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What Did Charles Stanley and Timothy Keller Have in Common?

Last month, the Church lost two of its most impactful preachers of the Gospel, Charles Stanley and Timothy Keller.  Charles Stanley and Timothy Keller couldn’t have been more different.  They were complete opposites.  They would have made the perfect odd couple! 

Charles Stanley was one of the best known preachers to have ever lived.  Several years ago, I read an article in Christianity Today that talked about Billy Graham being the best known preacher in history.  Because of modern media, more people have heard Billy Graham preach the Gospel than any other person in history.  But the article went on to point out that Charles Stanley and Chuck Swindoll have had a similar impact, being second and third on the list.  Through his In Touch media ministry, Stanley’s First Baptist Church in Atlanta sermons have reached millions—worldwide.  Through him, millions have heard—and often responded to—the Gospel.  Only Billy Graham has had a larger impact. 

More of an “old school” preacher, Stanley firmly believed that by presenting the Gospel in a simple, straight forward way, the Word, through the power of the Holy Spirit, would convict people’s hearts and transform their lives by drawing them into a saving relationship with Christ.  Which happened—millions of times over.   

Having a more intellectual bent, Keller believed that, for many, especially the most skeptical, the Holy Spirit would use apologetics to ignite the fire of Christ’s love.  Thought by many to be the C. S. Lewis of our generation—Lewis, of course, is regarded by most as the greatest modern Christian apologist—Keller planted a church in Manhattan in the late eighties.  He founded Redeemer with the express mission of reaching notoriously skeptical New Yorkers, especially younger professionals drawn to Manhattan by all the unique opportunities the big city affords.  And, against all odds, it worked—magnificently. 

Because I’m a skeptic who was drawn to Christ through apologetics—the Holy Spirit using apologetics to ignite the fire of His love in my heart—I felt a stronger connection to Keller and have a greater affinity for his approach.  But I loved listening to both Stanley and Keller—and through the magic of modern media will continue to listen to their recorded sermons for years to come! 

I am well aware of their flaws, the many criticisms that have been leveled at both, even from within the church.  After forty years of marriage, for example, Stanley went through a very tragic, high-profile divorce, resulting in many fellow evangelical leaders calling for him to resign from his position.  Many outside the church criticized him for being too “fundamentalistic”, in other words, too literalistic and simplistic. 

Keller, especially in recent years, took positions on social justice issues that many evangelicals found questionable, even to the extent that some have questioned his doctrinal orthodoxy—though I fail to see where Keller isn’t as orthodox as anyone on core Christian doctrine.  Through the years, many outside the church, in particular more liberal leaning New York media elites, blasted Keller for what they called his “backward” and “exclusivist” conservative stances on many social issues, especially regarding sexuality and gender. 

Neither Stanley nor Keller was perfect.  Nor would either ever claim to be.  The only One they claimed to be perfect is Jesus.  Both faithfully and consistently pointed to Him.  And they did so prolifically.  Although he was battling cancer for the past several years, Keller continued to pump books out right up to the end.  And Stanley, in his late eighties, continued to preach every week at First Baptist.  Though each had his own unique approach, throughout their lives both were eminently faithful in preaching the Gospel.  To use a football analogy, both left it all out there on the field.

What made Stanley and Keller so incredibly impactful?  What drew millions to them?  The one thing they had in common is also what, I believe, accounts for the incredible appeal and wild success of each.  Despite employing radically different approaches, both had, and contagiously exhibited, an absolutely authentic relationship with Christ.  It was abundantly clear how real, how palpable, God’s unconditional love in Christ was for them.  It was abundantly clear how both were so totally, even mystically, swept up into Christ’s love. 

In a tribute episode In Touch ministry recently released in the wake of Stanley’s death, there are a number of interviews with people who knew him as their pastor before he came to First Baptist in Atlanta and became so well-known through the TV ministry launched there.  Many of his former congregants mention how often they would accidentally interrupt him in his office.  Praying.  On his knees.  While he was happy to help them, they were very much impressed—and often amused—by this fact.  It spoke loud and clear of how central spending time with God in prayer was to him, how seriously he took it, how much it consumed his time, his life. 

They also spoke glowingly about how he wasn’t just a great preacher.  He was also a true pastor, always available for them, regularly visiting each of them.  And how, not only in his preaching, but especially in his public prayers, the one-on-one relationship he had with God was so transparently real, so intimate and personal, it was infectious.  So infections, it made them want to know God in the same way.  To know the Person, Jesus, the as deeply Stanley did.  And Stanley was living proof this could happen, living proof of how real, how utterly transforming, how sublime a deep, personal, intimate relationship with Christ can be.  He made it enormously desirable. 

In this same tribute, Stanley’s son Andy talks about one of the lowest points in his ministry, when he was nearly ousted from First Baptist by its leaders after the congregation overruled them by choosing to elevate Stanley from associate pastor to fill the recently vacated senior pastor position.  Even in the bleakest moments when—unbelievably—some of these opponents actually threated his life, Stanley stood firm.  And was perfectly at peace in the process.  As Andy explains, he truly lived by faith, simply trusting in His Savior no matter what, simply preaching the Gospel as faithfully as he could and leaving the rest up to God.  In everything Stanley said and did, it was plain to see that his relationship with Christ proved to be the real deal.  And this, I believe, is what people found so attractive.  This is what made his faith so splendidly contagious.  

I only heard Timothy Keller preach in person once, during a visit to Redeemer in Manhattan.  But I’ve read most of his books.  And I listen to many of his older sermons on a radio broadcast called Gospel in Life.  Quoting everything from the New York Times to Nietzsche, Keller was especially adept at presenting compelling apologetical arguments for the truth of Christianity.  In perfect accord with the title of what I believe was his best book, The Reason for God, Keller routinely gave many solid reasons to believe in Jesus during the course of his sermons. 

But in every sermon, he also provided a most profound exegesis of the Biblical text.  He did this in a way that was, at least for me, like no other, teasing out fresh insights and digging out the goldmine of Truth contained within the text.  I’ve never encountered anyone else who could so consistently yield such a treasure trove of mind-blowing insights from passage after passage. 

But the thing that stands out most about virtually every sermon of Keller’s I’ve heard is that he always comes back to the Gospel.  He always ends by marveling at how stunning God’s grace is, how astounding it is that Christ would die for sinners like us.  And each and every time I’ve heard him do this, the most striking thing is that it’s as if he is saying it for the first time.  As if he himself is seeing it for the first time.  As if, in that moment, it is just dawning on him how wonderful and true the Gospel is.  Of course, it wasn’t.  As he would frequently recount in the details of his faith story, he’s known this to be true most of his adult life.  But this reaction betrays how completely swept up in the wonder of it all he was—it was so palpably thrilling to him that every time he would speak of it, it sounded brand new to him.  It remained—as it does for anyone who truly “gets it”—fresh truth.  Good news that never failed to skyrocket him to heights of ecstasy and awe.  Whenever he talked about God’s grace, the unconditional love he had found in Christ and wanted to shout to the world, it was as if he had just encountered it for the first time, as if he had just discovered and been blown away by its awesome reality anew.

The Gospel was the air that Keller breathed.  The winsomeness of his relationship with the Lord, which towered even over his great intellect and prowess for making sense of Christian faith, is why, I believe, so many people were impacted by him. 

Russell Brand recently appeared on a show called Gutfeld!.  He gave a hysterical but also quite candid interview.  Between laughs, he revealed how unfulfilled Hollywood had left him.  Even after all his success and a very high-profile romance and marriage to Katy Perry—they’re divorced now—he felt deeply dissatisfied in life.  None of it, as he called it, was real.  Now, he dedicates his life to focusing on what is real.

Are you looking for something real?  Are you ultimately left dissatisfied, even by the best things life affords?  If you want something real, if you want Ultimate Reality Itself, Charles Stanley and Timothy Keller are bright shining lights pointing you right to it.  To Him.  To Jesus. 

The one thing Stanley and Keller had in common, the one thing that most impacted millions over the years, transforming countless lives, was this real, personal, palpable, intimate, passionate, mystical relationship with Christ.  They were both living proof that you could have this relationship too.  Living proof of the way Christ’s transcendent love makes all the difference, filling you with that profound peace that passes all understanding, a joy no circumstance can take away, and most of all, an abiding, unconditional love that assures anyone who has put their trust in Christ, that nothing can separate us from God’s love. 

This is the one thing that remains, the most real thing in this world—and the next. 

So what do you think about Charles Stanley and Timothy Keller?  What do you think their legacy is?  I’d love to hear your comments.  You can go to the “Contact E. J.” page of the Raising Jesus website and leave your comments there.  I look forward to hearing from you!   

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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