Timothy Keller

3 Ways Tim Keller Challenged Us to Live Out Our Faith

On Friday, May 19, pastor, theologian, and author Timothy Keller, 72, passed away after a 3-year fight with pancreatic cancer. The news gripped the hearts of Christians around the world, whose lives–whether through a book he’s authored, by listening to one of his sermon podcasts, or being a part of his congregation–were greatly impacted by Keller.

The stream of tributes that flowed in on social media shortly after news of his passing broke underscored the impact of Tim Keller’s life and work on this generation of Christians. For many of us who grew up feeling disillusioned about the faith and alienated by churches that we felt were unwelcoming of our questions and doubts about Christianity, Keller’s teaching, and the way he presented Christianity—as a faith that’s intellectually credible and satisfying—helped us rediscover the beauty of the gospel and drew us back to the arms of our heavenly Father. 

As we honour his life’s work and pray that God would raise up more Christian leaders like him who can preach the gospel with eloquence, reason with grace, and live with integrity, we reflect on three things Tim Keller has taught us on how to live out our faith:


1. He engaged others with gentleness and respect 

Keller is well-known for approaching sensitive topics such as sex, money, or power—tools that the world uses to measure our success—with gentleness and respect. These topics are often prickly to broach and can come across as “holier than thou” or “prudish” when coming from the pulpit. Yet in Keller’s hands, he lays out the truth in a gentle manner, patiently untangling the lies and myths we’ve held on to, and pointing us towards the sufficiency of Christ in fulfilling our needs. 

As Peter Wehner wrote for The Atlantic in his piece, “My Friend, Tim Keller”: “Tim’s preaching style was cerebral, culturally sophisticated, conversational and nonabrasive. There was a ‘Come now and let us reason together, saith the Lord’s spirit’ to his ministry.” [1]

And this way of preaching, of conversing gently with one another without getting defensive, is the outworking of Colossians 4:6, “Let your conversations be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone”, and of 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give an answer for the hope that you have. . . but do this with gentleness and respect.”

We can learn from Keller as we look to tell our friends about Jesus—we don’t necessarily have to be defensive and turn discussions into deep-heated conversations—but hearing their side of their beliefs as we share ours.


2. He preached the gospel wherever God called him to 

One of the legacies that Keller left behind is giving us a vision for what it looks like to reach cities with the gospel. In 1989, he and his wife, Kathy, planted Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a theologically orthodox church in the heart of Manhattan–a city that never sleeps, where debauchery of every scale is lived out and celebrated (sin seen as “being alive” and as part of “living”), and inhabited by “enlightened” people. 

He told a New York magazine that he felt it would be “cowardly” not to move to Manhattan, but both he and his wife, Kathy, had a “kind of ‘sick in the pit of our stomach’ feeling every day”.

Nevertheless, the Kellers believed that the best way to be obedient in our faith is to love our neighbours and go wherever God has called us—even if it’s to, in Kathy’s words, the “big bad whore of Babylon”. And it was there that God taught them that when we see ourselves as “sinners saved by sheer grace”, it makes it hard for us to “disengage, caricature, demonise anyone, or to feel disdainful or fearful of anyone.” [2]

Most of us will probably never plant churches in New York, but many of us are called to “plant” the gospel in our own “Babylons”, be it in our schools, universities, and workplaces—secular places where our faith could potentially cost us. 

However, we can take heart (and many leaves) out of Keller’s well-lived life, and know the gospel “removes fear”. It may be intimidating to bring the gospel to an environment that’s hostile to it, but in the words of Keller, “While we should be concerned and not needlessly offend people, the assurance of God’s love and acceptance should give us the courage to face criticism and disapproval”. [3]


3. He taught us to face death and suffer well

Perhaps one of the greatest impacts Keller’s made is in the way he’s lived out his faith as a Christian while battling cancer over the past three years.

Three days before he died, Keller said these moving words in his prayer: “I’m thankful for my family, that loves me. I’m thankful for the time God has given me. But I’m ready to see Jesus. I can’t wait to see Jesus. Send me home.”

These might seem obvious for a man of great faith to say. But two years ago, Keller confessed in an Atlantic article his honest struggles about facing death after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer: “I. . . caught a glimpse of [the book I wrote] On Death on a table nearby. I didn’t dare open it to read what I’d written. . . What would happen to me? I felt like a surgeon who was suddenly on the operating table. Would I be able to take my own advice?” [4]

Like us, Keller knew that it was one thing to know the truth, and an entirely different thing to believe it for ourselves by living it out. We may know what God says in His Word, but when suffering and death come for us, we’re still caught off guard; it’s still terrifying. But, as Keller went on to say: 

I realised that my beliefs would have to become just as real to my heart, or I wouldn’t be able to get through the day. Theoretical ideas about God’s love and the future resurrection had to become life-gripping truths, or be discarded as useless. [5]

To make the theoretical real, Keller taught us to do “head work” and “heart work”—to use both our reasoning and feelings; to relearn and rehearse for ourselves who God is, and let everything sink into our hearts. 

First, to help us face the reality of suffering and death and reconcile that with the existence of God, Keller reminded us to reexamine and correct what we believe deep down: we live for God and not the other way around; God knows everything and we do not; God is in control and we are not, and when we truly believe these, it frees us to let God be God. 

Second, to speak to our hearts, Keller invited us to soak up the Psalms that tell us who God is, and to speak to our souls (e.g., “Why so downcast, O my soul?” (Psalm 42), “Bless the Lord, o my soul” (Psalm 103)). He encouraged us to “look hard at [our] deepest trusts, [our] strongest loves and fears, and bring them into contact with God”, and to pray daily this comforting truth—that because Jesus died and lives again, we too will get to experience the same.

Finally, Keller shared with us how it is possible and utterly wonderful to be able to enjoy life in the face of death when God’s reality becomes so deeply impressed on our hearts. He talked of encountering that peace that surpasses understanding when he was about to undergo a major operation.[6] In his final days, he spoke sincerely and confidently of the happiness he’s felt of late, and how this happiness can exist alongside grief. That though we may shed many tears, the comfort and joys of God can still run deep in us and will carry us until the day Jesus brings us home.


#ThankYouTimKeller for showing us what it looks like to live a life of faithful obedience—and Happy Homecoming. Though many of us mourn on this side of eternity, thousands more rejoice with you as you finally meet our Master, who undoubtedly calls you His “good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23) and lovingly ushers you into His happiness.


[1] Peter Wehner. “My Friend, Tim Keller”.

[2] Timothy Keller & John Inazu, Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference, Nelson Books, 2020, pages 25-26.

[3] Ibid, p.30.

[4] Timothy Keller. “Growing My Faith in the Face of Death”.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Matt Smethurst. “Tim Keller Wants You to Suffer Well”.


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