Commencement Reflection: The Word of the Lord Endures Forever
newsroomadminMay 09, 2014
Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought Doug Sweeney delivered the following address at the December 2013 TEDS Commencement. Given that this academic year is just a week from fading away, graduates, faculty, and staff alike would do well to remember that “the Word of the Lord endures forever.”
Congratulations, friends. This is a marvelous accomplishment. I know I speak for everyone who is dressed like me tonight when I say that we are supremely proud of you. We understand how hard you’ve worked. We’re the ones who piled it on! And as we’ve helped you reach this goal, our respect for you has grown, our gratitude to God for your gifts and diligence has deepened, and our excitement about how God will use your life in years to come is nearly impossible to contain. Thanks be to God for his provision during your time here at Trinity—and his willingness to employ you as laborers in his vineyard.
[pullquote]You’ve learned enough by now to know how much you don’t know, right?[/pullquote]If I had a dollar for every time a first-year student here at TEDS confessed her fears about fitting in, or his feelings of inadequacy to thrive as a scholar here, or a sense of insecurity when sitting next to peers who seemed more gifted or prepared, I could pay for tonight’s buffet. First-year students often feel as though they’re drinking from a fire hose, and sitting next to people who seem to be getting every drop. You graduates have learned by now that no one gets it all. Your anxiousness has waned. But I wonder if even now you feel intimidated, overwhelmed by the study of God and his world. You’ve learned enough by now to know how much you don’t know, right? You may have entered Trinity feeling pretty good about yourself and your knowledge of divinity. You may have been pretty sure about what was wrong in the church you came from, how you were going to fix it and improve upon your elders. If you majored in Bible in college, you may have arrived pretty sure that you were right about theology and that your friends were wrong. But now you’ve probably realized what a friend of mind likes saying to me: “You’re pretty dumb for a smart guy.” You really don’t know it all. You don’t even know the half of it. In fact, you’ve barely scratched the surface of the knowledge of God and the world.
If I’m right about your sense of intellectual humility (and even if I’m not, and you’re now too high on yourself), I hope you’ll listen closely to what follows. I have some parting words of encouragement that I really want you to hear. And I’m confident that I’m speaking for nearly everyone on the faculty.
FIRST, remember what Dean Tiénou said to you when you began. Not even those in the MDiv, the so-called “masters of divinity,” are meant to master divinity. You’re to be mastered by divinity, conformed to the mind of Christ. You’re to take His yoke upon you, to live your lives and do your work beneath the cross of Christ—under the Word of God. The artists of Reformation Germany depicted this notion beautifully. They painted dozens of pictures of Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and other evangelical leaders kneeling beneath the cross of Christ, often with Scripture or their most cherished theology books in hand. They illustrated what Luther called the “theology of the cross.” “The cross alone is our theology,” Luther declared boldly on behalf of Protestant pastors, insisting that believers kneel humbly at the condescension of God in Jesus Christ and holy Scripture. Many are tempted to make an end-run around the cross of Christ, seeking allegedly higher, seemingly more sophisticated routes to so-called genuine spirituality (“theologies of glory,” as Luther liked to say). But as Paul wrote in the second half of 1 Corinthians 1, there simply is no other route to God than Jesus and the cross. “[T]he word of the cross,” Paul wrote by inspiration of God,
. . . is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Paul continued in this vein,
When I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.
So what does this mean for us? It means that evangelical ministry has always been made effective in the most important ways by the gospel and the Bible, not scholarly pretension. You’re not smart enough to advance the kingdom of God by cleverness (or good looks, or winsomeness). You never will be smart enough. “We have this treasure in jars of clay,” as Paul reminded the Corinthians, to demonstrate that the light we share of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord in Jesus Christ has come “from God and not from us.” We’re not meant to be smart enough to take the spotlight from the Lord. Efforts to steal the gospel limelight lead to disaster.
[pullquote]”We are beggars. This is true,” were Luther’s final words.[/pullquote]Did you know that some of the greatest thinkers in the history of the church died with feelings of intellectual inadequacy? Thomas Aquinas, for example, had a vision near the end of his life that put an end to his scholarship. He left his massive Summa Theologica unfinished. “The end of my labors has come,” he said. “All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.” Implored by his secretary, Reginald, to resume his life of scholarship, Thomas replied firmly, “I can write no more. I have seen things that make my writings like straw.” Martin Luther’s final words, “we are beggars, this is true,” carry much the same message. In a note about the profundity of the things of the Word of God, Luther scribbled this from his deathbed on the day before he died: “Let nobody suppose he understands holy Scripture well enough if he has not served the church for a hundred years alongside such prophets as Elijah and Elisha, and alongside John the Baptist, Christ, and the Apostles . . . . We are beggars. This is true.” That is, the best position for people who would know and serve the Lord is on their knees, depending on God for love and wisdom. The list of great theologians turned silent before the Lord could be extended for quite a while. And if these doctors of the church, these intellectual prodigies, felt inadequate at the end of lives of theological scholarship, perhaps it’s not so bad if we feel stupid now and again.
The second thing I want to say is that the Lord is not finished with your education yet. Don’t let feelings of inadequacy inhibit you from living a long life of Christian discipleship. We’re meant to be life-long learners, as we often say at Trinity, life-long disciples, life-long students of the Lord, his Word and his world. I hope you’ve caught the learning bug. I hope you’re humble enough to recognize you still have much to learn, but eager enough to grow that you’ll continue to apply yourself to the study of God and the world. Please don’t rest on your diploma, well-deserved though it may be. Please don’t overreact to the hardships of graduate education, or your own insecurities, behaving as though the habits you’ve developed here at Trinity are unimportant out there in the “real world” of ministry. “The church must always be learned,” Philip Melanchthon once professed, “or it will be greatly afflicted.” This was not the snooty comment of an academic elitist, but the heartfelt groaning of a godly Christian teacher. And don’t we modern evangelicals know just what he meant? How many times have you been bothered by a famous Christian leader who seemed to wallow in his ignorance and lead his people astray? Don’t exacerbate this problem. Be part of the solution. As Jonathan Edwards preached, the pursuit of divine things—whether in Scripture or in the world—is not reserved for academics, but is for all who love the Lord. God calls everyone to seek them, both the “learned and unlearned, young and old, men and women.” Not even the brightest theologian ever begins to find them all. In fact, the ones who “studied the longest, and have made the greatest attainments . . . know but little of what is to be known.” The knowledge of God “is inexhaustible,” for God “is infinite, and there is no end to the glory of his perfections.” Edwards drove this point home by recommending that his people give as much of their time to seeking the things of God as seeking Mammon. “Let it be very much your business to search” for the things of God, he said, “and that with the same diligence and labor with which men are wont to dig in mines of . . . gold.” Or as he put this in different sermon, “He that has a Bible, and don’t observe what is contained [in] it, is like a man that has a box full of silver and gold, and don’t know it, don’t observe that it is anything more than a vessel filled with common stones. As long as it is thus with him, he’ll be never the better for his treasure.” Scripture is rich enough in the things of God “to employ us to the end.” Even at death, he said, we “shall leave enough” of divinity “uninvestigated to employ . . . the ablest divines to the end of the world,” or better, “to employ the . . . saints and angels to all eternity.” Do you share his sense of wonder at the greatness of the Lord? Please don’t lose your fascination or you’ll lose the will to grow.
The third and final thing I want to say to you tonight is that the Lord has given you all you need to minister words of life to those he places in your care. It’s true: you don’t know it all. You have a lot yet to learn. The things of God are very deep. But you can be confident in the Lord, for he has condescended to give us what we need for our salvation and for godly Christian living. Be sure of the main things. You can stake your life upon them. You should ground your ministry in them. In the words of one of our early modern Protestant confessions: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” So spend your life as a disciple, but remember what you’ve learned. You’re entrusted with the gospel. You’re a servant of the King. You have the written Word of God. Please use it to advance God’s kingdom purposes in the world. In the words of the classic hymn, “God’s Word Is Our Great Heritage,” composed in 1817 by the Dane, Nikolai Grundtvig.
God’s Word is our great heritage
And shall be ours forever;
To spread its light from age to age
Shall be our chief endeavor.
Through life it guides our way,
In death it is our stay.
Lord, grant, while worlds endure,
We keep its teachings pure.
Throughout all generations.
May this be so in our time. May we live beneath the Word of God, and minister its words of life to those within our care. May we plant ourselves in the gospel, teaching others to do the same. Do you remember the leading slogan of the German Reformation: Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum? “The Word of the Lord endures forever.” This is our great heritage, one that is lived out much more faithfully by evangelical Protestants in the global south today than it is in German lands. It was the motto of Frederick the Wise, the prince and protector of Luther’s ministry. It soon became the slogan of the German Schmalkaldic League, the alliance of Protestant princes who promoted the Reformation. They printed it as an acronym—VDMIA, sometimes just VDMA, “The Word of the Lord endures forever”—on the coins, medals, flags, cannons and guns within their territories. In Saxony, Hesse, and Württemberg, leading Protestant officials wore it (literally) on their sleeves. People engraved it on their churches, sometimes even on their church bells. I pray tonight that God has engraved it indelibly on your heart.
In one of Luther’s classic hymns, penned in the early 1540s, people sang—and still sing—this related prayer to God:
Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word;
Curb those who by deceit or sword
Would wrest the kingdom from Your Son
And bring to naught all He has done.
Lord Jesus Christ, Your pow’r make known,
For You are Lord of lords alone;
Defend Your holy Church that we
May sing Your praise eternally.
O Comforter of priceless worth,
Send peace and unity on earth;
Support us in our final strife
And lead us out of death to life.
Will you pray this ancient prayer? May God keep you always steadfast in His Word.
Brothers and sisters, Trinity graduates, you’re not supposed to master God. You’re meant to be mastered by him, spending the rest of your life pursuing him and living as he says. The effectiveness of your ministry is not meant to be based upon your cleverness, your winsomeness, your entrepreneurial skills (as important as they will be). It is meant to be based squarely on the Lord Jesus Christ and the written Word of God. You’re not good enough, or smart enough, or skilled enough as a leader to render people right with God and grow them up in sanctification. But God himself has given you all you need for this to happen—and has promised to stay with you to the very end of the age.
Edwards spoke at several commencements, and always did so well. But my favorite of his speeches is the one he gave at Harvard College in 1731, during a time in Harvard’s history when he felt as though its people had grown too high on their own gifts, skills, and attainments. He spoke on 1 Corinthians 1, the passage I read for you tonight, and he focused on the verses at the very end of the chapter: “that no one should boast before God. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’” Edwards argued to the Harvard boys that God is glorified through our dependence on him for all. We have everything that is truly good, everything we really need, everything that saves, sanctifies, and beautifies “of,” “through,” and “in” God. “The saints have both their spiritual excellency and blessedness by the gift of the Holy Ghost, or Spirit of God, and his dwelling with them. They are not only caused by the Holy Ghost, but are in the Holy Ghost as their principle. The Holy Spirit becoming an inhabitant, is a vital principle in the soul: he acting in, upon and with the soul, becomes a fountain of true holiness and joy, as a spring is of water, by the exertion and diffusion of itself.”
That’s my favorite commencement speech. Please don’t use its exhortation about God’s sovereignty as a crutch, or an excuse, for spiritual laziness. Work hard. Apply yourself. Invest the gifts he has given you. Share them liberally with others. But do so from the foot of the cross, under the Word of God. Depend on the Lord for everything. Meditate on his Word. Live your life in ceaseless prayer. Grow into the mind of Christ by the power of the Spirit. If you commune with God himself, he will fund your life and work, helping you spend yourself according to his purposes for you.
Don’t let your personal insecurities get in the way of this. God wants to help you get over yourself so you can share his love, grace, and mercy to those he brings your way. He gives you like-minded Christians for encouragement and support. He’s given you countless tools at Trinity for carrying out his plan. Your Trinity family will be here for you. We hope you’ll stay in touch. We want to encourage you and help you with the work that lies ahead. Most importantly of all, God has condescended to speak to you in Jesus and the Bible, and his Word has all you need to live for him.
The grass withers, the flower falls, your beauty will fade with age, your youthful energy will wane. But the Word of Lord endures forever and ever. This is your inheritance. Thanks be to God. Amen.