Last Friday, May 19, pastor, theologian, and author Tim Keller passed away. The longtime pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and author of books such as The Reason for God was known for his thoughtful sermons, calm demeanor, and a ministry that extended beyond his own denomination and even his fellow Christians to the wider world of elite society.
It’s rare, especially today, for someone to be called “a giant” by both a top theologian and a New York Times columnist. Rarer still will such a prominent figure be regularly described as unassuming, living out the exhortation of Rudyard Kipling to be someone who can “walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch.” It’s notable that even his critics, which he certainly had, have refrained from doubting his self-effacing grace and kindness for others.
Keller was in his forties before he showed up on the public’s radar. Oddly enough, he went to Manhattan after pastoring a small-town Virginia church for nine years. Success in the Big Apple was by no means a sure thing. A theologically conservative pastor setting up shop in the “Babylon” of downtown New York City had all the makings of a fish-out-of-water story where the well-meaning parson was doomed to failure even before he set out.
Keller took pains to know his audience, leveraging his own intellectual rigor into sermons for his highly educated hearers. He refused to talk down, much less shout down. Nor did he attempt to make the distinctives of the Christian faith more palatable. He took strong stands on the deity of Christ, the reliability of Scripture, the resurrection, the hopelessness of secularism, and the enduring relevance of Christian sexual ethics.
From an initial church plant of 15 people in 1989, Redeemer Presbyterian Church grew to a network of multiple congregations with thousands of people attending each week. In time, his influence extended to other pastors, who were inspired by his example and teaching, and set out to emulate in their own communities what Keller had done in New York. Keller was also instrumental in cross-denominational efforts, linking like-minded Christians to share their ideas and cooperate in endeavors to enhance the presence of the Church around the world. He was a co-founder of The Gospel Coalition, a broadly Reformed network that is among the most influential voices of contemporary evangelicalism, and a central figure in a Reformed resurgence among those who became known as the “Young, Restless, and Reformed.”
He was also an original signer of the Manhattan Declaration, a Christian statement on life, marriage, and religious liberty because, as he put it at the time, “these are biblical.” Keller communicated a confidence that believers could maintain the classical faith of Christianity without being ashamed when dealing with cynical neighbors. Christians could, he believed, meet the claims of the world face-to-face because the Bible offers an accurate and holistic explanation for reality and the human condition and grounds the hope for which people are truly searching. His sermons offered a robust biblical analysis, a keen awareness and understanding of culture, and allusions to art, history, Lewis, and Tolkien.
Ironically, his critics include progressive Princeton students and faculty, who couldn’t stomach the idea that he would be honored by their school, and conservative Christians, some of whom believed his winsomeness to be weakness, and others who, as I often did in recent years, disagreed with his posture about politics and political allegiance.
Even so, Keller was a remarkable gift to Christ’s Church at an incredibly important cultural moment. Even in disagreeing, he made us better by, as St. Paul put it, “set(ting) the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity,” and reminding us that, in the end, the resurrection secures our hope for today and for eternity. As he said on a podcast near the end of his life, in his trademark thoughtful and calm demeanor, “If Jesus Christ was actually raised from the dead, if He really got up… then everything is going to be all right.”
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Dr. Timothy D. Padgett. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.