Remembering James Montgomery Boice

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Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of the death of James Montgomery Boice, pastor for 32 years of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.  For those of us whose lives were so deeply marked by the life and ministry of Dr. Boice, it is hard to believe that so much time has passed.  Yet the influence of his ministry continues to be felt among Christians today.

When he died in 2000, James Boice was known primarily for his nation-wide radio preaching ministry, The Bible Study Hour, along with his scores of valuable books, especially his expositional commentary series.  The church he pastored was considered a model of vitality and integrity, and the ministry he co-founded, The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, was playing a significant role in spreading a strongly evangelical version of the historic Reformed faith.  Fifteen years after his death, Boice should be seen as one of the motivating forces behind the recent spread of Calvinism among thousands of younger believers, especially in Baptist and Charismatic churches.  Though himself a deeply committed Presbyterian, Boice reached far into other Christian circles through his teaching materials in Bible Study Fellowship, his preaching at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology (PCRT) and other conferences, and the combination of personal godliness and reverent joy that inspired so many younger leaders.  Many of the figures associated with today's New Calvinism have expressed the influence of Dr. Boice on their ministries and teaching, including John Piper, Tim Keller, and Al Mohler.  In the last year of his life, before he learned of the cancer that would swiftly cause his death, Dr. Boice frequently spoke to me of his great optimism for the future, largely due to the legions of younger ministers who were taking God's Word seriously and embracing the doctrines associated with God's sovereignty.  I doubt, however, that he appreciated the significance of his own role in advancing that very cause.

As I worshiped on the Lord's Day yesterday, I often had Dr. Boice on my mind and my thoughts were more personal than professional.  I remembered the night when I sat next to him at my first church dinner, not long after I came to faith in Jesus through his preaching.  Like many others, I was so grateful to him that I began spouting out gobs of praise for how his teaching had impacted me.  He gravely replied, "Young man, you talk too much about me.  I would prefer you to speak more about Christ and God's Word."  Chastened, my mouth stopped but a lesson had been learned.  I remember him announcing my baptism before an evening sermon.  I had been on a young adults' retreat and had suddenly demanded to be baptized.  Since we were meeting alongside a lake, the minister there thought I was requesting immersion and reported this to Dr. Boice.  With a twinkle in his eye, he said from the pulpit, "I don't know if Rick Phillips is here tonight, but I want to assure him that it's alright to be a Baptist in the summertime, but in November in New Jersey it's much better to be a Presbyterian!" Those who knew Jim Boice personally will recognize the look of private amusement that would lift his face after his usually bad jokes!

Towards the end of my seminary years at Westminster, Dr. Boice asked me to join the Tenth Church staff and also to assist him in the work of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  I tried to turn him down, since I wanted to preach more regularly.  But he looked me in the eyes and simply said, "Rick, I could really use your help."  How could I say No to that?  As a result, I had the privilege of traveling with Dr. Boice on dozens of preaching trips.  I remember his personal fastidiousness, his gross under-packing (always the boarding school boy!), his ridiculous agitation as the start-time of a conference drew near, and his herculean work ethic while on the road.  Mostly, I treasure countless conversations over meals and in airports, so many of them filled with talk of the joys and challenges of preaching, fascination with God's Word, and the compelling privilege of service to Jesus Christ.  I can scarcely remember a single conversation with Dr. Boice that was not spiritually uplifting and reverent.  Though I only knew him well for a period of a few years, during that time he became my spiritual father and I will never forget the truth and love that propelled his life.

Thinking about James Boice's death, I recall being present on the Tenth Church platform, together with his successor Philip Ryken, when Dr. Boice announced his illness and impending death to the stunned Tenth congregation.  (For those who have never read this remarkable address, I would recommend this link.)  What I most remember, however, was that after Dr. Boice concluded and moved to depart out the door behind the pulpit, he passed in front of me and briefly stopped.  Grasping my arm and looking into my eyes  - knowing that we would never again stand together on the pulpit platform - he smiled and exclaimed, "Press on, brother.  Fight the good fight."  My point in relating this small event is not to highlight my relationship with Dr. Boice but rather to offer it as a lens to view his personal and public devotion to serving Christ.  Jim gave himself to the Church, but he also gave himself to his friends and spiritual children.  How greatly we miss him!  Aged 62 at his death, James Boice never become old (which he dreaded) and his legacy among those who knew him remains vigorous to this day.

Fifteen years have passed and the church is beginning to forget James Montgomery Boice.  At a recent PCRT, I asked people to raise their hands if they knew who he was and fewer than I would have thought responded.  But that is just as Jim would have wanted it.  He was remarkable in caring so deeply about his ministry and so little about his own prestige.  Yet those who long sat under his preaching can never forget him.  However personal one's relationship with Dr. Boice, the abiding image will always be him standing in the pulpit, head up, eyes alight, teaching the truths of God's Word with clarity, passion, and power.  The best testimony to his faith is still given by the hymns that Dr. Boice left to the church, collected in the volume Hymns for a Modern Reformation (music by Dr. Paul Jones).  Yesterday our church was privileged to sing two of these hymns, one in the morning and one in the evening, to remember the testimony of faith given by James Montgomery Boice.  One of them is titled, Hallelujah! and its words continue to sound the testimony of faith from this remarkable man of God:


What can separate my soul

From the God who made me whole?

Wrote my name on heaven's scroll. 

Nothing.  Hallelujah!


Victors we're ordained to be

By the God who set us free;

What can therefore conquer me?

Nothing.  Hallelujah!


We face death for God each day

What can pluck us from His way?

Let God's people ever say,

"Nothing."  Hallelujah!

*For more information on the life and death of James Montgomery Boice, see my 2010 memorial, today's entry in This Day in Presbyterian History, and a brief bio on the Alliance website.

Posted June 15, 2015 @ 8:57 AM by Rick Phillips

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