As I began discerning a call to seminary, 1 Timothy 4:6-16 came up early and often. Early in the discernment process, when I read that passage, I ended up focusing my attention on parts of verse 6, “you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed.” Early on, this verse encapsulated my entire motivation and purpose behind pursuing seminary–training “in the words of faith and of good doctrine.” And although the desire in my heart for this type of training was not wrong, I know that I emphasized it to the point that it was the only type of training that seminary would provide and the only type of training that I acknowledged in Paul’s letter.
However, there is another type of training, which may, in fact, be the more important of the two. For everyone in seminary, on their way to seminary (like myself) or considering seminary, we must not forget Paul’s exhortation in verse 7: “train yourself in godliness.” [why? verse 8]: “for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” I constantly forget, and thus must constantly be reminded, that scriptural and doctrinal knowledge is not an end in itself. The point of our sanctification (growth in godliness) is not that we would merely know more, but that we would be “transformed into the same image“ (2 Corinthians 3:18) as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Scriptural and doctrinal knowledge is but one means to that end.
How can we tell if we have turned theological training (and thus our motivation in pursuing seminary) into the end itself?
I just recently began reading How People Change by Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp. The very first chapter of the book, “The Gospel Gap” called my attention back to 1 Timothy 4:6-16. They essentially discuss how it is possible that there are so many people that know the Lord, “but whose lives fail to produce the expected fruit of faith” (p.3). Lane and Tripp write, “Often there is a vast gap in our grasp of the gospel. It subverts our identity as Christians and our understanding of the present work of God. This gap undermines every relationship in our lives, every decision we make, and every attempt to minister to others. Yet we live blindly, as if the hole were not there” (p.2).
What I found incredibly helpful (and pertinent to “training in godliness”) was how they began to describe different ways in which we fill these holes. Lane and Tripp assert, “Whenever we are missing the message of Christ’s indwelling work to progressively transform us, the hole will be filled by a Christian lifestyle that focuses more on externals than on the heart” (p.7). As I began to read their descriptions of different sorts of Christian externals, one stood out above all the rest in my mind. If you are a twenty-something Calvinist that has Driscoll, Piper, and Chandler on podcast, has a bunch of blog subscriptions, then this one might catch your attention as well (hey, it could just be me!)–Lane and Tripp call it “Biblicism”:
“John is a biblical and theological expert. His theological library includes rare, antique Christian volumes, and he is always seeking to buy first editions. John frequently uses phrases like “biblical worldview,” “theologically consistent.” and “thinking like a Christian.” He loves the Bible (which is a very good thing), but there are things in John’s life that don’t seem to fit.
Despite his dedicated study of Christianity, John isn’t know for being like Christ. He has a reputation for being proud, critical, and intolerant of anyone who lacks his fine-grained understanding of the faith. John endlessly critiques his pastor’s sermons and unnerves Sunday school teachers when he enters the room.
In John’s Christianity, communion, dependency, and worship of Christ have been replaced by a drive to master the content of Scripture and systematic theology. John is a theological expert, but he is unable to live by the grace he can define with such technical precision. He has invested a great deal of time and energy mastering the Word, but he does not allow the Word to master him. In biblicism, the gospel is reduced to a mastery of biblical content and theology.” (p.9)
Lane and Tripp do not make this leap, but I will. What if the first line of “biblicism” read: “John is in seminary”? I pray that my name would not be interchangeable with John’s, and yet I know this describes the type of Christian “externalism” that I move towards at times. I pray that I am not at this point right now, but I know that if I base my salvation on “rightly knowing” about the cross of Christ, and not the cross itself, that this is the form of self-righteousness will haunt me. I can not say this with any certainty, but I wonder if this might describe the struggle that many seminarians will and do face.
We must constantly remember–I must constantly remember–that training “in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine” and training “in godliness” must not be separated. All the knowledge in the world is useless if we are not conformed to Christ’s image in the process. Preparing to enter seminary in the fall, I often recall Jesus’ words to the Jews in John 5:39-40: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” It is a scary thought indeed to be able to claim a great deal of biblical knowledge and still not truly know Jesus Christ, much less sit under His Lordship. As Lane and Tripp phrase it–as a future seminarian myself–I must constantly allow the Word to master me, as I invest a great deal of time and energy mastering the Word.
I urge us all to take to heart Paul’s exhortation: “Keep a close watch on yourself (godliness) and on the teaching (good doctrine). Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). Our knowledge of Scripture does not cleanse us of our sin, only Christ’s blood poured out for us on the cross has that power. I pray that we would not simply intellectually grasp this, but that we would know it in our hearts, and it would transform us “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18) into the image of our Lord.