one is in the kingdom of darkness and one in the kingdom of light, and it’s not even their unconverted human depravity. No, it’s just their “heart motivation.” Keller says that the “inner-heart motivation” is the problem but then identifies this inner-heart motivation as a “fear-fueled need to control God.” Yet the Bible clearly says that “there is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom 3:18). Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks,” and the inner heart-motivation of the Pharisees was revealed when “they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” (Lk 23:21). The true difference between a Christian and a Pharisee is repentance and faith in the redemptive work of Jesus that bears fruit in keeping with repentance (Lk 3:8).

Keller also says “they don’t really trust him or love him,” and he is correct but he fails to mention the true disposition of the unconverted sinner, which is that they’re all “haters of God” (Rom 1:30). Perhaps this would be too offensive to his curious outsiders. He writes, “to them God is an exacting boss, not a loving father,” suggesting that the problem rests in their perception of God rather than identifying man’s actual relationship with God as the real problem. To them, God is not a loving father because they have a different father, as previously mentioned.

Such a trivial distinction doesn’t matter though because the Bible makes it clear that “no one does good, not even one,” (Rom 3:12) as long as we remain unconverted. Only after we are made alive in Christ can we do any good works “which God prepared beforehand, that we should just walk in them” (Eph 2:10). The Bible thunderously denounces all merit placed in man outside of faith in Christ: “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23), for “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Is 64:6).

So from the Bible we can see that the Pharisees were not the Bible-believing religious people of Jesus day. They did not obey the Scriptures, they did not do everything the Bible required, and they did not put the will of God first. Keller abuses the text and wrongly portrays the Pharisees as what Christians should look like, while at the same time misapplying the illustration of the elder brother to this same group of “Christians,” or, as he puts it, “insiders of the faith.” Why does Keller distort the Biblical view of the Pharisees so much and equate them with conservative Christians? Keller claims that “if our churches aren’t appealing to the younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to think” (14). He seems to think that because our churches have “conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people” (14) in them, that is why “the licentious and liberated or broken and marginal avoid church” (14). Dr. E.S. Williams writes:

Keller uses the image of the elder brother to caricature conservative Christians as judgmental, hostile bigots. In Keller’s mind, the reason that conservative churches are so unpleasant is because they are filled with elder brothers (conservative Christians), who speak out against liberal, immoral values on sex and politics. Keller is profoundly hostile towards conservative Christians, whom he regards as the major cause of most problems in the world. So we have the remarkable paradox of a leading Presbyterian theologian who is vehemently opposed to the Reformed Christian faith. Even more amazing is the fact that he is the leader of The Gospel Coalition.[4]

Keller’s motive for writing such things is irrelevant if he is unfaithful to Scripture. It is egregious that Keller makes the Pharisees look like Christians, applies the elder brother image to Christians, and then makes a false distinction between the Christian and Pharisee. In so doing he contradicts the Bible repeatedly. This, however, is not the only problem with the book.

Redefining Sin

The title of Chapter 3 is “Redefining Sin.” Keller here distorts the biblical view of sin and attaches his own view to the parable of the prodigal son while at the same time appealing to the authority of Jesus. It is not uncommon for liberals, heretics, and false teachers to use orthodox language only to redefine the language in their teachings. Both Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses use the name of Jesus only to redefine the biblical doctrine of Christ. It is also very common for false teachers to make appeals of authority to Jesus in an attempt to pass off their unbiblical teachings. Many false prosperity preachers likewise appeal to Jesus’ own words in John 10:10, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” to preach their false health, wealth, prosperity gospel. In this chapter Keller once again injects his own views into the biblical text, contradicts the Bible, and makes a false appeal to Jesus as the one who is teaching what Keller is teaching:

Why doesn’t the elder brother go in? He himself gives the reason: “Because I’ve never disobeyed you.” The elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it. It is not his sins that create the barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record: it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the fathers.” (33)

Keller says that it is because of the elder son’s “goodness” that he is losing the father’s love and that creates a barrier between them, rather than his sins. Keep in mind that the elder brother represents the Pharisaical moral insiders of the faith and the father is a representation of Jesus. Can we lose God’s love because of our goodness? What else but sin could create a barrier between us and God? Can goodness and righteousness separate us from God?

Keller contradicts what Jesus said to the rich young ruler in Luke 18:19. While Keller affirms that the elder brother is good and righteous, Jesus, on the other hand, tells the rich young ruler, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Once again Scripture says, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3:10). What definition of righteous and good is Keller using if not a Biblical one? Apart from Christ, we have no righteousness or goodness. Keller identifies pride as the real problem but this pride is nothing less than sinful and is, therefore, wrong. Therefore, it would be the elder son’s wrongdoing, not his “goodness” that keeps him from sharing in the feast.

But Keller claims the opposite. He says that “the elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it.” Yet when the rich young ruler boasted of his own goodness by saying, “All these [commandments] I have kept from my youth” (Lk 18:21), Jesus did not tell him that he was losing the father’s love because of his goodness. Instead, Jesus pointed him back to the first commandment by showing him that he loved his money more than God when he told him to “sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Lk 18:22). Jesus’ response to the young man was consistent with what he said in response to the question about the greatest commandment to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment” (Mt 22:36). By loving his money more than God he was violating the first and greatest commandment. The young man left very sad because he was very rich (Lk 18:23). Notice that Jesus didn’t affirm the rich young ruler’s goodness in Luke 18, nor did he affirm the Pharisees’ goodness through the parable of the prodigal son. Jesus tells the Pharisees in Luke 16:15, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” So Jesus in no way intended to affirm the “goodness” of the Pharisees in the parable because they are “an abomination in the sight of God.”

And Jesus certainly did not intend to teach that it was “not his sins that create the barrier between him and his father.” Keller is a terrible expositor. Of course, it is our sin that creates a barrier between us and God! This is why Jesus pointed the rich young ruler back to the law to show him his sin. This is why Galatians 3:24 says the law was our schoolmaster, and why Paul says in Romans 7:7, “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” Jesus showed the rich young ruler it was his sin that was the problem, not his goodness. So while Keller says it was not his sin that created a barrier, Isaiah 59:2 reads, “It’s your sins that have cut you off [created a barrier] from God. Because of your sins, he has turned away and will not listen anymore.” Clearly then, the real problem is the elder brother’s sin, not his “goodness” and “righteousness.”

Keller unravels his false teaching further:

Each one [of the sons], in other words, rebelled—but one did so by being very bad and the other by being extremely good.

Do you realize, then, what Jesus is teaching? Neither son loved the father for himself. They both were using the father for their own self-centered ends rather than loving, enjoying, and serving him for his own sake. This means that you can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently.” (36)

How can a person rebel against God by being extremely good? If a person is rebelling against God at all then they clearly are not being good in any sense. It is impossible to rebel against God by being extremely good because the qualities of rebellion and goodness are contradictory. That is, unless you equivocate on the terms good and evil, in which case you should consider Isaiah 5:20: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil.”

In the second part of the quote, Keller attributes his false teaching onto Jesus. He says that Jesus is teaching that “you can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently”; yet this is not what Jesus told the rich young ruler, and it’s not at all what Jesus is teaching in the parable. He did not tell the young ruler that he was “alienated” from God for keeping all of the laws since his youth, but instead showed the man that he was in trouble for not keeping the law. Perhaps it’s true that both sons in the parable were using the father but the conclusion Keller draws is false. While Keller says that we can be alienated and can rebel against God by “keeping all of the rules diligently,” the Psalmist writes, “You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently” (Ps119:4)! Keller contradicts the Bible yet again, for God commands us to keep his moral laws diligently! The real problem is that we fail to keep them, and this is sin.

Here is another of Keller’s false appeals to Jesus:

With this parable, Jesus gives us a much deeper concept of “sin” than any of us would have if he didn’t supply it. Most people think of sin as failing to keep God’s rules of conduct, but, while not less than that, Jesus’s definition of sin goes beyond it.” (34)

Here, then, is Jesus’s radical redefinition of what is wrong with us. Nearly everyone defines sin as breaking a list of rules. Jesus, though, shows us that a man who has violated virtually nothing on the list of moral misbehaviors can be every bit as spiritually lost as the most profligate, immoral person. Why? Because sin is not just breaking the rules, it is putting yourself in the placed of God as Savior, Lord, and Judge just as each son sought to displace the authority of the father in his own life.” (42)

It’s hard to imagine that one of the founders of the Gospel Coalition could be such a terrible expositor. Keller wants us to believe that Jesus told the parable to provide us with a much deeper concept of sin, even though Jesus himself said, “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Mt 13:13). Jesus spoke in parables to confuse his hearers and to keep them from understanding, and the prodigal son parable was meant to mock the Pharisees’ self-righteousness and total ignorance of God (Lk 15:1-3). How is it that Keller thinks that only in this parable do we have access to this deeper understanding of sin when Jesus magnified the law and gave a deeper understanding of sin in Matthew 5 when he discussed anger and lust?

Keller wants his readers to believe that Jesus is redefining sin, but Jesus was always consistent and in perfect harmony with Scripture. Jesus is not redefining anything at all in this parable. Keller wants us to believe that “sin is not just breaking the rules [commandments], it is putting yourself in the place of God.” But putting yourself in the place of God is breaking the very first rule! “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3). This is exactly what Satan did when he said, “I will make myself like the Most High” (Is 14:14). Sin, whether in thought or deed, is a violation of God’s holy standard. This is why the Westminster Confession (which Keller is also fond of contradicting) reads in Chapter VI.6, “Every sin—both original and actual—is a transgression of the righteous law of God and contrary to it.” What Keller writes is nothing short of confusion, yet he intends this book to be an introduction to the Christian faith for outsiders and a primer for “established insiders.” No, thank you. Paul tells Titus to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Ti 2:1), but Keller’s teaching does not accord with sound doctrine.

Keller’s Gospel

While Keller intends The Prodigal God to be a sort of primer which “is meant to lay out the essentials of the Christian message, the gospel,” it is Keller himself who distorts the biblical doctrine of atonement and compromises the gospel.

Keller writes that “one of the signs that you many not grasp the unique radical nature of the gospel is that you are certain that you do,” but he later writes, “The inevitable sign that you know you are a sinner saved by sheer, costly grace is a sensitive social conscience and a life poured out in deeds of service to the poor.” (112)

Keller suggests that you really can’t know if you’re saved by believing in what Jesus has done, but that you can have assurance of your salvation based on what you have done. This is Romanism at its heart: “The Romanists held that a man is to believe in the mercy of God and the merits of Christ, but that this belief brought with it no assurance of justification; though possibly, if the man lived a very holy life, God might before he died reveal his grace to him, and give him assurance.”[5] The Protestant view of assurance is rooted in the knowledge of the historical redemptive work of Jesus on the cross.

It is also wrong to say that the “inevitable sign” that you are saved is a “sensitive social conscience and a life poured out in deeds of service to the poor” simply because many who are not saved do this. What about repentance and faith in Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins?

Keller contradicts himself still further and betrays the gospel of justification by faith alone when he writes, “As long as you are trying to earn your salvation by controlling God through goodness, you will never be sure you have been good enough for him. You simply aren’t sure God loves and delights in you” (61). This is a lie. By making the problem of a works-based salvation one of assurance, Keller compromises the gospel and allows his readers to keep the idea that the only thing lacking is assurance of salvation, not salvation itself when they attempt to earn salvation. The problem for those who are trying to earn their salvation is not a lack of assurance but a forfeiture of the gospel. If a person is trying to earn their salvation, then they are not saved because they are not trusting in the finished work of Christ. Keller blurs the true distinction between the true gospel of justification by faith alone and a false gospel which includes works. Paul writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20). In fact, it is the one who does not work but believes that is justified. “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom 4:5).

Keller also seems to think that if we are not attracting people to our churches then it must mean that we are not preaching the same message as Jesus.

The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to the contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones.

If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on the people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. (14)

Paul warns Timothy to “follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me,” (2 Tm 1:13), and he commands Titus to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Ti 2:1), but never does he attribute the lack of success in ministry to a compromising of the message of Jesus. In fact, we see just the opposite. Those who compromise sound biblical doctrine often have the biggest ministries, which is why Paul warns, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Tm 4:3). Paul does not say that if you are not filling your churches then you must not be preaching the same message as Jesus. This kind of thinking leads to tampering with the message of Jesus, which is exactly what Keller has done in this book. Keller reduces the gospel to a message of feigned humility:

Jesus says: “The humble are in and the proud are out” (see Luke 18:14). The people who confess they aren’t particularly good or open-minded are moving toward God because the prerequisite for receiving the grace of God is to know that you need it. The people, who think they are just fine, thank you, are moving away from God. “The Lord… cares for the humble, but he keeps his distance from the proud” (Psalm 138:6 – New Living Translation).

When a newspaper posed the question, “What’s Wrong with the World?” the Catholic thinker G.K. Chesterton reputedly wrote a brief letter in response: “Dear Sirs: I am. Sincerely Yours, G. K. Chesterton.” That is the attitude of someone who grasped the message of Jesus. (45)

Keller once again attributes his false teaching to Jesus by misquoting him from the text in Luke 18:14. The verse actually reads, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The reader should note that Jesus never says, “The humble are in and the proud are out.” Keller misleads his readers on two accounts here. First by misquoting Jesus and second by the conclusion he makes from the text he misquotes. The verse says that “this man [the tax collector] went down to his house justified,” but why was he justified? It was not simply because he was humble, as Keller claims. It is true that the man showed humility but that was only part of the whole message, and Keller substitutes the part for the whole in order reduce the gospel to an issue of humility. Jesus was speaking the parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (Lk 18:9), but it was the tax collector who said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk 18:13). Furthermore, the Greek word for “be merciful” is hilasthēti, which literally means “be propitious.” The tax collector cried out and asked God to be propitious—to turn away His wrath from him. This is not just a depiction of humility but rather a depiction of saving faith. We see that the Pharisees trusted in their works and good deeds but it was the tax collector who was justified by rightly understanding his depravity and expressing saving faith.

Keller’s false gospel manifests itself by giving as an example someone who did not believe in the gospel of justification by faith alone. Keller, a Reformed pastor, affirms G. K. Chesterton, a Roman Catholic, as “someone who grasped the message of Jesus” on the basis of nothing more than a feigned expression of humility. The message of Jesus was, “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15), but as a Roman Catholic Chesterton did not believe the true gospel of justification by faith alone. He was hostile to the Protestant faith, became an apostate, and affirmed the false gospel of justification by faith and works. He was nothing less than an Antichrist who opposed the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Mt 12:30), and those who oppose the true gospel set themselves against Christ himself. It is remarkable that Keller affirms a Roman Catholic who affirmed a false gospel as someone who grasped the message of Jesus. This is the necessary consequence of Keller’s false gospel that the “humble are in.”

Keller also has a history of ecumenism and fondness for Roman Catholicism. Timothy Kauffman has made mention of this on his blog:

Tim Keller (PCA Minister): “The best things that have been written [on meditation] almost are by Catholics during the counter-reformation—Ignatius Loyola, Francis de Sales, John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila—great stuff!”[6]

These people whom Keller endorsed to his own church led the Counter-Reformation and wanted nothing more than to rid the world of justification by faith alone. They vehemently opposed Luther and Calvin and despised the true gospel. Keller has been known to frequently use and even endorse those who preach a false gospel. He quotes N.T. Wright liberally in The Reason for God, yet Wright teaches a works-based salvation. Paul wrote, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (Rom 16:17 KJV). Yet we have the leader and co-founder of the Gospel Coalition endorsing and affirming those who preach a false gospel. Shame on Keller.

Unfortunately, that isn’t all. Keller distorts the gospel further by substituting the biblical doctrine of atonement for heresy.

He came and experienced the exile that we deserved. He was expelled from the presence of the father, He was thrust into darkness, the uttermost despair of spiritual alienation – in our place. He took upon himself the full curse of human rebellion, cosmic homelessness, so that we could be welcomed into our true home. (101)

This is heresy. “The full curse of human rebellion” is not “cosmic homelessness”; it is God’s wrath. Keller only talks about exile, alienation, and homelessness in his book as the sole punishment that befalls wicked sinners. He never mentions the wrath of God that abides on sinners and instead eliminates it by claiming that the full curse is “cosmic homelessness.”

This distorts the gospel by denying the doctrine of propitiation. The word propitiation refers to the satisfying of God’s wrath against the sinner through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus on the cross. If we exclude propitiation by excluding God’s wrath, then we forfeit the gospel, and that is exactly what Keller has done in this book. Jesus did not redeem us from the curse of the law and become a curse for us (Gal 3:13) by merely being forsaken or becoming spiritually “homeless”; He suffered and bore the full wrath of God.

Paul tells us that we were by nature “children of wrath” (Eph 2:3). If propitiation is removed from the gospel, then the wrath of God still abides on the sinner’s head and we have no gospel at all. If Jesus only saved us from exile, then He did not ultimately satisfy or propitiate the wrath of God on behalf of his people. Paul tells us that it was Jesus “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith…. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:25, 26). Without propitiation, there can be no justification. Jesus, therefore, did not just experience exile or homelessness as Keller teaches, for “it was the will of the Lord to crush him” (Is 53:10) as well.

Keller distorts the gospel in The Prodigal God along with various other doctrines and must be held accountable for what he teaches. I, therefore, do not recommend this book or its author.

________________________________________

[1] Scripture references are ESV unless otherwise noted. All emphases in Scripture quotations are mine.

[2] Brackets and emphases are mine.

[3] John W. Robbins, “The White Horse Inn: Nonsense on Tap,” The Trinity Review 271 (September/October, 2007), http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=245.

[4] E.S. Williams, “The Prodigal God,” review of The Prodigal God, by Timothy Keller, The New Calvinists, accessed March 10, 2014, Keller’s books, http://www.newcalvinist.com/tim-kellers-false-gospel/the-prodigal-god/.

[5] Horatius Bonar, “Assurance of Salvation,” The Trinity Review (April, 1994), http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=185.

[6] Timothy Kauffman, “And the Diviners Have Seen a Lie,” accessed June 1, 2014, http://www.whitehorseblog.com/2014/05/18/and-the-diviners-have-seen-a-lie/.

[7] See E.S. Williams, “Keller redefines the gospel,” The New Calvinists, http://www.newcalvinist.com/tim-kellers-false-gospel/keller-redefines-gospel/.

3 Comments
  1. Author
    Tim Shaughnessy 2 years ago

    I’m aware of the typos. I accidentally published the wrong copy and was not very familiar with WordPress. I have been meaning to fix it. Just have not had time. I’ll try to get to it asap.

    Thanks.

  2. John Lopez 3 years ago

    Bravo
    Having to read Keller for new bible study. Thanks for confirmation of what I was seeing. I will share with the group . I am a Baptist who has visited many churches and find the pastors have little discretion about what they allow into their book studies .

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