The Humble New York City-Changer: A Chat with Dr Tim Keller – Hope 103.2

The Humble New York City-Changer: A Chat with Dr Tim Keller

By Clare BruceMonday 28 Nov 2016

Listen: Dr Tim Keller on the influences that shaped him. (For more, catch the full-length interview).

When an R&B megastar mentions you in his lyrics and credits you for changing his life, you’ve surely reached the heights of hipdom, right? 

Not if you’re Reverend Tim Keller.

The prolific writer, theologian, and pastor of New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church may be a brilliant man, loved by multiplied thousands for his messages and writing—but he’s also humble.

So when it comes to Lecrae’s hit song Non-Fiction, and its honour role of theologians including a special mention for Keller, the author brushes it off as a bit of “fun”, and claims that he’s far from hip: “I mean, look at us,” he says, referring to his conservative appearance.

To Keller, the stellar rapper is no more or less important than any of the thousands of quiet, unknown souls around the world being helped and influenced by his writing.

“I just talked to somebody yesterday who said he became a Christian through reading Reason for God five years ago—a guy who works at Google here in Manhattan,” Keller told Hope 103.2. “He’s not famous. in God’s sight it doesn’t make any difference.  Everybody’s life is equally valuable in God’s sight. It’s just thrilling to know that God used the book for the techie guy at Google, as with Lecrae.”

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The Influences that Shaped Timothy Keller

Famous for books defending the Christian faith like The Reason for God, The Prodigal God, and Counterfeit Gods, as well as more practical life-journey titles like The Meaning of Marriage and Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, Keller has become a leading writer and thinker in the Christian arena.

For decades he’s reached out to people struggling with life, as well as those struggling to believe, through his New York ministry, and through books appealing to sceptics including the latest, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Sceptical.  

In an interview with Hope 103.2’s Sam Robinson, Keller said several key writers and life experiences have shaped his thinking and career in this direction.

First there was his early crisis of faith: a season of doubt and scepticism as a college student that later gave him a great soft-spot for sceptics.

Then there were the theologians he read as a Bible student – the likes of John Stott, J.I. Packer, Howard Marshall and C.S. Lewis.

And the many personal struggles he faced early in his Christian life, when he was “constantly falling down and failing”, have helped to form in him a strong theology of grace.

“And that’s when you kind of discover that you’re saved through faith in Christ, not through your works.”

“Most new Christians have a kind of legalistic view of what it means to be a Christian,” Keller said. “I think most new Christians believe, ‘If I surrender myself to Jesus, He comes in and saves me and forgives my sins, but I’ve got to stay really surrendered to him. I’ve gotta really be committed or he withdraws from me somehow’.

“And that’s kind of legalistic.

“Then, years after that, you find yourself falling down, prayer becomes hard, and you begin to realize, ‘My relationship with God has gotta be based on something besides the state of my heart, my prayer life or how holy I am’. It has to have an objective basis that doesn’t change. And that’s when you kind of discover that you’re saved through faith in Christ, not through your works.”

A Passion for Art that Made Him a Real New Yorker

Tim and Kathy Keller

Above: Tim Keller with his wife Kathy. Picture source: The Gospel Coalition.

When Keller was invited to start Redeemer Presbyterian church in Manhattan, New York City, two other pastors had already turned down the role. It was never going to be an easy gig.

But ease isn’t one of Keller’s big priorities, so he rolled up his sleeves and moved to the Big Apple. And as it turned out, he and his wife Kathy found an instant affinity with New Yorkers—through their passion for the arts.

“My wife and I actually do love art and music, and so we just wore that on our sleeve a little bit,” he said. “A lot of New Yorkers do. They constantly talk about what plays and art they like and the latest exhibit at this or that museum. So we fit in.

“I didn’t try, you know, contextualize to New York. My wife and I are not, I don’t know, we’re not ‘hip’. We were not sleek. We’re not ‘downtown’ and hip and sophisticated. But we do love the arts and that’s a big part of why a lot of people live in New York. It did put us in a good place. It just made us part of the city, that’s all.”

And as they became a part of the city, so too did their church.

By focussing on the character and life of Jesus, church planting, and serving New York City through mercy and justice outreach programs, Redeemer now has close to 6,000 in its weekly services.

What Keeps Timothy Keller Going

Now leading a church of thousands, as well as an international church-planting ministry (Redeemer City to City), and a cross-denominational Christian network fostering culture change (The Gospel Coalition, co-founded with Dr Don Carson), Keller, age 66, has a lot on his plate.

But he’s not tired yet.

“God has been very kind to me in that the ministries I’ve been in have always changed in a good direction, so that it never feels old,” he said. “It always feels like there’s a new challenge.

“I want a church that’s based on grace, not works, that does both word and deed ministry, that cares for the poor and still calls people to conversion.”

“And the second thing that keeps me going is what the Bible says in Lamentations: ‘Your mercies are new every morning’. And the way I experience God’s mercy to do my work now, is not the same way I did 30 years ago, or 20 years ago or 10 years ago.

“There’s always something that I’ve never faced before, so I have to depend on Him.”

‘I’m Not Trying to Leave a Legacy’

If you ever get the privilege to interview Tim Keller, here’s a tip: Don’t wrap up by asking him what legacy he hopes to leave. It’s a question that smacks of self-promotion to Keller.

“I don’t think I would think about that at all – I don’t think I should, either,” he told Sam Robinson. “Honestly, there’s nothing that I would like people to look at and say, ‘Tim Keller really accomplished something here’. I’m not sure any Christian minister should wonder about that or think about that.

“You don’t want a legacy. What you want is, there’s certain things that you feel like the church needs. And you’re not the only person who’s tried to call for them. There’s other people who have also been trying to have a church that’s based on grace, not works, a church that does both word and deed ministry, that cares for the poor and still calls people to conversion. There’s many other people who want the same kind of church that I want.

“My only legacy is, well, I just want the church to be itself.”

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