I understand that many seminaries post a pre-reading list to provide incoming students with a theological framework, an "on-ramp" of sorts, as they plunge headlong into the rigors of the cerebral side of ministerial training. Although I am in hearty favor of this practice and commend it, this post is taken up with a list that should operate more as a means of preparation for the pre-seminarian’s soul. My aim is to compile a small compendium of voices, saints of old and new, who will both challenge and grace you with the things necessary for “survival and thrival” in seminary:
The Mortification of Sin by John Owen
I can say along with J. I. Packer that this little book has had more consequence in my Christian life than any other single book outside the Bible. Something about Owen is stunningly contemporary. He has a way of getting inside your head as he walks you down the well-trod hallways of your temptations. He explains to you how and why at the end of these hallways you often turn the doorknob that opens up the vast rooms of your sin.
Owen, dear brother or sister, will teach you how to repent. He will break you down, tell you what’s what, and then show you how to starve out your sin and come out into the light of community within your local church. I get almost emotional when I consider just how God has done something, something amazing for me, through this little book. He opened up vistas of the Christian life that I never even knew were in existence. Owen will teach you to repent, and in exchange for your sin, he’ll show you how to put on Christ.
Seminarians are inherently beset with what I call “seminary sins.” Seminary is a strange beast, and although inherently good, many seminarians become filled with all manner of jealousy, covetousness, and envy during this season. You will be tempted to try to measure up and compare yourself. You will be tempted to feel as though you are ill equipped for the task or even downright stupid. You’ll look at Joe Schmoe seminarian with his vast learning and 5 ½ kids and wonder, “God, why haven’t you gifted me that way? How does he do it?”
Seminarian, God’s grace is sufficient for you! You haven’t been called to seminary rock stardom but rather ministerial faithfulness.
Church Membership by Jonathan Leeman
Of first importance upon arrival at seminary is that you settle into a local church. Hurry up, brother or sister, and don’t drag your feet here. That would be a strange species of laziness, I guess. Darkness of soul looms on the other side of relational disconnectedness with the local church. You may be in this place for anywhere from three to six years. You need to get enmeshed into the warp and woof of the relational community in a local church as fast as possible. Allow the tentacles of that church to reach to every far crack and crevice in your heart and life. Do a little podcast and internet research before you arrive. Distill the possibilities down to three or at most four churches and then try to make your decision within two to three months after arrival.
Enough of my thoughts. Jonathan Leeman will serve you greatly in this little volume. It’s only some 100+ pages. Leeman is an exceptional writer, too, so he’ll carry you along briskly to his conclusions. I dare say you will be utterly convinced by his argumentation. Future seminarian, you are preparing for ministry within the local church, don’t dare neglect your local church while in seminary.
Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney
Dr. Whitney will give you an armory of spiritual disciplines to accompany you for safe arrival on the other side of your seminary season. Whitney’s vision of Christian discipline is infused with the power of the gospel, working its way through the saving power of the Spirit of God. There is a certain gravity in seminary that pulls the student, often unhelpfully, toward an over-romanticizing of Christian scholarship.
At the end of your life/ministry, you’ll wish that you had pursued God, not academia. It’s through pursuing God that academia is converted into something life giving and useful. That’s not to say they are mutually exclusive at all—I work at a seminary! What I mean is that people, especially those to whom you minister, should sense the savor of Christ on you, not the flavor of academic articles. Dr. Whitney wants to be a vehicle of your salvation from stale Christianity during seminary. He wants to teach you how to pray, fast, steward your non-renewable time, and not waste your money. Listen to him. You’ll be the better for it.
Living the Cross-Centered Life by C. J. Mahaney
When you consider the boldness, knowledge, wisdom, strength, and focus of Paul, it’s hard to imagine that you are cut from the same ministerial cloth as he—but you are! He was in no less need of saving than you. The subject of the gospel, if I can venture to use such a smallish term as subject, is the beginning and end of your ministry. Maybe more apropos to you personally is that the gospel will be the galvanizing reality of your life as you minister.
C. J. Mahaney wants you to dwell where the cries of Calvary can always be heard. This little book, if you let it, will give you a beautiful gospel framework from which to envision your whole life. Meditate on the gospel with C. J. You’ll need a stout dosage of what the gospel says about you, to you, and for you.
As you begin to memorize Greek verbs and their case endings—luow, lueis, luei, luomen, luete, luousi, again, luow, lueis, luei, luomen, luete, luousi—remember the cross, brother/sister seminarian. The cross isn’t mediated through Greek but rather through the love of Christ. Now, now, now—that’s not an invitation to ignore the life of the mind, rather, it’s an imperative to ground your pursuit of the life of the mind in what the good news of the cross and resurrection of Christ say about you. Then, and only then, you can use that reality to work your tail off on those Greek endings, playa!
When People are Big and God is Small by Ed Welch
The most important thing that Welch has to say is that what God thinks about you is eternally, vastly, and insurmountably more important than what your peers think about you. If you consider the mental and spiritual fortitude it took for Martin Luther to stand on Sola Scriptura against the Romish church, you will get a sense of what Welch is aiming at. Luther had to have turned his back on every valued relationship in order to stand contra mundum.
Your ministry will be burned as mere straw and stubble in the holy presence of God if you prize man’s approval over God’s! The Christian life just won’t endure such a thing. You will not have the courage to be fired over things that are worth being fired over if you value your image more than the glory of Christ. You will not have the courage to offend the people you care for and that care for you if you look to others for validation. The doctrines of sin and salvation say that ministry will always be set on a collision course with confrontations and impasses, forcing the minister to choose between God fearing and man pleasing.
Welch wants to power up your courage to live in faithfulness, not fear of man. You will be met with strong doctrine that has now fallen to you to protect. Fear God, not man, dear seminarian. Let Welch slay the man-pleaser in you. Let him diagnose your sickness of “fear of man,” operate on you, and then sew you up with the stitches of the all-consuming reality of the fear of God.
A Method of Prayer by Matthew Henry
Seminarian, you will be greatly tempted to neglect a life of prayer during seminary. Don’t fall into this snare. As far as having a continual, daily, enduring effect in my life, Matthew Henry’s sits just behind John Owen. I am so thankful for this dead brother! Read slowly through this book. Meditate on it. Its not one to read cover to cover, rather let Henry slowly shape your prayer life as you incorporate his way into your daily prayer. Use his categories and Scripture references. The man can flat out pray, and he wants to teach you how to do so also. You’re going to endure many trials and travails in your seminary season. Let Henry guide you into forming a strong link of prayer between you and your Heavenly Father.
…And To Read After Your Arrival
Similar to Owen, Tim Keller will help you hack down your functional idols in his little book, Counterfeit Gods. This is a watershed book if you are not accustomed to seeing life through the lens of idolatry. Ministry idolatry is a real thing that holds great sway.
In Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue, Andreas Kostenberger will give you a vision for the excellence one should use in footnotes, the writing craft, thinking, honesty, etc. He will challenge you to grow into the virtue and gift of academic theological pursuit.
In The Pastor’s Justification, Jared C. Wilson comes alongside the would-be or current pastor and disabuses him of those pesky, mythic visions of pastoral grandeur. Jared smells like his sheep in the best of ways. There’s no “holy distance” from the flock with Jared. He has that shepherdly dirt and grit under his nails from spending hours sheering his sheep and filing their hooves. I have spoken with many young pastors whose entire vision of the pastorate was shaped by this book. Read and apply.
Lastly, Rescuing Ambition by Dave Harvey will help you locate your particular ambitions on the grid of personal holiness as your ambitions either work against or for the glory of God. He helps you answer the question: Is this ambition or pattern something I should kill or cultivate? That’s how he serves you in this little book.