I was given recently a copy of Geoff Thomas new book: Ernest C Reisinger: A Biography. Ernest Who? you ask. I had heard of Ernie Reisinger but I knew almost nothing about him. I knew that he was a Reformed Baptist leader in the USA. But I’d never heard him speak, never read anything he’d written, had little idea what he’d done.
Well now I know. Ernest Reisinger was born in 1919 and grew up in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He spent most of his life working in the building trade. He was converted in his early twenties through the witness of a fellow carpenter. He was used by God to start Grace Baptist Church, Carlisle in 1951 (the church that Walter Chantry was to pastor for many years). It was largely through Ernie’s enthusiasm that Banner of Truth books started circulating in America. (Carlisle is still the centre of Banner’s operations in the USA). He became a pastor in 1971 at the age of 52, and held pastorates in three churches. He wrote several books. And he’s still alive, in retirement, fragile in health, caring for his wife Mima, herself crippled after a stroke.
Not the most exciting life-story is it? It’s not like reading about John Paton on his South Sea Island, preaching to cannibals. Or John Wesley riding from town to town on his white horse, being stoned by mobs and waylaid by highwaymen. And yet this is still a fascinating book. I read it at a sitting.
Let me tell you four reasons why I’m glad I read this book.
Firstly, because it’s the story of an ordinary man doing an ordinary job. For most of his life Ernie wasn’t a pastor, or a missionary or an evangelist. He was a builder and a businessman who started work as a carpenter and then started his own construction company. This book shows us that a Christian doesn’t have to be in ‘full-time ministry’ to be used for God. Ernie Reisinger honoured God in the way he ran his business.
“Reisinger delegated responsibility and decision-making authority. He sought to respect and trust his employees, and in turn they respected him… Though a generous employer himself, he felt that how one treated workmen was more important than what one paid them. One of the slogans he quoted was ‘I am looking for a dollar’s worth of work for a dollar’s worth of pay’… In business, as in evangelism, Ernie avoided the temptation to take short-cuts. He was patient, prayerful and willing to do the right thing…”
And because he was respected by his employees and by fellow business-men, they listened when he told them the gospel. Geoff tells the stories of many folk whom Ernie led to Christ. Among them was Roger Irwin who came to work for Ernie’s company in the summer of 1951 as a mud-mixer. He became a believer that summer and has served as an elder at Grace Baptist Church, Carlisle for the past 50 years. He was my host when I visited the USA earlier this year.
Very few Christians will be called into full-time service. But this book is a reminder that every Christian can honour God and win souls for Christ in the place where God puts them.
Secondly, this book is about a man who discovered the doctrines of grace – the great truths of God’s sovereignty. When Ernie was first converted, he believed that God loves everybody equally and that the Lord Jesus died with the hope of saving everybody. He was taught that every human being has free will and has the power to repent and believe – people choose out of their own free-will to accept Christ and be saved, or to reject him and be lost.
This sort of teaching was almost universal in America and in Britain in the 1950s. It would have been hard to find a preacher or a Christian book that taught anything different. Yet first Ernie’s brother John, and then Ernie himself, discovered from the Bible how false these ideas are. They learned that God is sovereign, that he is control of everything, that people are saved not through their free-will but through God’s grace. Ernie learned that human beings do not have in themselves the power to repent or believe: we are born with wicked hearts that naturally reject God. He learned of God’s plan of salvation: how God the Father chose a vast number of people to be saved, how God the Son came to redeem those particular people by his death, how God the Holy Spirit gives them repentance and faith and keeps them to the end. These are the ‘doctrines of grace’. They show us that salvation is by grace alone.
Ernie fought against these truths when he first heard them. “I came to Calvinism kicking, fighting, and screaming..” But as God opened his eyes to the truth, he came to love the doctrines he once hated: “Now, when I sing ‘Amazing Grace’, I know what John Newton really meant..” And he never stopped being thrilled by those newly discovered truths.
I can understand why. I was brought up to believe in the idea of ‘salvation by free-will’. Like Ernie I kicked and fought against the truths of salvation by God’s free choice. And like Ernie, when I finally gave in and admitted that salvation is completely God’s work, it changed everything. These truths transformed my thinking, my praying, my witnessing, my life.
Perhaps the reason Ernie and I love the doctrines of grace so much is that for both of us, there was a time when we didn’t believe them! By contrast, Christians who have been taught these truths from childhood may take them for granted. This book is a lovely reminder that it’s a wonderful privilege to know the doctrines of grace. We should never take it for granted.
Thirdly, this book is about a man who used literature to the full. All through his Christian life, Ernie gave away books, tracts, Bibles. He said this, “Be friendly to your waitress, give her a tract, bring a Bible to her little boy, write a note to a new college graduate, enclose some Christian literature; give books and books and books.” And what he said to others he did himself. Only the Day of Judgement will show how many people were saved because Ernie Reisinger gave them something to read.
In the 1970s, Ernie was called to the pastorate of the Southern Baptist Church in North Pompano, Florida. At that time, the Southern Baptist denomination (the largest Protestant denomination in the world) was almost entirely Arminian, or worse, liberal. Ernie persuaded the church to reprint a long-neglected book by a Southern Baptist preacher of earlier days: J P Boyce: Abstract of Systematic Theology. Then the church gave away thousands of copies to Southern Baptist ministers and young men preparing for the ministry. That one book changed the thinking of hundreds of men. Today, the true gospel is being preached in many Southern Baptist churches again. And that’s largely due to the determination of one man to give away good books.
That’s a rebuke to me. Ernie wrote: “Anyone can prayerfully give away a good book..” Yet how rarely I do it. Who knows what could be achieved if we followed his example?
Fourthly, this book is about a sinful man. When I read the biographies of some Christians, I’m left with the impression that they were perfectly holy. The writer never hints at any failings, weaknesses, sins.
I used to be left completely discouraged by such books. I felt these super-Christians had nothing in common with me. They knew nothing of the battle with laziness, pride, greed, cowardice that I have to fight every day (or that I so often fail to fight). Now I’m more cynical. I just don’t believe that the writers have been honest. They’ve turned fallen flesh-and-blood men and women into stained-glass window saints.
Geoff Thomas doesn’t make that mistake. Geoff tells how when Ernie was in the US Navy, in a fit of rage, he shoved a tray of food into the face of a man who was tormenting him. Then “he walked up to the deck and leaned dejectedly over the rail, thinking to himself again how he had spoiled his witness to the Lord Jesus..” Sixty years later, Ernie is still wrestling to control that temper. “Ernie’s grandchildren have also become aware of his weaknesses… they have all witnessed Ernie in his eighties, angry, curt and dismissive, so that strains have entered their relationship with him.” Geoff tells how Ernie’s son Don – for many years himself a backslider – had to write a stern letter to his father on one occasion, rebuking him for irritability and self-pity.
Some reviewers have criticised Geoff for including such frank details. But the Bible tells us of Noah’s drunkenness, Elijah’s self-pity, John the Baptist’s doubts, Peter’s inconsistencies. We should take warning from the failures of God’s servants as well as being encouraged by their triumphs. It says a great deal about Ernie Reisinger that he was willing for Geoff to write such a biography, to read the letters between himself and his son, to put it all down in print.
Ernie has written his last will and testament. It closes with these words. “I would have engraved on my gravestone these words, ‘He did what he could’.” If only every believer could say as much!
‘Ernest C Reisinger: A Biography’ was published by Banner of Truth in 2002
Pastor Stephen Rees pastors Grace Baptist Church in Stockport, England (a suburb of Manchester). He has degrees in history and theology from Cambridge University.