This is the final post in a series evaluating the teachings found in “The Prodigal God” by Timothy Keller. “The Prodigal God” is based off of the well known parable found in Luke 15:11-32, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Despite being a very popular author and teacher, in this book, Keller attempts to redefine the gospel and in the process severely distorts scripture. His arguments are so contrary to the truth, that I felt the need here to correct some of his more egregious errors.
In the first post, I explained how the entire foundation of Timothy Keller’s teaching is based on a wrong interpretation of the parable, thus invalidating his entire reinvention of the Christian gospel. The second post addresses one of Keller’s more serious falsehoods, his redefinition of sin to include obedience to God, which in turn subverts the gospel. Here, I correct Keller’s false teaching regarding repentance and conclude the series.
In part one and two, we’ve exposed significant errors in The Prodigal God. The author, Timothy Keller, completely misinterprets the Parable of the Prodigal Son, wrongly claiming that the elder brother is lost. Building on this faulty foundation and attempting to pervert the gospel, Keller redefines how we understand sin—twisting it from being disobedience to include godly obedience. Completely unhinged from biblical truth, Keller reveals that his new “gospel” actually condemns those who do what is right–those who keep God’s rules. Of course, sin has always been just disobedience. And the gospel has always been a message of reconciliation, calling those living in sin to repentance. I have corrected Keller’s teachings in the first and second posts. No need to retread the arguments here.
Since Keller’s “gospel” condemns the righteous, so too must Keller innovate a solution for this unique (and unbiblical) form of being lost. The solution he offers is a significant alteration to biblical repentance. In the Gospels, we read that both John the Baptist and Jesus proclaimed the good news, which included repentance from sin in light of God’s coming kingdom. (See Matt. 3:2; 4:17) However, Keller undermines this, significantly departing from scripture and misrepresenting the gospel in the process.
Keller’s Teaching on Repentance
As I’ve repeatedly shown, Keller incorrectly argues that the elder-brother is spiritually lost, excluded from the father’s love. He is excluded, not because of rebellion, but because of his obedience. With this in mind, Keller raises a question:
What do we need to escape the shackles of our particular brand of lostness, whether it be younger-brother or elder-brother? (Keller, 73)
Reading on, we discover Keller’s solution, an altered and altogether unbiblical understanding of repentance. This new form of repentance is presented as the way to become “a Christian indeed.” (78) Specifically, Keller incorrectly teaches that salvation precedes repentance, while also changing what we are to repent from.
Keller teaches that salvation precedes repentance. Keller states that, “The first thing we need is God’s initiating love.” (73) This is a true statement if we understand it in light of Jesus’ death on the cross and continued drawing all men to himself through the Holy Spirit. However, Keller doesn’t seem to be using “initiating love” in this sense. Rather than talking about God’s universal act of love and drawing of all mankind unto His Son, He is teaching that God accepts us before we respond to His call in repentance.
Keller bases this on the father’s reaction to the returning younger son:
He [the father] runs and kisses him before his son can confess. It’s not the repentance that causes the father’s love, rather the reverse. The father’s lavish affection makes the son expression of remorse far easier. (Keller, 74)
Earlier, on page 24 of The Prodigal God, Keller expounds upon this “lavish prodigality of God’s grace.” Again, it is clear that Keller teaches that repentance is not necessary for salvation. Now, he cloaks this in a veneer of the unmerited favor of God. However, Keller is clear that the younger son is accepted back (i.e. saved) before he expresses remorse over his sins. This is a false understanding of God’s grace.
Jesus shows the father pouncing on his son in love not only before he has a chance to clean up his life and evidence a change of heart, but even before he can recite his repentance speech. Nothing, not even abject contrition, merits the favor of God. The Father’s love and acceptance are absolutely free. (Keller, 24)
Keller argues, contrary to scripture, that the father accepts (symbolic of receiving salvation) the younger son before he repents.
Thus, the first error is introduced, that salvation precedes repentance.
Keller teaches repentance of “reasons” for obeying. This repentance, according to Keller, is more than simply “regret for individual sins,” because the elder brother has “never disobeyed” the father. (76) The elder brother’s problem is his “pride in his good deeds, rather than remorse over his bad deeds.” (77) The proposed solution, which is incorrect, is to “repent of reasons we ever did anything right.” (78)
Keller believes we must repent of trying to save ourselves by doing good, “of seeking to be our own Savior and Lord.” (78) Keller goes on, “It is only when you see the desire to be your own Savior and Lord—lying beneath both your sins and your moral goodness—that you are on the verge of understanding the gospel and becoming a Christian indeed.” (78)
Keller is essentially attacking those who do good, saying they are really trying to control God and save themselves through their obedience. The solution is to repent, or turn away, from trying to live godly lives. He mixes in unfounded psychological reasons for this, but that is the core of his intention—to call Christians away from trying to please God and to repent of doing good.
Correcting Keller Based on Scripture
As I’ve just documented, Keller falsely teaches that (1) salvation precedes repentance, and that (2) repentance is not from sin, but from doing good. Now let’s allow scripture to do the talking.
Repentance must precede salvation. This is a core teaching of Christianity. Like faith in God, which is absolutely necessary, so too is repentance from a past life of sinful living. Repentance, in this context, means not only remorse, but a determination to stop sinning in light of His grace. True repentance will continue into action, getting rid of actual sin in our lives. As John the Baptist said to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Matthew 3:8)
Verse after verse makes it clear that repentance—basically returning to God—is a condition upon receiving salvation. (This does not mean it merits salvation in and of itself, but rather that God graciously saves those who repent and put their faith in Jesus.)
There are more verses than I can share here that express this universal truth. One such example is found in Ezekiel, where the prophet clearly communicates what true repentance looks like, and God’s response:
“But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die. All his transgressions which he has committed will not be remembered against him; because of his righteousness which he has practiced, he will live. Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,” declares the Lord God, “rather than that he should turn from his ways and live? (Ezekiel 18:21-23)
This truth, that the wicked who repent will be forgiven, continues to be consistently taught all over the New Testament. Peter, preaching the gospel to the Jews gathered in Jerusalem, called them to repentance. He preached, “Repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” (Acts 3:19)
Paul preached this same message. When Simon the Magician attempted to purchase the Holy Spirit with money, Paul rebuked him, saying, “Repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you.” (Acts 8:22) Repentance precedes forgiveness and salvation, contrary to Keller’s claims.
This teaching—that repentance must occur before forgiveness—is central to the gospel, as Jesus himself taught. At the very end of Luke, Jesus gives the disciples a summary of the gospel:
Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:47)
Could it be any more simple? We are to proclaim repentance for the forgiveness of sins in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Repentance is a condition upon receiving forgiveness. It is not—as Keller wrongly teaches—something that occurs in response to our being saved. Rather, we repent and thus are forgiven freely by God. Without such conditions upon receiving God’s grace, all humanity would be saved regardless of their response towards God. I’m sure Keller would not want to be associated with universalism, but that is essentially the root of his false teaching.
Repentance is from sin. Obedience, whatever the motivation, is never wrong. What do we repent of or turn away from? Keller suggests that we need to repent of doing good, or at least of any wrong motivations for doing good. What does scripture say?
Logically, we have two options. One can either turn from evil and begin to do good. Or, one can turn away from doing good, and do evil instead. The prophet Ezekiel presented both these options and their consequences:
When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity and dies because of it, for his iniquity which he has committed he will die. Again, when a wicked man turns away from his wickedness which he has committed and practices justice and righteousness, he will save his life. (Ezekiel 18:26-27)
Scripturally, God commands us to repent of our sins for salvation. If one were to “repent” from righteousness by starting to do evil, the punishment is death. We can be sure God commands repentance from sin, definitely not from righteousness. Only repentance from sin leads to salvation. This is the fundamental basics, but it needs to be said in light of Keller’s confusing comments.
Throughout The Prodigal God, Keller has attacked those who live obedient, self-controlled lives. As we’ve seen, Keller believes that obedience can separate us from God. However, Keller also believes that people are obedient out of some attempt to save themselves. Thus, Keller believes we must “repent of reasons we ever did anything right.” (78)
This is where Keller’s logic falls apart. If obedience is the core problem, as Keller repeatedly asserts that it is, then one would need to repent of this very same obedience, not just of “reasons” for obedience. Of course, we’ve shown in scripture that obedience is not sin and that repentance from obedience is itself an abomination.
If, however, there is indeed “pride” for doing good works, what does God call us to? Is the problem that we are trying to please God through good works? Should we “repent” of trying to please God? Of course not. The problem would be the sin of pride in our lives. The solution is to repent of pride (which is indeed a sin), while continuing to do good. God delights in obedience. (See 1 Samuel 15:22)
To return to Keller’s argument, do we need to repent of doing good, or even “reasons” for doing good? Absolutely not! We must repent of sin, while continuing to do good. As Peter told the gentiles assembled in Cornelius’ home, “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.” (Acts 10:34-35) God welcomes those who do what is right. Sin has always been the issue. That is why Jesus came to earth, to rescue us out of sin and redeem a holy nation for His glory.
Do you remember what Satan said to Adam and Eve?
Satan deceived Eve, asking “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1) The same lie is still proclaimed today, although many do not recognize it. The great lie, just as it was then, says, “Did God really say, ‘You must obey Me’?”
Keller is proclaiming this same lie. In The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller offers a new gospel, a gospel that will “reveal the secret heart of Christianity.” (XIII) He wants us to forget anything we’ve ever heard or read about the gospel, and accept what he’s offering. The only problem is Keller offers a twisted and perverted gospel that is no gospel at all. It’s actually a message of condemnation for those saints who are living obediently to God.
Keller calls good evil and evil good, redefining sin to include righteous living. He suggests that repentance is not necessary for salvation, and that we should instead repent of any motivation for obeying God. Much of what we’ve covered is so basic, but Keller has managed to mangle beyond recognition the most fundamental of gospel truths.
Keller seems to be quite wise in his own eyes, but his teachings stand condemned by scripture. Of Timothy Keller and his false gospel, the Prophet Isaiah’s words ring true:
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;
Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness;
Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
And clever in their own sight! (Is. 5:21-22)