If you’re planning to read Tim Keller’s new book, don’t . . .

prayer. . . don’t neglect the endnotes. Read the whole thing, from frontispiece to endpapers.

Reading the expanded endnotes in a Tim Keller book is like watching the director’s cut of a film — you see everything the director wanted you to see before the movie got trimmed to the attention span of a popular audience.

In his excellent new book due out in about a month, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, Keller shows the importance of the beatific vision for the Christian life, a profound reality, which leads to profound understanding of the role of the gospel in sanctification, and to a profound understanding of the business of prayer.

Of course if you read only the main body of the book you’ll find great lines like:

“… unless you learn how to behold the glory of Christ, you are not actually living a truly Christian life.”

And:

“To behold the glory of Jesus means that we begin to find Christ beautiful for who he is in himself.”

And:

“If we don’t behold the glory of God in the face of Christ then something else will rule our lives.”

These are key insights. But he explains the robust theological foundation behind these statements . . . in the endnotes. Take gem #291, buried somewhere around page 311:

291. In her important article [“Beholding the Glory”], Suzanne McDonald points out that John Owen’s emphasis on the beatific vision put him somewhat at odds with other Protestants in his day. Most of his colleagues saw the vision as too otherworldly and too “Catholic.” Only Francis Turretin, Reformed Protestant theologian in Geneva and Owen’s contemporary, gave it attention. Thomas Aquinas and Turretin, however, both thought of the vision as basically one of intellectual apprehension of God in general, with Jesus as a kind of conduit for it (see McDonald, 151–54). Owen accepted the idea of the beatific vision but then “reformed” it along what he considered less speculative and more biblical lines, putting it into a Protestant and Reformed theological framework.

Rather than understand it as some generic apprehension of the infinity of God, he understood it as centering on the person and work of Christ. Christ was not a mere vehicle for the vision; he was its central object. Indeed, Owen argued, even in the future it would be in Christ’s glorified human nature that we would continually see God. Instead of a completely future, intellectual experience, then, Owen described the beatific vision as something that could happen in part by faith now, and would affect the whole person through its impact on the heart. Owen made the apparently esoteric concept of the beatific vision into a practical basis for prayer and experience right now. Because we can be shaped by the foretaste of the beatific vision, it can profoundly shape how we actually live day by day in the world.

Owen looked at the 2 Corinthians texts and noticed the unusual nature of the verb “behold as in a mirror.” In 1 John 3:2, we are told that the vision of Christ is future, but in 2 Corinthians 3:18, we are told that we can see and contemplate the glory of Christ now. The Greek verb katoptrizdomenoi is a compound word, meaning “to gaze at an image reflected in a mirror.” This makes sense of the two texts. When we look in a mirror, we are not seeing the object itself; we are seeing a two-dimensional reflection of a three-dimensional object. We can “see” Christ now, though only by faith.

What does it mean to behold Jesus by faith? “For Owen, the mirror through which we behold Christ’s glory is the gospel. We do not have unmediated access to Christ’s person in his ascended glory; we behold the glory of Christ, in his divinity and humanity, through the mirror of the Scriptures” (Ibid., 149. Owen also makes this case in Works, vol. 1, p. 305. “We have ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in his face alone.’ . . . This is the principal fundamental mystery and truth of the Gospel.” Cf. chapter 2 in Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ, 293–309. Owen also makes the same point throughout his work The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded).

So it is when the gospel of Christ’s salvation is preached and explained that the glory of Jesus’ person and work is unveiled. It is as we meditate especially on gospel truths as they are set forth in the Bible that, with the Spirit’s help, the truth begins to shine, the love of God becomes palpable, and the glory of Christ dazzles, moves, melts, and transforms us.

This reading of the 2 Corinthians passages has good support by commentators today (see Paul Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 206). “What will be Paul’s torch to shine the glory of that light into the hearts of others? It is ‘the gospel,’ the word of God,” by which the “knowledge of God” lights up the hearts of Paul’s hearers (2 Cor 4:11, 6; cf. Gal 1:16). Paradoxically, therefore, Paul’s readers see the glory of Christ as they hear the gospel, which in turn gives the knowledge of God” (206). See Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians.

“‘The glory of the Lord’ is God’s glory as it is revealed in his image, Christ. If we must identify the ‘mirror’ in which God’s glory is seen, it is more likely to be Christ as present in the gospel, the essence of which is Christ, or the gospel along with the Christian life as lived in the Spirit, than gospel ministers or Christians in general” (315).

So, Owen concludes, our “sight” of Christ is only by faith through the gospel, and partial. In the future, we will see him face-to-face (1 Cor 13:12).

See what I mean. If you plan on reading Prayer (why wouldn’t you?), don’t skip the endnotes.


This excerpt is reprinted by arrangement with Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Timothy Keller, 2014. Transcribed from an unfinished draft by clumsy fingers.

And Yet I Pray On

A letter from John Newton to a friend, on prayer (August 15, 1776):

I sometimes think that the prayers of believers afford a stronger proof of a depraved nature than even the profaneness of those who know not the Lord. How strange is it, that when I have the fullest convictions that prayer is not only my duty — not only necessary as the appointed means of receiving these supplies, without which I can do nothing, but likewise the greatest honor and privilege to which I can be admitted in the present life — I should still find myself so unwilling to engage in it.

However, I think it is not prayer itself that I am weary of, but such prayers as mine. How can it be accounted prayer, when the heart is so little affected — when it is polluted with such a mixture of vile and vain imaginations — when I hardly know what I say myself — but I feel my mind collected one minute, the next, my thoughts are gone to the ends of the earth.

If what I express with my lips were written down, and the thoughts which at the same time are passing through my heart were likewise written between the lines, the whole taken together would be such an absurd and incoherent jumble — such a medley of inconsistency, that it might pass for the ravings of a lunatic.

When he points out to me the wildness of this jargon, and asks, is this a prayer fit to be presented to the holy heart-searching God? I am at a loss what to answer, till it is given to me to recollect that I am not under the law, but under grace — that my hope is to be placed, not in my own prayers, but in the righteousness and intercession of Jesus. The poorer and viler I am in myself, so much the more is the power and riches of his grace magnified in my behalf.

Therefore I must, and, the Lord being my helper, I will pray on, and admire his condescension and love, that he can and does take notice of such a creature — for the event shows, that those prayers which are even displeasing to myself, partial as I am in my own case, are acceptable to him, how else should they be answered?

And that I am still permitted to come to a throne of grace — still supported in my walk and in my work, and that mine enemies have not yet prevailed against me, and triumphed over me, affords a full proof that the Lord has heard and has accepted my poor prayers — yea, it is possible, that those very prayers of ours of which we are most ashamed, are the most pleasing to the Lord, and for that reason, because we are ashamed of them. When we are favored with what we call enlargement, we come away tolerably satisfied with ourselves, and think we have done well.

O, to pray like Luther

As recounted by Charles Spurgeon in sermon #108:

Oh! to have heard Luther pray!

Luther, you know, when Melancthon was dying, went to his death-bed, and said, “Melancthon, you shall not die!”

“Oh,” said Melancthon, “I must die! It is a world of toil and trouble.”

“Melancthon,” said he, “I have need of thee, and God’s cause has need of thee, and as my name is Luther, thou shalt not die!”

The physician said he would.

Well, down went Luther on his knees, and began to tug at death. Old death struggled mightily for Melancthon, and he had got him well nigh on his shoulders.

“Drop him,” said Luther, “drop him, I want him.”

“Ho,” said death, “he is my prey, I will take him!”

“Down with him,” said Luther, “down with him, death, or I will wrestle with thee!”

And he seemed to take hold of the grim monster, and hurl him to the ground, and he came off victorious, like Orpheus with his wife, up from the very shades of death. He had delivered Melancthon from death by prayer!

“Oh,” say you, “that is an extraordinary case.” No, beloved, not one-half so extraordinary as you dream. I have men and women here who have done the same in other cases; that have asked a thing of God, and have had it; that have been to the throne, and showed a promise, and said they would not come away without its fulfillment, and have come back from God’s throne conquerors of the Almighty; for prayer moves the arm that moves the world.

Chasing Butterflies in the Presence of the King

The following excerpt humbles me. It’s taken from a letter written by John Newton on how a believer, who readily affirms the majesty of God’s character, can so often fail to act upon this knowledge in the prayer closet. The most obvious evidence is in how easily our minds wander off to chase after vain thoughts that so easily distract our attention from prayer (source: The Works of John Newton, 1:246–247):

We know how we are often affected when in the presence of a fellow-worm; if he is one on whom we depend, or who is considerably our superior in life, how careful we are to compose our behavior, and to avoid whatever might be deemed improper or offensive!

Is it not strange that those who have taken their ideas of the divine majesty, holiness and purity, from the Scriptures, and are not wholly insensible of their inexpressible obligations to regulate all they say or do by his precepts, should upon many occasions be betrayed into improprieties of behavior from which the presence of a nobleman, or prince, would have effectually restrained them, yea, sometimes perhaps even the presence of a child?

Even in the exercise of prayer, by which we profess to draw near the Lord, the consideration that his eye is upon us has little power to engage our attention, or prevent our thoughts from wandering like the fool’s eye, to the ends of the earth.

What should we think of a person, who, being admitted into the king’s presence, upon business of the greatest importance, should break off in the midst of his address, to pursue a butterfly? Could such an instance of weakness be met with, it would be but a faint emblem of the inconsistencies which they who are acquainted with their own hearts, can often charge themselves with in prayer.

Looking in the wrong end of the funnel

In her Washington Post column today, “Does God play favorites?” (5/9, A17), Kathleen Parker argues that Christian prayers are no more special than the prayers of say a Hindu or a Muslim because “new brain research supports the likelihood that one man’s prayer is as good as any other’s.” To back this up she introduces NPR reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty and her book Fingerprints of God a book that shows neurologically that “whether one is a Sikh, a Catholic nun, a Buddhist monk or a Sufi Muslim, the brain reacts to focused prayer and meditation much in the same way. The same parts light up and the same parts go dark during deep meditation.” I don’t doubt it. But she makes a fundamental mistake.

A drunk man blabbing in the street and a man filled with the Spirit of God and speaking the gospel in a foreign language apparently have some similarities to an observer. But they are doing very different things (Acts 2:5–13). Similarly, an act in the bedroom that is borne out of sinful lust between an unmarried couple as compared to the same act in the bedroom that originates from marital love and faithfulness are two radically different acts, even if they are physically indistinguishable. The physical appearance of the act often does not distinguish the sinfulness or the holiness of the act itself. This is what C.S. Lewis called “transposition,” when higher and more complex elements of the spirit world are acted out in a less complex material world they often don’t look particularly unique to the human eye. Or, as Lewis explained, when you take a book that was written in a very complex language and translate that book into a much more simplified language you must (out of necessity) give certain words multiple meanings. The same is true spiritually. The prayers that are pleasing to God—those prayers that are mediated by the blood of Jesus Christ and are reinterpreted and amplified by the voice of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 10:19–22, Rom. 8:26) are prayers that may in fact look exactly the same in a neurological scan as all other prayers and meditations that are not sanctified by the blood of Christ and not prayed through the Spirit.

To understand spiritual complexities we don’t study the simplified translation, we study the original book. In seeking to understand the spiritual world we must look down from heaven to earth rather than from earth up into the heavens. This is only possible through God’s revelation. God’s word is the only source that will help us make spiritual sense of physical acts that appear to be similar. And this is why brain activity can never determine the spiritual value of one’s prayers and meditation. It’s to attempt to understand spirituality by looking in the wrong end of the funnel.

For more on transposition see Lewis’ marvelous essay in The Weight of Glory (pages 91–115).

Holy Sonnet XIV

Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

—John Donne, The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne (The Modern Library, 1952) p. 252.

“The sonnet does not build toward union with God, either bodily or spiritually. Instead, it builds toward personal regeneration. The demands to be taken, conquered, imprisoned, enthralled, and ravished are ultimately expressions of the fundamental desire that pulsates throughout these poems as a whole” [Ramie Targoff, John Donne: Body and Soul (University of Chicago, 2009) p. 123].