My Tribute to a Giant
Celebrating the Legacy of Timothy Keller (1950-2023)
Pastor Chris Lenhart | June 1, 2023
The trajectory of my life and ministry has been largely influenced by innumerable names and faces over the years. Some are personal mentors, professors, teachers, and community leaders. Others have been authors, speakers, or ministry professionals. Pastor/Author/Leader Tim Keller has been one such significant influence. I was introduced to the writings of Timothy Keller early in my undergraduate studies where I found a kindred spirit in his style, approach, and priorities in both writing and communicating. He too, was raised in a rural Pennsylvania community, eventually following the calling of God to plant and shepherd what became one of the largest churches in Manhattan, New York. Pastor Keller and I shared a love and passion for the care of God’s people, engaging communication of God’s word, the importance and priority of marriage, and the promise of the city.
Jeremiah 29:7 ‘Work to see that the city where I sent you as exiles enjoys peace and prosperity. Pray to the Lord for it. For as it prospers you will prosper.’
When a pastor becomes a prolific author, they are often faced with a significant dilemma. The pastorate, by nature, is a position that requires availability, adaptability, creativity, determination, and perseverance. an author, in mastering their profession, must also display a high quotient of these same or similar qualities. This makes it difficult for one to maintain an influential presence in both spaces. So often, the one who is tremendously gifted in both is left to make a difficult choice. Remain in the pastorate, while sacrificing one’s writing abilities and contributions, or lay aside their primary pastoral functions to pursue a greater contribution in the world of writing? A difficult choice for the one who enjoys and is gifted in both spaces.
Pastor Keller never seemed to waver in a significant and influential commitment to both his pastoral office, and his contributions as an author. Rather, it seemed over the course of his life and ministry, that one informed the other and vice versa. What initially drew me to the writings of Pastor Keller was the spirit and humility with which he wrote. He was philosophically sophisticated with a whimsical and winsome wit. Keller had an inquisitive way of provoking curiosity while drawing his readers into a subject, then holding onto that subject until he squeezed or teased out every tension or nuance within the matter. He also wrote with a consistent rhythm that guided his readers towards Jesus and the gospel.
When speaking on the power of the gospel, Keller saw its power progressing through two movements: “It first says, ‘I am more sinful and flawed than I ever dared believe,’ but then quickly follows with, ‘I am more accepted and loved than I ever dared to hope.’ The former outflanks antinomianism [lawlessness], while the latter staves off legalism. One of the greatest challenges is to be vigilant in both directions at once.” He quipped, “only grace brings spiritual transformation.”
One outcome of grace’s transformative work is the growth of the Church. Tim believed that a wholistically biblical view of the gospel demanded that the Church grasp and grapple with what he called the “inside-out (substitutionary atonement), upside-down (kingdom/incarnation), and forward-back (kingdom/restoration)” aspects of the gospel. Keller purported that churches who were committed to cultivating all aspects of the gospel’s implications would bear the greatest fruit for Kingdom purposes.
Keller endorsed the purposefulness of Christian thought and life, both individually and collectively when he posited, then answered the question, “What is it that Jesus establishes for the Christian?” In his answer he explored in greater depth that which I have bullet-pointed below.
- A meaning in life that suffering can’t take away but can even deepen.
- A satisfaction that isn’t based on circumstances.
- A freedom that doesn’t reduce community and relationships to thin transactions.
- An identity that isn’t fragile or based on our performance or the exclusion of others.
- A way both to deal with guilt and to forgive others without residual bitterness or shame.
- A basis for seeking justice that does not turn us into oppressors ourselves.
- A way to face not only the future, but death itself with poise and peace.
- An explanation for the senses of transcendent beauty and love we often experience.
Earlier this year, I enjoyed reading Keller’s biography, Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation. Written by Collin Hansen, a regular contributor to the Gospel Coalition, the book gave insight to several of Pastor Keller’s early influences including Elizabeth Eliot, Barbara Boyd, his wife Kathy, C.S. Lewis, F.F. Bruce, R.C. Sproul, John Perkins, Edmund Clowney, and Richard Lovelace, among others. Included below are several highlights and contributions from his lifetime in Christian ministry.
Some of Pastor Tim Keller’s Career Highlights
- Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, NY from 1989-2017
- By God’s grace grew Redeemer from 50 to a regular attendance of around 5,000.
- Founder of Hope for New York
- Co-Founder of The Gospel Coalition
- Founded Gospel in Life publications.
- Editor of the original Table Talk magazine publications.
- Author of dozens of books including…
The Prodigal God
The Meaning of Marriage (co-authored with wife, Kathy)
The Reason for God
Center Church (Highly recommend!)
How to Reach the West Again
- Several influential sermon series over the years including...
Practical Grace: How the Gospel transforms Character
Acts: The Gospel in the City
These series along with many others can still be found for free online.
- Regularly a visiting lecturer at Reformed Theological Seminary in NYC
One of Pastor Tim’s most significant contributions, in my opinion, was his willingness and courage to stand upon fully formed biblical convictions, even when they pushed against the comfortable idols of American Christianity. Speaking of the two party American political system, Keller stated, “For Christians just to completely hook up with one party or another is really idolatry. It’s also reducing the gospel to a political agenda.” He continued by identifying one of the greatest obstacles threatening the flourishing of the American Evangelical Church: “To be honest, I think the ‘woke’ evangelicals are just much more influenced by MSNBC and liberal Twitter. The conservative Christians are much more influenced by Fox News and their particular loops. And they’re [both] living in those things eight to 10 hours a day. They go to church once a week, and they’re just not immersed in the kind of biblical theological study that would nuance that stuff.” These comments among others are examples demonstrating Keller’s willingness to speak with clarity and courage regarding our propensity to get tangled up in both cultural and political idolatry and captivity.
Dr. Tim Keller’s last words were, “There is no downside for me leaving, not in the slightest.” He died from complications stemming from pancreatic cancer on May, 19th 2023 at the age of 72, leaving behind his wife Kathy and three sons, Michael, Jonathan, and David. His influence on American Christianity and the Church will be remembered, heard, and felt for years to come. For me, he was a giant in faith, a part of a great cloud of witnesses.
Noted as his favorite verse…Leviticus 3:16 Then the priest must offer them up in smoke on the altar as a food gift for a soothing aroma—all the fat belongs to the Lord.
As we reflect on its depth of meaning, parallel the passage to Romans 12:1-2, and ask the question, what does it look like to live as a broken and poured out fragrant offering before our Lord?
Photo credit: Frank Licorice, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>