Tom Nettles retired last week as professor of historical theology at Southern Seminary, capping off a long and distinguished career. As I thought about his retirement, I reflected on what I’ve learned from this iconic Baptist historian, and it was hard to find a place to start.
I could start with how my life was changed by reading his book, Baptists and the Bible (co-authored with L. Russ Bush). The book demonstrated that a commitment to biblical inerrancy wasn’t what some said it was, a recent “modernist” innovation of the Princeton Presbyterians, but was deeply rooted in the Baptist tradition and, more importantly, in the Bible’s witness to itself. This book was the first I read on biblical authority that went beyond mere slogans, and it armed me to trust the Bible for the rest of my life.
I could start with what it was like to be on the other side of Tom Nettles’ questioning in a doctoral seminar room, or in a dissertation defense (he was on my doctoral committee). He wouldn’t tolerate a loose argument (even for a position he agreed with), and he certainly wouldn’t tolerate a split infinitive. The maddest I’ve ever seen him wasn’t when I questioned his view on the extent of the atonement, but rather when I suggested that split infinitives had evolved into acceptability.
Or I could start with what it was like to co-teach a Sunday school class with him. There we did prison ministry together, and I saw him share the gospel passionately with men serving life sentences. I saw him confront erring church members caught in adultery, warning them with their accountability before the Judgment Seat. I saw him reassure tender consciences, doubting their salvation.
But the moment I learned the most from Tom Nettles didn’t come in a book or a doctoral seminar or in church ministry together. It didn’t happen in a faculty meeting after we became colleagues. It happened at my little apartment doorstep, and I’ll never forget it.
My wife Maria had just suffered a miscarriage, our third lost pregnancy. The doctors had told us that we’d never be able to have children. Our house was funereal. I was growing despondent and even bitter toward God. I could see all of my friends becoming parents, and I was looking at a lonely future with just the two of us and, I feared, a house-full of cats.
Tom and Margaret Nettles were the first to our house. He didn’t exegete the Book of Job, or reiterate his lecture notes on the sovereignty of God and personal suffering. He sat with us, in silence, for a long time. He wept with us, and prayed with us.
As they were leaving, though, he stopped at the door and he spoke words I still hear.
“Russell, Romans 8:28 is often quoted at a time like this, and rightly so, but I think you need to hear Romans 8:29,” he said.
“God has promised you something. He has promised to do whatever it takes to conform you into the image of Christ, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. I don’t know why this is happening to you and Maria. It’s awful. I can’t tell you the reason God is permitting you to walk this path, and I can’t tell you exactly where He is taking you in it. But I know this. God is committed to shaping you into the image of Jesus, and that’s for your good. He hasn’t forgotten you and He hasn’t forsaken you.”
I doubt I would have heard those words if they had come before the tears and the silence. But because they came after those things, I heard them with my heart, and what I heard was a call, first, to repentance. In my fear and anxiety and self-obsession, I had forgotten the gospel. I thought God owed me the life I expected for myself and I was angry at him, rather than being driven to cast my anxieties on Him, as the One who cares for us.
Tom Nettles didn’t stop with that night. In the fullness of time, as Maria was approaching yet another surgery, he assembled a group of church leaders to pray over her and to anoint her with oil, in keeping with James 5:14. As he did so, he said to the men there, “I’ve got to admit that I feel a little awkward doing this, almost like I’m doing something Pentecostal, but I recognize that’s my own pride. This is what the Bible tells us to do when someone is sick and in need of prayer, and the Bible is God’s Word.”
I would think about those moments as the years went by and more and more children came into our family. Margaret Nettles would remind us not to talk about the “terrible twos” but the “terrific twos.” Tom Nettles would talk to the kids in a Donald Duck voice, and they’d laugh with glee. And I would remember that these children weren’t natural steps in my life plan. They were gifts from God, and they came to us through suffering, through tears, through the prayers of the Body of Christ.
I had learned about God’s sovereignty and biblical inerrancy from Tom Nettles in his books and in his lectures, but I learned much more from him in our doorway, in our living room, and, in the fullness of time, in our nursery.