White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

“Cheer Up! The Life and Ministry of Jack Miller,” by Michael A. Graham

Published Wednesday, February 24, 2021 By Stephen Roberts

John C. (Jack) Miller may be the most important Reformed evangelical that you haven’t heard of, and that’s a shame. On the cover of Cheer Up! The Life and Ministry of Jack Miller, you will find a quote by Tim Keller: “Jack Miller…taught me how to preach grace.” In this short work, you will learn how salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone will produce a life dedicated to God’s glory alone. If you were wondering how to be Reformed and evangelical (if those things can be held together), Jack Miller gives you a model.

It’s important to give you a little of my biased background. As a newly Reformed student in seminary, I was assigned several book and essays by Jack Miller. His books Powerful Evangelism for the Powerless and A Faith Worth Sharing were primers for me in connecting the doctrines of grace to an impulse to share the Gospel. I served as an intern in at New Life PCA in Escondido—one of many New Life churches that started with Jack Miller. In that church, I not only enjoyed orthodox, Christ-centered preaching, but the fellowship of ordinary believers who took it upon themselves to invite people to church and into their homes. This was the legacy of Jack Miller by the sovereign grace of God.

Although Miller was born in the 20th century, his home was in many ways still the frontier in rural, western Oregon. His dad was tragically killed when Jack was a child. His stepdad was abusive. The Presbyterian church in town did not preach the Gospel. In many ways, Jack’s childhood resembled what most people sadly grow up with today. Miller, like many of our young adults, concluded that God must not exist because of the tragedies he endured.

Miller’s later ministry was prefigured in his conversion. His first experience of real Gospel ministry came through attending an Orthodox Presbyterian church in San Francisco with his newly saved sister. When the oldest brother who protected Jack was killed in WWII, Jack vented his anger at the God who had again appeared to fail him. Yet, for some providential reason, Jack continued to devour God’s Word (as well as every book he could find in his hometown).

When he got his hands on a few books by a professor named Machen, he found their lucid teaching appealing and defense of predestination to be appalling. At least, he did until he went back and read Ephesians 1 again—and felt the walls of his unbelief and anger collapse around him. He had been trying to moralize his way through the mess, but now he realized that he was worse than he thought—and God’s grace was way better.

This story in-brief was what the Lord used to make Jack Miller a superb evangelist. He had a heart for unbelievers and an understanding of the complexities of unbelief. His broken background still shadowed him, and his lack of an earthly father likely led to his occasional anger and insecurity. It also set the ground for his theological conversion of sorts to the prominence of adoption, as well as his frequent need for and embrace of repentance as a lifestyle.

What is easy to miss with Jack, however, is his gifts as a scholar. It is easy to denigrate the academic and intellectual bonafides of a teacher of practical theology, even though there is the title “professor” and often a successful PhD dissertation behind that role. The fact that he didn’t receive his PhD in theology was later used against Jack during a time of great controversy at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia (WTS).

But Jack did receive a PhD and his background in philosophy and history was quite extensive and impressive. His intellectual gifts were recognized beyond just Reformed or even Christian circles (38-42). He was mentored by Cornelius Van Til—perhaps the greatest intellectual at WTS and maintained a lifelong friendship with him.

What separated Miller’s gifts from most of his future colleagues at WTS was his gifts as an intellectual generalist rather than specialist. Look at Miller’s early offering of classes: European Theological Novel, Christian Poets, Man in Contemporary Culture, Calvinism in American Literature, and Group Evangelism. Graham writes “When WTS opened courses to the public, Jack’s class filled the largest room at the seminary, the moved across the street to the sanctuary of Calvary OPC. The number of people who were auditing Jack’s classes led WTS to charge auditing fees” (51).

One can understand why these courses were so popular. While one must be trained and equipped in the Word through biblical languages and exegesis, church history, and systematic theology in order to engage the culture, there has and will always be a hunger for wisdom in how to employ the Word of God faithfully and effectively. These courses show a concern for how to engage concrete individuals and disciplines in culture with the tools that were gained in other seminary offerings.

What Miller is perhaps most known for was his “Sonship” discipleship program—a course arising from Miller’s new appreciation of and emphasis on the Christian’s adoption in Christ. For a time, this course was popular in some Reformed churches and Christian churches more broadly. It was also criticized in some Reformed circles for muddying the waters between justification and adoption. Coinciding with the ensuing growth of the New Life churches and their subsequent move from OPC to the PCA, it would be easy to turn Miller and his Sonship theology into a substantial point of departure between the two denominations.

Such an explanation would be too simplistic, however, as are most explanations for why the two denominations never united. Miller loved the OPC but had some substantial critiques of the denomination that many of us who are still within her fold would find painful because they hit close to home ( see, e.g., 78). It was not Miller’s desire to leave the OPC, but to see it united to the PCA. But a host of minor issues (in this reader’s estimation) continually derailed the process, culminating with the OPC’s rejection of the last overture to join the PCA in 1986. At that point, the exodus of a number of WTS professors and churches to the PCA ensued. Miller and most of the New Life churches left in the following years.

One cannot read of the history of “middle-Westminster” and not be fascinated, as it is too recent for historical works and too old for the present generation of pastors in associated denominations. At the same time, it is hard to read of the friction between the OPC and PCA—a friction that often continues today. Despite limited joint ventures, it is still hard to fathom why these two friends stand apart. I often find brother ministers who seek to leave the OPC for the PCA because of the constant infighting, and others who seek to leave the PCA for the OPC because of a perceived lack of theological integrity.

Can we not conceive of a union that maintains its theological integrity as well as a robust vision of engaging our culture and reaching the nations with the Gospel? Both denominations would say the two go together, yet they are prone to find fault with the other for a perceived lack of imbalance. This is not to say that there are not real issues at stake here, but it is hard to see what those issues are when a spirit of haughtiness or bitterness often accompany any discussion on that matter.

Jack Miller was a confessionally-Reformed intellectual with a heart for the lost. He is more like OPC icons, Machen and Van Til, than we might like to admit. His desire to draw sinners to the cross and ground them in the doctrines of grace helped pave the way for the modern revival of broadly Reformed theology across the American church. If you want a vision for how the doctrines of grace can ground both a heart and mind set ablaze for the Gospel, start with this book on the life of Jack Miller. The tyranny of small differences in our denominations will soon give way to the need for a faithful front and more thoughtful form of engagement with the prevailing culture. Miller shows us how we can do so…together.

Stephen Roberts is a US Army chaplain and has written for The Washington Times and The Federalist.

  • Stephen Roberts