Seventeen years ago this fall I began my studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi
. It feels like just yesterday, though the bare skin on my head and the gray in my beard would tell otherwise. Classes begin again in Jackson this week, and as I've had conversations with seminary students at our church recently, my mind has recalled several portions of Scripture that were indelibly engraved into my heart during those formative years. I share two of them here with the prayer that they might have the same impact on ministerial candidates, and even seasoned ministers, that they had on me those many days ago.
In one of our seminary orientation sessions in 1999, a professor asked us what passages of God's word we planned on using to fight against sexual immorality. These were still the days of dial-up internet and landlines, so internet pornography was nowhere near as insidiously prevalent as it is today. Yet the sin of lust resides in our hearts, not in cyberspace, and the question gripped me urgently. Many passages would have been fitting, but Proverbs 5:15-21 stuck out so clearly for my protection. "Drink water from your own cistern, and fresh water from your own well. Should your springs be dispersed abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be yours alone, and not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth. As a loving hind and a graceful doe, let her breasts satisfy you at all times; be exhilarated [literally, intoxicated] always with her love. For why should you, my son, be exhilarated with an adulteress and embrace the bosom of a foreigner? For the ways of a man are before the eyes of the LORD, and He watches all his paths..."
At the time, I was a single man longing to be married, and Solomon's words called me to a single-minded focus to reserve my sexuality for the spouse God would hopefully bring me, and once married, to find delight sexually in her and her only. Solomon teaches that one of the best guards against sexual immorality is a thriving sex life at home. My wife's breasts, and none other, are to be my joy and satisfaction; I am to be drunk with her love alone. This passage is not as familiar in the fight against lust and fornication as Matthew 5:27-28, I Corinthians 6:12-20 or I Thessalonians 4:1-8. But it ought to be, and I encourage any seminarian or pastor reading this to commit it to memory and meditate long on it - and if married, enjoy applying it often. Having been ordained now for fourteen years, I've lost count of how many times I have heard of ministers falling into sexual sin with secretaries or an elder's wife. Every new story strikes me with sorrow, anger and fear, for I know that there but for the grace of God go I, and I know the pain and cynicism that is sown among the people of God when a shepherd falls in this way. The prayer that must accompany our meditation upon Proverbs 5:15-21 is found in Psalm 69:6, "May those who wait for You not be ashamed through me, O Lord GOD of hosts; may those who seek You not be dishonored through me, O God of Israel." Satan will assault the minister sexually, and seminarians must not leave their training grounds without girding on armor for the battle. Have you treasured the Lord's word in your heart that you might not sin against Him (Psalm 119:11)?
Diligent, Experiential and Purposeful Study
Another passage that has been foundational for me is Ezra 7:10 - "Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel." Three things stand out from Ezra's example for the ministerial candidate in particular. First, you must set your heart to study.
The three or four years you have in seminary are the best opportunity you will have to study God's word, the original languages, systematic and biblical theology, church history, and the host of other disciplines seminaries cover. To be sure, you should continue to study throughout your pastorate, but if you serve in the church, you'll never have as much free time, and as little responsibility, as you have now. Redeem the time. Like a squirrel with his acorns, store up food for the winter. Fill your mind with knowledge from which you can draw in years to come. Study holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.
Second, set your heart not only to study, but to practice what you learn.
There is nothing more soul-deadening than filling your head with knowledge, and not using it rightly. The knowledge of the truth is according to godliness, Paul tells Titus (1:1ff). Godliness and good works are the fruits fitting for sound doctrine (Titus 2:1). We must embrace the truth, but we must do it in love. For love is the very goal of Biblical instruction (I Timothy 1:5). Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies (I Corinthians 8:1). Theological acumen must always be coupled with practical skill in living, or wisdom. Live out your robust theology in the most mundane matters of life, even as the apostle Paul sought to bring the glorious truth of the incarnation and the hypostatic union to bear on Christian relationships and Christian generosity (Philippians 2:1-11; II Corinthians 8:9).
Finally, set your heart not only to study and practice, but also to teach.
In all your learning, make sure you have some sort of release valve. For the sake of the people of God (now and in the future), seek out opportunities to teach God's word wherever doors might open. Doing so will keep you grounded and will help you see how the truth you are learning is to be used. Being forced to explain the truth to those who could care less about it or struggle to comprehend it, will help you to understand it better, and will cement it into your mind. Preach the circuit, lead Bible studies at nursing homes, teach children's Sunday School classes. Receive constructive criticism. Begin to learn what makes for effective communication.
Other pastors would set other passages before you as influential and life-shaping. These are two that have formed me, and continue to form me. May the Lord use this upcoming school year to equip the next generation of pastors for His church with sexual purity, deep knowledge, rich piety, and homiletical skill.