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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

When is a dichotomy not a dichotomy? Tim Keller vs. Rachel Held Evans

This little well-mannered twitter spat illustrates what seems to me to be a basic theological flaw in the modern church.

Tim Keller tweeted:

Rachel Held Evans replied, somewhat circumspectly, but we know where this is coming from:

Various people pointed out—including Keller himself—that Keller was not dichotomising, merely assigning relative value. Jesus came “primarily” to forgive our sins, secondarily to bring about justice and righteousness on earth.

Since my voice is unlikely to be heard in a noisy row between progressives and conservative evangelicals, I’ll record my comment here:

It’s a false dichotomy not because both are right but because both are wrong. Kingdom was about Israel’s future, forgiveness was about Israel’s sins. Why do we think everything revolves around us?

Progressives assume that Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom directly validates contemporary social justice agendas. Conservatives think not only that Jesus came to forgive sins, but that he came to forgive our sins.

Both positions force the modern squabbling church into the centre of Jesus’ programme. Both are wrong.

Jesus’ core message was certainly that the kingdom of God was at hand rather than “I’m here to forgive sins”. But what did he mean by that? He meant that God was about to judge his people and establish a new régime.

There was certainly an ethical dimension to the message, but if we reduce the kingdom of God to ethics—even Jewish ethics—we entirely miss the point.

Jesus did not come to forgive sins. He declared on a couple of occasions that a person’s sins were forgiven—probably as a sign that one of the outcomes of the looming eschatological crisis would be that YHWH would forgive the sins of at least some in Israel (Mk. 2:5; Lk. 7:48 and parallels). Actually, there is no dichotomy, false or otherwise: kingdom and forgiveness are integral aspects of the same storyline.

Again, if we bin the eschatological context and the emphatic restriction of Jesus’ mission to Israel (Matt. 15:24)—as though this was all just cardboard packaging—and declare simply that Jesus came to forgive our sins, we entirely miss the point.

The reason that the modern church cannot get beyond the tired stalemate between progressives and conservatives, for all the good stuff that is being done on both sides, is that we have no real sense of history and think that everything has to be about us. There is a third way, folks.

Comments

Excellent post, and your last paragraph sums it up perfectly:
“The reason that the modern church cannot get beyond the tired stalemate between progressives and conservatives, for all the good stuff that is being done on both sides, is that we have no real sense of history and think that everything has to be about us. There is a third way, folks.”