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Tim Keller on Sin

By October 26, 20102 Comments

One of the things that God has really been teaching me lately is what it means that I’m a sinner. Now before you roll your eyes and think, “Oh here’s another goody-goody Christian who’s pretending to be humble because it’s what good Christians do,” just hear me out.

First off, this isn’t about self-deprecation or making myself feel unnecessarily guilty. I don’t like that I screw up and I want to do better, but I don’t beat myself up about it either. In fact, the more I understand how broken I am, there’s an extent to which I actually feel less guilty. I know that sounds strange, but seeing myself as a sinner helps me to understand why I do the things I do. The concept of sin gives me a lens for interpreting my actions. It is the reason why it’s so hard for me to do and say the right things.

And when I understand sin this way, the result is not guilt–it’s relief. When I truly understand the degree of my brokenness and how helpless I am apart from God, I can stop putting unrealistic expectations on myself to be my own savior. I can cease striving and simply rest in the work of Jesus’ perfect salvation. Understanding my sin therefore frees me from the rat-race of self-righteousness and compels me to cast myself upon God’s mercy. It’s not that holiness is no longer important, but that holiness isn’t possible on my own. I am utterly dependent on God for transformation. And what a relief that knowledge is!

In the midst of learning more about what it means to be a broken, helpless sinner, I came upon a challenging passage from Tim Keller’s book Prodigal God that has deepened my understanding of sin all the more. Keller writes,

“To truly become Christian we must also repent of the reasons we ever did anything right. Pharisees only repent of their sins, but Christians repent for the very roots of their righteousness, to. We must learn how to repent of the sin under all our other sins and under all our righteousness–the sin of seeking to be our own Savior and Lord…It is only when you see the desire to be your own Savior and Lord–lying beneath both your sins and your moral goodness–that you are on the verge of understanding the gospel and becoming a Christian indeed.” (p. 78)

Keller’s words may sound familiar. They are an echo of Paul’s words in Philippians 3:7-9: “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.

In the past, I interpreted the above Scripture to mean that our good works are “rubbish” because they can’t earn our salvation. Our good works are ultimately worthless currency in God’s economy. I still believe that is true, yet Keller’s words also offer a fresh new insight. As Keller explains above, Paul’s good works were rubbish because the same motivation that drove his sin was also driving his good deeds.

Even when you’re trying to do the right thing, sin is always crouching at your door. That is not to say that you are incapable of good things–you are, after all, made in God’s glorious image, and God gives us grace to overcome our sin. However, Keller’s words reveal how profoundly broken we are. Sin is not occasional disobedience but a completely wrong orientation of the soul. As long as we live on this earth, we will struggle against our fallen nature in ways that we will probably never even comprehend. Every day I feel like God reveals new ways that I would be hopeless apart from Him. Seriously, in every possible aspect of my life I NEED GOD’S GRACE!

Some Christians (particularly Calvinists) refer to this as the doctrine of Total Depravity. If you ever run across this term, what I have just described is a helpful way of thinking about it. We are helpless apart from God’s intervening grace in our lives. We need Him to rescue us.

Yet this doctrine is not as depressing as it sounds. It produces in us gratitude and relief. The more I understand how much I need God, the more I love Him for rescuing me and the more I want to serve Him. And when I screw up in trying to serve Him, I don’t berate myself for it but instead thank God for His mercy. I then seek to serve Him better in the future because I love Him so much.

This doctrine also produces humility. Not only does it caution me against judging non-Christians (after all, I am not a Christian because of ANYTHING good in me!) but it also gives me a healthy dose of humility in my personal sense of rightness. When it comes to theology and Scriptural interpretation, I tend to be very black and white. It’s my way or the highway. Yet to have such confidence can betray a misunderstanding of the doctrine of Total Depravity. While the Holy Spirit certainly gives us confidence that we can know God and understand His Word, the doctrine of Total Depravity also reminds us that sin can interfere. Even when our motives are correct and we’re implementing all the right exegetical methods, sin is still present and can subtly creep in.

All of that to say, I appreciate Tim Keller’s words because they remind me how profoundly I need God. Even when I try to do good my heart can still be misguided, but thankfully my salvation does not rest upon my goodness. It rests in God’s. I rejoice that I serve a God who died for me and accepted me, knowing full well that I would be a hopeless sinner, but loving me anyway. I hope that as you contemplate your own shortcomings, you will cast down guilt and shame and instead experience the same sense of relief and awe for such a wonderful God!


  • STEVE DUNN says:

    I am an Arminian by persuasion and confess I have not thought that deeply about the concept of total depravity. Your description of this has given me a fresh insight that also allows me to explain it with greater clarity. Thank you.

  • Sharon says:

    Steve, I’m glad it was helpful to you! I would add that the doctrine of Total Depravity is not a solely Calvinist doctrine. It is an orthodox doctrine that is held by most faith traditions, the difference being how they define it. While most traditions contend that the will and passions are bound by sin, there is some debate over the intellect. I hope that’s helpful!

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