I can still see the council representing 13 churches who had gathered for my ordination council on Saturday afternoon April 7, 1973. The prevailing theology of the council was pre-tribulational, dispensationalist, and I was in my element. As the questioning drew to a close, a council member posed the following question:
“David, you will be going to England to work alongside another church-planting missionary. In England you will meet Pastors who are amillennialists. How will you handle that?”
My reply was confident and unhesitating:
“If they invited me to preach in their church, I would probably go, as long as they didn’t prohibit me from preaching what I believe to be true. However, I would never invite them to preach in my church because an amillennialist has to spiritualize Scripture to get their position, and we all know that spiritualizing Scripture is one step away from liberalism.”
Immediately around the room I heard,
“Amen.” “That’s right, brother.” “Never let go of that.”
I knew at that moment, I had passed the council.
The next day an ordination service was held and I was “set apart to the ministry of the gospel of Christ.” April 7th & 8th, 1973 are wonderful days in my memory. I am grateful for the godly men who sat on that examining council, seeking God’s will regarding the validity of my call to vocational pastoral ministry. I thank God that they believed he had called me into a lifetime of gospel ministry.
Fast forward to the Spring of 1975.
My wife and I had arrived in England to work under an experienced church-planter for the next two years before heading off the Dartmouth, Nova Scotia to plant a church under the same mission. Shortly after arriving, I was told about a good preacher serving in the Baptist Church located in the village of Warboys, not far from Peterborough where we were living and working.
Because our church-plant services were in the afternoon, we were free to attend the morning worship in Warboys where David Bugden was pastor. We found David & Pamela Bugden to be warm and hospitable, as they opened their home to this young, American couple whose pre-tribulational, dispensational theology was quite removed from their reformed, amillennialist covenant theology. Somewhere along the way, Pastor Bugden asked me if I would like to attend the Westminster Fellowship chaired by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. This monthly meeting of approximately 200 pastors from across the country brought me face-to-face with a variety of pastors who embraced reformed theology – most of whom were likely amillennialists.
Those monthly meetings drew me into the reformed world in a way that would have taken years back in North America, because I had no personal acquaintance with anyone who was reformed. At the time, I would have said I was a Calvinist, but by that I only meant I believed if someone was truly born-again, they could not lose their salvation. I was a “once saved, always saved” evangelical Christian. I would soon discover that robust Calvinism runs a bit deeper than that – quite a bit deeper.
The pastors’ gatherings at Westminster Chapel in London were a highlight for me. The invigorating discussion – the morning session normally explored a theological question and the afternoon session discussed some practical matter of doing ministry – and the fellowship with other pastors opened my eyes to a much wider body of Christians than I had been exposed to.
And so, thanks to the kindness of Pastor David Bugden, I was introduced to some “one-step-away-from-liberalism” pastors, and to my chagrin, I encountered godly men who loved Christ and his Word. They were faithful servants of the Lord, and I was ashamed of how I had thought of them back in the safety of my dispensationalist ghetto. Their reformed convictions ran far beyond the clichéd “once saved, always saved” Calvinism under which I had been raised and trained.
I cannot say that my soteriology (doctrine of salvation) was fully reformed when I left England in December of 1976, but I was clearly on the way to embracing what is commonly called 5-point Calvinism.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and the men of the Westminster Fellowship, opened a new world for me. They enabled me to see that thoroughly reformed men with a very different hermeneutic from the dispensationalist one under which I had been nurtured clearly loved Christ, his church, the Word, and longed for the salvation of sinners. They were utterly unlike the caricatured “one-step-away-from-liberals” I had been warned about.
I was still a pre-tribulational, dispensationalist, but with a fresh appreciation for how other equally committed believers read Scripture. I was hungry to understand the reformed nature of salvation – the so-called five points. The door was now open – the theological journey was underway as we made our way back to the U.S., and eventually, in the Spring of 1978, into eastern Canada.
I am grateful for Pastor David Bugden who kindly overlooked the brash fundamentalism of a young American church planter, believing I would benefit from the experience of the Westminster Fellowship.
Next time: The Banner of Truth connection.