Timothy Keller, ON BIRTH. New York: Penguin Random House Books, 2020. 97pp.
Timothy J. Keller (1950- ) is a pastor, theologian and Christian Apologist. He is most well-known for having planted and pastored Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and his work with City-to-City, a ministry that helps to strategically plant churches in major population centers around the world. As a New York Times best-selling author, each of his published books comes with a high level of expectation from the reader. His newest three works (as of 2020) are: On Death, On Marriage, and On Birth. All three are rather small and are meant to be short helps for people during these three moments in their lives.
The reason for this set of small books is stated in the introduction: “Over forty-five years of ministry, my wife, Kathy, and I have seen that people are particularly open to exploring a relationship with God at times of major life transition” (pg. xii). These three areas: marriage, death and birth, are certainly major life-transition points.
From the very first line of the book, the reader realizes that this work will deal with far more than physical birth. Tim and Kathy state: “the Christian faith teaches that every Christian should experience two births” (p. 1). Indeed, the book is structured around these two “births” with the first half emphasizing physical birth and the second half emphasizing spiritual new birth.
A brief consideration is given to the factors that have lowered the birth rate in recent decades. First, the emphasis on personal autonomy and self-realization has caused individuals to wait until much later in life to marry, if at all, and to postpone or decline to have children at all (p. 9). Children form the “last binding obligation” in a culture that despises binding obligations (p. 10). Another reason is that modern parent’s pour more time, energy, money and resources into raising children than ever before – feeling the need to find just the right food, schools, nannies etc. (p. 11).
The topic of baptism is then considered. This section contains one of the most helpful and succinct descriptions of baptism one might find. Additionally, the material works equally well whether you think a child should be baptized or dedicated in a church context. This aspect of the book is helpful as Christians are divided on the issue. The set of baptismal promises, to be used during a child’s baptism/dedication, are excellent and thought-provoking (pp. 17-19). The issues of the heart are then considered and especially the sharp contrast between the values of the world and the values of God for children.
Instilling morality in children, value systems, and proper Christian community are all considered. Only then is a fuller picture of the requirements of the second birth given more complete treatment. What do Christians mean by the “new birth” or being “born again”? The Kellers explore this question and give a helpful articulation of both what these ideas mean and for whom they were intended.
For the Christian parent, they desire both a healthy physical and spiritual child. This requires two unique births in the child’s life. Only when a person receives the new birth, will they be able to understand their true identity. Yet this identity is not automatically fully realized. The truths of the Gospel are instantly applied to a person in the new birth, but those truths and realities must then be worked out in the day to day life of the individual. The last third of the book deals with this reality.
In some ways, this book is a brief consideration of physical birth followed by spiritual birth and then finished by considering how the implications of that spiritual birth are working into the life of the individual. This structure allows the content of the book to speak to all people because the book is relevant whether or not the reader has ever or will ever have a physical child. Additionally, throughout the work, the emphasis is on eternity as evidenced in the phrase: “Born one, die once, born twice, die once” (p. 114). This truly is the choice for all parents and all human beings.
A quick read, this book is an ideal an initial guide for parents, a refresher for Christian parents, or as a resource to give out to any new parent.