“The hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you” (Philem. 7). That high praise cannot be given to all Christians, sadly. But it certainly can and should be said of Tim Keller. It’s what I want to say here, with personal gratitude.
Tim Keller was the publicly prominent voice for Christ in my generation who I trusted the most. When he spoke or wrote, I never had to brace myself for embarrassment. He rang true again and again, because he was true—true to Christ.
I first encountered Tim’s ministry back in the 1980s. While still on faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary, he taught at our summer training events for PCA church planters. Then his leadership as The Gospel Coalition was being formed and defined made TGC a positive rallying point for a wide range of conscientious Christians. His books then began appearing, pressing the implications of the gospel further, right where we needed new clarity. And his preaching as pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City set a new standard for persuasive faithfulness.
He rang true again and again, because he was true—true to Christ.
As I look back over these many years, three aspects of Tim’s ministry stand out in my mind.
1. Gospel Fullness
By “gospel fullness” I mean a principled sensitivity to the biblical gospel as the integrating center of everything that is truly Christian. I mean a reverence for the gospel as a total repositioning of each of us before God—and before everyone we meet every day at every level of human engagement. Gospel fullness is how we serve Christ in ways more consistent with who he actually is, so that he becomes more visible to the watching world. Gospel fullness renews our churches too, as we stop diminishing the gospel and we start allowing the gospel to exert its power in practical change.
In Center Church, under the heading “The gospel changes everything,” Tim explains:
The gospel is not just the ABCs but the A to Z of the Christian life. It is inaccurate to think the gospel is what saves non-Christians, and then Christians mature by trying hard to live according to biblical principles. It is more accurate to say that we are saved by believing the gospel, and then we are transformed in every part of our minds, hearts and lives by believing the gospel more and more deeply as life goes on.
This is how Tim changed my ministry about 20 years ago. Many significant voices have helped me along the way: my dad, J. I. Packer, John Stott, Francis Schaeffer, and others. But when I started listening to Tim preach the gospel as a total outlook, my piecemeal thinking gladly yielded to his grander vision. Familiar themes like the cross, grace, substitution, imputation, justification by faith alone—these truths and others finally converged on one focal point: the all-sufficiency of Christ for me, for everyone, in all our need. Yes, Tim was learned and articulate. But far more, he showed me a Christ bigger and better than I had been describing. And I was captivated.
Tim showed me a Christ bigger and better than I had been describing. And I was captivated.
I remember when it happened. It was on a road trip in July of 2000. I was pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia. My plan at the time was to start preaching through Romans when everyone was back in town after the summer. Before Jani and I took our own vacation, someone at church gave me a shoebox filled with cassette tapes of Tim’s preaching at Redeemer. So you can picture us driving from Georgia to Iowa and back, listening to Tim hour upon hour and discussing the sermons together.
What struck me was the sweeping relevance of his one central, repeated emphasis—the gospel itself. I’d been doing my best with what I knew. But here was a man declaring Christ in a way I needed and was ready for. My gospel renaissance began. And the journey through Romans back in Augusta became a turning point for our church as well.
I wonder how many other ministers in this generation could tell similar stories.
2. Authentic Revival
Initially, this emphasis in Tim’s ministry surprised me. One doesn’t typically associate careful theological thinking with openness to revival and awakening. But Tim was not typical. He was consistent. Since the gospel is about more than converting individuals but also about renewing the world with outpourings of refreshment from above (e.g., Acts 3:20), authentic revival deserves to be an essential concern. Tim knew that.
One of his seminary teachers, Richard Lovelace, influenced Tim toward sensitivity to spiritual renewal. Tim respected Lovelace’s classic book Dynamics of Spiritual Life, which is a primer for pastors who want to help their churches become revival-ready. Tim explained:
I took several courses with Richard Lovelace at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, including the first course “Dynamics of Spiritual Life” in the Fall of 1972 that eventually became Lovelace’s book. Along with that course I also took a course he did on Evangelical Awakenings—a history of revivals. To say that these courses were seminal to my thinking and way of doing ministry is a pretty big understatement. Anyone who knows my ministry and reads this book will say, “So that’s where Keller got all this stuff!”
Tim proved that the line of reasoning from the life-giving power of the gospel all the way through to its full capacities for the whole of human existence—that consistent way of thinking—leads to reverence for revival. And for me personally, nothing is more sacred.
3. Missional Wisdom
Tim was famous for his fair-minded, respectful public witness in our age of rancor. He knew how to “walk in wisdom toward outsiders” (Col. 4:5). He thought deeply about evangelism and discipleship. And by God’s grace, he was great at it. I wonder if his very reasonableness was why some people disliked Tim.
But I remember hearing his brilliant address here in Nashville years ago that eventually became his article “Post-Everythings.” He made the case that we don’t have to submerge our bold theological convictions in order to engage nontraditional people today. What we can do is take wiser advantage of our beliefs, with gentle awareness of the riches offered there for calling “post-everything” people to Christ. In his talk that day, Tim listed some of their concerns and how our own Reformed theology speaks with striking relevance.
We can take wiser advantage of our beliefs, with gentle awareness of the riches offered there for calling ‘post-everything’ people to Christ.
For example, the experiential orientation of people today finds a friend in Jonathan Edwards, who presents the gospel not only as true but also as real—the very experience of God. In addition, the distaste for smug moralism in our world resonates with Martin Luther, who disconnects self-righteousness from the gospel clearly and even defiantly. What’s more, our generation’s intense yearning for social justice is addressed by Herman Ridderbos and other Reformed thinkers who emphasize the kingdom of God. And the love of art in our time has an advocate in Abraham Kuyper, who argues for Christianity as a total worldview, so that anyone can follow the call of Christ throughout the whole of life and culture.
Tim’s point was unarguable. Why muffle our theology in an effort to win a hearing, when our theology itself offers compelling insights into the burning issues of the day—if we will be humble and wise about it? There is missional wisdom awaiting us in our theology. Tim taught me that. I’m not as persuasive as Tim was. But I’m better than I would have been without him.
Tim Keller is the first of the Christian giants of my generation whom we have lost. This is sobering. How much time do you and I have left for serving the cause of Christ? However long or short it might be for me, I know this: the statement my life makes will be truer to Christ because he gave me the privilege of being influenced by Tim Keller.
Tim, I thank God for you.