The two greatest gifts Timothy Keller gave me

Since the news of his death, there have been many touching tributes written about Timothy Keller. In ministry/professional circles, he was known as a pastor, bestselling author, and co-founder of The Gospel Coalition. His family, more importantly, knew him as a loving husband, father, and grandfather. And one thing has been increasingly clear with every tribute I’ve read: whether you knew Keller personally, or only through his books, he left an impression.

I’m one of the latter group. I didn’t know Keller personally. To my knowledge, we never had the opportunity to meet face-to-face (though we might have been in the same room once). The only direct communication we had was answering a question on Twitter back when it was fun. I paid attention to him, and hopefully not in a fanboy-ish way. And even in that limited way, he gave me two great gifts.

Now, some might prefer to call these “lessons,” but I don’t think that does these two justice. They really are gifts—albeit gifts of a different sort. They’re the sort that are meant to be shared and nurtured. Which is why I want to share them with you.

Keller’s first gift: an un-faddish gospel centrality

I first became aware of Tim Keller around the time when The Reason for God and The Prodigal God were first published. But the first time I remember hearing him speak was during the 2009 Global Leadership Summit. Keller was so different from every other speaker at the event. He didn’t talk about leading in the church with wisdom from the marketplace. In fact, he didn’t really talk about leadership principles at all. Keller talked about Jesus.

It was a message about a God who lavishes lost people with grace. Lost people in and out of the church—not simply the irreligious or licentious, but the bitter and resentful. The joyless servants, and those desperately trying to earn some kind of assurance of God’s love.

His was one of most explicit gospel-centered messages I heard. And that perspective stuck with me.

Over the years gospel centrality has somewhat fallen out of the zeitgeist. Some who were once its champions push the sectarianism they once rejected. But Keller’s gospel-centered perspective wasn’t a fad or a phase. It really was central to his ministry. He wanted people to know Jesus, and he wanted to live in a Jesus-focused way.

  • Keller emphasized contextualization—the idea of using language your hearers would understand—because he wanted people to know Jesus
  • He pursued a Jesus-oriented concept of justice and human flourishing, and in doing so rejected the typical conservative vs liberal political false dichotomy
  • He challenged doubters to not stop doubting until they’d doubted their doubts, encouraging people to see Christianity as both intellectually rigorous and metaphysically mysterious at the same time

That is his first great gift to me: gospel centrality isn’t a fad. For those who fully embraced it, it is real. And it changes everything.

Order my latest book, I'm a Christian-Now What?, at

Keller’s second gift: character really does (still) matter

The second great gift is something I saw second-hand, from the public side of Keller’s life and ministry. But the stories of those who did have a personal relationship with him seem to align with what I saw in public: that Keller believed character really does matter.

Even now in our ever-so-divided age—especially now.

Fill in all the necessary caveats on your own, but what I saw in Keller as a public person, and what I both read in his work and read about him, showed a consistency of character that was rooted in his commitment to the gospel. And nowhere did I see that more clearly than when the critics came out.

When he was misrepresented, it was uncommon for him to even address the issue. If people bore false witness about him, he rarely defended himself. But when disagreements arose, it seems he was often quick to ask, “Help me understand…”

Over the weekend, I’ve read several stories attesting to all of these and more besides. And the picture offered really is one of a man who wanted to be a person whose character reflected his love for Jesus. That is a beautiful thing, and something I desperately want for myself.

These gifts from Keller to encourage us

And what’s even more beautiful is how Keller’s death brought about a rare form of unity in social media, just for a moment. A moment where friends and critics of all stripes all were saying the same thing: He ran his race, and he ran it well.

And I think that is probably the most encouraging thing of all—a sign that these two gifts from Keller mean something. That as we focus on Jesus, in our ministry and our hearts, people will ultimately see it. And while we might have differences in how we fully express that, we will see that the gospel really does unite us. May we never lose sight of that.

Photo by Frank Licorice, used under Creative Commons License, CC BY-SA 2.0

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books for adults and children, as well as multiple documentaries and Bible studies. His latest book, I'm a Christian—Now What?: A Guide to Your New Life with Christ is available now.

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