One semester into seminary and, as it turns out, I’m still really sinful. Despite all that I have learned and written I am still weak and needy. God has seen fit to give growth in godliness and yet I still feel resistance in my flesh to the gospel of free grace. The gospel is still good news.
Seminary is a beautiful season that promises unspeakable joy and privilege. Your whole life is Bible. Personal reading and reading for class become virtually indistinguishable. And yet this season comes with a particular set of challenges and temptations. You want to do well in your classes, to learn your way around the Bible. Ambition is good, and yet, if gone unchecked can threaten to ruin you. It becomes all too easy to get good at writing exegetical papers. Greek and Hebrew become ends in themselves. Slowly, we begin to hope that our work is just a little bit better than everyone else. We reach for novel ideas to set ourselves apart. We get “strong.” We become “professionals.”
Our affections dry up alongside our spiritual sight of God. What used to thrill us becomes dry. Scholarship becomes our real god, striving day in and day out to receive strokes from the outside world. Our hearts and minds feel less than we used to and that includes our sin. I mean, come on, I’m in seminary! I don’t have to bother with killing sin, right?
Seminary can be a perilous environment. Our flesh tells us to be strong when we must actually be weak. To be sure, we want strength. We should be more holy. We should understand the Word of God better. However, the source our our strength and how we pursue it determines if we have any shot at being effective.
The apostle Paul was an anomaly. If anyone had room to boast in their strengths and accomplishments, it would be him (Phil 3:4; 2 Cor 11:18). But if you look at his inspired writings, this is exactly what Paul labors not to do. He writes in 2 Corinthians 4:7:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”
Paul was a gospel-centered man. Every facet of his life was constrained by the glorious truth that Christ came into the world to save sinners. Christ alone was his only boast. Paul had been speaking of this message in the previous verses and chapter, showing the power of this proclaimed message. This treasure, the gospel of Christ crucified, was his focus.
Brothers, it can be all too easy to drift away from this simple message. Our gaze can be shifted to things around the gospel or things that are implications of the gospel, all the while losing the joy of this one message of what God has done in Christ to reconcile us to God. Seminary training must narrow in on the gospel. Each of us must resolve to know nothing other than Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). We study deep and wide, but all for the purpose of illuminated that core message. So read Bavinck, read Schreiner, but do so in order to feast on the gospel of the glory of Christ.
Jars of Clay
Brothers, we are profoundly weak, and when we don’t feel that way we are in the most danger. Again we can long to be seen as having it all together. We can parse verbs and trace the flow of thought in a passage. These are good things! But all of this must be tempered by the fact that we are jars of clay.
What does it mean to study to be a jar of clay? First, we must see what it does not mean. It has become cool to be “broken” and sinful. In an attempt to emphasize our need for grace, we have ceased to strive to be faithful and godly servants of the Lord Jesus. This kind of celebratory failurism has the ring of truth but lacks the substance of truth. We must fight to kill sin. I am appalled by the lack of holiness in fellow brothers that I study with. Don’t hear this as an attempt to be self-righteous. I know my own heart and hope to be a greater expert in my own sin than I am of others. But seminary cannot be used as an excuse to be lax. You cannot be a slave to pornography, watching a whole season of a show on Netflix per weekend and chalk it all up to being a jar of clay. Our inadequacy does not excuse ungodliness. In fact, it should drive us to holiness. Only those who have been brought to hate their sin at its very root will fight to kill it. If you think that your “authenticity” is showing how much you value grace then you are doing just the opposite.
So positively, what does it mean to study to be a clay pot? First, we must pray. Without God’s help, no matter how much we study, we will be totally ineffective. Begin each and every day (each and every hour, really) by asking the Spirit to open your eyes. The goal is not “knowledge” as much as it is knowing. Seminary must engage the brain with the intention of capturing the heart. We are weak. So then we must pray. Prayer acknowledges dependence as well as cultivating it. Second, we must engage at the level of the affections. For the clay pot to show forth the sufficiency of the treasure, it must enjoy the treasure. The pleasure received from the spiritual sight of God is not worth comparing with any worldly pleasure – even the good kind! The clay pot seminarian is one who sees the folly of his own sin and looks away from himself to everything that God is for us in Christ. Christ, dear brothers, must be our lives. Clay pots labor to maximize their gifts to maximize their joy in God. Long to meditate better, read deeper, think more clearly, all to the end that your heart might enjoy God more and thus show His sufficiency. The overflow of this will be the intention of making others glad in God as well. Third, acknowledge your sin. I am so prone to lie about who I am. I can rationalize that, because I don’t struggle with the “big sins,” I am somewhat about the average Christian. But “O to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be. Let your goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee!” Our real obedience will always be imperfect obedience. My best research paper has been produced with enough sin for God to cast me off forever. Ponder long on the holiness and majesty of God. The clay pot knows that he doesn’t belong at the table. May we be men who marvel less that the demons obey our rebukes and more that our names are written in the book of life (Luke 10:20).
Where the Surpassing Power Lies
We are men in desperate need of grace. This grace saves and satisfies our souls forever. In our sin, we will drift towards either legalism or license. The gospel is the cure for both. Daily, we fight to see our great sin and marvel at our great Savior. Then, with a fresh glimpse of the transformative glory of God in Christ, we wage war, striving with every ounce of our power to kill the sin that would threaten to loose our gaze from our Bridegroom. And yet, at the end of the day, we will be jars of clay. We can be holy jars of clay, in fact, we must be! But our holiness, though genuine, will be shot through will sin.
Are you studying to make much of yourself or to make much of God? Brothers, if you read then read to know God and to make Him known. By the blood-bought applause of God ring sweeter in yours ears of faith than the cheap praise of man. Link arms with your fellow brothers. We are all striving for the same thing: the show that God is the most satisfying being in the cosmos. For this end we were saved, that in us Christ might be put on display. Our being weak shows something. We aren’t weak for weakness sake. But our weakness highlights the strength and ability of God. If we work hard it will be because it was God in us. So we work and toil, all to the end that God’s grace might be show to be sufficient. The treasure that we possess is worthy of the utmost praise. Us, not so much.
Soli deo gloria.