What was it about Tim Keller?

Before anything else vocationally, Tim was a pastor.

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 evening after Bible study. He explained that while he had never met Tim Keller, he considered him a kind of spiritual father figure. Even though I hadn’t even mentioned Tim in my talk that night and this man was not typically expressive, I wasn’t surprised. From college students to retirees, from Baptists to Anglicans, from those who’ve grown up in church to adult converts, wherever I travel, I hear testimonies like this from people about how Tim Keller changed their life.

I can’t help but think about Tim every time I read Saint Augustine reminisce about his own spiritual father. While still skeptical of Christianity and fashioning himself as a sophisticate of fourth-century Milan, Augustine was drawn to church so he could hear what all the fuss over Ambrose’s preaching was about. In “Confessions” Augustine describes his encounter with his preaching:

Together with the language, which I admired, the subject matter also, to which I was indifferent, began to enter into my mind. Indeed I could not separate the one from the other. And as I opened my heart in order to recognize how eloquently he was speaking it occurred to me at the same time . . . how truly he was speaking. First I began to see that the points which he made were capable of being defended. . . . it now appeared 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 reasons to believe.

What was it about Tim Keller?

Was it his remarkable recall of important books and ideas? Or his ability to appeal both to 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 alongside an ecumenical spirit and practical insight? Tim Keller was all these things and more. But still, these attributes are not enough to explain the fingerprint he left on the world. More is needed to explain what it was about Tim Keller.

When I first met Tim, I was a freshly minted seminary professor at a university whose public image wasn’t exactly marching in step with Tim’s approach to ministry. I mention this only to say Tim would have had every reason to look the other way when I sent him a message out of the blue. To my surprise, he responded.

After reading a draft of my book that I emailed him, he offered a generous endorsement. This was quite the gift to a young author he didn’t know. Later that year, his assistant scheduled a time for me to visit him so I could interview him for another project I 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 were calling the “C. S. Lewis of the 21st century” was a heady experience.

I can remember asking his assistant nervously, “Should I reintroduce myself so that he remembers who I am?” My concerns were allayed when Tim walked into the room and immediately wanted to talk about my work. It was absurd. But as I came to find out, that was Tim. He regularly took an interest in others and reached out when he saw ways he could help.

Timothy Keller in 2018. Courtesy photo

Timothy Keller in 2018. Courtesy photo

Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard numerous stories of Tim’s little acts of humble kindness, things he did when no one was looking. This from a man who could have easily become enamored with his own celebrity, wielding his influence and fame to protect his own brand and play power games. Instead, Tim preferred to spend his time helping others and talking about Jesus.

On that day in his office, I am embarrassed to recall that I was pressing him slightly about some arcane theological question. After a couple of friendly exchanges, he waved me off. “I’m just a practitioner,” he said.

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

Before anything else vocationally, Tim was a pastor. He harnessed all his insane God-given gifts not to bolster his own ego nor to win an academic debate nor to build his own kingdom, but to care for others.

To understand what it was about Tim Keller, you need to look beyond even just his pastoral calling. You need to see and feel the message that consumed his life. As he would often say: “The gospel is that I am so sinful that Jesus had to die for me, yet so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me. This leads to deep humility and deep confidence 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 without anything to prove. It freed him to both be the greatest preacher of our generation and genuinely humble. It gave him confidence and made him kind. In other words, the gospel made Tim Keller into Tim Keller.

This brings me to a second scene from “Confessions.” Having grown up in the backwaters of the Empire, Augustine arrived in Milan, which was something like the New York City of the Roman world, with oversized 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 Augustine 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 a day when too many leaders build their own brand with narrow appeals to their base and pugnacious public critiques of others, Tim couldn’t have been more different. Maybe this was because the gospel was the closest thing he had to a “brand.”

All of this is why the tributes and testimonies will keep pouring in for a long time — and why so many of us are mourning his death. Yet, as Tim said at the end of his life in this world, “There is no downside for me leaving, not in the slightest.”

If he were still with us, he’d no doubt be calling us to trust in the gospel that defined his life. For it was the resurrected 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. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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