A Tribute to Dr. S. Lewis Johnson (Fred Zaspel)
On January 28, 2004, ten years ago today, Dr. S. Lewis Johnson passed away at age eighty-eight. He was a Biblical scholar and theologian of rare abilities, and he was a beloved friend. His influence on my own ministry would be difficult to measure. The hundreds of tapes of his preaching and teaching have gone free of charge to thousands of people all over the world, and it was by means of these tapes that I first became acquainted with him. When he first came to preach for me I asked the congregation if any had previously heard him. No one had, but I was quick to assure them all that they had indeed heard him often! His influence on me was that great. Over the years he came to speak at our church and at our pastors’ conference many times, and even in his latter years it was challenging and blessed to hear him expound the Word of God still with such precision and clarity.
Dr. Johnson was born in Birmingham, AL and grew up in Charleston, SC. He was always quick to assure everyone that his smooth, distinguished, and very pleasant southern drawl was actually “English in its pure form.” He graduated from the College of Charleston with an B.A. degree in 1937 and was converted through the teaching of Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse while in the insurance business in Birmingham. He left the insurance business in 1943 to enter Dallas Theological Seminary, from which he received the Th.M (1946) and Th.D. (1949) degrees. He completed further post-graduate work at the University of Edinburgh, Southern Methodist University, and in the University of Basel where he studied under Karl Barth. Remaining at Dallas Seminary Dr. Johnson was Professor of New Testament from 1950 to 1972 and Professor of Systematic Theology from 1972 to 1977. He later served as Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL, and as Visiting Professor of Systematic Theology at Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, Netherlands. He served as a Bible translator for The Berkeley Version and for The New International Version. Dr. Johnson preached and lectured in many places, large and small, taught countless home Bible studies, and was involved in starting several churches.
In 1963 he and others planted Believers’ Chapel in Dallas, and it is from the Chapel that so many thousands of his tapes have gone to the benefit of countless people. The church was started with the conviction that God’s people will want to hear His Word expounded. It was a very no-nonsense approach. Every service provided a very serious exposition of some passage or doctrine of Scripture. There was no entertainment. No programs. There was not even an offering taken. Just the singing of the saints and the exposition of the Word. They were even outspokenly Calvinistic. And the Lord blessed and the church quickly grew to over a thousand people.
He was in so many ways a man to emulate. He was a true gentleman. He was always personable and a great delight in conversation. His humor was always good, and his wit was always quick. He was a careful student of the Scriptures with unusually superior abilities as an exegete and theologian. His abilities with the original languages were clearly superior, and when discussion began he would always lead from his Greek and Hebrew text. He was a man of conviction, willing to step down from a noted career rather than surrender his beliefs. He was passionate for the gospel, and his heart was always hot for Christ. He was a humble and godly man. I have said many times that if God would allow me to grow old as gracefully and as saintly as Dr. Johnson it would probably make me proud and I’d ruin it! He was a model scholar, a model teacher, a model preacher, a model friend, and a model Christian. He was that rare combination of so many abilities and virtues. I thank God for him and since his death feel much the poorer without him.
Among his greatest passions was the faithful expounding of the nature of Christ’s atoning work. He clearly cherished any and every opportunity to demonstrate from the Scriptures the success and effectiveness of Christ’s death as a substitute for His people. And when it was his turn to listen, elderly though he was, he would sit right up front with his Greek and Hebrew Bible in hand. And though virtually every speaker he would hear would necessarily be a man of comparatively inferior abilities, he seemed always just to delight in hearing the Word of God preached. And afterwards he was always eager to fellowship with younger preachers and laymen alike and discuss the things of Christ and examine the Word of God together.
The last time I spoke with Dr. Johnson, about a month before he died, it was evident that he was growing tired and frail. He fell ill in January, 2004, and his illness was brief before the Lord took him home to glory. He left behind him his wonderful wife Martha whom we love dearly also.
By his tape ministry I came to love Dr. S. Lewis Johnson before I ever knew him, and I count it a great blessing to have known him. I am thankful to God for his memory. Probably no one outside my own father – and B.B. Warfield – has taught me more, and few could ever be more beloved. I praise the Lord for him.
Fred Zaspel (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam) is pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel.