“’Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen in Israel this day?’ (2 Samuel 3:38)
David’s poignant words on the death of Abner will have come instinctively to the minds of many Christians throughout the world on hearing of the death, on 30 July 1997, of William Still, minister of Gilcomston South Church, Aberdeen.
Ill-health in the last two years had increasingly limited Mr. Still’s ministry to preaching on Sundays, and on 8 May 1997, the date of his eighty-sixth birthday, he demitted the pastoral church of the congregation he had served with unstinting devotion for fifty-two years.
The fruit of his ministry in the university city of Aberdeen has spread, both in personal influence and in prayer, to the ends of the earth in the multitude of spiritual sons and daughters who constitute his true children (he remained single throughout his life).
His example of biblical ministry has been a beacon to guide and encourage countless gospel ministers; his deep pastoral love for his own congregation, his commitment to shaping a truly Christian fellowship, his investment of profound personal care and prayer in the lives of countless people– students who sat under his ministry while at college, as well as many others– and, in addition, the penetrating insights of his writings– these constitute his spiritual legacy.
Mr. Still believed that, in some senses, his one lengthly ministry was really several ministries. Certainly it passed through various stages. In the post-war years there were bright and busy evangelistic meetings with large numbers of converts ‘falling into the Lord’s hands like plums,’ as he put it.
Then came the first revolution: he ‘stumbled’ on expository preaching as on successive Sundays he found himself, as if by accident, preaching consecutively through a portion of Romans. As he began to see the effect of such preaching he sensed that here was a wiser, richer, more fruitful and more lasting way in which true Christian character would be built; now he must go deeper.
The extravagances came to an end; extensive corporate prayer on Saturday nights became the order of the day– and would remain so throughout the years. The apostolic model: ‘prayer and the ministry of the word’ (Acts 6:4) became the staple diet of congregational life.
He continued to find the light of Scripture breaking into and reshaping his thinking– and as he did so, he drew the congregation through the experience with him!– until his theology became increasingly moulded by Scripture and distinctively Reformed in character.
He preached (and wrote) his way through the entire Bible several times. And it is doubtful if any living minister has so lovingly and enthusiastically read the chapters of the Westminster Assembly’s Confession of Faith to his congregation the way Mr. Still frequently did.
Certainly few others will have read with such enthusiasm so much of John Owen’s writings (as well as portions of John Murray’s commentary on Romans) to the teenagers and students who at various times and in different places sat under his ministry!
In this covenant theology Mr. Still found a doctrinal resting-place and focus for his growing convictions on the nature of the life of the church.
Those who knew Mr. Still well personally will recognize that these paragraphs do not begin adequately to express the many-sidedness of his life and work, or what it was like actually to sit under his ministry and to be cared for and pastored by him.
Perhaps, therefore, a few words of a more personal nature may be added without intruding into this brief tribute.
I first came to hear Mr. Still preach when I was seventeen. For three decades thereafter he taught and exemplified for me the grace of God in the gospel of Christ and, for all the age gap, made me his friend.
He invested loving care, prayer and time in my life in a manner and to a depth which would be impossible to describe. He was, at various times, counsellor, encourager, comforter and cautioner.
He cared for and loved my family; he sorrowed with us in our griefs and rejoiced in our joys; he seemed to take more delight than we ourselves did in any hint of fruitfulness, success or honour we experienced.
And he always sought to think the best of us.
Perhaps the most touching thing of all for me personally was to witness the way his being seemed to melt with a mixture of humble incredulity and thankful gratitude to the Lord whenever we tried to express to him what his life and ministry had meant to us.
What was especially remarkable about all this is how the same quality of love could have been showered on so many others.
Yet it was; we knew it, as did they. It would grieve him, I know, if I did not immediately add that this was all of grace. But it was also very evidently of grace.
He had clearly learned from the Lord Jesus how to love many with the same love which was simultaneously completely individualised.
Perhaps I can say nothing more telling about Mr. Still than that since his death every time I have thought of how he now contemplates the face of the Lord Jesus Christ a further thought has immediately and instinctively followed: How glorious that Saviour must be who can and does recreate His grace so lovingly in such frail humanity!
William Still was a burning and a shining light. Those who knew him best will inevitably feel that they will not see his like again, and sense an unrepayable debt for the privilege of receiving his ministry and the Christ-centred affection of his pastoral care.
He walked with God and has entered into his rest in the Saviour whom he trusted and loved; his works will follow him.
He was, indeed, a prince and a great man (2 Samuel 3:38).”
–Sinclair Ferguson, “William Still (1911-1997), Minister of Gilcomston South Church, Aberdeen, 1945-1997,” The Banner of Truth Magazine, No. 409 (Oct. 1997): 6-10.