Do you have any stories that illustrate the impact that WSC has made on your life and work?
My four years at Westminster Seminary in California were the four most joyful years of my life. When I came to Westminster in the fall of 1987, I was looking for a place to stand. Let me explain.
I had Reformed convictions. I grew up on a dairy farm in West Michigan and attended a very solid, conservative church in the CRC denomination. My father taught Louis Berkhof’s Compendium every year to the tenth grade Sunday School class. We drank our theology like our milk—straight from the tank, undiluted or pasteurized. Because I have Protestant Reformed and Netherlands Reformed cousins, I grew up arguing the merits of common grace, the “well-meant offer” and the possibility of assurance. I learned, as a young boy, the importance of good theology and the dangers of bad theology. I had solid Reformed theological convictions.
But I also had pressing concerns, both theological and spiritual. First, I was concerned about the theological drift of my denomination. I graduated from Dordt College in 1985, which was a time of transition for the CRC. Women in church office was a hotly debated issue, but as I saw it, it was really just one part of a deeper debate: a re-thinking by denominational leaders of what it means to be Reformed. As a philosophy major, I was trained to challenge the convictions and traditions with which I had been raised. During the very last week of my senior year, I had an epiphany: I realized that my college career had taught me how to ask questions, but I had not been given many answers. Surely there had to be answers.
I was also concerned about the spiritual apathy I saw in my own life and in my peers. I “woke up” spiritually when I visited the First Assembly of God Church in Grand Rapids and discovered that these people had a passion for the Lord, a delight in His Word, a zeal for godliness, and a commitment for evangelism that I had never seen before. They worshiped as if God were actually present and expressed a confident joy in His promise to be so! It was a very humbling time for me. I had theological knowledge about God, but I did not love Him, His Word, or the lost the way these folks did. Something had to change.
Consequently, when I arrived at WSC in the fall of 1987, I was looking for a Reformed faith where piety mattered, where a genuine love for the Lord Jesus was evident, and where the gospel was cherished as the power of God unto salvation for every sinner who believed. Indeed, at Westminster Seminary California, I found my spiritual home.
As you have labored in ministry and experienced personal growth as a person and pastor over the past few years, what role does your education at Westminster Seminary California play in your life?
I can’t tell you what a blessing it was to sit under men, my professors, who were not trying to undermine the Reformed tradition, and yet did not idolize it. They were men who believed that “Reformed theology” was simply a matter of unfolding the riches of the wisdom and the knowledge of grace of God in Jesus Christ. It was food for the soul day after day. I remember Al Mawhinney teaching us the Doctrine of Adoption with joy in his face and tears in his eyes. I remember Dr. Bergsma in preaching class trying to get students to portray the Gospel as GOOD NEWS! Dr. Godfrey taught us that church history is the story of Jesus Christ building his church and understanding that story is essential for discerning the spirits of our age. I learned the value of careful theological distinctions with Dr. Strimple. He taught us to ask questions of God’s Word, not in order to challenge it, but in order to understand it and gladly embrace it. We learned the importance of seeking to get God’s Word right not in order to boast but in order to be humbled; we learned that the whole point of Reformed theology is to bring us to exalt with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” I learned the riches of grace at Westminster. We received the Gospel in every class.
What particular truths or experiences that you gained from WSC do you find most important and valuable now? What, in hindsight, do you appreciate most from the time you spent at WSC?
Westminster prepared me for gospel ministry in several ways:
Westminster gave me the basics.
A very brief review of church history will reveal the constant attempts of the Evil One to mislead the church. And so there are new fads, new emphases, new movements every few years—each one promoted as absolutely essential for “real” ministry. We didn’t follow the fads at Westminster. Instead, we learned the “old stuff.” We studied Greek from J. Gresham Machen, systematics from B.B. Warfield, Charles Hodge and John Murray, and apologetics from Cornelius Van Til. Our professors were not hip. But these men were godly and grounded, and they rooted us in the timeless truths of God’s Word and in the priceless treasure of God’s grace. And that grounding gave us the ability to discern lesser gospels and lethal messengers from a distance.
Westminster gave me a model of how to do theology in the church.
I grew up believing that theological fights were allowed to be dog fights. Being right meant you were free to speak uncharitably, judge motives, and treat your opponent poorly. At Westminster I learned that being theologically correct is only one small part of being right. I learned that God cares about our conduct as much as our conclusions. I learned that lips which speak of grace should drip with grace. We are required to deal with brothers in the Lord as brothers in the Lord, and we honor God by loving them even when, particularly when, we disagree with them. There is an essential “tone” to gospel ministry that exalts Christ and beats down pride. Nothing will cripple gospel ministry more effectively than a proud messenger.
Westminster gave me confidence in the Word.
One of the greatest tragedies in the church is its loss of confidence in the power of the Word to accomplish God’s work. I was in seminary when the Church Growth Movement was in full swing and books were being written about how a pastor needed to be culturally relevant in order to be successful. You needed to understand the felt needs of “unchurched Harry” and creatively package the gospel in a way that would draw him to Christ.
We didn’t learn a thing at Westminster about packaging the Gospel. Rather, we were taught to understand it, to exegete it, to love it, to believe it, and then to preach it. We did not spend a lot of time discerning felt needs. We were persuaded that the Gospel—the good news of what God has done apart from us, outside of us, but for us in Jesus Christ addresses humanity’s deepest needs in a way nothing else can, to the glory of God and by the accomplishment of his saving work.
What, in your opinion, makes WSC a unique and important institution? How does the Church benefit from the mission of WSC-to prepare pastors and leaders for Reformed churches?
I can’t think of anything more essential or necessary to gospel proclamation than an absolute conviction that God himself is speaking in His Word, and what He says in His Word is the most necessary message in all the world, as He convicts men of sin and then brings them to the rich fountains of his mercy and grace in Jesus Christ. Westminster Seminary California gave me confidence in these crucial matters. And I will be forever thankful.