Book Review: Galatians For You – Tim Keller

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letter-gGalatians For You, as might be suspected, is a commentary on the book of Galatians. Timothy Keller’s aim with the book is to offer a bible centered, Christ glorifying, relevantly applicable, and easily readable look at the book in question.

The key point of Galatians for Keller is the fact that “the gospel is the A to Z of the Christian life. It is not only the way to enter the kingdom; it is the way to live as part of the kingdom. It is the way Christ transforms people, churches and communities” (p9). Paul is in essence calling his readers to live out the implications of the gospel, and Keller’s utmost goal is to point out to his readers how “It is not simply non-Christians but also believers who need continually to learn the gospel and apply it to their lives” (p11).

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The commentary acts as a passage-by-passage (and to a degree verse-by-verse) breakdown of the book of Galatians. The chapters for each passage are then broken into two parts, with each part ending with a few “Questions for reflection.”

Throughout his commentary Keller lays out the uniqueness of the gospel and challenges the idolatrous habits in the lives of believers and nonbelievers alike. Keller brings out the fact that the gospel leads to both spiritual freedom, to cultural freedom, and to emotional freedom. The gospel offers freedom, and in a sense even freedom from the moral law, but – as Keller is keen to point out – “though not free from the moral law as a way to live, Christians are free from it as a system of salvation” (p42).

Keller also works to bring out the central theme of Christian unity, a unity that slices through both cultural and ethnic backgrounds (through the cultural, class, and gender barriers). This is not a unity that removes all boundaries. As Keller notes: “Churches must not maintain unity at the expense of the gospel” (p48). The church called for unity, but it also established boundaries around that unity.

Keller does well in bringing out the substitutionary nature of the atonement, the truth of justification by faith, the two-fold imputation from Christ (our sins being imputed to him and his righteousness to us), and the fact that our righteousness and moral life is an outworking of a salvation wrought in us by God rather than something through which we earn our salvation. He points out well that we must live out our lives on the basis of who we are in Christ and that our primary identities are in Christ. Keller is also sure to bring out the Christian view on suffering, that “God does not promise to bless Christians by removing suffering, but to bless Christians through suffering” such that “problems become possibilities” (p110-11).

A point that Keller continually seeks to highlight – both in the commentary and in his ministry – is how “the way to progress as a Christian is continually to repent and uproot these [sinful] systems in the same way that we became Christians – by the vivid depiction (and re-depiction) of Christ’s saving work for us, and the abandoning of self-trusting efforts to complete ourselves” (p69).

In seeking to do this we “have to ask ourselves not just what we do wrong, but why we do it wrong. We disobey God in order to get something we feel we must have” (p156). We make progress by examining our underlying motives and dealing with those, not just by saying ‘no’ or avoiding a temptation.

Finally, Keller brings out the need for humility in the Christian life, remembering the grace that we have been given, which also has effects on our evangelism and counseling: “We won’t be able to winsomely confront someone if we think we are not capable of similar or equal sin. If we do feel we are above the person, our air of superiority will come through and we will destroy, not restore” (167). Rather than comparing ourselves to others, “we should measure ourselves, in a sense, against ourselves” (p170).

On the whole, this is a great commentary. It brings out the truths and implications of the Word with both eloquence and simplicity. This commentary would be perfect for the average layman or for anybody who doesn’t have a large amount of time to devote to Bible-study. The short chapters (themselves further divided into two sections) along with being light in general make it perfect for a quick dive deeper in to the text than somebody will get just by reading the Scripture alone.

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Memorable Quotes:

“We love to be our own saviors.”-17

“That is the order of the gospel. God accepts us, and then we follow Him. But other religious systems have it the other way around.”-18

-“The gospel gives us a pair of spectacles through which we can review our own lives and see God preparing us and shaping us, even through our own failures and sins, to become vessels of His grace in the world.”-29

“Christian living is therefore a continual realignment process – one of bringing everything in line with the truth of the gospel.”-53

-“We are not acceptable to God because we actually become righteous: we become actually righteous because we are acceptable to God.”-59

-“The Son’s purpose was to secure for us the legal status of our sonship. By contrast, the Spirit’s purpose is to secure the actual experience of it.“-99

“We cannot lose our salvation, but we can lose our freedom from enslavement to fear.”-132

“[The way we think about ‘hope’] is a major problem for the reader of the English Bible. The word that means ‘total assurance’ in Greek means ‘not so sure’ in English. It is easy therefore to misunderstand many passages!”-135

“The gospel is offensive to liberal-minded people, who charge the gospel with intolerance, because it states that the only way to be saved is through the cross. The gospel is offensive to conservative-minded people, because it states that, without the cross, ‘good’ people are in as much trouble as ‘bad’ people… If someone understands the cross, it is either the greatest thing in their life, or it is repugnant to them. If it is neither of those two things, they haven’t understood it.”-181

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Specific Criticisms

While this is a great introductory commentary for the book of Galatians, is it not without its pitfalls. Apart from a few minor typographical errors, there are two key issues in this commentary.

1) The first issue in this commentary is the use of term ‘religion’ as a synonym for legalism (p28). Keller will often speak of the difference between “a mere religious or moral person, and a Christian” (p31) and in general defines ‘religion’ as all systems which present themselves as attempts to save oneself.

This “religion = legalism” is a popular trope at present, perhaps best exemplified in the book Jesus > Religion. It is cool right now to try and divest Christianity from all association with ‘religion’. ‘Religion’ has a PR problem in the modern world, and the strategy of some apologists is to thus say “Yea, those other religions are terrible, but Christianity, it’s not a religion! No worries here!”

This approach likely offers some comfort to new Christians, but it is a thin veil for those outside; it also ignores the entire historic definition of the term ‘religion’, arbitrarily narrowing the scope of the term to refer specifically to ‘works-based systems of belief’.

This is, imo, a cheap tactic. Christianity is a religion by any normal definition of the term: “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power,” a “system of faith and worship,” something “to which someone ascribes supreme importance,” a “personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.”

All of these definitions apply just fine to Christianity; Christianity is a religion. Trying to say it isn’t is not the proper way to deal with the PR problem religion is facing.

2) The second issue with this book is an issue endemic of Keller’s work in general. That is to say, he takes a distinctly Lutheran approach to the Law (as in, his views on the Law specifically reflect those of Martin Luther, as opposed to John Calvin).

This approach is most clearly seen in Keller’s statement that “[The Law’s] main purpose is to show us our problem, that we are law-breakers… That is the purpose of the law. It shows us that we do not just ‘fall short’ of God’s will, requiring some extra effort to do better, but that we are completely under sin’s power, requiring a rescue” (p82-83).

As a brief review, Martin Luther argued that there are two uses for the Law, a civil use and a spiritual use. The civil use is to restrain sin (through threat of punishment) and the spiritual use is reveal to man his sin. This latter use, Luther argues, is “the proper and the principal use of the law.”

In contrast to this – and imo, much more line with the Biblical testimony throughout the Old and New Testaments – is the view of Calvin, who saw there being three uses to the law: serving as a mirror, as a curb, and as a rule of life. As a mirror, the law reveals our sins to us; on this, Luther and Calvin agree. As a curb, the law restrains sin; again, on this they agree. As a rule of life, the law points believers toward the goal to which we strive and exhort us in this task, it shows us the kind of life we are to live as believers. According to Calvin, this is the primary and original use of the Law.

The view of Luther is a normal one in evangelicalism, but not within the Reformed tradition.

By focusing so strongly on the law as a mirror, Keller almost completely ignores the law as a rule of life. The reader is left wondering whether there is any place for the third use of the law or for spiritual disciplines in the Christian life.

I can recall being particularly affected by this when I was first entering into the Reformed tradition. I listened to Keller’s teachings heavily and eventually came under the impression that as a Christian I was in a sense not allowed to actively seek to overcome sin in my life and grow in holiness. To take active steps seemed – as I read Keller – to demonstrate a lack of faith. My goal instead had to be to regain that original high of conversion, to reclaim a gospel mindset on the assumption that if this could be achieved my sin would take care of itself and I would grow in holiness.

Once this path is taken, the Christian life becomes a perpetual struggle to regain a gospel high; to seek out new inspirations to spark us again as we become ever more desensitized to the truths of grace.

To seek out new inspiration, weightier teachings, deeper truths, to move from milk to meat, is surely a good thing, but it is not the Christian’s primary mode of sanctification as laid out in Scripture.

This path is perpetually seek to reverse what C.S. Lewis refers to as “the law of undulation” in the Screwtape Letters (that is, the natural waxing and waning of passion). Rather than to continue steadfastly and working towards holiness, towards grateful obedience to the law, the Christian seeks to regain that gospel high.

[For more on this distinction, check out ‘Two or Three Uses? – The Law in Luther & Calvin’]

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PCABoba

Eugene Lilley (MDiv, MA) is a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Chesterton Society.

He may or may not be a Time Lord.

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