An Enduring Ministry: The Life and Times of J. Dwight Pentecost
Seated on a stool in front of the classroom, the distinguished professor emeritus begins class precisely on time, taking his students before God’s throne of grace. Despite his complaints about needing a clothing allowance to adapt to the new professional-casual dress code, he looks dapper in a suede jacket and open-collar shirt. Unflappable, clear-minded, and sharp-witted, Dr. Pentecost teaches from only his Bible, without notes, and with ever-new insight. Only his soft voice hints of his approaching ninetieth birthday.
Known for his legendary practice of teaching without notes, he explains that to avoid being drawn back to the same insights and prevented from receiving new ones, he no longer marks in his Bible, and he destroys his notes after each sermon he preaches. Thus the Holy Spirit starts fresh with him each time.
God’s path led Dr. Pentecost steadily from his staunch Presbyterian home in Pennsylvania through conservative Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. And then in a last-minute change of plans, complete with intercessory phone calls to Dallas two weeks before the beginning of the 1937 fall term, he enrolled in Dallas Theological Seminary. The then twelve-year-old school, which had just been renamed, was headed by President Lewis Sperry Chafer, who led a faculty of eight part-time teachers. “When I got here I learned that I was student number one hundred,”Dr. P. says. “So I have always thought that Dr. Chafer would have taken even a Shepherd dog to reach that number.”
During his college years at Hampden-Sydney, the nearby Presbyterian church in Farmville proved a popular Sunday evening gathering place for the men from the college and the coeds from the teacher-training institution. There Dwight met and courted Dorothy, the southern belle who became his beloved wife, the mother of his two daughters, and his dedicated partner in ministry for sixty-two years. He describes her illness and death in 2000 as “the most traumatic experience that a man in this life can go through.” Yet with steadfast faith he bears witness to God’s faithfulness to His children and the sufficiency of His grace even in such a loss.
Dr. P.’s disciplined ministry began early. Following conferral of his ThM degree, he was offered two pastorates, one on the New Jersey coast and one in rural Pennsylvania. He chose the one that afforded more time for studying God’s Word. To retain his proficiency in Greek, theology, and Bible, he set aside two hours each morning, separate from sermon preparation, for study in those fields. He continued this practice even when his duties expanded to seven different messages every Sunday. Seven? “Adult Sunday school and worship, then Sunday school and worship for a nearby rural congregation, then a vespers service at a nursing home, and back for youth group and evening service,” Dr. P. explains.
The young pastor’s second church located him near Philadelphia. “After my first year at that church, I received a call from a desperate DTS alumnus, the president of Philadelphia Bible Institute, asking me to fill in on the PBI faculty. That got me started in the teaching business.” While continuing to pastor, he taught for eight years in three departments at the Institute. That assignment, particularly during the raging debate over the end times, convinced him to return to DTS for additional study. DTS president John Walvoord invited Dr. Pentecost to teach in three departments—theology, Greek, and Bible exposition—while he completed his ThD. This year marks Dr. P.’s fiftieth on the Dallas Seminary faculty.
When he celebrates his birthday on April 24, he will be teaching, at the request of the theology department, a course he has just designed on dispensationalism.
After joining the DTS faculty, he also pastored Grace Bible Church in North Dallas from 1955 through 1973. There the children lovingly would call out “P!” and run to him for a hug. Their horrified parents would say they could not call him “P” and suggested “Dr. P.” Many of those parents were Seminary students, which caused the nickname to spread quickly at the school as well.
For years Dr. P. has volunteered weekly at Luke’s Closet, a ministry that provides donated clothes free to DTS students. He does so because “some of the young men who come in are uncomfortable with a woman assisting them.” More than once he has helped a graduating student select a suit, taken it home for Dorothy to alter, and returned it to the man to wear when he preached at a prospective pastorate the following Sunday.
In 2001, a year after Dorothy’s death, the Swiss Tower student residence hall opened on campus. At the special invitation of the Seminary board, Dr. Pentecost became the first occupant. With the influx of student families, Dr. P. became honorary grandfather and great-grandfather to dozens. Now dinner invitations pour in at such a rate that he can hardly keep up with his personally typed thank-you notes. His comfortable apartment is filled with Oriental rugs, antiques, paintings, clocks, and photographs. The antiques date to the time when he could afford to furnish his home only by finding cast-offs, sometimes literally in pieces, which he would then refurbish. Through it he became knowledgeable about old furniture and skillful at restoration. The clocks, likewise, he learned to repair. Today each is set at a slightly different time so that on the hour the chimes move successively through the rooms. Exotic accessories remind him of international travels in the course of his ministry. The art reflects exquisite taste, diligent study, and years of collecting. His photographs reveal his love for the Creator of all nature and, again, the eye of an artist.
Dr. P. still spends summers in his cabin in Young Life’s Colorado compound, located there because of his friendship with YL founder Jim Rayburn. From there Dr. P. speaks at various mountain retreats and conferences while avoiding the Dallas heat.
President Mark Bailey gleefully tells how, as academic dean, he doubled the dollar-a-year stipend of the “retired” distinguished professor emeritus of Bible exposition who teaches two courses each semester. After Dr. Bailey doubled the pay again the next year, Dr. P. called a halt, saying, “Enough is enough.”
Chancellor Charles Swindoll also loves to tease Dr. Pentecost, but, getting serious, he says, “The wonderful thing that I know, because I served as a sort of learner on his staff many years ago, is that behind the scenes he is everything you would wish him to be and see him to be in public. He is a man of remarkable depth and incredible commitment to Christ.”
“Dr. Pentecost has with rare skill dealt with many controversial issues, has met and solved many prophetic problems, and has provided in large measure the substance of the prophetic Word in systematic and theological form,” wrote Dr. John Walvoord in 1957 of Things to Come. He could have been describing the man as well as Dr. P.’s first book. The volume, which began as Dr. P.’s doctoral dissertation, has been in continuous publication since 1958, having sold over two hundred thousand copies. The beloved professor, pastor, and scholar has been in continuous service even longer as his students keep coming back for more.
Karen Gaye Giesen (MA[BS], 1998; MA/CE, 2000) is executive assistant to the director of the DTS Houston extension site.
Books by Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost
Dr. Pentecost’s fifty-year tenure at Dallas Seminary has been fruitful. To purchase any of these books, visit www.dts.edu/bookcenter (*indicates out-of-print).
Prophecy for Today
Things to Come
Romanism in the Light of Scripture*
The Divine Comforter
Things Which Become Sound Doctrine
Designed to Be Like Him
Designed for Living
Your Adversary the Devil
Design for Discipleship
Life’s Problems—God’s Solutions
Will Man Survive?*
The Joy of Living
The Sermon on the Mount*
The Joy of Fellowship*
The Glory of God*
The Words and Works of Jesus Christ
A Harmony of the Words and Worksof Jesus Christ
The Parables of Jesus
Thy Kingdom Come
A Faith That Endures