Tim Keller published three short books – On Birth, On Marriage and On Death – in his How to Find God series. Tim Keller’s aim in his How to Find God series is to help readers facing major life changes to think about what constitutes the truly changed life. The purpose is to give readers the Christian foundations for life’s most important and profound moments, beginning with birth and baptism, moving into marriage, and concluding with death.
The foundation of the three books is a sermon Keller preached at his wife Kathy’s sister’s funeral in 2018. Here are my reviews of each of the books; On Birth is the first book in the series.
On Birth by Timothy Keller. Penguin Books. 144 pages. 2020
The author tells us that the Christian faith teaches that every person should experience two births. The first birth is ours because God is our Creator; the second birth can be ours because God is also our Redeemer. The Lord is the author of both. In this book, the author considers the spiritual issues surrounding both births.
He writes that fewer people today see children as a blessing. Liberals tend to blame economic factors and conservatives tend to point to the rising tide of selfishness. The biblical teaching about human nature reframes parental expectations. He tells us that children are a joy, but parents often sense a responsibility that can be overwhelming. The Christian church offers, in response, the sacrament of baptism. He writes that baptizing your child is an enormous help to parents. It is a public service with vows, surrounded by friends in the Christian church community. To make solemn promises before the faces of family and friends molds us and makes permanent impressions on our minds, hearts, and wills. Dedicating your child to God through public promises before the congregation directs parents to a number of practices that are designed to turn a child’s heart toward God.
He writes that children have to see gospel-based moral values and traits embodied in the people around them. We must live what we believe and profess. Hypocrisy will alienate our children from us, and if it does, he tells us that we will deserve it. In addition, if you don’t teach your children well, someone else will. He writes that if you give your children to God, cultivate their hearts in community, and accept the sacrifices of parenting with prayer and grace, your children may find themselves contemplating the second “new” birth by the Holy Spirit.
The book then transitions to part two. Here, he uses John 3:1-6, the most famous and substantial text in the Bible telling us about the “second” or new birth. He writes that Jesus’s point in the passages is radical but simple. Everyone needs to be born again because no one can even see the kingdom of God without it. That’s who the new birth is for. It’s for everyone.
He tells us that the most essential feature about the new birth is what it does to the person who experiences it. To be spiritually alive means you can sense spiritual realities because now you have spiritual sight and taste. To be “born again” means not to become just an improved person but a new one. The “newness,” of the new birth is not that all the various features of your life—your gender, nationality, social class, and so on—pass away. Rather, none of them function any longer as your chief identity factor. They no longer serve as your main significance and security, or as the main makers of your self-regard and self-definition.
The gospel tells us the Christians are so lost and incapable of pleasing God that Jesus had to die for us, but also that we are so loved that he was glad to die for us. It tells us that we are deserving of death but are saved by sheer grace.
The Christian who has embraced the gospel has received a message that we are sinful and in ourselves worthy of condemnation, yet loved perfectly and unconditionally in Christ and free from condemnation.
He tells us that the new birth begins to “reorder your loves.” You don’t love your family or career or people less, but by the power of the Holy Spirit you learn to value God’s love more and more. Being born again not only changes what you look to as your highest good but how you look to it. Your heart rests in Christ’s freely offered love for you—it does not work for it. It’s an identity based on an entirely new foundation.
He then makes a distinction between conversion—turning to God in faith—and the new birth. He writes that conversion is what you and I do to come to God, but the new birth is what God does within us.
He tells us that no matter how good and well-ordered your life is, you must be born again, yet no matter how chaotic your life has been or how often and profoundly you have failed, you can be born again. Everybody—the apparently “best” and “worst”—stands at the same place and on the same level in their need of the grace of God.
The first thing we must do to be converted is to turn away from our self-salvation schemes in repentance. But then we must turn toward Jesus in faith, seeing the beauty of what Christ has done. It’s not enough just to believe in the grace of God in general; you have to have faith in what Jesus Christ has done in particular.
He then addresses spiritual growth, telling us that there is no excuse for not having a radically changed life if you’re a Christian. He writes that when you understand grace, it begins to change your heart and it begins to nurture the new person God is growing within you. The result is real patience, real kindness, and real behavior change.
On Marriage by Timothy Keller and Kathy Keller. Penguin Books. 128 pages. 2020
On Marriage is book 2 in Timothy Keller’s How to Find God series. This book is co-written with his wife Kathy, and I found it to be the most practical of the three books in the series. The book is dedicated to Dr. R. C. Sproul, who performed the Keller’s wedding forty-five years ago, and got both their theology and marriage going in the right direction. This is the Keller’s third book on marriage, following 2011’s The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God and 2019’s The Meaning of Marriage: A Couple’s Devotional: A Year of Daily Devotions.
The authors tell us that younger adults in Western countries today postpone marriage at unprecedented rates. Nearly a third of all millennials in the United States may stay unmarried through age forty, and 25 percent may not marry at all, the highest proportion of any generation in modern history. They look at two reasons that so many marriages never begin: economic stress and the rise of individualism in culture. These two mistaken beliefs about marriage are that it is a drain economically and it is an impediment to the full realization of our freedom and identity.
The book of Genesis tells us that God established marriage even as he created the human race. Marriage was made for us, and the human race was made for marriage. Yet, a fear of strife and marital failure keeps many people from seeking a spouse. Some people assume that if their parents divorced, their own future marriage is much more likely to end in divorce.
The authors give three helpful suggestions on how to begin a marriage:
- Look for another believer, if you are a Christian.
- Look for someone who will still attract you when they lose their youthful looks.
- Get advice from others about your relationship before you proceed to marriage.
They give five helpful suggestions on, once married, how to begin to lay the foundation for a long, rich marriage:
- Never go to bed angry.
- Pray together as your last words of the day.
- Give each other sex often.
- Make deliberate decisions about your family life and traditions.
- Learn each other’s “love languages.”
The authors look at Genesis 2:18–25 to learn what we need for a good marriage over the long run, over decades. They address at how to avoid expecting too much, or too little, from marriage.
They look at how sex, like marriage itself, points to something beyond itself. If we don’t see that and set our hearts on that future, sex and marriage will always bitterly disappoint us. They tell us that it is only if you look beyond the end of your earthly marriage to your union with Christ will you love your husband or wife well.
As to the end of marriage in Heaven, they tell us that everyone will be in the closest possible love relationship with everyone else, because Christ’s perfect love will be flowing in and out of us like a fountain, like a river. The end of your earthly marriage will be nothing less than an entrance into an endless feast, where you will be joined to your earthly partner in ways you could never realize in this world, as well as with all others and with Jesus, “Lover of your soul.”
On Death by Timothy Keller. Penguin Books, 128 pages. 2020
On Death is book 3 in Tim Keller’s How to Find God series of short books. The author shares four reasons that we struggle so much today with death. He tells us that death was something that people used to see up close. Medicine and science have relieved us of many causes of early death, and today the vast majority of people decline and die in hospitals and hospices, away from the eyes of others.
He writes that many people today say that, because there is no God, soul, or spirit, no transcendent or supernatural dimension to reality, this material world is all there is. In that case, whatever gives your life meaning and purpose will have to be something within the confines of this earthly time frame. Whatever you decide will give meaning to your life will have to be some form of this-world happiness, comfort, or achievement. As a result, modern culture is the worst in history at preparing its members for the only inevitability—death. He writes that modern secular culture has so much trouble with death is that, in redefining death as nonexistence, it has created a profound sense of insignificance. He tells us that another reason why we struggle today with death is the loss of categories for sin, guilt, and forgiveness in modern culture. All this triggers a crisis for modern people in the face of death. He writes that as death approaches, people look back on their life and feel tremendous regret.
Rather than living in fear of death, he tells us that Christians should see it as spiritual smelling salts that will awaken us out of our false belief that we will live forever. Everything in this life is going to be taken away from us, except one thing: God’s love, which can go into death with us and take us through it and into His arms. It’s the one thing you can’t lose.
The book begins with how to how to face our own death without fear. It then addresses facing the death of loved ones. He tells us that we are to grieve at death, rather than take the stoic approach.
He tells us that while people have many reactions to being in the presence of death, there are two opposite mistakes we can make: One is to despair too much; the other is to shrug it off and not learn what we should from it. Neither will be of much benefit to you, so we must do as the Bible tells us to do: We should grieve, yet we should have hope; we should wake up from our denial and discover a source of peace that will not leave us; and finally, we should laugh and sing.
Grieve with hope; wake up and be at peace; laugh in the face of death, and sing for joy at what’s coming. He writes that if Jesus Christ has you by the hand, you can sing.
A practical “Appendix” offers helpful advice and scripture verses for each day of the week if you if are facing your own possible death or you are facing the death of a loved one.
Throughout this helpful introduction to the subject of death, the author shares quotes from other books by authors including C. S. Lewis and Jonathan Edwards, two of his favorites.