In Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures, Dennis E. Johnson provides a synopsis of Tim Keller’s Gospel Centered Preaching. Since it is so informative I’ll quote in full (pages 55-60). Personally, no other preacher continues to shape my mind and heart the way Dr. Keller continues to, always making the Gospel of Jesus Christ the epicenter of all things.
1) What both the unbeliever and the believer need to hear in preaching is the gospel, with its implications for a life lived in confident gratitude in response to amazing grace. Christians are constantly tempted to relapse into legalistic attitudes in their pursuit of sanctification, so we never outgrow our need to hear the good news of God’s free and sovereign grace in Christ. Sanctification, no less than justification, must come by grace alone, through faith alone—we grow more like Christ only by growing more consistent in trusting Christ alone, thinking, feeling, acting “in line with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2: 14). From this grace alone can flow true sanctification, motivated by gratitude and empowered by the Spirit. We need to repent not only of our sins but also of our righteousness—our efforts at self-atonement in lieu of surrender to the all-sufficient grace of Christ. Keller traces his discovery of this need of two-fold repentance to George Whitefield’s sermon, “The Method of Grace.”
2) The root of the unbeliever’s sin and misery is his worship (recognized or, often, unrecognized) of a false god, an idol. Likewise the believer’s frustration, resentment, lack of joy, anger, worry, fear, etc., are symptoms of lingering allegiance to various idols of I he heart that persistently reassert themselves as rivals with Jesus for stir trust, devotion, and service. Our idols are whatever (other than the triune God) we trust in to gain “salvation,” however we define idol—whatever we believe that we cannot live without. Keller cites Calvin as calling our hearts “idol factories,” constantly manufacturing rivals to the living God. Idols may include financial success, career achievement, parental approval, spousal love, sexual fulfillment, academic or artistic achievement or recognition, parenthood and grateful admiration by well-behaved children, or other things that are not in themselves evil. The god we serve defines for us what, in practice, we mean by “sin or righteousness” and “curse or blessing.” “Sin” is behavior on our part that hinders our receiving our god’s blessing. “Righteousness” is the behavior that we expect to bring us “blessing.” For the worshiper of Career, hard work and long hours on the job are “righteousness’ for which we expect our god to reward us with the “blessings” of recognition promotion sense of accomplishment, and salary increases. For the worshiper of Family, on the other hand, excessively hard work and long hours are “sin’ threatening the “blessing” of domestic tranquility in which our emotional needs are met. People need to see that every idol will fail them for two reasons: unlike the triune God who came to save his people in Jesus, (a) no idol will forgive the “sin” committed against it; and (b) every idol will be torn away from its worshiper sooner or later—no idol can promise, “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.” The idols of our hearts are unforgiving because they always belong to a system of works righteousness: fulfill expectations you will live; fail, and you die. Moreover, because every idol is a specific expression of our propensity to worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25) and no creature lasts forever, no idol can sustain its worshiper through life and through death.
3) The preacher and his congregation assume the presence of unbelievers in their midst, people to whom the “language of Zion” is a foreign tongue and to whom biblical truths (including the very concept of absolute truth) are alien. Preaching must take account of the fact that the truths of the gospel are counter-intuitive to the unregenerate mind, and this reality is becoming more overt as western culture abandons even the shell of a biblical worldview. Therefore, preaching must incorporate apologetics—”sidebars” addressed to unbelievers where the preacher frankly acknowledges the alienness of the gospel to prevailing cultural assumptions but also respectfully challenges non-Christians to recognize the coherence of biblical truth and its superior adequacy to address the dilemmas of human life and thought.
This approach rejects moralistic attempts to attract and hold non-Christians’ attention by offering practical lists of “helpful” tips for self-remedy. While intentionally adjusting its language to make the gospel’s beauty and offensiveness intelligible to postmodern unchurched urbanites, it challenges the assumption (shared by seeker-sensitive “preachers to convert” and those who believe that edifying believers is the sole purpose of congregational preaching) that preaching addressed to the church should differ significantly from preaching addressed to the unbelieving and uncommitted. Keller insists that the same gospel that introduces people into the family of God is the power that transforms them as children of God. He therefore implicitly challenges [Jay] Adams’s view that committed Christians need preaching that, only presupposing justifying grace, concentrates on establishing godly patterns of behavior through self-discipline aided by the Holy Spirit. He also rejects the seeker-sensitive assumption that certain biblical topics should be avoided in the presence of “seekers” lest they cause offense. Rather, the whole counsel of God can and must he preached to all sorts of people, whatever their level (or lack) of commitment to Christ, because the whole counsel of God finds its integrative center and meaning in God’s sovereign grace in Christ. This also means that it is the preacher’s challenge to cross the chasms of misunderstanding and alienation that separate his hearers, including secularized, relativized postmoderns, from the biblical revelation of the living God. The preacher cannot lazily wait for his unchurched hearers to do the difficult, cross-cultural work of translation: learning church lingo in order to hear Christ’s word of life to them. Instead, the preacher himself must be the cross-cultural traveler and translator, bringing the Bible’s alien message into the indigenous language and thought-forms of those to whom God has sent him.
On pages 60-61 Johnson in footnote 73, Johnson summarizes Keller’s response to his critics.
Keller has talked with Christians who have attended Redeemer for some lime and expressed a desire for “deeper, meatier” teaching than they have found in his public preaching ministry. He has found they typically want one of three things: (1) “More theological distinctive spelled out”(different views of baptism, charismatic gifts, etc.). Keller response is that a large number of those present in Redeemer worship services need first to be taught even meatier and more offense truths of Scripture (such as those listed in footnote 70, uniqueness of Christ, divine justice and wrath, etc.) before considering, for example, the case for infant baptism (which is addressed elsewhere in Redeemer’s ministry, in classes or small groups). (2) “More doctrinal and ethical details spelled out” (divorce and remarriage, Christian schools, how to do family devotions or church discipline, politics, end times). Keller responds: “Every Christian will need to get eventually into biblical and theological details that are inappropriate for a sermon . . . during a worship service. Therefore every preacher draws a line somewhere and says, ‘If you want the details of biblical knowledge you need to know to grow mature, you will have to get into classes or groups where they can be covered: This means that almost every preacher will have someone who draws the line between ‘sermon’ and a ‘lecture’ further toward the ‘lecture’ than the preacher does, and who therefore will say ‘I want more meat.’ . . . All the old Puritans (especially Edwards) knew better the difference between a lecture and a sermon. The sermon was more ‘edifying’—more oriented to the affections and less oriented to detailed cognitive arguments:’ (3) “. . . more talk about ‘hot’ topics” (abortion, homosexuality, etc.). Keller responds: “I absolutely believe in preaching the whole counsel of God, but in an order that makes sense of it. If doctrine D, E, and F are completely premised on doctrines A, B, and C—you have to persuade people of ABC first. It’s silly to tell someone ‘abortion is a sin’ if they don’t understand the meaning of the word sin. . . . Therefore, we never at Redeemer avoid a subject because it is offensive, but we may postpone a subject and put it into classes or small group material which people work through after they’ve been brought toward Christ by the preaching” (email).