Like so many, I’ve thought much about the death of Tim Keller this week. When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2020, many of us who benefited from his ministry and his published works knew that he faced a serious life-threatening challenge. Yet, when we heard the news of his death last Friday, it was still a shock. For many, myself included, Keller was the most important Christian apologist of our day. At a time when many turn away from Christ; when many Christians buy into what Jacques Ellul termed “the political illusion,” Keller was writing the kind of apologetics that deeply impacted our very being. No wonder that so many thoughtful people heard Keller and read his works and were drawn to the Savior that he loved so much.
Several weeks before his death, Russell Moore interviewed pastor Keller (before his brilliant apologetic work, he served two congregations including Redeemer Church in New York City), and Keller’s words summed up for me the essence of the Christian faith. He said something like this: If Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and he is; everything will be OK. He followed that by saying that he was convinced intellectually and existentially, that Christ has been raised from death and is alive now. Therefore, everything will be OK because we trust in a sovereign, just, merciful Triune God. It all comes down to that!
Before his death, I had started reading his last book, Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? (Viking, 2022). This morning I finished the second chapter and came across this gem of a paragraph. After describing the secular ways of forgiveness as nothing more than “cheap grace” (to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s term), he writes this:
“The cheap-grace model of forgiveness focuses strictly on inner emotional healing for the victim, on “getting past it and moving on,” but then ends up letting the perpetrator off the hook. The little-grace or no-grace models basically seek revenge, which can lead to endless cycles of retaliation and vengeance, back and forth, between the victim and the wrongdoer. What all these secular models lack is the transformed motivation that the vertical dimension brings. The experience of divine forgiveness brings profound healing. It is grounded in the faith-sight of Jesus’s costly sacrifice for our forgiveness.
“This reminds us that we are sinners in need of mercy like everyone else, yet it also fills the cup of our hearts with his love and affirmation. This makes it possible for us to forgive the perpetrator and then go speak to him or her, seeking justice and reconciliation if possible. Now, however, we do not do it for our own sake–but for justice’s sake. The motivation is radically changed” (34).
In other words, authentic Christian forgiveness does not excuse wrongdoing. The women who were sexually abused by Larry Nassar do not have to give up on seeking justice for his abuse of them. The people who have been harmed by abusive leaders like Mark Driscoll and Ravi Zacharias do not have to let those individuals off the hook. Forgiveness is not a “get out of jail free” card.
I like how Martin Luther King Jr. put it (and Keller quotes these words on page 35), “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love…We can never say ‘I forgive you but I won’t have anything further to do with you.” Hard words but remember this is the man who faced down Bull Connor and his cops and their dogs in what was a police-riot on the streets of Birmingham, Alabama 50 years ago in 1963. Forgiveness is hard, and it can never be divorced from the pursuit of justice. But it is necessary.
Keller reminds us that “our society cannot live without forgiveness. When it is absent, the results are horrifying. Unaccountable numbers of shooting deaths in urban areas are revenge attacks from gangs and even family members. So many of the so-called mass shootings are attacks by gunmen who have nursed grudges. The genocides we have seen in events like the Soviet slaughter of Ukrainians in the 1930s, the Nazi holocaust against Jewish people in the 1940s, the butchery of Pol Pot and the Kemer Rogue in 1970s Cambodia, and the genocide against the Tutsi tribe in Rwanda in 1994 tell us what happens when the practice of forgiveness disappears from society. Our opponents are not only wrong, they are dangerous and must be eliminated!
I don’t know about you, but I confess to having a hard time forgiving others, especially during my young-adult years. Lewis Smedes reminds us that forgiveness often comes slowly and the larger the offense, the more slowly it comes. He’s right. Some of that forgiveness did come slowly for me and only when I grasped how much that Christ has forgiven me of. My number of days in this life grows shorter, and because like Tim Keller I’m convinced both intellectually and existentially that Christ has been raised from death I want to learn to better follow him and practice the kind of costly forgiveness to which he challenges me and all of the people of God.
I’m through only two chapters of Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? and look forward to fresh insights I will gain from the pen of this humble servant of God. I do all I can to avoid Christian celebrity worship but I do admire followers of Jesus like Tim Keller, N.T. Wright, and others who combine keen intellect with strong faith and deep Christian kindness for others, even those with whom they disagree. Tim Keller reminds that in his great love, Christ offers salvation and hope to Democrats, Republicans, Independents (like me), people who are immigrants and refugees at our southern border and around the world, people who are Black, Asian, Latino, Native American, and white (in other words, for folks from every tribe, nation, language, and people). No person is beyond God’s reach no matter who they are and those of us who are his followers have the privilege of embodying his love in how we speak and in how we interact with others.