I wish there had been a sign hanging at the gate of Westminster Seminary when I entered in the mid-1970s: “Welcome! Come and die!” Dr. Van Til, Dr. Clowney, and others tried to tell me. I just did not have ears to hear.
It may seem odd to suggest that death is at the core of seminary preparation for every student who would truly profit from the study. It certainly seemed odd to me. As a new seminary student, I supposed seminary to be an essentially life-enhancing, life-renewing endeavor. This is true enough; but it is not the whole truth.
In reality, death and deep loss are important components of seminary education and ministerial training. Some “deaths” are those areas of deep personal loss to which Jesus calls us during seminary—the loss of time, freedom, choice, and (above all) ego. Other “deaths” are the losses Jesus warns us against, the losses of fruitfulness and spiritual growth that come from failing to abide in him (John 15:5). And still other “deaths” come when we graduate, as we enter into the deep losses in the lives of those we seek to serve.
During your seminary years, you must learn to embrace the deaths to which Jesus calls us in order to escape the deaths about which Jesus warns us. You may be able to succeed in other areas of study with mere intellect and effort. But to succeed as a seminary student, you must learn how to die.
Death #1: Voluntary Loss for His Glory and Our Good
Jesus designs death to play an essential role in every Christian's spiritual life. He put it plainly: “if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). Here our Lord fuses together otherwise opposing realities. Death on a cross is portrayed as an initial and daily step toward spiritual life. Loss of life is necessary for gaining life. Denial of self opens us to the discovery of self-transforming nearness to the Master.
These points are easy to state in conceptual form! But as real life choices we must admit that they seem to “hurt like heaven”—and all the more during seminary. Seminary requires dying to being self-impressed, self-promoting, self-defending, self-excusing . . . and I am only warming up. The study of God's Word is different from any other sphere of study: it requires that the eyes that read, the ears that hear, and the minds that think be attached to a self truly willing to die to pride.
Original language studies unmasked my personal lack of discipline and abysmal grasp of my own language. There was death number one. Professor Frame gave me an “F” for my first paper. There was death number two. But these were small losses.
I met brothers and sisters from other countries with whom I studied who were tortured and raped for their faith. They embraced their suffering and were far more joyful than I was. I only felt terror as they described what they lost. They had taken steps to die to self in ways that I had only read about. Now they were my friends, a living sermon to me about my raging self-protection.
I suppose you can study math or history and be good at it while preserving your prideful self. But no one has ever touched God's Word and gained what God has promised within it while the audacious self goes unchallenged.
Death #2: Loss of the Fruit Jesus Promised
If we will not embrace divinely appointed deaths in our study of God’s Word, we will necessarily experience other losses, other deaths. If we will not die to self, then inevitably we will die to “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.” Such fruit will rot before it ever approaches ripening. Jesus put it plainly: “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4).
Sadly, I fear we have allowed the proud self to live without challenge in much of Western seminary preparation. Dare I say, it not only goes unchallenged but at times it seems to be rewarded. As a result, rotten fruit is not even noticed. We are so commonly unloving, joyless, angry, domineering, and secretly lustful that the smell of death is lost on us.
We have grown accustomed to students and professors being unable to find Jesus in their deep losses. We have grown accustomed to neglecting the importance of abiding in Christ while preparing to serve his bride. We have forgotten the path of death, the path of sacrifice and loss that Jesus calls all of us toward—in seminary no less than every other season of life.
Seminary students, be warned: if you will not die to self during your seminary years, you will not bear the fruit Jesus intends for you during this precious season of life.
Death #3: Losses of Those We Serve when We Graduate from Seminary
I remember my first days of post-seminary ministry. There I was looking into the eyes of successful community leaders flirting with suicide. They had lost so much and could not find Jesus in the loss. I met students who were abused with the words and ways of their parents, who themselves had lost so much and therefore gave so little to their kids. Now their children had lost and could not even imagine finding Jesus in loss.
I had not learned the one lesson I needed most. I flunked the lesson of dying to self, losing to begin living, embracing the God-appointed “deaths” to escape the “deaths” God warned would come. I knew Greek and Hebrew, but I couldn't help those who had lost so much to know how to see their Master in the loss.
Seminary students, permit me now at 61 years of age to encourage you to learn what I avoided learning when I was 21. Embrace the blade of loss, kiss it, pull it in. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is holding the other side of the blade.
Seminary students, welcome! Come and die!