I have decided to write a few words about the death of Timothy Keller, realising that many words will be composed over the coming days about Manhattan’s Pastor.
Few evangelical Christians have not been influenced by Tim Keller in some way over the past 30 years. While he preached for New Yorkers and planted churches for New York, his Gospel-centred teaching has impacted Christians all around the world, including Australia.
I first heard the name Tim Keller in June 2000 at the annual Evangelical Ministry Assembly in London. The topic of the conference was church planting, and the speakers included Dick Lucas, D.A Carson, John Chapman, Phillip Jensen, and Tim Keller. Yes, the theological spiritual meal those days surpassed the menu at Eleven Madison Park. Keller’s preaching didn’t contain the charisma and firepower that was present among some figures on the platform, but over the years I began to increasingly appreciate and understand the hows and whys of his teaching ministry, and to learn from him.
I’ve only met Tim Keller once, and it was a conversation on a sidewalk in midtown Manhattan; it was brief and unassuming. Over the years I have read some although not all of his books. Making Sense of God may well pass the test of generations like CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Another book, The Prodigal God has remained with me, helping shape my own heart before God and the manner in which I am seeking to learn to write and teach. I am forever grateful for the ways Keller has helped me think and write, not through the prism of left or right, progressive or conservative, the legalist or the antinomian, but in that better space filled with God’s truth and grace, his righteousness and his love. Indeed, I haven’t needed to read every Keller book and listen to every Keller sermon to understand his theological heartbeat because he was all about Jesus and helping people to see and grasp and believe the greatest story the world can know: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By digging deeper into the treasure of God’s good news helps us see the key to Keller’s mission and ministry.
Many will be mourning his death today, and understandably so. The world will see few Tim Keller’s in a generation. But then again, and going back to his heartbeat, what motivated Keller and what his ministry oozed with, was the same beautiful and powerful Gospel that is at work in the lives of all who trust in Christ. His unique and influential ministry is extraordinarily ordinary in that once, and that is what made it worthwhile.
I am also grateful for the way Tim Keller helped uncover and encouraged a new generation writer by the name of Christopher Watkin. While I’ve had the joy of knowing Chris for 9 years and been deeply impacted by his thinking, few knew the name until Tim Keller read Chris’ book, Thinking Through Creation. Last year, Chris Watkin’s, Biblical Critical theory was published. Tim wrote the Forward and in it he explained how he had waited for years for someone to come along and write this book. Time will tell, but Biblical Critical Theory is already considered to be one of the most important books written this century. Thank you Tim Keller for encouraging Chris and in Christian service helping the world find more Christian truth to be read and grow and benefit.
The reason for writing this short reflection about Tim Keller is less about talking about Tim Keller but to offer a corollary point. Because you see, my mum is currently in palliative care and we don’t expect her to live out the day. She has been unwell for a very long time and the last 4 months have been particularly difficult for her and my dad. We have been called into the hospital numerous times over the last few weeks, as staff expected her to pass any moment. As I write, my mum is still alive although her final hours are coming to an end. But you see, my mum trusts and believes the same Jesus as Tim Keller. Her hope isn’t in her own righteousness but knowing that Jesus died and was raised from the dead. And that makes all the difference. It really does.
My mum never wrote any books and will certainly not receive an obituary in the New York Times, but like Keller and a billion people around the globe today, she is known by God. That fact is both the great leveller and elevator.
The Apostle Paul famously wrote,
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!”
The Christian cannot lose.
Our age of self-realisation isn’t producing great volumes of satisfaction, hope and life. We are more frail and fearful than ever. Among both the great and the small, the known and the little known, there really is concrete hope that frees us to live well today and be certain about eternity
Tim Keller’s son, Michael, shared on social media yesterday that his dad say, “I’m ready to see Jesus. I can’t wait to see Jesus. Send me home.”
I know my mum is thinking those very words as well, and I pray that others too might not just find some vague solace in the comforting words, but the living hope that is for all who come to the Lord Jesus.