The way I am going to approach this topic tonight is by telling my story from the time I was a boy in Greenville, South Carolina, to the place where I am now with a focus on the factors that shaped me into the kind of pastor I am today — for good or ill.
From one angle, this approach is typically American — we Americans, in general, much more quickly bare our souls to the world than many cultures do. For example, F.F. Bruce, representing the British of a generation ago (and perhaps not too different today), said at the end of his autobiography, In Retrospect: Remembrance of Things Past (1980, p. 306),
While some readers have observed that in these chapters I have said little about my domestic life, others have wondered why I have been so reticent about my religious experience. The reason is probably the same in both instances: I do not care to speak much — especially in public — about the things that mean most to me. Others do not share this inhibition, and have enriched their fellows by relating the inner story of the Lord’s dealings with them — one thinks of Augustine’s Confessions and Bunyan’s Grace Abounding. But it calls for quite exceptional qualities to be able to do this kind of thing without self-consciousness or self-deception.
So now you can see that I am trapped. My first reaction when I read this was to say, “No wonder I have found his commentaries so dry — helpful in significant ways, but personally and theologically anemic.” My second reaction was to say (this was in 1980, the year I left academia and entered the pastorate): “Good grief! You say, ‘I do not care to speak much — especially in public — about the things that mean most to me.’ I say, ‘The only thing I care to speak about — especially in public — are the things that mean most to me!’”
Now both his and my statements are probably overstatements. But seriously: This is one of the differences between me and many scholars that drove me out of the guild. I am regularly bursting to say something about the most precious things in the universe, and not in any disinterested, dispassionate, composed, detached, unemotional, so-called scholarly way, but rather with total interest, warm passion, (if necessary) discomposure, utter attachment, fullness of emotion, and, I hope always, truth.
I am with Jonathan Edwards all the way when he says,
I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with. (Edwards, “Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 4, The Great Awakening, [Yale, 1972], 387
And, of course, my assumption is — for Edwards and for myself — that in our aim to raise the affections of our hearers, we have experienced authentically raised affections ourselves about what is true and in proportion to the nature of the truth.
So I have zero empathy with F.F. Bruce and others when they say (sometimes in the name of personality, and others in the name of scholarly objectivity), “I do not care to speak much — especially in public — about the things that mean most to me.” I think it hurts the cause of the gospel if such scholars insist that a theological lecture or a critical scholarly commentary is not the place for that.
But now you can see that he has me trapped, because he says, “Others do not share this inhibition, and have enriched their fellows by relating the inner story of the Lord’s dealings with them — one thinks of Augustine’s Confessions and Bunyan’s Grace Abounding. But it calls for quite exceptional qualities to be able to do this kind of thing without self-consciousness or self-deception.”
So to follow the course I have set for myself, I must think myself in the possession of “exceptional qualities” and perhaps be in the ranks of Augustine and Bunyan. Dear, dear, what shall I do?
There is another possibility — in fact, there are several. One is that I do not have “exceptional qualities” to make my story helpful; I may just be stupid to take this approach. Another possibility is that I may be egotistical and vain. The Internet world we live in today is awash in narcissism and vanity, with some people taking their clothes off literally, because exposure gives them a rush, and others doing it spiritually — because the addicting power of talking about yourself where anyone in the world can read it is overpowering.
I put Philippians 2:3 before me regularly with it’s piercing word kenodoxian (vainglory), “Do nothing from rivalry or vainglory (kenodoxian), but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). The love of human praise — human glory — is universal and deadly.
Jesus said, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44). You can’t. You can’t believe in the crucified Messiah as your supreme treasure and hero, and then love the exact opposite of what took him to the cross.
So, in pursuing an autobiographical approach to this talk I may be stupid, or I may be vain. Or another possibility is that I may be Pauline.
For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8–9)
For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged. (Colossians 2:1–2)
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. (Philippians 1:12–13)
In other words, Paul repeatedly talks about his personal life and experience with God, with a view to helping his listeners. So, yes, this approach is risky. But there are reasons for it.
One of my reasons involves a huge assumption, namely, I assume that one of the main reasons I was asked to do this talk is that somebody thinks I am one of these — a pastor-scholar. I’m not sure that I am. And so I thought maybe I should just tell my story as how I got to be the way I am, and you could just decide if I am to not — or in what sense I am and in what sense I’m not — and if it’s a good thing to be this way, or not, and what the implications are for you and for the church.
So I’m going to look at 7 chapters of my life through the lens of this question: What were the impulses toward scholarship and the pastorate? And along the way you will pick up on what I mean by scholarship and pastoring.
When I was 6 years old at a motel in Florida on vacation with my family, I prayed with my mother and put my faith in Jesus Christ as my Savior. My parents were Christians, and my father was an evangelist. I loved them, admired them, and embraced the truth that they taught me. The influence of my father was huge. I admired him as a preacher. But very quickly I knew that I would never be a preacher because by the time I was in high school I could not speak in front of any group. I was paralyzed with anxiety about it and trembled so terribly and choked up to completely that it was physically impossible to read or speak before any size group. So preaching and the pastorate were totally ruled out of my dreams.
Moreover, there was no vision for scholarship in my home. It was not even a category in our minds or a word in our vocabulary. My father had a library and a study at home, but I never thought about it. So pastoring was not an option because of my disability, and scholarship was a non-existent category when I went to high school. But I was a believer. I loved Jesus. I hated sin. I feared God in good way. I took heaven and hell and salvation and the gospel very seriously. They were dominant realities in my life. And so the seeds of ministry were there. But no dream to be a pastor and no awareness that there even was such and thing as scholarship.
High School Days
In high school, there was a double awakening — one was intellectual and the other was emotional and expressive. On the intellectual side, there was advanced biology and tenth-grade geometry. These stand out as very significant. On the emotional side, it was poetry and writing in eleventh-grade English class.
The process of reasoning from axioms and postulates and corollaries in order to turn theorems into proofs was explosively exciting to me. I loved the ability to draw right conclusions from true premises. That class marked a serious awakening of my love for right thinking. From that time to this, I have had an ear and an eye for non-sequiturs in what I hear and read. So if a politician or a preacher says, “All cows have four legs; Fido has four legs; therefore Fido is a cow,” I’m all over it. From that class on, I have had a self-conscious expectation that I will never knowingly be illogical or incoherent.
Then there was Mrs. Hinton’s advanced biology class where we dissected worms, and frogs and fetal pigs, and bred tsetse flies. Many of you have heard the story of Agassiz’s fish — about the naturalist who demanded of his student that he sit and stare at a fish for a week to learn all he could. Well, Mrs. Hinton was like that. The point of all this dissection was to awaken in us the crucial discipline of accurate and thorough observation. Do you see what’s really in the pig or in this passage of Scripture? All the sharp reasoning in the world will lead you astray, if you start with observations that are inaccurate or incomplete.
It was no surprise to me then in seminary when Agassiz’s fish was used in a hermeneutics class, and when in Germany I read in the New Testament scholar Adolf Schlatter that “Die Wissenschaft ist erstens Beobachtung, zweitens Beobachtung, drittens Bebachtung” (“Science/scholarship is first observation, second observation, third observation”). So what happened in Mrs. Hinton’s biology class was the awakening of a self-conscious awareness that dependable knowledge — of the world or the Bible or anything else — depends on seeing what’s really there for the mind to work with.
These were two huge impulses feeding into who I am in ministry: painstaking observation of texts and the demand for precise thinking — from myself and from others.
Two other awakenings in high school have never gone away. One was the passion to write, and the other was the bent toward poetry. My father sowed the seeds of poetry, because he wrote poems now and then for special occasions, and he read poems to the family. Even in the months before his death at 87, I would ask him to read his poems to me, and he would weep at certain points, for example, as he read about his 6-year-old son.
But all of that lay dormant until the spring of 1963 during my junior year. In my English class, the desire to read serious books and the desire to write serious essays and poems was born. This has never gone away. Writing has been an almost daily habit since then — in one form or another — notes, letters, journal entries, poems, ideas, reports, essays, and more.
Writing became the lever of my thinking and the outlet of my feelings. If I didn’t pull the lever, the wheel of thinking did not turn. It jerked and squeaked and halted. But once a pen was in hand, or a keyboard, the fog began to clear and the wheel of thought began to spin with clarity and insight.
And when the feelings that rumbled around in my heart as an introverted, insecure, adolescent needed form, I turned to poetry and writing. So along with the disciplines of precise thinking and painstaking observation came a passion for conceptually clear and emotionally moving expression in writing.
Two last things remain to be underlined about high school. I knew when I was done that I could not speak in front of any group and was deeply troubled and anxious about my future — what kind of job would help me avoid that? And I knew also that I read painfully slowly. To this day I cannot read faster than I can talk. Something short-circuits in my ability to perceive accurately what’s on the page, when I try to push beyond to go faster. Those two disabilities — paralyzed before people and a painfully slow reader — I knew would keep me out of any profession that demanded great quantities of reading and any public speaking.
But Christ was real to me. I turned to him in my sorrows. I loved my church. I hated sin. I feared God. I believed in the Bible and heaven and hell. Somehow, my life had to count. But I did not know how.
The season at Wheaton was enormously influential in fanning the flames that had been lit in high school — the intellectual stimulation, the emotional deepening, the passion to write. In one sense my college and seminary days relate to each other as form and substance. The college days solidified passions and habits of mind. The seminary days defined what the focus of those habits would be, namely, God and his word and his people.
The influences of these days can be grouped under the mind, the heart, the synthesis, and the bridge to ministry.
Arthur Holmes and Stuart Hackett were both in the philosophy department. Holmes embodied two things I had never seen before: 1) the quest for a comprehensive worldview that helped make sense of everything — and that had Christ as the integrating center — and 2) the life of the mind as vocation. In other words, Christian scholarship as a vocation came onto the horizon of my life as a possibility for the first time in my life.
Stuart Hackett was probably one of the two most influential teachers I had at Wheaton, not because of the theology he held, but because of the way he thought. I only had two classes with him, and the content of every day seemed to me to be the same and never boring. He was the philosophical embodiment of what geometry had meant to me in the tenth grade. The point of every class seemed to be: any system of thought that denies truth, denies itself. In other word, he modeled the universal significance of the law of non-contradiction: If you say there’s no truth, then you’ve just spoken something that doesn’t count. That simple insight was has been life-saving and life-illuminating for over 40 years. It spared me from being enamored by all the ludicrous postmodernism, which was already rampant in the late 1960s. So, thank you, Dr. Hackett.
Francis Schaeffer burst on the scene in the Fall of 1965 and had the effect of taking all the intellectual awakening and showing us that it could be culturally and evangelistically engaging. In other words, he seemed to embody a way of taking all the scholarly impulses of the ivory tower and putting them to personal and social use in the world in the name of Christ. So his particular way of doing apologetics had the effect of helping many of us believe that the intellectual awakening we were experiencing at Wheaton could really be a blessing in the world more broadly than we thought.
Another influence at Wheaton was the students. Never had I been around so many intellectually engaged young people. It had a double effect. One was to pour gasoline on the fires lit by the professors. The other was to remind me of my weaknesses. Because of this kind of expectation in the classroom, I was not an outstanding student at Wheaton. My GPA, if I remember correctly, was what today would be a 3.2. I was a B student, not an A student. Therefore, I never thought of myself as becoming a front-ranking anything. I was not superior in any way at Wheaton.
Along with these intellectual springs bubbling up, there was another river flowing. My love of reading and writing led me to be a literature major. The literature faculty was renowned. I tried to take every poetry class that Wheaton offered. And I avoided every novel class that was offered. I could not read fast enough to get through the novels in a semester, but I could write and analyze poetry. So I carefully navigated my way through a lit major as one of the slowest readers on campus.
But mainly the poetry was chosen because the emotions of a young man can run deep in the river of poetry. Clyde Kilby was a giant in the lit department in those days, and his book Poetry and Life was lived out in front of us in class. Kilby took the passion for observation and breathed a kind of life into it that biology never could. He taught me there is always more to see in what I see. There is always wonder. There is always something to be astonished about. There is mental health in learning to look at a tree or a cloud or a nose and marvel that it is what it is. This then became poetry. When you finally see the wonder of what you have been looking at for 10 years, what you do with that seeing is try to say it, and that is what poetry is. What what you see is God, there is only a fine line between poetry and preaching.
One of Kilby’s resolutions for being a healthy person read like this: “I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day, I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are, but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of, what Lewis calls, ‘their divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic existence.’”
When you are being helped to see what you’ve always looked at all you life and never seen, it is absolutely revolutionary. Kilby was one of the greatest influences of my life, and I scarcely know what he thought about anything. It was the way he saw the world and spoke of the world. He was so alive to the wonder of things. This was incalculably valuable preparation of soul for the vision of God that would come in just a few years at seminary.
In this section on heart belongs Noël Henry. She has been my wife for 40 years. But in those days, starting in the Summer of 1966, she was this ravishing object of desire. O how I wanted to be married to Noël. Falling in love is very powerful. Not in vain does the Song of Solomon say, “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (8:4). The effects of finding a wife are so pervasive and long-lasting that they are immeasurable, so here is where she entered my life and nothing has been the same since. I owe her more than anyone else in the world.
The synthesis of mind and heart was embodied in C.S. Lewis. Lewis became for me in my college days what Jonathan Edwards became in my seminary days. He was a “romantic rationalist” — that was the name of a small book about Lewis that that got me very excited because it summed up what I thought I was (which may be very akin to “pastor-scholar”). Lewis has had a tremendous influence on me in several ways.
Lewis embodied the fact that rigorous, precise, penetrating logic is not inimical to deep, soul-stirring feeling and vivid, lively — even playful — imagination. He combined what almost everybody today assumes are mutually exclusive: rationalism and poetry, cool logic and warm feeling, disciplined prose and free imagination. In shattering these old stereotypes for me, he freed me to think hard and to write poetry, to argue for the resurrection and compose hymns to Christ, to smash an argument and hug a friend, to demand a definition and use a metaphor.
Lewis was the main influence on Clyde Kilby. And so he had the same effect on me. He gave me an intense sense of the “realness” of things. To wake up in the morning and be aware of the firmness of the mattress, the warmth of the sun rays, the sound of the clock ticking, the sheer being of things (“quiddity” as he calls it). He helped me become alive to life. He helped me see what is there in the world — things which if we didn’t have, we would pay a million dollars to have, but having them, ignore.
Finally, he has made me wary of chronological snobbery. That is, he has shown me that “newness” is no virtue, and “oldness” is no fault. Truth and beauty and goodness are not determined by when they exist. Nothing is inferior for being old, and nothing is valuable for being modern. This has freed me from the tyranny of novelty.
These were immeasurable gifts and had the effect of synthesizing my Wheaton experience. The intellectual stimulation, the emotional deepening, the stirring of imagination, the passion to write — all of these came together in C.S. Lewis and made me wonder if I should teach English literature as a vocation.
The Bridge to Ministry
But there were other key factors that God was putting in place that were going to determine the direction all this energy would take. I’ll mention 4. These are the bridge that God built to seminary and the ministry of the word.
First came the momentous Summer of ‘66. Not only did I meet Noël, but chaplain Evan Welsh asked me to pray in Summer School chapel, and for reasons I cannot recall or imagine, I said yes. That meant standing before about 500 students and faculty and praying for one minute. Never in my life had I been able to do such thing in front of 30, let alone 500. I vowed to God on front campus: If you will get me through this without choking and becoming paralyzed, I will never say no to a speaking opportunity out of fear. He answered that prayer, and I believe something broke. I have tried to keep my vow.
Harold John Ockenga came to preach in chapel in the Fall of 1966. I was lying in the campus health center with mono as I listened to him on the radio. And God created in my heart at that time a desire to study and understand the word of God that has never died. It is as alive and strong today as it ever was. So the bridge to seminary was being built. I was on my way to a clear biblical focus for all the intellect and emotion and imagination and writing that were being awakened and deepened at Wheaton.
Then came John Stott and Men Made New, a little yellow paperback of an exposition of Romans 5–8. I loved it. It was fuel in the flame that Ockenga had lit and showed me the kind of careful attention to the text that, for me, made it live.
Then came Urbana ‘67 where Stott again opened 2 Timothy in a week of messages and where the utter indispensability of global missions hit home.
With all that (the anxiety breakthrough, the call of God through Ockenga, the modeling of John Stott, the impulse of missions), the bridge was built to pursue the study of God’s word in seminary. I did not know what I would do with it vocationally. All I knew is that everything that God had done in my life was getting me ready to study his word and somehow use it for the church and missions.
When I went to Fuller, I was detached from the local church. In college I had not seriously engaged with one local church. That was foolish and immature. It continued for a few months in seminary, and then I got married and knew I needed to grow up. Noël and I went to Lake Avenue Congregational Church where Ray Ortlund was the senior pastor. There we fell in love with the church — the local church of real people, with real relationships. By the time we were done at Fuller, Noël was teaching the mentally disabled, and I had taught seventh grade, ninth grade, and young marrieds. Eventually, 4 years after I left, I was ordained at that church. Never again did I play fast and loose with my attachment to the local church. To cut yourself off from the local church is to cut yourself off from Christ.
In seminary, explosive things were happening in my soul. I was watching the agony and the ecstasy of the new evangelicalism struggling to break free from the anti-intellectualism and cultural distance of fundamentalism into an intellectual and cultural engagement that would be respected in the guild. Some of these men paid with their lives and their families and their health in the struggle to find scholarly credibility. George Ladd was almost undone emotionally and professionally by a critical review of Jesus and the Kingdom by Norman Perrin of the University of Chicago. And when his New Testament Theology was a stunning success 10 years later, he walked through the halls shouting and waving a $9000 royalty check.
The scholarly discipline of Geoffrey Bromiley who translated all of Kittle’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament was awe-inspiring. But the sophomoric belittling of fundamentalists in some classes by younger faculty was disappointing. This faculty was on a quest to put orthodoxy on the map intellectually. So it was a heady place in the late sixties.
For me it proved to be the most decisive time of my life theologically and methodologically. And the key living person under God was Daniel Fuller. Emotionally and personally, he was as broken as the others. But in his brokenness, he put so many things together for me.
- Nobody thought more rigorously than Dan Fuller.
- Nobody was more riveted on the biblical text in his exegetical method than Dan Fuller. We called it arcing, and it has been the methodological key to all that I have seen in the Bible for the past 40 years.
- Nobody was more jealous to think the author’s thoughts after them because that’s what meaning was — the author’s intention (E. D. Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation was compelling).
- Nobody was more practically committed to the truth and authority of Scripture.
- Nobody communicated a greater sense of gravity of the ultimate things at stake in biblical truth.
- Nobody was more vulnerable to students’ questions or took them more seriously.
- Nobody was more committed to showing that much reading is not the essence of scholarship but that assiduous, detailed, meticulous, logical analysis of great texts can lift you into the greatest minds. This gave me hope as a slow reader.
- Nobody pierced to the essence of true scholarship the way Dan Fuller did. In partnership with Mortimer Adler’s How To Read a Book, he taught me that true scholarship, whatever our vocation, was:
- to observe the subject matter accurately and thoroughly,
- to understand clearly what was observed,
- to evaluate fairly what was understood by deciding what is true and valuable,
- to feel intensely according to the value of what was evaluated,
- to apply wisely and helpfully in life what is understood and felt, and
- to express in speech and writing and deeds what was seen, understood, felt, and applied in such a way that its accuracy, clarity, truth, value, and helpfulness can be known and enjoyed by others.
And by all of this singularly blood-earnest scholarship, he introduced me, through Scripture and through Jonathan Edwards, to the truth that God is most glorified in us when I am most satisfied in him. This was the seed from which has grown all the books I have written. The fact that God pursued his glory and my joy in the same act of worship was the most explosive truth I have ever learned. The sources were the Bible and Edwards.
I recall the day in class when he was accused of being too rational by a student from the new school of psychology. He responded by saying: Why can’t we be like Jonathan Edwards who in one moment could be writing a devotion that would warm your grandmother’s heart and in the next give a philosophical argument that would stump the chief thinkers of his day? My heart leaped. I went straight to the library after class, knowing almost nothing of Edwards and checked out his Essay on the Trinity. That’s what I read first. Then I bought a photocopy of The End for Which God Created the World at the bookstore.
Meanwhile, my exegesis and systematic theology classes were undoing my Arminian presuppositions with biblical facts. By the end of 3 years, I was not only the romantic rationalist awakened in the Wheaton days, but the focus of that romance and that rational labor was the word of God with an absolutely sovereign God of grace at the center who planned the death of his Son for my salvation before the world was made.
All of this was being forged while teaching Sunday School, and while falling in love with the church under Ray Ortlund’s shepherding, and while hearing Ralph Winter describe the explosive new realities of missions around the world. Nothing about my emerging theology felt artificial or academic or detached or irrelevant to life. It all felt real and personal and relevant for church and home and the culture and all the nations of the world.
But what to do with my life? The advice I got was, if you have the energy and a wife that’s willing, get your final degree (a doctorate), and then all the doors will be open to you. I was rejected at Princeton and accepted by Leonhard Goppelt at the University of Munich.
Doctoral Studies at the University of Munich
What I saw in the theological educational system and state church life in Germany confirmed most of what I did not want to become. Here were world-class scholars that everyone on the cutting edge in America was ooing and ahing over teaching in away that was exegetically untransferable, insubordinate toward the Scriptures, and destructive to the life of the church. I sat in an ordination where the preacher announced his text from Q (the hypothetical document containing parts of Matthew and Luke, not shared by Mark).
I did my study of Jesus’ love command and worshipped in a lively Baptist church and led a small discipleship group every Friday night, and stoked my fires with Jonathan Edwards and God’s word. But what I saw in Germany could not come close to the theological and methodological goldmine that I had found in seminary. I used that to write an acceptable dissertation and left as quickly as I could. I did not have to work hard to protect myself from this system. I saw it up close and from the inside and found early on that this global king of biblical scholarship had no clothes on.
I was disillusioned by such scholarship.
- Driven by the need for peer approval.
- Using technical jargon that only insiders understand and that often conceals ambiguity.
- A speculative focus in object and methodology (Formgeschichte, Traditionsgeschichte, and Redaktionsgeschichte, and Sachkritik) that gave rise to scholarly articles which began in the mode of Wahrscheinlichkeit and by the end had been transformed into the mode of Sicherheit by the waving of the wand of scholarly consensus.
- Using linguistic skills to create vagueness and conceal superficiality.
- Not pressing the question of meaning until it yields the riches of theological truth.
- Not having the smell of heaven or hell, nor seeming to care much about lostness.
- Not letting exultation into their explanations, and therefore not being able to show the reality of things that cannot be illumined except in the light of exultation.
- Not seeing the incoherence between the infinite value of the object of the study and the naturalistic nature of their study. The whole atmosphere seemed unplugged from the majesty of the object.
I earned my doctorate. They mailed it to me a few months after I left. I took it out of the mailing tube to see if it was real in the Fall of 1974. I put it back in and have not looked at it since. It’s still in the tube in a bottom drawer at home, and no one has ever asked to see it. But, by God’s grace, it did get me my first job.
I had a wife and a child and needed a job. I wrote to 30 churches, denominations, missions, colleges, and seminaries. One door opened for a one-year sabbatical replacement teaching New Testament at Bethel College, St. Paul, Minnesota. I took it and have been in Minnesota ever since.
These were 6 happy years teaching book studies and Greek and New Testament Introduction. I thought this was my calling. Be a teacher and a scholar. So I set about to write and published my dissertation in the Society of New Testament Studies monograph series, and a handful of articles in scholarly journals. These were heady days as I stretched my academic wings. I loved the writing. I loved the teaching.
But gradually things began to change inside of me. God was stirring. I knew I would never be a great scholar. I simply could not read fast enough. I could take a small issue or an article or book and apply the severe discipline of analysis and criticism. But I could not be comprehensive. I could not read all that was written on anything.
Moreover, I was teaching in college, not seminary, and so the trickledown effect of my teaching for the good of the church had farther to go than if I had been teaching seminary students. That was frustrating.
I became very restless with the work of grading papers and teaching such a limited slice of the pie of humanity: middle class, mainly white 18- to 22-year-olds.
All the while, I was hearing good preaching on Sunday and feeling a fire inside: O Lord, I would love to do that. And if I heard a bad sermon, I would feel, O Lord, we’ve got to do better than that.
Then came the sabbatical of May–December 1979. I wrote the book The Justification of God. While I was living in Romans 9, the Lord said through those words, “I will be proclaimed and not just analyzed or explained.” By the end of that sabbatical, the battle was over, and I had resolved to leave teaching and seek a pastoral position.
I longed to see the word of God applied in preaching to the whole range of ages and life situations. I wanted to watch the absolutely sovereign God of Romans 9 build his church. I wanted to see what would happen if the supremacy of God in all things were made the centerpiece of a local church through the word of God.
I knew what this would mean to leave the world of academia.
- It would mean no more Summers free to read and study and write.
- It would mean endless administrative pressures and challenges.
- It would mean an uncontrollable schedule.
- It would mean an audience who would not want or reward academic prowess but pastoral warmth and presence.
- It would mean funerals and weddings and baptisms and counseling and hospital visitation and emergencies and conflict resolution and staff management.
- It would mean that the days of publishing articles in New Testament Studies and Theologische Zeitscrift and the days of being on the cutting edge of any scholarly discipline were over.
- It would mean pressure to write a sermon or two or three every week would be relentless.
But knowing all that, I could not resist any longer. The passion to preach and to see God shape and grow a church by the word of God was overwhelming.
Bethlehem Baptist Church
So I was called to Bethlehem and began in June of 1980. The church was 110 years old, and there were 300 older people and almost no youth. What I have done is try to preach with authentic passion for God and love for people the whole counsel of God from his inspired Book. I have tried to structure things so that the people are cared for in their needs and so that they learn to care for each other and reach out to the lost.
The impulses from high school and Wheaton are very much alive. I am a reader (very slow reader), a thinker, a feeler, a writer, a lover of poetic power. Therefore, I write my sermons, and I try to write them with manifest rooting in the text of Scripture, with clear thinking, with strong feeling, and with imaginative surprise.
This means that they are available to turn into books. Almost all my books were first preached. And even the exceptions are thoroughly influenced by the preaching. I am not a writer or a scholar who preaches. I am a preacher who writes.
If I am scholarly, it is not in any sense because I try to stay on the cutting edge in the discipline of biblical and theological studies. I am way too slow for that. What scholarly would mean for me is that the greatest Object of knowledge is God and that he has revealed himself authoritatively in a Book. And that I should work with all my might and all my heart and all my soul and all my mind to know him through that Book and to make him known.
This is the goal of every pastor.