Keller, Passive Wrath, and Understanding the “Fearful Symmetry” of Judgment

KellerMy twitter-buddy Tony Reinke (content strategist for DG and prolific memer) had an interesting article about Tim Keller today. In the past (and apparently in the present), Keller has been criticized by the conservative Reformed for his apparent weakness on the issue of wrath. Based on The Reason for God, and a couple of other works, people have said he’s de-emphasized or sidelined the issue unbiblically. Now, as someone who has podcast a couple hundred of his sermons, I never really saw it. He talks about judgment, penalty, and wrath all over the place–certainly not with the raised and rumbling voice some might like, but it’s there nonetheless.

Well, now the proof is more than just anecdotal. I don’t know where he found the time, or how he pulled it off, but Tony went ahead and found, catalogued, and gave us some statistics on Keller’s sermons over the last 35 years of preaching, using Piper as a control on preaching on wrath. The stats:

The easiest way to search for this theme is to find every mention in a sermon to an explicit mention of “wrath” near the word “God.” No two terms, in such close proximity, better stress God’s activity in judgment, and in this particular search we find all the references to phrases like “wrath of God,” “God’s wrath,” even “wrathful God,” “God poured out his wrath,” etc.

I’ll start with a search of Piper’s manuscript archive (1980–2009). From this collection of 1,232 sermon manuscripts, 244 sermons appear in the search result — 19.8% of his sermons making at least one explicit mention of God’s wrath.

Next, I use this identical search query in Keller’s sermon transcript archive (1989–2009). From this collection of 1,212 sermons, 159 sermons appear in the search result — 13.1% of his sermons making at least one explicit mention of God’s wrath…

Second, the gap between Piper and Keller isn’t nearly as wide as I originally expected, and the gap between Spurgeon and Keller is much narrower than I would have guessed. The gap between Piper and Keller narrows even further in a search for references where “God” appears near words for “judge” (“judge,” “judgment,” etc). In this search it’s Piper 25.2%, Spurgeon 24.5%, Keller 22.1% (though for a variety of possible variants, this second search is less conclusive).

Now, again, I’ll admit, this is an odd search for Tony to conduct. But hey, a man with a lot of archived data and quick research skills can get a lot done, apparently.

On a more serious note, I get the concern. To some it might be odd to be so fixated on getting the stats on wrath-preaching, but the deeper concern is biblical-preaching. The desire, as I see it, is the desire to preach on things at least as much as the Bible talks about them, or as it is appropriate to understand the various themes connected to it. As Keller himself said the other day “the greatness of Christ’s sacrifice is diminished if you minimize the wrath of God.” If we want to hold up Christ’s humble, sacrificial work (among all the other things he does and is) as glorious, you inevitably have to address wrath.

(Interesting side-note: John Piper talks about wrath in only 1 out of 4 sermons. That’s actually low for what I thought it was going to be. I mean, not low overall or anything, but, ya, surprises everyday.)

Passive Wrath. Beyond that, the interesting thing that caught my eye was Tony’s observation that while Keller speaks to God’s active wrath decently often, he tends to focus on God’s passive wrath in his writing. As Reinke explains:

…the Reformed tradition has affirmed a fourth dimension of God’s judgment, a passive judgment, whereby God allows the sinner to self-harden and self-condemn (Romans 1:24–28). God, from his position of “righteous judge,” can choose to withdraw his sin-restraining power from sinners; thereby he “gives them over to their own lusts . . . whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves” (WCF 5.6). Keller knows this, too, and chooses to stress this “passive judgment” in his books.

In other words, you worship Money, a fitting judgment is for God to let you be consumed with greed. You worship Sex, then it is a fitting judgment for God to let you be consumed with lust. You worship Power and it is a fitting judgment for God to let you chase that down until it destroys you. In that sense, the judgment is self-imposed, organic, flowing from one’s own behavior, and yet still God’s active choice to give you over to it.

Now, that established, Tony says that his study of Keller’s sermons “still does not answer every question I have about why he prefers to stress God’s passive judgment in his books.”

Fearful Symmetry. I think I have a bit of an answer for Tony. Aside from the fact that it is Biblical as he affirms, I suspect that the reason Keller has spoken more often of God’s passive wrath, giving us over, more often is that it functions as a helpful heuristic tool for understanding the nature, justice, and reality of God’s wrath for postmoderns. Most people in contemporary culture function with a tacitly Zeus-like understanding of wrath and judgment. If they know God as a judge, he appears to be an arbitrary one, applying lightning bolt punishments that don’t fit the crime. Beyond that, it’s all very far-away and distant from our contemporary experience. The passive wrath of God, though, that we can begin to see.

a. It’s Terrifyingly Real.  We’ve seen addiction in our souls. We’ve seen friends become colder as they pursued career to the destruction of family, health, and friends. We’ve seen the misery of self-imposed obsessions with power and manipulation. We know the darkness of our own hearts that can seem so small, so hidden, but then is powerfully exposed at those terrible moments when it rears it’s ugly head and we say to ourselves “Oh, I wasn’t myself then.” But, thing is, deep down we know that it is our self–our deepest self. It is at that moment that we begin to fear what Edwards spoke of:

There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into hell fire, if it were not for God’s restraints. There is laid in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell. There are those corrupt principles, in reigning power in them, and in full possession of them, that are seeds of hell fire. These principles are active and powerful, exceeding violent in their nature, and if it were not for the restraining hand of God upon them, they would soon break out, they would flame out after the same manner as the same corruptions, the same enmity does in the hearts of damned souls, and would beget the same torments as they do in them. –Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

To preach judgment this way isn’t to minimize it’s fearfulness for postmoderns. Instead, it’s actually probably the only way of conveying how truly terrifying it is.

b. It Fits. Beyond that, the passive judgment of God exposes the justness of all of God’s judgments. When you hear Keller tell it, you begin to see all of God’s judgments as more than the irrational outbursts of an angry tyrant, but as the fitting punishments of a Just God. What injustice is there about giving you what you’ve chosen? You choose idols, then receive the terrible dehumanizing degradation that idolatry leads to. Choose violence? Get war. Choose self-centeredness? Get the terrible loneliness, anger, and despair that narcissism leads to. Choose adultery? Get divorce.

When you begin to see this, then you begin to see that principle at work even in his active judgments. I believe Ray Ortlund Jr. has called this a “fearful symmetry.” So, for instance, when Israel decides to cheat on God with the idols, his active judgment through the nations is the historical manifestation of the spiritual reality they’ve chosen. All of the blessings of protection, life, beauty, and goodness are connected with relational wholeness with Yahweh. Reject Yahweh’s covenant and you’ve essentially rejected these things. When you reject God, he gives you not-God, and that is a terrifying, but just judgment. Roll that principle out into the rest of the Bible and you begin to see the way this helps us understand even those more active, seemingly-extrinsic moments of judgment in the Scriptures.

Final Word of Judgement– Let it be clear, I’m not a wrath-obsessed guy. I don’t think all Reformed Calvinists are wrath-obsessed either. The reason I’ve written about it as much as I have (which, honestly, isn’t much) is simply because I see it is a prominent theme in the text, it’s crucial for understanding much of the biblical story-line, it is currently down-played by many, and, most importantly, it is the necessary dark background against which much of the Glory of the Gospel shines.

That said, preachers need to be careful about how you handle this theme. Be careful how much you emphasize it. Be careful that your parishioners know that wrath is not the fundamental reality when it comes to God, but rather the loving holiness of the Triune one who reaches out beyond wrath with redeeming grace to restore and redeem his creation to himself.

Soli Deo Gloria

13 thoughts on “Keller, Passive Wrath, and Understanding the “Fearful Symmetry” of Judgment

  1. Nice job, Derek.

    God’s wrath is a reality in all of our lives. He pours out His wrath against all manner of iniquity (sin) in this world and none of us can escape it. And the ultimate expression of that wrath is when the grave swallows us up.

    But, as you so rightly say, that’s not the last word.

    Jesus loves fresh dirt. Loves to pull His own up from the bottom of those graves to spend a glorious eternity with Himself.

    Thank you, friend.

  2. Thankful for your grace regarding this blog. Reading your reflections has stayed my hand from publishing my thoughts! I’m really struggling with the pretentious nature of DG’s blog post. Why does Tim Keller need their stamp of approval over an issue that doesn’t relate to orthodoxy? And why is the standard of comparison, John Piper? This one was a bit much for me, maybe I’m biased because I’m a Keller fan. I think DG is getting to big for it’s britches when it takes the role of evangelical orthodoxy police. I understand wrath is an important issue, but does anyone doubt Keller is confessionally orthodox on this issue? Simply because he doesn’t say it as much as Piper does not warrant an all out “investigation”.

    • Well, I’m glad you found the reflections helpful. With regards to the appropriateness of Tony’s post, I think there’s a fine line at times. I have been annoyed at some of the overly-critical watchdog tendencies in the Reformed world over some of this stuff. Still, I found Tony’s post helpful in that it actually vindicated Keller from the accusations.

      Also, incidentally, I found out that he got the stats in the process of cataloguing references to historical figures and so this was more of a side-bonus post instead of the end-result of some fervent investigation into Keller’s orthodoxy.

  3. Piper might speak more about God’s wrath…but in the several “sermons” I heard him preach, the gospel barely made an appearance. The whole thing seemed to revolved around how I should be feeling about the whole thing.

    Not much gospel in that sort of thing.

  4. That’s awesome to find out that Calvinists do word-searches on each other’s sermons to see how much wrath they’re preaching.

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