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Tim Keller was an evangelical

The late pastor wrote and preached for people like Jonah

Tim Keller Rachel Martin/Redeemer City to City via Associated Press

Tim Keller was an evangelical
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The passing of Tim Keller is more than a personal grief for his family or an institutional sorrow for Redeemer Presbyterian Church or The Gospel Coalition. It’s a departure felt by thousands, perhaps millions, of Christians worldwide, and especially American evangelicals. Through his prolific preaching and speaking ministry, Keller reached multiple generations of evangelical believers. Most mainstream obituaries and notices will focus undoubtedly on Keller’s books, published by major houses and appearing on the New York Times bestseller lists. To most of the outside world, Keller was a Christian author. To the church—both local and global—he was first and foremost a pastor.

I never met him. I wish I had. It was only a few years ago that I started listening to his sermons regularly. The grandfatherly voice sweetened the insights into Scripture and my own heart, and had the paradoxical effect of making me feel totally exposed and yet relieved. I don’t think everyone has the same reaction to Keller’s style of preaching; I don’t think he ever wanted or expected them to. For me, however, the repeated emphasis on the gospel, the way human beings try to dig their own spiritual cisterns, and the complete hopelessness of ever progressing in holiness without grasping how loved I am in Christ—these cut right through my self-loathing and apathy, and led me back each time to the cross.

It is not a coincidence that Keller’s ministry is named “Gospel in Life.” The notion that the gospel is actionable through real attitudes and choices in every walk of life is one of his great legacies. Keller preached and wrote as if he simply did not believe there was any Christian life possible apart from the gospel. This deep integration was not without critics, some of whom say that Keller over-realized the continuity between evangelism and politics, for example, or was too quick to invoke theological categories for complicated issues like race. Keller welcomed this debate and even stepped into it. His public participation in conversation over his teaching and legacy is evidence of the gospel confidence he proclaimed. He was not afraid to be criticized, nor acknowledge such criticism, because he was both confident in his beliefs and at peace with who he was in the eyes of God.

For many, many people, Keller will have been a first and perhaps only encounter with an evangelical Christian.

When people will remember Tim Keller’s writing, they will almost certainly remember bestsellers like The Reason for God, Prodigal God, or The Meaning of Marriage. There is a lesser-known book though that matters quite a bit to me. The Prodigal Prophet is a collection of Keller’s sermons on the book of Jonah. Jonah is the quintessential Keller target: a prophet whose problem is not that he failed to understand God, but that he didn’t like what he understood. It’s not hard to see the disobedient, repentant, prophetic, and resentful Jonah as a metaphor for American evangelicalism, itself often a bundle of contradictions. I think it’s fair to say that Jonah is the kind of religious person Keller often imagined himself preaching to. Of Jonah, and of the 21st century evangelical church, Keller wrote:

At every point in the story, Jonah falls lower in the test not only than other prophets before him but also than the supposedly benighted, profane pagans around him. Yet God continues to save him, be patient with him, work with him. Nevertheless, God does not just accept Jonah and leave him alone. … Here we see God’s righteousness and love working together. He is both too holy and too loving to either destroy Jonah or to allow Jonah to remain as he is, and God is also too holy and too loving to allow us to remain as we are.

Much, of course, must be said about Redeemer Presbyterian and Keller’s extraordinary ministry in one of the most thoroughly post-Christian cities in the West. But I will leave that for others. What I feel most acutely right now is the loss, not of a great writer, nor of a triumphant evangelist, nor of a far-sighted church planter, but the loss of an evangelical.

Tim Keller believed Scripture; he heralded the supernatural and exclusive claims of Christ in a “coexist” Mecca. Tim Keller believed in regeneration; he reminded every reader and every listener numerous times that their ultimate need and deepest desire was for something they could not do themselves. Tim Keller believed the gospel was central; there was never a question what mattered most was Christ crucified for sinners. And Tim Keller believed in a living faith that would transform a city, even New York City, for good. For many, many people, Keller will have been a first and perhaps only encounter with an evangelical Christian. That they will have encountered an evangelical who held fast his confession, his marriage, and his witness to the very end, is a reason to praise the Savior in whose presence he now rests.

Thank you, Tim.

Samuel D. James

Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He is a regular contributor to First Things and The Gospel Coalition, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and National Review. Samuel and his wife Emily live in Louisville, Ky., with their two children.

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