When I heard last week that Tim Keller had died, I had two responses. The first was sadness.  I was sad because even though I had never met him, I had spent countless hours with him. He travelled with me in my car. He sat beside me at my desk. He had been there when I was washing up, and when I was mowing the lawn. He’d helped me prepare couples for marriage. He was my companion on countless plane trips interstate. And he’d been the evangelist to whom I introduced my non-believing friends. We were close, me and Tim. His way of thinking had in many ways shaped my way of thinking. His vocabulary had shaped my vocabulary. His preaching had shaped my preaching.

So, I was sad.

But after I had sat with my sadness for a bit, something different came over me. It was resolve. Not a steely, run-through-a-brick-wall kind of resolve. Something quieter, and deeper. A resolve to keep going. A resolve to keep putting into practice in my own preaching the emphases and convictions that Tim Keller had persuaded me were worth pursuing. I determined that if Tim Keller’s ministry meant anything it was that we who survive him are now much better equipped to get on with our own ministry. Sure, I am sad. He was a giant. But I’m convinced that what he taught and modeled about preaching during his lifetime remains the way forward.

So, with that in mind, I want to share five things I have learned about preaching from Tim Keller.

1. The Gospel is the message that Keller preached

Keller was always banging on about this. We who have been called to preach must preach the gospel every single time we speak. We are the quintessential one-trick ponies. This is not to say that Keller’s preaching was simplistic, or that he failed to preach the whole counsel of God, or that all he ever preached about was the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. But it is to say that no matter which part of the Bible he was exegeting, he always made sure the person and work of Jesus was central. The gospel of Christ saves us from the judgment of God, and it causes us to grow in Christlikeness. The gospel humbles us and lifts us up. It is not simply the ABC of the Christian faith, it is the A to Z. It didn’t matter whether Keller was preaching to grieving New Yorkers the week after 9/11, exhorting Christian pastors at The Gospel Coalition Conferences, or addressing sceptical employees at Google— Keller never failed to preach the good news of Jesus Christ. His 2001 essay ‘Evangelistic Worship’ persuaded me, early on in my ministry, that when the gospel is preached during our Sunday gatherings, outsiders are saved, backsliders are restored, and believers are edified, all at the same time, as the gospel is preached and applied carefully.

2. The heart was the target of every Keller sermon

It was never enough for Tim Keller to get the gospel out. He wanted to get the gospel in. He wanted his preaching to be both true and compelling. He would say that there is a big difference between a well-informed church and a well-fed church. Following Augustine, he taught that the heart, as the seat of our will and our emotions and our personality, is the primary shaper of who we are. So, Keller’s motivation in preaching to both believers and non-believers was to use the gospel to re-order the affections of our heart.

Thomas Chalmers’ sermon ‘The Expulsive Power of a New Affection’ was instrumental in Keller’s method. Chalmers, and Keller, saw that the goal of preaching is to present Christ in such a way that the hearer would be more delighted in Christ than in anything or anyone else. That way, as the Spirit worked, their hearts would bend towards Christ. Keller sought to achieve this by doing two things: first, he would deconstruct the idols of the world, showing them to be unworthy of our heart’s affection. Second, he would placard the beauty and glory of Christ, inviting his listeners to taste and see that the Lord is good.

Keller taught that our sanctification is built on our justification. The more our hearts are moved and melted by the gospel, the more like Christ we will want to be.

3. Keller saw that stories and illustrations are crucial

Keller loved telling stories. His sermons are littered with quotes and references to stories and novels and movies. He used them to get to the hearts of his listeners. I have heard him quote from C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charlotte Brontë, and Jane Austen, to name just a few. He has recounted scenes from movies such as Rocky, Chariots of Fire, The Stepford Wives, and Superman. Keller’s well-developed imagination enabled him to translate the gospel story into another language, or  transpose it into a different musical key, so that it could be communicated in fresh and arresting ways. His stories and illustrations helped his listeners to not only understand the truth of the gospel, but to feel the grip of the gospel on their hearts, as the Holy Spirit brought illumination.

This has been hugely helpful to me. As a week-in-week-out preacher, set apart to serve up the meat and potatoes of the gospel to my church every week, I find that watching movies and reading stories is crucial. I need stories, to keep my own imagination firing, so I can help people see and feel the beauty and glory of Christ.

4. Keller’s opponents were always respected

I think this is one of the most important things I have learned from Keller. It has been especially important for me as I consider how to engage with the hostile secular world. Keller was not one to shy away from critique. But I never heard him speak disrespectfully in his sermons of any of the people he critiqued. He has said that before critiquing a person or a movement or an ideology or a religion, he would always make sure he understood them thoroughly. He wanted to be able to present the point of view he was disagreeing with in a way that the proponents of that point of view would recognise and nod along to. I am convinced that this is the best way to engage with our opponents. You want to be able to win the argument without crushing your opponent.

Keller’s commitment to the doctrine of common grace also meant that he was always expecting his opponents to have something to say which was praiseworthy. I remember hearing him critique Buddhism in a sermon. But before the critique, he said something like: “Now there is a lot about Buddhism that I really like. But …” In order for the gospel to be heard by our opponents (insofar as the unregenerate might at least conceptually understand it), we need them to know that we understand and respect them. “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar” is a useful maxim, for both barristers cross-examining potentially hostile witnesses, and preachers engaging with a potentially hostile audience.

5. You can tell that Tim Keller loved the Gospel and he loved his people

This is something I haven’t really heard many people talk about, in the wake of his death. Without even being in the same room, I got the unwavering impression as I listened to Tim Keller preach that he really believed the gospel, and he really really wanted his listeners to believe it too. There was warmth and affection in his delivery. You could hear it in his voice. He didn’t shout, but he was deeply passionate. He believed that the preached gospel has the power to change people on the spot as they come face to face with the risen and ruling Christ. Keller’s hope for his hearers was that hearing would become worship, and that stony hearts would melt into flesh as Christ was held up in the preached word.

This is the greatest gift Tim Keller has given me. He has, under God, melted my own stubborn heart, time and time again, as he has gloried in Christ in his preaching, and caused me to glory in Christ along with him. Moreover, Tim Keller modelled to me a heart motivated by a love for the gospel, and a love for the people to whom he preached. This is, in fact, the heart of the gospel itself: for God so loved that he gave!

I want to keep going. I am sad he’s gone. He really was a giant—a Presbyterian giant at that. But over and above the sadness is a resolve to keep preaching. So that’s what I’m going to do.

– Alistair Bain, Presbyterian pastor at St John’s Hobart