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Tim Keller, ‘Theological Lion of His Time,’ Passes Away

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Historians often say it takes years to assess a president’s true impact and legacy, and that’s often true. Yet even hours after Tim Keller's death, it’s not too soon to declare him a theological lion of his time, a man whose words and teaching ministered to millions and whose efforts will long proceed him. 

The death today of beloved pastor, preacher, and teacher Dr. Timothy Keller at the age of 72 brings to mind the oft-quoted observation of his mentor and fellow pastor, Dr. David Martyn-Llyod Jones: 

Christians die well. 

“I think the way we go out of this world is very important, and this is my great desire now that I may perhaps be enabled to bear a greater testimony than ever before,” Dr. Jones once observed. “Death is not something to slip past. It should be victorious.” 

Tim Keller’s final offering as a pastor may have been as powerful as all his previous lessons combined. 

On Wednesday, Michael Keller, one of Tim and Kathy Keller’s three sons, shared his father’s recent prayer as he lay dying: 

“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 I’m ready to see Jesus. I can’t wait to see Jesus. Send me home.” 

By “home,” Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s founding pastor and bestselling author wasn’t referring to the family’s modest New York City apartment on Roosevelt Island, although that’s where he died. He was praying about the eternal city and the “Hope of Glory” that both he and Jones built their respective ministries around – and a destination that all believers should look forward to with great anticipation. 

Dr. Timothy Keller embraced the observation of another pastor of another era, Charles Spurgeon, who often noted his death day would be better than his birthday. Like Spurgeon, Keller died with Holy Spirit confidence. 

“If I may die as I have seen some of our church members die, I court the grand occasion,” said Spurgeon. “I would not wish to escape death by some by-road if I may sing as they sang.” 

When Dr. Keller announced his cancer diagnosis in 2021, he said, “It is endlessly comforting to have a God who is both infinitely more wise and more loving than I am. He has plenty of good reasons for everything He does and allows that I cannot know, and therein is my hope and strength.” 

Historians often say it takes years to assess a president’s true impact and legacy, and that’s often true. The perspective of time allows for a more thorough, objective, and less emotional evaluation of leadership. In the coming years, the full force and influence of Tim Keller’s ministry will be known. Yet even hours after his death, it’s not too soon to declare him a theological lion of his time, a man whose words and teaching ministered to millions and whose efforts will long proceed him. 

Keller’s body of work is beyond impressive: 31 books, over 1,500 sermons (all available at no charge), hundreds of articles, and several notable interviews and conference talks. He had many brilliant things to say and always found engaging ways to say it. He was famous for advocating for a “third way” – a habit that endeared him to many and frustrated some. 

But even more impressive than his words or sermons was his Christian witness. There was no scandal, no skeletons in the closet. Happily married to Kathy for 48 years, the couple had three sons. Before Tim pastored an urban church, he shepherded a rural one in Hopewell, Virginia, for eight years. He was a low-key, cerebral clergyman who chose his words carefully and who didn’t waste the words he chose. There was an intensity to him. It wasn’t borne of ego but an earnestness to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  

If there was any ambition, it was to point people to the Lord, not himself. He didn’t start writing and publishing books until the last few years of his pastoral ministry. And it should be noted he didn’t even want to be “the guy” to start Redeemer back in 1989. He tried to recruit two other pastors to do it, both of whom declined. Keller reluctantly gave up a comfortable teaching position at Westminster Theological Seminary to launch the fledgling New York City congregation. 

Neither fame nor fortune was of interest to Dr. Keller. When I met him for the first time back in 2012, I broached the idea of writing a biography on him. He dismissed it. “Feels like it should be an article, if anything,” he said to me.

I had the privilege of attending his final sermon as senior pastor of Redeemer back on June 25, 2017.  It was a lovely Sunday morning, and when Tim stepped forward to preach from the stage of the Ethical Culture Meeting House, a more than 100-year-old brick-and-limestone building adjacent to Central Park, nearly every seat was taken.

The first thing that struck me was how plain the auditorium and stage were that morning. No flowers and no fanfare. Just a music stand for Dr. Keller’s notes and a final 40-minute sermon that held everyone’s attention from beginning to end.

“If you believe in Jesus, fear not,” Dr. Keller concluded. “Hold on and look up. Grasp the Gospel.”

Reverend Dr. Timothy J. Keller not only encouraged us to do just that – but he showed us how it was done. 

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