Timothy Keller passed over to the other side last week. I’m sure that there are better placed people, who knew Dr. Keller much better than I did, who should be doing a tribute to him. But I want to leave some thoughts as one who did have an interesting position of interaction with him, first as a congregant of Redeemer Presbyterian Church during its very early days and later as the pastor for a decade of one of Redeemer’s first church plants, the Village Church in lower Manhattan.
My favorite memory was sparring with Tim after what we affectionately called, “the 4:00 service.” Yes, we actually had a church service at that strange hour in the Seventh Day Adventist church we rented on the upper west side. And one of Tim’s favorite things to do, which I went on to imitate as a pastor whenever I could, was conducting a Q&A after speaking where people could ask questions about the sermon. Tim, of course, was brilliant. But, he spoke in public so often that he was bound to say things at times which were indefensible. And when he did, I was there. One Sunday, I brashly challenged him and he walked back what he had said. I only realized many years later what an embarrassing experience that is as a preacher, and how hard it is to overcome the shame of possibly having publicly said something wrong in a sermon. I remember meeting him the following week going into the Q&A, and he asked cheerfully, “Ellery (I was called that at the time), are you ready to make me take back everything I said?” I heard in his triumphal tone how he had preached the gospel to himself during the week, to know that Christ accepted him whatever his performance. I never forgot that. Later, when he was counseling me about receiving criticism for a sermon (which, shock of shocks, even he got!), he gave me that advice of “preaching the gospel to myself.” I knew that he had lived that out his whole ministry.
For a while, after he got cancer the first time, Tim was convicted about needing to shepherd younger pastors and so he tried to meet regularly with me to help. Although not the original church planter, my church was really still a church plant and I did not know what I was doing. One time, I said to him, “You know, Tim, the best thing that you have given me is your example of humility.” He looked at me in disbelief and then bent over and shook his head. He honestly didn’t think that he was humble. I guess I am not in a position to judge if he was humble or not, but I can tell you, he was a lot more humble than I was. And I grew in humility from him.
There were the big things, of course. In his Culturalist Reformed apologetic, he took up the mantle of Abraham Kuyper and showed us the way to do Christian discourse with the culture. And his center-city church planting truly influenced the world. But I think that Tim Keller’s greatest legacy, ministry-wise, was the Christ-centered preaching which he forged from the work of Ed Clowney and Jack Miller, combined with his own style. Taking people to Christ in a sermon seems ubiquitous now, but it wasn’t when he started.
Some of his steps I might still question. I was disappointed with Tim’s recent endorsement in the area of gender, due chiefly, I think, to his lack of ministry to people in the area of same-sex attraction. But then, given his volume of writing and speaking, I don’t think that it should detract from his greatness. It is the world’s sadness that there is no longer a 4:00 service to ask him about it. It is not that he was always right (who is?), but that he was ever-faithful.
Tim Keller deserves recognition as one of the great gifts of Christ to His church (Eph 4:8-12).