My Great Encourager is now in Heaven. He died in hospital aged 74 in Johannesburg, South Africa on June 9th 2017. We had preached together that week in the Cornerstone Church in Johannesburg. Brilliant as always, he preached for the last time on June 6th, 2017. I followed him a few moments later. He sat on the front row listening to me, but got up during the sermon. I found out he needed to lie down and rest owing to a lot of pain. It turned out to be a heart attack. He died three days later.
Michael and I have been linked together for a long time. We were opposites in many ways (personality, style) but when it came to theology – especially soteriology, we were on the same page. I first met him at Westminster Chapel in 1977. He was between churches, that is, he had resigned the pastorate at Nairobi Baptist Church and was undecided what to do next. He came to Westminster Chapel while I was preaching through Galatians. He later claimed that my view of the Law changed his perspective entirely. I hardly knew him, but a few years later he wrote to say that my view of James 2:14 had changed his life and ministry. He decided to accept the pastorate at Roseville Baptist Church in Johannesburg and opened his church to black people – a huge and precarious thing to do at the time.
A widely read preacher
He was the most learned theologian I have met. His knowledge was incredibly vast – exceeding all I have ever come across. He was a walking encyclopedia, at home with Greek or Hebrew; he preached in Swahili. He read Plato and all the Apostolic Fathers and Church Fathers, the medieval scholastics, knew Luther and Calvin backwards and forwards, read many of the Puritans, the eighteenth century Methodists, the nineteenth century British preachers, the main theologians of the 20th century – including Barth and Brunner, and if it was written last week – Michael probably read it! His mentor was Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Michael read all of the Doctor’s books and heard the recordings of most of his sermons.
Mentor turned mentee
I was a mentor to Michael in a small way, but he became a mentor to me in a big way. I think I would be accurate to say that he learned Paul’s teaching of justification and the place of the Law largely from my expositions of Galatians. But he surpassed me in all that I ever taught him and the result was, he became my teacher! These things said, he was a great encourager over the years.
There were at last five things I had come to see that Michael came along to agree with:
- James 2:14 “Can faith save him?” – the “him” being the “poor man” of James 2:6
- The place of Christ’s death and intercession (Jesus died for all but interceded only for the elect which I actually got from John Calvin)
- The faith of Christ: pistis chistou = literally Jesus’ very own faith (Rom.3:22, Gal.2:16,20)
- The meaning of the concept of God swearing an oath (Heb.6:13ff)
- Hebrews 6:4-6 referring to saved people who forfeited not salvation but their inheritance.
These are five examples of what I stood for – presumably by myself – but which Michael embraced and in turn taught me from these! My book Once Saved, Always Saved became the foundation for what Michael and I have taught all over the world for the past twenty-five years: the concept of reward and inheritance, persistent faith as being different from saving faith.
I would get the nuggets. But he turned the nuggets into bracelets and watches
But here is the point: he became my teacher in all these things. He referred to me as being a miner for gold. I would get the nuggets. But he turned the nuggets into bracelets and watches. I learned more from him than I ever saw by myself. I wrote to him around once a month for his view on this or that verse or idea.
I don’t know what I will do without him. I will miss him greatly. More than words can describe.
But my memory of him is this: he was my great encourager. When I felt alone and out there in no man’s land, he would come along side to say “R T you got that right”. Not that we agreed on everything. But almost everything.
I always wanted us to do our own translation of the Bible. I mentioned it to him again only five days before he died. I doubt it would have happened anyway, but it was a nice thought!
One sweet memory - our being on television together - will survive. TBN UK came up with a Book Show for me. He was on two one-hour programmes. They will be a permanent legacy of our ministry together.
Good-bye old friend. I will see you in Heaven. We will find out then if the Lord really approved of what we taught!
There will be a memorial service on Sunday 2nd July 2017 at Westminster Chapel to give glory to God for Dr Michael Eaton’s life.