Tim Keller and the false binary of love and holiness

I have learned a lot from Tim Keller. His books Prodigal God and Generous Justice are two of the most important books I have read. So I signed up for his sermon podcast recently. The first sermon I listened to was about spiritual warfare, based on Ephesians 6. There was a lot of good content, but there was one thing that disappointed me: the way that Tim Keller puts God’s love and God’s holiness in binary opposition to one another and oversimplifies each of their definitions. I realize that he would be more nuanced and theologically precise in a book rather than a sermon for seekers who need things to be kept simple. But I think that this impoverished presentation of the concept of holiness is one of the biggest problems that plagues neo-Reformed theology today.

A lot of Keller’s sermon was spot-on and gave me helpful things to think about in my own spiritual journey. He talked about the way that the devil gets into our head and messes with us. I don’t have any problem believing that there is a real devil and I don’t see it as some kind of embarrassing premodern relic of Christianity. When you’ve battled addiction and other debilitating sins, it makes more sense to believe that there’s an actual being behind evil than to deny it. Keller said that the two basic communication patterns of the devil are accusation and temptation. And he actually pointed out that each of these components corresponds to the two words for the devil: Satan (Hebrew for “accuser”) and diabolos (Greek for “tempter”), which was kind of cool to learn.

So here’s where I felt like Keller bent the truth to fit into his oversimplified neo-Reformed theological system. He said that accusation is when the devil overplays God’s holiness, which Keller defines as God’s hatred of sin, and underplays His love and forgiveness, while temptation is when the devil underplays God’s holiness and overplays His love. I’m sorry but that’s completely contrived. My vulnerability to temptation is not associated with my fear or lack of fear that God will punish me for my sin. When I fall into temptation, it’s not because I feel too much assurance of God’s love or too little a sense of God’s holiness. I’m not thinking about God’s love or His holiness at all when I succumb to temptation, because what I do when I sin is to make myself God for that moment in time.

Casting God’s love and holiness as binary terms that are defined against each other does not do justice to how they are described Biblically. God’s holiness is so much more than just a hatred of sin, just like God’s love is so much more than an unconditional acceptance of sinners. God hates our sin because He loves us. Part of God’s holiness is His radical hospitality towards us regardless of our sinfulness. Jesus doesn’t protect us from God’s holiness on the cross; Jesus expresses God’s holiness on the cross. God is holy because He takes it upon Himself to provide the sacrifice that can restore us to holiness.

When we reduce God’s holiness to “pickiness,” then it unnecessarily scandalizes non-believers who think that hell makes God look sadistic and that the cross is divine child abuse rather than holy self-sacrifice. It also makes God attractive for the wrong reasons to conceive of holiness in this way. Picky people want a picky God who makes it holy to be picky about other peoples’ shortcomings. And I hate to say it but I have seen abundant fruit of the neo-Reformed conflation of holiness and pickiness in the attitude of their minions. If instead we understand the holiness God models for us to mean that we should bear each other’s sins as Jesus bore ours on the cross, then we will be less likely to turn into the Pharisees that Jesus died to stop us from being.

It is absolutely the case that God’s holiness precludes our sin from entering His presence, but it’s not because He’s “intolerant” in any sense that contradicts or qualifies His love. Sin cannot tolerate the presence of God because He’s an all-consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29). God is so insufferably perfect that it will either fill us with euphoric joy or torturous contempt to be around Him.

The passage in the Bible where I turn to think about God’s holiness is Isaiah 6, where the phrase “Holy holy holy” is first uttered by the seraphs circling God in the temple. God’s holiness causes Isaiah to utter two statements that I consider paradigmatic: “Woe is me; I am lost.” and “Here am I; send me.” These two statements capture the two basic responses that God’s holiness can evoke from us. It is an intense beauty that makes us feel horrifically ugly when we have not been properly atoned (“Woe is me; I am lost!”), but the same beauty inspires us into doing His will eagerly (“Here am I; send me!”) when Christ’s atonement makes it nonthreatening.

There are many other references to the mysterious beauty of God’s holiness in the Bible. Certainly there are plenty of verses in the psalms and other places that describe God’s hatred of sin. But I think it’s a tremendous mistake to make this the all-encompassing definition of holiness. It’s certainly an aspect of it, but God doesn’t hate sin because He’s a picky perfectionist with a huge ego. God hates sin because He loves sinners and He desperately wants to make us into something beautiful. And it makes no sense to me to define God’s love and holiness in opposition to each other, because God’s holiness is loving and His love is holy.

19 thoughts on “Tim Keller and the false binary of love and holiness

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  4. Thanks, I enjoy listening to sermons and have really enjoyed Tim Kellers sermons and books. There are a couple of thing from him that I have heard that I don’t totally agree with. What you mention here I am still trying to wrap my head around. Without hearing the sermon I sort of feel like I am listening to my wife talk on the phone and trying to fill in the rest of the conversation.

    • Got it. His two books Prodigal God and Generous Justice are two of the most important books I’ve read. If you hear a way in which I’m misunderstanding him, please share so that I can learn.

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    • The best way I’ve found to think about it is that God’s love/holiness is safety to those who surrender to it and terror to those who resist it. I don’t think there’s a way to contrast His love with his holiness since they are do thoroughly interrelated.

  6. I totally agree that the neo-Reformed have gone off the deep end on this “holiness” thing, I find it really hard to understand how they don’t see themselves as modern day Pharisees, if they’re not it, then who would better fit that description? For some reason, God the Father is so holy that he can’t stand the sight of us (unless we’re Christians of course, oh, but only the right sort of Christian), in fact, he’s actually seething at all the sin that he sees going on all day long (especially homosexuality), and he’s so mad that once in a while he needs to send a tornado or an earthquake to kill a bunch of people just to make sure we’re still paying attention (regardless of whether most people actually get the message or not). I may be embellishing a bit, but I don’t really think I’m so far off. Jesus said when you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father, and then he proceeded to go out and eat with sinners, heal lepers and hang out with whores. In fact, the only people he really couldn’t stand to be around were the religious leaders. What does this say about what a lot of Christians today think about “holiness”?

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  8. Wow. This kind of understanding about the attributes of God is so needed! I agree – love and holiness should not be pitted against each other. There are so many people who excuse their “binary” views about God (and their judgement-focused theology) on their limited definitions of these tightly packaged English words. How many times have you heard “God knows when to be holy and when to be loving” to explain some of the more scary stories in the OT..

    We need to let these characteristics out of our dogmatic boxes, on the understanding that even our most descriptive language will constantly fail to comprehend even a slice of how big God is.

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