In his book, Dangerous Calling, Paul Tripp asks a few pointed questions about the nature of a seminary education:
…Is it not possible for seminary students to become experts in a gospel that they are not being exposed and changed by? Is it not dangerous to teach students to be comfortable with the radical content of Scripture while holding it separate from their hearts and lives? Is it not dangerous for students to become comfortable with the message of the Bible while not being broken, grieved, and convicted by it…Shouldn’t every Christian institution of higher learning be a warm, nurturing, Christ-centered, gospel-driven community of faith? Could it be that rather than having as our mission students who have mastered the Book, our goal should be graduating students who have been mastered by the God of the Book? (Tripp, 49)
John Newton—who had no formal theological training—seems to have been troubled by a similar problem in his day. Men were being trained for the ministry but were coming out as nothing more than “stage players”. These were men who were “able to hold a congregation by the ears, by furnishing them with an hour’s amusement”.
Rather than churning out stage players Newton longed for the day when youmg men going into ministry would be:
…the man who is what he professes to be, who knows what he speaks of, in whom the truth dwells and lives, who has not received the gospel from books, or by hearers only, but in the school of the great Teacher, acquires a discernment, a taste, a tenderness, a humility… (Volume 6, 400)
Newton believed young ministers were spending far too much time practicing things like oratory and vociferation when they ought to be spending time studying God’s Word and their own hearts. He referred to such things as “pompous trifling”, noting that “this manner of preaching seldom disturbs the conscience”.
I am a seminary student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. For the most part the professors that I have sat under have been good and godly men that seem passionate about their students not only knowing of a stream where grace may be had but encouraging students to drink deeply from this fountain. In other words, they desire to see students be mastered by the Word and not to simply master the Word.
Yet, I see with my own eyes and in my own heart the dangers that both Tripp and Newton are pointing to. It is, in my opinion, quite easy to stand before a congregation and faithfully say, “Here is what God’s Word says”. But it is quite another to be moved by the text in my own heart and still another to preach in such a way “that it enters the recesses of the heart” (401). One an unbeliever could do the other requires the Spirit.
If I have one qualm with the Tripp quote above it is this: I believe he doesn’t cast his web of critique wide enough. In our day it is less the seminary to blame and more the celebrity culture. Men can write bestsellers and become an “expert” in Christianity simply by showing a certain level of mastery of the Word. We exalt men who can preach well and exalt them. We say things like, “Dude can preach”. Or “This cat can write”. But I’m often left wondering, “Yeah, but is this dude living what he writes and preaches? Or is it just words? Has he just become a successful stage player?”
And you’ve got young men—like myself—who learn the game. We learn that all you really have to do to be successful, to be published, to build a platform, is to play by the rules, say the right stuff, and give the occasional hat tip to Jesus or the gospel. We could be white-washed tombs and few would know it.
I don’t have a broad solution. No man—certainly not little old me—can rescue evangelicalism from her whorish fixation on celebrity. Because truth be told such a thing can never happen in a top-down type of way. My aim here is to talk out loud and beg Jesus to rescue my own heart from this whorish drive to be heard.
The way out, I believe, is to heed the advice of Newton to the young preacher, Joshua Symonds. It is simple but will take a lifetime to accomplish. Here it is: Feed upon the gospel yourself.
You want to be a good preacher? A truly good preacher? You want to be a good writer? A good mommy? A good daddy? A good church member? A good husband? A good wife? A good friend? A good anything? Heed this, “The more you believe, the better you will preach”.
Replace the word “preach” with whatever your aim. And pack into that word believe soul-rocking, life-shattering, self-shaping, truths about the gospel and what it means for you. Do that and you’ll be a good preacher. At least in the eyes of the only One who matters. The eyes of the one who promises to look upon the one who is humble, contrite, and trembles at His Word.
Make me a trembling man who just so happens to have given his life to preaching.