I 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.