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Tim Keller (1950-2023)

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I’m quite sure you’ve heard by now that Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author Tim Keller succumbed to pancreatic cancer this past week. He is the second influential Christian thinker to die from this horrid disease this year. Earlier in 2023 Michael Heiser passed away from the same form of cancer.

I didn’t know Tim well, but I do have fond recollections from a couple of encounters with him. Of course, he was one of the founders, together with Don Carson, of the Gospel Coalition, and served on its Council until his death. As a fellow Council member, I had occasion over the years to observe his leadership, humility, and profound insights into the Christian faith and its interface with culture.

My first exposure to Tim came in the early 2000’s. My sister and her husband, together with my wife and me, took our mother to New York City to celebrate her 80th birthday. Of the many things on our agenda, attending church where Tim preached was high on the list. It was quite an experience.

The auditorium was packed with young, no doubt highly-educated professionals, representing a variety of ethnicities. I’ve often reflected on what it must be like to connect well in preaching with people of Manhattan. Tim was perhaps one of a kind in this regard.

The music was highly professional, consisting of a string quartet. There was nothing snobbish about it, as I found it to be a breath of fresh air when compared to the typical worship bands in much of evangelicalism. The sermon was solid and entirely orthodox.

The second time I encountered Tim was when I was asked to join the Council of the Gospel Coalition. Tim was welcoming and encouraging at every meeting I attended. One in particular stands out. There were probably 50 of us in the room when we were encouraged to break up into groups of 3 or 4 for prayer. John Piper was sitting next to me and Tim was in the row in front of us. For the next 20 minutes or so I had the privilege of praying with these two men. It was a 20-minute experience I will never forget.

My third encounter with Tim occurred at the close of one of our Council meetings. I shared an Uber with Tim to the airport and we had a lively conversation. This was the time when Tim had come under vicious and utterly unjustified attack from certain so-called internet discernment ministries (although I hesitate to give them credit for “ministering” to anyone). I said, with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek, “Well, Tim, how does it feel to be a liberal, cultural Marxist?” A huge smile came to his face and he roared in laughter.

What surprised me most was his reluctance even to engage his critics. He knew the absurdity of their charges and refused to dignify their accusations with an answer. In a blog post posted late last week, Alan Jacobs, my former colleague at Wheaton College, said it best: “The criticism he received – almost all of it irrational and misinformed – slightly bemused him but otherwise left him unaffected; he had more important things to think about than his own reputation.”

This isn’t to say that I agreed with everything Tim believed, but I don’t know of anyone with whom I totally agree. In fact, I find myself in disagreement with myself on occasion!

Michael Kruger speaks well for me when he wrote this concerning Tim: “For these reasons, I continued to be baffled by people who regard Tim as “progressive” or even “liberal.” How can a man who believes in inerrancy, affirms the Westminster Confession of Faith, is a complementarian, and holds the line on sexual ethics, be considered liberal? I think such language says less about Tim and more about the polarized state of modern evangelicalism.”

If you are not a Christian and wonder how Tim could have faced death with such courage and confidence, the answer comes from the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:6-9 where he assures us that for those who are in Chris by faith, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

I wish I had known Tim better than I did. He was only 4 ½ months older than me, which has served to awaken me once again to both the brevity and value of life and the inevitability of death. He will be greatly missed, but his devotion to Christ and his family, together with the plethora of excellent books he wrote and sermons he preached will continue to exert a much-needed influence on the church of Jesus Christ.

“And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’” (Rev. 14:13).

3 Comments

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about and experiences with our dear brother. Like you, he has greatly influenced my understanding of Jesus and enriched my walk with Him. Both Keller's legacy and yours will continue to point me and so many others to our Great Shepherd who will faithfully guide us home to that glorious "city whose designer and builder is God." (Heb. 11:10) Thank you!
Brother Sam, thank you so much for your words. I am Brazilian. I follow your writings and they have blessed me profoundly. Tim Keller has enriched the Brazilian church, so will you. One of his books has already been translated into our language. Thanks for your life!
Thank you for these kind and thoughtful words. I live just ten miles from Bucknell University where Tim attended as an undergraduate. I am just a year older than Tim was when he died and I understand well your thoughts on the value and brevity of life, especially just becoming a first time grandparent at my age. I was blessed by Tim's writings and life. My daughter has been blessed by Tim's ministry as well. I have been blessed by you writings too. Thank you Sam for your love and service to Jesus. May he continue to uphold you in the days ahead.

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