Theology 101

Reflections on Tim Keller’s Contribution to Theology of Work

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He walked, talked, wrote, and taught with so much wisdom and wondrous grace.

Our hearts overflow with rejoicing in remembrance of Pastor Keller’s life. He lived so well for Christ Jesus and his Kingdom. Like so many, I’ve done my share of reflecting in recent days. Gospel-focused endeavors, missional church planting, innovative urban discipleship, robust preaching, as well as scholarly authorship. All these—and more—captivated a host of tribes and schools of thought. What a blessed legacy.

I recall with gratitude Keller’s deep contribution to a theology of work, and I am moved by a trifecta of his genuinely joyful gospel influence. With depth of insight and erudite skill, Keller’s teaching and writing advanced the realms of Faith at Work and Business as Mission on multiple levels. While numerous characteristics can be noted, three significant contributions stir my gratitude:

First, Keller’s contribution was Jesus-centered. 

He explored and explained scripture with a marvelously Jesus-centered approach. Christ-focus is readily evident throughout Keller’s writing and teaching. Leaders in both the academy and the church frequently trumpet his hallmark insistence that we see Jesus and his mission throughout all of the biblical story. This was Jesus’ own hermeneutic (Lk. 24:36-49). Should it really surprise us that such a bedrock trait would show up in Keller’s grasp of how God works?

One simply profound example stands out in Every Good Endeavor. While highlighting the dignity of all manner of work, Keller remarked: “But in Genesis we see God as a gardener, and in the New Testament we see him as a carpenter. No task is too small a vessel to hold the immense dignity of work given by God.” 

With such brilliant encapsulation of foundational truth, we are encouraged to work with humility, labor in love, and lead strong in every enterprise. In keeping with Keller’s legacy, we can work every job with Jesus-centered, gospel-focused, integrated outlook.

Second, Keller’s contribution was holistic. 

He consistently turned the spotlight on God’s holistic work: whole people—souls and bodies—including our physical world. Keller encouraged us all to live “the genius of the and.” As pastor-teacher, biblical scholar, and missional leader, Keller’s winsome approach included salvation of souls and social concern in the material world. 

In The Prodigal God, he supplied these insights about God’s redemptive intentions:

This world is not simply a theater for individual conversion narratives, to be discarded at the end when we all go to heaven. No, the ultimate purpose of Jesus is not only individual salvation and pardon for sins but also the renewal of this world, the end of disease, poverty, injustice, violence, suffering, and death . . . God made the world with all its colors, tastes, lights, sounds, with all its life-forms living in interdependent systems. It is now marred, stained, broken, and he will not rest until he has put it right . . . Jesus was not simply saved “in spirit” but was resurrected in body. God made both soul and body and is going to redeem both soul and body. Everything about the ministry of Jesus demonstrated this fact. Jesus not only preached the word, but also healed the sick, fed the hungry, and cared for the needs of the poor.

Christians must take Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 seriously. Keller saw this as holy writ we really should wholly heed. 

This side of heaven, no one perfectly espouses a perfect theology, no matter what our tribe or tutelage. Keller readily encouraged and modeled humility. People seldom agree with every inch of someone else’s framework. That includes Keller’s. Across his life work, he drew ample criticism for a variety of views. One recurring issue is the practical social action flowing from Christocentric biblical theology. 

For Keller, it wasn’t enough to boldly preach Christ from all of the Scriptures. Based on Jesus’ joyous grace, it is essential that we actually work out our Christ-centered faith. On the next page in The Prodigal God, Keller made certain to remove any doubt regarding what he believed to be Jesus’ intended outcomes:

Christians, therefore, can talk of saving the soul and of building social systems that deliver safe streets and warm homes in the same sentence. With integrity . . . Christians cannot be passive about hunger, sickness, and injustice. Karl Marx and others have charged that religion is “the opiate of the masses.” . . . Properly understood, Christianity is by no means the opiate of the people. It’s more like the smelling salts.

We gain ongoing motivation for Christ-honoring, biblically grounded, holistic gospel work in all of our twenty-first-century mission fields. 

Third, Keller’s contribution was colorfully creative. 

Following the grace and joyous flair of his Creator, Keller integrated artistic appreciation and eternal outcomes. His networking included artists like Makoto Fujimura. Together, they emphasized the myriad beautiful ways artists help advance the gospel’s saving message and life-giving action throughout the church and broader society.

Pastor Keller appreciated the literary artistry of J.R.R. Tolkien. Hobbits, rings, and wizards pepper Keller’s books, articles, and talks. Perhaps most poignant— especially now in light of his own death and eternal reward—is how Keller resonated with Tolkien’s story Leaf by Niggle. With appreciation for Tolkien’s view of work’s long-range redemption and eternal significance, Keller reflected:

Tolkien’s dream and the resulting story, “Leaf by Niggle,” are simply a depiction of this hope. Niggle imagined a beautiful tree that he never was able to produce in paint during his life, so he died weeping that his picture, the great work of his life, was not completed. No one would ever see it. And yet, when he got to the heavenly country—there was the tree! This was Tolkien’s way of saying, to us as well as to himself, that our deepest aspirations in work will come to complete fruition in God’s future.

With deepest appreciation for Keller’s work, I cannot help but engage my own holy imagination and wonder: Might Tim Keller have already walked deep enough into the heavenly land of the living (Ps. 116) and discovered his own tree? Might Keller be enjoying conversations with the likes of Tolkien, Lewis, and others? I wonder.

Oh, how full his gospel joy must be right now in King Jesus’ eternal glory (2 Cor. 4:16-5:10).

Now, Keller walks and talks in person with Wisdom and Wonderful Grace.

And he walks with him forever.

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