WS: Well, Tim Keller, welcome to the program. I've got so many questions I want to ask you about, I almost don't know where to start. But I think it probably makes the most sense to start with your new book on forgiveness. Let me just ask kind of a basic question, why this book? Why now?
TK: Well, generally I have tried to write the last 5, 15 years, I started writing books. I didn't, didn't even write, I started listening. I was in my late 50s. And I wanted to write books on things that I had been, in my pastoral ministry, my preaching ministry have been teaching about for years. So I could just put them into book form, I felt like it preserved stuff that, wisdom that God had given me through the scriptures. Then my why, at this time, is because I tried to find something I've done a lot of teaching on, but also seems to be relevant for the moment. And I actually do think they were starting to become in our society a lot more combative, a lot more harsh, denunciatory, I guess you could call it. And there's a lot more questioning of whether we should even do forgiveness. And so I thought, like, Okay, here's something I've been teaching about forever. You. You can't do marriage counseling as the pastor without talking about forgiveness. You can't do anything in the pastoral word, talking about forgiveness, but it felt like, Wow, looks like we're losing, losing our grip on forgiveness as a society. So that's the reason I wrote the book.
WS: Yeah, well, and you know, as you said, you can't do marriage counseling, you can hardly do any kind of counseling without talking about forgiveness. And likewise, you can't read the Bible without encountering forgiveness. In some ways, I think maybe, especially to the 21st century mind, forgiveness is one of those ideas that's hiding in plain sight when you look at Scripture; it's not one of those that we talk about as much as we should, but you really can't avoid it if you carefully read Scripture.
TK: And you can we actually make the case which I do in the book, is that the prominence of forgiveness in human thought actually comes from the Bible. Because before the Bible, you take a look at the Greeks and the Romans, for example, forgiveness was not one of the virtues. When you get to the Bible, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, you have a lot of emphasis on like Psalm 143, Psalm 130. If you were to mark sins, who would stand no one is righteous before us. The idea that we need God's forgiveness is very strong, in the Old Testament, and the Testaments is just as strong. But it's a little more emphasis on giving forgiveness to other people. In the Old Testament, you don't have as quite as much emphasis you know, though, Joseph forgives his brothers. But in the New Testament, it becomes very strong that you, you take the forgiveness you've gotten from God, and now you give it to other people. And that is, it's it's all through this scripture. And actually, Scripture is pretty much the source of the idea that forgiveness is important.
WS: Well, you know, the world sometimes has a definition for a word, and scripture has a definition for a word that may or may not be the same. So why don't we just talk about the definition of forgiveness? You say at one point that, that false understandings of repentance and forgiveness are spiritually and socially fatal. I guess the other side of that coin, is that, that true definitions biblical definitions are life giving. What is your definition of forgiveness? What is the biblical definition of forgiveness?
TK: I do think a biblical definition is that you decide I'm not going to take vengeance on this person. They're externally by going and trying to make them suffer as much as I've suffered, or internally by constantly beating up on them in my heart imagining, you know, you might say, sticking little pins in them in your heart. So I'm going to forego a vengeance. I'm not going to do that. And I'm going to do that both internally, by turning my mind away from it, reminding myself that I'm a sinner who needs forgiveness to and externally, I'm not going to just simply try to do payback. However, and you notice, what I said, is, it's vengeance. That doesn't mean you can't pursue justice. It doesn't mean that you, you can't pursue for future victims sake, for God's sake, for justice, to say even for the perpetrators sake. It doesn't mean you can't go and say, Look, some restitution has to be done here. Or the law was broken, and justice has to be done. You can do that and forgive, because if you don't forgive, you will not be pursuing justice will be pursuing vengeance and vengeance is always excessive, and vengeance always eats you up while you're going after it. So I would say that if you properly understand what forgiveness is, then you will be able to forgive and still pursue justice. If you don't understand what it means, then you're going to either you're going to probably choose between the two. You're either going to say hey, why don't forgive me. It's like I can't pursue justice at all, OR forgive means I don't have to forgive until this person has already been sentenced to death or something like that. So the right approach really helps you do both.
WS: Well, you actually spend a good bit of time talking about how forgiveness and justice are not opposite ends of a spectrum or a continuum, that that is a false dichotomy. And likewise, you say the same thing about God's love and God's wrath, that that when we separate those two in and put one on one end of the spectrum, and the other on the other end of the spectrum, that we've departed from the way of truth, we've departed from Scripture. Can you say more about that as well?
TK: Yeah, from our point of view, they seem to be contradictory. They can't be, because I believe that God can't have contradictory attributes. In fact, there's a doctrine. it's called the simplicity of God, it's the strange word. But in theological circles, we understand that God's attributes are all aspects of just who he is. There's a simplicity to him. So if he's wrathful and forgiving, it doesn't seem like that they seem to be against each other, but they can't be. They look, it looks that way to us. The best way I've ever heard anybody explain this was a Lloyd Jones sermon, Dr. David Martin Lloyd Jones, who said, God is good. He is so good that he wants to forgive you. But he's so good that he can't just not punish sin. See, to not punish sin would mean he's not very good. You know, if you're really good, you have to punish sin. You can't just say, oh, you know what happened. But if you're really good, you don't want to punish people who, you want to forgive them. And so how can his goodness be, as you know, fully expressed? The answers on the cross? The wrath of God was satisfied. That is, the punishment of sin happened, but it fell on Jesus so that, that God could forgive. And I think, therefore, it's an apparent contradiction, but not a true contradiction.
WS: Right. One of the things I love about your book, Tim, is that you used some real life examples of people who engage in radical forgiveness. A Desmond Tutu, Rachel den Hollander, Corrie ten Boom, the Amish community who survived the Nickel Mines, slaughter a few years ago. Can you say more about your strategy there? I mean, we don't really have time to unpack each and every one of those stories. But was your strategy there to help people see that these were not abstract ideas, what they are ideas that we can truly give legs and feet to?
TK: Yeah, I don't I don't think you can teach any theological principle without the stories. How does this flesh out in real life? We are not brains in vats. We're not just ideas, we're embodied beings. And to be embodied means we don't really understand is real and abstract principle unless we see it in a story. By way, Jonathan Edwards, who was vilified by many and idolized by others, but Edwards talks about the fact that truth isn't real until you can put it in sense experience; he would say, are guys that consuming fire is a biblical statement, of course. He says, to say our guys holy doesn't really, completely grab us, but to say I got his holy like, he's like a consuming fire. We've actually experienced fire through our bodies. And so suddenly, it makes the whole idea of holiness real. A fire is both wonderful and beautiful. And at the same time, you know, dangerous too, and it can't be trifled with. So I think the same thing with forgiveness. Forgiveness is just a wonderful concept, but until you actually see it fleshed out in, in real stories, I just don't think people grasp it.
WS: Yeah. You know, Tim, you mentioned two sort of cultural moments in your book, but you don't spend a lot of time on them. And I'm just wondering if I could get you to say a little bit more about how we could apply the principles of forgiveness, both individually/personally, but also as a community and as a culture to two particular areas. One is the sexual abuse movement, the Me Too movement. And, of course, Rachel den Hollander, who you mentioned, has been a leader in that movement, bringing a Christian understanding to that that movement. And the other would be racial healing, racial reconciliation, which is maybe an overused word. At this point. I've been hearing racial reconciliation since the 1980s. And the word itself might be a little out of fashion, but how would we apply the principles of your book to this? Do we need a truth and reconciliation commission in the 21st century in America around these issues?
TK: Wow, that's great question because even though these are two places where the questioning of forgiveness is coming up; in the book, I mentioned that when relatives of some of the people that were killed in the Charleston shooting, in the church there, and it was a avowed white supremacist went in and killed people. And when African American relatives of the people who were killed forgave Dylan Roof, that was the name of the shooter. There were people who said, you know, black people have to stop doing this. This is why we keep getting shot. We're just letting them walk all over us, we shouldn't forgive. And the Me Too movement is especially also questioning forgiveness, partly because forgiveness has been used against women, where women are called to forgive their perpetrators and just put the perpetrators back in power right away. And so on the surface of it, they both look like these are things that are coming up right now in the culture. And so you're right to put them together. On the other hand, I feel like they're awfully different; in other words forgiveness really applies very, very differently. I think. Because in a sense, African Americans are asking the question, how do we deal with oppressive white people as a group? How do we, I actually think when you are asking a one group of people to be more conciliatory and forgiving toward another group of people that's much more complicated. And the place I would go even though it's not written, this book I'm going to mention for this one is not written in a most it's an academic book. Sorry, it's just not a popular written book, but as Miroslav's book, Exclusion and Embrace, that he wrote and originally develop. He's a Croatian and he was originally developed it when he was talking about in the Balkans, when there's all this terrible violence going on between the Croatians and the Bosnians, and the Serbians, and all that, how does one group of people, you know, not just fold your hands like this, but actually open their hands and say, We want to be reconciled. And so that's, I think it's way, very complicated, I have to admit that as a, an older, white American, I'm not really sure I'm the best person to go there. But it's a great book.
The Me Too movement is different, because generally speaking, I know that in churches were and I have seen it happen. Women were abused by male leaders of some kind, and the leadership of the church came together and said, You need to forgive him because he's repented. And that's what the Bible says. And that means don't go to the police. That means, you know, don't, don't don't talk about anymore, you just have to forgive him. And we're going to restore him because you have to restore repenting people. And that is a real abuse of what the Bible says, As I already mentioned, to forgive the man does does mean, you do have to work on your own heart. And it's not going to be easy, by the way. You also can't ask an abused woman just to do it like that. But you do need to work on your own heart. So you don't hate the person. And so you don't have vengeance in your heart for years, which is going to distort all your relationships. Yes, you do need to work on that. But be kind to the woman. And then when it comes to actually doing justice, you ought to be doing justice. This man should be there should be consequences for this man. And I see those is so different. The application, I try to lay out some of that in the book. I do more for the meeting woman and a woman than I do for African Americans with, you know, looking at their history that they are you brought them up the it's true, they both bring the issue of forgiveness to the fore at the same time in somewhat same way. But I don't think the application is similar, be it there. It's complicated.
WS: Yeah. Well, that's a good word. Tim, I'd like to pivot in our conversation about could and maybe step back from the book, what we have said so far, doesn't come near to covering everything in the book. So go get the book, go read the book. And let me just, if I could pivot a little bit and talk about some of the other things that you've been involved with in your life. You know, Tim, as the as you know, my sister and brother in law, Jackie and Elaine Arthur, were in grad school in New York, right about the time that you started Redeemer Church. And I would visit them in New York and attend your church when there were maybe 150 or 200, maybe no more than 300 people in the church at that time. And it struck me that, at that time, you didn't have a plan to be a movement or a mega church, that you were trying to be faithful in that place in that moment. And God prospered it and things are, you know, obviously have gone from there. But um, am I right in that? Would you look back on those early days? What What are your memories of that era? And would you do things differently? Or do you think that things unfolded about the way that they should?
TK: Well, yeah, I'm a Presbyterian. So because of that, I did not go there saying, "I think the Lord is going to bring revival through what we're doing here, I see a whole movement. I see, you know, we're gonna be doing all this stuff. And it's really, we're gonna change the city." And I just didn't go that way. I did not go with that kind of confidence. Frankly. I even when I first got there when people said, Are you sure God's called you here? I said, Yeah. They said, so you really expect a lot of growth? I said, No, I don't know about that. And I said, you know, God could call me here to fail, to prepare me for something else. So I'm really not sure that this church is going to be successful. I'm just I just know, I'm supposed to try that that's God called me to. And I have to admit that with a lot of evangelical Christians, that befuddled them, because they thought, Well, why would you move here unless God had shown you that you were going to create this great, big movement. But then we did have a movement. What happened Warren was the church did grow rather large. We did plant a whole bunch of other churches in the city, we did spin out all kinds of organizations like HOPE for New York and, and Redeemer City to City and there were counseling center. And then there were other things like, you know, Geneva school, Neuville, pregnancy center, all those things that all that kind of came out. When I look back on the whole thing, after 33 years it's astounding what happened. But honestly, I had nothing at all like that in mind when I went.
Was there a moment where that change, though, where you said, you know, I'm just coming here to New York, I don't know whether I'm going to fail as preparation for the next thing that I do or succeed. Was there a moment where you said, Well, wait a minute, I think this is working, I need to dig in. God has given me something larger than I had originally planned that I need to start preparing myself to be a good steward of?
TK: Yes, it was, I don't remember exactly what wasn't. But Kathy and I, both my wife, Kathy, remember, at a certain point saying it looks like God's gonna let this be a go. In other words, it looks like we're gonna be able to make ends meet, pay my salary, you know, have a have a growing church. So that probably happened, that actually happened pretty quickly, because there was a lot of people, a lot of people became Christians quickly. What was surprising more, and you probably would have seen this, if you were there is was there was a high percentage of singles. I mean, Elaine, Jackie, were odd because they were married. But most of them were singles. And it's easier for singles to get other singles to come to something church, it's harder to get families to bring families to church if they're not already Christian, but that they just came and a lot of people who became Christians, and so the growth happened. And my guess is probably within nine months, I saw that we were probably going to be staying there. And somewhere, probably a year or two after that. I said, I may stay here the rest of my life. But I just don't remember exactly. There was there was no epiphany or some dramatic incident. But it probably within within two years, I realized this looks like God's gonna do something pretty extensive here. And I may spend the rest of my life here.
WS: Yeah. You know, Tim, you've already mentioned once that you are a Presbyterian, and not only are you a Presbyterian, but you're in a specific denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. And I think one of the things also that I observed about your career is that I would, even though I'm an Anglican now, I spent, you know, years in the PCA and would go to General Assembly, I would see you there at General Assembly. And you know, and I'm sure you were speaking some of the time at General Assembly, there were probably moments where they asked you to speak, but I most vividly remember you not speaking, you sitting in the audience, among the fathers and brothers, listening to other people speak. And I wanted you to say a little bit about that, because I've talked to a lot of megachurch pastors, I report on a lot of megachurch pastors. And one of the things that I see that is a problem of folks that ultimately encounter problems in their ministry is that they lose that connection to their denomination, to a sense of actually sitting in the pew rather than always having to be in front of the microphone. Was that something that was important to you to continue to be an active churchman within the PCA while you were building something in New York?
TK: Well, you know, yeah, but to be honest, I it never seemed. Why wouldn't I? I mean, obviously with my health right now I can't go to General Assembly, I really wish I could. My doctors told me I've got pancreatic cancer and take immunotherapies. And basically, my immune system makes it impossible to go out. But I went to every General Assembly for years and years, and then probably every other one the last couple of years for various reasons I was often traveling. But I don't know why else I would not do that. If and when it comes to speaking, the real point is, if I never heard anybody saying anything up there that I wanted to say, I guess I would have gotten up there. But there was always somebody saying what I would have said anyway, so why do I have to be the one to get up to say it? That's how I always saw it, and so I, you know, honestly weren't it didn't really ever occur to me that I wouldn't just go and do what I did was just because my church got bigger, doesn't mean I really should be thinking about my involvement any different. It got harder as the church got bigger, you know, to serve on committees and things like that. It got very, very difficult. Yeah. So it's true that the big church does actually make it more difficult in some ways to get be as involved in the denomination as you were before. So I'm not trying to say there wasn't any pressure. But the idea that well, I'm too important for this. That actually, I know, that's kind of what you're hinting at. I don't, no, I'm Presbyterian, which is, my church is just one chapter in the presbytery. It's not as empire.
WS: Yeah. You know, Tim, you mentioned that you were a little bit later in life when you started writing books. I, and I'm probably gonna mess up the chronology here. But my recollection is that The Reason for God came out around 2002. And that was a big book. It was a bestseller.
TK: That was 2008, actually.
WS: Oh, 2008. Wow, okay. Yeah, no, I did miss that up badly. Well, it that even makes my point even a little bit more, because that was really I mean, even though you'd written some books before, that was your first really big book. 2008 kind of doing the math on that that was 14 years ago. I mean, you were like you say in your late 50s when that happened. Did that book change your life? Did that book change your ministry?
TK: Yeah, the reason for God to, making the bestseller list, New York Times bestseller list was what shocked me. And I would say it changed my life. My pastoral life, not my personal life. It was fine. But my pastor life and ministry, I think it didn't help. That's the nicest way to put it. Because what began to happen before that book, when I was done - we did multiple services at Redeemer - I would, you know, do the benediction. I would stand, walk down front and just talk to people. And you know, who I was talking to. I was talking to my church members, and I was talking to New Yorkers who have been brought by church members. And I was evangelizing and pastoring people. And after the book came up, more and more, I would have people to say, Well, I'm from Dallas, and I read your book, and I loved it. And when I came here, I wanted to come to church, would you sign my book. And that's, I got to the place I'd say about five years in after that, like by 2012 or so the average person that I would talk to, even though only we knew only 5% of the people that were there on a Sunday were outsiders who came because they want to hear Tim Keller preach only 5%, they're the ones who push down and want to come shake my hand. And so it actually pushed me away from the kind of informal pastoring in and evangelism that I was doing everyday, which I loved. I loved the fact that I wasn't just preaching on Sunday, but I was actually talking to people who lived in the community, we are either Christians or non Christians. I love that. And that was taken away from me. And I was very upset about it. And the books did it. It made us a 'destination church' for people who were in New York City. And it didn't ruin the church. But it really it was it was a real, I found it to be a grievous.
WS: Yeah. What Tim, since you mentioned your cancer, I was kind of avoiding, you know, this was an easy question to ask and a hard question to answer, which is why I try to avoid it when I'm talking to people like you who have a sickness. But the question is simply, how are you doing? How's it going? How's the cancer treatment going? And how's your health right now?
TK: Well, I have stage four pancreatic cancer, which was first actually seen in February 2020. So it's coming up on three years. And anybody who knows anything about pancreatic cancer at all knows that I've already been, God has been extraordinarily good to me because 80% of people are dead within a year of the diagnosis of stage four pancreatic cancer - 80%, something like that. And so here I am, having my third Christmas with my children, my grandchildren, and so I could not be more grateful. There's ups and downs with the treatment. Sometimes I feel pretty sick. Sometimes I don't. But right now, I'm actually doing pretty well. But you live from scan to scan, Warren. Anybody with active cancer, you basically know that your next scan is going to be a month from now. And so right now I feel fine, but I don't know what the next game is going to show. And that's how you live, we probably should all live this way, spiritually, we should realize that it's God keeping us alive every second and that our days are numbered, and we will live only as long as He wants. But before something like this comes into your life, you you live with the illusion of immortality. I had it. I think everybody's got it. So I don't, don't, spiritually, it's been enormously great. And actually, Kathy and I both say to each other, that even if the next scan, the doctors would say, 'You're cured, it's never happened before you're totally cured.' We would never want to go back to the kind of life we had before it cancer that we're deciding we would never want to go we would never want to lose what God has given us, which is far closer communion with Him. So spiritually, I've never been better. Physically, I have certainly been better. But I'm, I'm doing okay.
WS: You mentioned how the books changed your ministry. How is the cancer changed your ministry? Obviously, you've already mentioned how it changed your personal spiritual life. But how has it changed your ministry in any way? You mentioned? For example, I think it was in the book, it may have been a podcast that I listen to in preparation, Ray Backe? Who, who would when he knew he was near death, he was calling people that and kind of it changed his ministry into one more of mentorship. I guess. I think I got that right. How's it changing your ministry? If at all?
TK: That's actually pretty wise there was that was a good inference. Warren, I do feel that basically, I should, I have changed to be more of a mentor. That is to say, I'm much quicker to call people, younger leaders that I know, just to encourage them just to say, Hey, I know you're taking a lot of flack right now, I want to care about you, or even say, is there any way I can be of some help to you? Or, you know, an example. Here's just an example of this is there's a young guy, lives in Australia wrote a big book that nobody wanted to publish. That's it.
WS: I'm not it's a magnificent book.
TK: It is a magnificent book. But you can see why a lot of people didn't Well, sure.
WS: Yeah, it's very hard. It's a difficult book.
TK: It actually is really high level academic stuff, but brought down to the place where I think the average college educated person can...
WS: By the way, we're talking about Biblical Critical Theory by Christopher Watkin, we held the book up. But we didn't say Well, yeah, I'm sorry, Tim, keep going.
TK: And I actually, basically, I knew Chris a little bit, and he had sent me some parts of it. And I, at a certain point, I he said, this is never gonna see the light of day. And I said, we got to do something about it. I just pushed him. I was very nice. There's a little note in the foreword, saying thank you, Tim. But, and basically, I pushed and I and I did it. I wrote the foreword, and trying to make sure it got out there. See, that's much more of what I should be doing not. I'm going to write books if i As long as I stay alive, but I should also be helping other people, younger people write books. So the mentorship thing is definitely something I don't think I had, honestly weren't, I think I should have recognized I was 69 years old when I was diagnosed with cancer, I should have shifted into that mentorship before. I was like, I should have said, Hey, you're almost 70 years old. Why aren't you doing more of that? And I, so, that's exactly the effect it's had.
WS: Well, that's a magnificent book. And I do appreciate your forward because it brought it to my attention. And I'm reading it. Tim, I know, you've got a limited amount of time, so I want to I want to bring this to a close. But your friend, I think, you know, David Brooks, I think David Brooks is a friend of yours. He wrote a couple of years ago very famously about the difference between living a life to add to your resume versus living a life to add to your eulogy. And I guess I want to use that as context for saying, How do you want people to remember you? What do you want the legacy of Tim Keller to be?
TK: The only thing I want to be remembered for is I love my children, my grandchildren. Beyond that, I don't think it's my job to know - or care. That sounds a little weird. I mean, I, I would. Yeah, that's it. I would hope that they would see that. I don't, I think I'm a better father than I have been in the past. It is really hard to have your church grow really big and still be a great parent. And I'm, I bet you there's some out there, but it's pretty difficult. But God's let me live long enough to be a lot better parent and to be a better grandparent. But you know, Warren, I don't think I care, or think I should care too much, about how I'm remembered. Let, let the chips fall where they may - let the chips fall where God wants them.
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