Last December, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof disarmingly put the question “Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?” Keller is a wildly popular New York pastor, author, conference speaker, and whatever-he-wants-to-be-er. He is regarded by many as one of the more evangelical voices to play the big venues.
It can be a coward’s game to say “I would have said this,” from the safety of a small keyboard in a small pond, and I don’t want to play it. Rather than pick apart Keller’s answers, I’d like to offer my own, and let that stand for a constructive interaction.
Let me just say first that my starting place was sketched in my first column. My thinking starts with the self-attesting God of Scripture. I affirm His word to be just as it presents itself — purer than the most painstakingly refined ore (Ps. 12:6), and wholly righteous (Ps. 19:9). It is, as Jesus affirmed, “truth” (Jn. 17:17).
This God is judge of all the earth, His throne is in the heavens (Gen. 18:25; Ps. 11:4). It isn’t He who is in the defendant’s chair. It is we. Man is without excuse (Rom. 1:21)—though, God knows, we do try and try (v. 18).
That’s my stance. There’s no question about the truth of Jesus or God’s Word. To come off as if I’m in any way wobbly about any part of it is to be a false witness and, to that degree, less to God’s glory and far less to the good of my fellow man.
With that in mind, I will take Kristof’s first question and, in my response, basically anticipate his followups:
KRISTOF: Tim, I deeply admire Jesus and his message, but am also skeptical of themes that have been integral to Christianity — the virgin birth, the Resurrection, the miracles and so on. Since this is the Christmas season, let’s start with the virgin birth. Is that an essential belief, or can I mix and match?
Thanks for your candor, Nicholas, I appreciate it. It helps me try to help you.
To the first and most fundamental issue: your question explodes itself. Your assertions cannot exist in the same rational universe. I think it’s important for you to see that. Let me try to open this up.
To take the most obvious, you say that you “deeply admire Jesus and his message,” but then you ask whether affirming His virgin birth is essential, or whether you’re free to pick and choose amongst beliefs you affirm.
Don’t you see, you already have done just that? Consider: who is this “Jesus” whom you admire so deeply? Where did you learn of Him? What is your unimpeachable authority?
I’d be happy to go first in sharing my own answer. The only “Jesus” I’m interested in is the one presented in God’s Word, which is one long, long sentence starting in Genesis 1:1 and ending in Revelation 22:21. It’s a sentence with quotation marks around the whole, and the speaker is God (2 Tim. 3:16).
Given that I begin my thinking in reverence of Him (Prov. 1:7), I don’t want to interrupt, and I wouldn’t dream of asking Him to omit part of what He said. To do so would reveal the kind of heart-stopping arrogance God dismantled in Job 38—42. Count me out.
If you admire a “Jesus” from whom this or that uncongenial facet of the Biblical sentence can be detached, it’s a fantasy-“Jesus” you’re approving, a creation of your own imagination. You have no source for such a Jesus, no authority, other than yourself. It’s a Kristof Christ, a Frankenstein patchwork miscreation.
Let’s look to what the actual Jesus said – the real, Biblical Jesus – and see how He addresses the question.
That Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt. 16:24). Do you see that? “Deny himself.” There is no indirect object – deny himself bubble gum, deny himself beer. It’s far more radical. It involves a reversal of the great act of treacherous folly in Genesis 3, where Adam tried to usurp the throne from God. Jesus says in effect, Get off the throne, renounce your false claims, and grant that it is Mine alone.
Then I am to take up my cross, Jesus says. No contemporary would have mistaken His point. The cross was not a bit of jewelry. It was not a piece of exercise equipment in a gym. It was not meant for self-improvement or self-adornment. It was a brutal engine of execution, bringing death. You just can’t get more punctiliar and drastic than that.
Only then – having renounced, having died – do I follow Jesus. You see, it’s just like His first “beatitude.” Some think “Blessed are the poor” is a sort of proto-Marxist nod to the struggle. It isn’t. The “poor” Jesus blessed were those declaring spiritual bankruptcy, no matter the size of their portfolios. It was those who do not see themselves in a position to haggle with God, as if they were peers. They see their sin, they own their sin – and they disown their sin, in broken, repentant faith.
Is sin much of an issue in your mind? I wonder if you feel you’re in a position to “improve” on God’s portrait of His Son. Perhaps, like most of us, you use the wrong standard? Sin is not a question of how we measure up against others’ moral rectitude. The issue is: how do we stack up against God’s blazing holiness? The answer: we don’t (Rom. 3:23).
Do you see how asking whether you can dispense with this or that Biblical truth, because you don’t approve it, reveals that you don’t grasp what it means truly to “admire” the real Jesus, let alone follow Him?
Let me just say it as plainly as I can: the prospect of becoming a Christian is not that of opening negotiations with God. It is, instead, the end of negotiations. God is not negotiating with us. We are not equals. He does not agree that it is admirable and understandable and noble for a created-five-seconds-ago blink to match wits and judgment with Him, and try to debate terms.
I urge you as earnestly as I can to step away from this “Jesus” you created and admired. It is an idol. It cannot help, it cannot save. You wonder whether it rose from the dead? It didn’t. It couldn’t – it never lived, that it might die, much less be resurrected! It is unlike the real Jesus, who not only did not remain dead, but could not have remained dead (Acts 2:24).
Do as I and every Christian convert has had to do: turn from your autonomy, and surrender. Look in faith to Jesus as Lord. Start your thinking with Him, and learn from Him. That Jesus saves, forgives, reconciles to God, gives life and hope and direction and meaning. He’ll turn your world upside-down for the better.
Begin, as Jesus would have us do, with Genesis 1:1, and truths such as the virgin birth and bodily resurrection are both utterly rational and inescapable.
Again, thanks for asking such a great and revealing question.