As I reflect upon the gift of God that Prof. Robert Decker was to the church of Jesus Christ, I write this article in memory of him from two perspectives.
First, the man known to the churches as Rev. Decker, and later as Prof. Decker, was to me always and only “Uncle Bob.” I am the youngest son of Prof. Decker’s younger brother, and because of our relative ages, many who did not know our family well would often assume that Prof. Decker was my grandfather. My memories of Prof. Decker are those of a nephew. It is fitting that I pen this article right after the holiday season, for it was time spent in my youth at Decker family gatherings from which many of my memories of Uncle Bob come.
Second, I write this from the perspective of one whom God also called to the gospel ministry. Some of the memories of my Uncle Bob for which I am most thankful were those that come from the time I was considering pursuing the ministry of the gospel. I went to him seeking counsel. He would listen. He would encourage. He would help. He manifested his pastor’s heart and wise counsel to me through the struggle and process of preparation for the ministry of the gospel, for which I was and still am very thankful.
Prof. Decker was born on August 10, 1940 to Peter and Dorothy Decker in East Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was baptized as an infant by Rev. Herman Hoeksema in First Protestant Reformed Church. He remained a member there until being ordained in the ministry in 1965. He attended Baldwin Christian School through fifth grade, completing his grade school education at Adams Street Christian School. In 1958 he graduated from Grand Rapids Christian High School. He then continued his schooling at Calvin College and, believing the Lord called him to pursue gospel ministry, thereafter attended the Protestant Reformed Theological School. Prof. Decker was ordained into the ministry of the gospel in 1965. He served two Protestant Reformed churches: Doon PRC from 1965 to 1969 and the PRC in South Holland, Illinois from 1969 to 1973.
The Lord was pleased to give Prof. Decker a faithful wife, Marilyn Poelstra. They were married on August 18, 1961. Prof. Decker always made it known very clearly the tremendous help that his wife was as he labored in the ministry of the gospel. She was also a gift of God to the churches, not only as a faithful helpmeet to her husband but also as a Christian school teacher during many of the years Prof. Decker labored in the seminary. The Lord gave Prof. and Marilyn Decker four children, one daughter, and three sons, all of whom married in the Lord. Together they enjoyed 59 years of marriage. He died and was brought home to glory on May 5, 2021 at the age of 80.
Prof. Decker was a gifted preacher. He was not a tall man, standing no taller than 5 feet 8 inches, yet he had a commanding presence behind a pulpit. This was not on account of his natural ability chiefly, but because it was evident he was filled with the Spirit of Jesus Christ to preach the gospel with conviction. But that is not to say he did not have ability. The Lord qualified him with the gift to teach, which shined through in his pulpit ministry. His sermons were exegetically sound, clear, and organized, applied to the everyday life of the sinner-saint, and delivered with an evident love for the people of God in the pew. God’s people were always fed with a solid meal from the Scriptures under Prof. Decker’s preaching.
Prof. Decker loved to preach. He always considered it his primary work as one called by God to the ministry, as every preacher does. And he loved to preach about preaching. As long as I have a sound mind, I will remember the deep baritone voice of my uncle booming forth the words of I Corinthians 1:21 in a sermon on the text: “It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” He knew what was taking place when Jesus Christ speaks through a human instrument whom He has called. He told me once how, while typing his sermon on 3×5 note cards (every sermon filling up eight or so cards in outline form), he was filled with eager anticipation for the upcoming Sunday. He was excited and thrilled for the opportunity again to preach the good news of Jesus Christ. He loved Jesus Christ, who is the gospel, and dedicated his life to unfolding the glorious riches of that gospel through the word preached.
Prof. Decker was a compassionate pastor. That he had a pastor’s heart came through clearly in his preaching ministry. The manner in which he preached the Word of God was such that it spoke to the people of God in their particular trials and circumstances of earthly life. This compassion also came through clearly in his pastoral ministry. He thoroughly enjoyed and considered it a great privilege to be an instrument in the hand of God to visit the sick, comfort the mourning, and help the depressed. He was a pastor who himself understood intimately and personally the struggles God’s people endure in this valley of tears. According to His sovereign will, the Lord laid upon him very dark and difficult days of depression during periods of his ministry. But through those times he knew the Lord was faithful, never forgetting and never forsaking His people in Jesus Christ. And the Christ, whom Prof. Decker knew was faithful in those dark days, was the Christ he would bring to help others in their time of need.
Prof. Decker was a faithful professor. The Lord called him through the churches to be professor in the Protestant Reformed Theological School. He labored full time in that position for 33 years, from 1973 to 2006, the year of his retirement. The churches recognized the gifts God gave him for preaching and pastoring, calling him to dedicate his life to the task of teaching men to preach and to pastor, which was the focus of his teaching as a professor of practical theology. I write this article sitting in my study, surrounded by shelves of books that give evidence of his work as a professor of practical theology. Graciously he gifted me much of his library upon his retirement, such that I have a wealth of resources from him in the area of practical theology.
I did not have the opportunity to sit under his teaching in the seminary. In light of that, I spoke to a colleague who did. There is one point gleaned from this conversation that I would like to share. The students always enjoyed when Prof. Decker would go “off-topic.” In fact, they would try, as pupils do at times, to lead him in that direction. But the motive was not wrong, because they always knew the gems of instruction that would arise from these discussions. What is striking is how this memory of him as a professor in a classroom is similar to my memories of him as my uncle in a living room. He had a wealth of historical knowledge of our churches. He had a fantastic memory of people and places and events. And the anecdotal stories he told were not only interesting, but instructive. He was a man who served the churches as one who lived among and knew the people of God, and God used those experiences for the edifying instruction of his students throughout the years.
Uncle Bob is now in glory, experiencing the perfect and sinless joy of being with his Savior. He is with Jesus Christ, whom he knew personally as his Savior and Lord. He is with Jesus Christ, to whom he faithfully led God’s people and whom he trained men to proclaim as ministers of the gospel. He is with Jesus Christ, who humbled Himself to the death of the cross for the salvation of His church. As part of that church and knowing himself to be a sinner saved by grace, Prof. Decker knew that the only way of serving Him was in self-less love and humility.
My Aunt Marilyn asked me to read a brief biography of my uncle at his funeral. It included a portion of a letter written to him from the late Rev. Gerrit Vos. Vos’ words, written as counsel to Prof. Decker in his first year of the ministry, were remembered by him throughout the entirety of his life. They are fitting words to conclude this short reflection on the gift of God that Prof. Robert Decker was to the church of Jesus Christ: “Of all the things I counseled you, remember this, be humble. There is a humility that is feigned. That is abominable in God’s sight. Be humble from the heart and God’s people will bear you up in their arms.”
May God be pleased to continue to give His church humble and faithful servants of Jesus Christ.