Remembering Tim Keller
I have been spending a lot of time this past week processing the passing of one of my heroes, Tim Keller. I've been listening to every podcast interview and reading every reflection I can get my hands on. For those who aren't familiar with Keller, he was a long-time pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and a former professor at Westminster Theological Seminary. His longest pastorate was at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, which he planted in 1989. He was known for his preaching in a conversational professorial style that delved deep into the biblical text, was in tune with the questions of his culture, and never failed to point to the all-satisfying love of Jesus. He reached a wider audience through the publication of many bestselling books including The Reason for God, The Prodigal God, Counterfeit Gods, Generous Justice, The Meaning of Marriage (with his wife, Kathy Keller), Every Good Endeavor, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, Encounters with Jesus, Prayer, Making Sense of God, and Hope in Times of Fear.
I first heard of Tim Keller back when I was in high school. My best friend was involved in a PCA church where his dad was the assistant pastor. He briefly mentioned Tim Keller, surprised I hadn't heard of him. Keller's reputation had been growing over the years through his preaching and he had just released The Reason for God. Not long after, I was visiting my grandparents and saw copies of The Reason for God and Generous Justice on my grandpa's bookshelf. He let me borrow both copies. I read them quickly, starting with Generous Justice, a topic I was greatly interested in at the time. He rooted Christians' support for social justice in the Gospel of what Jesus had done for us and in rich biblical exegesis. This was so much richer than many of the other sources on this topic which boiled down to, "This is what God commands us to do and is what good Christians do." It was rooted in the Gospel. The Reason for God remains, for me, the most profound book I have read defending the truth and reasonableness of Christianity. When I became the High School/College Sunday school teacher at Fairfield Presbyterian Church, I taught through his book, Prayer which taught us that a rich prayer life arises from a rich relationship with Scripture. Prayer is how we speak and respond to God's Word to us.
I quickly found some of his sermons online for free. At the time, most of Keller's sermons needed to be purchased. The sampling of 200 hundred sermons I found online became my accompaniment on my commute to and from high school each day. Keller's preaching was like nothing I ever heard. In each sermon, he would work through the text of Scripture in such a way that I at first felt like I was listening to a lecture. I was regularly learning something about the biblical text. Yet at the same time, I found he was also opening up my questions and desires for meaning and purpose. By the end of the sermon, he opened up how the text pointed to Jesus in what often felt like a plot twist worthy of any sci-fi or fantasy novel. At the end of a sermon, I was rarely taking notes but was basking in the way only Jesus can satisfy my longings and questions. I had been a Christian for a long time, but I had never yearned for the truth of Christianity before listening to those sermons. The only pastor I ever heard come close was Jared Ayers at Liberti Center City and Main Line, which I attended in college and worked at during seminary.
I was assigned to reread portions of The Reason for God in both college and seminary. In seminary, I read Counterfeit Gods, Making Sense of God, Center Church, and Ministries of Mercy. I also had the pleasure of presenting on Preaching in a seminary course. Walking through the preaching method of my favorite preacher and answering questions from my fellow students is one of my favorite seminary memories. During my time in seminary, I worked at Liberti Center City and Main Line, a church plant in Philly in the Redeemer City to City church-planting network Keller started. So much of my sense of call to ministry was a yearning to help people discover the beauty of Christianity like Tim Keller had done for me. In so many ways, his public ministry occurred during important formative years for my faith. Even today, his last book, Forgive, sits on my desk, ready for me to interact with as I process the unforgiveness I still carry that impedes my current spiritual growth.
As I look at Tim Keller's role in influencing my life, two major lessons stand out.
The first is that every passage in the Bible is about Jesus. Christianity is not, fundamentally, a moral to be obeyed but a person to follow. As a result, no text of the Bible is merely an instruction or example of how to live but points to the grace and mercy of Jesus who alone saves us by His death and resurrection. A lot of Christianity I grew up with was primarily moral lessons focusing on the checklist of things good Christians do and don't do. I either felt proud I could accomplish that list or anxious I would fail at it. Tim Keller showed me the true hope for all of Christian life, not just salvation but also growth in our lives, which can only come from the death and resurrection of Jesus and we learn that from every passage of the Bible. He was fond of saying, "The Gospel is not just the ABCs of the Christian life, but the A-Z." By that, he meant, the Gospel isn't just how we get into Christianity and then we live it on our own, but the Gospel is how we live the entire Christian life. I remain strongly committed to that idea. If I am talking about Christianity and ever get frustrated, I'm usually reacting to what I perceive as moralism. If I am ever excited talking about Christianity, it is because we have gotten to Jesus as the heart of the matter.
The second lesson I learned is that the hope of Christianity is not merely going to Heaven, but the resurrection and the new creation. Jesus' victory is not merely to rescue us from this world but to save the world He made and loves. God cares for us, body and soul, and will save us, body and soul. N. T. Wright would deepen this idea for me and is who introduced it to Tim Keller, but Keller is who introduced it to me. My prayer this week has been that his family is comforted looking ahead to when Tim Keller will be whole again, body and soul, and that he, while he enjoys the very presence of the Savior that he preached, looks forward to the resurrection when he will fully, body and soul, live in Jesus' presence forever.
For anyone looking to learn from Tim Keller, I recommend starting his books with The Reason for God, and for his sermons, I recommend what I still consider his best sermon series, The Fellowship of Grace.
Heavenly Father, we thank you for your servant, Tim Keller, and the way he served you faithfully. We pray that the sermons he preached, the books he wrote, and the people he led to Christ would continue to bring people to faith in you and deepen our faith. For his family, we pray that you would comfort them in their grief. As they mourn the time now that they have lost, give them hope to look forward to when all time will be redeemed and they will stand alongside Tim to worship you forever. For Tim, even now, may he know your love more deeply. Prepare him for the day of his resurrection and give him wisdom in the meantime as he prays for us. Amen.