This past weekend, Pastor Tim Keller was called home to heaven after a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer.
The 72-year-old pastor, who planted and led the influential Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the heart of New York City, was known for his calm, respectful defense of classical Christianity through his sermons and more than thirty books. (This past Lent, Bridgeway read Keller’s Jesus The King, an engaging study of the gospel of Mark. Our speaking team has also used his masterful Preaching: Communicating The Faith In An Age Of Skepticism in its training.)
As I’ve reflected the past couple of days on how the Lord used Pastor Tim to shape my own work as a disciple and pastor, three themes stood out:
His Love For God’s Word And The Gospel
He never wavered in his conviction that building one’s life on Scripture (properly understood and taught) and the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, met all the needs and challenges presented by modern life.
In his book Preaching, he stressed the superiority of “expository” sermons (where the speaker teaches the entire text of a passage, and not simply skips around to the parts he or she likes). To Keller, the expository sermon affirms the authority of the whole Bible, it teaches people how to read the Bible for themselves, it lets God set the agenda for the church, and helps resist the pressure to conform the church’s message to what culture dictates is truth.
Keller was also insistent that every message point to Christ and the gospel. Since Jesus is the focal point of all of Scripture and the source of all our hope, he brought every sermon round to Christ so that every listener would catch at least a glimpse of their need for grace. “Any sermon that tells listeners only how they should live without giving them the gospel gives them the impression that they might be able to pull themselves together if they try harder,” said Keller.
His Love For The City
Keller began his ministry pastoring a small congregation in rural Virginia, before sensing God’s call to move his young family to New York City in 1989 and start a church built on the classic, historic doctrines of Christianity. It was a decision many friends and colleagues thought impossible to achieve, but twenty years later, Redeemer was a thriving church of more than 5,000 people, made up largely of urban, young professionals.
Back in 2014, my church in Connecticut went through Keller’s 8-part video series Gospel In Life where he explains his vision for transforming the city by creating alternate communities of people who are keeping their eyes on the heavenly city to come.
Keller said, “When Jesus came, he brought the power of the age to come into this world so we can experience it now in part. We are living between two ages. How can we live this way so that those around us would experience this age to come? Jesus said in Matthew 5 that we are to be a city on a hill. Jesus means we are to be an alternate city where our lives show forth the glories of the heavenly city. Currently the church is to model at least partially something of the age to come.”
Partially inspired by that vision, our church developed a “Random Acts Of Kindness” ministry, then took its empty parsonage and converted it into housing for our underserved community. Keller’s legacy lives on through his Redeemer City To City foundation, created several years ago to continue his work across the globe.
His Love – And Respect – For The Lost
Arguably, Keller’s greatest contribution to the contemporary church was his consistent refusal to argue with those he sought to bring to faith who disagreed with his message. When the apostle Paul writes: “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness,” (2 Tim.2:24-25), every phrase was embodied by Keller.
He was a pioneer in the art of apologetics (i.e. “defending the faith”). In the video series for his book The Reason For God, Keller brought in a panel of unbelievers and allowed any and every question to be asked, then took the time to respectfully dialogue with them, as he explained the beliefs of biblical Christianity.
In his obituary for Keller on May 19th, New York Times reporter Sam Roberts wrote of Keller’s defense of classic biblical sexual ethics from an earlier interview. It’s a perfect example of Keller’s usual tone.
He considered homosexuality to be inconsistent with scripture and premarital sex and abortion to be sins. “I am not going to pressure you to stop having sex out of marriage,” he told The New York Times in 1998. “The logic of your relationship with Christ should move you to do it.”
The answer is vintage-Keller, void of all anger, vitriol, name-calling, and disrespect, qualities that are often in short supply in many pockets of the wider church today. In keeping with this spirit, Keller was cautious and circumspect about a Christian’s political engagement. Again, Roberts:
Mr. Keller dissented from the widespread support that largely white evangelical Americans have shown for former President Donald J. Trump and his Republican allies. “For Christians just to completely hook up with one party or another is really idolatry,” he told The Atlantic.
Thankfully, Pastor Tim’s voice will live on through his writings. While perusing through an old bookstore a week or so ago on vacation, I found a book he wrote with his wife Kathy, The Meaning Of Marriage, and picked it up to read this summer. I encourage you to pick up a Keller classic this summer and do the same.
Bear Clifton is a pastor, writer and screenwriter. His blogs and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, and “A Sparrow Could Fall”, all available through Amazon.