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Two interesting footnotes from Tim Keller’s Generous Justice:

Is the mission of the church only to preach the Word—evangelizing an making disciples—or it is also (or mainly) to do justice? . . .

I am of the opinion that [Abraham] Kuyper is right: it is best to speak of the “mission of the church,” strictly conceived, as being the proclamation of the Word.

More broadly conceived, it is the work of Christians in the world to minister in word and deed and to gather together to do justice.


Strange [“Evangelical Public Theology”—now see “Not Ashamed! The Sufficiency of Scripture for Public Theology“], Carson [Christ and Culture Revisited], and Hunter [To Change the World] all recommend a chastened approach that engages culture but without the triumphalism of transformationism.

All of them also insist that the priority of the institutional church must be to preach the Word, rather than to “change culture.”

Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Dutton, 2010), 216 n. 128; 223 n. 153.

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23 thoughts on “Tim Keller on the Mission of the Church”

  1. Rob says:

    Yes. Ironically, if churches would just focus on preaching the word I believe that Scripture teaches us that it will change the world and the culture. Having lost sight of its original mission has led to a church that is impotent, political, and irrelevant for many, many people.

    I also agree with Keller that Christians ought to gather together and do justice…and that extends to social justice as well as economic justice and criminal justice. We must also love to do mercy, as we are the recipients of tremendous mercy. Above all, we must do this while walking humbly with our Lord and Savior. (Micah 6:8)

  2. Glenn says:

    I would add that the Church needs to practice what it preaches

  3. TheyS says:

    Rob, how is The Church supposed to do “Criminal Justice?” How should a theological (not economical) institution create, manage and maintain a “just” economy in a fallen world? I know churches that can’t get enough volunteers for their nursery and they’re talking about ‘leading the gospel renewal of our whole culture including economic and criminal justice systems.’ Amazing!

    1. Rob says:

      I didn’t say the ‘church’ should do criminal justice…I said Christians should unite for the cause of social, economic, and criminal justice. Yes, I know the church is composed of all true believers but I think there is a distinction being made here between the institutional church we attend on Sunday and the church as it is composed of believers in their everyday lives.

      Christians, individually and together, must begin leading in this culture by being involved in all aspects of life. God is concerned with whether we as individuals witness to our friends, neighbors, and others in our communities but He is also concerned when we stand by and approve policies designed to discriminate against some citizens or benefit the rich at the expense of the poor or approve of the execution of a potentially innocent man. I guess what I am saying is that God is concerned with the whole of our lives, not just that which we do on Sunday for an hour or so.

  4. Lincoln says:

    The mission of the church is to make disciples (people who follow and obey Jesus Christ as a way of life). In the course of that we preach the Word, enact justice, show mercy and otherwise show and tell Christ wherever we can. Disciple-making is the irreducible core of the church’s raison d’etre. If we stray from that, we’re of no eternal use to the world — and not much good here, either.

  5. TheyS says:

    Lincoln- can you define for me “Enact Justice” and “Show Mercy” and/or with examples of what my church must do to be in compliance with these biblical directives?
    They sound like good and great and noble prongs of the gospel, but what are they *exactly*?

  6. To enact justice, you could do something as simple as send a check to International Justice Mission, something as hard as challenging a friend about their racial bigotry — or perhaps something more in-between, such as helping foreign-speaking immigrants in the community learn English or fill out job applications.

    Showing mercy takes lots of forms, perhaps most commonly serving people in need. True, by “showing mercy,” we technically usually mean “showing grace,” but the lines get blurred, don’t they? Is volunteering in the kitchen at the local Salvation Army more an act of grace (giving people what they don’t necessarily deserve) or an act of mercy (helping blunt the effects of bad personal decisions)? Is helping a friend through a divorce grace or mercy? What about driving an alcoholic to a job interview? All of these are examples of showing mercy to people who need help weathering the foul effects of the Fall. I think that’s really what mercy boils down to.

  7. Ben Pun says:

    I’ve heard Keller say this before, and I think it is wise. I wonder though what Redeemer’s thought process was in deciding on their mission statement — “seeking to renew the city socially, spiritually and culturally.” would keller conceive of the institutional church as primarily preaching the Word, which in turn causes social and cultural renewal? why include these aspects in the church’s mission statement if strictly speaking they are not part of the mission?

  8. Ben Pun says:

    just posting a comment so i can be notified of followup comments.

  9. Tim Keller says:

    Hi Ben —

    That mission statement combines the narrower and broader sense of mission. We want to evangelize and disciple a generation of New Yorkers–disciple them to not only evangelize but to do justice and engage culture. That is part of the goal of our discipleship–to create Christians who renew the City in these ways. Therefore it is warranted to say that the goal of our ministry is to not only convert people but to see the city renewed. However, our church recognizes its institutional limits. We don’t as an institution start film production companies nor do housing rehabilitation–that is done by people we disciple who band together to do these things.

    1. Rob says:

      Ben…what Dr. Keller said is exactly what I was trying to convey in my initial post. Glad someone else could say it better than me!

    2. Brett says:

      Dr. Keller,

      I read and very much enjoyed Generous Justice. Thank you for all you do brother! The church at which I serve is currently wrestling with this issue; in particular, with what our church’s obligation is with respect to meeting poverty needs in our neighborhood and city for those outside the covenant community. Could you clarify something for me from page 145 in this regard?

      You write, “As we have said, churches under their leaders should definitely carry out ministries of relief and some development among their own members and in their neighborhoods and cities…”

      Here, referring to the church as an institution, you include “relief and some development” (i.e. deed ministry) even among those outside the covenant community as something it “should definitely carry out” (i.e. is obligated to do). However, in footnote #128, you argue that “deed” ministry falls under the mission of the church “broadly conceived” (i.e. for the church as an organism, not as an institution).

      Does a local church, as an institution, have an *obligation* to minister “in deed” to those outside the covenant community? It sounds like on page 145 you say yes (although within a manageable geographical radius). However, it sounds like in footnote #128 you say no (being obligatory for the church as an organism, not as an institution). Could you clarify this for me? -Many Thanks!

  10. TheyS says:

    The trouble with these definitions and the muddling of mission statements that occurs when we draw politics into the church is, 2 equally sincere Christians can be on opposite sides of “enacting justice.” It happens every day. By the definitions or characteristics of “enacting justice” described here, one of them is doing “the mission of the church,” while the other is in sin; One is opposing injustice, and one is supporting injustice. One hears the shepherd, and one needs to repent.
    This can create a false dichotomy by dividing the world again, as Christ told us not to, into good guys and bad guys.
    We have to define scripturally, not emotionally, what is justice, and what is not, or we make our theology just a different flavor of political activism.

  11. donsands says:

    Tow great footnotes from Keller on Kuyper. Two fine Christian examples for us, the Church; and lights in a dark world.

    Thanks for the post Justin. May our Lord bless Tim’s ministry, and his pastoral calling, and also all those who come to Redeemer and pitch in to share their gifts for the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and our Father, whom we worship in Spirit and truth. Amen.

  12. Ted Bigelow says:

    Dr. Keller writes,

    “More broadly conceived, it is the work of Christians in the world to minister in word and deed and to gather together to do justice.”

    Is that Kuyper’s conception, or Dr. Keller’s? I mean, the only time Christians are called to gather together, Scripturally speaking, is for corporate worship (1 Cor. 5:4).

    Agenda alert, JT?

  13. donsands says:

    Hey Ted, How about if we gather together to protest the legal kill of abortion? It’s a nation where we can surely do such a justice.

    Now, the Church in China can’t do it really. They could, but the Government would quickly put it down in quite an unjust and murderous way for sure.

  14. Lucky Dowling says:

    Are you the Justin Taylor of the “Contend for the Faith” website:

    If so, then coming to your web site and reading most of the articles posted there is the closest you have allowed us to get into your head. I have found much that is interesting, and disappointed that many of the links do not work or are no longer available on the Internet. Which makes me wonder how long it has been since that web site has been attended to and maintained.

    Real truth is timeless, but time is something we have very little of in relation to eternity. Therefore we must get it right the first time before it is too late! You present yourself as a skeptic-believer in your Testimony with a great thirst for knowledge. It appears that most of your studies have been somewhat lop-sided limited mostly to the reformed covenant branch of theology in their never ending controversy between Calvinism and Arminianism. There are other Christian groups and bodies of truth out there which push the horizon a little further. Truth is where you find it. God does not put all His eggs in just one basket, and I have learned to be a gleaner. We are told to, “Prove all things,” and “Hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). That which does not pass the muster we are to discard. Again we are to, “Buy the truth and sell it not” (Proverbs 23:23). Permit me to make an observation. There is no such thing as double predestination taught in the Bible. It teaches only the predestination of the saved, not the lost. The followers of Calvin and Arminius both got it wrong.

    Nothing is more valuable than truth. The WRITTEN Word of God is how we come to know Him Who is the LIVING Word of God. Life is in vain if one does not find Him Who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life”: the Lord Jesus Christ (John 14:6) before departing. Eternity would be long and boring if it weren’t for the fact that we will be discovering the never ending revelation of who He really is. This life is just the beginning of that great adventure. Those with unsatiable desires for that kind of knowledge will not be disappointed. The best part is still yet ahead of us. I wonder how much of what we now believe will still remain at that time. May you ever stay thirsty. Maranatha.

    Thank you for sharing your web site with us.

  15. Jonathan Cousar says:

    I honestly don’t know what to make of Tim Keller saying the things that were quoted in Justin’s post when so much else of what he does and says seems to contradict it.

    In 2006 at Redeemer’s Entrepreneur’s Initiative Forum, speaking to business owners, he said the following:

    “Conservative churches say this world is not our home — it’s gonna burn up eventually and what really matters is saving souls… so evangelism and discipleship and saving souls is what’s important. And we try to say that it’s the other way around almost. THAT THE PURPOSE OF SALVATION IS TO RENEW CREATION. That this world is a good in itself.”

    II Peter 3:7
    Philippians 3:17-21
    Colossians 1:6
    I Corinthians 4:14-17

    According to the Bible saving souls is of primary importance. We are to be imitators of Paul, and Paul spent his Christian life preaching the Good News – in order to save individual souls. The phrases “cultural renewal” or “social justice” don’t appear anywhere in Paul’s writings, nor do they appear anywhere in the rest of the Bible. Paul’s clear and primary emphasis was on the preaching of individual, personal salvation through Christ alone. It is only through the personal transformation of millions of individual hearts, forgiven by Christ, that society could ever be renewed and transformed.

    TIM CONTINUES: “God loves and cares for his creation, the material creation. And if you see it that way, then the old paradigm if you’re going to put your money and your time and your effort as a Christian into doing God’s work in the world [is that] you want to save souls WHICH MEANS THE ONLY PURPOSE OF YOUR MINISTRY and your effort is to INCREASE THE TRIBE, increase the number of Christians.”

    This is what Paul spent his life doing – working to “increase the tribe, increase the number of Christians.” But Tim rather harshly ridicules and mocks Christians who follow the Biblical teachings on this by saying all they’re interested in is “building the tribe”. This is indeed a very harsh insult. It brings along with it the connotations of bigotry, racism and tribalism. And it’s an unfair and harsh caricature of the evangelical efforts of millions of Christians since the first century.

    Tim says rather than putting our efforts into winning individual souls to personal salvation in Christ, we should rather put our efforts into renewing the culture and making this world a better place, (social gospel – by a different name).

    1. Rob says:

      Jonathan–I think you’re actually distorting what Keller says and teaches. It’s not that Christians should do one or the other; it’s that we should do both simultaneously. Keller makes a distinction between the institutional church, which should be about preaching the word, saving souls, and pursuing justice and mercy, and Christians acting in groups outside of the institution to redeem a lost culture through the arts and sciences, through justice ministries, through mercy ministries, and the like.

      The problem has been one of division…conservative churches think their sole purpose is to save people while more liberal churches think only about the social gospel. As Christians we must do both and to the degree that we neglect one for the other we become more and more irrelevant in people’s lives and have no impact on our society either in terms of increasing the tribe or ministering to lost sinners.

      1. Jonathan Cousar says:

        Rob, I wholeheartedly agree that Christians should do both. I’m not sure I agree that I distorted what Tim said though. But the whole quote is there so you can decide for yourself.

        I would not have written here what I did however, if I didn’t have much corroborating evidence from Tim’s ministry. I was associated with Redeemer since nearly the beginning – up until about a couple of years ago. If you’ll take a look at Redeemer’s website I think you’ll find the emphasis and focus is decidedly on the social renewal aspects and not nearly as much on ministering the Word.

        Redeemer also has far more ministries that focus on “social justice” than they have on evangelism.

        In fact, just take a look at their “Core Values” page and I think you’ll see it’s nearly all about social justice and nothing about individual salvation — unless you read into the words what you might want to see (like I did for many years).

        This wouldn’t be worth mentioning except that it seems to contradict what Tim wrote in his footnotes that Justin posted here. It also seems to contradict most, if not all, of Tim’s book, “Generous Justice”.

        Note that the #1 Core Value even though it seems to focus on the traditional Gospel as most of us know it – is actually talking about social renewal. It says that the “the power of God’s kingdom has entered history to renew the whole world.” And then it says when we believe and rely on Jesus’ work for our relationship to God that “kingdom power comes upon us and begins to work through us.”

        It doesn’t say anything there about individual salvation – which is the core of the Gospel message. Most of the rest of the core values center around things that ultimately boil down to “cultural renewal” and “social justice” – again something that is not at the core of the Gospel message.

        In Core Value #2, we find that Christ “liberates us to accept people we once excluded” and that “In particular, the gospel makes us welcoming and respectful toward those who do not share our beliefs.”

        While respecting and welcoming those who don’t share our beliefs is certainly an important Christian value, it’s certainly not the core of the Gospel. Again, no mention of individual salvation here which is what Christ primarily came to accomplish.

        The third Core Value focuses on reweaving the fabric of neighborhoods – again – not the core of the Gospel of Christ. But they are the core of Tim’s ministry and teachings.

        Tim also said several months ago at a forum to discuss “Generous Justice” with Lauren Green, (and has often said), that he would encourage Christians to spend their volunteer time with secular organizations. He admitted that you would not be able to share Christ with the people you’re there to serve. But he said it’s a worthwhile endeavor because the people you’re serving with will be so impressed that you as a Christian were ‘willing to give up control of the agenda’ that they would want to know more about you and what you believe.

        I found this especially disturbing because sharing Christ with people in need is the thing they need most. I did some work this summer up in the Bronx with a family who lived in the projects and had had a terrible history. The daughter was raped by her dad starting when she was six years old. She went on to drop out of school permanently at 14 years old. She discovered her brother’s porn collection on his computer at 13 and became fascinated by the “sex industry”. She became a prostitute at 16 – something she did for four years.

        I thought if I had been there to minister to them with a secular organization I couldn’t have gotten close to getting to the root of their problems. If her dad had been introduced to Christ before she was born, there’s a very great chance he never would have raped her. If her brother had come to know Christ there’s a good chance he would have had no porn collection for her to discover. And if her mom had given her life to Christ, there’s a really good chance she would have made darn sure she stayed in school and didn’t become a prostitute.

        But with a secular organization, about all you could do is give them some food, help out with their medical needs, maybe give them some mentor training or education. But as good as all that is, and as needed as it all is – none of it gets to the root of the problems. And none of it could have prevented the problems.

        So Rob, when you say you believe that Tim means for us to do both – I believe he would indeed say that as well. But when you look at his ministry, when you look at Redeemer’s website, when you look at the totality of his work and the church’s work, there is a decided leaning towards the social gospel and away from spreading the real Gospel.

        Indeed, in the quote I provided above, he actually pretty harshly ridicules people who do exactly what he said in his footnotes, people who put evangelism and discipleship at the top of their Christian priorities. He says their only interest is ‘tribe building’.

  16. Love it. What if we only focused on preaching the word, and not making up stuff around it? how much better would the world be?

  17. JD says:

    Dr. Keller’s comments in his interview with Kevin DeYoung really helped me with this:

    “When you say, ‘the church’s mission is to make disciples, not change the culture,’ on one level I’d agree with you…However, you have to disciple people to follow Christ not only inside the church but outside in the world. For example, when a Christian actor asks ‘what roles can I take as a Christian—and what roles should I turn down?’ or when a hedge fund manager asks: ‘can a Christian do short selling?’—these are discipleship questions. If you disciple people to bring their faith to bear on all of life, you will be equipping them to do justice and also, inevitably, ‘do culture-making’. I’m pretty sure you’d agree with me here. I’m only proposing that, when you say, ‘we must make disciples, not do justice or engage culture’ you might give the impression that disciples simply do evangelism, follow-up, and recruiting people into the church. But disciples do more than that.”

    This is so true. Anyways, thanks for the post. Very helpful.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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