My Inaugural Address At Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando

February 10, 2011
Given after Chuck Colson’s address, and charges to me and the seminary.
John 1.1-18 

A seminary inauguration reminds me of a Sunday morning worship service in many parts of Africa.  You are so blessed that you get not one sermon, but sometimes three!  But then you often get three offerings as well!  So take heart.  There will be no offerings this afternoon.

How grateful I am that you have set aside time to pray and commit ourselves and this new season to the Lord.  For dear friends who traveled far to be here and new friends come to show your support—thank you. For those who have previously served in this position-Luder Whitlock, Ric Canada, and Frank James—thank you for the good foundation you have laid.  Thanks to mentors, friends and colleagues who have blessed and encouraged me along the way.

I am grateful to my parents and in-laws who have been pillars to our family. I am deeply grateful for my precious wife whose companionship and love have been the backbone of anything I have done in ministry.  I am also grateful to my children who have kept my feet on the ground and my knees on the floor!

And thank you Chuck Colson for being here today.  Thank you for long ago spending time with me as a young college student who was trying to figure out what to do with his life and the best way to change the world.

Thanks to Ric Canada, Mike Milton and the board of RTS for the privilege of serving here.  A special thanks to all those here who worked so hard to roll out the red carpet of hospitality to you today.

And most of all—thanks be to God through  our Lord Jesus Christ.

Grace.   That is the true storyline  in each of our lives.   It certainly is mine.  Who of us would even be here today if it weren’t for God’s grace?   It was only by grace that at one point in our lives, like John, we have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth, and our lives were never the same.

The first time I even heard about the greatness and majesty and the holiness and grace and truth of the Lord Jesus, the first time I saw His glory, was through my parents as a child.  They were the ones who first shared God’s truth with me.  They taught the Bible to me and told me how to receive eternal life. More than that, they lived strong but gracious lives before me.  That’s what made their teaching so compelling.  Mom and dad, how wonderful it is to have you here today.  You have been my lifelong encouragers.  You have modeled a “long-distance marathon-like faith,” that still inspires me today.  You were the ones who first exposed me to His grace and truth.

It was through the ministry of some of you in this room that I reaffirmed that faith as a teenager.  It was through the influence of ministries like Campus Crusade for Christ at Explo 72, I came to the conclusion that I would be a full time Christian.  At that great gathering, I had again seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the father, and decided that whatever I do with my life, I must serve him.   It was from that event that God gave me what I previously did not have.  He gave me a hunger to learn—to learn his Word, to learn about the world, to learn what I believed and why.  Let me assure you, as a kid I was not a natural student. The only way I can describe it is that when I got serious about Christ, he planted something in my heart that still drives me today.

And then came that decisive post-College Spring of 1980.  One afternoon I was sitting in my 1971 Chevy Nova in the parking lot of the US capitol,  right in front of the stairs to the Senate chamber.  It had been a clarifying year for me.  I went into my job at Prison Fellowship thinking that God might be calling me into law, government and perhaps even politics. I had already served as a congressional intern.  But this year God had been working on my life. On the one hand, we had contact with high level government officials who were making laws.  Some of my friends were working in the White House. On the other hand, I had the privilege of entering prisons—minimum, medium and maximum security prisons around the country with Chuck and the staff of PF.  My distinct and lasting impression of that year is that God re-convinced me of the truth and power of the gospel and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.  That year we watched many people trying to change our nation through law-making from the top down, spending endless hours over legislation that would be passed one year, and then overturned with the next congress.   Many of them were dedicated public servants doing a good and necessary work.  But I came to see that our biggest problems are far deeper than anything the law could fix.

At the same time, I met many inmates whose lives had fallen apart—who in their desperation caught a glimpse of Jesus.  They had seen his glory and Christ changed them from the inside out.  I rediscovered what I had forgotten that—the gospel really is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1.16).  I saw that the truth of Christ really does set people free!  I watched Christians on the outside of prison reach out to those on the inside, thus demonstrating the gospel with their lives. I saw the power of grace and truth, powerfully working together.

So that afternoon in the capitol parking lot, I banged my fists against the dashboard of my car and finally gave in.  I said, “Okay God, I will let go of the law/politics dream and do whatever you want me to do.”  That was my burning bush.

And Chuck, yes you are to blame for introducing me to all these reformed Christians. They all came through your office. That was a pivotal year for me.  I remember that year coming under the influence of people named Packer and Sproul.  It was on a trip with Chuck to Walla Walla Prison and Vancouver, B.C. that I visited Regent College and decided that it was time to take the next steps of preparation.  At that time I did not know about RTS.  So I was Regent bound.   Once there I took every class Dr. Packer offered.  Until then I had not even heard of the Shorter Catechism.  But Dr. Packer subversively made us memorize it in his classes.  And God all along was subtly strengthening my core for a life time of ministry.   I came away believing that through gospel ministry and especially the preaching of his Word, I could be used to do what all the law making and politicking in the world could never do—lead people to faith, which comes by hearing the Word.  And that, while virtue is essential for a free and democratic society, a gospel faith is the most solid foundation for virtue.  That faith is the foundation upon which all the rest must be built.  And that we in the church have a sacred calling to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ. Why?  Because we have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only who came from the father, full of grace and truth.

In the intervening years, I served as a pastor in two churches, helped to plant a church in Northern Illinois and then worked to renew a church in Denver, Colorado. The wonderful thing that has happened over and over is that I kept rediscovering the truth and power of the gospel.

I have watched as broken people were shown grace.   When they saw grace they became open to truth.  They cried out to Christ to save them.  People who were previously blind to it, by the Spirit of God, saw his glory and Christ set them on an new course.  Inevitably they wanted to know more and were filled with what I call a “Word hunger,”  that compelled them to want to know God, and the Scriptures.  As a pastor, it was my privilege to be used in the birthing process and in the disciplining process.

You see, the reason that I chose John 1, and especially John 1.14, as our text today is because on an occasion like this it puts the spotlight on Christ.  The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Friends, we live in an amazing yet crazy world.   At RTS we are providing ministry training for a generation of future leaders who are facing a whole new set of challenges and opportunities. They will serve in a world that is increasingly globalized and urbanized.  They will have opportunities to exploit the digital revolution for the cause of Christ.  They will launch out into an America that some are calling “post-secular”—a world that is re-spiritualized, but not necessarily Christian.  Their base will be a nation that is now the most pluralistic, religiously diverse nation on earth.   They will have opportunities to partner with the global church to an extent we never imagined.  They will have to re-strategize about how to reach a world population that’s supposed to hit the 7 billion mark later this year.  They will have to deal with a Western church that is waning and a Southern and Eastern church that is explosively growing.   They will inherit the on-going task of fulfilling the Great Commission and translating the Bible into the many languages that still have no Scripture.   And they will have to contend with the aggressive spread of Islam.

I believe that both the challenges and the opportunities before the church have never been greater.  And so the need for the church in America to be healthy and ready and at the top of her game is exceedingly urgent.

In the West, we are beset not only by THE GREAT RECESSION, but also by what I call THE GREAT REJECTION where the Western world is selling its birth rite for a mess of pottage.  And what a mess it is!   Europe has led the way.  America is following.  It has infiltrated churches, and especially Protestant churches.  This, in my opinion, is the most underreported story of our time.  There is a mad rebellion afoot; a cultural insanity has set in—defying God, rejecting Christ, attacking the Bible, and abandoning truth.  We must see it for what it is.  We are a civilization pursuing folly, and hence our inability to even know how to stand up to a radicalized Islam.

There are two particular challenges that beset us internally:  the poison of relativism and the fever of narcissism.  On the one hand, relativism is about the abandonment of truth.  Everything is……well..…relative. The definition of everything is now up for grabs: marriage, family, even what it means to be human.  Relativism has so distorted our vision that we can’t see straight.   On the other hand, narcissism is about a radical individual selfishness.  These days it often appears as post modern subjectivism.  It takes hold of individuals and communities like a fever so that everything is ultimately about….. me.

A world characterized by narcissism is graceless.  And a world characterized by relativism is truthless.  But friends, it was into this kind of dark world that Jesus came to in the first century. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and that world saw his glory.  The glory of the One and Only who came from the Father full of grace and truth.

We forget that the world which first saw his glory was a world replete with relativism and narcissism.

It is interesting that John summarized the glory of Christ in this verse by noting that he was full of grace and truth.   Here I believe is a wonderful, two point definition of what it means to be Christ-like.

Into a lost and dark world comes the glory, the radiance, and majesty of Jesus.   He is full of truth. Why?  Because he is the truth.  He is the living Word made flesh.  His truth is recorded in Scripture.  It is a spiritual compass enabling us to think straight and make sense of the world.

But he is also full of grace.  His grace is about startling goodness shown to us supremely in the cross.  But it is a fountain that keeps flowing over into our lives in many merciful ways.  As John says,  “from the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.” (1.16)

Here Jesus is the final expression of God’s grace and truth.  As one receives him personally into their lives, God pours out his blessing.  But that is not all, God then redirects them to follow in his way—to live lives of grace and truth.

Our world desperately needs his grace and truth.  WE desperately need grace and truth.

All of us tend to be lopsided.   Some of us have a truth deficit.  Others have a grace deficit.  But there is Christ, the One and Only who came from the Father.

Grace without truth leads to moral indifference which keeps people from seeing their need for Christ.  But truth without grace results in self righteous legalism which pushes people away from Christ.

How desperately we need Jesus!  How desperately we need to be, yes, RE-FORMED by Jesus!   It’s not just our world that needs Christ—but the church needs Christ!   And the world needs a church characterized by his grace and truth—representing Christ in his fullness.

The hour in which we live, calls for churches, that are full of truth,  that believe in and have the courage to stand for the truthfulness of the Bible.  They  believe the gospel…..and love the Word of God.  They proclaim his uniqueness as Lord and  live life under the Word.   They contend earnestly for truth and THE truth.  The hour calls for the churches that are full of truth.  The New Testament actually calls the church— “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3.15).

But the hour also calls for churches that are full of grace.  They not only believe the gospel of God’s grace, but these doctrines shape their members lives so they become gracious people who embody the good news and love people to Christ.  Of course, a theology that is enamored with the doctrines of the grace of God in Christ should inevitably reflect the graciousness of God to others.

In our post-Christian setting of the 2010s (twenty tens), more than ever before, people will be looking at our lives before they listen seriously to our words.   They will draw conclusions about Jesus from what they see in us.  But once they see it, I have found that they will have a new openness to listen.  This is not unlike what happened in the early church.  What gave away the first century Christians was not their podcasts or programs or buildings, but the fact that “much grace was upon them all.” (Acts 4.33) They turned the world upside down with a kind of incarnational evangelism.  For them the gospel was a matter of “show and tell.”  People saw it, then they wanted to hear about it.

Our job as seminaries is to prepare leaders for the global church of the 21st c who show forth Christ.

We will need to train leaders who are grounded in the truth, who love the Word and know the word.   We need pastors who, as John Stott put it, “sincerely believe, diligently study, faithfully expound and relevantly apply the Word.”  We need shepherds who teach their flock to think Biblically and Christianly, and who have the courage to do this boldly.

Thankfully, RTS is a seminary where we teach students not only to understand the times, but to love and trust the Bible.  Our extraordinary teachers work and pray for students who have a mind for truth and a heart for God and a life for ministry.

Ah, but we will also need to train pastors and leaders whose lives are characterized by grace, who know the power of love and are willing to lay down their lives for their sheep.  We need shepherds who will guide their congregations to love and bless others in the name of Christ and who will show forth a Christ-like life even in the face of hostility.  They will need to be, as Francis Schaeffer put it, ready to speak about “the God who is there” all the while remembering that “the mark of the Christian is love.”  Or as we at RTS put it, they will need to be “winsomely reformed.”  Or in the words of Scripture, they will need to be “full of grace and truth.”

By the way, there are still some voices in the church saying that we should choose between grace and truth.  Some say our mission is mainly about being a presence—they highlight the grace part but seem reticent to speak out for truth.  Others say our mission is mainly about being a witness—they highlight the truth part but stop with that.   We on the other hand are not going to separate what the Bible holds together.  Why?  Because we have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father full of grace AND truth.

With this kind of Christlikeness, and all the resources and strengths of our confessional heritage, we dream of a seminary that is a blessing to our community, to the evangelical world and to the global church.

This past October, I was privileged to represent RTS at the Lausanne Congress in Cape Town.  One evening, just before the plenary session on the persecuted church, I sat next to an African pastor for supper.  When I asked him where he was from, he said Jos, Nigeria.  “Jos, Nigeria?!”  I replied, “our church in Denver has been praying for the churches there.”   I asked him if he knew anything about the persecution there.  He then spoke to me about what he called “the crisis.”  He told me that earlier this year many women and children from his city were killed in what the major news media only described as “on-going ethnic violence.”   He said these are on-going attacks on Christians and spoke of the systematic attempt by Islamic radicals to exterminate Christianity, burn churches, and force everyone to become a Muslim.   His life had been threatened many times.

When I asked him what enabled him to go back to Jos in the face of such hostility,   he said that  two things encourage him:  first, the truth and power of Jesus name, and second, the power of love.  These, he said, are the two most powerful weapons the church has.   He said, Islam does not know how to deal with them.

I was suddenly aware that I was talking to a very godly man.   He described how up to this point, God had miraculously protected him.  He related one story about a group of Muslims who were going to burn his church.  But he said that his church for a long time had not only spoken the truth of Christ, but had intently shown the love of Christ to everyone in his village.  When the religious arsonists approached the church with torches, the oldest man in the village, a Muslim, came forward and said that if they are going to burn the church, they must burn him first.  He said that this church was a place of goodness and had done so much for the villagers, (Christian and Muslim alike), that he would not let the antagonists come forward.  After he spoke, children also came forward in the pastor’s defense, both Christian and Muslim children.  So the arsonists left and did not burn the church.

When this African pastor finished the story, he looked at me, right as we parted for the meeting, and said…………“it is the truth of Christ and the love of Christ that makes the difference.”

Friends, it would be easy for me to set before you an agenda about what I hope to accomplish during my time as president of RTSO.  Instead, I think it far more prudent to set before you, not an agenda of what we hope to accomplish, but an ethos, that we hope to impart.

For if we can be effective just in this one thing, we will not only build a stronger seminary, but we will build students out who will again turn the world upside down, as they follow Jesus.

May God help us to reflect his glory in a grace and truth starved world.  Amen.

Categories: Personal, RTS Orlando, Seminary Education | Comments


  • Brad Meeder says:

    Don….Well said. May God use you greatly. Praying for you now. Brad

  • D.C. Green says:

    May God always bless you with the fulness of His grace! Wish I could have beeen there. I pray God does some amazing things through you as you lead the next generation of disciples at RTS. Grace and peace.

  • Patricia Stagg says:

    Dear Don,
    Thank you so much for sharing your message with us. Your inauguration event sounded wonderful…and we know how proud your family is. We are proud of you too, and know the Lord has put you right where you should be…teaching future leaders. We appreciate and will always be grateful for having sat under your teaching as well, which helped to shape our hearts and minds as new “born again” Christians. You have been and will continue to be in our prayers.
    Congratulations! God bless you, Christina & family, Pat & Patti Stagg

  • Tim McKeown says:

    Hi Don,
    Sorry I missed the festivities! Everybody that I have spoken with about the event has told me the same thing: Christ was lifted up and the focus of everyone present. May God wonderfully use you as RTS and RTSO move forward into this rapidly changing context. Truly we have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father full of grace AND truth!
    Tim McKeown, RTSH

  • Robert Bennett says:

    Beautifully expressed, Don. May your ministry be filled with grace and truth.

  • Bob Penny says:

    A thousand “Amens!” That is perfectly in harmony with all that I ever heard from the lips of Sam Patterson, our founder, addressing an earlier period, and all the messages/lectures I ever heard in direct connection with RTS, since the first year, second semester of RTS when I came on board as a student. Bob Penny

    • dwsweeting says:

      That is so encouraging, especially coming from someone like yourself who knows what happened in those early days.
      Thanks for your comment.

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