Tim Keller on spiritual fruit and ministry

Last Saturday morning, I attended the President’s Breakfast at Gordon-Conwell. I knew that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore when I asked the gentleman next to me how long he’d lived in the area, and he replied that the King had granted his family their property in 1626. Lots of other fascinating stories and some good food, but I was really there to hear Tim Keller.

If you know Keller’s ministry, you know that he is going to remind us of the Gospel in relation to whatever he’s talking about. I was curious to see what he’d talk about to donors, trustees, and D.Min. graduates.

Dr. Keller gave one insight into ministry. We in ministry, he said, tend to mistake spiritual gifts with spiritual fruit, maturity, and character. It’s one of our most deadly mistakes. He then unpacked this in three points: a biblical perspective, practical perspective, and the question, “What do we do about this?”

1. Biblical Perspective

1 Corinthians 13 reminds us that we can have great gifts, visionary leadership, and be active in social justice. If we have the qualities he mentions in verses 1 to 3, our church will likely grow big. But without love, none of this matters.

You can grow your church, and at the same time be almost spiritually dead inside. You can grow a church but it can be driven by insecurity. You can have abilities and talents, and God can use you, but you can lack grace in the heart.

Preaching and pastoring can be effective without grace – but your inner life, your love and character, can’t be. Charity and Its Fruit by Jonathan Edwards is helpful in this area.

2. Practical Perspective

In ministry, it’s inevitable that we’ll have to tell people of the greatness of God when, at times, we don’t have a sense of it in our own lives. There are only two ways to respond to this.

One option is to realize that we need a prayer life beyond what we’ve ever known. What about the dry times? Even in the dry times, there is power in confessing our fragility. It brings us back to grace. We become more dependent, less arrogant.

The other option is to throw ourselves into the busyness of ministry looking for results. It’s like a spiritual sugar. It’s like eating Twinkies. It fills the hole but not for long, and we’re going to need a lot more in the morning. We often try to fill ourselves with ministry success rather than God’s grace.

Gifts can’t substitute for fruit. We can be do ministry out of fullness or emptiness. Our spouse will know the difference. This is where all the hidden stuff reveals a lot, such as pornography and binge eating.

Practically, grace can even compensate for a lack of giftedness. There are three basic clusters within ministries: public speaking, pastoring/counseling, and leading. Nobody does all three well. Godliness compensates for weakness in any one of these areas. For example, you can be godly and a poor speaker, but your godliness will lead you to keep your message short, and if you are truly godly you won’t be boring for 15 minutes. You can be a poor counselor but if you are godly you will be a good listener. Grace compensates for a lack of giftedness.

3. What Do We Do About This?

It’s both simple and hard. Spurgeon said don’t save souls to save our own soul. Dr. Keller said that he never used to understand this. Now he realizes that it’s possible to save souls to try and fill the hole in our hearts.

At one point, Dr. Keller came to realize that he was seeking his own justification through his preaching. He was being his own functional Savior. We often make the mistake of identifying our self-worth with our ministries.

The solution is to use the Gospel on our own hearts.

Before Robert Murray McCheyne died, he preached on Isaiah 60:1. They found a letter by his bedside when he died. The letter was from someone who heard him preach his last sermon. That sermon, the letter said, brought him to Christ, but it wasn’t what he said in the sermon. It’s what he saw in McCheyne. “I saw the glory of the Savior resting on you.”

Postscript: Both Peter Scazzero and Tim Keller dealt with similar themes in their messages. Both mentioned Charity and Its Fruit by Jonathan Edwards, which is a book I’ll have to get. There’s no doubt that this theme is an important one for those of us in ministry, but not the one that gets the most attention in a results-oriented world. Very good stuff.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada