The following is an article I wrote for the May 2013 edition of Tabletalk Magazine. It is a memorial for a man who exemplified more than any I have ever met what it meant to be motivated by and to exhibit the love of Christ in Christian ministry:
Dr. John H. Skilton was professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia for almost fifty-eight years (1939–1998). He was one of the most scholarly men in the church. Rumors have circulated over the years that he had memorized the entire Greek New Testament, together with every textual variant. His doctoral dissertation, “The Translation of the New Testament into English, 1881–1950,” which he lost on a public bus in Philadelphia and then reconstructed from memory, shows something of his unique breadth of knowledge in theology and linguistics. In addition, John served as the editor of The Westminster Theological Journal from 1968 to 1973.
While John’s commitment to biblical scholarship is certainly worthy of the highest commendation and imitation, it is not that for which he is most affectionately remembered. When John retired from full-time professorship in 1973, he opened his home in the Vietnamese section of Philadelphia to missionaries, pastors, believers, neighbors, and the homeless. Quite appropriately, this place of mercy and love became known as “The Skilton House.” Some of my fondest childhood memories were spent observing this man, whom I’ve subsequently heard others refer to as “the most loving man I’ve ever met.”
What was the secret to John’s greatness in ministry? Was it his intellectual acumen? Was it personal ambition? Was it a desire to bring about change in the world? While all of these things have their place, at its core, the secret to John’s greatness in ministry was a heart full of love for the Christ who first loved him (John 11:5; 13:1, 32; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20; 1 John 4:19). Like the Apostle John, Dr. Skilton was a model of what it means for a minister to express love for the Lord and His people in ministry (John 15:9–13; 13:34–35; 1 John 2:5; 2:15; 5:1). Every pastor ought to carry out Christian service from a heart full of love for God.
Sadly, many in the pastorate often neglect this all-important aspect of ministry. It is far too easy for a minister to slide into a mode of fleshly dependence and self-interest. This becomes the modus operandi when love for God is forsaken. When we are motivated by self-interest, then pride, worldly pursuits, discontentment, complacency, or discouragement begin to characterize our ministry. When internal enemies battle for the driver’s seat of the heart, love for the church tends to wane as well.
Ministers may inadvertently neglect love to God for a variety of reasons. An awareness of how far short we fall of God’s command to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength may sometimes lie behind a neglect of love for God. We may adopt a sinful complacency since we know that we will inevitably fail to love God as we ought. For others, an overemphasis on the objective truth of Scripture to the neglect of the subjective experience of it in our lives can lead to lovelessness toward God in the heart. No matter how spiritually aware of personal weakness or doctrinally sound pastors may be, we are ever in danger of falling into this trap.
So what can ministers do to cultivate an unswerving love for Christ? The loveless heart will be cured only when we know and are convinced of the love that Christ has for unworthy sinners like us. The Apostle Paul taught that this was the secret to his self-sacrificing ministry (2 Cor. 5:14). He expressed his own experiential grasp of Christ’s love for him when he wrote, “The life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20, emphasis added). Love for God will always be absent until we remember our sinfulness and look in faith to the crucified Savior who loved us and gave Himself for us.
We also see how love for Christ flows from the love of Christ in the account of the sinful woman who came to Jesus in selfless abandonment and brokenness (Luke 7:36–50). Our Lord explained that “she loved much” because her sins had been forgiven, but “to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little” (Luke 7:47). So it is for ministers of the gospel. The pastor who knows that he has been forgiven of much will love much, but he who forgets how much he has been forgiven will love little.
All pastors can slide into seasons of lovelessness in ministry. We would be wise to heed the words of one whose life and ministry was preeminently characterized by love to Christ:
We must ever guard against doing what is formally right without putting our heart in what we are doing… . We must remember that though we bestow all our goods to feed the poor and have not love, it profits us nothing. Be not like those who draw nigh to God with their mouth and honor Him with their lips, but whose heart is far from Him. Let us keep … our hearts with a faith that works by love—a faith that is genuine and true, which joyously and spontaneously expresses itself in deeds of compassion and love. (John H. Skilton, Think on These Things)
*Further Personal Memories
I praise God that I was able to know John. He was the most uniquely Christ-like person I’ve ever met. Though he was a scholar, he always sought to encourage his friends and fellow professors in their writing and publishing. He never wrote as much as John Murray, Cornelius Van Til, Ned Stonehouse or the other professors with whom he taught at WTS; but he always promoted them in their writing. Dr. Milton Fisher–professor Emeritus at Reformed Episcopal Seminary (and one of John’s dear friends)–once told me that even on his deathbed John asked him, “Milt, how is your writing coming along?” John always sought to promote the writing and ministry of others. Though John lived in a very modest row house in the Vietnamese section of Philadelphia he always hada stack of theological works by Machen, Murray and Van Til to give out on his front porch.
John had a gentleness about him that was nothing other than supernatural. My father once told me about a time when Dr. Van Til taped his arm, pointed at John and said, “Do you see that man? There is nothing fake about him.” He was a living example of what the apostle Paul meant when he said, “esteem others better than yourself.” In his mid-70’s I remember hearing that John would give his bed to a missionary visiting “the Skilton House” and that he would sleep on the floor. Every time our family came to visit John would offer to make us some soup–an act of hospitality (to a family that had far more than he did) I’ll never forget.
When I was about 17 years old–and very rebellious -John was dying in a hospital near Ocean City, NJ. I remember my father calling him a lot in his last days. My dad had asked John to pray for me. I’ll never forget the shame that I felt when he handed me to phone to talk to him. I could barely speak to him because of the shame I felt. I remember that I just started crying. John said in the most gentle and loving tone, “I’m praying for you, Nick. I know that Christ can heal you.”
In his later years, John would often have us drive him to the airport. He would fly to places like Seoul, Korea where he helped to start Reformed seminaries. On one occasion (I must have been 5 or 6 years old) as we walked through the airport terminal I found a twenty dollar bill. My dad stooped down and said, “Nick, Dr. Skilton doesn’t have what we have. It would be a loving thing to give him the money for his travels.” I remember being upset that I had to give John the money. I would give him anything I could to support his ministry if he were alive today.
John is alive. He is in glory, in the presence of the Jesus who conformed John into His image. I have, on many occasions, prayed that God would give me the gentleness and kindness of Dr. Skilton. I often feel the complete opposite of this man. My hope as a Christian, a husband, a father, a pastor and a friend, is that the Christ who redeemed and sanctified John for use in His Kingdom has redeemed and is sanctifying me for use in the same Kingdom. May God give us grace to know the love of Christ as John did, so that we might also live out lives of love for Christ and His people.