Like many, my life and ministry has been profoundly impacted by Tim Keller. Having listened to hundreds of his sermons, numerous podcasts, and read most of his books, I am indebted to this choice servant of God. The Lord used him powerfully to impact a city and then through that ministry to impact our world through ministries like The Gospel Coalition.
Whenever I reflect on the influence Tim Keller had on my life, Philippians 1 invariably comes to mind, ‘I thank my God every time I remember you.’
I was first introduced to Tim Keller in 1995, when I read his first book, Ministries of Mercy. I had begun to pastor a small urban church in Canada’s third poorest community and was searching for reformed resources that spoke about caring for the marginalized. I devoured that book. Tim wrote theologically and practically about ways a church should care for the marginalized.
Whenever I reflect on the influence Tim Keller had on my life, invariably this verse comes to mind, ‘I thank my God every time I remember you.’
At the time, some of my colleagues thought caring for the poor, with this type of rigour, was part of a ‘liberal, social agenda’. Tim spoke of God’s heart for the poor and the responsibility of every church and believer to care for the poor around them.
Although both his statistical and cultural analysis were brilliant, he meticulously grounded his book in the Parable of the Good Samaritan while working through other texts, exegeting them to demonstrate God’s compassion for the poor as he applied the text to the church gathered as well as to every Christian. He grounded his arguments in historical, confessional Christianity.
Tim Keller could uniquely blend exegetical excellence, cultural analysis, and historical orthodoxy in a way I hadn’t encountered previously.
Having been raised in a reformed Baptist setting, I assumed my role would predominately be preoccupied with congregational care when I began my pastorate, but Tim Keller’s approach pushed me to first contemplate and then adopt a parish model of ministry. I searched for anything from Tim Keller.
Having a heart and passion for evangelism, I devoured Tim’s apologetic works over the years. Whether it was books he published, dialogues he participated in or podcasts he posted, his ability to engage our culture with the gospel was exceptional. God used him to teach us to think about ways we should share the gospel with our unsaved world.
I first met Tim Keller in 2008, at a conference in New York. Our staff travelled there on Saturday to attend a service at Redeemer before the conference started on Monday. We were warmly welcomed into a service that profoundly impacted my preaching. Tim was expositing Psalm 1 that morning. I remember God’s Spirit both convicting and encouraging me through the message. To no one’s surprise, he quoted from Tolkien. Then, near the end of the service, he said this, ‘Jesus became chaff on the cross for us, so we could become trees in the Kingdom of God.’
I audibly sighed ‘Ooohhhh.’ Our staff hushed my loud response in an otherwise tranquil and peaceful service. I’ll never forget that moment. As we walked through New York, I commented that that expression was what is missing from most of our messages. We know the Gospel is all through Scripture but forget to encourage our congregation with God’s glorious hope many weeks.
Like most of us, Tim not only understood, that the gospel theme is woven through Scripture, he additionally had a unique way of expressing it in his teaching and preaching. Later that week I spoke to Tim at the conference about the paper he presented. Over the years I had the privilege of speaking with him on various occasions.
In 2017, we were walking together after his plenary session at TGC Conference where he mentioned that many people comment that they want to be like him in their preaching and what they mean is they want to be able to quote from a wide range of sources. I said that although I understood his comment, that emulating that part of his preaching was rather easy. You need to read widely and recount some of what you’ve read.
I went on to say that I also tried to emulate his preaching. I told the story from 2008 when he was preaching from Psalm 1 and how it impacted me (thankfully he didn’t remember the loud ‘Ooohhhh’ that morning). I explained that I didn’t think quoting from a variety of sources was nearly as hard as digging deeply into the text and asking God’s Spirit to help you see the gospel in the text and then conveying that to your congregation.
He stopped, as we were walking, turned to me, smiled, and simply said, ‘You remember that.’ I replied, ‘I’ll never forget it Tim. The Lord used that moment to change the way I preached. I knew the gospel was woven through Scripture, but I didn’t always preach like that.’
He simply said, ‘That’s something I wish more young preachers understood from my preaching.’ And we continued to walk.
Thank you God for the gift Tim Keller was to us.