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In the overall scheme of things, the subject of today's lecture is unimportant. He spent his whole life ministering is the South (mostly to small churches) and died without public notice. A local radio personality had heard him as a boy, but over the years--despite much travelling--had never met anyone who had ever heard of this preacher. And so, compared to Augustine or Aquinas, Edwards and Spurgeon, today's subject is "a nobody".
But if the historian Leon McBeth is right, then those of us who are subscribe to the doctrinal statement of our church, owe this man a real debt of gratitude. McBeth called him "the pioneer of Calvinist resurgence among Baptists in America". If God does not forget his "Labor of love", then neither should we.
His name is Rolfe Barnard
Barnard was born--in 1904--to a Christian family in Guntersville, Alabama. He thought of his father as an impeccable believer and his mother, a woman of prayer. The Barnards hoped that God would call their son into the ministry. To this work, in fact, that sanctified him from the womb.
The Barnards attended a Southern Baptist Church which was basically Evangelical, but even then somewhat "gimmick oriented". When Rolfe was 11, a missionary visited the church and asked all "who were willing to go wherever the Lord wanted them to go" to come forward. Barnard responded to the invitation, professed faith, and was baptized.
He was not, however, saved.
But at his baptism he began feeling a call to the ministry. But this he could not accept. He was willing, he said, "to do anything but preach the Gospel".
At 15 Barnard left home for Hardin Simmons College in Abilene Texas. He hoped in his studies to forget his "call". But he couldn't. It only grew stronger. God was calling this unconverted young man to the Gospel ministry.
But Rolfe tried to escape his destiny. He sought relief through long prayers and profuse weeping. But they proved ineffective. The more he prayed, the more acute he felt his call.
And so, he tried another tactic: unbelief. At college he organized and headed an "infidel club". Once a week, he and 300 other students met to make fun of the Bible and dare God to do anything about it. But Barnard's infidelity was only apparent. About those evil days, he said, "I blasphemed every day and I prayed every night". Among friends, he denied God's existence; but in the loneliness of his room, he begged God to spare him one more day. He put it like this: "Before I would go to sleep at night, I'd get down on my knees and say to God `If you don't kill me tonight, I'll surrender to you tomorrow".
But "tomorrow", of course, never came. His struggle grew more and more galling. He swore to never serve God or darken the doors of His house again.
Upon graduation, Barnard entered the Law School at Baylor University. There he excelled in his studies and was soon offered a junior partnership in a prestigious law firm.
But, oddly enough, he declined the offer and chose to become a school teacher instead. He left Waco for a little town in the Panhandle of Texas. In those days, one could not teach in the South without being a member of the church. And so, upon his arrival, Barnard formally joined the Baptists. But he never went to church and maintained his infidelity.
But then, an incredible thing happened: the church elected him to teach in the Sunday School. Afraid that he would lose his job if he refused, he took the office and soon impressed his students with a wide knowledge of the Bible and a fine delivery. He would later describe himself as "a hypocrite and a devil".
Finally, something happened that would change Barnard forever. The pastor of his church resigned. This left the pulpit vacant for week after week. Every time Barnard saw that empty stage, he knew that he ought to be up there.
He could take it no longer. After Sunday School one week, he rushed home, locked himself in the bathroom and wrestled with God. Let him tell you the result:
"I went across town to the home of the Sunday School Superintendent who was asleep in a rocking chair waiting for dinner. On a table the gramophone was grinding out some music. I said, `Brother Mills, I've come to tell you that the Lord has saved me and I want to preach next Sunday'. The Superintendent said, `Well, it's about time. We've been waiting and waiting to see when it was going to take place. Things have been going on. A couple of letters came to the Panhandle Texas post office. One of them was addressed to the Sunday School Superintendent of the First Baptist Church. The other was addressed to Pastor----"didn't know any names". Some old woman from Abilene said, "My boy's coming to your town to teach school. He's called to be a preacher. He's not even saved. He's in an awful mess. If you could find it in your heart, please build a fire under him. Don't let him have a moment's peace." "Boy--said the Superintendent--"we've been doing it. We knew you weren't saved, but we elected you to teach a men's Bible class. We've been meeting once a week and asking, "Lord make the fire a little hotter". We've been waiting".
The letter, of course, had come from Rolfe Barnard's mother.
"God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform".
He later attended Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth. There he studied under the solid theologian, W.T. Conner and the noted evangelist, L.R. Scarborough. He training was Evangelical and mildly Calvinistic.
Barnard's first sermons were a rousing success. Soon he was appointed a roving evangelist. The first place he went was Borger, Texas, an oil boom town.
There he found plenty of saloons--but no church. And so Barnard set about finding land and putting up a building. But where would a penniless preacher come up with the money?
He began soliciting the businesses. Soon a considerable amount of money had been collected. But he needed more. And so he went to the biggest saloon in town and asked for a contribution.
The barkeep said he wouldn't "buy a pig in a poke". If he was going to give this preacher any money, he'd have to hear him preach first. And so Barnard obliged him. He stood up on a keg of beer and preached a sermon on "death". The patrons were duly impressed. Barnard got the money and the church building went up.
When criticized for this "irregularity", Barnard replied, "Some like to live within the sound of a chapel or church bell. I want to run a rescue station within a yard of hell".
Barnard's message--I think--can be summed up in a word: Submission. He bitterly rejected "easy believism". Hadn't he been its victim? He knew from the Bible--and his own life--that one is not saved until he submits to Christ unconditionally. A couple of anecdotes:
One night, after a meeting, a woman appeared at the door, begging Barnard's help. The sleepy preacher came out wearing his night shirt and asked the lady in. "Oh, Brother Barnard, she said, "I need to be saved. And I know that if I am saved, I'll need to be baptized. I believe that baptism is by immersion. But if I'm immersed, it'll kill my brother-in-law, who's a Methodist preacher. What'll I do?"
"Go to hell!" was preacher's reply. Barnard did not believe in "baptismal regeneration". But he did believe that salvation required full surrender to Christ. And as long as this woman was unwilling to obey the Lord, she could not be saved.
This abrupt answer had its desired effect. The woman went home "sorrowing". But a few hours later she returned, ready to "follow the Lord fully".
On another occasion he was staying at a hotel in a seminary town. On the elevator one day, the operator asked him if he was a preacher. "Yes I am" Barnard replied. "Well, then let me ask you a question, preacher. All of these seminary boys tell me I'm saved because I believe the Bible. Is that so?" "Do you obey the Bible?" asked Barnard? "No" said the elevator man. "Then you're going to hell unless you repent". "That's what I thought", sighed the operator.
This might leave the impression that Rolfe Barnard was a harsh and pitiless man. But nothing could be further from the truth. He often begged men to "lay down their arms of rebellion and receive the mercy of God through repentance". Although by nature an introvert, Barnard pleaded and wept, groaned and agonized for the souls of men. He did not believe the preacher's work done till he had "watered his sermons with the salty tears of compassion".
His interest, you see, was not to make men comfortable in their sins, but deliver them from their sins. And this does not happen except by repentance. If you think otherwise, I would remind you of a man, much kinder than Barnard, who said, "Nay, I tell you, except you repent, you shall all likewise perish".
One other thing about Barnard that stands out: his high regard for the Gospel ministry.
Barnard was a very humble and shy man. But he was so sure of his Gospel that he challenged his indifferent hearers to give ear on pain of death. "He who rejects you rejects Me. And He who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me" was a text often quoted by Barnard and applied to himself.
Once Barnard was preaching in a rich Oklahoma oil town. The Baptist Church was its most prominent assembly. Among its deacons were 7 millionaires who didn't want anyone stirring things up. But Barnard always did that. And so these men boycotted his meeting. The pastor (a young man) called the Evangelist saying, "Oh Brother Barnard, the deacons are boycotting the services. If they don't come, no on will. What'll we do?" Barnard was quick to answer: "Pray that God will save them...or kill them! If He saves them, they will cooperate with the meeting. And if He kills them, they won't be in the way any more." Before the meeting was over, Barnard had preached at seven funerals.
On another occasion, a man came forward after the meeting and told the whole congregation, "I opposed Brother Barnard's meetings and God struck me blind!" The preacher and the church surrounded the penitent blind man, prayed for him, and God restored his sight.
Preaching in Detroit one Sunday, Barnard saw a young woman in the audience who seemed to be under deep conviction. He walked down to her to ask if he could help. "For Christ's sake--she said--leave me alone!" "Well, if it's for Christ's sake, I will" he replied. On the way home from the meeting, she wrapped her sports car around a tree and was declared "Dead on Arrival".
On the lighter side, one final example.
Once Barnard was preaching in Ashland, Kentucky. When he stood up to preach, he noticed some teenagers sitting in the back not paying attention. By the sound of his voice, you could tell that he was grieved--not angry. He said. "If I lived in this town, I don't think I'd be a member of this church--till the people decided this is the House of God. I'll just wait until you do." The teenagers soon snapped to attention. And who knows? maybe God saved them.
On January 21, 1969, while preaching in Prarieville, Lousiana, Rolfe Barnard suffered a fatal heart attack. He died as he had lived--preaching.
His funeral was conducted by Henry Mahan. At the close of his eulogy, Mahan observed:
"His message of sovereign mercy was an awakening message. It was impossible to remain neutral when Barnard preached. Like the Apostle Paul, when Barnard preached, there was either a riot or a revival. As he said so many times, `When the true Gospel of grace is preached, the believers will be glad, the rebels will get mad, and the Pharisees will be confused'.
His message was truly the gospel of God's glory. He clearly defined the `good news' as a work God does for the sinner, not something the sinner does for God. He declared how God can be just and the justify the ungodly through the righteousness of Christ Jesus our Lord."
"He has now fully realized the last verse of his favorite song:
"And when life's journey is over,
And I the dear Savior shall see,
I'll praise Him forever and ever,
For saving a sinner like me".
The lesson to be learned from Barnard's life is easy to remember, but O so hard to apply: "Do not fear them which can kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but fear Him who can destroy body and soul in hell". Barnard's was never afraid of any man. And do you know why? Because he feared God alone. If, therefore, we would escape our petty fears, we must reflect on our ultimate fear: God.
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