Category Archives: The Bible

Timothy Keller’s False Gospel in “The Prodigal God” (Part 3)

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.


Concluding Thoughts
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)

Timothy Keller’s False Gospel in “The Prodigal God” (Part 2)

This is the second of several posts, 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 reinterpretation of the Christian gospel. Here, I address one of Keller’s more serious falsehoods, his redefinition of sin to include obedience to God, which in turn subverts the gospel. The final, third post corrects Keller’s false teaching regarding repentance and concludes the series.


Introducing Additional Errors in Keller’s Teaching
In The Prodigal God, Keller seeks to redefine the gospel by revealing “the secret heart of Christianity.” Keller bases his teaching solely on a false interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, found in Luke 15:11-32.

He argues that not only was the younger brother lost, but the elder brother was lost as well. Keller’s reinterpretation regarding the elder son is unequivocally wrong (this is discussed in the first post). Jesus is abundantly clear that the elder son has always been with the father and is a true heir, just as Christians are heirs of God.

Timothy Keller uses this misinterpretation of the parable as a springboard to support even more serious errors. He (1) changes the definition of sin, thus subverting the message of the gospel, and (2) twists the biblical understanding of repentance.

At the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus began to proclaim the good news saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2) To accurately understand the full gospel, one must realize their own sin and their need to turn away from their sin towards God. Thus both sin and repentance are indispensable. Any alteration to this foundation perverts the gospel’s truth and power, rendering it ineffective.

In this post, I’ll correct Keller’s redefinition of sin, which undermines the gospel. The final, third post will deal specifically with Keller’s error regarding repentance.

Keller’s Redefinition of Sin and the Gospel
The main focus in The Prodigal God is on the elder son. Keller describes him as dutifully obeying his father in every sense. He is “fastidiously obedient to his father and, therefore, by analogy, to the commands of God,” while also being “completely under control and quite self-disciplined.” (34) Yet, Keller still incorrectly insists that “there is not just one lost sinner in this parable–there are two.” (34).

Keller justifies his tenuous position by redefining sin. Keller argues that even though the elder son is completely obedient, this goodness is actually sin(!). Keller writes on page 37:

The hearts of the two brothers were the same. […] Each one, in other words, rebelled–but one did so by being very bad and the other by being extremely good. Both were alienated from the father’s heart; both were lost sons. (Keller, 37)

The word rebellion, as Keller uses here, is simply another term for sin. Keller is stating that the older brother sinned—“rebelled”—by being extremely good, by being obedient.

This redefinition of sin—from disobedience to obedience—is stated repeatedly in The Prodigal God. On page 35, he writes that the elder brother “is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it.” And also that, “It’s not his [the elder brother’s] wrongdoing, but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father.” (35)

This faulty reasoning—that obedience is the real problem, not just disobedience—continues to be reinforced:

This means that you can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently. It’s a shocking message: Careful obedience of God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God. (Keller, 37)

Since “careful obedience of God’s law” is supposedly a form of rebellion “against God,” Keller’s false gospel naturally condemns moral behavior:

Everybody knows that the Christian gospel calls us away from the licentiousness of younger brotherness, but few realize that it also condemns moralistic elder brotherness. (Keller, 67)

Keller teaches that obeying God is sin, and that—as a result of this premise—“the gospel” condemns the obedient. Apparently Keller believes his “secret heart of Christianity” involves bringing condemnation upon the righteous, rather than calling sinners to repentance.

This absolutely mutilates any semblance of biblical teaching, so let’s address what scripture actually says.

Scripture vs. Keller’s False Teachings

Is obedience sin, like Keller says? As I’ve shown, Keller believes that you can “rebel against God and be alienated […] by keeping all of them [God’s rules] diligently.” (37)

This couldn’t be more wrong. The Apostle John defines sin for us. He writes, “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.” (1 John 3:4)

So scripture defines sin as lawlessness. Lawlessness means a complete disregard for the rules (the Greek noun is anomia; without law). That one can break the rules (or sin) by obeying the rules is complete foolishness. Just as light doesn’t equal darkness, neither does rule keeping equal rule breaking. One rebels against God by breaking His rules, not keeping them. Only lawlessness is sin, not law keeping.

The Apostle John couldn’t have said it better. “Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.” (1 John 3:7)

Does obedience alienate us from God’s love? Keller asserts that the elder brother who carefully obeyed the father was “alienated from the father” and excluded from “the feast of his love.” (34) The elder brother “is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it.” (35) Essentially, Keller is arguing that obedience to God separates us from God’s love, which again is false.

Jesus plainly refutes this in the gospel of John:

Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. (John 14:21)

The one who keeps and obeys Jesus’ commands “will be loved” by God the Father. Obedience to God does not cause us to “lose the father’s love” as Keller suggests, but unites us with His love.

Rather than being alienated, the obedient believer abides in God. As John writes, “The one who keeps His [God the Father’s] commandments abides in Him, and He in him. We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.” (1 John 3:2) Those doing God’s will are members of His family, enjoying His presence and love. As Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother.”(Mark 3:35)

Does the gospel condemn the righteous? Keller writes that Jesus’ gospel “condemns the moralistic elder brotherness.” (67) Does the gospel really condemn those who are living morally?

First of all, the gospel was not a message of condemnation, but rather a call of reconciliation. Yes, God will one day condemn the world for its sin, but Jesus came not “to condemn the world, but to save the world.” (John 3:16)

Secondly, this call of reconciliation was not aimed at the righteous who were already with God, but for the lost sinners. That’s not to say the righteous never previously sinned, but rather they repented at some point and were now reconciled with God. Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32) All of heaven rejoices when someone repents of their sin and returns to the Father. Jesus came to earth for this exact purpose. The Parable of the Prodigal Son so beautifully illustrates God’s love for a lost humanity and His desire for true reconciliation.

Clearly, the gospel does not condemn the righteous at all. Scripture teaches that (1) the gospel is not a message of condemnation, but of reconciliation and (2) this reconciliation is for the sinners, not the righteous who have no need of repentance.


Post Summary
Keller argues that the older brother is lost (and continues to be lost), which is completely erroneous. He redefines sin to include obedience to God, teaching that this obedience separates us from the Father—clearly another serious perversion of truth. And as a consequence of this redefinition, Keller’s gospel falsely condemns those who obey God.

The truth is Jesus came to graciously call the sinners to repentance, not bring condemnation upon the righteous. You’ll be hard pressed to find any biblical support in The Prodigal God. And it’s no wonder, since scripture consistently teaches the opposite. Even a little light goes a far way in exposing the darkness.

Next I’ll reveal where Keller deviates from scripture in regards to repentance and salvation. Repentance cannot be ignored or perverted if the true gospel is to be preached.

Timothy Keller’s False Gospel in “The Prodigal God” (Part 1)

This is the first post of several, 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.

I explain below 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. In the second post, I expose specific errors of Keller that are a part of his newly invented “gospel.” The final, third post corrects Keller’s false teaching regarding repentance and concludes the series.


Introduction
Timothy Keller opens The Prodigal God by making it clear that his short book is meant to present the Christian gospel. However, he immediately clarifies this by saying, “Nevertheless one of the signs that you may not grasp the unique, radical nature of the gospel is that you are certain that you do.” (XI)

It’s a strange statement. Logically, the correctness of one’s beliefs regarding the gospel are not dependent upon how certain we are, but if we are in agreement with scripture. Why then does he begin with this misleading statement?

The answer is simple. This initial assertion by Timothy Keller in The Prodigal God is designed to convince us to change our understanding of the gospel. He’s telling us to forget anything we’ve ever learned in the past. The goal of The Prodigal God is to “correct” (or subvert) the teaching of the gospel with Keller’s own teaching, a unique perspective (or perversion) that we haven’t heard before.

That Keller aims to change something as central as the gospel should set off alarm bells. A godly, biblical teacher should aim to reinforce what was handed down by the Jesus and the Apostles, rather than introduce some novel teaching almost two thousand years later.

Timothy Keller’s teaching is entirely focused on the Parable of the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15:11-32. He’s taken this parable and reinterpreted it to present a completely new teaching. This new interpretation will redefine, not only how we understand Jesus’ parable, but also how we understand sin and salvation itself. This isn’t speculation. Keller himself writes on page 10 of The Prodigal God that, “Through this parable Jesus challenges what nearly everyone has ever thought about God, sin, and salvation.”  Later, in chapter 3, he again repeats this assertion, “He [Jesus] is redefining sin, what it means to be lost, and what it means to be saved.” (28)  The “redefining” of the Gospel is unashamedly and clearly evident in The Prodigal God. Even two of the chapters are entitled, “Redefining Sin” and “Redefining Lostness.”

Timothy Keller claims this redefinition of the Gospel reveals “the true meaning” of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. He says that it changed the way he “viewed Christianity” and it reveals “the secret heart of Christianity.” (XIII). Both are quite bold statements. The only issue is that this supposed “true meaning” doesn’t agree with scripture or even a careful reading of the parable itself.

How can we know if Timothy Keller’s new version of the “gospel” is correct? Do we take him at his word? Of course not. We study the scripture, and compare it directly against what Keller writes in The Prodigal God. We’ll use the light, the word of God, to expose the darkness and deception in Keller’s teaching.

Keller’s False Teaching: Both Brothers Are Lost
Keller summarizes his new interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son in this way:

“Most readings of this parable have concentrated on the flight and return of the younger brother–the “Prodigal Son.” That misses the real message of the story, however, because there are two brothers, each of whom represents a different way to be alienated from God, and a different way to seek acceptance into the kingdom of heaven.” (Keller, 7)

He believes that both brothers represent two different ways to be “alienated from God.”  Timothy Keller teaches that both the younger and elder brother are “lost,” although for different reasons. The younger brother is lost because of his rebellious, disobedient behavior towards the father. The elder brother is lost for the opposite reason, by being completely obedient. According to Keller, each is trying to gain salvation through these different paths.

As one reads through The Prodigal God, it becomes abundantly clear that Keller is far more concerned about the obedient “elder brothers” than the rebellious “younger brothers.” He writes, “While both forms of the self-salvation project are equally wrong, each one is not equally dangerous.” (46) And a page later, “Being an elder-brother Pharisee is a more spiritually desperate condition.” (47)

As we see, Keller believes that the elder brother is more lost than the younger brother.

Biblical Truth: The Elder Brother Was Never Lost
Is this true? Is the elder brother in Jesus’ parable lost?  Is he in a “spiritually desperate condition?” Of course not. The elder brother has always been with the father, unlike the younger brother. He has no need to return in repentance and remorse, simply because he isn’t lost. This is based on scripture, so let’s take a look.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is the last of three consecutive parables Jesus gives that all teach the same lesson. Jesus makes essentially the same point in each of the parables, so we can compare them to clarify Jesus’ true message and intent.

The First Parable. Jesus begins with the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7). We’ve all heard the story:

“What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:3-7)

Jesus clearly explains what the parable means in the last sentence. Just as the lost sheep that was found resulted in great rejoicing, in the same way, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (v. 7) The lost sheep symbolizes a sinner who repents.

But what about the ninety-nine sheep that were not lost? Are they considered by Jesus as sinners too? Not at all, Jesus says they are “righteous persons who need no repentance.” So there are both sinners and the righteous in Jesus’ parable.

The Second Parable. Reading on, Jesus gives a second parable about the lost coin that reflects the same basic teaching:

“Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!’ In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10)

The parallels to the first parable are obvious. Once again, there is great rejoicing over the lost being found. Just as in the first parable about the lost sheep, the lost coin here represents the “sinner who repents.”  Because the second parable closely mirrors the first, we know that the coins that were never lost represent “the righteous persons who need no repentance.”

The Third Parable. The final parable is the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). It is in this parable that Keller incorrectly asserts both sons are lost and alienated from the father, who represents God. Although the third parable is longer than the previous two, it has the same structure and message. We’ve already seen how the first and second parables have both lost sinners and also the righteous who were never lost. We’ll see the same here in the third parable.

To summarize the story, the younger son takes his share of the fathers inheritance and wastes it in sinful living. After a severe famine, the son is starving and returns to the father with a repentant heart. The father welcomes his lost son with open arms and great joy, giving him a celebratory feast. Jesus concludes the parable by repeating the theme of being lost and found. This is expressed through the father’s words to the elder son.

The father answers the elder son who questions why he has never received a feast:

“Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. We had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:31-32)

Jesus is clear that the older son has (1) always been with the father (thus never lost), and (2) is a legitimate heir. He is enjoying the full rights as a true son. He is not lost at all, but “with the father” in every sense. Just like the older son, Christians are co-heirs with Jesus, being born again into the family of God. As Paul writes to the Romans, we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” (Romans 8:17) The elder son represents those who are heirs of God, true spiritual children of the Father.

So, to recap, the younger son represents sinners who repent (paralleling the lost sheep and lost coin), and the older son represents the “righteous persons who need no repentance” (paralleling the ninety-nine sheep and nine coins).

Implications of Keller’s Error
Keller’s reinterpretation of this parable in The Prodigal God hinges completely on the idea that the elder son is lost, just as the younger son was lost. In fact, Keller argues that Jesus concludes the story with the elder son still being lost.

Keller writes:

“Although the sons are both wrong and both loved, the story does not end on the same note for each. Why does Jesus construct the story so that one of them is saved, restored to a right relationship with the father, and one of them is not? (At least, not before the story ends.)” (Keller, 46)

Keller is saying the younger son’s relationship is restored with the father, while the older son remains unsaved, distant from the father. But as I’ve shown, the Bible is clear that the elder son was never lost at all! He has “always” been with the father, which means he hasn’t wandered away like his younger brother. All that the father has is his. He is already in relationship with the father. Jesus couldn’t have said it any clearer.

This is a plain, almost elementary reading of the text. It does not require a sophisticated exegete to understand what Jesus is teaching in his simple stories. The fact that Keller has misinterpreted this parable is, frankly, both embarrassing and deeply concerning. The entire foundation of The Prodigal God is based off a complete twisting of scripture.

As I wrote in the introduction, Timothy Keller is attempting to redefine the true gospel with this teaching. The Prodigal God is written to convince us to reset our beliefs about sin and salvation. But Keller’s redefinition is based on a completely perverted interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Keller has sought to find a deep and hidden meaning in it that will “reveal the secret heart of Christianity,” but instead he has only introduced false teachings based on an obvious distortion of a simple parable.


In the next post, I’ll cover several of the most serious false teachings in The Prodigal God. Keller incorrectly tries to redefine sin, so we’ll correct that error. He also distorts biblical repentance to fit his already flawed teaching, which I’ll address in the final post. Each of these issues are key to correctly understanding the true gospel, so we’ll systematically address all of these falsehoods by comparing his teachings with scripture itself.

The Seal on the Servants of God

Most have heard of the “mark of the beast” that is mentioned several times in Revelations. It’s captured the imagination of many Christians, especially of those holding a dispensational, premillennial interpretation of the end times. We’ve all read various speculations regarding forced chip implants, tattoos, and the like as possibly being the “mark of the beast.”

Of course, in all of this, people tend to forget the big picture. The beast, however we interpret it, is clearly in cohorts with Satan, working tirelessly to destroy the people of God. Those who have the beast’s mark on their hand and their forehead are those who have declared allegiance with God’s enemies, or are the very least not opposing their work.

However, in all of the speculation regarding the mark of the beast, what you don’t hear discussed is the mark of the righteous, the seal of God’s servants which John also writes about.

This is quite curious, since the Apostle John uses the same kind of language to describe this seal as he does with the ungodly mark. Perhaps its clear symbolic nature doesn’t lend itself to the same kind of frenzied speculation and excitement, despite being just as (if not more) prominent in scripture. We should take notice though, because just like the mark of the beast, the seal of the righteous is placed on the forehead of the saints. Those marked unbelievers who align themselves with the work of Satan act as a clear foil for those believers who are designated as belonging to and set apart for God.

This seal on the forehead of the servants of God is first mentioned in Revelations 7:3, after the first six seals are opened.

And I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God; and he cried out with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads.” (Revelations 7:2-3)

A couple chapters later, in Revelations 9:4, the fifth trumpet sounds and the locust-like creatures ascend out of the abyss.  They are commissioned not to harm vegetation, as one would expect, but rather to torment humanity. Not just anyone, but specifically only those who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.

Then out of the smoke came locusts upon the earth, and power was given them, as the scorpions of the earth have power. They were told not to hurt the grass of the earth, nor any green thing, nor any tree, but only the men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. And they were not permitted to kill anyone, but to torment for five months; and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings a man. And in those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will long to die, and death flees from them. (Revelations 9:3-6)

Just as we saw in Revelations 7, God has specifically sealed or marked the true servants of God. This is clearly not some physical, visible mark, but a spiritual designation by God. This spiritual seal indicates that they are God’s own possession, and as a consequence, they are spared here from the plague of demonic locusts, just as the Israelites were spared from the plagues God sent upon the Egyptians.

This does not mean the Christians do not or will not go through any tribulations. John is clear that many believers are killed for their faith in Jesus. (Rev. 20:4) We read the martyrs cry out to God day and night for justice to be served on earth. (Rev. 6:10) Yet, the seal of God clearly signifies that God knows all who are His. He is in complete control even in chaos, and will not allow anything to come upon His chosen people unless He has permitted it in His divine wisdom.

Ultimately, all those who have aligned themselves with Satan, having received the mark of the beast, are thrown into the lake of fire, but the servants of God enter into God’s eternal kingdom. They enter into His eternal reign on a renewed and glorified creation, where the curses of sin have been defeated, and the saints enjoy eternal fellowship with God. In this perfect world, where only the righteous dwell, we again see the seal—the mark of the holy believers—adorning the servants of God.

There will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bond-servants will serve Him; they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. And there will no longer be any night; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them; and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelations 22:3-5)

While the mark of the beast is forced upon the world indiscriminately, the seal of the righteous is only given by God to those who serve Him wholeheartedly—those who love Him and trust Him with all that they have and are. It is on the foreheads of these holy servants that the name of God is written, for they are His alone.

Rather than just focusing on the mark to avoid, let’s seek Jesus from whom we receive the seal that will last into eternity.

What Does Jesus Mean? This Generation Will Not Pass Away Until All These Things Take Place

One of the more perplexing verses in the New Testament is found in Matthew 24:34 (and also the direct equivalents in Mark 13:30 and Luke 21:32). After describing a period of terrible tribulation (Matthew 24:1-28) and the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24:29-31), Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”

Since Jesus just talked about His return before this verse, it would seem that He is saying that the current generation would live to see His coming. Clearly this has not yet occurred and could not have happened in His disciple’s lifetime. Jesus still has not returned almost two thousand years later. What is Jesus saying here? How do we understand it?

What does Jesus mean by “all these things?”
Our understanding of this verse hinges on one question. What does Jesus mean by the phrase “all these things?” We have two options. We can guess, or we can study the surrounding context for clues. Since we want to know what scripture says—and not just what we think—let’s look at the context.

Fortunately, right before this perplexing passage in verse 33, Jesus specifies what “all these things” includes—and just as important—what it does not include.

32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. (Matthew 24:32-33 NIV)

As Jesus says, when “all these things” occur, “it is near.” Some anticipated event will be close at hand, “right at the door.” What this event exactly could be is unclear in Matthew. Some translations read “he is near,” instead of “it is near.” This is an attempt to clarify a passage which I think should be left intentionally ambiguous, to reflect the ambiguity in the Greek grammar.

Jesus could be referring perhaps to His imminent return, the kingdom of heaven (as Luke says), or even the destruction of the temple. The reason why it could mean multiple things is because His disciples themselves asked about multiple events. (24:1-3)

Regardless, “all these things” are signs that we know precede Jesus’ coming (however close in time). “All these things” does not include Jesus’ return itself, which Jesus discusses in Matthew 24:29-31.

Consequently, in verse 34, when Jesus says “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place,” He is not saying that the disciples will be alive at His coming. He only is indicating that they will be around for the events described in verses 4-28, which include the various tribulations, persecutions, and other events.

Did that generation live through the signs Jesus describes?
Now that we understand the meaning of “all these things,” the question shifts. Could this generation Jesus is referring to—the same generation as the disciples—still be alive when these terrible signs come upon the earth?

They absolutely could be.

Jesus warned of false Christs, wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution of His followers, and so on. All of this happened prior to Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 AD. According to Josephus, there were deceitful men during this time who gathered large followings around them before their insurrections were put down by the Romans. (War of Jews, Book XX, Chapter VIII, Section 6) We know from Acts and Paul’s letters that Judea went through a severe famine. (Acts 11:28) Violent persecution of Christians was initiated by the Jews in Jerusalem and by the Romans under Nero’s leadership. The city of Laodicea, mentioned by John in Revelations, was destroyed by a large earthquake in 60 AD (and was quickly rebuilt thanks to their great wealth). Even the abomination of desolation, which we often only think of as a future event, is associated by Luke with the Roman armies that would desecrate and destroy the temple. (Luke 21:20)

So yes, all these signs Jesus describes—”all these things”—happened in the lifetime of that generation.

It is no surprise that Jesus would be referring specifically to the destruction of Jerusalem. After all, He purposefully brought up the subject with His disciples as they were leaving the temple. (Matthew 24:1-2) And as they sat on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the temple compound, the disciples remembered this prophecy and asked Him when this would occur. (24:3) Recognizing that Jesus was speaking about this same event later in verse 34 is not twisting the text to fit our own ideas. It is being a faithful reader of scripture.

Additional Supporting Evidence
And that’s not all folks! Just prior in chapter 23 of Matthew, after rebuking the scribes and Pharisees for killing the prophets, Jesus says that they will be punished for their sins. The way Jesus phrases this warning almost exactly parallels His own statement in Matthew 24:34 that we’ve been discussing.

34 “Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, 35 so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. 38 Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! (Matthew 23:34-38)

The context for this parallel verse is clear. Jerusalem will experience severe punishment for rejecting God’s messengers and for rejecting Jesus Christ himself. The blood of these holy men would come upon the Jewish religious leaders during their lifetime, a clear reference to the 70 AD destruction. Jerusalem will be left “desolate.” (23:38)

In this parallel passage, “all these things” can only be understood as Jerusalem’s destruction and “this generation” as the generation alive during Jesus’ ministry. This example just reinforces what we’ve already found in our previous analysis.

Summary and Concluding Thoughts
Let’s read the passage in question one last time.

32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (Matthew 24:32-34 NIV)

The proper interpretation is straightforward. Jesus is simply informing His disciples that those currently living would not die until all the signs that lead up to (and that also perhaps include) the destruction of Jerusalem would occur. He is not saying that the disciples will live to see His heavenly return. After all, Jesus goes on to specify that regarding His coming, “of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Matthew 24:36)

Please note, many of these signs described in Matthew 24 may have multiple fulfillments. Although they clearly deal with events leading up to 70 AD, they may also apply to “the birth pains” prior to His return. However, despite whatever alternate prophetic applications may exist, this does not nullify the clear short-term fulfillment we can historically observe. That generation went through the signs Jesus described, even if those events many have future significance as well.

This is a difficult passage, one many disagree on. I hope this brief explanation has shed some light on what Jesus meant here. There is depth in these verses that is impossible to touch on in one post, so feel free to comment below or send an email if you have further questions.

Did God Turn Away From Jesus on the Cross?

As Jesus hung on the cross, He cried out in a loud voice, “‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)” (Matthew 27:46)

This verse, and the equivalent in Mark 13:34, has been used to support grossly unbiblical teachings about God—false teachings we may have heard and accepted at some point without truly questioning their validity.

I have heard people reference this verse, and explain that God the Father turned away from Jesus in that moment. Or that the Father abandoned His Son and could no longer look upon Him. It has even been taught that for a split second, Jesus and His Father were completely separated from one another, no longer in unity. (All of which are patently false.)

Is that what Jesus is saying when He cried out? That God abandoned Him and they separated from each other for a moment in time?

Absolutely not. In crying those words, Jesus was giving a reference to a specific Psalm of David. By crying out “My Father, My Father, why have your forsaken me,” Jesus was directly quoting the first line of Psalm 22. We reference the Psalms by their number, but Jews during that time would reference the first words of that particular Psalm. Similarly, we refer to the first book of the Bible as “Genesis,” but Jews know it as the Hebrew equivalent of, “In the Beginning.” In the same way, those listening to Jesus (or reading the account in the gospels) would immediately understand the reference Jesus made.

By quoting the first words of Psalm 22, Jesus both expresses the human anguish he was experiencing at that moment and refers to the prophetic Psalm that spoke of His very sacrifice for humanity. A Psalm that, contrary to the unbiblical teachings we may have heard, speaks to the very fact that God had not abandoned Jesus at all. Rather, God was faithful to Him, even in death.

Psalm 22 speaks so directly to Jesus and His death on the cross, it is a wonder that Jesus’ words have ever been misunderstood at all. Just listen to the words of the Psalm. David begins with the same exact cry Jesus utters on the cross.

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.

David then speaks of how the Israelites have historically trusted in God, that “they cried out and were saved” by the Holy One. And then we read these prophetic verses. Verses that speak of Jesus being mocked by men as He hung on the cross.

7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”

Despite this mocking, David prophetically speaks how Jesus still trusted in God. David goes on, again referencing the crucifixion of Jesus:

16 Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

The trust David has, which is also prophetically seen in Jesus, is only more evident as we read on. There is a plea for God to deliver, followed by a significant declaration of God’s faithful character—that he will respond to this cry for help.

19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
20 Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

22 I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.

Did you catch the last verse? David writes that God “has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one.” (22:24) Not only that, but God “has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”

God did not despise Jesus on the cross, in fact, He did not even hid his face. This directly and forcefully contradicts any notion that God turned His face away from Jesus during the crucifixion. David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, says that God has not hidden his face from Jesus at all.

Jesus’ death on a cross was not a demonstration of God’s rejecting those who call on Him. Rather, it is a demonstration of His faithfulness. The Father was faithful to Jesus in raising Him from the dead, vindicating and glorifying Jesus. God was faithful to humanity and the nation of Israel by fulfilling His promises to send a redeemer. He was faithful to His covenant with Abraham in blessing the entire world through Abraham’s seed.

Our God is faithful towards those that trust in Him. He does not turn away from us during our hardest moments, just as He did not turn away from His Son Jesus. When we feel there is no hope, He is our eternal hope.

Lord or Jesus? Metzger’s Comments on Jude 1:5

In Jude 1:5 of the English Standard Version (ESV), we read that Jesus delivered the Israelites out of Egypt:

Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.

Other translations, including the KJV, NASB and NIV, instead read ‘Lord’ in place of ‘Jesus’ here.

Why the discrepancy?

This is not just a random decision to replace ‘Jesus’ with ‘Lord’, or vice versa. The translators are looking at the manuscript evidence and deciding what they believe the original reading most likely is. The critical editions of the Greek New Testament that many modern translations rely heavily on, the Nestle-Aland 26th and 27th editions, read ‘Lord’ in this verse. It was only in the recently released edition, the 28th edition, that the reading ‘Jesus’ was preferred.

The decisions of which readings to prefer in the critical editions are not made by one person, but rather by a committee of scholars. Dr. Bruce Metzger was one of several scholars who participated in the committee that chose ‘Lord’, and in his textual commentary he communicates the exact reason why it was preferred:

Despite the weighty attestation supporting Ἰησοῦς (A B 33 81 322 323 424c 665 1241 1739 1881 2298 2344 vg cop, bo eth Origen Cyril Jerome Bede; ὁ Ἰησοῦς 88 915), a majority of the Committee was of the opinion that the reading was difficult to the point of impossibility, and explained its origin in terms of transcriptional oversight (ΚΧ being taken for ΙΧ). It was also observed that nowhere else does the author employ Ἰησοῦς alone, but always Ἰησοῦς Χριστός. The unique collocation θεὸς Χριστός read by P72 (did the scribe intend to write θεοῦ χριστός, “God’s anointed one”?) is probably a scribal blunder; otherwise one would expect that Χριστός would be represented also in other witnesses. The great majority of witnesses read ὁ before κύριος, but on the strength of its absence from א Ψ and the tendency of scribes to add the article, it was thought best to enclose ὁ within square brackets. (Metzger 723)

After explaining the Committee’s rationale to prefer ‘Lord’ over ‘Jesus’, Metzger then follows with his own dissenting opinion:

[Critical principles seem to require the adoption of Ἰησοῦς, which admittedly is the best attested reading among Greek and versional witnesses (see above). Struck by the strange and unparalleled mention of Jesus in a statement about the redemption out of Egypt (yet compare Paul’s reference to Χριστός in 1 Cor 10:4), copyists would have substituted (ὁ) κύριος or ὁ θεός. (Metzger 724)

In Bruce Metzger’s dissent, he states that ‘Jesus’ is “the best attested reading among Greek and versional witnesses” and that “critical principles seem to require the adoption of Ἰησοῦς [Jesus].” In other words, a theologically unbiased decision based purely on the principles of textual criticism would prefer ‘Jesus’ here—not ‘Lord’.

The reason for it not being chosen was that a majority of the Committee felt “the reading was difficult to the point of impossibility.” They were convinced, it seems, of the extreme unlikelihood that Jude would have written that Jesus was alive and active within an Old Testament narrative. Perhaps they couldn’t stomach the idea that the earliest Christians believed Jesus existed prior to His physical human birth, something scripture itself attests to in John 1:1.

Fortunately, the reading ‘Jesus’ is now chosen in the Nestle’s critical text, even though Dr. Metzger is unfortunately no longer with us.


Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament; a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (2nd Ed.). N.p.: Hendrickson Pub, 2006. Print.

Co-Heirs with Christ

In Paul’s letter to the Roman church, while describing our deliverance through the Holy Spirit, we come across these verses regarding our heirship as children of God. I want to focus in specifically on verse seventeen, which contains parallels that emphasize our discipleship of Christ.

16 The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. (Romans 8:16-17)

There are three parallel ideas here that are not as obvious in the English, but clearly stand out as I read the Greek. They all express the concept of sharing with Christ, of being fellow participators with Jesus. I’ll diagram the English translation here, so it is more evident, and include the Greek as well, where the parallels are more pronounced. The three bolded portions below in the English are each communicated with three individual words in the Greek, creating strong repetition.

and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and
fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we
suffer with Him so that we may also be
glorified with Him. (Romans 8:16-17)

εἰ δὲ τέκνα, καὶ κληρονόμοι· κληρονόμοι μὲν θεοῦ,
συγκληρονόμοι δὲ Χριστοῦ, εἴπερ
συμπάσχομεν ἵνα καὶ
συνδοξασθῶμεν. (Romans 8:16-17)

If we have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, then we are children of God, and consequently heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ Himself.

However, Paul puts conditions on this wonderful promise. Our being co-heirs with Christ is contingent upon our also being partners with Christ, not just in the good times, but in the hard times as well. We, as God’s children are co-heirs—if we suffer with Him. If we are co-sufferers, carrying the same cross He carried and being crucified as He was crucified (in a spiritual sense). Then, and only then, will we be glorified with Him. We must be walking in Jesus’ footsteps, and this includes enduring trials as we live with our eyes set on pleasing God.

For many Christians today, applying this teaching does not take an elaborate stretch of the imagination. Just recently, a Coptic church in Egypt was bombed, killing at least twenty-five Christians there. Those believers killed suffered with Christ. Those with dead relatives are suffering with Christ. In the west, we don’t face such stark persecution. But if we speak for truth, there is a good chance we will be mocked, especially in the public sphere, perhaps even in some churches. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12)

Here is the key. If we want to be co-heirs with Christ, inheriting the glorious promises God gives to His children, we must be ready and willing to suffer with Christ. Only these true disciples who are willing to fill up “what lacks in Christ’s afflictions” will be glorified with Christ. (Colossians 1:24) And if we are glorified with Christ, we will be seen as true heirs, true children of God.

This isn’t a burden we carry alone, the presence of God strengthens us. As we abide in Him, His strength through the Holy Spirit empowers us where we are weak. There is a great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us, who have shared in Christ’s sufferings. So let’s run the race with perseverance. We aren’t running alone, we are running with Christ.

Pistis Iesou: “Faith of Jesus” or “Faith in Jesus”

In the scholarly world, a debate has been raging for a while now regarding the proper way to translate the Greek phrase “πίστις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ” (pistis Iēsou Christou), meaning either the “faith of Jesus Christ” or “faith in Jesus Christ.”  This would apply to other variations where we have the word pistis (faith) followed by different combinations of the name/title of Jesus in the genitive case.

The reason for the debate revolves around the fact that both options are grammatically possible and significant theological positions are at stake.

In simple terms, one could correctly translate the genitive Iēsou here either as an objective genitive or as a subjective genitive.  The terms objective and subjective are simply labels we apply to the genitive, depending on how we believe it is being used. There is no magical magnifying glass we can pull out and peer through to discover a small marking that indicates what type of genitive it is.  These are interpretive labels applied to the genitive case in Greek.

Translated subjectively, we would read the phrase pistis Iēsou as the “faith of Jesus”, meaning that Jesus produces the faith (so he is not the recipient of our faith in this scenario).  Alternatively, to translate it objectively would yield “faith in Jesus,” meaning Jesus is the recipient of our faith.  Both options are within the range of possible meaning grammatically.

Consequently, scholars can argue all day long in sophisticated ways and at the end of the day both sides still hold the same old positions stronger than ever. I’m simplifying, but that is the core of the issue.

The primary verses affected by this debate are mostly in Paul’s letters and would include Rom. 3:22, Rom. 3:26, Gal. 2:16; Gal. 2:20, Gal. 3:22, Eph. 3:12, and Phil. 3:9. Revelations 14:12 also applies, although it is not as commonly debated.

Let’s take a look at a couple examples and decide if a subjective or objective genitive would make more sense based on the context.

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:21-25 ESV)

In verse 22, we read that the righteousness of God has been revealed through pisteōs Iēsou Christou towards all those believing. Following most modern translations, the righteousness of God is through “faith in Jesus” and is for those believing. If understood this way, the concept of belief in Jesus is repeated twice unnecessarily. Paul would be saying that it’s revealed through believing in Jesus for those believing in Jesus, making it a bit of awkward phrasing.

It also raises an interesting theological dilemma. Is the righteousness of God revealed through our faith?  Or is it through the faith of Jesus, Jesus’ faithfulness through death on a cross? I think most would agree that humanity didn’t reveal God’s faithfulness, unless you are referring specifically to God in human flesh, Jesus Christ.  God revealed his righteousness through the person Jesus Christ.  This was specifically through His faithful obedience and perseverance.

Here’s another example to analyze from Galatians:

“We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)

This is similar to the previous example from Romans, but is even clearer in my opinion.  The bold portions could also be translated as a subjective genitive, the “faith/faithfulness of Jesus.”  Translated this way, Paul would be saying that we are justified by Christ’s death (the implied reference of the “faith of Christ”) and not by ritual observance of the Mosaic Law. Because we have been justified by Jesus’ sacrificial death, we have put our trust in Christ Jesus, so that we are justified by Jesus’ death and not by works of the Mosaic Law.  Paul would not be denying the need to put our trust in Jesus, but rather puts greater focus on Jesus’ faithfulness as the paschal lamb.

If we took both instances in Galatians 2:16 as objective genitives, it would follow Protestant tradition nicely, but would make Paul repeat himself three times.  Paul essentially would be writing that we are justified by believing in Jesus, so we believe in Jesus, in order that we be justified by believing in Jesus. Suffice to say, it lacks the theological depth the alternative interpretation communicates so nicely.

Let’s move on to a non-Pauline example, one I find interesting and is probably less discussed.

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. (Revelations 14:12 ESV)

As I’ve discussed, “faith in Jesus” is a grammatically possible translation, but so is “faith of Jesus” or “Jesus’ faith.”  So we could instead read this verse as:

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keeping the commandments of God and the faithfulness of Jesus.

This would change the definition of the saints to those who keep the commands of God and also the faithful perseverance of Jesus.  The “faithfulness of Jesus” puts emphasis on the endurance of faith displayed throughout Jesus’ entire life. The saints are those who have not only believe in Jesus (which is expressed elsewhere in scripture), but those who live by the same obedient faith Jesus lived by.

Although one can’t grammatically prove the correctness of one translation over the other, understanding the alternate possibilities provide a new (or quite old) perspective that could be easily overlooked otherwise.

One word of caution, not every instance where we read about our faith in Jesus is applicable to this discussion. For example, Paul writes in Ephesians 1:15, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus.”  The “Lord Jesus” here is in the dative and is preceded by the preposition “in” (en) in the Greek (unlike the examples discussed previously in this post). So any discussion of objective versus subjective genitives does not apply in this verse. There are a number of other verses like this. I would encourage you to use an interlinear or bible program accurately determine what grammatical construction is being used in the Greek.

Trusting Our Souls to God by Doing Good (1 Peter 4:19)

The first epistle of the Apostle Peter was written to encourage the church, as God’s chosen people, to persevere through the trials they are presently undergoing as they wait for Jesus’ return. Peter admonishes them to be holy, to be set apart from the surrounding world through their righteous conduct. Even if they are mistreated, they are to continue to walk with God in obedience, following in Jesus’ example. Jesus Christ Himself patiently endured unjust treatment, even to His death, while continuing to walk in obedience to God the Father.  As Peter writes in 1 Peter 3:18, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God.”  Just as Jesus, the one without sin, suffered unjustly for the unrighteous, so we too must be willing to suffer while doing good (see 1 Pet. 3:17).

This is precisely the theme that we find in chapter 4 of 1 Peter. When faced with a “fiery ordeal,” we ought to react not with confusion, but with rejoicing. We are to gladly go through whatever suffering is set before us, following Jesus’ example. “But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.” (1 Peter 4:13). Just as Christ trusted the Father unto death, so we too should trust God during our trials. We should share in Jesus’ sufferings. And when the full glory of Jesus is revealed upon his earthly return, we too will be revealed in glory, as true children of God. For those that are reviled for the name of Christ are blessed, as Peter says. (v. 14) And the blessed will inherit the kingdom of God.

Then we come to 1 Peter 4:17-19, which reads:

17 For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner? 19 Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.

Peter expresses that we should not be ashamed to suffer for Christ, and this thought then leads into verse 17. We should not be ashamed, “for” judgement is at hand.  Judgement will begin with the household of God, the Christians. This judgement will be difficult for those who do good, how much more so for those who do evil? Peter is stressing the severity of the judgement.

This thought leads directly into verse 19, “Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.” The term “therefore” here links back to the previous statements. Therefore, since it is with great difficulty the righteous is saved, those who are suffering should trust their souls to God “in doing what is right.”

Now, what does the phrase “in doing what is right” mean? How is it related to the rest of the sentence. The ESV and NIV (among others) have translated this verse in such as way that the “doing what is right” is disassociated with the concept of “entrusting their souls to a faithful Creator.” Below, I’ve listed 1 Peter 4:19 from the NASB, ESV, and NIV.  See if you can catch the different nuances in meaning.

NASB: Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.

ESV: Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.

NIV: So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

The portion of the quotations above in bold reads in the Greek as “ἐν ἀγαθοποιΐᾳ,” literally “in good doing.” Each of these translations have translated the small preposition “ἐν” (en) here differently. While the NASB follows a more literal word-to-word translation of using the rough equivalent “in,” the ESV instead uses “while.”  The NIV replaces the preposition with the conjunction “and.”

The question is, what is the relationship between entrusting and doing good? The NIV and ESV seem to lessen the logical link between the command to “entrust their souls” to God and the instruction to be “doing good.” These translations both essentially communicate to the reader that we are to trust our souls to God, and oh, by the way, you should also continue to do good. Translated this way, these two acts are effectively separate occurrences and do not have any direct affect on each other.

Based on the context, however, it is clear that Peter here is using the preposition “ἐν” (en) to communicate the means by which we entrust our souls to God. There are quite a number of uses for “ἐν” depending on the context, which can cause some confusion. One of the common and accepted uses for “ἐν” is to communicate means or instrumentality (see LSJ Greek-English Lexicon entry here).  When used in this way, one could translated “ἐν” as “by” or “with.”

For example, in 1 Peter 1:5 we read about Christians “who are protected by the power of God.”  “By” here is the preposition “ἐν” we’ve been discussing. This is a clear example of the translators using “by” to communicate the means by which protection occurs.  Another example is found in 1 Peter 1:22 in the NIV, “You have purified yourselves by obeying the truth.” Once again, “by” here is used to translate “ἐν.”  Other examples within this same epistle would include 1 Peter 1:6 and 1 Peter 1:22. All this to say the “ἐν” is often used to communicate the means by which something is accomplished.

This usage of “ἐν” to show means also applies in 1 Peter 4:19. Peter is not trying to disassociate entrusting our souls to God from the act of doing good.  Rather, he is being intentional by communicating the means by which we entrust our souls to God.  We entrust our souls to our Creator specifically by doing good.

Consequently, in light of the common practice of translating “ἐν” as “by” to communicate means or instrumentality, we could fairly translate the verse as follows:

Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator by doing good.

This is exactly in keeping with the context. This is the path of Christ. Jesus suffered according to the will of God. During this suffering, He did not retaliate or look to human deliverance. No, He entrusted Himself to the Father by being obedient, by doing good. Jesus entrusted his life (another way to translate soul here) to the Father by being obedient to death on the cross. He humbly submitted Himself to the will of the Father, willingly suffering, trusting that God the Father would raise Him from the dead, glorifying Him and seating Him at His right hand in the heavens.

That is what Peter is saying. He, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is instructing those believers who were being persecuted for their faith to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. How are they to imitate Christ? They are to imitate Christ by entrusting their souls to God, even as they undergo tribulations. And how do they entrust themselves to God? It is simple, by doing good.

Such an attitude says, “God, you have my life in your hands. I will do good and trust that you will eternally vindicate any unjustness I receive here on earth as I suffer according to your will.” This is the godly attitude we need as our world continues follow the seductive siren call of sin, persecuting those who serve Jesus.