“So many of his words moved me,” Tim Keller, the Evangelical Presbyterian pastor who died last week at seventy-two, told me when he thoughtfully called with condolences on the passing of Pope Benedict XVI, on New Year’s Eve. “But none as much as his last ones: ‘Jesus, I love you.’”
I now return the tribute. So many of Tim’s words moved me and many others—especially here in New York City—and many Catholics as well. None moved us as much as those he expressed before he died, reported by his son, Michael: “I want to go home to be with Jesus.”
Two theological giants—Benedict XVI and Tim Keller—whispering like little children as the end of their journey nears, “Jesus, I love you. . . . Jesus, I want to go home to be with you.”
While the Evangelical community especially mourns his passing, many Catholics do as well. As a Presbyterian pastor who identified as “Evangelical” at his renowned Redeemer Church here in Manhattan, Tim was intrigued by Catholicism, especially by Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
In my conversations with him, which I now recall with emotion and gratitude, he was especially eager to discuss what he termed the “restoration of confidence” he detected in John Paul’s twenty-six years as successor of St. Peter, and the “celebration of the wedding of faith and reason” he lauded in the teaching of Benedict XVI.
“Tell me that quote one more time,” he would ask me, so enchanted was he by the words of John Paul: “Jesus Christ is the answer to the question posed by every human life.” That, he would remind me, said it all, and was really a version of St. Augustine’s dictum, “We come from you, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they return to you for all eternity.”
And that was the kerosene that ignited his successful four-decade pastorate here in Manhattan. Tim observed that many young adults flocked to this city for success but found themselves empty and alone. “Here I work twelve hours a day, six days a week,” he quoted one of them, “at first so excited to have ‘made it to New York,’ only to find myself fatigued and hollow. No family near, fellow workers as frustrated as me, no place to go but a bar where friendship was reduced to ‘hooking-up for the night,’ and I’m lost.”
Well, they found Tim Keller and a home at Redeemer, and did they ever come. Even my own Catholic young adults would tell me about him. With about five thousand in weekly attendance at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, I was so happy to discover finally at least one counterexample to the research that showed religion a flop among young professionals.
His appeal? My own Catholic young adults, and others attracted to Tim’s effective preaching and writing, would answer that with explanations that usually ended up in one of three categories.
First, Pastor Keller preached the Gospel as true. The usual canard about Evangelicals—that they were anti-intellectual—did not apply to Pastor Keller. Thus his fascination with Augustine, with C. S. Lewis—whom his dear wife Kathy especially promoted—and Joseph Ratzinger. Thus his 2008 best seller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. He would blush when I told him he was a genuine apologist. But he deserved this cherished title as one who, in a compelling, credible, and colorful way, could present and defend the basic truths of God’s revelation. No watering down, no wavering, just the truth—which, he would repeat, has a name: Jesus.
He lit up when I told him about our own Saint John Henry Newman, who held that the real enemy of genuine faith was theological liberalism, a denial of any objective truth. The next time I chatted with him I was hardly surprised to find out he had read more of Newman’s works than I had.
When I asked him to define for me an “Evangelical,” he borrowed Church of England bishop and theologian N. T. Wright’s answer: an Evangelical was the one who would immediately and exuberantly respond yes to the question, “Do you believe that Jesus really, truly, bodily rose from the dead?”
That belief in the truth of God’s revelation, especially faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, was a tonic to him in his last three years of suffering from pancreatic cancer. As he explained to the New York Times in 2022,
If the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened, then ultimately God is going to put everything right. Suffering is going to go away. Evil is going to go away. Death is going to go away. Aging is going to go away. Pancreatic cancer is going to go away. Now if the resurrection of Jesus did not happen, then I guess all bets are off. But, if it did, then there’s all the hope in the world.
The second thing young New Yorkers would report when I asked them why they were going to Tim Keller and not Tim Dolan, was that this preaching of truth gave rise to his second magnetic attribute: his joy. This quiet, serene sense of happiness, as David Brooks noted, would inspire Pastor Keller to preach, “Cheer up! You’re a worse sinner than you ever dared imagine, and you’re more loved than you ever dared hope.”
He once asked me if I could help him trace the quote “Joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence,” and was pleased when I came up with the French Catholic writer Leon Bloy. As he would again cite his friend N. T. Wright, “Trouble is, when we preach the ‘good news’ it usually comes across as neither.” But Tim’s preaching conveyed both. One of my own young Catholic adults observed, “If you cry at Redeemer, it’s not because you’re bored to tears, and they’re not tears of gloom, . . . they’re tears of joy.”
And a third ingredient in Pastor Keller’s recipe of success—as noted by his sheep, not by the shepherd—was that he told them what they needed to hear, not what they were itching to hear.
Tim would often tell me that one of the more life-changing sermons he had ever heard came from Billy Graham: “Our charge is not to alter God’s teaching to suit our cravings, but to change our will to conform to God’s.”
Thus was he fearless and consistent in preaching pure Calvinism: sin and grace.
The sheep who flocked to Pastor Keller nodded yes when he preached of sin, our depravity, our curse in seeking God in false idols rather than in the one, true God revealed in Jesus Christ. Golden calves did not disappear at the base of Mt. Sinai, he would tell them. We all fashion a God in our image and likeness instead of refashioning ourselves into His!
And they kept coming. He kept calling me wanting to buy our sadly shuttered churches. Why were his filled, I wondered. David Brooks speculates him replying, “Hey, you’re thirsty? I happen to have this glass of water—want a sip?” The “sip” came not from him, as was clear, but from the One who came to bring us “living waters.”
Once when I mentioned to Tim that commentators called his “style” of preaching “innovative,” he chuckled and came back: “About as ‘innovative’ as the Garden of Eden, Abraham, Moses, the prophets, . . . or Jesus. The Church is,” he would conclude, “as you Catholics like to say, ‘ever ancient, ever new.’”
“Give me more Catholic authors, preachers, and quotes” he would pester me. Two he cherished especially. The first was Fulton J. Sheen: “To be a sinner is our greatest curse. To admit it our greatest blessing.” The other is Robert Barron: “Each of us is born with a cardiac problem: we have a hole in our heart. Only God can fill it.”
Tim Keller, a pastoral cardiologist. Trusting in the mercy of Jesus, we pray you are “home” now with Him. We are confident this consoles Kathy and their three sons. We thank the Lord for the gift he was.