Remembering Tim Keller

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

I first heard the name Tim Keller in the spring of my senior year at UConn, 29 years ago. My friend Christie shared with me that her father had been attending a men’s Bible study where they were listening to sermons by Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. She knew that I was working as the youth pastor of NewLife, and thought I would enjoy his sermons. She gave me two tapes which contained four sermons on the final week of Jesus’ life. I was blown away by Keller’s ability to communicate God’s Word, and I began subscribing to their tape ministry. For the next few years, every couple of weeks I would receive a tape in the mail with the previous two week’s sermons. Eventually his sermons went online. Since that day in 1998, no one has come close to having the impact on my preaching and communicating that Tim Keller, who passed away last week of pancreatic cancer at the age of 72, did. Here are the top four ways Keller impacted my preaching:

1) All roads lead to the gospel – Before I had heard Keller preach, I was used to moralistic preaching and teaching: read a passage, talk about what it means, and focus on what it tells us about how to live like a Christian. The most popular preachers were the seeker-driven types, trying to connect the Bible to the felt needs of their hearers, preaching sermons on how to be good stewards of your money, or lower your anxiety, or have your best sex life ever. Keller preached on Bible passages, but it didn’t matter if he was preaching from Genesis or Revelation, he always showed how it pointed us to Jesus. It was clear listening to Keller that the gospel was not just for unbelievers but for believers. It was not only the entrance to salvation, but the power for the Christian life. He taught me that the more I grasped the gospel, the more everything else would fall into place, and the more I pointed my people to the gospel, the better off they would be.

2) The Bible is attractive enough – Before Keller, I was used to preaching that began with a story, something to grab the attention of the audience before they lost interest. Keller never played that game. He simply began his sermons by pointing out what series he was preaching through, what text they would be looking at that particular Sunday, and what his main points were going to be. Yet by the middle of the sermon, I was captivated. He saw no need to rely on oratory tricks to keep people’s attention. He preached God’s Word and let the Holy Spirit do His thing. Over the years, I have found that I emulate him in that regard, spending far less time trying to craft a catchy introduction, and far more time making sure I understand the text and how it relates to my church, trusting that God’s Word, preached faithfully and in the power of the Holy Spirit, is enough.

3) Make every word count – One thing that always struck me about Keller’s preaching was how every word seemed carefully chosen. He seemed to have deeply thought through every adjective, every verb, and every illustration he used. As tempting as it might be to just get up front and “trust the Holy Spirit to lead,” sometimes that approach masks a lack of willingness to work at crafting a sermon, trusting that the Holy Spirit is just as capable of leading a preacher during the preparation. Before I get up to preach, I try to write out every word I plan to say, editing it until I have removed the extraneous details that do not add to the message. And then I try to preach with clarity and precision, while always paying attention to the people to whom I am preaching and staying open to the leading of the Spirit.

4) Engage with respect and love – Keller was clearly a voracious reader, and filled his sermons with quotes and illustrations from not only Christian authors like C.S. Lewis and Jonathan Edwards, but also from contemporary journalists, philosophers, and authors who presented fascinating insights on current issues. He was always respectful, and strove to present opposing viewpoints in a way that would make his ideological opponents say, “I couldn’t have said it better myself.” He did not use the pulpit to rail against the evils of our day (although he never downplayed sin and evil), but taught his church to love the city in which they lived and to work for its good in the name of Jesus.
Although I never met Tim Keller, his imprint is all over my life, and by extension, your life. I am grateful to God for how He used Keller to point me to the gospel. If you want a taste of his teaching style and how he always pointed people to Jesus, he had begun in January 2023 a YouTube series entitled “Discovering the Gospel in Every Book of the Bible,” which you can access here.

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