Tim Keller on love and substitution

I spent yesterday at the London Men’s Convention, which this year took place at London’s ExCeL conference centre rather than the Royal Albert Hall. The ExCeL centre was not to my taste – my comment on entering the hall was “What a desolate planet this is!” – but a day spent in a windowless, airless warehouse was made worthwhile by two superb talks by Tim Keller on the death and resurrection of Jesus (from John 19 and John 20, respectively).

One of the most helpful aspects of Dr Keller’s first talk was the section when he looked at the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death (a subject which we were looking at in my previous post). He identified three substitutionary motifs in John’s account of the death of Jesus:

  • Jesus as the Passover Lamb: shown by the specific reference to “hyssop” in v.29 (see Exodus 12:22) and the fact that Jesus’ bones remain unbroken.
  • Jesus as the Rock: Dr Keller linked John’s description of “blood and water” pouring from Jesus’ pierced side to Paul’s puzzling statement in 1 Corinthians 10:4: “the rock was Christ”. Paul is referring to the incident in Exodus 17, where the Israelites “quarrelled and tested the Lord” in the desert. Instead of Moses’ rod (a symbol of judgment and authority) striking the Israelites for their disobedience, it came down on the rock, which thus produced the water the people needed. In the same way, God’s judgment against sin struck Jesus rather than us. (What Dr Keller didn’t go on to point out was that this then fits very well with seeing the blood and water as a figure for the sacraments.)
  • Jesus as the Ransom: his cry of “It is finished!” has connotations of “The debt is paid!”

All these are substitutionary images: Jesus “in our place” as the Passover Lamb, the struck Rock, the debt-redeeming Ransom. This led Dr Keller to the key point in his talk: we cannot put “love” and “sacrifice” in opposition to one another, because all love is a substitutionary sacrifice.

People ask why we need the concept of substitutionary sacrifice: why can’t we just say that God is loving, without the need for the sacrifice of his Son? But as Dr Keller put it, “If you get rid of the idea of substitutionary sacrifice, you don’t have a God of love.

He gave a number of examples of how love involves substitutionary sacrifice:

  • There is no way to love an emotionally vulnerable or broken person and remain fully intact yourself. If you truly engage with them, you are going to suffer some measure of emotional vulnerability and brokenness. It’s them or you: if you stay afloat, they will sink; if you are to help them stay afloat, you’re going to have to let youself sink.
  • If you offer sanctuary to a fugitive who is being pursued by the authorities, you cannot give them safety and security without losing some of your own safety and security. Again, it’s them or you.
  • When we are raising children, if we push them away and keep them at arm’s length in order to preserve our freedom and independence, they will grow up emotionally dependent and damaged. The only way our children can grow up with freedom and independence is if we sacrifice our freedom and independence, for years on end. Once again, it’s them or you.

So as Dr Keller continued, if we say we don’t need a God who sacrifices himself for us, we are just saying we don’t know what love is. Because you can’t have love without a substitutionary sacrifice. In the Garden of Gethsemane, it is as if the God the Father said to Jesus, “Here is the cup of my wrath against sin; it’s them or you”, and Jesus said, “Let it be me”.

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4 Responses to Tim Keller on love and substitution

  1. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Saturating ourselves in Scripture

  2. Chris E says:

    In my opinion, he is one of the finest preachers alive and whilst it’s hard to compare people, he’s an excellent model of staying orthodox whilst ensuring the offense of your messages is nearly entirely the offense of the cross.

    In part this because of the way in which he works to articulate the views of his opponents in as reasonable manner as possible before presenting a counter argument stripped of the normal shrill tone. The other aspect is the way in which Jesus always shows up at the end of his sermons.

    If you haven’t seen these already you may be interested in the sermons he recorded for his first book ‘Reasons for God’: http://thereasonforgod.com/media.php – it’s rare to find a sermon on Hell which is both thoroughly orthodox, challenging, gospel focused, and playable to a sympathetic non-Christian audience.

  3. Pingback: Tim Keller on Substitunary Atonement. « BRYANLOPEZ.COM

  4. Pingback: It’s the Thought that Counts: Do Our Ideas Make Us Good or Bad People? | The Trott Line

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