Rev. Tim Keller’s death last Friday at the age of seventy-two made immediate headlines, and not just in the Christian world. A long retrospective in the New York Times was one of many tributes from secular outlets attesting to his cultural influence and legacy.
Keller was born on September 23, 1950, in Allentown, Pennsylvania; his father was a television advertising manager and his mother was a nurse. He embraced the church through the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) while attending Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. After masters and doctor of ministry degrees, he served with ICVF in Boston and as a pastor in rural Virginia while overseeing the development of new congregations for the Presbyterian Church.
In this role, he invited two pastors to plant a new Presbyterian church in New York City. When both turned him down, he and his wife Kathy felt God calling them to take on the challenge. They moved their three sons to New York in 1989. By 2007, Redeemer Presbyterian Church had grown to more than five thousand attendees and birthed more than a dozen daughter congregations in the immediate metropolitan area.
His dozens of books have been translated into more than twenty-five languages and sold an estimated twenty-five million copies. Redeemer founded Hope for New York to provide social services and the Center for Faith and Work to integrate Christian theology with professional experience. Redeemer City to City influences urban ministries around the world.
He also helped birth The Gospel Coalition, one of the most influential Christian networks in America. The newly-formed Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics will continue his work of helping Christians “share the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel as the only hope that fulfills our deepest longings.”
“A pioneer of the new urban Christians”
I was one of the legions who admired Dr. Keller’s intellectual brilliance and pastoral spirit. I met him occasionally and heard him speak in person several times in New York City.
I agree with Christianity Today’s assessment: “Fifty years from now, if evangelical Christians are widely known for their love of cities, their commitment to mercy and justice, and their love of their neighbors, Tim Keller will be remembered as a pioneer of the new urban Christians.”
However, my purpose today is not simply to add another eulogy to the many being written and shared after Dr. Keller’s homegoing. Nor is it to encourage us to emulate what cannot be emulated. Tim Keller was a generational mind called to a very unique cultural setting and moment.
We can learn much from his enduring wisdom, and we can draw inspiration from his commitment to serving Christ in one of the most challenging environments for biblical truth in America. But I believe there is another way you and I can benefit from Dr. Keller’s ministry as well, one that was brought into sharp relief for me by the passing on the same day of another cultural icon.
“Jim Brown leaves a highly flawed legacy”
Jim Brown was recently ranked the third-greatest player in the history of the National Football League. Over his nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns, he led the league in rushing eight times and carried his team to its last league title in 1964. He is often included with Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Jesse Owens, and others as among the greatest athletes in history.
However, when he died on the same day as Tim Keller, the Los Angeles Times headlined, “For all his accomplishments, NFL legend Jim Brown leaves a highly flawed legacy.” The article profiles his life after football as he acted in films and advocated for civil rights but also generated headlines for allegations of violence against several women.
Jim Brown is not the only celebrity whose personal failings are making news these days. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted sex offender, “discovered that Bill Gates had an affair with a Russian bridge player and later appeared to use his knowledge to threaten one of the world’s richest men.” A California high school’s “teacher of the year” was arrested for allegedly having sex with an underage male student.
And Carl Lentz, the former minister of Hillsong NYC and pastor of celebrities such as Justin and Hailey Bieber, is in the news as FX’s four-part docuseries, The Secrets of Hillsong, began airing over the weekend. In it, Lentz describes his affair with their children’s nanny, a scandal that rocked their church and made headlines beyond New York City.
“I can’t wait to see Jesus”
By contrast, Dr. Keller ended his earthly life as he lived it: with quiet dignity, deep and abiding faith, and generous compassion for those around him. From the time he was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in 2020, he was forthright about the challenges he faced and his desire to serve Christ in this season of his life.
He transparently described ways his diagnosis drew him closer to his Lord and his wife spiritually. He could even testify, “My wife and I would never want to go back to the kind of prayer life or spiritual life we had before the cancer.”
Pope St. John Paul II, who experienced his own terrible suffering at the end of his life, once wrote: “Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: ‘Follow me!’ Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world. . . . Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him.”
If we embrace our suffering as an opportunity to trust Christ with our pain and serve others in theirs, “the salvific meaning of suffering” will be revealed to us. We will testify with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). We will experience an intimacy with our Lord and our fellow sufferers unavailable to others.
And when our journey leads us from this world to the next, we can say what Tim Keller told his family before his homegoing: “I’m ready to see Jesus. I can’t wait to see Jesus. Send me home.”
The old hymn was right: “The way of the cross leads home.”
What cross is yours today?