Remembering Ken Sarles, My First Theology Prof.

sarlesI stepped off an airplane in Burbank back in 92 as a wide-eyed, naive, hayseed graduate of Arkansas State University and a newly accepted Master’s Seminary student. I was so excited to be in LA preparing to study under sound preaching and teaching. I thought I knew a lot of things about the Christian faith, but suffice it to say, I was still really ignorant.

My first ever class on my first Tuesday morning at 7:30 AM was Theology I, taught by Ken Sarles.

Ken was a brand new teacher at TMS that year as well. He had just moved to LA from the Dallas area, where he had taught as an assistant professor of systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary.

A week or so before classes started, I received a list of all the books and syllabi I was to purchase before attending my classes. Ken’s syllabus was a massive, 500+ page monster that scared me to death. Included was his intro that explained the class course work that would involve writing up papers on various theological topics and a number of reading assignments.

We were to be given three or so major tests during the semester. They were to be “open book,” but in a Q&A style format. He likened it to the kind of questions we will receive from church lay people. We were required to write a 500 word response to each one that covered all the material we will learn in class in a cogent and concise fashion that we could draw from in our future ministries.

He also had us purchase Louis Berkhof’s systematic theology. It would be our principle text book for the course and we were to have at least 100 pages or so read before the first day of class.

As overwhelmed as I was with my 100 pages of reading and a 500+ page syllabus, after he introduced himself and worked his way through the standard preliminary remarks all profs give their classes on the first day, I became transfixed as we dove into the opening material on the doctrine of God.  I soaked in his lectures like they were life giving nourishment. I had never heard teaching like that before. Ken was the first “Calvinist” I really had as a teacher. Sure, I had read books on Calvinism and my college pastor back in Arkansas had introduced me to the doctrines, but Ken made them come alive for me in his lectures by rooting my convictions in Scripture and a proper handling of theology.

Ken filled his material with citations from the Puritans. Until then, all I knew about Puritans was that they were religious hypocrites that dressed in black and white clothes and burned innocent women as witches. Instead of dour, grim-faced killjoys, he showed us how the Puritans had a high view of God and a deep, abiding love for His Word. It was around that time that Sola Deo Gloria publishers were reprinting a lot of Puritan works, so when I had any (rare) extra money, my library quickly filled up with books by Thomas Watson (my favorite Puritan), Christopher Love, Jeremiah Burroughs, and host of others.

During our several week study on the doctrine of God, Ken cited heavily from Stephen Charnock’s two volume work on the Existence and Attributes of God. Hearing him utilize Charnock’s material in the context of our theology class stirred in me a love for his deep and profound sermons. If I remember correctly, I was blessed to find a set of those books on sale at CBD, or some other discounted Christian book seller. Charnock’s two books occupied my personal study for a number of years off and on as I plodded my way through them.

Ken was also the first person I can recall who gave a serious critique of the growing seeker-friendly approach to church growth. He called it the purple church syndrome. The church, being red, mixes with the world, which is blue, and thinking it will have a great advantage of reaching the lost by their attempt at “relevance,” only turns purple as the church members really become worldly in their amusements. He foresaw the whole mega church fad and predicted how those big churches will eventually grow more and more worldly as they attempt to maintain the huge number of people they have drawn in with their entertainment.

I tried to take every class Ken taught, but my schedule made that difficult. I missed out on taking his charismatic studies class, which I understand was a riot because he made it so fun recounting the absurd stories that came from charismatic circles. Eventually, family trials took him back to Dallas toward the end of the 90s, and though I didn’t have the opportunity to take his other classes, I cherished the ones I had taken.

Recently, I learned that Ken passed away into the presence of the Lord. He had succumbed to the cancer he had been battling. He was a relatively obscure individual. Apart from the number of men who learned from him at TMS during his years there, as well as, his circle of friends back in Texas, he never wrote any major books, wasn’t a blogger, or a well-known preacher or conference speaker. However, he certainly had a hand in aiming the trajectory of my own personal walk with the Lord, and I thank God for that.  I rejoice that he now fully realizes all of that wonderful doctrine he taught me.

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9 thoughts on “Remembering Ken Sarles, My First Theology Prof.

  1. Great article. I believe that theologians have far too low a status in the church, and there is far too much of a gap between seminaries / bible colleges and churches. We need more people like Ken, and we need to develop much better links between the world of academic theology and the local church.

  2. Good post in honor of his memory; we know where he is at now. I have never heard of him before but this made me reflect back on my own seminary experience.

  3. Grateful for your comments on Ken. I hope more people from TMS and DTS learn about his passing into glory and can give reflections like you have. My wife and I had Ken for classes at DTS and both of us gained life-changing perspective on the doctrines of grace. He was a dear friend.

    After moving back to Texas from the west coast, he joined our home church and became a very humble and significant influence among the congregation. He remained a close personal friend of ours throughout the time. You will be interested to know that he was teaching a class on Pilgrim’s Progress when he had to stop short because of illness. There are many classes of his on the church website (www.countrysidebible.org) under MEDIA/Adult Sunday School. Use the search engine on the left of the page to find all his classes back to 2102.

    Before Pilgrim’s Progress, he taught on the history of the Puritans in North America and he taught through 1 Peter.

    I remember something he said in class at DTS in the late 80’s when there was a great psychological “finding yourself” movement among young people in the states. He said, “If you want to see yourself clearly, you must first see Jesus Christ clearly. The more clearly you see His glory, the more clearly you see your depravity, your need, and your overall state. Without seeing Jesus, you cannot possibly find yourself.”

    At his funeral service, a man with whom he worked in Dallas talked about having a good-bye gathering for Ken when it was clear he would never return to work. After the time was done, he said he looked over, and, as was usually the case at work, there was a pack of young men gathered around Ken asking him questions about the Bible.

    In his last days, he was constantly in the Word, learning by faith what he now knows by sight. It would be cruel to wish him back among us now that he has seen the Savior face to face, but we all miss him.

  4. I’m so thankful that you wrote this Fred. Ken had such an enormous impact on me while he was at Grace that I google him every once in awhile and this time it finally proved fruitful.

    I took my first Logos course at Grace Community in 1991. It was on angels and the instructor was a new professor at the seminary; there were only about eight people in the class . After an hour of outstanding lecturing, Ken stopped for a break and I immediately got out of my seat and walked up to him at the lecturn. With much enthusiasm I exclaimed to him, “That was even better than R.C. Sproul!” I hoped my remark would be received well and it did in fact give him a good laugh. But I was entirely serious and sitting in the first row for every single course Ken offered – minus eschatology but including Puritans and Charismatics – testified to my edification in his teaching. The size of Ken’s classes grew from those measly eight people to perhaps a hundred by 1994.

    A servant of the word is a gift to the church (Eph 4:7-11). Ken was certainly a gift to the church. The Lord has now made Ken part of the church triumphant with all of the elect saints. He now sits and reigns with Christ (Rev 20), awaiting his resurrection body when Christ appears to consummate his kingdom.

  5. Sometimes we make friends, we move, we sometimes lose touch and yet lasting impressions remain. My wife, Cindy, and I were just talking and his name came up so I thought I’d google him to see if he was still in Dallas. An initial moment of sadness for not having stayed in touch turned to joy as we learned of Ken’s ultimate “graduation”.

    I met Ken when I was a student and he was, deservedly, the most popular theology prof at DTS. He was radical and those seeking radical, unvarnished truth regardless of consequences were drawn to his teaching. His last chapel message at DTS, “What Christians Can Learn from Bolsheviks” was an absolute and convicting classic.

    On a lighter note, Cindy recalled the nights our small group would gather for some fun and fellowship with Ken in Dallas. As those who knew him can attest, Ken could have one of the richest laughs in the world. Occasionally we would play the word game game “Balderdash” where you tried to earn votes by making up bogus definitions to unusual words. One particular time stands out.

    The word was “foudroyant”. As one bogus definition was read, Ken erupted in laughter and could not stop. We can still see his face exploding into one of the loudest, hardest laughs ever. To appreciate this you must know that Ken was a theological lover of philosophy. The made up definition for foudroyant that was read was:

    “of, or pertaining to the works of, the famous French philosopher, Jacques Foudroy”

    We recall his laugh. We recall his love for His Lord, and his desire to be a multiplier. He was.

    We look forward to seeing him again one day and we smile as we know he is experiencing joy unspeakable.

  6. Hey Fred. I was just searching to see if I could find any of Ken’s materials online as I was discussing the sovereign will of God with a friend. Didn’t know of his death. Praise God for His work through this faithful, suffering servant. How nice that he’s no longer battling the heresy, nor the superficiality, that dominates this world.

    Thanks for bringing back the fond memories of his class at TMS. For me, he was God’s instrument of introduction to Theology Proper. Though the long-term affects on this earth of such knowledge were both wonderful and gut-wrenching, I am immeasurably grateful to have been sitting under this man.

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