The following message was delivered at New Student Orientation, on August 23, at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC
Seminary: A Ministry of Preparation
Recently I participated in the ordination of a young man to the Gospel ministry, to pastor a congregation in small town in South Carolina. It was an awe-inspiring moment. And beneath the prayers and petitions, with laying on of hands, I watched his wife, smiling with tears, holding their babies and looking up to heaven. You see, their dreams were coming true. Hard work and commitment to follow a Savior had now led to this worship service.
And yet three years ago he sat where you sit today: excited, perhaps with some slight, good anxiety, wondering about the new start that will lead not to an end, but to the beginning of a ministry. This is your ministry of preparation for the journey of a lifetime, of following the Lord all of the days of your lives, as pastors, missionaries, teachers, counselors, or other servants of God.
As you begin at RTS, let me draw your attention to the Scriptures for some thoughts on the blessings of seminary. I turn to David’s Psalm 25, selected verses:
Psalm 25: 1, 4-14
To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the daylong.
Remember your mercy, O LORD, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.
Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
According to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O LORD!
Good and upright is the LORD;
Therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness,
For those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.
For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great.
Who is the man who fears the LORD?
Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose.
His soul shall abide in well being, and his offspring shall inherit the land.
The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him,
And he makes known to them his covenant.
This Psalm of David focuses on a plea that God would teach the Psalmist the ways of God. There is no higher pursuit than the pursuit of the thoughts and ways of God. We may pursue the ways of God in nature, but His ways can never be apprehended and applied to our lives and families and our culture outside of pursuing God in His Word. For those who are called to be ministers of the Gospel, to go to the ends of the earth as missionaries, to teach others in institutions, or to serve in the work of telling others about God and His ways, one must first be a learner. The disciples sat under the teaching of Jesus before they were sent. St. Paul was sent into the desert for three years and there, we learn in later texts, this tremendous teacher to the Gentiles was taught by God Himself. All ministry begins with a call and then moves directly to the ministry of preparation.
Seminary literally means “a seedbed.” This is a “seedbed” of pastors and other servants of the Lord. You have come to learn. You are like David crying, “To You, O LORD, I lift up my soul” for in coming here to this place, you have shown your submission to God in learning. You are a true disciple: one who sits at the feet of the Master. Our pastors here, who serve as teachers of the Word, are but ambassadors of Christ. And through the ordination and authorization of the Church, they are servants to you in the ministry of answering your plea to know more of God. As you cry with David, “Lead me in Your path and teach me” we are here to respond, in Christ’s name, humbly, prayerfully, dependently, but intentionally and to answer that plea. We answer, in every class and in every thing we do, by giving you the Word of God. We are committed to the inerrant and infallible Word of the Living God as the only way you can have what you need to fulfill the ministry to which God has or will call you.
The context for all of this growth that David desires is summed up in a phrase that is repeated in verses 6, 7 and 10: the steadfast love of God. This phrase is interpreting one Hebrew word: hesed. This is the covenant love of God that never ends. It is the love that is personified in Jesus Christ. Jesus said that to know Him is to know life. Jesus said that to know the truth is to be set free. David wants knowledge of God and His grace, He wants to know the freedom—may we say the blessing—that comes from knowing God and His ways in the context of His grace. Your time in seminary is a time to follow like David, in the context of the covenant of grace, to pursue truth and be free. Therefore there are unique blessings to being in seminary and to be pursuing the ways of God.
First, to pursue the ways of God in seminary is to know a blessing for yourself.
We mark that David cried for God to “make me know” and to “teach me.” This is very personal. David desires the teaching of God in his own life.
One thing I want to say to you this morning is that “your vocation has now become your sanctification.” I will say that to you in the pastoral theology class, but I want to say it to you on this first day in seminary.
Seminary, as it is shaped and formed on the ordinary means of grace in the Bible, will bring about growth in you. You should, as Francis Schaeffer put it, leave loving God more at the conclusion of your years in seminary than at the beginning.
As I remember my time in seminary, there were many nights when I used to go home, after long classes through the day and evening, with absolutely jaw-dropping awe of the God I thought I knew. But as I studied more and more of Him in His Word, led by capable pastor-teachers, in an intensive time of study that you will likely never repeat, I found that I did not know Him like I could. I was being led in His truth. I was beginning to know His ways.
Secondly, to pursue the ways of God is to know a blessing for others.
We read in verse 13 that the one who fears the Lord will indeed be instructed by God. The result will be that he will not only be blessed (abide in well-being) but “his offspring shall inherit the land.”
My beloved, as I welcome you to seminary this morning I know that what you are about to embark upon, if you apply yourself to the teaching of the Lord, will be blessed of God to your posterity. Your families will be blessed.
How well I recall going home at night and telling my wife, who was waiting for me with excitement to hear all that I had learned, about this glorious God of grace! My wife was thus blessed by God. Through seminary and my time of pursuing God, however faithful I might have been, that was blessed of God to transform my home into a seminary. I have been able to teach my children the Word of God, to instruct them in the ways of God that I learned from my time of sitting under godly pastor-teachers in that intensive time of learning called seminary. The offspring of David includes Gentiles as well as the household of Jacob. And so too will your offspring include those who hear you preach in your pulpit, whether that pulpit is in a small local congregation in South Carolina, or a hidden place in a mountain in China, or in a classroom in a university, or as an itinerant evangelist.
My prayer this morning is that you will commit in your heart to pursue the ways of God in order to bless the world with the knowledge of Jesus Christ. I pray that you will not be a container, holding the Gospel to yourself, but a channel through which the knowledge of God flows to the lost, to the needy, to the entire earth. May God bring revival through this class this morning!
Finally, to pursue the ways of God is to bring blessing to God Himself.
King David says in Psalm 25:
To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul,
You are the God of my salvation,
Good and upright is the Lord,
For your name’s sake, O LORD
Throughout the psalm He magnifies the God of the covenant of grace, the hesed love of God.
To pursue the ways of God:
In the end to pursue the ways of God will lead you to knowing Him, loving Him, and glorifying Him in heaven.
That is what the blessing of the pursuit of God will bring. That is what I pray seminary will be for you—the beginning of a journey of blessing for yourself, for others, and for God Himself.In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.