Tim Keller is said to be one of the most culturally relevant preachers in the USA. So, you can pretty much expect that if it’s an important topic today – he’s probably said something about it.
The spirituality vs religion debate isn’t an exception. That being said … he usually talks about this debate using slightly different terms. When talking about the growing disillusionment with institutional religion (for more on this topic, check this post) he doesn’t usually use spirituality and religion as his contrast. Instead, he thinks that the Christian Gospel (the message of Jesus) is unique and ‘non-religious’ enough to be contrasted with religion.
I first came across Tim Keller when I was given a copy of the book he and his wife Cathy wrote about marriage, The Meaning of Marriage, as I approached my wedding. Since then, I’ve read a few of his books and printed sermons and think he’s great!
So I hope you find some of these Tim Keller quotes taken from his books helpful when thinking about religion, the Gospel and the spiritual vs religious debate generally.
Tim Keller’s Journey with Institutional Religion
When Tim Keller was young he too was put off by institutional religion. In fact some of the feelings he had back then are pretty similar to those expressed by many spiritual but not religious people (notice the importance placed on personal experience rather than institutional authority):
… when I first became a Christian, I thought the Church was obsolete. I saw it as actually a kind of embarrassment. I didn’t like the Institutional Church at all. It didn’t seem very important to my own particular Christian experience and practice.Timothy Keller, ‘The Gospel, The Church, and The World’ in A Vision for a Gospel-Centered Life
Later, however, he realised the importance of Christian community.
Tim Keller Quotes about Christian Community
In the same sermon on the role of the church, Tim Keller quotes C.S. Lewis and illustrates how God works in our lives through community with Christians:
C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves in his chapter on friendship. He talks about the fact that he was part of a circle of friends who were very, very close to each other and then one of them died
“In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself, I am not large enough to call any person completely into activity. I want other lights than my own to show all the facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald … far from having him to myself, now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald.”
Do you understand what he’s saying? […] What Lewis is pointing out is that it takes a group to know an individual … any one human being. You can’t know that individual the way a group can know that individual. Only a group brings out the whole person. If that is true of a human being, how much more must that be true of God? You can’t really know God by yourself. You can’t know God unless you are in deep community. You can only know a little piece of God by yourself. And the part that you see, as it were, is a part that you’re holding back from other people who need what you have. And you need what they have.Timothy Keller, ‘The Gospel, The Church, and The World’ in A Vision for a Gospel-Centered Life
In other words, it is through Christian community that we can come to know God best. It’s through benefiting from each other’s perspectives and how He has revealed Himself to each other that we can pool that understanding and get a broader view of who He is.
Why Christianity is Different and isn’t a Typical ‘Religion’
As already mentioned, for Keller, the message of Jesus is so radical and ‘non-religious’ that he frequently uses the Gospel as a contrast to religion. Here is some historical context he provides to justify this, in his sermon on the prodigal son.
Jesus is here to shatter all existing human categories. An historian once said … and it is hard to grasp this … when Christianity first appeared in the world, nobody called it a religion. It wasn’t seen as another religion. It was called the “anti-religion.” It was seen as anti-religion. The Romans called the Christians for two hundred years “atheists.” And the reason was that the Romans understood that what Christianity was saying about God was so different than what any other religion said, that it really shouldn’t be given the same kind of name. It’s in a whole other category all together. And they were right.Timothy Keller, ‘The Prodigal Sons’ in A Vision for a Gospel-Centered Life
In Keller’s book The Reason for God, he offers a further discussion of how the Gospel message is different to traditional ‘religion’:
Christianity’s basic message differs at root with the assumptions of traditional religion. The founders of every other major religion essentially came as teachers, not as saviors. They came to say: “Do this and you will find the divine.” But Jesus came essentially as a savior rather than a teacher (though he was that as well). Jesus says: “I am the divine come to you, to do what you could not do for yourselves.” The Christian message is that we are saved not by our record, but by Christ’s record. So Christianity is not religion or irreligion. It is something else altogether.’Timothy Keller, ‘Religion and the Gospel’ in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism
Though the Christian Gospel is different to traditional religion for Keller, he also notices that there are many ‘Christian’ religious-type people. These people take Christianity and use it in a way that makes it indistinguishable from traditional religion. He describes these people in his book The Reason for God:
Sin and evil are self-centeredness and pride that lead to oppression against others, but there are two forms of this. One form is being very bad and breaking all the rules, and the other form is being very good and keeping all the rules and becoming self-righteous. There are two ways to be your own Savior and Lord. The first is by saying, “I am going to live my life the way I want.” The second is described by Flannery O’Connor, who wrote about one of her characters, Hazel Motes, that “he knew that the best way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.” If you are avoiding sin and living morally so that God will have to bless and save you, then ironically, you may be looking to Jesus as a teacher, model, and helper but you are avoiding him as Savior. You are trusting in your own goodness rather than in Jesus for your standing with God. You are trying to save yourself by following Jesus.
That, ironically, is a rejection of the gospel of Jesus. It is a Christianized form of religion. It is possible to avoid Jesus as Savior as much by keeping all the Biblical rules as by breaking them. […] Both are “sin.” Self-salvation through good works may produce a great deal of moral behavior in your life, but inside you are filled with self-righteousness, cruelty, and bigotry, and you are miserable.Timothy Keller, ‘Religion and the Gospel’ in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism
Tim Keller’s ‘Religion vs The Gospel Chart’
Below is a chart from Keller’s book Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything where he breaks down individual differences between the Gospel and traditional religion. The idea is so that you can search your heart and see which category you best fit into.
Tim Keller Quotes on the Problem with Religion
For Keller, the reason why Pharisaic religion is so dangerous is because of the effects that the religious type mindset has on your internal life.
‘They build their sense of worth on their moral and spiritual performance, as a kind of résumé to present before God and the world. The moral and spiritual standards of all religions are very high, and Pharisees know deep down that they are not fully living up to those standards. They are not praying as often as they should. They are not loving and serving their neighbor as much as they should. They are not keeping their inner thoughts as pure as they should. The resulting internal anxiety, insecurity, and irritability will often be much greater than anything experienced by the irreligious.Timothy Keller, ‘Religion and the Gospel’ in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism
These internal effects inevitably create problems in the external world as well. Here Tim Keller describes some of these problems.
Pharisaic religion doesn’t just damage the inner soul, it also creates social strife. Pharisees need to shore up their sense of righteousness, so they despise and attack all who don’t share their doctrinal beliefs and religious practices. Racism and cultural imperialism result. Churches that are filled with self-righteous, exclusive, insecure, angry, moralistic people are extremely unattractive. Their public pronouncements are often highly judgmental, while internally such churches experience many bitter conflicts, splits, and divisions. When one of their leaders has a moral lapse, the churches either rationalize it and denounce the leader’s critics, or else they scapegoat him. Millions of people raised in or near these kinds of churches reject Christianity at an early age or in college largely because of their experience. For the rest of their lives, then, they are inoculated against Christianity. If you are a person who has been disillusioned by such churches, anytime anyone recommends Christianity to you, you assume they are calling you to adopt “religion.” Pharisees and their unattractive lives leave many people confused about the real nature of Christianity.’Timothy Keller, ‘Religion and the Gospel’ in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism
Prompts for Thought
Can you think of a time where you benefited from other Christians’ perspectives on God?
What’s your motivation for obeying God? So that He can give you a good life? Or because you love Him?
Where do you think you fit on Tim Keller’s religion vs Gospel chart? On the ‘religion’ side or the ‘Gospel’ side? Or a combination? Why?
What are your favourite Tim Keller Quotes?