Remembering Tim Keller

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Tim Keller’s passing (May 19, 2023) hit me pretty hard. Though I didn’t know him personally, he was one of the people I most respected. I’m fortunate that I did get to hear him preach in person multiple times—both at conferences and at his church, Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. Back in 2012 when I was finishing college, I even got to ask him for a book recommendation for a capstone paper I was in the middle of writing; he graciously and in very Tim Keller fashion directed me to a specific section of a specific book.

Tim Keller’s impact on me—and on so many others—is multifaceted. There are many other aspects I could discuss, but I’ve chosen a few that have loomed among the largest for me. Keller’s Christocentric preaching impacted my Christian life and helped shape my own preaching and teaching. His professorial style resonated with an academic, critical thinker like me. His winsome, irenic approach to outsiders and his eschewing of partisan, “culture warrior” mentalities served as a lodestar for me at a time when so many others were getting caught up in unbalanced or sub-Christian alignments. And his deep spirituality (while remaining a calm Presbyterian) still serves to challenge and inspire me to pursue God’s presence more deeply.

I’ll briefly unpack each of these personal influences, but first I want to strongly recommend Collin Hansen’s recent book, Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation. This book is like a biography in some ways, but it traces the influences on Keller and not so much on his life’s work: from his early Christian years as a college student at Bucknell, through seminary at Gordon Conwell, to time at Westminster in Philadelphia, to his first pastorate in Hopewell, VA, and finally to his church planting days in NYC. It’s an engaging book that helps the reader get to know who Keller was and what became the key themes of his ministry. (Also as a bonus, here’s a small list of Keller quotes. But I strongly urge you to scroll through his Twitter feed for many more gems.)

A Christocentric Preacher

In the end, it’s the joy and wonder of the gospel that will change you permanently. Only that experience sufficiently reprograms the heart.


Tim Keller was well-known for his gospel-centered preaching. It was not enough that a sermon be expositional; it had to be truly Christian, to apply the work of Jesus to the heart of the hearers. Only at that point, in Tim and Kathy Keller’s words, did a message truly turn from being a lecture to being a sermon. Keller aimed to speak not only to the mind (presenting truths from the Bible) or to the will (telling people what to do and urging them to change), but to the heart. He wanted people to be captured by the wonder of Jesus and the gospel, and for the preaching moment itself to be the starting point of transformation.

For my youngest sister, it was a Keller sermon that (as Keller would say) caused the “penny to drop” for her. Our family was attending a conference where Keller gave a talk titled “The Gospel-Shaped Life.” At this talk we were unfortunately stuck in an overflow room watching on a screen, but the impact was the same. Keller emphasized how the gospel was not merely the initiation of the Christian life, followed by sanctification through rules or religious duties. Rather, the gospel itself shaped the entirety of the Christian life. His clear explanation of the gospel’s nature, power, and centrality marked an important moment in my sister’s grasping of the faith.

Tim Keller’s Christocentric preaching also famously includes his preaching of the Old Testament. (I had the privilege of hearing this sermon on Exodus in person.) Around 13 years ago I first listened to a set of lectures co-taught by Dr Keller and Dr Edmund Clowney on Christocentric preaching. Keller’s sermons and these lectures were a part of my then-budding interest in studying the biblical storyline in a deeper way and wanting to communicate with others how all of Scripture points to Jesus. (See also his popular book The Prodigal God.)

A Professorial Pastor

If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said. If he didn’t, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether you like his teaching, but whether he rose from the dead.


Tim Keller’s preaching style is often called “professorial.” He doesn’t shout or gesture wildly. He’s calm, though he does get excited and (as mentioned above) aims to impact the affections. His congregation was well-educated, and Keller was clearly conversant in intellectual trends of the day. His pastoral work involved applying Scripture to the lives of people living in a deeply secular, urbane, sophisticated, and success-driven environment.

Keller was a lifelong learner and an avid reader. One of the things I loved about his Twitter feed (more on his Twitter later) were all of the book recommendations he’d give. He’d often reference historical, philosophical, sociological, and literary works in his teachings. As Hansen notes in his book, Keller was gifted with an incredible ability to synthesize: he’d take a number of complex ideas, internalize them, and then produce his own take that was elegant, clear, and very insightful.

Keller is also well known for his apologetic books and talks. This work benefited both from his constant study as well as from his personal engagement with skeptical New Yorkers who came through his church, especially in Redeemer’s early days. Keller’s lifelong learning led him to add new emphases to his apologetics, as exhibited in his later book on cultural apologetics.

Keller was a conservative evangelical, committed to the authority of Scripture and a range of other “traditional” doctrines. But he was never afraid of difficult questions, of challenges to the Bible and the Christian faith. He didn’t appear threatened, or act as though certain objections shouldn’t be taken seriously lest they disturb one’s faith. His confidence in the truth of the Christian faith allowed him to honestly, humbly, and irenically discuss countless questions raised by skeptics from Manhattan to multiple talks (with Q&A sessions) at Google headquarters (Google them—literally).

A Non-Partisan

The Church needs to be vigilant against being co-opted by any secular party or ideology. The ultimate hope is not in the political system but in a restored world, a renewed world.


A culture warrior Tim Keller was not. He held to biblical convictions on sexuality, etc., but he did not allow himself to become wedded to a political tribe. Part of this was doubtless due to Keller’s temperament. Part also was due to his pastoral experience in both politically conservative Hopewell, VA and politically liberal NYC. Keller is famous for his “third way” heuristic, which he applies to many areas. For example, the gospel for Keller is neither “religion” nor “irreligion.” The gospel both critiques and affirms aspects of all cultures. It is not completely at home in any, nor completely alien to any. 

This idea, which should be clear to far more Christians, Keller applied to political questions. The Christian faith affirms some aspects of right-leaning politics: personal responsibility, traditional sexual morality and family values, etc. But the faith just as strongly affirms some aspects more commonly associated with left-leaning politics (and which in some cases make politically conservative Christians nervous): concern for the poor and dissatisfaction with large-scale inequities, racism, gun violence, etc.

Keller loved to talk and write about idolatry, and how we tend to make idols out of success, love, power, and yes, politics. The gospel disallows us from becoming politically tribal, from turning to a movement or an ideology as our functional salvation. When we do this, we lose sight of Christ, but we also blunt the sharp sword of the gospel’s critiques against our own sinful tendencies. 

Keller liked to point out how every culture has trouble with some aspects of Christianity, but not the same ones. He’d say how modern Western society approves of Jesus’ teachings on loving one’s enemies, but abhors the NT’s sexual ethic. Traditional Muslims in the Middle East, on the other hand, by and large are more positive on NT sexual morality but find Jesus’ teachings on enemy love problematic. Likewise, when confronted with the modern value of being “true to oneself,” Keller would point out how all societies demand that we repress some of our inclinations. He’d picture a young man who has a drive for aggression, and who is also sexually attracted to other men. In some traditional cultures, ancient or perhaps even current, his aggressive tendencies would be affirmed, while his sexual ones would have to remain hidden. In our culture, the reverse is true: we’d celebrate his sexuality but tell him to get help to overcome or suppress his aggression. In both of these examples, Keller would observe that our objections to Christianity are often culturally determined, and perhaps ethnocentric. Skeptics should thus think carefully before writing off Scripture’s teachings. He’d also demonstrate how the faith critiques and affirms different elements wherever it goes. Christians should thus avoid wedding themselves blindly to any one culture or tribe, lest we lose the ability for Christ to transform us.

In a US where in recent years so many Christians (including, sadly, many Anabaptists) have turned to political partisanship, Keller stayed both irenic and prophetic. He critiqued the impact of Trumpism on the evangelical world, but he never came out scathingly against other Christians. He stayed true to Christian sexual morality in one of the most liberal cities in the US, but he treated skeptics warmly and respectfully. He didn’t adopt a persecution complex, become a “jihadist for Jesus,” or cave to the myth of “progress.” He demonstrated in his words and his tone how to live faithfully as representatives of Jesus in a pluralistic, increasingly hostile environment. While social media became a place where countless American Christians vented their vitriol in the past few years, checking Tim Keller’s Twitter feed always yielded insightful and challenging quotes for my own faith or helpful book recommendations for more careful thinking.

A Deeply Spiritual Man

Religious people find God useful. Christians find God beautiful.

If you aren’t constantly astonished at God’s grace in your solitude, there’s no way it can ever happen in public.


I remember hearing Keller joke in a sermon, “I’m a Presbyterian, so it’s pretty hard for God to speak to me.” (He said this, of course, to introduce a time when he believes he did hear God’s voice.) Keller is not a charismatic. He described himself as a “moderate cessationist,” though he firmly believed in (and experienced) revival. Some might assume that he was just an “intellectual” who was missing out on the reality of the Spirit. Not so. In fact, Keller has challenged me, perhaps more deeply than much of the recent talk in my circles about charismatic-style experiences, to seek for deeper spiritual reality with God.

Keller has opened up about how his prayer life developed over the years. It was during his first bout of cancer, back around 2002, that he had a significant breakthrough as he came to pray the Psalms and to meditate in a much deeper and more experiential way. Then in the past couple of years, since his terminal cancer diagnosis, he and his wife had an even deeper experience of God’s presence in their devotional lives. Keller doesn’t propose a magic formula for getting to this place, nor does he make his own path normative for others. He doesn’t link his reality of God’s presence to a certain terminology (e.g. “baptism of the Spirit”), nor does he claim miraculous signs. He also doesn’t put a guilt trip on those of us who haven’t gotten to where he has yet. What he does do is to bear witness to the wonder and joy of a deeper experience of God, and he calls younger Christians like myself to pursue more. He points us to prayer, to Scripture (especially the Psalms), and to the devotional writings of the Puritans.

For someone like me (and I imagine many others), this example is so important. It’s coming from someone who is also very concerned about thinking, careful Bible study, and theology. It’s from someone who’s temperamentally more like myself—someone who cares about the emotions but who’s not naturally prone to massive, sudden experiences. It’s from someone who has been on a gradual journey, and calls us to follow the gradual journey that God has me on. It’s also from someone who can challenge me that it’s not enough to respect Tim Keller as a great preacher or apologist or author; first and foremost, what’s important is to pursue God.


Tim Keller will continue to be an incredibly important figure in my life for years to come. I already miss his presence in the Christian landscape. I hope that more of us can follow his example as gospel-centered disciples, as serious thinkers, as winsome and irenic non-partisan believers, and as Christians always seeking more of God’s presence. And with Tim Keller, I await the resurrection.

Jesus’ miracles are not just proofs that he has power but also wonderful foretastes of what he is going to do with that power. His miracles are not just a challenge to our minds, but a promise to our hearts, that the world we all want is on the way.

The resurrection is not the end. It is the beginning of all things being restored.

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About the Author:

Dr. Paul Lamicela (PhD in biblical theology) teaches biblical studies through his Biblical Storyline Academy ( Paul’s passion is to help people know, be shaped by, and love the truth, goodness, and beauty of the one grand story of Scripture—which we are swept into through Jesus. Paul loves teaching and enjoys good conversations and good books (especially biblical studies and classic fiction). Paul is a very happy husband to Laura, and a member of Charity Christian Fellowship in Leola, PA. Paul and Laura’s hobbies include cooking (especially Mediterranean) and travel (especially in Europe).

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1 thought on “Remembering Tim Keller”

  1. Excellent! What a beautiful and inspirational tribute. I add my hearty AMEN to the importance of the centrality of Christ and the Gospel!


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