Five years into my ministry, a friend of mine told me he was going to do a series called “Encore,” in which he preached all his greatest hits from his first five years of ministry. I told him I might do the same, though my “Encore” would be to go back and preach a “Christian” version of several of the messages I had preached during those first five years. My early preaching was characterized by so much moralism and legalism. I believed the Gospel, and taught that we were saved by grace … but the emphasis of my preaching was on what we must do to keep ourselves close to God. We were saved by grace, but I preached as if we were kept by our works.
It was Tim Keller who taught me that the Gospel was not merely the diving board off of which we jump into the pool of Christianity, but the pool itself – that we grow as Christians not by going beyond the Gospel, but by going deeper into it.
I “stumbled” onto Pastor Tim’s ministry in 2006 when I listened to a set of three podcasts D.A. Carson had done on the Emerging Church. Dr. Carson talked about a savvy pastor in Manhattan who really understood how to engage 21st-century culture. His name was Tim Keller, and I had never heard of him. At the time, you could buy his sermons online for $1.50 each, and so for the next 10 years, I spent nearly my entire “library” budget listening to every single thing Tim Keller had ever said. I once joked with him that I had listened to him so much that I would copy what he said about a passage without ever having heard him teach on it: I was just so steeped in his thinking that I anticipated what he’d say before he said it.
It was Tim Keller who taught me that church multiplication was the primary mission of the church. “You can sum up the entire missional strategy of the apostle Paul in one sentence,” he always said, as, “Go to strategic cities around the world and plant churches.” It was Pastor Tim who birthed in me the vision that became the defining mission of The Summit Church of the last 10 years: planting 1,000 churches out of our church within a generation.
It was Tim Keller who taught me that the Gospel confronts the cultural idols of both the political left and right, and that no political platform fully represents the mission of the people of God. The Gospel confronts both the leaven of liberalism and the leaven of Pharisaism, giving us a third way that is full of both grace and truth – both more convicting and more encouraging than I could imagine. It was Pastor Tim who taught me that the primary calling of the church is not to be culture warriors winning arguments but missionaries winning hearts. He taught me what it meant to be charitable with those who disagree, to affirm whatever I could, to find common ground, and to show that the Gospel provides a better answer.
Hearing him preach always made me love Jesus more. In every message, there would come a point where he’d just get lost in wonder at who Jesus was. He made me yearn for Jesus, showing me that there was more – so much more – to experience in the love of Christ than what I had settled for.
The first time I met Tim Keller I asked if I could refer to him as my friend. He graciously smiled and said yes (as he asked me what my name was). Tim Keller was like that with everyone – a friend, mentor and spiritual father to an entire generation of pastors. Tim Keller may have been from the PCA, but there is no doubt in my mind that he has been the single largest contemporary influence on the missional, Gospel-centered, church-planting culture in the SBC. The face of Christianity in the West is different, and more Christ-like, because of Tim Keller.
I’m not sure how to process the death of a spiritual father. I find myself only asking, “How are we going to go on now without his direction, his wisdom, and his shepherding oversight?” I feel like Eracilus must have felt when he first replaced Augustine in his pulpit. Looking over to see the elderly Augustine now silently sitting in the congregation, Eracilus said, “The cricket chirps, the swan is silent.”
We lost a spiritual giant today, but there are tens of thousands of us whose ministries will never be the same because of his influence. Many of us will forever think differently about the Gospel, about church planting, and about redemptive engagement with culture … because of Tim Keller.
Michael Keller, Tim’s son, posted this in the hours just before his death: “All [of us] wanted more time, but we know he has very little at this point. In prayer, he said two nights ago, ‘I’m thankful for all the people who’ve prayed for me over the years. I’m thankful for my family, that loves me. I’m thankful for the time God has given me, but l’m ready to see Jesus. I can’t wait to see Jesus. Send me home.’”
Welcome home, Tim. What a reception I know you received as you heard those words for which you have for so long yearned, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into your rest.” You will be missed here. We know we haven’t really lost you, though. We’ve just lost contact with you for a short while.
Thank you, Tim. For everything. I’ll see you soon.