A few years ago, Tim Keller released one of the most significant works on church planting and development to hit the shelves this century. Center Church is a massive examination of what it looks like to do gospel-centered ministry in your community. It received overwhelming praise from a majority of readers. However, if I had to guess, those who chose not to read it in spite of the reviews probably didn’t do so because of its size. The first edition of Center Church was a 400-page piece of work, emulating more of a textbook than anything.
That’s why Keller’s and Zondervan’s decision to update, revise and release Center Church’s content in three smaller, more compact volumes was a great decision. These three volumes take the overarching three concepts that make up Center Church and spend time examining each concept with more of a microscope, adding in accompanying contributions from respected authors that engage with Keller’s work and offering discussion questions for leaders and teams to work through.
The first volume, Shaped by the Gospel, Keller takes time to unpack two major sections in pursuing becoming gospel-centered: Gospel Theology and Gospel Renewal. Keller spends the first three chapters unpacking three gospel pillars on which our theology can rest:
- The Gospel is Not Everything (Chapter 1)
- The Gospel is Not a Simple Thing (Chapter 2)
- The Gospel Affects Everything (Chapter 3)
In these chapters, we have some of the richest creedal understanding of what the gospel is. Keller is not just an author who consults various sources to develop points, but he is a theologian and offers his own important contributions to these conversations. For example, Keller argues that the gospel is not something we join, but something we receive (31). Chapter 2 is full of charts and biblical strands Keller draws out. Later we see Keller’s famous assertion that “the gospel is not just the ABCs but the A to Z of the Christian life” (65).
In the “Gospel Renewal” section, Keller spends a lot of time talking about how we go about recovering this gospel theology in our hearts and in our churches. Keller spends a majority of the time talking about the need and essence of spiritual revival and awakening, and how preaching plays such a critical role in gospel recovery. Other aspects of the Christian life, such as prayer, repentance, and studying God’s Word are highlighted in this quest for revival.
In this volume, there are “commentaries” offered by Michael Horton and Dane Ortlund who each address one of the sections of Keller’s book. This is an extremely unique for a book, to offer another perspective to engage with the work itself and highlight where they agree/disagree. Keller then takes a chapter to respond to each of the two commentaries, showing in what ways their exhortations have reshaped his thinking and a chance for him to justify himself where they disagree. It’s a very interesting dialogue to witness. Don’t skip these sections!
Overall, Shaped by the Gospel is an excellent introduction to the beauty of the gospel, and the necessity of the gospel. It is some of Keller’s finest work, which is saying a lot considering he is a man who holds many magnum opus works in his arsenal. I would commend every single preacher, church planter and church leader to read this book. It is some of the best introductory work on ministry that I know of.