Servants Who Served WellThomas K. Ascol
“David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep…” (Acts 13:36).
In this brief statement the Apostle Paul summarizes the life of King David. In one sense, it is an epitaph that could be written on the tombstone of every man and woman. For, like David, God has ordained for us all the days of our lives, before any one of them ever came to be (Psalm 139:16). He fulfills His purpose for every creature that He brings into existence. So, not only David, but also Pharaoh fulfilled the purpose of God in his life (Romans 9:17). But in another sense, Paul’s words about the Patriarch are a sober reminder of the great responsibility that we have to live intentionally in the few years we have left on this earth.
The Lord has a purpose for each of our lives. Included in that purpose is a call to serve our generation well. Paul’s words have been construed in a slightly different way by the New King James version, which says that David served his own generation by the will of God. The point that should not be missed is that the great king’s life could be summarized in one word: service. David was a servant. He served the purpose of God by serving his generation.
Servanthood is one of those ideas that we spend more time talking about than actively pursuing. Yet, servanthood is at the very heart of the Christian faith. Jesus described His mission on earth in terms of service. He said, “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Our Lord came as a servant. Only those who are served by Him in His mediatorial offices of Prophet, Priest and King can experience His salvation.
“No servant is greater than his master,” Jesus said. If we would be true servants of Christ, then we must be willing to follow Him in the course of living our lives in service to others. The first time Jesus made this statement was immediately after washing His disciples’ dirty feet. “I have given you an example,” He said, “that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15–16).
Jesus’ self-sacrificing lifestyle is to be the pattern for our own. Our Lord expects His followers to serve others just like He did. This is what Paul means when he writes, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification” (Romans 12:2). He is not advocating man-pleasing but rather man-serving. Eugene Peterson captures Paul’s meaning by stating, “Each one of us needs to look after the good of the people around us, asking ourselves, ‘How can I help?’”
Every disciple of Jesus Christ should utilize his or her gifts while taking advantage of God-given opportunities to serve others. It is in this way that we will serve our generation well by the will of God.
This issue of the Founders Journal pays tribute to two men who did just that. R. F. Gates and Curtis Vaughan lived through days of serious spiritual decline among American evangelicals. As Southern Baptists they witnessed the subtle erosion of doctrinal conviction within the denomination in the middle part of the last century. Pragmatism undermined orthodox confessionalism and opened the door to liberalism. They also witnessed the beginnings of doctrinal and spiritual reformation among many of the churches identified as Southern Baptist.
But they were more than mere witnesses to these reformation efforts. Both were instrumental in advancing those efforts—Dr. Vaughan, in the seminary classroom and through his books; Pastor Gates, through his itinerant preaching and teaching ministry and encouragement of young pastors.
Dr. Vaughan’s New Testament Greek classes were legendary. It was my great privilege to have been his student. Along with teaching Greek to his “boys,” as he called us (although he was always sensitive to and respectful of the occasional “lady” in the class), Dr. Vaughan would not allow his students to skirt the theology of the New Testament. I remember one classmate who was particularly flummoxed by Paul’s Greek in Ephesians 1:4–6 and expressed his frustration to the professor. “I know what it says, but what does it mean?” With his characteristic, mischievous grin, Dr. Vaughan scanned the class and replied, “Boys, it means what it says.”
It was in Greek class that I first learned to love Pilgrim’s Progress. Dr. Vaughan opened the first several classes of that course by reading to us from Bunyan’s classic work. One Wednesday, he paused from his reading long enough to ask the class, “How many of you have never read Pilgrim’s Progress?” Just as my honesty was overcoming my embarrassment and my hand began to lift off the desk, he mercifully added, “Don’t raise your hands. I would be too discouraged to see how many of you are in that category. But if you have not, then you absolutely must read it …” His words were very slow and punctuated at this point, and I was already writing down the title to make sure that it got put on my “to read some day” list when he finished his sentence, “… before the end of the week!” That class full of preacher boys was absolutely silent. I think we expected—or at least hoped—that he would add some kind of qualifier to his exhortation (like, “I’m just kidding” or “but if you can’t do that, then make sure you get to it before you graduate”). But he simply let his words hang in the air for several weighty moments before resuming his reading.
I have no idea if anyone else in that class took his words seriously, but by the grace of God and out of respect for my professor I went that day to the bookstore (actually I went to two—the Baptist bookstore did not have it) and bought my first copy of Pilgrim’s Progress. By the end of that week Bunyan’s book became one of my favorites. Twenty-five years and several editions later, it remains one of the most helpful and valuable books I have in my library.
I am one of thousands whom Dr. Vaughan served well through his long, faithful, God-honoring teaching ministry.
It was also my privilege to know and be served by R. F. Gates. My brother, Bill, introduced me to R. F. in Shreveport, Louisiana where they were members of the same church. R. F. was part of the original group of men that met to establish the Founders Conference. One of the most memorable experiences I ever had with him occurred during a stormy night on some back roads in Arkansas. We were riding with several other men in a church van on our way home from the first Founders Conference. A short-cut had left us lost and a terrific electrical storm left us almost unable to read the signs along the two-lane highway. Then the battery died in the van and the van died in the middle of the highway. Though the rain had hindered our vision and considerably slowed the speed at which we had been traveling, it did not seem to have the same effect on the eighteen-wheelers that had been regularly passing us for the previous hour. Now we were sitting dead in the middle of the highway, on a rather sharp curve, with not even a flashing taillight to warn other drivers of our presence.
I do not remember the details of how we got out of that predicament (the van eventually started again and we limped home, coasting time and again right up to kind motorists with jumper cables), but I will never forget R. F.’s prayer. We were all praying. But he began praying out loud. The joyful, confident tone of his words seemed out of place to me, almost being drowned out by the pounding rain. But it was the words themselves that arrested me. “Lord, we don’t know where we are, but You do. We just know that we are lost, dead on this highway without any lights or help. Father, these big, ol’ tractor-trailers are all over this highway and one could come barreling around this corner at any moment and just wipe us out. So, Lord, if You want to be glorified by having us all killed right here in that way, then just do it! All we care about is for You to get glory, however You choose to do it.”
I have to admit that I opened my eyes and stared at him as he prayed. I wanted to make sure my ears were not playing tricks on me. There he was, his silhouette barely visible, hand held high, face lifted toward heaven, telling God that it was OK with him if all of us died on that wet, dark, Arkansas highway. I could not bring myself to say “Amen,” but I also could not help but wonder what this man had that I did not. In fact, to my shame, I wondered if what he had was real. Through the years since then I had the privilege to pray with R. F. many times. I learned to say “Amen” to his prayers. His joy in the Lord was as contagious as it was real. And his passion for God to be glorified at whatever personal expense never diminished. He was the first guest speaker I invited to Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida after I was called to serve there as pastor. I am among the countless number of pastors all across the United States who have been personally blessed by his private and public ministry.
Both Curtis Vaughan and R. F. Gates were friends of Founders Ministries. R. F. helped found this ministry and regularly preached at Founders Conferences. Dr. Vaughan granted us the rights to reprint all of his study guide commentaries telling me that he was delighted to have them reissued under the imprint of Founders Press. We will miss them, but their influence lives on. Having used their gifts and opportunities to serve the purposes of God in their generation, they now rest from their labors. But the fruit of their labors lives on and their example remains an encouragement for those of us who love the gospel they preached to persevere in serving our own generations to the best of our abilities by the strength and grace of Jesus Christ.
THOU GOD OF MY END,
Thou hast given me a fixed disposition
to go forth and spend my life for Thee;
If it be Thy will let me proceed in it;
if not, then revoke my intentions.
All I want in life is such circumstances
as may best enable me to serve Thee in the world;
To this end I leave all my concerns in Thy hand,
but let me not be discouraged,
for this hinders my spiritual fervency;
Enable me to undertake some task for Thee,
for this refreshes and animates my soul,
so that I could endure all hardships and labours,
and willingly suffer for Thy name.
But, O what a death it is to strive and labour,
to be always in a hurry and yet do nothing!
Alas, time flies and I am of little use.
O that I could be a flame of fire in Thy service,
always burning out in one continual blaze.
Fit me for singular usefulness in this world.
Fit me to exult in distress of every kind
if they but promote the advancement of Thy kingdom.
Fit me to quit all hopes of the world’s friendship,
and give me a deeper sense of my sinfulness.
Fit me to accept as just desert from Thee
any trial that may befall me.
Fit me to be totally resigned to the denial of pleasures I desire,
and to be content to spend my time with Thee.
Fit me to pray with a sense of joy of divine communion,
to find all times happy seasons to my soul,
to see my own nothingness,
and wonder that I am allowed to serve Thee.
Fit me to enter the blessed world where no unclean thing is,
and to know Thee with me always.
From The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, ed. Arthur Bennett (Edinburgh and Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1983), 178.