A "Gospel-Changed Soul": My Recollections of Tim Keller
The internationally-known Christian leader died on May 19, 2023.
I had to search through three email accounts to find it. I could have sworn I got the message maybe two years ago.
But our memories distort time. They smash events together or space them out. Contort them in ways that defy chronology. Especially when the memory concerns something that made a unique impression.
It hadn’t been two years. It had been four and a half.
In January of 2019 Tim Keller, who died on May 19, 2023, sent me a completely unexpected email. Months earlier I had sent him an advanced reader copy of my first book, The Color of Compromise. I had actually forgotten that I’d sent it to him.
But there was the email. Rev. Keller hadn’t even finished the book, but he wanted to share his thoughts about it.
It may be a bit early to tell you this—since I’ve only gotten part of the way through it, but I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate the volume…Your attitude is respectful and judicious—you don’t make sweeping statements you can’t back up. Yet you don’t spare people or use kid gloves either.
Keller was known as a person who read widely and copiously. I was honored that he would take the time to read my book, I’m sure he got so many sent to him, and take the time out to send me some comments.
He also added one more bit of pastoral encouragement in that short email.
“As I said I haven’t read it all, but I wanted you to know I’m glad you are starting to write and I want to encourage you.”
Keller wrote numerous books, was a New York Times bestselling author, and a master communicator. For a writer of his caliber to encourage me as a first-time author to keep writing came as a Divine confirmation of a calling.
Keller kept a busy schedule traveling and speaking so, like many others, I have thumbnail recollections of interactions with him.
I remember when he came to my seminary in Jackson, Mississippi for a series of lectures on preaching in November, 2014.
For a bunch of students at a Reformed seminary, you couldn’t get a bigger name in preaching than Tim Keller. We paid better attention to his lectures on how to sermonize than I think we did any of our other classes that semester.
I took notes on what Keller called “non-deliberate transparency.” In order to preach powerfully you had to embody the gospel as you preached it. You had to demonstrate a “gospel-changed soul” so that others wanted it too.
I think that’s what Keller did best. He displayed the non-deliberate transparency that can only be seen in a soul that has genuinely experienced the gracious love of Christ.
The 1, 2, 4, 3 Method
When I was a new preacher just starting to deliver sermons in front of real, live congregations, I scrambled for guidance.
Keller was known as one of the best preachers in the Reformed and evangelical branch of Christianity. His affect was not animated. He hardly ever raised his voice above a conversational volume. He presented as professorial and grandfatherly.
Yet his sermons always gripped the soul.
Part of Keller’s effectiveness as a communicator came from his 1, 2, 4, 3 method of preaching which he explained during his lectures on preaching at my seminary.
As I recall it, he advised preachers to structure their sermons thusly:
Point #1 - main explanation
Point #2 - main explanation
Point #4 - the gospel
Point #3 - application
Typically, preachers explain the application—what you must do—before the gospel—the good news that Jesus delivers.
In Keller’s preaching, he explained the gospel before he explained the application. The reason was simple. You do not obey in order to get grace, you obey because you have already received grace.
By putting the application after the presentation of the gospel and how Jesus has already succeeded where we have fallen short, our obedience is an overflow of the grace we’ve received, not a scheme to earn it through our actions.
My preaching has evolved over time due to experience and the influence of other preachers, but the lesson that obedience to God comes from grace and not as a way to gain it will always be with me.
There Were Two Sons
The most lasting change Keller’s words brought in my life were a more soulful understanding of the gospel of grace.
Keller’s exposition of the parable of the “prodigal son” (Luke 15:11-31) has brought me back to the heart of God many times.
We often highlight the son who demanded his inheritance from his father immediately. The son then goes off and recklessly spends his father’s fortune. He comes back to his father destitute and ashamed. But the father, while his son was “still a long way off,” was filled with compassion and ran to embrace his son, now returned.
But Keller puts the emphasis on the other son, the older brother. The older son complains, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends” (Luke 15:29).
The father reminds his child, “My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours” (Luke 15:31).
While Keller was certainly not the first preacher to point this out, his exposition of the prodigal sons taught me that there are two ways to leave God—either through disobedience or obedience (for the wrong reasons).
Here’s how Keller put it in his bestselling The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith
“Neither son loved the father for himself. They both were using the father for their own self-centered ends rather than loving, enjoying, and serving him for his own sake. This means that you can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently. It's a shocking message: Careful obedience to God's law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God.”
For someone like me who was locked into a rigid theological system with an expansive set of dos and don’ts, it was always tempting to evaluate my faith based on rule-keeping.
Keller reminded me that mere obedience does not have the power to save, only Jesus does.
To Speak or Not to Speak
I struggled to decide whether I should write publicly about my recollections of Tim Keller.
I imagine there are plenty of people for whom Tim Keller represents a type of evangelicalism that has been responsible for lots of church hurt and harmful theology.
In speaking candidly of my memories of Keller, I risk the arousing response of the people who were displeased with his teachings or actions. I’m sensitive to the real pain people may have experienced, and my intention is not minimize those instances or reopen any wounds.
For me, I wondered what the standard is.
When can we speak of our individual impressions of people whose work has affected so many? How can we talk about a life in the aggregate and not just isolated instances? In what ways can we point to a person’s witness and character even when there are areas of important differences?
Of course, there are some people whose egregious actions overshadow the rest of their life. It would be irresponsible to speak of these individuals without citing their public and notorious transgressions.
But our stories are our stories. No one has a right to silence them or force us to speak about them. In the end, the decision to share must come through an inner dialogue to determine what seems like the path of authenticity.
The authentic truth for me is that Tim Keller was a singularly influential voice from afar at a time in my life when I needed guidance about how to understand and communicate Christianity.
More significantly, when I faced the frequent temptation to earn my salvation by obeying an impossible set of rules, Keller pointed me to Jesus and the reality that the true center of our faith is not a principle but a person.
I think that deserves remembrance and sharing.
Life Is a Vapor
In that email, Pastor Tim inserted a parenthetical statement to explain why he was writing even though he was only partway through my book.
(My life is such that I need to tell you this now rather than let it slide and perhaps not get back to you.)
At the time I figured that Keller simply referred to the many demands on his time as an internationally-known Christian leader. I completely understood.
But maybe I didn’t.
Maybe Keller realized, in a much more eternal sense, that his life on this earth would soon conclude. Perhaps he referred both to his busy schedule and to the vaporous nature of life itself (James 4:14).
I’m glad Pastor Tim took the time to write me that message, and I’m glad he spent his time on earth teaching us to keep Christ at the center of the gospel and life.
Do you have any memories of Rev. Tim Keller? Feel free to share below.
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"But our stories are our stories. No one has a right to silence them or force us to speak about them. In the end, the decision to share must come through an inner dialogue to determine what seems like the path of authenticity." Your mention of stories and the significance of those words is understated. Thank you for sharing yours. I too have a story around the two sons, but I'll keep my comments short this time.
OMG Dr. Tisby! When Charles Stanley died I had this same internal struggle about sharing the impact he had on my Christian walk but I did. When I “woke up” I also stepped back from the reformed theology taught by R.C.Sproul but I still respect and love him for the intellectual teachings my brain understood. These pastors also modeled a great love for Jesus even though I outgrew their theologies. Both are part of my story and as you said it’s my story to tell. Thanks for sharing your heart.