Graduation – Joy and Gratitude

Yesterday I completed a journey that has taken me four years to complete – I graduated with a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

It has been a long road and I am overwhelmed with emotion when I think back over the past four years and God’s sustaining grace through it all.  One of the biggest evidences of that grace has been my friends, family, mentors, community, and church family who have helped me in countless ways.  I believe with all of my heart that I could not have done this without you.  Therefore, this post is a letter of gratitude, of rejoicing, and of praise to you all – I hope you’ll indulge me for the next few paragraphs as I put my thoughts into words as best I can.

First, to my family:
I honestly do not know where to begin thanking you.  This seminary journey could not have begun without the patient correction, biblical instruction, wisdom-filled encouragement, and steadfast prayers along the way.  I am only partially aware of the financial burden that you have taken upon your shoulders, and I am truly grateful for God giving you the means to bless me and provide for me in that very specific and absolutely essential way.  Thank you also for you kind words through email, phone calls, texts, and letters, and thank you for loving me through the good years as well as the bad.  God has been most gracious to let me do life with all of you, and I am blessed beyond compare to know that he has given us the added grace of knowing, loving, and following Christ together.  I pray that our fervor and sanctification to God’s glory continues, and I am excited to pray with you for the future generations of our family.  I love you, I thank you, and I am praying for you.

To my dear friends:
I don’t believe that I have a sufficient vocabulary or eloquence to express to you how much you have meant to me these past few years.  Each and every one of you has blessed me in countless ways, from the late-night conversations to the dinners, movies, sunburns, inside jokes, road trips, and literally thousands of cups of coffee that we have shared.  Know that I love you all and that God has worked through you in so many incredible ways that I am overwhelmed when I try to think through all of them.  You have seen me at my best, have endured me at my worst, have slogged through the depths and have rejoiced with me on the heights.  You know who I am and you stick with me anyway.  I am honored to be called ‘friend’ by you, and if God gives us the grace to spend many more years together, I pray they are as fruit-filled and memorable as these have been.  I hope I have been as much of an encouragement and sharpening iron as you have been on me.  I love you all, I thank you for this season, and know that I am praying for you.

To my church family:
God affords us many joys in this life, but there are precious few that can compare with the blessing I have received through worshiping our Lord with you, praying with you, and living out this Christ-life with you.  It has been quite the journey, and I am grateful for a body of believers who are dedicated to Christ our King above all, and to knowing him more deeply in spirit and in truth.  I am honored to have done life with you these past four years, and though God has blessed me with a tremendous biological family, you have been my adopted family during this season in my life and I cannot thank you enough for that.  We have been through many joy-filled seasons, as well as times of grief and tragedy together.  Through it all, you have been a delight to lead and serve, and I count it equally a blessing and a privilege to be called one of your pastors.  I pray that I have stewarded this season with you well, and I look forward to watching how God moves in an amongst our expression of his Bride.  I love you all, I thank you for making this season a joy, and I pray for you constantly.

To my fellow pastors, mentors, and ministry leaders:
Thank you, thank you, thank you.  Your wisdom, advice, encouragement, rebuke, perspective, direction, and examples – all of these I have needed, and God has blessed me with more than I could have hoped for in you.  I’ve seen the bar set very high by all of you, and I aim to follow your example and serve faithfully with you until the Lord calls us home.  Thank you for showing me that our calling is not a job or vocation, but a burden, a weight, a joy, a burning in our hearts to lead.  Thank you for sharpening me and serving God faithfully during our time together as we fulfill his will for our lives.  You challenge me to be the man that God has called me to be, and the man I aspire to be.  I am indebted to all of you, and I look forward to seeing how God will shape our ministries and use us to further the gospel to his glory.  Thank you for your time, your insights, and your patience with me.  I am by no means a polished finished product, but you have helped chip away and sand down my rough edges.  I love you men dearly, I thank God for you daily, and I am praying that God puts men in your life who are to you what you have been to me.  May our work continue until our Lord calls us home.

To anyone and everyone else who has impacted me during my seminary career:
You may not ever know how God has used you in my life, and this is such an inadequate means of thanking you, but I am grateful that God uses ‘chance’ acquaintances, ‘random’ meetings, and the most unassuming interactions to shape and mold the world to fit his kingdom and his will.  Thank you for serving the Lord’s purposes, and even though you may not receive this note of gratitude, know that you are appreciated and that you have greatly impacted my life.  I pray that God lets you see how he works in and through you, and I pray that you either know him already or come to know him at some point while you live.  Live your life for Christ – he is the greatest treasure that’s ever been given to all of Creation, and he is worthy of our worship.  You have stirred my heart in many ways to worship him more fully, and I pray that someday in some way God uses someone else to do the same for you.  Grace and peace be with you in Christ Jesus.

So again, thank you all for supporting me and encouraging me through this season – I am very grateful that I am able to rejoice with you in God’s good grace.  When I look at my diploma on the wall I am thinking not of the classes that I took and the papers that I wrote, but rather of the times that we spent together and how much you all mean to me.  One of the most beautiful things that I’ve learned while at seminary has been that you and I cannot live this out on our own.  We must have each other.  We must know and love each other, and we absolutely must run toward Christ together.  I would not and could not have done this without you, so in a way this diploma is also yours.
I am humbled by God’s grace to me through you, and I am thankful for you.

In Christ,
– Nathan Johnson

“Now, to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.  Amen.” – Ephesians 3:20-21

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Clearly Ambiguous

This made me laugh out loud because it characterizes so much of what academic writing entails (and I used to be a huge Calvin and Hobbes fan)… And I confess, I have definitely done this from time to time in my seminary career. (Side Note: I have also written several book reports on books I haven’t read… but that’s another blog post altogether.)

Why is academic writing so boring and inaccessible?

It seems to me that the smartest people don’t write up in the clouds so that you need a dictionary alongside their book or article to understand what they’re trying to communicate. Instead, the most brilliant writers know their readers well and write in a way that is challenging, yet easy to digest and interact with.

What are your thoughts – have you ever encountered this scenario?

What authors are easy to read? Whose books require wikipedia and dictionary.com?

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Avoiding Sin in Theology

This post emerged from a question posed to a prior entry (“Thoughts on Theology”)…
Question: What precautions could you take in the seminary environment to prevent sin through theology? (because that is a place where you run a high risk of placing the theologian over the scripture)

I think the first and most important thing is to study the Scriptures relentlessly and know them much better than you know any other book that you read. If you know the Old Testament well, how the New Testament authors quote and comment on it, and what more they have to say about Christ and the Christian life, then you will be much better equipped to see bad teaching and heresy for what it is, and you will also be able to bring a ready defense of solid Scriptural support for your conviction and understanding of what God is communicating to us through his written Word.

A very close second to knowing the Bible well is not reading the Bible through a theological grid, but reading the Bible for what it is actually saying about God. The books of the Bible were not composed in a vacuum, so we must study their historical and canonical context. They also were not composed by a theologian trying to build a system. Rather they were composed by a God who was intent on revealing his character, his attributes, his actions through history, and his Son who was the focal point of all creation. So we shouldn’t read the Bible looking for verses that support a certain theological conviction, getting all excited when we find a neat proof-text. The Bible is not meant to be stood over and told what it says – rather it is to be read in such a way as to bring the reader to a closer relationship with God. God is not a doctrine to be studied, but rather a ‘person’ (divine being with personal attributes) to be worshiped. Theologians have done us a great service in aligning the text to assert certain theological positions. However, while the ideas and concepts that they have picked up on may indeed be in the text, it is best to approach the Bible without using them as an interpretive lens. We have the Holy Spirit in us to testify to the meaning of the text and I think we are much better off listening to him first and foremost. That having been said, I do believe that theologians are immensely helpful in bringing up points and showing us things that we have either ignored or interpreted differently in the text – thus challenging our position and sharpening us in our convictions.

Another significant point is that in order to keep Scripture supreme we should always always always know the Scripture behind a certain theologian’s convictions. So you have your five solas (fide, gratia, Scriptura, Christus, Deo Gloria)… great. But where are they found in the Bible? For my fellow Reformed theologians, you have your TULIP… excellent. Quote the Scriptures as they make sense to you and have a working knowledge of the full counsel of God that feeds into these theological constructs and convictions. Do not forsake Scriptural knowledge for the convenience and sanctification-shrinking ease of quoting a theologian. To give an utterly practical example, when a non-Christian brings an pagan heresy against the Bible or has a legitimate question, will you quote the Scriptures back to them, or will you first turn to a theologian or philosopher to do your dirty work for you? To give an utterly biblical example, this is what was happening in Corinth when Paul rebuked the church for starting quarrels about what the apostles and early church fathers were teaching:

“… each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” – 1 Corinthians 1:12-13

In other words, are not all Christians baptized in the name of the Triune God? We are Christ-followers, not Calvinists. We are Jesus’ disciples, not Piper-ites (… Piperians? Piperinis?). Mark Driscoll is not the fourth member of the Trinity. What it boils down to is first knowing the Bible well and having a working personal knowledge of what God has written to us. Once that has been accomplished, then begin sorting out your deduced theological convictions and finding out who is like-minded, who disagrees and why (for each camp).

And finally (thank you, by the way, for reading this far), we must also be relentless to tie theology to life.

We seminarians have an uncanny knack for engaging in great theological conversations but leaving them at the coffee table next to our ESV Study Bible and our Moody Handbook of Theology (both of which I recommend, by the way), never to make it into the real world for real effect. So you can carry on an extended debate over supra- infra- and sub-lapsarianism. Excellent. So you can articulate your eschatology clearly, succinctly, and with Scriptural coherence. Incredible. But how do those things help you mortify sin, vivify affections for Christ, and make disciples of Jesus out of non-believers? I think in an academic environment like seminary we must be doggedly determined to always ask the question: “What does this have to do with how I live, and what am I going to do about it?”

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Thoughts on Theology

The following is an assignment from one of my classes… we were to define theology and then we had a discussion on whether theology could be sinful.

Theology is the study of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) in and through his self-revelation, human religious experience (including church practices like worship and teaching, and the processes of salvation, sanctification, and glorification), faith, spirituality, and orthodox church tradition, resulting in the pursuit of (and conformity to) Truth as expressed in Scripture – all of which being ultimately for the glory of God. Systematic Theology seeks to express in a cogent, coherent system of beliefs the commands, teachings, principles, implications, truths, and spirit of the Scriptures in addition to the God with whom they are concerned and from whom they come.

Can theology be sinful? If so, when does it become sinful?
It seems to me that theology can and does become sinful when it begins to be an end in and of itself. When a theological perspective ceases being first and foremost for the glory of God in Christ Jesus, and becomes more dedicated to proving itself (its logical consistency, its universal appeal, its biblical basis, etc.), replicating itself, or making itself known and respected rather than aiding discipleship of the saints in understanding God’s self-revelation, it has dethroned God (by making him and his glory a secondary or tertiary goal) from his rightful place and has exalted itself above him. In this way, it becomes sinful. 

For example, if I quote a certain theologian (Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Grudem, Piper, Driscoll) – or any other man, for that matter – more than I quote Scripture, and if I know a certain book or collection of writings better than I know the Scriptures themselves then I have begun traveling down this road. Rectifying this situation does not involve merely reading the Bible more and studying it more intently… rather, it begins with repentance for idolatry, turning from my trust of fallible humans over the infinite God and pursuing what he has said above all others.

This is not to say that theologians are detrimental or obstruct our understanding of the Scriptures. The men mentioned above have been immensely formative to my beliefs and my sanctification. The sin lies not with the theologian (unless they are a heretical false teacher), but rather with me. If I put my trust in Grudem’s theology or Edwards’ sermons or Calvin’s doctrine before I put my trust in the Scriptures from which they are derived, then I have turned the appropriate order on its head – I have begun examining the Scriptures through a theologian’s lens rather than measuring a theologian’s claims against the Scriptures.

The end goal of theology, then (as far as I can tell), is the study of God’s self-revelation in such a way as to bring him glory through truth-based spirit-filled worship, bold Christ-centered gospel-saturated preaching and teaching, and through the transformed lives of Christ followers working out the lifelong process of sanctification.

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My Battle Axe and Weapons of War

I’m so very thankful for the wisdom of men and women who have gone before me into ministry and have felt the need to offer advice and direction to those following similar paths.  Charles Spurgeon is one such man who has impacted countless souls for the sake of Christ both before and after his death.  “Lectures to my Students” is a collection of manuscripted lectures given by Spurgeon to the young men in training at his seminary, and it has proven to be one of the most helpful, challenging, and encouraging books that I’ve read to date.  I would encourage any who have felt the call to ministry or seminary to read it and take his advice to heart.  What follows is a reaction to one of my favorite quotes from “Lectures” which rests in a wooden frame on my desk.

“It will be in vain for me to stock my library, or organize societies, or project schemes, if I neglect the culture of myself; for books, and agencies, and systems, are only remotely the instruments of my holy calling; my own spirit, soul, and body, are my nearest machinery for sacred service; my spiritual faculties, and my inner life, are my battle axe and weapons of war.”
– Charles Spurgeon (from ‘Lectures to my Students’)

It seems to me that all too many seminarians fall into the trap of writing papers, reading books, and being concerned with climbing the ministerial ladder… and seminary does train you to do those things.  But let us not forget our calling – to minister to people, and to administer the Word of God correctly, by the power of the Spirit, under the authority of Christ, to the glory of God.   While ‘stocking the library’ can bring new ideas to light, share experiences, and sharpen the mind, it can become a pursuit that allows the excuse for avoiding ministry and inflating the ego.   And while ‘organizing societies’ (conversations over coffee and/or lunch, etc.) is the medium of a precious sort of ministry, it can take precedence over those times that fill our tanks so that we can be sharp during such conversations and offer that bit of wisdom, that spiritual insight, or that word of encouragement that makes such meetings worthwhile.   Finally, as a strategist I am no stranger to spending countless hours ‘projecting schemes’ and getting ministry-oriented things organized in my head.  However, if this energy is divested of both the foundation and the end goal of such plotting – that is, the glory and renown of Christ – then it is less than in vain.  Obsessive planning and ‘strategery’, when pursued without having been anchored in a solid consistent walk with Christ, become filled with prideful sin (self-importance and self-reliance) and will rarely be honored by the Lord.

And let us not forget that all of the theological training, exegetical papers, and seminary professor recommendations on our resumes will be completely useless if we neglect the culture of ourselves and fall into egregious sin that disqualifies us from serving as shepherds.
[As a quick aside, if you find yourself struggling with sin while serving in ministry, please, for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, do not let yourself become a wicked pastor.  Get help; pursue repentance-oriented counseling, resign from your position, or begin by confessing your sin to another pastor before it finds you out and you must deal with it publicly.  Enough men have walked down that path – we do not need any more.]

Getting back to my original train of thought, it is not as though stocking libraries, organizing societies, and projecting schemes is bad; rather, they are all secondary and we should treat them as such.  Do them in as much as they further your sanctification and help you develop your spiritual faculties.

God has called us to the ministry – not our books, not our social schedules, and not our church planting proposals.  He has called us to steward our minds, our bodies, our hearts, and ultimately our walks with Him in such a way as to serve him faithfully and glorify him with our successes and our failures.  So do spend the appropriate time relating to God and anchoring your soul in Him first and foremost every day.  Read the Bible regularly and conform your life to its mandates rather than conforming the Word to your life and in so doing justifying sin.  Get to know yourself, find out where and when you are most vulnerable to sin and build up your defenses so as to not fall into Satan’s numerous traps.  Honestly examine your soul and let the Holy Spirit show you where the rough and unpolished areas of your life are.  Find true biblical accountability and have the hard conversations that will lead to solid growth – do not allow yourself to get by with the auspices of battling sin, all the while allowing sin to fester and rot the foundation of your ministry.  Pray fervently for the Gospel to continue transforming you and your flock, for without it we are adrift and most of all to be pitied.

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