Why did God give us Tim Keller? News of his death overnight has opened up a veritable floodgate of love, grief and joy, gratitude and reflection. And all of that across the evangelical spectrum. Not a day goes by on social media in which evangelicals do not pile into each other, the theologies of the other, the abuses, the misconceptions etc, and all in the most hot-head and ill-advised ways.
But not with Tim. Not with Tim. There was something unique about him, about his character and his ministry, that drew so many together. I’m not one to check social media at 3am (ok, I am!), but I checked at 3am this morning because I wanted to know if Tim had gone. And there it was.
My friend, and the Chairman of City to City Australia, for whom I work, has the habit of posting the name of a recently deceased person on his Facebook page. But only their name. It’s become a thing to watch out for. To grieve for. To be surprised by. Occasionally to be relieved by. Justin was a friend of Tim’s, having worked in New York in the early 2000s.
And there it was.
And I, along with so many others, felt that grief. Why can’t men like Tim live to be one hundred? Why is it the Mr Burns of The Simpsons fame who gets to do that? The Robert Mugabes? Why not Tim? It felt like he’d only begun that writing career that commenced so late in his ministry, relatively speaking. A comment below Justin’s post asked this question: “Who will now speak with such wisdom, grace and quiet authority?” Yes indeed, who? The New York Times has an obituary to Tim Keller today! Not next week during a quiet news week. But today.
I never met Tim. We had some brief online interactions and he said some very kind words about my book and its impact on him. But apart from that, I watched from afar, and only started working for City To City as Tim’s health declined precipitously at the start of 2023. Why indeed I call him “Tim” and not “Keller” or even “Tim Keller” in this blog post I don’t know! Perhaps it’s the avuncular air he gave off.
So what was the reason for Tim? What was it that he brought to the work of the gospel in our day that was so distinct, so different and so desperately needed? In the rush of the moment, here are a few thoughts that are by no means ordered, and by no means exhaustive or fully-orbed.
The Gospel: Of course that’s the answer. But it is the answer. God raised up Tim to bring the gospel to bear on the lives, initially of a country town, then of the most culturally important capital city of the Western world. It was Paul preaching the gospel in Rome in some sense. Above all else Tim was a gospel proclaimer who, by God’s grace, built a gospel ministry in a city that that same The New York Times obituary called “the heart of Sodom.”
The City: And that last sentence is instructive. And slightly inaccurate. Tim didn’t see New York as Sodom. He saw it as Ninevah. He saw it as a city that was completely savvy about the political and cultural Left and Right, but which was filled with people who did not know their right hand from their left. He saw God’s heart for that city and he had that same heart. He wanted to see repentance and salvation come to Ninevah, even as so many sullen and moralistic Jonahs sat in the ministry outskirts glowering at it, and awaiting its destruction.
The Cities: But of course not just that great city. But all cities. Hence the movement that I work for, City To City. While so many evangelicals had fled the cultural and political centres of the West, driven off by the anti-Christian heat and rising house prices for the relative safety of the suburbs, not Tim. It was instructive to read in Collin Hansen’s now very timely biography of Tim, that he and Kathy remained in the same apartment (two apartments merged into one) that they had first occupied when they arrived. Keller was embedded in the city. And his public ministry announced that cities were super important to how God would spread the gospel out into the surrounds. As goes the city so goes the culture.
Gospel/Grace Renewal: Reflecting his Puritan and Revivalist leanings Tim yearned for gospel renewal. First in his own heart and then in the hearts of others. And for Tim that didn’t just mean, as mentioned above, the proclamation of the gospel message and its acceptance, but a wider renewal that impacted social justice, the corporate world in those city skyscrapers, the home life, the political discourse. There would be no part of the person or the city that would not be touched by the Holy Spirit’s renewing work. As has often been mentioned, Tim’s prayer life deepened over the years as he reflected on his own stuttering steps forward into renewal. But that is true of us all, and Tim’s ministry and commitment to gospel renewal has rubbed off on so many.
Preaching: The preaching! How could I go past the preaching? I have listened to so many of those sermons online again and again. I will miss his deep, resonant baritone. It’s safe to say that no preacher has so influenced my own preaching as much as Tim. I have yet to find someone else who has been able to get to the deep nuances of the text in such a way that it drives to the heart of my psychology, my soul, my bones. There was the deep and mature thought process that he brought to the text. He fully embodied the Puritan confidence that “The Lord hath yet more light and truth to spring forth from his Holy Word.” It was a light and truth perfectly fitted for our anxious, psychological modernist age, but was so far from the felt-needs, seeker-sensitive, Robert Schuller-esque bon-mots of many of his Boomer contemporaries. He planted an orthodox, theologically Reformed church in the middle of a city given over to hedonism. And in his preaching he captured the essence of their anxieties and longings and, yes, their sins. Tim’s preaching always began by asking the question that your non-Christian friends would be asking. Or pointing out. And that’s why people brought their non-Christian friends! Tim’s exegetical sophistication was such that he could point out in the text what we may not have seen, but never in such a way that was overblown or patently “not there”. Has anyone ever preached Jonah the same after hearing Tim preach it? Or the Prodigal Son(s)?
Jesus: Its sad to say that so much preaching today seems to view Jesus as an optional extra, or as the by-product of some other agenda. But for Tim Jesus was the centre, the climax, the culmination. You may well remember his famous sermon, part of which has been turned into a YouTube video with graphics, that asked the question “What Is the Bible Really About?” Turns out, it’s all about Jesus. And Tim revelled in that truth and our hearts were warmed in an Emmaus road way, as he opened up how the Bible all points to Jesus. On this side of that sermon so much of that now seems obvious. But that’s the genius of his preaching – only on this side of it.
The Culture: Tim was not a culture warrior. And perhaps, as Collin Hansen reveals in his book, he wasn’t a warrior. He liked to be liked, and he saw that as a weak spot in his own armour. But it’s also a strength. His stance towards the culture was one in which he was realistic about its deficiencies and its hostility towards the gospel, but he never exhibited the same hostility back toward it, even whilst chastening it. Tim could see where the culture was headed, get out there on horseback and head it off at the pass in a gentle cultural ambush. He knew its questions and concerns instinctively because, of course, there’s no such thing as “the culture” outside of ourselves. We are part of it and Tim knew it. He knew he was as susceptible to its allure and lures as other New Yorkers were. That made Tim kind towards people who disagreed with him or were hostile towards the Christian perspective on sex or Jesus’ exclusive claims. Tim was able to exhibit a grace towards the culture, to be interested in it, and to quote it liberally, not because he had a sermon to prepare, but because he genuinely loved literature, and the arts in general. The New York Times obit quotes another interview with him in The Atlantic:
“What we need is a non-oppressive moral absolute. We need moral absolutes that don’t turn the bearers of those moral absolutes into oppressors themselves.”
Work: Next week I’m teaching at an urban church’s weekend away in Melbourne. The topic is work. Tim’s teaching on work – by work I mean labour outside the four walls of the church – has liberated hundreds of thousands of workers. Many in the past have felt that evangelical churches view their work as an impediment to ministry, or simply as a tool to provide money for “the real work” of the gospel. Tim changed that. I can tell you now, minister, if you don’t speak about the work-a-day world of your people, if you don’t affirm that it’s a good and proper thing to do, and that it is God’s gracious way of creating order in his world, then they will silently resent you. I’ve seen it. But not just paid work. There was something about Tim’s ministry and the words he said (in books such as Every Good Endeavour), that gave weight and worth to unpaid labour in the home. And all of that springing from a city in which a stay-at-home mum is invisible at best in terms of cultural worth, and scorned at worst for giving up her dreams to look after “mouth-breathers” or whatever the latest slur is for children.
A Literary and Theological Compendium: As Collin Hansen notes, Tim was not an original thinker. Tim didn’t think he was either. He was under no pretences. His great strength was bringing so many people to the thinkers who were. He compiled and compressed their thinking, making it accessible to many who may have only skimmed their works. And his range was wide – from theologians of the stature of St Augustine and Jonathan Edwards, through to his beloved Oxford/Cambridge heroes CS Lewis, and JRR Tolkien. From dusty London preachers such as Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, to church historian and spiritual-renewal advocate, Richard Lovelace. And who can forget his sermons replete with commentary around the work of Dorothy Sayers, Flannery O’Connor or David Foster Wallace of “This is Water” fame? How many of us have dipped into these writers – or shamelessly quoted the sections Tim quoted, in our sermons and essays and conversations? Or am I alone in this regard?
His Books: Have you ever read a book of Tim’s without hearing his mellifluous tones reading it inside your head? There is something so accessible and so pastoral about his books. And he only started writing later in his career. Which, to my mind, seems so wise. It feels like they arrived fully-orbed, locked and loaded – filled with the wisdom of his years. And they are, primarily, the end-result of many of his sermon series and his public lectures. And they sold – still sell – by the truckload. For me, Tim’s books would be the types I could give to inquirers without blushing. And one of the reasons for that, as with his preaching, is that he made no assumptions about the non-Christian mindset. He did not think for one moment that they ought to think in Christian categories if they were not Christian. While his books assumed a Christian framework, he had the skill to write in an accessible manner for those who did not hold it.
A Pastor: What strikes us in listening to Tim is how often he referred to Hopewell, Virginia, the town in which he cut his pastoral teeth. There in that blue collar setting, Tim learned the hard, heavy and hope-filled art of pastoring the sheep in anticipation of the return of the Chief Shepherd. His veins coursed with pastoral blood. Why could he effectively and lovingly pastor a great city like New York in the wake of the grievous events of September 11? Here’s why: Because he had effectively and lovingly pastored a “no-name” town for so many years with that same pastoral heart, as they experienced their own personal “Twin Towers” moments as life collapsed around them. Without a deep pastoral heart to see God’s people realise their calling in Christ, and to see Christ as the balm for all their ills, all of Tim’s ministry would be remembered as a purely intellectual exercise. He sat with the dying, the divorcing, the despairing like any “small g” good shepherd should.
A Husband and a Father: All of the above would mean nothing at all if he were a jerk to his sons and unfaithful to his wife. Does that much need to be said? Clearly it does, in the light of the recent scandals afflicting the evangelical church. Scandals that, of course, took place in other times, but which are amplified through social media at a time when the church is so often in the cultural crosshairs. Tim’s wife, Kathy, seems such a tour-de-force and intellectual giant in her own right. She is the centre of so much of his thinking, and his sermons. He praises her in them constantly, and one gets the impression he was in awe of her moral and psychological fortitude. They were, as you find out reading Collin Hansen’s book (which merely confirms what Tim himself constantly said), a truly equal gospel partnership. I remember reading that when he had his diagnosis confirmed, that he and Kathy grieved the loss already. The loss of partner, the loss of physicality with each other. For Tim, I am sure, his death was not for him to mourn for himself – he knew he would be with Jesus – but for those he left behind.
Well better people will say wiser and more insightful things than I. And I will spend the rest of the day on Facebook and social media reading what people do say (well maybe not the whole day). But Tim’s legacy will be long. I wonder where the next Tim Keller type will spring from. We don’t get them very often. And it feels harsh that he died at 72, when his mental faculties were still so strong. I felt that there were a few books still in there. Evangelicalism, fraught as it is with scandal and uncertainty in so many places in the West, needs God to raise up more of his ilk.
Yet, in light of that, let me leave the last word to Tim, from an interview with The Atlantic recently in which he was discussing the fact that the USA is indeed ready for another revival, another work of God’s gracious renewal. These are words I have been quoting often in my talks around the country, encouraging God’s people to keep going and wait for God to do his work:
There was no such thing as monasticism—through which pagan Northern Europe was turned Christian—until there was. There was no Reformation until there was. There was no revival that turned Methodists and Baptists into culturally dominant forces in the midwestern and south-eastern United States—until there was.
Christianity, like its founder, does not go from strength to strength but from death to resurrection.
And so too will Tim. So too will Tim.