On May 19, 2023 Tim Keller died. In the Salvation Army they would say he was “promoted to glory.”
Keller was a best-selling author, pastor, apologist, co-founder of The Gospel Coalition, and fellow Presbyterian. He spoke to millions, met with Presidents, but was ever down-to-earth.
On the occasion of his death I wanted to share some of his quotes that I have found particularly insightful and inspiring. I have selected sentences which are succinct, and which give evidence not only of his wisdom but of his deliberate and often poetic use of words.
I never met Keller personally. My only direct interaction with him was digital. In 2013 I quoted a line from Darth Vader as it appeared in one of his books. “I find your lack of faith—disturbing.” Keller re-tweeted it. So, you know, that basically makes us pals.
More seriously, my first real introduction to his thinking was through his best-selling book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. People were talking about it. I was compelled. I bought it at the now-closed Crux Books on the University of Toronto campus. His writing gave evidence of a genuine, biblical faith undergirded by a vigorous intelligence.
He tackled many of the questions and issues that people were (and are) wrestling with. ‘How could a good God allow suffering? Has science disproved Christianity? Is there really just one true religion?’ The book not only included defenses against popular objections to the faith, but compelling and rational reasons to believe.
In that book—and in his life in general—Keller advocated a Christian faith which was theologically robust, gracious, and sensitive to the questions and experiences of modern people.
This appealed to my Reformed Protestant heritage which has always taken education and learning seriously. Professor John Leith has said that in the Reformed tradition, a life of the mind is a part of our service to God. Using the brains God gave us is a vital and life-giving way to glorify and serve God. This impetus is directly connected to what Jesus said in Mark 12:30—that we are to love the Lord with all our minds. I don’t necessarily agree with everything Keller taught. But he embodied this principle well. And he did so without being cutting, condescending or contemptuous—a pitfall which can be unfortunately common for those with big platforms.
Here are forty-five quotes from twelve of his books. I’ll organize them by book title and let the quotes speak for themselves. If you find any of them compelling, I encourage you to get the books, read the longer sections of which they are a part, and engage the muscles of your mind alongside the affections of your heart.
The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (Riverhead Books, 2008)
1. “Instead of trying to shape our desires to fit reality, we now seek to control and shape reality to fit our desires.” (73) –a critique of the times in which we live.
2. “In short, hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity.” (80)
3. “When you lose all humility, you are out of touch with reality.” (81)
Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (Riverhead Books, 2008)
4. “The gospel is distinct from the other two approaches [i.e. dividing the world into two categories—the moral “good guys” and the immoral “bad guys”]: In its view, everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognize this and change.” (52)
5. “When you realize that the antidote to being bad is not just being good, you are on the brink.” (88)
Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes us Just (Riverhead Books, 2010)
6. “To my surprise, there is a direct relationship between a person’s grasp and experience of God’s grace, and his or her heart for justice and the poor.” (xxi)
7. “The three causes of poverty, according to the Bible, are oppression, calamity, and personal moral failure.” (38)
The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God – with Kathy Keller (Dutton, 2011)
8. “Until God has the proper place in my life, I will always be complaining that my spouse is not loving me well enough, not respecting me enough, not supporting me enough.” (72-73)
9. “Like a surgeon, friends cut you in order to heal you.”
The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness: The Path to True Christian Joy (10 Publishing, 2012)
10. “the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.” (32) -Keller points out that this statement is based on an insight by C.S. Lewis, one of his favourite authors
11. “Do you realize that it is only in the gospel of Jesus Christ that you get the verdict before the performance?” (39) -Keller is highlighting the fact that as we stand before God, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (see Romans 8:1). We are declared righteous before God not based on what we have done (i.e. based on our personal moral track record) but on what Christ has done on our behalf. We “perform” (do) works of love and service, but this is not to earn anything. It is a part of our grateful and faithful response to what God has already done for us in Christ.
Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions (Dutton, 2013)
12. “Jesus did not come with a sword in his hands; he came with nails in his hands.” (54)
13. “Be skeptical of your own skepticism.” (87)
14. “Our self-image rests in a love we can’t lose.” (118)
15. “But in general, Satan doesn’t control us with fang marks on the flesh, but with lies in the heart.” (122)
Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (Dutton, 2013)
16. “We are free only to the extent that we do what God built us to do—to serve him.” (92)
17. “We are so instinctively and profoundly self-centred that we don’t believe we are.” (123)
18. “it is through the suffering of God that the suffering of humankind will eventually be overcome and undone.” (163)
19. “Our sufferings, if handled properly, bring the Lord glory.” (167)
20. “Happiness is a by-product of wanting something more than happiness—to be rightly related to God and our neighbor.” (187)
21. “If you believe in Jesus and you rest in him, then suffering will relate to your character like fire relates to gold.” (234)
22. “Evil and suffering are not God’s original intent for the world, and therefore only a temporary condition until its renewal.” (276)
23. “the peace of God is not the absence of negative thoughts, it is the presence of God himself.” (297)
24. “If you live for and love anything more than God then your life is always going to be like a tossing sea.” (310)
25. “Suffering will only make us better (rather than worse) if, during it, we teach ourselves to love God better than before.” (322)
Galatians For You (The Good Book Company, 2013)
26. “We are saved by faith; but we are not saved by fruitless faith.” (152)
27. “We should not be consumers, who come to a church to plunder the benefits of it.” (174)
Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (Dutton, 2014)
28. “We cannot look directly at the sun with our eyes. The glory of it would immediately overwhelm and destroy our sight. We have to look at it through a filter, and then we can see the great flames and colors of it. When we look at Jesus Christ as he is shown to us in the Scriptures, we are looking at the glory of God through the filter of a human nature.” (49)
29. “When the Holy Spirit comes down on you in fullness, you can sense your Father’s arms beneath you.” (172)
The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms – with Kathy Keller (Viking, 2015)
30. “Recognize and tell of God’s daily, wonderful deeds, and you will have a note of grateful joy as the background music to your life.” (13)
31. “So do the work in me that can happen only when I trust in you as I weep.” (54)
32. “Lord, I need to learn how to preach to my own heart, rather than just listening to its foolish or panicky chatter.” (89)
33. “When I sin I don’t just break your laws but trample on your heart.” (108)
34. “The universe is an endless ocean of God’s joy and glory. We are caught temporarily in a little drop of sadness here on earth. But eventually it will be removed. Regardless of what happens immediately to believers, eventually it will be all right.” (122)
35. “To pray is to unfurl the ultimate royal colors.” (128)
36. “Lord, my grandparents lived in a time in which your Word was respected but ignored. I live in a time in which it is attacked and dismembered. Make me able to defend the truth of your Word to my own mind and then, when opportune, to others. Amen.” (323)
37. “An ounce of sin can harm us more than a ton of suffering.” (327)
Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ (Viking, 2016)
38. “If Jesus Christ comes into your life, you are going to kiss your stellar reputation good-bye.” (56) -commenting on Joseph on Mary in the infancy narratives in the Gospels; this idea is extended to us as well
Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (Viking, 2016)
39. “People believe in God not merely because they feel some sort of emotional need, but because it makes sense of what they see and experience.” (23)
40. “There is a kind of shallow, temporary peace that modern people can get from not thinking too much about their situation, but Christianity can give a deep peace and meaning that come from making yourself as aware and as mindful of your beliefs as possible.” (69)
41. “The sight of Jesus dying for us out of love destroys both pride and self-hatred at the same time.” (147)
42. “All death can now do to Christians is to make their lives infinitely better.”
43. In Jesus we are “surprised to see tenderness without any weakness, boldness without harshness, humility without any uncertainty, indeed, accompanied by a towering confidence. Readers can discover for themselves his unbending convictions but complete approachability, his insistence on truth but always bathed in love, his power without insensitivity, integrity without rigidity, passion without prejudice.” (233)
44. “In the whole history of the world, there is only one person who not only claimed to be God himself but also got enormous numbers of people to believe it. Only Jesus combines claims of divinity with the most beautiful life of humanity.” (237)
45. “Everyone says they want community and friendship, but when that means accountability or commitment people run the other way.”
“Attack them first!”
To end, here’s a story he told in his book on prayer:
Ethelfrith was the Saxon king of Northumbria in the 600’s. He had invaded Wales and was on the verge of battle. The Welsh people who were about to be attacked were Christians. Ethelfrith looked out upon the Welsh as he was about to launch into battle.
But he noticed a clump of men who were unarmed. He asked someone who they were and was told they were the Christian monks of Bangor. They were unarmed and praying for the success of the Welsh.
What did Ethelfrith say? He called out: “Attack them first!” (225).
The Saxon king was morbidly concerned that the prayers of those monks might actually work. If they did, God would grant the Welsh victory and him defeat. In other words, he thought that the praying monks were actually more dangerous to him than the men with physical weapons. Brothers and sisters, despite what the world tells you, that is how things actually are.
What you see isn’t all there is to see.
Thank you, Lord, for Tim Keller, and for how he sought to glorify you with his mind. “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:23)
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