A Pastor Who Helped Grandma Understand the Gospel Better: A Tribute to Timothy Keller
I am originally from a small town in Southern India. On the other hand, Tim Keller is from New York. I am not famous by any stretch of the imagination. On the other hand, Tim Keller is a world-renowned pastor/scholar. I was pastoring a rural congregation. On the other hand, Tim Keller was the Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. We certainly had nothing in common apart from the fact that we worshipped the same Saviour. But how I thank the Lord that he taught me invaluable lessons through this dear man of God.
A few years ago, I was grappling with some preaching-related questions. I was thinking about how I am supposed to distil the exegetical commentaries I was reading and apply them to my congregation. I knew that the gap between my preaching and the congregant in the pew was ever widening. While I was musing on my theologically-nuanced understandings, the uneducated grandma in my congregation had no clue what I was talking about. I wanted to make sure that the congregation understands the concepts I was teaching, but I felt like I was going nowhere.
Keller is probably most fondly remembered as an engaging communicator. When it came to preaching and communicating, Keller emphasized that arbitrary concepts must be connected with sensory experiences.1 Otherwise, we will do injustice to our audience. So, he taught and exemplified that while communicating the truth, we are not only to focus on the text and exegesis but to think about using illustrations and word pictures to bring the text to life. As much as the mind needs to be activated, the heart needs to be thrilled. What is the point of our preaching if the uneducated grandma still needs help to grasp the doctrine of the justification of faith after a lengthy sermon? It becomes a pointless exercise. This is an area Keller worked hard at, and an area for many of us to grow in.
Keller also helped me in my efforts of evangelism. I once bumped into a video where Tim Keller was talking about “counterfeit gods”.2 In the talk, in which he was addressing students at Cambridge University, he spoke winsomely to a sceptical crowd about how the idols of the hearts would crush them. Keller pointed out that using the 10 Commandments to convict people of their sins was not the only valid evangelism strategy. He suggested that we need to ask people if they believe in idols. Of course, for a hedonistic, materialistic, and pragmatic New Yorker, believing in idols sounds like “absolute nonsense.” But Keller went on to prove that the more people tried to push the idea away out of their minds, the more they proved his point. He taught that if someone is looking for ultimate satisfaction or joy from an idol, they are expecting it from the wrong thing. He says, “Idols cannot satisfy your deepest longings and cannot bear the freight of your soul.”3 Expecting something incredible from an idol can crush your soul. He then challenges that your career, your children, your spouse, your romantic relationship, etc can be your idol. If you expect forgiveness and affirmation from idols, they will eat you up.
As I was listening to this address, I thought, “I live in a nation full of idols but I never thought about idols this way.” And so very gladly, I began incorporating the ‘do-you-believe-in-idols?’ strategy in my evangelism with people who didn’t think they were into idolatry.
Along with being a winsome speaker, Keller was also a compelling writer. And a book which has been very helpful for me is The Prodigal God. A friend of mine gave it to me when I visited him, but for a long time, I did not touch the book. Dust happily settled on it. One day, I happened to pick it up and began to read it. It was a jaw-dropping moment when I discovered that I had never thought about what he wrote about. While explaining Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, He explains with force and thoughtfulness that “elder brothers” need repentance as much as “the younger ones” do. If the younger brother is lost in his debauchery, the elder one is in his niceness. If the younger needs to repent of his disobedience, the elder one needs to repent of his submission. I had never thought that you need to repent of your obedience as much as of your disobedience! If the younger brother broke his father’s heart by running away from him, the elder did it by being near to him. In a country where drunkards and prostitutes are shamed publicly and engineers and doctors are respected invariably, I understood the relevance of the gospel message more clearly. As much as a drunkard needs the gospel, so does the engineer, the doctor, and the IT professional. As I read Keller’s insights in the book, my respect for him grew leaps and bounds.
I also thank God for Keller’s contribution to my married life. There was a time when I was struggling to love my wife, let alone counsel someone in their marriage. I remembered that another friend of mine gave me Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage. After reading the book, one thing that stuck in my head ( It is absolute gold). Keller described that after their family moved from Hopewell, Virginia to New York to plant a church. He got extremely busy in the ministry and was spending less time with his family. His wife Kathy began to warn him several times but he would only throw a deaf ear. One day, as he was chilling out under the sunshine on the balcony, he heard a smashing noise of the cutlery. He found out that his wife was smashing all the saucers with a hammer.4 She was communicating the message symbolically to Tim as he would not listen to her. At that time, he confessed that he began to tremble and knew he was addicted to productivity. He writes that that day has changed the way he looks at the ministry. It was encouraging to me that he would be vulnerable about his failings.5 And along with this, it was a much-needed reminder for me to invest in my relationship with my wife.
In a day and age when many pastors would take their theological machine guns and fire at anyone who criticizes them, Tim never criticized anyone. He never defended himself. He never wrote a book and called it a rebuttal.6 He never raised his voice against his critics. Perhaps, he was too quiet at times.7 But we can learn many lessons for our theological world that often turns toxic and gets entangled in unnecessary debates.
Although Keller is known for being an intellectual giant and a public speaker, he was also a man humbly devoted to God. In a conversation with Sinclair Ferguson, he said if he had any regret in his ministry, it was he did not pray enough, and that if he were to change anything, he would pray more.8 In fact, he said given the choice between preaching and praying, he would choose to pray.
I can go on writing about how he impacted me in my life and ministry in many more ways. I am grateful that God used him to impact my preaching, my evangelism, my understanding of the gospel, and my marriage. I think Keller would encourage us to spend time in prayer and to work hard at how we present the biblical message to our congregations. We do not have to mimic Tim Keller, but should trust the God whom Keller longed to see as we labour for the gospel.
May God help us to remain faithful to our Saviour in whatever calling He has called us to until we see Him face to face.
- Timothy Keller and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2016), 161.