NASHVILLE (BP) — I confess to being a bit of a Baptist history nerd. In my office are pictures of two Southern Baptist heroes — John A. Broadus and E.Y. Mullins. I admire Broadus for his example of Christ-centered preaching and Mullins for his denominational statesmanship and advocacy of religious liberty in Romania, where I was involved in missions for several years.
I may soon be placing another picture on my desk, that of John R. Sampey (1863-1946).
The past few weeks, I’ve been reading a print-on-demand copy of his memoirs, written in the twilight of his long life after having served as a professor of Old Testament for nearly 60 years, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary during the worst of the Great Depression (1929-42) and president of the SBC from 1936-38.
Sampey’s autobiography is full of activity that displays his passion for evangelism, scholarship and missionary work, particularly in Brazil. But what strikes me about his memoirs is how often he talks about the church’s ongoing discipleship ministry, particularly through Sunday School.
Sampey was a brilliant Old Testament theologian, but he didn’t simply busy himself with discussions and debates in the ivory towers of academia. In his book, we find him traveling frequently to Nashville to meet with workers at the Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources). We see him serving on the International Sunday School Lesson Committee, recommending study plans and Bible passages. This was a scholar who knew the conversations in Sunday School every week are just as formative and important as the debates in academic halls or the sermons from a pastor’s pulpit.
In 1914, some were complaining that the lessons lacked a “redemptive” focus. So, Sampey recommended a study plan for taking participants through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. They formed a six-year plan through the Bible, followed by a briefer overview of both Testaments in two years. World War I put the plans on hold, but Sampey wouldn’t be deterred. The new plan launched in 1918.
Looking back over his decades of service to Sunday School planning, Sampey reflected on the trends and changes in developing and using curriculum. But through it all, there was one principle that guided him — he wanted people to see how the whole Bible points to Christ.
Sampey wrote: “When the advocates insisted that the lessons be pupil-centered, I countered by insisting that the lessons should be Christ-centered. I sought to make Jesus Christ the center of each cycle…. For 46 years I sought to exalt the redemptive element of the Bible. And how many noble men of the Lesson Committee joined me putting Christ Jesus and His salvation in the center of our lesson system!”
Christ Jesus and His salvation at the center! That should be the heart’s cry of every teacher, small group leader and facilitator who opens God’s Word to communicate God’s truth.
Even today, 100 years later, we are told we should be “pupil-centered” if we are to reach people in our congregations. But “Me-centeredness” isn’t a solution; it’s part of the problem. The way we realize the world doesn’t revolve around us is by seeing how it revolves around Jesus — the One from whom, and to whom, and for whom are all things.
Every generation needs to be reminded of redemption. John Sampey was ringing this bell a century ago. W.A. Criswell preached the “Scarlet Thread” through the Scriptures a generation later. And today, LifeWay continues this mission of showing how, in the words of the Baptist Faith and Message, “all Scripture is a testimony to Jesus Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.”
As managing editor of The Gospel Project, I have the privilege of working with a team who wants to make sure Christ is at the center of every study cycle and every session. As we get ready to embark on a three-year journey through the Bible’s story of redemption, I can’t help but feel a sense of a gratitude for men like John R. Sampey and their vision of Christ-centered Bible study.
After all, we never stop needing to be reminded and refreshed of the redemption God has given us in His Son. May the Spirit of God empower us to spread the news of His great salvation to all people everywhere.