Challenges: Serve the Church

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.
START AT THE BEGINNING or check out the PREVIOUS POST.

Not long after reaching that low point I mentioned earlier, I found myself standing on the quad at the seminary looking up at the chapel steeple and pleading with God: “Please let me stay. I came here because you called me to. Please provide a way for me to stay.”

And He did…blessing me far beyond what I asked for or deserved.
He provided a job to meet our needs…and not just a job…a family…a church.

I plan to write more about my church in the coming days, but in this post I want to emphasize just how important the church is to a seminary education. I am absolutely convinced that the only way to rightly navigate your time in seminary is to be an active member of a local church. 

One of the great challenges in seminary is retaining all that you are learning. Information is flying at you so quickly that it’s difficult to file everything away for future use. That’s why you need to use the knowledge God is giving you in the context for which it was created – the local church.

My seminary “exists to glorify God by equipping students to serve the church and fulfill the Great Commission.” The knowledge we gain is not for knowledge’s sake. It’s not to pat ourselves on the back. It’s not to win arguments or brag about how much we know. It’s to “serve the church” and “fulfill the Great Commission.”

But so many seminary students are content to simply attend church.

They might object, “My church is so big. It’s hard to find a place to plug in.” But many times this is simply a cover for a misunderstanding of the value of the local church. The local church is given that we might be sanctified and grow together into the image of Christ. 

You won’t learn how to teach or preach until you do it.
You won’t learn how to deal with difficult people and situations until you do it.
You won’t learn how to dream up, plan, and execute programs until you do it.
You won’t learn how to share the gospel or disciple someone until you do it.

And the local church has been given to all of us (not just seminarians!) that we might develop our gifts for the benefit of Christ’s kingdom. In this context, so far as you are open to the wisdom and correction of others, you will discover your strengths and your weaknesses – both personally and ministerially. And, seminarians, you will be able to (humbly!) pass along some of the great things you are learning to those who may never have a chance to sit in a seminary classroom – reinforcing these truths.

Challenges: Balance

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.
START AT THE BEGINNING or check out the PREVIOUS POST.

In the fall of 2014, I took what proved to be my most challenging class in seminary (It was also one of the most rewarding, by the way!). In it we examined multiple “hermeneutical grids” – ways of approaching biblical interpretation (e.g. Dispensationalism, Lutheran Law-Gospel, Allegory, and all other manner of nerdy goodness!).

But, as some of you may know, as much as I love to read, I have always struggled with comprehension. This makes me terribly slow at it; and unfortunately, for this class, slow reading was not an option. As much as I enjoyed the content of the class, I began to despair that I wouldn’t be able to complete the coursework.

At the same time, I was at war inside over several biblical doctrines that I couldn’t figure out. The result was a perfect storm wherein I worked hard at church…I worked hard at school…and every remaining moment, I worked hard at resolving these doctrinal challenges.

All I did was work.
Don’t pat me on the back.
This was sin.
There was absolutely no balance in my life.
And I burnt out.

I got through the class, but I never wanted to take another one again. I ended up taking the next semester off to regain my sanity…and, in God’s providence, this was the best thing I could have done.

One day, in the midst of all of this, I had a thought: “I bet I could remember how to tie a hook on a fishing line.” It had been years since I’d been fishing, but in my search for a break from constant work, I decided to pick it back up. I went to Walmart, bought a rig and some bait, and headed to the lake.

A few months later, I bought a kayak…upping that fishing game.
Then I started exercising at the gym with a friend.
Then I started taking a day off each week.
Then another friend and I discovered backpacking, which has become one of the great joys in my life.
I know…having fun…taking a break…novel concepts!

But in all of this, I was finally able to give myself permission to turn the work off and enjoy other aspects of what it meant to be human. And the irony is that doing this actually cleared my mind in such a way that I could think more clearly when I was working.

Funny how God’s commands (Ex. 20:9-11) really are for our good.

I still struggle weekly to love and disciple my family well, prepare biblical and helpful sermons for my youth, complete my coursework faithfully, and play and rest. But one of the most profound lessons I’ve learned in seminary is that the fight for this balance is worth it.

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Challenges: Theological Consistency

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.
START AT THE BEGINNING.

In my previous post, I talked about how we can trust the Bible not just in spite of but because of textual variants. But the other challenge I faced regarding the trustworthiness of the Bible had to do with its theological consistency.

What I mean is: Does God contradict Himself? Does the Bible at any point present two versions of God that are incompatible? Or…does it ever make contradictory claims about what is real and true?

These questions ultimately led me to a field of study known as biblical theology, which has been my most enjoyable area of study in seminary.

To do biblical theology is to track a theme or topic as it progresses through the Bible. There’s actually been a resurgence of interest in this subject in recent years through the search for Jesus in the Old Testament. There are even children’s books getting in on the action (The Jesus Storybook Bible and The Biggest Story), but my ah-ha moment came when I heard this sermon by Tim Keller.

And while the question of theological consistency is even more complex than that of textual variants, time and time again I’ve discovered gifted preachers and writers who’ve helped me see that God never contradicts Himself, even when it might look like it at first.

Let me give just one example.

Some claim that God basically doesn’t give a hoot about the Gentiles in the OT but then suddenly loves all people in the New.

Sure…God did work almost exclusively through one nation (Israel) in the OT to advance His plan of redemption; but if this leads us to conclude that He only cared about Israel, we’ve missed one of the most amazing themes in the Bible.

Israel’s charter began with, “I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3), and God doubles down on this promise many times in the OT. He exalted Himself over Pharaoh and Sihon and Og “that (his) name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Ex. 9:16); and it was (Josh. 2:10-11)! Israel was called to be “a light to the nations” (Isa. 49:5-6), reflecting God’s goodness and glory to them. It has always been God’s plan to “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy” (Psa. 67:4). And how was this to be accomplished? The psalmist prays, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us [Israel], that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among the nations” (Ps. 67:1-2). God didn’t change. He has always desired to bless His people that they might bless the world!

When we arrive in the New Testament, it becomes clear that Jesus is the true and better Israelite who will finally fulfill God’s desire to bless the nations: “God so loved the world that He sent His Son” (John 3:16). And now, He sends His New Covenant people (composed of Jews and Gentiles!) to preach the gospel to the whole world (Matt. 24:14)  making new disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:18-20). And what is the result of this? “A great multitude…from every nation…crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-10).

Yes, the Bible is consistent theologically.

I don’t yet see all of the connections and ways in which God’s plan develops from Genesis to Revelation, but that’s the fun of it! I get to spend the rest of my life discovering the vastness of God’s wisdom in piecing together a beautiful theological tapestry over time. 

 

If you’d like to delve a little more into biblical theology, I highly recommend the Bible Project. Here’s where you can find them on YouTube. And here’s my favorite video (so far!) that they’ve produced:

Also, here’s a sermon I preached on Psalm 67, trying to tie as many theological pieces together as I could:

Finally, here are some books to check out if you are interested in the subject.

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Challenges: Can the Bible Be Trusted?

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.
START AT THE BEGINNING or check out the PREVIOUS POST.

Can I trust the Bible enough to bear the weight of my tough questions? If you know me, you know that I didn’t drop out of seminary or leave the ministry or deny the faith. So, you can guess how I answer that question.

So, my purpose in this post is not to give a full-scale apologetic for the reliability of the New and Old Testaments. There are plenty of great books out there that do a better job at this than I could. To me, the external evidence in favor of the reliability of Scripture was overwhelming; therefore, my questions were: “Is the Bible internally consistent? Does it contradict itself?” and “Can I trust a Bible that contains thousands of textual variants?”

To answer these, I decided that I needed to examine my point of reference (see my last post) in its most pure form I could access. This led me to sign up for as many biblical language and interpretation classes I could squeeze into my schedule. Over time, I began to develop the tools I needed.

Let me just address the textual variant question for now. After personally studying several of the most problematic textual variants – along with a host of other less-troubling ones, I am more amazed than ever by the internal consistency of the Bible.

By and large, Christians didn’t discard manuscripts with variant readings (unlike other religions) so as to present a semblance of divine consistency. Sure, there have been failed attempts in Christian history to claim the primacy of supposedly uniform texts, but the real miracle is that God used incredibly human means – textual variants – to actually preserve for us a trustworthy Bible. We can compare texts from all over the world and throughout early church history and feel quite confident that we hold in our hands what God wanted to communicate to us.

In fact, I have encountered no textual variant which substantial alters the content of Christian doctrine or our understanding of the historical events recounted in the Bible. Even when we are unsure of which manuscript reading to go with, the basic content often remains unaltered. To quote Dan Wallace, one the world’s leading New Testament text critics, “For more than two centuries, most biblical scholars have declared that no essential affirmation has been affected by the variants.”1

I’d also like to quote Greg Gilbert at length, because his words may help someone:

“First…the vast majority of the textual variants in the manuscript copies we have are just utterly uninteresting and undramatic. They have to do with plural versus singular pronouns, inverted word order, subjunctive versus indicative mood, aorist versus perfect tense, and on and on…Second, Christian scholars have been exceedingly careful to document…the most significant variants along with an analysis of each one…But the point is that…there’s no conspiracy to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes…we believe that those variants…can help us determine to a remarkably high degree of probability what the original documents of the New Testament actually said. Finally…it turns out that not a single doctrine of orthodox Christianity depends solely on a questioned portion of the biblical text. Either the questioned portions don’t involved anything truly interesting, or if they do, the very same doctrines expressed in those locations are taught elsewhere in unquestioned portions of the Bible” (Why Trust the Bible, 56-57, bold mine).

I am grateful for scholars who have devoted their lives to the study of these issues, but when I embarked on my investigation, I wasn’t willing to simply take their word for it. I wanted to see things for myself. And what I discovered through personal experience was that Wallace’s and Gilbert’s claims are true. We need not doubt the trustworthiness of the Bible because of the presence of textual variants. 

If you want to read a little more about this issue, see this article.
If you wanna get really nerdy with textual variants, check out this debate between Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace or the website of the CSNTM.

  • Have you had an experience similar to mine? Please share in the comments!
  • Is there a textual variant that you’ve wrestled with or have a question about? Share your story or ask your question in the comments!
  • Are there any books that you would add to my Amazon list on the reliability of the Bible? Please share these with me in the comments!

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Challenges: The Gospel is for Christians

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.START AT THE BEGINNING or check out the PREVIOUS POST

In my previous post, I talked about the joyless seriousness that often characterized my heart in the mid-2000s. Somewhere along the way, I also picked up the belief that any imperfection in me could be dealt with by means of even greater seriousness and determination. This, however, only led to further frustration and failure.

But – praise God! – during my first two years in seminary, the Holy Spirit began to use professors, fellow students, and brothers and sisters at my church to help me more clearly understand the gospel of grace.

I still remember the moment when I heard for the first time that the gospel is not just what gets us in to Heaven but also what gives us the power to live the Christian life. I thought the gospel was for justification, and hard work (Sure…dependence on God in some undefinable way…but mostly hard work!) was for sanctification, but the chapel preacher I heard on September 27, 2011 told me that I needed the gospel for both. I needed to keep “preaching the gospel to myself” if I had any hope of becoming more like Jesus. I needed to continually…daily…multiple times a day…fall upon the mercies of Christ to overwhelm my heart with a greater happiness than my sin could offer.

This started a revolution in my life.

Not only did passages like John 15:1-17 (“…apart from me, you can do nothing,” ESV) and Romans 12:1-2 (“I appeal to you…by the mercies of God…,” ESV) make more sense than ever, but I began to see how Paul aimed at heart change by continually preaching the gospel…TO CHRISTIANS! What was the content of the first half of most of Paul’s letters to Christian churches? The gospel. He reminded Christians of the gospel before giving them practical commands; and, even in the practical commands, gospel truths were embedded.

Before this realization, I was one of those Christians who was bothered by Reformed people always talking about, “Gospel, gospel, gospel.” Now I understand, as Jeff Vanderstelt puts it, “Paul knows that if people are going to grow up into Christ in every way, they need to hear the truths of Jesus (the gospel) and learn to speak them into everything,” (Gospel Fluency, 28; cf. Eph. 4:11-16; 1:10; Col. 1:20).

So, if there was only one thing I could pass along to you through this Challenges series, it would be Paul’s message in the letter to the Galatians. We don’t leave the gospel behind after being regenerated in order to grow in the Christian life (Gal. 3:3). We continue deeper and deeper into –  turning over new, beautiful, and exciting facets of – the significance of a God who loved us so much that He took on human flesh, humbled himself to the point of death on a cross, and rose again to give us eternal life. This gospel sets us free from daily temptation and sin; and this gospel motivates us toward happiness in holiness! 

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Challenges: God is Good and Wants Me to Be Happy

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary. START AT THE BEGINNING.

No, I didn’t turn prosperity preacher during seminary. But I am convinced that the two most important truths I’ve learned during this time are two of the most important truths anyone can learn in life: God is good and wants me to be happy.

In some sense, most of the posts in this series will be devoted to why I am convinced that God is good. I probably won’t get too much push back on this claim. But some may think, “How can he claim that God wants him to be happy? That just sounds so self-centered and shallow.”

My answer begins and ends with the ministry of John Piper. Passion OneDay 2000 was a watershed moment for many believers in my generation. I wasn’t there in person, but it didn’t take long for me to hear about Piper’s sermon, “Boasting Only in the Cross.” (If you’ve never heard it, take a listen, and see why it impacted so many.) In this sermon, I heard loud and clear, “Don’t waste your life on trivialities! Pour it out in service to the kingdom!” I heard the hard sayings of Jesus and, like so many, became determined to do hard things for Jesus. A year later, I even found myself in China teaching English for half a summer in response to this call.

But in being introduced to Piper so late in his ministry, I missed some of the foundational writing which provided context for that OneDay sermon. I missed concepts like, “The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God” (Let the Nations Be Glad, 35, emphasis mine) and “God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him” (Desiring God, 10, emphasis mine). Yes, Piper said these kinds of things in the OneDay sermon, but I don’t think I heard them.

I heard that I needed to work hard for God. I heard that I needed give and live sacrificially. I heard that I needed to “deny myself.” (And I still believe these things!) Yet, even if subconsciously, I began to believe that these truths meant I needed to deny myself of happiness. Why? Because seriousness and sternness are innately godly…right?

Long story (for another time) short, I returned from China disappointed…disillusioned…and unhappy. For various reasons, I found myself questioning both God’s goodness and His desire for my good. And unfortunately I wasn’t able to shake these for a long time.

But what I’ve discovered during my time in seminary is that happiness in Christ is the fuel of the Christian life. Sure, there is a time and place for doing our duty when we don’t feel like it; but even in this, we know there is greater joy on the other side. It is our delight in God and His ways which ultimately make our obedience pleasing in His sight (cf. Ps. 27:4; Ps. 119:47).

The promise of the New Covenant is the gift of a new heart, which, by the power of the Spirit, is compelled to walk in God’s ways (Ezek. 36:26-27). This heart is a heart of joy, for the fruit of His Spirit is joy (Gal. 5:22).  As the psalmist says, “…in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11 ESV), and “I delight to do your will, O my God…” (Ps. 40:8 ESV). And, in the words of Jesus, “Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6).

Why do I use “joy” and “happiness” interchangeably? Because for so many I think the word “joy” has come to mean merely a sort of contended peace. And that’s not bad! But I do wonder if, in only using “joy” to describe the Christian life, such believers miss the command to “Delight yourself in the LORD…” (Ps. 37:4). Yes, we are content. Yes, we have peace. But our faces also light up and our hearts leap at the blessing it is to know and be known by – to love and be loved by – God! 

In this, my final semester of seminary, I finally read Let the Nations Be Glad and am almost halfway through Desiring God. I wish I’d read them two decades ago. Still, I am grateful for the help they have been in overcoming this emotional challenge.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I now believe that the most important thing I can do each morning, as I start my day, is find happiness in Christ. This helps me rightly delight in God’s good gifts without allowing them to become idols. Of course, I don’t live in a constant state of happiness. I have to fight for joy just like everyone else. But I’m grateful for the realization that this is something I can…no, I am commanded to…fight for.

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Challenges: A Little Background

As I approach graduation from seminary, I’d like to write a series of posts recounting some of the challenges I’ve faced over the past eight and a half years. Yes, it’s taken me that long to finish my M.Div., and yes, I am so…done. But I wouldn’t trade the time I’ve been given to soak up my classes for anything.

A little background to the series…

I came to seminary for several reasons. One, as I prepared lessons/messages for my former youth group back home, I realized that I didn’t really know how to study the Bible or preach it that well. I had a hunger to understand what I was looking at and how to communicate it.

Two, I had questions. Theological questions. Philosophical questions. And after attempting for a while to find the answers to these questions on Google and YouTube, it became clear that I needed a set of skills that I didn’t possess.

Side note… Nowadays when folks ask challenging theological questions of me, I usually respond with: “You’re asking a hard question. Are you willing to do the hard work required to find the answer?” Sadly, what I’ve found is that, while many don’t have a problem asking the deep questions of life, they simply don’t want to put in the effort that is necessary to find answers. Even more sad is how this apathy so often leads to either nominal religious belief or skepticism.  More on that later.

Back on topic…

So, to catch you up on my story. I didn’t find all the answers I was looking for. I think I found a lot of them, and I feel like many of the rest can be narrowed down to a couple of good options. But I’ve come to accept that there are several questions that I’m not going to get answers to – at least not in this life. And I’ve found peace even in this realization.

So, don’t think that this series is about me offering a shortcut or magic pill for life’s tough questions. It’s really about what I wish I could go back and tell myself a decade ago.
And it’s about helping people who may be now where I was then.

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