“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”
God uses people to shape people. The essence of ministry is truth through personality. Four men have left their fingerprints on my soul. They are A W Tozer, C S Lewis, Richard Lovelace, and Timothy Keller. The last of them died a few days ago.
How did this happen? It all began with a cassette tape, a message on Galatians, passed on from a friend, who knew I was wrestling with how to make Jesus the theme of every sermon. The preacher was Keller. Now for 25 years the voice and writings of Tom Keller has been in my wife’s and my ears and reading. The influence of his life and message came in other ways. I served in a Redeemer plant during a ministry transition year, giving me the opportunity to meet people who learned the Gospel way of life from Keller. In another call, in another city, I was part of a regular meeting of planters and pastors, led by a man who had served at Redeemer.
In obedience to Heb 13:7, I want to take a few minutes to name the specific ways God used Tim Keller to shape my very ordinary life and ministry.
From him I learned to see Christ as the main theme of Scripture.
In every sermon, from Proverbs to the life of Moses, Keller showed me the connection of the text to the person and work of Jesus. As one of his parishioners put it, every story whispers his name. I labored over many sermons until I came to the “Aha” moment of seeing Jesus. Only then I could relish and help my hearers relish Christ.
From him I learned that Christ in all that he is and does answers the deepest desire of our hearts.
Not only does every text whisper his name, but his name speaks to every psychological, emotional, relational, and vocational problem we have. Tim showed me that the deep idolatries of the soul are the real problem. He also showed me that Christ displaces the idols, fully fills the void, and changes the heart. His preaching repeatedly proclaimed Jesus as beautiful, desirable, and satisfying – a friend of the broken and contrite. He taught me that it was not the law but a glimpse of the Gospel that melts the heart.
From Tim I learned that the most secular people in our nation are deeply religions.
I had suspected this was the case. My suspicions were fueled by conversations and small group studies with “seekers” looking at Jesus. But it was Keller who showed me that ideology – as well as sexual liberation, the pursuit of power and fame and wealth – are all suppressed religion. He addressed the eternity God has planed in the human heart. He was skillful at probing the heart and its devices to look anywhere but Jesus. And after he had shown the emptiness of secular religion, he showed Christ who alone fills the void.
He taught me that one can be fruitfully engaged with the most secular of modern people – without anger, without irritation, with an edge of contempt.
My wife and I decided long ago that we did not want to relate to outsiders as statistics or sociological conclusions, but as individuals. We did so with fear and trembling. Would the Gospel connected to their lives? Dr Keller showed the way. He addressed every conceivable idea circulating in places like Manhattan – among the educated and sophisticated – and he did it fairly, with intelligence, and engaging the heart. He told us that the Defeater Beliefs on New York were common — and we found he was correct. What we most appreciated about him was his active relationships with the most secular of people (witness the tributes to him from all manner of persons who are not Christians) and his refusal to yield to the culture wars as the defining paradigm. Tim took stands, not on the external moral climate of the day, but on the real problems – the dark idolatries and disordered desires that fueled that morality (or its absence).
Tim showed me that the way God achieved our redemption is more than entrance to salvation; it changes everything.
The Gospel is not the ABC’s but the A to Z of the Christian life. He connected the Gospel to everything. One disciple of this Gospel saturated way of life once told me she was learning to preach the Gospel to herself while in traffic. This was the point: the whole story of the Gospel was radically unlike and higher than any secular categories. How I saw politics, elections, ideology, sexual liberation advocates, the poor, the use of money — everything in my life — was to be brought under the rule of the Gospel.
The ministry of Tim and Redeemer gave me hope.
What do I mean by that? First, he gave me hope for ministry that fully engages with non-believing, educated, and secular people. I am an intellectual, an Ivy league grad. God kept me and grew me in a place very unfriendly to the faith. In parish ministry, however, I encountered a fearfulness, a defensive posture that pursued safety from secularism. Most Christians lived in a Christian sub-culture. I had tasted the power of the Gospel in the midst of hostile territory. I yearned for examples which showed that the Gospel could be fruitful in that center of secular power and wealth. Keller and Redeemer showed me that being a Christian does not mean withdrawal into a Christian sub-culture. The Gospel is great enough to call us to the hard places and the hard issues with confidence and without anger.
Second, he gave me hope for ministry that is without gimmicks. I spent the early years of ministry during the surge of the seeker movement. Its advocates offered up all kinds of secrets to fruitful ministry – whether up to date music, or preaching that is more causal and addresses the felt needs of suburban Americans. All of that tasted like sawdust to me. I simply could not believe that the Spirit of God was unleashed by switching from organ to guitar.
As Colin Hansen has noted in his recent book on Keller, Keller had no model, and no tricks. He led a traditional worship service. He preached expository sermons and explained the great truths of the Reformed faith to irreligious people. Despite being in New York, he upheld what Christians have always believed about gender roles and sexuality. And I know of no mega church pastor who spoke so clearly about the role of his wife in his theological formation. He did so while, at the same time, honoring his wife Kathy and her immense influence on his theology and practice of ministry.
Yes, he was a great communicator. He brought cogency and clarity to the Gospel that was uncommon. His analogies were memorable. Insisting that the elder brother was as lost as the younger brother – that the Gospel is neither religion or irreligion — was disruptive and inviting at the same time. But it was God who worked through the Gospel and its clarity to call people to faith. God acted in sovereign freedom to bring hundreds to faith right in the heart of a world class city. The fruit was not because of Keller, but because God can use a faithful ministry of the Gospel.
Finally, from Tim I learned to retire.
I have friends who have been and are part of Redeemer. Tim was the center of its ministry, but he knew he was not its life — Jesus was and is. The measure of his understanding of the greatness of the Gospel was how he stepped out of the limelight, entrusted the church to God’s faithfulness, and moved into a new phase of ministry. That kind of humility is extraordinary. It is only possible in a man who was ravished by God’s love and deeply aware that Jesus alone is Savior of his people.