The Simple Gospel of Carl Henry

by Ryan Reed February 23, 2021

If you examine a list of the best preachers of the 20th century, you will find the names of great orators such as Billy Graham, G. Campbell Morgan, and Gardner C. Taylor, but one name that most likely will not appear on the list would be Carl F. H. Henry. Much more powerful with a pen than in the pulpit, Henry tells a brief anecdote about his preaching prowess in his autobiography Confessions of a Theologian. He wrote:

In the early afternoon I sauntered through Hyde Park, where scores of crusaders daily mount their soapboxes in behest of a hundred and one causes. Billy Graham had been there some weeks earlier when, accompanied by media coverage, he drew thousands of observers. But I was less known than even the unknown God of the Athenians. I listened momentarily here and there to some thumping radical or partisan until I happened on a father and son team who from a stepladder took turns exhorting listeners to put their hearts right with God. I commended them. “Do you have a word from the Lord?” asked the father. Introduced as “an American visitor” I somewhat reluctantly mounted the ladder to give my testimony about God’s forgiving sins and saving me. “Right now,” I continued, “if you will repent and receive Christ as Savior, God will forgive your sins, too, and give you new life.”…I disengaged myself from my lofty perch as discreetly as possible and listened to the father and son a bit longer until I could saunter away unobserved. I paid no attention to two men walking nearby until I overheard one of them remark, “That blooming American didn’t have very much to say, did he?” Graham’s calling and mine, I mused, are very different, and I was willing to leave it that way.

Lessons from Hyde Park

Henry’s mockers would have probably been surprised to learn that one of the foremost evangelical theologians had been in their midst. That “blooming American” was the founding editor of Christianity Today and the author of the six-volume magisterial defense of the Christian faith, God, Revelation and Authority. Anyone who has encountered Henry will quickly observe his towering intellect and know that this man indeed had much to say. What then, can we learn from Henry’s unassuming trip to Hyde Park?

First, Henry was not Graham, nor did God intend for him to be. The Neo-Evangelical movement was strengthened by the diversity of gifts. It was not that Henry thought the calling to be a preacher was wholly distinct from the calling to be a theologian. Both tasks require a resolute reliance upon the power of the gospel. Nevertheless, Henry understood that it was the Lord’s prerogative to endow his people with various gifts to build His kingdom. Henry was once called the “brain of the evangelical movement,” but he understood that the movement must also have hands, head, and heart. There is a temptation for the modern Christian academy to forget our role in this organism. Not only is there diversity in the various disciplines within Christian academia, but the many outside the academy are within our family. Cultivating this spiritual symbiotic relationship not only strengthens the academy but, more importantly, it strengthens the church.

Second, although Henry mined the depths of Christian theology, he was not so complex that he could not offer sinners a simple gospel. Once when asked by Paul House about the most important thing to teach seminarians, Henry responded, “Never let them forget the glory of a soul saved.” Henry certainly did not forget. His former students at Fuller recount his passion for evangelism, whether it was seen in Henry spending the night on the streets of Pasadena sharing the gospel or simply sharing the gospel with the local mailman. He continued all of his life in holy amazement for the God who speaks and saves.

Carl F.H. Henry’s Greatest Treasure

It could be said that the goal of Henry’s great magnum opus God, Revelation and Authority, was simply to present the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. Henry believed that effective evangelistic outreach should be shaped by biblically faithful theology. The academy must go before the pulpit, helping to make straight the paths and remove obstacles. The life of Henry reminds us today that it is the gospel that is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). Henry knew this power personally and it fueled him throughout his life. He closed his autobiography by reflecting on his life and ministry. When asked about his greatest treasure, he wrote:

Family aside, I’d begin with Scripture…the most read book of my life. And communion with God…waiting before God. I have done less waiting than working, and my works would have been better had I waited more. But I have enjoyed God’s incomparable companionship…My deepest memories are those spent waiting before God, often praying for others…sometimes waiting before him in tears, sometimes in joy, sometimes wrestling alternatives, sometimes just worshiping him in adoration. Heaven will be an unending feast for the soul that basks in his presence. And it will be brighter because some will be there whom I brought to Jesus.

This is the simple gospel of Carl Henry. This is the gospel that raises the dead to life from the God who speaks and shows.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine and is used with permission.