The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Oct 15, 2021

Only a Sinner Saved by Grace: A Mini-Review of the New Autobiography of Ed Nelson

I am privileged to have recently finished the autobiography of evangelist and pastor Ed Nelson, Only A Sinner Saved by Grace, written with his granddaughter, Emilee Nelson (Castle Rock, CO: Mile Hi, 2020). The book can be purchased here, and is also available on "Audible.com"

This autobiography has three key things going for it: spiritual edification, enjoyable prose, and honesty about mistakes (this last point, in my humble-but-opinionated opinion, is an element minimized in all too many Christian biographies and autobiographies). I have a lot of praise for this book (it is definitely worth its weight in gold), though at the end I will also offer two minor critiques.

In addition, I would like to point out that this book serves as a valuable primary source on important figures and some key events of 20th century fundamentalism . Consequently non-fundamentalists researching these topics will find value in this book, even if they are not necessarily sympathetic to some of the theological commitments that marked Dr. Nelson's ministry.

Ed Nelson was born December 1923, and is alive today, approaching 100, as I type these words! He has been both a pastor and an evangelist, has ministered to the persecuted church in Russia (ch. 35), and has left quite the legacy within independent Baptist circles (our library, here at Baptist College of Ministry, is named after him). He is and has been a staunch fundamentalist, but one who is nonetheless critical of some elements of fundamentalism such as King James Onlyism (pages 365-7) and Jack Hyles (ch. 31). He was on "ground-zero," so to speak, of some conflicts within fundamentalism and broader conservative evangelicalism (the lines were not so rigidly drawn in the 50s and 60s). Chapter 20 details why he left the Conservative Baptist Association, which oversaw Denver Seminary (yes, that Denver Seminary). I will point out the obvious: this book has the potential to be very controversial, in some settings! Regardless, here are three key points that make this book very valuable:

Spiritual edification: The key word for much of this book is: Providence. From the gripping description of the farm accident that almost killed young Ed when he was 17 years old, to his profession of faith at the fourth night of Bob Jones' preaching (after swearing not to go back), to the circumstances (Bright's disease) that kept him in America as an evangelist rather than as a missionary to Japan--all this demonstrates God's sovereign guidance and direction in Dr. Nelson's life. Throughout the book you will also see Dr. Nelson's passion for souls, love for family, and faith in God's supernatural ability to intervene in the affairs of men, and you will be challenged accordingly.

Quality of writing: The book is well-written. This is a testament both to Ed Nelson's ability as a story-teller and Emilee Nelson's literary skill. The opening chapter (when a 14-year old Ed almost died) is a gripping way to start off the book, and the narrative flows easily. The book is definitely not technical, and yet it does not dive to an overly-simplistic or idiosyncratic level that one might occasionally expect outside of a major publisher. Furthermore, I experienced multiple "laugh-out-loud" moments (e.g., when a 94-year-old Dr. Nelson finally realizes why he shouldn't be driving anymore . . .).

Honesty: Compared to the rest of the staff here at my beloved BCM, I probably read less Christian biographies (though I've begun to gravitate to historical biographies: currently finishing Chernow's biography of Grant and Norman Schwarzkopf's autobiography with Peter Petre). When I do read a Christian biography, it's more likely to be that of a unique German theologian than somebody more from my own circles (e.g., James Edwards' Between the Swastika and the Sickle about Ernst Lohmeyer). One reason I do not read so many Christian biographies is that, rightly or wrongly, I feel that too many of them are "hagiographies." It seems that often the only negative thing one learns about the minister in question is some sort of lack of faith that they overcome, resulting in decades of glorious reaping of the spiritual harvest. Rarely, especially in autobiographies, is the person in question held accountable for real mistakes that had lasting impact. Case in point: C. T. Studd's separation from his wife for 13 years is rarely given more than a brief mention, when in my opinion such abandonment is the equivalent of divorce (for the record: I do not believe God would call a Christian minister to such deliberate abandonment of a spouse for the sake of ministry; God does not call us to sin for the sake of doing good, and such deliberate separation is utterly contrary to the whole purpose of marriage).

Now, I say all that to say this: Dr. Nelson's honesty is refreshing. He discusses two major  mistakes in his ministry: 1. Allowing his wife to reach the point where she suffered a mental and physical breakdown (which they were able to overcome, and learn from), and 2. Estrangement from his son (this latter issue is not dealt with as specifically, but Dr. Nelson takes much of the blame; still, it's hard not to sympathize with him somewhat on this one since his son has apparently refused all attempts at reconciliation to this day). This openness on the part of Dr. Nelson makes me appreciate his godly character more; his candor about mistakes does not detract from his character, it adds to it. I wish more Christian biographies and autobiographies were like this. Sometimes we can learn from the mistakes of others just as much as their successes. This, after all, is why divinely-inspired Scripture does not hold back from showing us the mistakes of its heroes.

Two minor critiques: Only Scripture is inerrant, so any book review I write will gently offer at least some critique. These are minor issues, however, that do not detract from the enjoyment nor spiritual edification offered by the book. [And, for the record, I am not one of these profs. that refuses to give a student a 100% on the basis that nobody is perfect!]

(1.) First, on  the one hand this book at times offers a lot of clarity on the fundamentalist ethos (e.g., the criticisms of Billy Graham were appropriate without being overdone, imo, especially when considering what was essentially his betrayal of the persecuted church in Russia in 1982, though this is not the basis on which we should judge the entirety of his ministry). Having said that, there are times that the book could have offered more information to help the reader understand what, exactly, was going on, or perhaps briefly offered the other side of the story. The academic in me cringes a little bit in dismissing Denver Seminary as simply "A CBA school that was compromising" (p. 196). This is probably true to a certain degree from our fundamentalist perspective, but it is hardly the whole story. Even today Denver Seminary includes some evangelical "all-stars" amongst its faculty who, while hardly fundamentalist, have nonetheless taken strong conservative positions against modernism and have proven very helpful for my own studies (I'm thinking here especially of Craig Blomberg and Richard Hess).

(2.) Second, a book like this needs an index! [I am very opinionated about indices!!] An index would help a valuable primary source like this become more accessible to the researcher.

Conclusion: So there you have it! This book is a must-buy for: (1.) anybody interested in the story of a very important evangelist and pastor within independent Baptist circles in the second half of the 20th century; (2.) anybody who wishes to be spiritually challenged by a gripping and honest autobiography; and (3.) anybody researching fundamentalist history in the second half of the 20th century.