“I ask the reader to compare everything I say or write with what is written in the Bible and, if at any point a conflict is found, always to rely upon the clear teaching of scripture.”
These are the words of David Pawson, a man who devoted his life to teaching the scriptures. He will be remembered not only for his truly remarkable preaching gift, but his gentleness, humility, and insistence that any question worth asking, can be answered by reading and understanding the Bible.
David studied theology at Cambridge University and served as a chaplain in the RAF in his early years, before following in his father's footsteps to become a Methodist minister. Over time, he became uncomfortable with the denomination’s belief in infant baptism, and left, finding a new home at Gold Hill Baptist Church in Buckinghamshire. Later, during the 1970s and 80s, he pastored Guildford Baptist Church and cassette recordings of his sermons began to travel. Soon he was being invited to speak at significant Christian events and conferences in the UK and beyond.
David Pawson was uncompromising, but not in a ‘bang your fist on the table’ kind of way. His delivery was gentle, sometimes understated. He never ranted or raved. Unafraid in expressing emotion while in the pulpit, he was often moved to tears during his messages.
He wasn't afraid to buck the trend, or to adopt an unpopular position. If the Bible said it, David would teach it.
Like many of his books, the 1,300 page tome that is Unlocking the Bible began life as a preaching series, before being transcribed into written form. It was inspired by Pawson’s belief that the Bible is designed to be studied “a book at a time”, rather than “a verse at a time”. Given its size and relatively low price, it's probably the best value Christian book on the market today.
Other notable works included The Normal Christian Birth - which argued becoming a Christian involves far more than uttering the sinners prayer - and Once Saved Always Saved? - the question mark indicating Pawson's belief such a teaching is unbiblical.
His autobiography was entitled Not As Bad As The Truth. Rumours and lies had been spread about the Bible teacher and speaking engagements were cancelled. Pawson complained vehemently to his wife, and then to God about the situation. The Holy Spirit's reply was "David, the worst they can say about you is not as bad as the truth." He laughed. But the point was taken, with God adding, "I know the worst, but I still love you and will use you."
Anything could happen
In 2009, I emailed him to ask if he would speak at our university Christian Union (CU). I hadn’t expected a reply. At best I thought I might get a response saying he didn’t have time (too busy addressing thousands around the world, to bother with 50 students). I was shocked when I received a hand-written letter in the post from the man himself, graciously accepting my invitation to speak.
I’d arranged to meet David at the front of our university campus. It was imperative I was on time. My generation is used to texting ahead to say ‘running 10 minutes late’, but David didn't own a mobile phone (or have access to an email account - hence the hand written letter). I made sure I was there.
“You’re not going to make me sign one of those statements of faith are you?” he asked, as I escorted him across campus.
UCCF policy was clear: Every guest speaker had to sign the statement of faith before addressing a CU.
David continued, “Another CU I went to tried to make me sign one. I refused. I wasn’t allowed to speak.”
I never asked him to sign the statement. And I never told anyone. Until now. Am I sorry? I don't think so. I still remember the reaction of my student friends - who up until this point had never heard of David Pawson. Their mouths were open and their eyes wide as they lapped up his teaching, with many remarking to me afterwards, “Where did you find this guy, Sam?!”, “He’s amazing”, “That was incredible!”, "What a legend!".
To this day I don't know why David didn't want to sign statement of faith (he was orthodox on all the important issues), but he might have disliked the principle. In his autobiography, he explained how he’d never speak somewhere if he was told what to say, or if he was told what not to say. That was one of my favourite things about David Pawson. You never quite knew what he’d say next! There's no doubt this way of operating cost him at times (it has been reported that he caused such a stir at one major Christian event when he decided to tackle the subject of divorce that he was never invited back). But he was a man of principle and integrity. Who could argue with that?
David’s positions on male headship, hell and the importance of modern day Israel were controversial in many quarters. He was especially known for his teaching on the latter, but often remarked how there were two kinds of Christians who followed his teaching. Those who loved what he said about Israel but ignored everything else. And those who loved most of his teaching, but just wish he’d keep quiet about Israel.
Nothing was out of bounds or off limits for David (he even poured cold water on common interpretations of the Bible’s most well known verses, John 3:16). But that's what made him exciting to listen to.
At one event, a couple of Christian missionaries were being interviewed about their work overseas, working among the poor. Pawson was due to speak after them, but the interview over-ran significantly. The congregation were settling down for a very long evening. They were to be surprised. Upon taking the stage, David Pawson preached what is surely one of the shortest sermons ever recorded: "Ladies and gentlemen, our topic for this evening is covetousness. In the light of all we’ve heard tonight, how dare we covet? Let’s pray."
He had a number of clever quips, which you'd always laugh at, even if you'd heard them 1,000 times before. An itinerant speaker, he would often receive a warm welcome, with congregations erupting in applause as he was introduced and took to the stage. David would always respond with, “Well after that introduction, I’m looking forward to hearing myself speak!”
A legacy which lives on
I didn’t agree with him on everything - I don’t think many did. But that wasn’t the point. His invitation for listeners to weigh his every word against scripture was what mattered. He truly was one of the greatest Bible teachers of his generation, and his ability to hold his audience’s attention for long periods of time was unmatched. As our CEO Peter Kerridge remarked this morning, “David Pawson was the only Bible teacher who could make Leviticus sound interesting!”
Like all great communicators, David Pawson never wasted a word. His scripts were edited and honed, so that his preaching was always clear and concise. Every syllable was carefully measured. He communicated deep theological truth in a way that everyone could understand. I couldn't have been older than about 15 when I first watched him speak (on VHS video), yet I was gripped. We know it was said of Jesus that "the common people heard him gladly" (Mark 12:37). The same should be said of David Pawson.