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Remembering Timothy James Keller (A.D. 1950-2023)

This Friday last, pastor, teacher, and author Tim Keller took one final drag on the air of old creation, then breathed his first breath of the unadulterated rest of Christ, in which rest he now awaits the further glory to be revealed at the Resurrection. For Tim, this transposition is great gain, though it is a hard loss for many left behind: thousands whom Tim pastored and mentored; hundreds of thousands whom he taught through his incomparable sermons, lectures, and writings; many personal friends; and, of course, for Kathy, Tim’s wife of nearly fifty years, and their three children.

It would of course be too much to say that Tim’s voice was the stability of our times. But everything about Tim’s faithful discharge of his vocation – in pulpits, at lecterns, and in his many books and articles – exuded the reassuring stability of a man firmly rooted in the grace of God in Christ. In the midst of interesting times, his voice remained clear and steady, his rhetoric measured, his mind nimble and curious, and his heart warm and hospitable. These were gifts of God to Tim, and gifts to us through Tim. We will miss them.

There were too many notable features of Tim’s life and teaching to do many of them justice in a brief remembrance such as this. But for a community committed to story and beauty, two may be particularly salient: his robust application of common grace, both in his teaching and, evidently, his life; and his emphasis on working from rest.

First, regarding common grace. During his public career Tim did not, so far as I know, change his mind about any significant point of doctrine or morality. He remained committed to the doctrinal distinctives of the Protestant reformation, particularly as touching matters of sin and the doctrines of grace. Yet even a cursory glance at his engagements and the content of his output show that this doctrinal and moral constancy did not hold for the reasons usually given by the suspicious – reactionary fear and anger, financial or power interest, the Dunning-Kruger effect. He was plainly a marvelously curious and open man. This essential openness I ascribe to his robust view of common grace: he knew God could plant startling goodness and beauty anywhere, in anyone, any painting, or song, or novel, or stageplay. He could be open to the veins of beauty in anyone’s story. His doctrinal consistency over time, then, owes much to the fact that his robust view of common grace made all his other doctrinal and moral commitments uncommonly supple: his theological and philosophical wineskins retained enough newness, enough give, to take in good vintages old and new, retaining their form while holding the wines.

Second, regarding working from rest – specifically, from rest in Christ. Tim spoke and wrote often about functional saviors and self-justification projects. These could relate to family or other relationships, financial status, or success in one’s vocation. Self-justification by vocational success can be particularly vexing for artists, for success in painting, creative writing, or composing is hard to measure. Even good efforts remain subject to reproach, especially the artist’s self-reproach. This is one of the many places where Tim’s broad application of the grace of God in Christ shows its quality: for those whose ultimate validation and identity are found in Jesus, vocational success need not be a cripplingly stern master.

To Tim: If messages go from blogs to the Church Triumphant, thank you. Thank you for leaving us a substantial body of work from which we may yet learn and grow. Enjoy your well-earned rest in the peace of God.

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