By: Akos Balogh
– ‘G’day Dr Keller, my name’s Akos.’
– ‘Interesting name – where are you from?’
– ‘I’m from Australia, but my name is Hungarian.’
– ‘Oh, Hungarian? When I was with Redeemer, we used a Hungarian Church’s building in New York for one of our services.’
And those I are the first words I exchange with Tim Keller as I sit down with him and a few others for breakfast. We’re at the Gospel Coalition Council meeting in the US, in 2018, sitting with other international TGC delegates (a few guys from Canada). Tim is so warm and personable, and immediately I feel at ease. He’s genuinely interested in each of us, our work and our ministries. He’s chatting to us like we’re old friends.
The conversation moves on to the challenges our respective countries are facing with the growing post-Christian culture. While I don’t remember much more of the details of the conversation, I do remember thinking about how down-to-earth he is.
Let’s face it: there are many famous people in the world – people you admire from afar, having read their books, and listened to their talks – but when you meet them, you feel let down. Perhaps they’re prickly. Or dismissive of you (looking around to find other, more important people to talk to). Or maybe they spend the whole time talking about themselves.
But that wasn’t my (brief) experience with Tim Keller.
There didn’t seem to be a difference between the public persona you hear on a podcast or read in a book, and the real person.
(Later in the conference, I remember putting out some Australian chocolate-coated Macadamia nuts, which I put out near the morning tea area. I distinctly remember offering them to Tim, who was quite impressed with our Northern Rivers Aussie delicacies!)
While I appreciated meeting him in person, like millions of Christians across the world, I also appreciated his teaching, his talks, and his writing. Here are four things that I found really helpful:
1) He could unpack the stories that our culture believes
He made visible the invisible.
One of Keller’s greatest gifts to me, and Christians worldwide, was his ability to exegete culture.
He could unearth and explain the underlying stories and narratives our culture held to. Often these stories address the significant needs of our lives: meaning; purpose; identity; satisfaction. So often, these stories are like icebergs floating beneath the surface, beneath our daily awareness. They direct us, shaping us, capturing our imaginations.
And more often than not, our post-Christian culture tells stories that contradict God’s account of reality and cause havoc across our lives (think about the ‘if it feels good, do it’ narrative).
But Keller didn’t merely expose the underlying cultural stories (as crucial as that is for self-awareness). He empathetically pointed out the good bits (e.g. a desire for justice or life beyond the grave). And he did this genuinely, as someone curious about the belief.
But he didn’t stop there – the gospel compelled him to show how the secular views of reality fell short and failed to deliver on its promises for meaning, justice, satisfaction, identity, and so forth. And he did this with humility. Not from an ‘I’m better than thou’ attitude, nor a ‘how can you believe such nonsense’ posture. But with the attitude of a sympathetic fellow traveller who’s realised that the Wizard behind the curtain is a fake, and people deserve to know the truth.
And yet, he didn’t stop there: he then showed how the gospel of the Lord Jesus was not only radically different from the secular worldview, but better. He showed how only the gospel could deliver on the best desires that people have for justice, meaning, life, and so on.
What a gift.
2) He could unpack the stories I believed
He exposed the idols of my heart with the help of Scripture.
But it wasn’t just culture he could exegete: it also felt like he could exegete me and the idols of my heart.
As someone swimming in the sea of secular culture, I swallow my fair share of idols. These idols – things like expressive individualism, comfort, and a desire to avoid all suffering – can batter my faith and cause me to sin in all sorts of ways, many of which are peculiar to modern Westerners.
But again, Keller’s gift was to show the futility of these idols through the lens of Scripture. And point me to Jesus as the most excellent way, as the only one worthy of my worship.
3) He showed how grace affects the Christian life
Keller had a gift for capturing profound truths in simple ways.
One truth that has stuck with me and shaped me as a Christian is his view on the impact of grace on the Christian life.
As Keller said, when we forget grace, this either leads to pride (when we’re doing well) or self-loathing (when we don’t feel we’re doing well). When we forget grace, we tend toward Phariseeism and run the Christian life by our strength.
But grace, on the other hand, leads us to be thankful, and humble.
As he would often say: We are so bad Christ had to die for us, but we are so loved Christ wanted to die for us.
4) He walked his talk and lived without scandal
Let’s face it: our secular culture magnifies gifts and achievements while downplaying the importance of character.
If you’re successful in what you do, a little bending of the ethical rules is acceptable. You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, or so our world thinks.
And sadly we’ve seen this ‘ends justify means’ attitude among some high-profile Christian leaders. Such leaders leave a trail of broken lives behind them: whether from abuse of power or worse.
But not Tim Keller.
His ministry, while very public, has avoided scandal. He really did walk his talk. And so, it’s no surprise that he has impacted millions of Christians worldwide.
And who, like me, now grieve his loss.
Here’s a tribute video to Keller from The Gospel Coalition. At the end of the video, they encourage people to share what they found helpful about Keller’s teaching with the hashtag #thankyoutimkeller.