Column: What I Learned About Jesus from Tim Keller

By The Rev. Nathan Hart

On May 19, 2023, Tim Keller died. He was the well-known pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC, author of many books (an estimated 25 million copies sold), and visionary leader of several church-planting and gospel-communicating initiatives. When I heard news of his death, I was surprised by how suddenly and profoundly sad I felt. Intellectually I am joyful and certain about his entrance into glory, but emotionally I am feeling the gut-punch of losing him here on earth. He shaped the Kingdom. He shaped my life and calling.

When I was starting out in ministry in the early 2000s, the American church had already become largely divided and the nation was trending in the same direction. I thought I had to choose a side as either a traditionalist or a progressive, a gospel-preaching pastor or a social justice-type pastor. But Keller’s teachings showed me that following Jesus Christ provides a better path, beyond even a “third way,” something above false dichotomies and political battles. Keller proved that the best method to win the culture wars was not to engage in them on their terms, but rather to follow Jesus in his category-defying ministry of both truth and grace.

In 2010, Keller published a book entitled Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. The book helped me understand that the conservative church’s emphasis on personal salvation (meeting people’s spiritual needs), and the liberal church’s emphasis on social justice (meeting people’s material needs), aren’t rival ideologies. Instead, one is the outflow of the other.

Here’s how Keller describes it. When we realize our own desperate need for salvation and God’s generous provision of grace to us, we will subsequently become more generous to others. The coin must drop in our minds (“I am spiritually impoverished by sin!”) before we can be genuinely motivated to share our resources with people who have material needs. In Generous Justice, Keller hypothesizes that if you fully comprehend and accept God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ—that is, if you believe the gospel—you will be so grateful that you will be compelled to act generously and justly as a glad response to the free gift you have received from God. Keller writes, “The logic is clear. If a person has grasped the meaning of God’s grace in his heart, he will do justice…God’s grace should make you just.”

The American church divided over a false rivalry between gospel proclamation and social action. When we put them in their right order, we see that one is an outflow of the other. The gospel prompts a response. Grace bears fruit.

“We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19).

In the book, Keller cites the famous verse Micah 6:8, which says, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” This verse is often communicated simply as a moralistic command, attempting to motivate “privileged” people to stop talking about salvation and start fighting against the oppressive “-isms” in society. Keller, however, parses the verse, thoroughly describing the Hebrew derivations of both justice (mishpat) and mercy (chesed), which reflect the character of God, who is “full of grace AND truth.” (John 1:14). Through the death of Jesus on the cross, God’s love has satisfied our own need for justice and mercy, therefore, we are freed up to work on the material, relational, and even societal needs in the world.

But, you might argue, the gospel is about the work of Jesus, not our own good works. You might bring to mind Ephesians 2:8-9, which says, “By grace we have been saved… not the result of works.” But that verse is followed by another surprising statement: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” In other words, once we receive the gospel by faith, we will do good works, not out of obligation, but out of freedom. We will be rightly motivated to help the people who Nicholas Wolterstorff called “the Biblical quartet of the vulnerable” (the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, and the poor). These are people about whom God cares deeply and who the Bible commands us to care for sincerely.

As a young minister reading Keller’s book, I not only heard a clear and winsome articulation of salvation through Jesus Christ, I also gained back what the church’s divisions had lost. I didn’t need to choose a side. It’s okay to talk about social justice because social justice is the appropriate response to the gospel. In the book, Keller paraphrases Isaiah 58 to say, “’What is [the spiritual discipline that God desires]? It is to work against injustice, to share food, clothing, and homes with the hungry and the homeless.’ That is the real proof that you believe your sins have been atoned for.”

The book’s final chapters present a vivid motif, an illustration that helped me reimagine what it means to be a Christian living in a society torn apart by sin. He has the reader picture a woven fabric with all its interconnected threads. The fabric is a metaphor for human communities with their interconnected relationships. We were designed by God to live in harmony with each other, in community, as a “fabric of shalom.” Sin, says Keller, is like a tear in the fabric, and the grace-filled Christian’s calling is to “reweave the fabric of shalom.” Keller’s challenge is as clear as it is profound: “The only way to reweave and strengthen the fabric is by weaving yourself into it.” In practical terms, this means that we might move into the neighborhood that has more problems, not fewer. We might join the school board that is full of chaos and speak wisdom there, or adopt children whose parents can’t support them. We might volunteer at the rehabilitation center or mentor students in under-resourced schools. We would do these things not because of a moralistic duty, but because we’re grateful for what Jesus has done for us: he moved into our neighborhood to save us instead of remaining in the comforts of heaven.

The idea of reweaving the torn fabric of shalom is what motivates me to not only preach the gospel in words, but also live out its implications through deeds. It motivates me to lead an entire congregation to do the same; Stanwich Church’s vision is to know Christ and make him known, and we are working tirelessly to reweave the torn fabric of shalom locally, regionally, and globally. In fact, our church’s logo is a depiction of interwoven threads formed by the shape of a cross.

What I am saying here is not merely that Tim Keller changed my life and gave me motivation for ministry, but ultimately that he pointed me to Jesus who changed my life and gave me motivation for ministry. Now that Keller is no longer with us (although his teachings will endure), I am even more energized to try to lead like he did, full of both truth and grace, believing the gospel and living in grateful, sacrificial, response to it.

Rev. Dr. Nathan Hart is the Senior Pastor of Stanwich Church.

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