God did not act because he endorsed my manner of living, but because of his zeal for his own glory and his faithfulness to his promises of grace for his people. God has the authority and power to use whatever instruments he chooses in whatever way he chooses. Ministry success is always more a statement about God than about the people he uses for his purpose. I had it all wrong. It took credit that I did not deserve for what I could not do. I made it about me, so I didn’t see myself as headed for disaster and in deep need for the rescue of God’s grace. I was a man in need of rescuing grace.
I didn’t just give way to the temptation to let pastoral ministry become my identity. I fell into two other temptations as well.
I let biblical literacy and theological knowledge define my maturity. This is related to the identity temptation but requires its own attention. It is quite easy in ministry to give into a subtle but significant redefinition of what spiritual maturity is and does. This definition has its roots in how we think about what sin is and does. Many pastors carry a false definition of maturity that results from the academic enculturation of seminary.
Since seminary tends to academize the faith, making it a world of ideas to be mastered, students easily buy into the belief that biblical maturity is about precision of theological knowledge and biblical literacy. But spiritual maturity is not something you do with your mind (although that is an important element). Maturity is about how you live your life. It is possible to be theologically astute and immature. It is possible to be biblically literate and in need of significant spiritual growth.
I was an honors graduate of a seminary. I won academic awards. I assumed I was mature and felt misunderstood and misjudged by anyone who failed to share my assessment. In fact, I saw those moments of confrontation as persecution that anyone faces when he gives himself to gospel ministry. At root I misunderstood sin and grace. Sin is not first an intellectual problem. (But it does affect my intellect, as it does all parts of my functioning.) Sin is first a moral problem. It is about my rebellion against God and my quest to have, for myself, the glory due to him. Sin is not first about the breaking of an abstract set of rules. Sin is first and foremost about breaking relationship with God. Because I have broken this relationship, it is then easy and natural for me to rebel against God’s rules.
So it’s not just my mind that needs to be renewed by sound biblical teaching, but my heart needs to be reclaimed by the powerful grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. The reclamation of my heart is both an event (justification) and a process (sanctification). Seminary, therefore, won’t solve my deepest problem – sin. It can contribute to the solution, but it may also blind me to my true condition by its tendency to redefine maturity. Biblical maturity is never just about what you know but always about how grace has employed what you have come to know to transform the way you live.