Tim Keller’s thoughts on good news vs. good advice have been helpful for those who preach or teach, so we decided to transcribe a portion of his talk, “Gospel-Centered Ministry,” from the Gospel Coalition conference in 2007. Below is an adaptation of his central explanation.
Some years ago, I heard a tape series, that I’m sure was never put into print by David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, an evening sermon series on 1 Corinthians 15. In it, he made a distinction that was extremely clarifying, how the gospel is based on historical events in a way that other religions just aren’t: he said that there is a big difference between just good advice and good news.
The gospel, he would say, is good news, not good advice. Here’s what he said about that: “Advice is counsel about something to do and it hasn’t happened yet, but you can do it.” He says, “News is a report about something that has happened—you can’t do anything about it—it’s been done for you and all you can do is respond to it.”
Now think this out: here is a king and he goes into a battle against an invading army to defend his land. If the king defeats the invading army he sends back to the capital city messengers, very happy envoy. He sends back, “good news-ers” with his report. They come back and they say, “It has been defeated! It’s all been done! Therefore respond with joy and now go about your lives. Conduct your lives in this peace which has been achieved for you.”
But if the invading army breaks through, the king sends back military advisers and says, “Swordsmen over here and marksmen over here and the horsemen over here. We’re going to have to fight for our lives.” Dr. Lloyd-Jones says that every other religion sends military advisers to people. Every other religion says, “You know, if you want your salvation, you’re going to have to fight for you life.” Every other religion is sending advice, saying, “Here are the rights, here are the rituals, and here are the laws and regulations. Earthen works over here, marksmen over here. Fight for your life.”
Joy or Fear?
We send heralds; we send messengers, not military advisers. Isn’t that clarifying? It doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do about it—my goodness—both messengers and military advisers get an enormous response. However, one is a response of joy, and one is a response of fear. All other religions give advice, and they drive everything you’re doing on fear.
You know what, when you hear the gospel, when you hear a message that it’s all been done for you, that it’s a historical event that’s happened, your salvation is accomplished for you, what do you want to do? You want to obey the Ten Commandments, you want to pray, and you want to please the one who did this for you. If on the other hand, you send military advisers who say, “You’re going to have to live a really, really, good life if you want to get to heaven.” What are you going to do? You’re going to want to pray, you’re going to want to obey the Ten Commandments—it looks the same doesn’t it? [But] for two radically different reasons: one is joy; one is fear. In the end, in the short run, they look alike. But in the long run, one leads to burnout, self-righteousness, guilt and all sorts of problems. Isn’t that fascinating?
Craft Your Words
If we were saying, “Here’s how to live in the right way” —if that’s the primary message, I’m not sure words are not necessarily the best thing to send. You want to send a model. If I were teaching an advanced seminar on preaching, I would make everyone read C.S. Lewis’ Studies in Words. It’s amazing, because Christians are wordsmiths and he shows you how important it is to craft your words properly. . . .
Therefore, if you believe that the gospel is good news, declarative preaching, verbally proclaiming, will always be irreplaceably central to what we do.