Remembering S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.8
Ten years ago today, on January 28, 2004, my spiritual and theological mentor, S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., entered into the presence of the Lord. Continue reading . . .
Ten years ago today, on January 28, 2004, my spiritual and theological mentor, S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., entered into the presence of the Lord. As I sit writing this remembrance of him, on the wall in front of me is the beautiful and remarkably precise pencil portrait of Dr. J painted by my good friend and artist, Ron Adair. There is something about beginning each day’s work, whether in reading, writing, answering e-mails, counseling hurting souls, or sermon preparation, with the image of Lewis Johnson looking down on what I do. His portrait hangs next to those of two other men, also now with the Lord, who have influenced me most: Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin. The mere thought of the three of them in heaven, deep in conversation about the truths of the gospel, joining together in celebration of the greatness and glory of Jesus Christ, brings me to tears. I hope they’ll permit a fourth to join them, once my final days here are done!
I first met Lewis Johnson in 1970 when he came to Oklahoma City to teach at Metropolitan Baptist Church where I attended during my days as a student at the University of Oklahoma. I picked him up at the airport, took him to dinner, engaged in conversation, and was never the same. I knew from my first encounter with him that when I graduated from OU in 1973 I was headed to Dallas Theological Seminary. He took me under his wing during those four years of seminary education and poured his life, love, and thought into me in a way that no one of his stature ever had.
It was toward the end of my first semester at DTS (December, 1973) that he called me into his office with a proposal. He offered to mentor me theologically, to speak into my life, and then asked if I would join him at Dallas Independent Presbyterian Church as his assistant. He was to serve there for about six months as interim pastor. I was honored and said yes immediately. But there was more to it than that. He asked permission of me (can you believe that?), yes, he asked my permission to speak into my life in every arena, not just with regard to the Bible and theology, but personal issues as well. I said yes, almost instinctively, without really knowing what he meant. I was soon to find out!
During our first few hours together he addressed such things as my clothes, dining habits, my use of cutlery, how I treated my wife in private and public, and especially my grammar. Lewis Johnson was the epitome of a southern gentleman. Raised in South Carolina, he didn’t tolerate well social improprieties or the vulgar behavior or rude and discourteous ways of young men he encountered. Every time I sat down in his presence I was prepared for a loving rebuke, a gentle correction, and to this day I cherish every word he spoke and every exhortation he gave me.
The next four years under his tutelage were remarkable in many ways. I took every course he offered at DTS, and especially look back with fond memories while hearing him lecture on the Greek text of Revelation, the theology of Anselm, and the demanding course he taught on the Science of Theology. I also learned much from him on the golf course, where he often nearly shot his age (and thoroughly trounced me!). Many are unaware that Dr. J was a champion amateur golfer while in college. When I asked him why he majored in classics (Greek and Latin) in college, given the fact that at the time he had not yet been converted, much less called into ministry, he said it was because they were the only courses always offered in the morning. This allowed him to spend his afternoons on the links!
Dr. Johnson served as Professor of NT at DTS from 1950 to 1972 and then turned his attention to Systematic Theology from 1972 to 1977. He later served as Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. His last year of teaching at DTS (1977) was the year I graduated, at which time he invited me to join him on the pastoral staff at Believers Chapel. I served with him there for the next eight years.
There are countless words that come to mind when I think of him: scholarly, erudite, kind (even to those with whom he disagreed), principled, a loving husband and father, a man devoted to the centrality of the local church, unyielding Calvinist, champion of biblical inerrancy, remarkably humble, always available, and above all else, a passionate lover of the Lord Jesus Christ and the gospel of his saving grace.
I have so many fond memories of him, such as standing with him outside his office at home while he used a slingshot to rid his backyard of pesky squirrels and rabbits (he was a heck of a shot; he probably never knew we called him “Slingshot Slewi” behind his back). And to this day I tremble for those unfortunate Jehovah’s Witnesses who once came knocking on his door and made the tragic mistake of trying to defend their views from the Greek NT. Dr. J. quickly grabbed his Greek text and set them straight. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that they are still traumatized to this day!
Just one example of the quality of this man of God comes from the way he responded to me when I deviated from his own position on the subject of spiritual gifts. Dr. J. was a cessationist and never quite understood how his student and protégé could embrace the validity of spiritual gifts for today. I recall that day in 1993 when I read a paper at the Southwest Regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, on the campus of Dallas Seminary, of all places. Dr. Johnson was gracious to attend and, although he disagreed with my conclusions, affirmed and encouraged me in my on-going study of God’s Word on that subject. Whatever criticisms he voiced (or secretly kept to himself) were always bathed in love.
So I thank God for S. (which I’m proud to say stands for Samuel!) Lewis Johnson, Jr. Next to my earthly father, I owe more to him for who I am today than any other human being. That doesn’t mean he should be held accountable for whatever false beliefs or flaws in character are still present in me. It simply means that I can’t imagine where I’d be or who I’d be today if it weren’t for his incredible influence. I know I speak for countless other men who likewise were blessed, trained, and spiritually nurtured by Dr. Johnson, when I say: Thank you, Lord, for S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. Would that the church of Jesus Christ might be enriched with many more like him. But I doubt it. He was one of a kind.
[One final note. Fred Zaspel has also written an excellent tribute to Dr. J that can be read at www.credomag.com.]