(Photos: Steve Fanstone)
RT Kendall doesn’t look like a heretic. He doesn’t sound like one either. But in the mid 80s he almost lost his job leading one of London’s most famous churches when he was accused of antinomianism: the claim that Christians are not obliged to follow God’s moral law (yes, I had to look it up, too).
The controversy centred around a book he had written called Once Saved, Always Saved, in which he wore his Calvinist theology on his sleeve: that salvation is by sheer grace and not because of anything we do. Kendall laughs when he recalls the episode, saying that it was the testimonies of those who read the book that rescued him. ‘They said it made them want to be more godly,’ he shares.
This wasn’t the only controversy Kendall would weather in 25 years of eventful ministry at Westminster Chapel. By the end of it, he saw himself as much a Brit as an American and, through his speaking and books, was regarded as a statesman of the UK evangelical Church by the time he retired in 2002.
Originally from Kentucky, Kendall moved to the UK in the 1970s with his wife Louise and their first child in order to pursue theological studies at Oxford. He thought he was destined for academia, but Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the renowned leader of Westminster Chapel, had other ideas. After Kendall was invited to deliver a sermon there, Lloyd-Jones persuaded the American that he was a ‘born preacher’. Kendall soon became his protégé and eventually his successor.
Even after his appointment, Kendall remembers spending hours every week in the company of his mentor, going over his sermon for the coming Sunday line by line. He admits to having remained in awe of Lloyd-Jones (‘the doctor’, as he deferentially refers to him). He says: ‘For 25 years I never felt it was my pulpit. Ever. I thought it was his.’
Shortly before Lloyd-Jones’ death in 1981, it is reported that the pair experienced a falling out. Kendall refuses to be drawn on the details, but insists that sitting under the authority of Lloyd-Jones will always remain a privilege. ‘I don’t think any minister in the history of the world was as – forgive this un-Calvinistic word – “lucky” as I was,’ he says.
Kendall wouldn’t always remain in the shadow of his mentor, however. He took the church in a radically new direction as he caught up with the charismatic movement that had already broken on British shores. He recalls that it began in the 1980s when travelling evangelist Arthur Blessitt ‘turned us upside down’, and continued into the 90s with the Toronto Blessing. The manifestations of laughter and falling down in the Spirit were initially resisted by Kendall, but he publicly repented of his criticism after seeing the impact it was having on churches such as Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB).
Today, aged 79, the charismatic Calvinist seems as open as ever to new things God may be doing, while remaining faithful to biblical truth. The conjunction of Word and Spirit has always been his focus. Combined with his personal charisma (and a dash of mischievous humour), this has allowed Kendall to come alongside many different people. He developed an unlikely friendship with Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat, with whom he was able to share the gospel on several occasions. More recently, he visited Oscar Pistorius during the athlete’s murder trial and counselled him.
These names feature among the many that Kendall has committed to praying for daily. Once our interview had concluded I was genuinely humbled to find out that my name is now on the list.
IT WASN’T EASY TO ADMIT I WAS WRONG, BUT IT WAS THE CORRECT DECISION
You married Louise in 1958. What influence has she had on your life?
The best thing that’s ever happened to me…is Louise. I had no idea what I was getting, and after 55 years I see every day, more and more, how good God has been to me to let me have her.
In those days I wasn’t in the ministry because I did not know how to handle money. I so disappointed my dad…he named me after his favourite preacher, Dr RT Williams. That’s why I’m RT (my name is Robert Tillman, by the way). I had to get a job and I needed some clothes and then got a chance to buy a car and…if you’re ready for this…I bought an airplane.
I did. Along with another friend of mine, I learned to fly. And we were in debt and then I married Louise and, looking back, I should have waited [to purchase the plane], but I couldn’t wait, because I thought ‘Jesus is coming soon’. I didn’t want to wait.
Tell us about your conversion…
My father and mother were pillars in the church. I was converted one Easter morning, 1942. I remember it as though it was yesterday. I knelt at my parents’ bedside, confessed my sins and wept. I don’t remember what sins I had committed, only that I sassed my parents, I think. That made me conscious that I was a sinner.
IN THAT MOMENT, I FELT A WARMTH JUST GO INTO MY CHEST LIKE LIQUID FIRE
Winding the clock forward, how were you called into ministry?
A Scotsman, Dr John Sutherland Logan, was a guest preacher at Trevecca Nazarene college where I was a student. He befriended me for some reason.
I said, ‘I need to know how to know I’m called to preach.’ He said, ‘You are.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘You are.’ I said, ‘Well, I need to know…’ He said, ‘You are.’
So you know what? I believed him. I never looked back.
The thing was so unspectacular – it was not Michael the archangel, but a Scotsman – and I’ve never forgotten it. He and I later on became very, very close. That’s how I was called to preach.
Three months later I was invited to pastor a church. I was 20 years old and still a student.
It was October 31st 1955, and I was driving when the glory of the Lord filled the car. I can take you to the spot on old US41. There was Jesus, at the right hand of the Father, interceding for me.
You had a vision?
It was a vision, no doubt about that, but Jesus was as real as you are, looking at me. But I was driving. And I could see him praying for me, but I didn’t know what he was saying. I just kept driving and I burst into tears. I thought, ‘He loves me more than I love myself.’
I don’t know what happened in that hour. When I get to heaven I want to get a DVD. I don’t know how I drove; I do not remember anything. But as we were coming into Smyrna, Tennessee, just ten miles out of Nashville, I heard Jesus say to the Father, ‘He wants it.’ The voice replied, Father to Jesus: ‘He can have it.’
In that moment, I felt a warmth just go into my chest like liquid fire. I never had such peace in all my life. It was so wonderful. And then, for about 30 seconds, there was Jesus looking right at me. It was so real.
Following that extraordinary vision, you decided that you were a Calvinist...
I knew I was eternally saved. Before the end of the day, I began to see things that I had never even thought of: that I was chosen; that what had happened to me was a sovereign work of God. A few weeks after that I told the dean of religion at the college.
He said, ‘RT you’re going off into Calvinism.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘We don’t believe that.’ I said, ‘Then we are wrong.’ I began to read verses to him from Romans 8 and 9. And I said, ‘What does this mean?’ He said, ‘Give me some time on that.’ Fifty years later, he never got back to me.
It’s not the normal way people get into Calvinism. This was a sort of rapturous vision…
While I was minister at Westminster Chapel, I never wore my Calvinism on my sleeve. I didn’t preach on it unless the text called for it. People came there as Armenians and after two or three years they were Calvinist, but they don’t remember what happened…
You stepped into some big boots at Westminster Chapel. How did it feel to take on the church Martyn Lloyd-Jones had led?
It was horrible! I mean, he’s the greatest preacher ever! I would say men like him only come around every two or three centuries. His stature was huge. He was the greatest preacher since Spurgeon. And here I am, from the hills of Kentucky.
I know you didn’t always see eye to eye with each other.
That is not quite true. We were so close…When it came to our doctrine of salvation, he was with me 100%. We didn’t have any theological differences. The difference that caused a little problem just before he died had nothing to do with theology.
You’re looking forward to being reunited with him one day, then?
Oh yes. He was the greatest mentor next to my dad. He made his house open every Thursday from eleven till one. It was just set. Mrs Lloyd-Jones would bring out coffee and Kit Kats and I’d just start in talking to him about anything, from politics to theology. We would talk about what I was going to preach on. I would go over, line by line, everything I was going to say the following weekend.
Your ministry has involved putting the Word together with the Spirit. How did you steer your church towards openness to the charismatic movement?
Well, there was a process. I first spoke in tongues in 1956, but I didn’t tell anybody that. One of the first people I told was Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who was very impressed. In 1982, I made the most controversial but the greatest decision in 25 years. I invited Arthur Blessitt to Westminster Chapel. People were angry with me because I told everybody he wasn’t a charismatic. I now think that Arthur was a closet charismatic, but I didn’t know that.
Were you also a ‘closet charismatic’ at this point?
I guess I was a clandestine Pentecostal for years. We invited Arthur and he turned us upside down. I nearly lost my job over it. If I had never invited Arthur Blessitt, I would never have been charged with heresy. Some of the deacons so disliked Arthur. Imagine bringing a guitar to church and singing choruses! They didn’t like that.
What got me in trouble was when the Toronto Blessing came out and I endorsed it. I didn’t endorse it at first; in fact, quite the opposite when I heard about people at Holy Trinity Brompton being prayed for and falling on the floor and laughing their heads off. For one thing, if it really was of God it would’ve come to Westminster Chapel first! I thought, ‘Everybody knows Anglicans are apostate, with their posh Sloane Square accents,’ and I dismissed the whole thing.
Ken Costa [of HTB] got in touch with me. He said, ‘RT, I need your wisdom. Something’s happened and I don’t know what to make of it.’ I was ready to sort him out. Before that lunch was over, I was trembling, thinking, ‘I’m on the wrong side of this. This is of God.’ I could see it all over Ken’s face.
FOR 25 YEARS I NEVER FELT IT WAS MY PULPIT
You didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history?
I sure didn’t. On the Sunday morning I went to the pulpit, and I climbed down publicly. It wasn’t easy to admit I was wrong, but it was the correct decision. We invited Sandy Millar [then rector of HTB] and some of his people to come to Westminster Chapel and pray for our deacons. We went over there and got prayed for. My wife was deeply touched by it, and then some months later I invited Rodney Howard-Browne [a key figure in the Toronto Blessing] to Westminster Chapel.
Louise had been very, very ill; so much so that I thought I was going to have to go back to America and resign. She had a horrible cough for three years. We’d made trips to America, to Florida. We thought the clear air would heal her. She even had to go to hospital because her retinas were going to be detached due to her cough. Nobody could heal it. When I met Rodney, he and [his wife] Adonica prayed for Louise. She was healed instantly. I saw it; I saw it. Healed right on the spot.
Listen to RT Kendall on The Profile, Premier Christian Radio, Saturday 7th February at 4pm
RT KENDALL TOP READS
Once Saved, Always Saved (CrossBooks Publishing) The book that caused all the fuss. Kendall outlines why a Christian’s assurance of salvation can never be taken away.
Total Forgiveness: Achieving God’s Greatest Challenge (Hodder & Stoughton) Possibly RT’s most influential book. Kendall writes on God’s radical forgiveness and the response it must elicit in us.
In Pursuit of His Glory (Hodder & Stoughton) Looking back on 25 years of ministry at Westminster Chapel, Kendall tells the story of his continued pursuit of God.
God Meant it for Good (Paternoster Press) Drawing on lessons from the life of Joseph in Egypt on forgiveness and maturity, Kendall shows how God weaves together for good the ups and downs of our own life stories.
In Pursuit of His Wisdom (Hodder & Stoughton) RT’s most recent book draws on a lifetime spent living out the wisdom of scripture every day.
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