Seminary And Doctrine

Q – After reading many of your sermons and listening to quite a few of your tapes, I thank God that He is using people, like yourself, to teach His word. I am truly blessed and humbled through your teaching.

Jim – You are much too kind. Thank you for all your encouraging sentiments. But, as it turns out, I ain’t nothing special. I’m just a guy that God got His hooks into. Left to myself, I’d have happily stumbled into Hell, all the while thinking that God could never judge a likeable fellow like myself. So, while I enjoy the flattery, I know the truth — but, thank you, nonetheless.

Q – I like to think of myself as a perpetual student. I’ve studied quite a bit in school and I’m currently continuing my education by pursuing a Masters Degree at a theological seminary. I really love to learn.

However, I’m finding seminary rather frustrating. I entered the program hoping to discover a place that has a sacred reverence for God’s word. Instead, I find heady intellectuals highlighting what they perceive as errors and incomplete conclusions of “what God meant” when He said certain things.

My frustration is palpable. I’m even at the verge of leaving the program. Seminaries are becoming a place of debate and conformity to please people as opposed to pleasing God.

Jim – That’s a common complaint. What you must remember about all institutions, whether of learning or of business, is that they exist primarily to make money. And, if you are a seminary with a budget to meet, you will never attract a large enough paying audience if you teach systematics, God’s sovereignty, or the historic doctrines. People want to be entertained, and have their intellects tickled. Then, they feel like they got their money’s worth.

“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears: and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” (1Tim. 4:4-5)

It’s a shame, really. I have a friend who is a Nazarene Pastor. He got his Masters and began work on his doctorate. But, he went through a similar catharsis as yours. He found that the more he impressed his professors, the further he was from his congregation.

You know, I have always assumed that Jesus was the smartest guy who ever walked in shoe leather. He could have absolutely dazzled us with his intense intellect and sparkling wit. He could have waxed poetic about parts of the galaxy we could never imagine. He could have described angelic conversations that we could hardly wrap our little brains around. But, He didn’t. He talked to fishermen about fishing. He talked to agriculturalists about farming. He talked to adulteresses, tax collectors, Samaritan dogs, and the outcasts of His day. But, he was always at odds with the “high and mighty.” He never bothered to engage the seemingly brilliant folk in debate. He just pronounced judgment against them. Interesting, eh?

“For you see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise: and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty: and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence.” (1Cor. 1:26-29)

In the end, I’m afraid that intellectual pursuits that are designed to gain approval from other men end up resulting in just that – manmade approval. God is not impressed. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with a good, solid education. Just make sure that you are serving God in your endeavors, and not serving men.

Learn the truth. Tell the truth. Don’t let the preconceptions and assumptions of your professors stand in the way. That’s difficult, but it’s the only way to get through your education with a clear conscience.

Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox, now.

Q – I am finding and coming to the conclusion that God is pleased when I study His word. I don’t need to spend umpteen dollars on additional texts, commentaries, and pop-Christian psychology books when I can just read the Bible.

Jim – When I was serving a four-year ministry internship out in Los Angeles, the pastor I was studying with used to say, “You know, it’s amazing how much light Scripture can shed on some of these commentaries.” I like that.

Remember that commentaries are just one man’s opinion. There is no inherent value to the fact that someone took the time to write his opinions down – and, I say that as someone who has written a couple. If you trust the man you’re reading, then his insights can be valuable to your Christian education. But, always – always! – check every commentator against the Word. If they are untrue to the tone and tenor of the original author, then close their book and open The Book. As Paul said (in no uncertain terms),

“But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:8)

I don’t think enough people take that warning seriously. We have become much too broad-minded (and, flat-headed). But, Paul was a stickler for detail. “Get it right, or get out.” I’m hanging with Paul. He seemed to have a pretty good handle on things.

And, don’t even get me started on “pop” Christianity. It is the scourge of our age. Easy-believe-ism. All the benefits with none of the pain. That error has been around for 2,000 years, but now it’s being mass-marketed to a predominantly ignorant world. I wonder how the First Century Christian audience would have reacted to the pabulum that is currently being fostered under the guise of Christianity. Really, really sad.

But, I’ll refrain from ranting.

Q – The more I understand God’s grace, the more I understand what a tremendous gift He’s given me. I am not worthy, nor do I deserve such merit; however, God has given me a hope in the glorious inheritance of the saints. Why? I don’t have a clue other than the fact that I now know I live for His glory and not my own.

Jim – You’ve got it! Run with that line of thinking. Keep heading down those paths, and you’ll be just fine. Rest in the unfathomable grace of God and you’ll end up serving Him “in spirit and in truth.” That’s a cool place to be.

Q – I’m unlearning so much of my catholic upbringing and what the churches of the world have been teaching me regarding works. My conclusion is that God doesn’t need me. That’s a statement of confession and awe.

Jim – And, here’s the great, eternal rub. He does not need anyone or anything to complete Himself. He is the only entity in the universe whose purpose for being rests solely in Himself. Everything else is dependent on Him. Were there nothing else, He would yet be. However, were there not Him, there would be nothing else.

But! He has decided to reveal Himself in all His glory, and display His attributes to the denizens of Heaven, Hell and Earth. And, in order to display His unerring, unimaginable grace, He reached down to the lowest of sinners and brought them up by the hand, seating them in Heavenly places of glory and honor. That’s beyond comprehension. He has taken the very things that did Him the greatest harm and has recreated them into trophies of grace. He will eternally surround Himself with the very people who wanted nothing to do with Him, were not looking for Him, and fought Him when He revealed Himself. And, in gifting them with eternal life, He glorifies Himself.

That’s astounding. But, that’s the gospel, my friend.

You’re in a good place. Keep thinking.

Q – Yet, most churches continue to purport an ambivalent theology based on works and not faith. The focus becomes on them growing the institution versus exalting God.

Jim – You can’t change “most churches.” Nor is it your job. You cannot change the world; the world will always be at enmity with God. You cannot save everyone, only God can save – and He will save whom He chooses. Your job – your place in the service of the Lord – is to tell the truth, be instant in season and out, to give a ready answer to everyone who inquires of your faith, and leave the consequences to God.

It’s true that the modern church has become a quagmire of confusion. But, God is still on His throne. He has not been toppled by weak, errant theology. He is still drawing His people to Himself. You just remain faithful to what He has called you to do. It’s true that genuinely Biblical theology is a rare thing, but (as I’ve said all too often) the cure for wrong use is not no use. The cure for wrong use is right use. And, if God is raising you up, teaching you and blessing you with insight into His holy Self, you just remain steadfast in that knowledge and continue the “right use.”

Q – Thanks for being a teacher and for making your resources available. When I hear your tapes and comb through the scriptures with you, it’s as if God is purifying my mind and making things much simpler. The essence is that He is control, He reigns, and He loves me and has extended this gift of grace that I have yet to really grasp in its fullness.

Jim – That’s it exactly. You have perfectly encapsulated the essence of my teaching. The rest is just details. But, you have the big picture. Good for you! You have great insight.

Q – God has obviously blessed you with a lot of insight into His word. With that said, what rebukes or warnings would you give to a young man, like myself, that is hungry for God’s word but has a queasy stomach for watered down theology?

Jim – Well, Scripture says that we are to “exhort” one another daily. That means that we should lift each other up and encourage each other on this Christian journey. You know what you need to do — and you’re doing it! Keep reading, keep studying, keep looking up. Decide whether or not you want the degree, and then recognize the game you have to play to get it. Decide whether the degree will add credibility to your future career and then go through the appropriate motions to achieve that end. But, never let your education undermine your faith. You can strike a balance, if you want to.

Personally, I have no seminary degrees. I have some college behind me, but I spent my youth playing music and traveling. Then, when God got a hold of me, He began teaching me what I needed to know. That sounds mystical, but it’s not. It’s simply that He is faithful to supply His people with what they need in order to serve Him according to His plan. I’m a perfect example of that. Any credibility I have comes from the fact that I teach a theology that rings true in the hearts of God’s people. I just spread seed and see what kind of ground it falls on. I just toss out sheep food, and the sheep get to feast. The goats hate it, but the sheep love it. So, in the end, my credibility as a preacher/teacher is wholly dependent on God’s work in His people.

Kent Clark, a preacher friend of mine in Troy, Michigan (and, no he’s not Superman), once told me, “The proof that God calls a man to teach is that He also calls people to hear him.” I think that’s true, essentially. And, if God has called a man to feed His flocks, He will also provide adequate – even abundant – food.

Thank you again for your note. It’s always a pleasure.

I am honored to know you. And, I am grateful for the opportunity to share the things that God has taught me. As Paul said, “You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men.” (2Cor. 3:2)

I look forward to our next exchange.

Your servant for His sake,

Jim Mc.