Let’s ring in the new year with a New Year’s Day tweet from Tim Keller:
A salvation earned by good works and moral effort would favor the more able, competent, accomplished and privileged. But salvation by sheer grace favors the failed, the outsiders, the weak, because it goes only to those who know salvation must be by sheer Grace.
— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) January 1, 2019
Keller identifies two groups which we can call the powerful insiders and the weak outsiders. He then points out that if salvation were earned by good works this would favor the powerful insiders who would have a clear advantage in producing good works.
So what does God do? Does he even the playing field out of love for all humankind?
No. Instead, according to Keller’s understanding of salvation by grace, God places the powerful insiders in an epistemically and ethically deprived position, one that makes it more difficult for them to attain salvation. In short, their wealth and privilege dull their spiritual senses, making it less likely that they shall be saved. By contrast, the weak outsiders are ideally positioned to recognize their need for grace.
And Keller thinks that’s a good thing. The tone of this tweet is not somber reflection but joyful exultation that grace favors the weak outsiders over the powerful insiders. As one of the first tweeted responses to Keller puts it, “Hallelujah!”
Hallelujah that God places the powerful insiders at an epistemic and ethical disadvantage which makes it less likely that they shall be saved? A tweet celebrating the fact that God privileges one group over another: that’s a strange way to ring in the new year, isn’t it?
One more thing: to return to Keller’s initial premise, I see no reason to think that salvation by works would favor the powerful insiders. After all, on this scenario they would still be placed at an epistemic and ethical disadvantage, a point that is clear in the case of the Widow’s Two Mites in Luke 21:
“And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, 2 and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. 3 So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; 4 for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.”
Salvation by works would only advantage the rich and powerful if those works were crassly understood to be the kind of works that can be produced by wealth and privilege. But the truth is that the Widow’s work of dropping two mites — all she had — into the treasury is worth more than the rich and self-confident benefactor who ensures his name is featured on every building he benevolently funds.
So it turns out that the powerful insiders are doubly disadvantaged on Keller’s scenario. The only remaining question: is that now a cause for double the celebration?