The Most Important Doctrine I Learned In Seminary

“People thought Tolkien was joking when he later said that he wrote The Lord of the Rings to bring into being a world that might contain [his] Elvish greeting …. The remark is witty – but also deadly serious.”

– Phillip and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship, 26.

J. R. R. Tolkien loved words. More than that, he loved the study of words and delighted in philology or “the zone where history, linguistics, and literature meet.”[1] Therefore, when he had invented several languages he found he needed a world to house them. The result–the entirety of the fictional environs we know as Middle Earth and its inhabitants found their genesis in their creator’s love of words.

Words are something our Creator loves as well. He spoke the world into existence with words, sent his Son as the Word, and the Spirit breathed perfectly all the words we have in the Bible as Scripture. Thus, the Christian life is a life clothed and shaped by words even as some of those words require hard work to gain their full meaning.

When I went to seminary (in the latter part of the 20th century) I had only been a Christian for 4 years. I knew what it meant to be saved but was still working out what all that meant. For example, I had come to learn and love the hymn:

Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.

But it was not yet clear to me how exactly did Jesus wash me white as snow? I knew that Jesus died for my sins, but I don’t think I could have told you what happened when he did or how he did it. That is when I discovered I had a philology problem–a problem with words.

As I often tell students, when I arrived at seminary I was like a crumpled up piece of paper—all I needed to know for life and godliness was there on the page—I just needed some instruction and further discipleship to help iron out my many theological wrinkles.

Thus, through a combination of class instruction, mentorship from my pastor, and the discovery of a few important books,[2] I came to study the doctrine of the atonement. As I studied, I discovered that at the core of the atonement is a red-hot blazing term the Bible calls propitiation, a word I did not know, but one I came to treasure. As the ESV Study Bible simply and helpfully defines it, propitiation is “a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath and turns it to favor.”

As I studied, I discovered that while the word propitiation is used only four times in the New Testament,[3] its impact is tsunamic—the wave like implications and effects of this aspect of the doctrine of the atonement reach every corner of the Bible. As J. I. Packer says,

“Not only does the truth of propitiation lead us to the heart of the NT gospel, it also leads us to a vantage point from which we can see the heart of many other things as well.”[4]

From this new vantage point grew further understanding and—don’t miss the connection between study and practice—a deeper burden for the lost both at home and especially among those in the world who have never heard the gospel.

For an understanding that on the cross, Jesus took the wrath of God I deserved (Rom 5:9) and averted it for me (Rom 3:25) so I could have his righteousness (2 Cor 5:21) led to an understanding that he also has averted it for every human being on the planet (1 John 2:2), and that righteousness is available for all who repent and believe (Phil 3:9).

In short, the theological freight packed into that one word—propitiation–would become the most important doctrine I would learn in seminary. The result of my philology problem, it became for me and remains a doctrine to know and a doctrine to share.

Yesterday, I preached an expanded version of this message looking at Hebrews 2:17 in our chapel service at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Links to audio or video will be posted here when available.

[1] Zaleski & Zaleski, The Fellowship, 24.

[2] In particular J. I. Packer, Knowing God and Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross.

[3] Rom 3:25; Heb 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10.

[4] J. I. Packer, “The Heart of the Gospel,” in Packer and Mark Dever, In My Place Condemned He Stood (Crossway, 2008), 42.

That They May Have Life

“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 10:10

“Every human life is intended by God from eternity for eternity. Human life is sacred because it is the creation of God, the Lord of life. ‘For you did form my inward parts, you knit me together in my mother’s womb’ (Psalm 139:13). Nature shares in the consequences of sin and innumerable lives are lost before they have an opportunity to develop in the womb, as many die in disasters such as famine, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Mortality is the common denominator of all life on earth. We are morally responsible, however, for the protection and care of life created in the image and likeness of God. The commandment ‘You shall not kill’ is the negatively stated minimum of what we owe to our fellow human beings.

The direct and intentional taking of innocent human life in abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and embryonic research is rightly understood as murder. In the exceedingly rare instance of direct threat to the life of the mother, saving her life may entail the death of the unborn child. Such rare and tragic instances are in sharpest contrast to the unlimited abortion license created by the Supreme Court, resulting in more than forty million deaths since 1973.

The blindness of so many to this moral atrocity has many sources but is finally to be traced to the seductive ways of evil advanced by Satan. Jesus says, ‘He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies’ (John 8:44).

The direct and intentional taking of innocent human life may be attended by what is believed to be compassion, especially in the case of the dependent and debilitated aged. While we can sympathize with those who view their own life or the life of another as a burden and not a gift, and while, by the grace of God, there can be repentance and forgiveness for those who are guilty of committing great evil, there can be no moral justification for murder. We are determined to employ every legal means available to protect, in law and in life, the innocent and vulnerable members of the human community.

We plead also with our fellow citizens who do not accept the authority of God’s commandments or the good news that is the gospel of life to consider the consequences of having created a license to kill. In the present state of our tragically disordered law, citizens are given, in the case of abortion, a private ‘right’ to kill those who are too young, too small, too handicapped, too burdensome, or, for whatever reason, not ‘wanted.’ When this ‘right’ and the lethal logic that supports it is established in law, there is no principled reason why it should not be applied to the ‘unwanted’ at any point along life’s way, as advocates of eugenics, euthanasia, and assisted suicide logically contend.

The inescapably public question posed is whether we as a political community adhere to the founding proposition articulated in the Declaration of Independence that all people are endowed by their Creator with certain ‘unalienable rights,’ beginning with the right to life. The course of progress in our political history has been one of inclusion rather than exclusion. Most notable has been the inclusion of slaves and their descendants, and the recognition of the political rights of women. The foundational moral claim on which our polity rests is the claim that all human beings are created equal and are the bearers of rights that we are obliged to respect. [….]

There are no doubt many reasons for our society’s perilous drift toward a culture of death. One major cause is the abortion regime established by the Supreme Court by the Roe v. Wade decision of January 22, 1973. That decision is rightly described as an act of raw judicial power that eliminated in all fifty states existing legal protections of unborn children. It is an encouraging measure of the moral health of our society that the abortion license decreed by Roe has not been accepted by the great majority of Americans. It now seems possible that this question will be returned to the process of democratic deliberation and decision in the several states. In that process, we as Evangelicals and Catholics together pledge our relentless efforts to persuade our fellow citizens to secure justice in law for the most vulnerable among us. [….]

Finally, our society’s drift toward a culture of death will not be arrested and reversed without a bolder and more persuasive witness to the gospel of life centered in Jesus Christ who is ‘the way, the truth, and the life.’ Whatever our cultural circumstance, whatever the ebb and flow of political and legal fortunes, our first duty is evangelization: to share ‘in season and out of season’ (2 Timothy 4:2) the good news of the unsurpassable gift of eternal life, beginning now, in knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. [….]

We cannot and would not impose this vision of a culture of life upon others. We do propose to our fellow Christians and to all Americans that they join with us in a process of deliberation and decision that holds the promise of a more just and humane society committed, in life and law, to honoring the inestimable dignity of every human being created in the image and likeness of God. For our part, as Evangelicals and Catholics together, we refuse to despair of the power of public witness and persuasion in the service of every member of the human community, for whom Christ came ‘that they may have life and have it abundantly.'”

That They May Have Life, A Statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, 2006.

See Timothy George and Thomas G. Guarino, eds., Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty: Vital Statements on Contested Topics (Brazos, 2015).

Why We Should Worship God With Others on Sunday

“[The] word of God is everywhere in worship.

In the call to worship we hear God’s first word to us; in the benediction we hear God’s last word to us; in the Scripture lessons we hear God speaking to our faith-parents; in the sermon we hear that word reexpressed to us; in the hymns, which are all to a greater or lesser extent paraphrases of Scripture, the Word of God makes our prayers articulate.

Every time we worship our minds are informed, our memories refreshed with the judgments of God, we are familiarized with what God says, what he has decided, the ways he is working out our salvation.

There is simply no place where these can be done as well as in worship. If we stay at home by ourselves and read the Bible, we are going to miss a lot, for our reading will be unconsciously conditioned by our culture, limited by our ignorance, distorted by unnoticed prejudices.

In worship we are part of ‘the large congregation’ where all the writers of Scripture address us, where hymn writers use music to express truths that touch us not only in our heads but in our hearts, where the preacher who has just lived through six days of doubt, hurt, faith, and blessing with worshipers speaks the truth of Scripture in the language of the congregation’s present experience.

We want to hear what God says and what he says to us: worship is the place where our attention is centered on these personal and decisive words of God.”

–Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 2nd Ed. (IVP, 2000), 55.

One-hundred and twenty-fifth birthday: J. R. R. Tolkien, born January 3, 1892

‘Today is my one hundred and eleventh birthday: I am eleventy-one today!’

‘Hurray! Hurray! Many Happy Returns!’ they shouted, and they hammered joyously on the tables. Bilbo was doing splendidly. This was the sort of stuff they liked: short and obvious.

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 1

The one C. S. Lewis called a “smooth, pale, fluent little chap,” J. R. R Tolkien (1892-1973), was born one-hundred and twenty-five years ago today, and in keeping with Tolkien’s reckoning, I suppose that would make him twelfty-five. [1]

Now world renowned for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings stories, Tolkien continues to inspire all those who venture into Middle Earth, and then venture there and back again.

C. S. Lewis says it well in his 1937 review of The Hobbit:

“To define the world of The Hobbit is, of course, impossible, because it is new. You cannot anticipate it before you go there, as you cannot forget it once you have gone …. The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.” [2]

And Clyde Kilby, founder of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton, helpfully observed in his 1969 reflection:

“My own experience working with Professor Tolkien for a summer convinced me that though the story as his insists must not be read as allegory, nevertheless it has strong Christian overtones.

Thomas de Quincey pointed out that all true literature becomes ‘a Jacob’s ladder from earth to mysterious altitudes above the earth’ where only the dullest reader will not find meaning unlimited, and it is this sort of idea that gives credence to Guy Davenport’s remark concerning Lord of the Rings: ‘For a generation that can’t make head or tail of St. Paul, Mr. Tolkien has got Isaiah and St. Paul back before readers’ eyes.’

In a word, then, we’re justified in feeling, as sensitive readers of this story always do, a deep religious, even Christian undertone. But it should be added that it is a story to be enjoyed, not a sermon to be preached.” [3]

For those who have found Tolkien as an inspiration for their own writing, it is encouraging to note that The Hobbit was not published until Tolkien was 45 years old, and The Lord of the Rings when he was 62 and 63. So whatever your age is on your 2017 birthday, let Tolkien continue to inspire for writing and reading great works is a lifelong and noble pursuit.

For more on Tolkien’s life, listen to the audio recording of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Tolkien.

[1] C. S. Lewis, All My Road Before Me (Mariner, 2002), 293. Also cited in Alister McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life (Tyndale, 2013), 128.

[2] “C. S. Lewis Reviews The Hobbit,1937” in the Paris Review Daily, November 19, 2013.

[3] “Kilby on J. R. R. Tolkien,” His, 1969, reprinted in Clyde S. Kilby, A Well of Wonder, eds., Loren Wilkinson and Keith Call (Mount Tabor Books, 2016), 151-153.


In 2017, Study the Doctrine of the Church with Us

Today at For the Church, I seek to answer the question ‘Why Study the Doctrine of the Church?” My essay begins this way:

In the nineteenth century, leading Southern Baptist theologian J. L. Dagg wrote this with regard to the relationship of ecclesiology to other doctrines:

Church order and the ceremonials of religion, are less important than a new heart; and in the view of some, any laborious investigation of questions respecting them may appear to be needless and unprofitable. But we know, from the Holy Scriptures, that Christ gave commands on these subjects, and we cannot refuse to obey. Love prompts our obedience; and love prompts also the search which may be necessary to ascertain his will. Let us, therefore, prosecute the investigation which are before us, with a fervent prayer, that the Holy Spirit, who guides into all truth, may assist us to learn the will of him whom we supremely love and adore.[1]

As evangelical Protestants, we are rightly often first in line to affirm that the doctrine of the church is less important than a heart twice-born. Our Reformation heritage hands us five solas and to think of an additional sola ecclesia is like adding a sixth Istar to the Third Age of Middle Earth, i.e. unthinkable. As such, evangelicals are not as often quick to affirm that wrestling with and arriving at sure ecclesiological convictions, as Dagg suggests, is a worthwhile exercise.

Why should we, then, study the doctrine of the church? To answer that, we need to clarify ecclesiology’s rightful place among and functional posture toward other doctrines.

You can read the rest of the article here.

At Midwestern Seminary, we offer the Ecclesiology PhD Seminar on a regular basis. This is a core seminar for the theology, missiology, ministry and historical theology emphases in the MBTS PhD program.

This Spring, I am pleased to announce that noted theologian and specialist in ecclesiology, Dr. Malcolm B. Yarnell, III of Southwestern Seminary, is joining me in co-teaching this seminar that starts officially on Jan 12 and meets on campus March 13-17.

We will have the students read 11 ecclesiology texts, many from different traditions and prepare reading outlines for discussion, write and present a major research paper, and complete a 12 page statement of their own biblical ecclesiology. Here is the syllabus for Ecclesiology (DR 37337).

Current PhD students can still enroll until January 12, or join us as a late registrant until January 26.

If you’d like to learn more about the Midwestern PhD program so you can join us for the study of ecclesiology in a future seminar, please visit the Doctoral Studies page. We’d love to hear from you.

Also, we have a new residential component of the PhD program starting in Fall 2017. Learn more about ‘The Residency’ here.


[1] J. L. Dagg, Manual of Church Order (Charleston, SC: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1858), 12.

See “Why Study the Doctrine of the Church?” at

Tolkien’s Lost “Noel”

Originally published in the 1936 Annual of Our Lady’s School, Abingdon, Tolkien’s “Noel” was unknown and unrecorded until scholars Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull discovered it while searching for another poem in June 2013. In May 2015, Our Lady’s School, Abingdon discovered their copy of the Annual and in Feb 2016, news of the discovery was widely reported.

As the Tolkien Estate and Our Lady’s School has future plans to publish the poem, I include just the first section of the poem here.

NOEL by J. R. R. Tolkien

Grim was the world and grey last night:
The moon and stars were fled,
The hall was dark without song or light,
The fires were fallen dead.

For more information on the discovery and future plans, see:

“Undiscovered J R R Tolkien poems found in 1936 school magazine,” Oxford Mail, February 15, 2016.

“Two Poems by J.R.R. Tolkien Found in School Publication in England,” New York Times, February 16, 2016.

“There and Back Again, Again: New Tolkien Poems Found in Old Annual,”, February 17, 2016

If interested in reading other posts I’ve written on Tolkien, please click here.


Jason G. Duesing is provost and associate professor of historical theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., and author and contributor to several books including Seven Summits in Church History (Rainer Publishing, 2016). You can follow him on Twitter @JGDuesing.

Tom Oden’s (1931-2016) Recovery of Classic Christianity

As I was driving home last night, I was disheartened to hear of the passing of Thomas C. Oden (1931-2016). He was a theologian I met and heard in person only once eleven years ago, but like many of his generation, I was trained and influenced more by those he influenced. As he lived in nearby Oklahoma City, I had hopes of meeting him again through a mutual friend, but that will now have to wait for a more glorious day. I am grateful for his life and contribution to evangelical theology, both in word and deed. He was a Gentlemen Theologian.

In recent years, I read his outstanding autobiography, and found it to shed great insight for me on the development of theology in the twentieth century, among both Protestant liberalism and Evangelicalism. For, as the title of the volume suggests, right around the age of 40, Oden experienced a change of heart. This theological transformation he underwent resulted in a new trajectory away from the theological left of his academic training and toward something older and more solid, what he would call classic Christianity. This new path led him to find a warm welcome among evangelicals, as he would say,

“I found the evangelicals to be more welcoming and inclusive than the liberals, who were so frequently speaking about inclusion with a narrower view of inclusiveness largely defined by gender and ethnicity. Evangelical and Catholic inclusiveness transcended those divisions and went deeper into transcultural classic Christianity” [175].

The result has been four-decades of significant literary output that includes the massive and pioneering Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.

While there is much to glean and learn from the life and thought of Tom Oden, particularly, I am grateful for the revived interest in early Christianity and Patristic theology he helped to champion. In A Change of Heart he tells the story of how this came to pass:

A Collegial Challenge

In the 1970s, while at Drew University, Oden tells of a confrontation he had with a friend and  Jewish colleague, who informed Oden, at that time a 39 year old Christian theology professor, that he was “densly ignorant of Christianity.” Oden relates,

“Holding one finger up, looking straight at me with fury in his eyes, he said, ‘You will remain theologically uneducated until you study carefully Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas.’ In his usual gruff voice and brusque speech, he told me I had not yet met the great minds of my own religious tradition” [136].

The Plunge

Following this Oden “plunged into reading the earliest Christian writers,” and what he found there changed his life and soul. Through reading Polycarp, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Augustine, Macrina, John of Damascus, and John Chrysostom he said the “maturing of my change of heart took place only gradually.” Commenting further,

“I was being guided by the Spirit toward and integral sense of Scripture based on the consensus of the early Christian interpreters of sacred Scripture. Every question I previously thought of as new and unprecedented, I found had already been much investigated

Soon I reveled in the very premises I had set aside and rationalized away: the preexistent Logos, the triune mystery, the radical depth of sin passing through the generations, the risen Lord and the grace of baptism.

As I worked my way through the beautiful, long-hidden texts of classic Christianity, I reemerged out of a maze to once again delight in the holy mysteries of the faith and the perennial dilemmas of fallen human existence.

It was no longer me interpreting the texts but the texts interpreting me. I was deeply moved” [137-139].

Nothing New

Oden was relieved by what he discovered and the theological and life-altering change he experienced. He shared that he was “elated to realize that there was nothing new in what I was learning; I was only relearning what had been relearned many times before the apostolic witness.” In reflecting on his life to this midpoint, he assessed,

“My life story has had two phases: going away from home as far as I could go, not knowing what I might find in an odyssey of preparation, and then at last inhabiting anew my original home of classic Christian wisdom. The uniting theme of the two parts of my life can only be providence. For confessing Christians it is a familiar story of a life unexpectedly turned around by an outpouring of grace.

My life has passed through the core phases of the history of modern social change, politics, technology, philosophy and religion. Some may find that my story mirrors their own experience. Putting that mirror in another’s hands is my motivation to write it accurately just as it occurred. Those societal changes have affected everyone in our times, but at the same time the perennial story of salvation awaits anyone ready to hear it.

I had been enamored with novelty. Candidly, I had been in love with heresy. Now I was waking up from this enthrallment to meet a two thousand year old stable memory” [140].

A Prefigured Epitaph

In 1971 Oden dreamt that he was walking the the New Haven cemetery and came across his own tombstone that read, “He made no new contribution to theology.” For him, this prefigured epitaph was a welcomed relief and a sign of his change of heart. He explained,

“The striking image signaled to me that I no longer had to produce something new in theology in order to find a reliable foothold in theological discourse …. Since the first time I ever thought of becoming a theologian, I was earnestly taught that my most crucial task was to ‘think creatively’ in order to ‘make some new contribution to theology’ ….

But this dream prompted me to begin to try to follow the strict rule of Irenaeus that Christian truth must avoid any temptation to ‘invent new doctrine’ … What the ancient church teachers least wished for Christian teachers is that they would become focused on self-expression or become an assertion of purely private inspiration, as if those might claim to be some decisive improvement on apostolic teaching” [144].

Tom Oden referred to this awakening as his “midlife breakthrough. I was forty,” he said. “My next forty years would be entirely different.” And,

“As with Augustine, it was through a journey of the mind that I had a change of heart. I had to learn than my life was more than my mind, and that my journey had to be experienced without knowing where it was taking me. In the 1970s I learned that it was God the Spirit, prompting, wooing, revealing and guiding the journey” [178].

As many take the occasion in the coming days to reflect on Oden’s life and theological work, particularly his contribution to the theology of the early church, I am one who remains thankful for Oden’s change of heart and his recovery of classic Christianity.

A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir

Thomas C. Oden
IVP, 2014



The Light Still Shines in the Darkness: Carl Henry on Advent Hope

“The opening chapters of two great New Testament books keep running through my mind. Both deal with God’s creation and its despoilment by sin; both hold out the alternatives of salvation or judgment. Both chapters are familiar to you, I’m sure. One is the classic prologue of John’s Gospel; the other, that awesome first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.

John’s prologue twice mentions darkness, each time sweepingly enough to cover not only man’s fall and sinfulness but also the darkness of Crucifixion Day, and even that of our own declining civilization. How graphically this work ‘darkness’ brings into focus the moral malignancy and spiritual sham of the human race! ‘The light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not’ (1:5, KJV). Other versions stress the point that no fury of darkness can overcome or extinguish God’s light; until endtime judgment overtakes us, the light of God’s living Word will continue to expose human wickedness for what it is.

Romans chapter one is much more specific about moral evil. The exploding wickedness of the Gentile nations supplies a sort of Richter scale of civilizational decline, a measure of the slide of men and nations into the abyss of iniquity. As shocks and aftershocks of ethical earthquake surge over modern life, Paul’s letter speaks not only to the Romans but to us also about the crucial crisis of our times, and the judgment that lowers above us.

The theme of Paul’s epistle and John’s Gospel is the same: The light of God is shining through the darkness of human history and is penetrating the very mind and conscience of even a rebellious age. Suppress the truth of God though it may, fallen mankind can in no way eradicate it. God’s light and truth remain and continue to unmask what we are ….

Even in the midst of this dark hour, the Christian community is called upon to sound the call of repentance, forgiveness, and God’s triumph. God is still active in our secular society. He not only warns the impenitent masses of dire judgment but prods them also toward faith, and even prepares some for salvation. Multitudes today are thirsting for personal faith. Many are looking for a messiah; they must be turned from false christs to the risen and returning Lord.

God’s Logos is still lighting every man, still shining in the darkness. The truth of God is still penetrating the mind and conscience of even the most wicked. Even some who seem hopelessly given over to iniquity may come by God’s grace to new life and hope and joy. God is still at work in our world. He is manifesting the consequences of rebellion by abandoning the impenitent wicked to licentiousness and by allowing a long-privileged West to revert to paganism. But God is also lifting to his Savior Son those who seek refuge from the nihilism of daily life without Christ. In his mercy God enables even the desperate to embrace Christ as the rescuer from ruin and despair.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans this planet was overwhelmingly pagan. All the Christians to be found in the ancient empire city of Rome could have squeezed into a few small homes. But Paul knew something that, hopefully, you too know and will carry with you into a world desperately needing a vanguard of devout and dedicated disciples. Paul knew the reality and power of the Risen Christ who can turn a vagrant world right side up, can restore recognition of the Lord of nature, of history, and of conscience.

If hope is to prevail in our time, we who know God’s transforming mercy and power must become roving tentmakers in the service of Christ who pitched his tent in a terribly wicked world and unveiled, for us to see, the glory of our life-renewing God. Let us call individuals and nations to a new vision of justice and righteousness. Let us invite a vagabond race to share with us the joys of life redeemed and fit for eternity. For the crisis of our times, the light that shines in darkness is still more than adequate.”

–Carl F. H. Henry, “The Crisis of our Times and Hope for Our Future,” May 14, 1979, published in The Christian Mindset In A Secular Society (Multnomah, 1984), 143-150.

Our Final Words: Thoughts on the Last Days of Steve Jobs and Henry Jessey

By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.

–Genesis 3:19

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

–Hebrews 9:27-28

For all who live, death is certain. Yet, our level of certainty about what happens after death is shaped by how we live and in what we put our trust.

As regular consumer (and sometimes writer) of biographies, I have found that much can be learned from and about a person’s thoughts on eternity not only from reading about what they said and did in life, but also by examining their final days–and even their final words.

Consider two examples:

Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Five years ago in October, the unarguably brilliant genius and entrepreneur, Steve Jobs of Apple fame, passed away. The stuff of legends, the story of Jobs’s life and career has been and can be told by many—and if not by many then there are still many more who were impacted by the things he made. The just 10 year old iPhone alone exists now in global ubiquity and was one of many innovations that contributed to Jobs’s estimated net worth of $10 billion at the time of his death.

To my knowledge, and from what can be read, Jobs did not claim to follow Christ. He was a devotee to Zen Buddhism and allowed that belief system to influence and direct him. Further, in his early career he cited his experimentation with psychedelic drugs as one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life.

On October 30, 2011, the sister of the late Steve Jobs published in the New York Times the eulogy she delivered at her brother’s memorial service earlier that month. In it she gives her recollections and assessments of her iconic, brilliant, and world-changing brother. She speaks of his work ethic, his humility, his love for his children and wife, and his overall happiness. She describes his admirable battle with cancer, fought while the world watched.

But she concludes with the following:

“What I learned from my brother’s death was that character is essential: What he was, was how he died. Tuesday morning, he called me to ask me to hurry up to Palo Alto. His tone was affectionate, dear, loving, but like someone who was already on the beginning of his journey, even as he was sorry, truly deeply sorry, to be leaving us ….

When I arrived, he and his Laurene were joking together like partners who’d lived and worked together every day of their lives. He looked into his children’s eyes as if he couldn’t unlock his gaze …. Then, after awhile it was clear that he would no longer wake to us. His breathing changed. It became severe, deliberate, purposeful ….

He made it through the night …. His breath indicated an arduous journey, some steep path, altitude …. But with that will, that work ethic, that strength, there was also sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment, the artist’s belief in the ideal, the still more beautiful later.

Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times. Before embarking, he’d look at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.

Steve’s final words were: OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.”

What Steve Jobs saw at the conclusion of his life or what he meant by his “Oh Wow,” I do not know. Nor do I know what he claimed to believed about Jesus Christ in those final hours. But if his belief claims had not changed—as great of a person that he was to society and his family—he sadly was not prepared for eternity (Acts 4:12).

Henry Jessey (1601-1663)

In the 1600s, there lived in London an obscure pastor unknown today and forgotten. By human standards he did not change the world. Although he was brilliant, he never became a billionaire nor had world-wide much less city-wide influence.

Henry Jessey was the pastor of an independent (non-Church of England) church during the years of great political upheaval in England. Out of his church would come the early English Baptists from who many Baptists and Evangelicals can trace our heritage and history today.

Jessey had an affinity for the biblical languages and was even commissioned by Parliament to help produce a new translation of the Bible to replace the King James authorized version. Regrettably, this project was never completed due to political turmoil in London, but it does reveal Jessey’s lifelong devotion to the Bible.

Of Jessey’s Bible affection, one biographer said, “The Hebrew & Greek Testaments he constantly carried about him, frequently calling the One his Sword & Dagger, & the Other his Shield & Buckler …. For by his thorow study of the Scriptures he … became so familiar with its language & phraseology that it was to him like his Mother Tongue, both in Preaching & Conversation: this way of speaking he thought most Savory & best becoming those that professed Christianity.” Another biographer recounted, “Who ever begun to rehearse a place [from the Bible] he could go on verbatim with the preceding and following context: who ever enquired after a Scripture, he could presently name the book, chapter and verse so that he was not undeservedly called by one (a living Concordance).”

In 1663, Jessey grew fatally ill. On the night of his death, he like Steve Jobs, had loved ones gathered and here is the account of Jessey’s final words:

“As for the last night he lived, first part thereof he spent in blessing the Lord, and singing praises to his Name, and fell asleep about 11 a.clock, and waked again between 2 and 3 …. But this good mans memory, which was beyond comparison, for the quotation of the Text, began now to faile him, at which he seemed to be troubled, earnestly calling them to help him therein, which was done, and much please him;

Thus he lay some time calling for more Julip, more Julip, meaning more Scriptures, for he drank in much comfort and consolation from the promises which the Lord had given him, a steadfast Faith and hope to trust his soul, and eternal state upon, for he continued unto the last gasp his praising of God.”

Henry Jessey concluded his life by calling for more Bible and his last words were spent praising God.

When compared to the successful and happy Steve Jobs who voiced only uncertain expressions at his end, how was this unknown pastor able to rest in something more certain?

Jessey’s ability to rest in peace with God at the end of his life derived from the surrendering of his life to God many years earlier. When preparing his last Will and Testament, Jessey included the following preface that explains:

“I Henry Jessey of London, a servant of Jesus Christ in the ministry of the Gospel, do declare, that form the Lord’s most gracious manifestation of his most free love in his Son to me the chiefest of all saved sinners, I have committed my soul to him, as to a faithful Creator and Redeemer being assured by the witness of his good Spirit, that Jesus Christ hath loved me and washed me from all my sins in his precious blood, and that he will save me everlastingly.”

For all those who live, death is certain, and our certainty of what happens after death is determined by how we live and in what we trust. Facing eternity uncertain of God, trusting in someone or something other than God, or even opposing his existence in word, deed, or indifference is something the Bible says we should fear (Matt 12:36-37). However, by learning from other lives (Matt. 11:29), when we come to our end our final words do not have to convey a fear of death or uncertainty of what is to come after death.

Jesus Christ came to earth to destroy death by sacrificing himself so that all who oppose or are uncertain about God could find peace with God (Rom 5:1). Jesus did this loving act to help the helpless no longer to fear death (Heb 2:14-18), but rather to find deliverance from fear and uncertainty at death and, instead, eagerly wait for him.

For more of the life and thought of Henry Jessey, see this newly released volume from BorderStone Press.

Henry Jessey

Puritan Chaplain, Independent and Baptist Pastor, Millenarian Politician and Prophet

Henry Jessey (1601-1663) rose to prominence as pastor of the “Jacob-Lathrop-Jessey church” in Southwark in the early seventeenth-century London during the time when Baptists in England were undergoing their initial formalization. Jessey never married, wrote extensively, played key roles in the English Civil War, and served the early history of the English Particular Baptist movement, which would grow to shape Baptists around the world.

Yet, until now Jessey has never been the subject of dedicated study despite his mention in almost every text devoted to Baptist history.


Henry Jessey
Jason G. Duesing
BorderStone Press, 2016
426 pages

Available at Amazon.  


What People Are Saying About Henry Jessey

Finally, Henry Jessey gets the scholarly attention he so richly deserves. This very significant figure in the history of England and the beginnings of the Baptist movement has languished in obscurity for too long. In this new book, historian Jason Duesing brings Jessey to life and this book will make a great contribution to the fields of Baptist history, intellectual history, and the history of Britain. This book is solid scholarship matched to good timing. It belongs in every academic library and in the hands of a multitude of grateful readers.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr., President, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

God’s faithful servants must not be forgotten and assigned to the dustbin of history. Thankfully, that will not happen to Henry Jessey as a result of this superb work by Jason Duesing. Informative, interesting and inspiring, this is a really fine work I gladly recommend.

Daniel L. Akin, President, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Jason Duesing is one of this generation’s leading church historians, and I’m grateful he has brought his acumen to bear in Henry Jessey: Puritan Chaplain, Independent and Baptist Pastor, Millenarian Politician and Prophet. The story of Henry Jessey is worth being told, and told well, and Duesing does just that. Read this volume to
acquaint yourself with a significant figure in Baptist life, and to reacquaint yourself with a significant portion of Baptist history.

Jason K. Allen, President, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Jason Duesing has given us here a superb treatment of Henry Jessey, a seminal figure in the development of the Baptist cause in seventeenth-century England. Well researched and well written, this book shows us what made Jessey tick as well as what he thought, from ecclesiology to eschatology. Highly recommended!

Timothy George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture

Jason Duesing’s “Henry Jessey” is a theological biography of no small consequence. .Jessey, the patriarch of the Particular Baptist movement, was a Baptist pastor, millenarian prophet, and politician whose significance Duesing draws out as he views developments in 17th century British ecclesiology and eschatology. Highly recommended for theologians and historians, especially Baptist ones.

Bruce Ashford, Provost and Dean of Faculty, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Jason Duesing’s Henry Jessey deserves a prominent place within the theological genre of biography established by such masterpieces as Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo, Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand, and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cranmer. This is a valuable text for a worthy life.

–from the foreword by Malcolm B. Yarnell, III, Research Professor of Systematic Theology and Director, Center for Theological Research, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Also by Jason G. Duesing and BorderStone Press:

Counted Worthy: The Life and Work of Henry Jessy
Jason G. Duesing
BorderStone Press, 2012
220 pages

Available at Amazon.