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What about Tim Keller?

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In this undated photo, pastor and author Timothy Keller speaks at an engagement. Keller died Friday, May 19, 2023, at the age of 72. Photo by Rachel Martin/Redeemer City to City

(RNS) — “Tim Keller saved my faith.”

Those were the words of a lawyer who sheepishly approached me one night after a Bible study. He explained that although he had never met Tim Keller, he considered him something of a spiritual father figure. Even though he hadn’t even mentioned Tim in my talk that night and this man wasn’t typically expressive, he didn’t surprise me. From college students to retirees, from Baptists to Anglicans, from those raised in the church to adult converts, wherever I travel, I hear testimonials like this from people about how Tim Keller changed his life.

I can’t help but think of Tim every time I read St. Augustine who is reminded of his own spiritual father. Though he was still skeptical of Christianity and presenting himself as a 4th-century Milan sophisticate, Augustine was drawn to the church so he could hear what all the fuss about Ambrose’s preaching was about. In “Confessions” Augustine describes his encounter with his preaching:

Along with the language, which I admired, the subject, which was indifferent to me, also began to enter my mind. In fact, they couldn’t separate one from the other. And as I opened my heart to recognize how eloquently he was speaking, it occurred to me at the same time. . . how truly he was speaking. I first began to see that the points he made were defendable. . . . it now seemed to me that this faith could be maintained on reasonable grounds.

Through his sermons, Tim Keller did for millions what Ambrose did for Augustine. He opened the Bible and our hearts and gave us reason to believe.

What about Tim Keller?

Was it your remarkable recollection of important books and ideas? Or his ability to appeal to both the head and the heart? Or was it the depth of his biblical insights combined with his penetrating cultural analysis? Or his deep doctrinal convictions coupled with an ecumenical spirit and practical vision? Tim Keller was all of these things and more. But even so, these attributes are not enough to explain the mark that he left in the world. More is needed to explain what Tim Keller was all about.

When I first met Tim, I was a newly appointed seminary professor at a university whose public image didn’t exactly keep pace with Tim’s ministry focus. I mention this just to say that Tim would have had every reason to look the other way when I texted him out of the blue. To my surprise, he answered him.

After reading a draft of my book that I emailed him, he offered a generous endorsement. This was quite a gift for a young author I didn’t know. Later that year, his assistant scheduled me to visit so I could interview him for another project he was working on. As a Baptist who grew up in South Georgia, I admit that traveling to New York City to meet the man some called the “21st century CS Lewis” was a heady experience.

I remember nervously asking his assistant, “Should I reintroduce myself so he remembers who I am?” My worries were put to rest when Tim walked into the room and immediately wanted to talk about my work. It was absurd. But as I realized, that was Tim. He regularly cared for others and reached out when he saw ways he could help.

Timothy Keller in 2018. Courtesy photo

In recent weeks, I’ve heard numerous stories of Tim’s small acts of humble kindness, things he did when no one was looking. This from a man who could have easily fallen for his own celebrity, exerting his influence and fame to protect his own brand and play power games on him. Instead, Tim preferred to spend his time helping others and talking about Jesus.

That day in his office, I am embarrassed to remember that I was pressing him lightly on some arcane theological question. After a couple of friendly exchanges, he fired me. “I’m just a practitioner,” he said.

At that moment, I didn’t know what to think. Was this his humility? Or was she being annoying and this was her way of changing the subject? It could have been a bit of both. But then it occurred to me, as I interacted with him more, that he was saying something about his core identity.

Vocationally first of all, Tim was a pastor. He took advantage of all his crazy God-given gifts not to bolster his own ego or win an academic debate or build his own kingdom, but to care for others.

To understand what Tim Keller was all about, it is necessary to look beyond even his pastoral vocation. He needs to see and feel the message that consumed his life. As he used to say: “The gospel is that I am so sinful that Jesus had to die for me, but so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me. This leads to deep humility and deep trust at the same time. I can’t feel superior to anyone and yet I have nothing to prove to anyone.”

Tim believed this. This conviction led him to live with nothing to prove. He freed him to be the greatest preacher of our generation and a genuinely humble one. He gave him confidence and made him kind. In other words, the gospel made Tim Keller Tim Keller.

This brings me to a second scene from “Confessions.” Growing up in the backwaters of the Empire, Augustine arrived in Milan, which was something like the New York City of the Roman world, with inordinate ambitions and a restless heart. He went there to make a name for himself, but what he found was a pastor who preached sermons with the power to change his heart. But more than that, as Agustín recalls, he met a man who “received me like a father” and was “kind to me.”

Tim Keller has been a spiritual father to so many. He was kind to us. In an age when too many leaders build their own brand with limited appeals to their base and belligerent public criticism of others, Tim couldn’t have been more different. Perhaps this was because the gospel was the closest thing he had to a “mark.”

All of this is why the tributes and testimonials will keep coming for a long time to come, and why so many of us are mourning his death. However, as Tim said at the end of his life in this world: “There is no problem in me leaving, not in the least.”

If he were still with us, he would no doubt be calling us to trust the gospel that defined his life. Because it was the risen Christ who freed Tim Keller to live with such grace and die with such hope.

(Joshua Chatraw is the Billy Graham chair of evangelism and cultural engagement at Beeson Divinity School. Views expressed in this comment do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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