How to Stay Christian in Seminary

How to Stay Christian in Seminary


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This short book gives pastors-in-training the keys not only to survive seminary, but also to keep their faith intact during a season that often leaves many feeling drained, disillusioned, and dissatisfied.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433540301
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 01/31/2014
Pages: 80
Sales rank: 1,161,397
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 6.80(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

David Mathis serves as the executive editor at, pastor at Cities Church, and adjunct professor at Bethlehem College & Seminary. He writes regularly at, and he and his wife, Megan, have four children.

Jonathan Parnell (MDiv, Bethlehem College & Seminary) serves as the lead pastor of Cities Church in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota. He and his wife, Melissa, have five children.

John Piper is founder and lead teacher of and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served for thirty-three years as the pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the author of more than fifty books, including Desiring GodDon’t Waste Your Life; and Reading the Bible Supernaturally.

Read an Excerpt




Jesus saved me. It really is amazing, though the story is simple.

I grew up in church, walked an aisle when I was eight, re-prayed "the prayer" when I was fifteen, wandered when I got my driver's license, and was finally awakened after surviving a car wreck my senior year. Soon I found myself asking big questions: "Why am I alive? What am I supposed to do?" During my first semester of college, one thing became clear: I wanted to teach the Bible. And so began formal theological training.

It started with a holy, even jolly, ambition. I wanted to learn as much about Jesus as I could and then show him to others. What fueled my pursuit of ministry and the training involved was not how much I already knew but how much I already loved. Jesus had saved me, remember. He had saved me. I knew that, and I wanted more.

There are some things it is good to figure out before you start seminary. Sure, there's a lot to learn, and you must come with humility. But if you don't drop the anchor early, the calmest of seas will make you drift. Call it conviction, resolve, or whatever, but the first question to answer in seminary is why you're there. Why are you doing this? What is your rallying cry? What is the heart that pumps life into all your studies and ministry dreams?


You can easily characterize the season of training by all the things you don't know. The conversations become fairly common. One classmate asks another about future plans. The answer is nothing certain. The second classmate then turns the question around and the dialogue stays squishy. No one really knows where he'll be after graduation. Even the tidiest of plans can fall through. Some theological commitments will be intensified; others will be recalibrated to a proper balance. It doesn't take long to see that you are surrounded by open-endedness. The seminary experience starts to feel like you're leaning on stained-glass windows when you need to be standing on brazen steel — the kind of steel that doesn't move.

On top of the uncertainty, the knowledge you are acquiring has a sneaky undercurrent. Before long, it subtly starts to pull. The more of it you get, the easier it becomes to slip into a mode of life that assumes accumulated information equals gospel maturity. This is what Paul Tripp calls "academizing our faith." No one does this on purpose. It's like setting out with the good intention of building a bonfire but ending up with a mountain of sticks and no flame. The pile of wood may look impressive, but it fails to serve its function. It misses the point. Likewise, unless your resolve is as solid as steel, the stress of gained knowledge morphs and manipulates (if not shatters) the locus of our learning.

So, amid all the unknowns and the dangers of increased knowing, it is crucial to know this: your value of values.

Be clear on what you care about the most, which, if we're faithful to the Bible, is not a multiple-choice question. The great foundation and goal of the universe is the glory of God. The foundation and goal of your studies and ministry should be no different. More than anything else, energized by grace, you want our triune God to be high and lifted up. You treasure him. You delight in him. You hallow his name. You are committed to his fame and renown. You are about the glory of God.

But what does that mean? What is the glory of God? And how can you make it the foundation and goal of your seminary years? There are two more steps on the way out of this chapter. First, I want to define the glory of God, and second, I want to suggest a practical way to integrate this chief value into the details of your training.


What is the glory of God? What is it that Moses asked to see in Exodus 33:18? What is it that John 1:14 declares the apostles saw in Jesus?

Consider that holy exchange between Moses and God in Exodus 33. We see that Moses's request to see God's glory follows a previous request: "Please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight" (v. 13). Though he says it in different ways, in both instances Moses is asking to behold the same thing. When he asks to see God's ways, he asks for something that can be shown — God's glory.

The apostle John affirms this same concept in the opening of his Gospel account. The glory of God is indeed something seen. John declares that the apostles saw the glory of God in the person of his Son. Jesus came to embody and display the ways of God, and to that end, he was full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

For starters, then, we learn that the glory of God is not a distant attribute. Neither is it some abstract description of God's mysterious wonders. Rather, the glory of God is a showcase. It is, by its very nature, something revealed. It is a manifestation. For God to glorify himself is for him to communicate who he is. As Jonathan Edwards writes, "God glorifies himself in communicating himself, and he communicates himself in glorifying himself."

God hears Moses and answers, "I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name 'The LORD'" (Ex. 33:19). The glory of the Lord is to "pass by" Moses (v. 22), which it soon does:

The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation." (34:5–7)

So the glory of God is something seen — revealed — and something proclaimed. Answering Moses's prayer, God descended and proclaimed his name. For God to proclaim his name is another way of saying God showcases his ways. God's name is his "enacted identity." It is the banner of how God acts based upon who he is, full of grace and truth.

Make no mistake, God is utterly incomparable and eternally inexhaustible. Only he knows himself fully. But he has told us something about himself. He has told us his name, revealing that he is a certain kind of God who acts in certain ways. God's glory, then, is the picture he gives of who he is, seen preeminently in the person of Jesus. God's glory is the proclamation of his name, the shining forth of his ways.

Therefore, for us to say that we are about the glory of God means that we are about God being seen for who he is. The steel foundation and center for our learning is that God would be known as God through our lives. The anchor that can keep our hearts steady amid all the studying is the resolve that Jesus must be tasted and treasured by us and through us.


But merely having this resolve isn't enough. We need to make it stick. Alongside the miraculous grace of God in Jesus, I have in mind one practical way to do so: a mission statement (or something like it). You need a clear, concise statement that you can easily remember and quickly return to — something in which you say what it's all about, in which you declare the most important value among all your other values.

This idea came from a friend about six years ago. My wife and I were newly married and already on the brink of making some big life decisions. We were contemplating the prospect of relocating our fledgling family to a place with a winter climate we couldn't fathom, people we didn't know, and a job that didn't exist so I could complete a degree program for which I didn't feel qualified. It was the front end of seminary in Minneapolis. After I expressed some of my anxiety to my friend, he asked me, "So, what's your family's mission statement?" I'm pretty sure there was a stutter or silence, perhaps a nod. His question was more of a suggestion, the kind that draws you in. I didn't have a mission statement, but I knew then that I needed one.

Basically, a mission statement for seminary is the articulation of what you value the most. Consider good institutions. Step one for a faithful institution is to know what it is about. That mission is articulated in a memorable line that becomes the point of gravity around which everything operates. Markets change, technology matures, but the mission stays the course. The institution either withstands the tide of change or goes out of business. The better folks in the organization know and believe the mission, the better chance the organization has to succeed. Everyone is working toward the same thing, aiming their individual 9-to-5 days at that chief goal.

As part of a content team at, I recently visited the Facebook offices in New York. I don't remember the exact slogans, but Facebook has stuff written across the entirety of its office walls in big block letters. This technique is motivational and has a trendy feel, but it is also brilliant. The idea is to keep the mission explicit and keep the staff conscious of it. Facebook employees do different tasks, but the words on the walls remind them why it all happens.

It can be like that for you, the seminarian, except that your classes are the employees. First, carefully craft your mission statement. It can be your own biblically informed words or actual phrases from biblical texts. Make it a clear but rich sentence that encapsulates your desire for Jesus to be treasured in and through your life. The goal is to help you crystallize your mission in your mind and heart, giving you something you can come back to again and again.

Once you have it down, write it all over your walls (figuratively). Hold it up as you browse the academic catalog. Inscribe it inside the front covers of your textbooks. Make all of your classes go to work for you, each one aiming at your one great goal. And when the assignments feel unbearable and the clouds of discouragement set in, hold up that mission statement. Remember what you're in this for.

You are about the glory of God. You exist for Jesus Christ to be displayed and delighted in through your life, and don't you forget it. Know your value of values.




We're all too prone to take God's grace for granted. Perhaps Bible students are especially likely to do so as they perceive themselves to be climbing the ladder of formal theological training.

At the heart of the danger of seminary is coming to treat the grace of God lightly. But a healthy experience of seminary drives you to do precisely the opposite.


Grace is no peripheral thing in Christianity. God's astoundingly lavish favor toward us terribly undeserving sinners, because of Jesus, is at the very center of our faith. If seminarians lose their taste for grace, they have no good business calling themselves Christians, much less putting themselves forward as leaders in the church.

But here's the catch: you can't just make yourself stay soft to grace. Or can you?

Ultimately, it is only by more of God's grace that we sinners stay fascinated with his lavish grace to us. But there are "means of grace" that God is pleased to use in keeping his people keen on grace, and we'll address these in the chapters to come. As you study, you need to avail yourself of these means, and do so with a regular, conscious plea — something like this: "God, keep me warm to your grace. Help me to be endlessly astounded that in Jesus you've shown such amazing favor to such an undeserving rebel as me."


As you explicitly ask God to keep you fascinated with his grace, the first means you should employ is this: relentlessly keep the gospel central.

The gospel of Jesus is the epicenter of Christian grace, and true Christian grace is ever shaped by the message of the Messiah crucified for sinners. Ask how each seminary class and each assigned book relates to Jesus and his good news for sinners. Look for Jesus in all the Scriptures (more on this in chapter 7). Watch for God's costly grace in every book of the Bible. Seminary is a good opportunity to go deep with the grace of God in the gospel.


Going deep with grace includes not being afraid to know yourself as deeply sinful. Keeping the gospel close frees you to look honestly at your sins, showing you all the more the wonder of the grace you have received.

Don't be afraid to linger over passages such as Ephesians 2:1–3 and identify deeply with sinners. But don't think mainly of others; know that you yourself were once "dead in the trespasses and sins" (v. 1). Even if you've been a believer as long as you can remember, there's still plenty of remaining sin in you, enough for you to know its insidiousness and what trajectory it will lead you on if it is unrestrained. Every believer knows all too well "the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience" (v. 2). There is some sense in which it still courses through each Christian's veins, even with the gracious pumping of a new heart.

Let's admit it, we believers know "the passions of our flesh." They are in us — evidence that we "were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind" (v. 3). The omnipotent wrath of God once was justly over us. Apart from Jesus, and God's extraordinary grace, it would still be over us.


Spend a few moments trying to breathe the suffocating air of sin and its just penalty, then feel the flood of grace in passages such as Ephesians 2:4–7. Despite human beings' dastardly rebellion and vacuous spiritual poverty, "God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus."

Grace: despite our rebellion, covering our past, flooding our present, and increasing forever into the future. May God never let you cool to his grace. Even (and especially) in seminary, may you never cease seeking to "continue in the grace of God" (Acts 13:43).


For Christians, boasting is excluded, both in our salvation and in everything we do — seminary work included: "What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?" (1 Cor. 4:7).

Don't be under the delusion that seminary automatically makes you grow in grace (2 Pet. 3:18). In fact, it can have quite the opposite effect. Beware lest frequent handling of holy things, such as the Scriptures, good doctrine, and the gospel itself, causes you to lose your wonder about them. And especially don't be flippant with grace. For God's sake, your own sake, and the sake of the people you'll one day serve, never take grace for granted.




Learn a lesson from Jerry Seinfeld: daily Bible intake is about soul survival.

When his wildly successful sitcom ended, Seinfeld went on a nationwide standup comedy tour called "I'm Telling You for the Last Time." The routine was recorded for compact disc (remember those?) at New York's Broadhurst Theater in August 1998. At the end is a question-and-answer segment, during which a zealous fan shouts, "Do you have a favorite Seinfeld episode?"

Seinfeld answers:

I get this question quite often. I don't really have a favorite; they're all kind of my babies. I did the best I could with each one. [Audience applauds.]

You know, comedy is kind of a survival industry. Comedians are very much into just surviving. It's like if I were to ask you, "What is your favorite breath of air that you've ever taken?" You would say, "Whichever one I'm taking that gets me to the next one." That's kind of the mindset.

That kind of mind-set is a wise one for the seminary student (indeed, every Christian) to embrace. You won't appreciate the fact that you took a deep breath an hour ago unless you're still breathing now. A great meal you ate a month ago won't do you much good if you haven't eaten since. Likewise, delighting in God through taking in his word isn't an annual, monthly, or even weekly event for the healthy Christian, but a daily rhythm.


There is more to seminary, and the whole of the Christian life, than the necessity of pursuing daily soul survival in the Scriptures, but this need must not be overlooked. An otherwise impressive theology degree is utterly unimpressive if your soul has shriveled in the course of study.

As Christians, daily Bible intake is to our souls what breathing, eating, and drinking are to our physical bodies. As the incarnate Word himself says, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matt. 4:4). Our souls will die without the word of God. So, like Seinfeld says about comedians, seminarians should be "very much into just surviving" — at least in this sense.


Excerpted from "How to Stay Christian in Seminary"
by .
Copyright © 2014 David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by John Piper,
Introduction: Seminary: Life or Death?,
David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell,
1 Know Your Value of Values Jonathan Parnell,
2 Be Fascinated with Grace David Mathis,
3 Study the Word for More Than Words David Mathis,
4 Push Your Books Aside and Pray Jonathan Parnell,
5 Love That Jesus Calls the Weak Jonathan Parnell,
6 Be a Real Husband and Dad Jonathan Parnell,
7 Keep Both Eyes Peeled for Jesus David Mathis,
Conclusion: Be a Christian in Seminary David Mathis,
Recommended Reading,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

How to Stay Christian in Seminary should be placed in the hands of every first-year seminarian. It provides a much-needed balance as they navigate the beautiful but treacherous waters of a seminary education. I plan to use this powerful little book with great profit for my students in the years ahead.”
—Daniel L. Akin, President, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

“Mathis and Parnell here contribute to a small but important stable of books that everyone thinking about attending or already enrolled in seminary should read. Studying theology is not an intellectual game, nor is it simply what you have to do to receive credentials. It is, rather, the project, both art and science, of living to God in intelligent, affectionate, and obedient response to God’s Word. The seminary is no ivory tower but a crucible in which Christian wisdom and spirituality are tested and refined—not only, or even primarily, by exams, but by the vital tests of everyday life. How to Stay Christian in Seminary alerts students to the real curriculum that undergirds degree structures: the pedagogy of the triune God that aims at forming the mind and heart of Jesus Christ in students and disciples.”
—Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; author, Is There a Meaning in This Text?; The Drama of Doctrine; and Biblical Authority after Babel

“For seminarians who have heard seminary will dull your faith, here is great advice packed into a small space. Don’t let the size of this book fool you. It is filled with solid-gold counsel.”
—Darrell L. Bock, Executive Director of Cultural Engagement, The Hendricks Center, Dallas Theological Seminary

“David and Jonathan are wrestling with a serious problem here, and they give biblical advice that is full of grace and full of Jesus. Very concise, too, and that too is a virtue. Anyone thinking about going to seminary will benefit greatly by spending some time with this book.”
—John M. Frame, Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy Emeritus, Reformed Theological Seminary

“This book makes me angry and sad—because I wish it had been written years earlier. As I read it, I can see faces of people I love who wrecked their lives in seminary, and I wish I could go back in time and hand them this volume. Some of them lost the faith. Some lost their families. Some lost their integrity. The Devil wants to bring down ministers of the gospel, and he usually erects the demolition scaffolding in seminary, when we’re too occupied with Greek flash cards to see the shadow of the pitchfork on the wall. This book, by brilliant men of God, can help you lay out a war plan. Read it, and fight.”
—Russell Moore, President, The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention

“I am exceedingly grateful for David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell for writing this helpful book. They touch on an issue of great concern in theological education, and on a topic of great concern to me personally. So much so, I wish that every seminary student in every seminary in America would read this insightful book and apply its teachings to their lives.”
—Jason K. Allen, President, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

“Written by two men fresh from the trenches of theological education, this little volume is sure to help the new seminary student navigate the pitfalls of misplaced priorities, overcommitment, undercommitment, and decentralization. It is full of grace, truth, and wisdom, all the while keeping Jesus right at the center of everything. I dare say, it may even help to soften the crusty interior of those of us who have spent more than a few years serving in the context of theological education for the church.”
—Miles V. Van Pelt, Alan Belcher Jr. Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages, Reformed Theological Seminary

“This is a book I have composed in my head many times, but never actually wrote down. Now I discover David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell actually wrote it down, and did a better job than I would have done. It is a guide to not only survive but to thrive in seminary (or any college or graduate program where you study theology).”
—Don Sweeting, President, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

“Seminary students are called to live all of life before the face of God with application to their lives and future ministries. This devotional way of living means drinking deeply of both gospel grace and gospel truth with humble awareness of their dependence on the Holy Spirit inside and outside of the classroom. I highly commend this insightful book as must reading for present and prospective seminary students to gain this biblical perspective on seminary training. I would encourage seminary students everywhere to re-read this book at the beginning of each semester and pray that God would use this resource to help them take hold of Christ and his heart for their seminary experience.”
—Mark Dalbey, President and Associate Professor of Practical Theology, Covenant Theological Seminary

“Here’s a great little book every seminary student should read, preferably in their first semester!”
—Timothy George, Distinguished Professor of Divinity, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University

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