Keller Explains Galatians


Timothy Keller. 2013. Galatians for You. USA: The Goodbook Company.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Commentaries are books about books and they come in handy when we read a culturally distant book like the Bible.  Biblical culture has at least three attributes that line up poorly with American culture.  The Bible is highly relational, reflective, and laconic (carefully chosen words) while American culture is transactional, superficial, and wordy—we are inundated daily with verbal and visual messages.  Consequently, one of the most difficult challenges in leading an adult Bible study today is finding a commentary that is both accessible and informative.  Timothy Keller’s, Galatians for You, meets both criteria.


Keller is the founding pastor (church planter) of Redeemer Presbyterian Church ( in New York City which is famous for successfully evangelizing young professionals. He received his masters of divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS) and doctorate from Westminster Theological Seminary.  He has written a number of books, including: The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008) and The Meaning of Marriage (with Kathy Keller; New York: Dutton, 2011).  When GCTS set out a box full of Galatians for You in the library at for free distribution last spring, I snapped up a copy.

Series Description

Galatians for You is the first in a series of “for You” study guides. Why start a series with the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Galatians?  In an online video introduction (, Keller gives three reasons:  1. it provides a good summary of the Gospel, 2. it explains the uniqueness of salvation by grace and how it differs from the law, and 3. it helps explain how the Gospel transforms us through grace and fosters the fruits of the spirit.


Galatians for You is organized in 13 chapters.  In the book, 2 to 3 chapters are devoted to each of the 6 chapters in Galatians. These chapters each divide into two parts focusing on:  1. explaining the Biblical text and 2. applying the issues raised.  Both parts have study questions. A brief introduction precedes and a glossary, appendix, and bibliography follow these chapters.  The introduction summaries the theological issues presented in the letter and provides historical context.  The glossary defines technical terms appearing the text.  The appendix provides a brief explanation of the new perspective on Paul raging in theological circles.

Keller’s art begins with simple communication.  In his introduction, for example, he uses simple words to describe:  the gospel [as] the A to Z of the Christian life (9).  And his personal touch stands out as he identifies with Paul as a fellow: church-planting missionary (10).   Keller writes using lists and bullet points and shares both both information and emotion.  For example, his historical review consists of just three bullet points and his introduction observes Paul is both surprised and angry (13).  These characteristics identify him as a post modern writer and make his writing read like a blog.

Writer’s Craft

Keller’s craft runs through the entire commentary.  For example, salvation by grace differs from (presumed) salvation by law because grace depends on a promise while law depends on performance (78).  He writes:  For a promise to bring a result, it needs only to be believed, but for a law to bring a result, it has to be obeyed (11).  He classifies Christians (Paul’s audience) falling into four categories depending on whether they obey the law and/or rely on the law (versus grace) for their salvation.  These categories emerge: 1. law-obeying, law-relying (modern Pharisees), 2. Law-disobeying (libertines), law-relying (cultural Christians), 3. Law-disobeying, not law-relying (secular or relativistic), and 4. Law-obeying, not law-relying.  Keller observes that most Christians struggle to live out group 4 (obey the law out of gratitude), but often slip into one of the other three categories (117-118).  Keller’s willingness to struggle with these issues gives his writing depth. En un español se diría que es profundo.


Keller’s Galatians for You is a joy to read.  Many commentaries and study guides written for a lay audience fail to engage the text and completely ignore the struggles that a post-modern audience faces.  Keller is strong on both points.  I look forward to teaching this text.

Keller Explains Galatians

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The Journey to Seminary

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him,
They have no wine. And Jesus said to her,
Woman, what does this have to do with me?”
(John 2:3-4)

Roughly a month after my departure from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) in January 2004, I attended an inquirer’s weekend held at Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) in Princeton, New Jersey, which I immediately fell in love with. The seminary put me up in their guest house and the program included faculty talks, meetings with admissions counselors, and visits to classes. Because I became aware of my own calling in part through preaching, I attended a preaching class. Before the weekend was over, my hair was on fire for the Lord and to attend PTS. Still, red flags were unavoidable which arose primarily in my interactions with the students.

During lunch on Friday in the cafeteria, for example, it became abundantly clear that not all the students were comfortable hanging out with someone twice their age—out of an inquiry group of sixty, only a handful of prospective students were second career. The vast majority of students could not have been more than 25 years of age and many of the faculty that we visited with were younger than I. Given a choice between attending a play called the Vagina Monologues[1] and a film, The Passion of the Christ,[2] all but one inquirer (other than myself) opted to attend the former, highlighting not only an age difference in interests but also a less-obvious theological distinction that became more obvious as the weekend wore on.

In Friday chapel, for example, a senior preached about his experience with evangelism on the New York subway—his evangelism consisted of wearing a PTS tie shirt so that everyone could see. He then proceeded to ridicule apologetics—which I had identified on my PTS application as my primary interest. I later learned that PTS offered no classes in apologetics and that the seminary’s commitment to theological diversity consisted primarily of hiring faculty who self-identified as liberal or evangelical. It was unlikely to find faculty with experience or interest in missions or evangelism.

PTS offered a wonderful sendoff dinner Friday evening where each inquirer was asked to talk about themselves and their experience. The typical student responded that they enjoyed their young group experience in high school and wanted to continue that experience by working for the church. When my turn came, I opined that I felt called to ministry but did not know if I could enter seminary because I still needed to work to support my family and PTS did not offer part-time studies. I later completed my application to PTS, but withdrew it after finding work at the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO) and seeing Maryam’s relief to see me working again.

Over the next several years, I despaired of being able to being able to attend seminary full-time as I visited other schools, studied Greek and Hebrew, and continued to lead adult Bible studies at Centreville Presbyterian Church (CPC).

When my sister, Diane, developed a second round of breast cancer in 2006, I made a special effort to visit her in Philadelphia after Christmas. She had started chemo-therapy unsuccessfully in the fall and planned a new round of chemo after the holidays. To cheer her up, I bought her a DVD film, Last Holiday,[3] which starred Queen Latifah. The film featured a plot where a woman was diagnosed with a fatal disease, blew her life savings on a final holiday to visit a European hotel employing her favorite celebrity chef, and, then, learned that she had been misdiagnosed. Unfortunately, Diane was not misdiagnosed and she died unexpectedly on Monday, February 12th due to complications accompanying her treatment.

Diane’s expected death left the family gasping.

When Mom called called me at 6:30 a.m. that morning, a friend, Ming, and I were commuting east down route 66 just before the Beltway. I called my brother, John, and returned to Centreville to drop off Ming and pick him up. John and I then traveled to a hospital near Springfield where she was being treated and my parents were waiting. They traveled there earlier that weekend to visit, Diane, at the end of her week under care for a reaction to the chemo. On Sunday night, however, blood clots developed, she had a heart attack, a stoke, and, then, lost consciousness—among her last words were to ask for her brothers.

When John and I arrived at the hospital mid-morning, she was in the intensive care unit on life-support; nothing more could be done. The person I saw lying there no longer looked like my sister; she had departed. I consoled Hugo while we waited for their pastor to arrive. At that point, scripture was read; prayers were offered; and Diane was removed from life support.

Funeral services were planned that week for Thursday in Philadelphia and Saturday in McLean where Diane would be interned in the family plot at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church. I planned to attend the Saturday service locally, but my dad put the arm on me to eulogize Diane at both services so I changed my plans. Other than family, the only one that I knew attending the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield service was my best friend from high school, Rev. Jonathan Jenkins; yet, I drew comfort from the company of the many strangers as I mourned my sister that evening. At the service in McLean, many of my colleagues from OFHEO attended and began looking at me differently after that point forward.

Over the following year, I began to think differently about the idea of part-time seminary studies and in March of 2008 I drove to Charlotte, North Carolina with a friend, Jeff Snell, to attend an open house at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS). From the moment we walked in the door, it was obvious to me that GCTS was a different kind of seminary. Many of the inquirers were older and obviously considering a second career in ministry; many more of the inquirers were African Americans; and the entire curriculum was available to part-time students taking classes over long weekend visits. I applied; I was accepted; and I began classes the following August.




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A Few Good Stories

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In May I graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  Commencement was held at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church—a large African American church in Charlotte, NC.  The experience seemed a bit otherworldly, in part, because I still have classes to finish this summer and, in part, because this was my first commencement in spite of multiple degrees.

 I commenced for the first time because when I graduated high school, the senior class protested graduation–a very 70s kind of thing to do; when I graduated in college, I was sick with mononucleosis; when I received my master’s degree, I was an exchange fellow in Germany; and when I received my doctorate, I was frankly too poor to travel back to Michigan.  So commencement gave me a new story to tell.

Seminary has taught me the value of a good story.

From epistemology we know that the existence of God cannot be proven (or disproven).  What logic would you use?  Logic starts with assumptions—which ones are irrefutable and who says so?  Consequently, our experience of God starts with a story.  A story is a model of reality.  In financial modeling, the adage goes that it takes a model to kill a model.  Because all models are imperfect, only a better model provides a suitable critique.  Questioning the use of a model is, frankly, not to understand the challenge of risk management in complex modern financial corporations. Likewise, as Christians we need to ask:  which story best fits what God has revealed about himself and what we know about our world?   Arguing for no story is not to understand the human dilemma. The Christian witness is that:  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1 ESV).

An important postmodern challenge to the Biblical witness comes from literary critics who argue that the meaning of words is arbitrary.  Words have no inherent meaning and, in effect, pose a kind of Rorschach test exploited by power-seeking individuals and groups who impose their meaning on the texts—especially ancient texts taken out of social context.  They employ this critique to discount the historical testimony of the church and the biblical record.  The Bible’s use of stories, however, deconstructs this critique itself!  Stories provide context.  Hebrew doublets restate particular sentences in different words.  The meaning of particular words is then obvious from context and the use of doublets. Stories transcend the arbitrary meaning of word-symbols by drawing on experiences common to all human beings.  As Mark Twain used to say:  It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.

In clinical pastoral education, I learned to listen actively and, in particular, to listen for the stories that people tell.  The hospital visit, for example, is a transition story—a patient comes with a problem, seeks a cure, and is released.  Economist studies to be a pastor is a reinvestment story.  Anniversaries can made both tragedies and victories on a particular date each year.  The pastor that tells a story about a new acquaintance—is probably being autobiographical.  Biblical stories are often rehearsal stories—stories from the past with current meaning.  Identifying the story that a person tells helps establish emotional connection—an important vehicle for sharing the gospel.

The Gospel is the story of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  The apostle Paul invites us to join in Jesus’ story with these words: that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:10-11 ESV).  Life has meaning because we know where we fit in Christ’s story.

Seminary has taught me the value of a good story

A Few Good Stories


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