So, What Is Really at Stake Here? Christian Education as a Matter of Life and Death

You only have one opening convocation for an academic year. There’s only one opportunity to gather together exactly like this–in a place like this, with colleagues such as these and with students so wonderful as you. There is only one opportunity a year to do this, and yet it’s an opportunity that very few Christians ever get to see. This is the Holy Spirit’s answer. This is God’s kind providence that we are here in this room for such a sacred task on a day like this.

The grave danger is that we will just assume that we deserve all of this. This is God’s grace and mercy, that he would save us from our sins and unite us to Christ–make us part of Christ’s church. He has called, moreover, shepherds, servants, and workers for the church. He has called preachers, teachers, evangelists, missionaries, accountants, teachers of various fields, and counselors. This is the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of so many believers through so many decades who quite frankly died before they ever could have imagined a room like this, filled with promise like this.

Even today, there are Christians around the world who are praying for what’s taking place here and even today there are nations praying for the gospel. There are Christians praying that the gospel be taken to those nations. There are peoples desperately in need of hearing the preaching of God’s Word–Churches that are desperate to be fed. There are places of work and deployment for the glory of God in an array of secular and sacred callings that someone here must know that something more is going on here than at other institutions, in particular in institutions that are not committed to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. There’s something different about what’s taking place here. There’s a stewardship that’s markedly different here.

There once was a time when the most prestigious universities in America began with a service just like this and even with reciting a creed just as we did, and even with singing hymns, just as we sang. Don’t look for that now. Severed from those roots–and indeed now in antipathy to those roots–those institutions have taken another way. That pattern of falling away, basically of institutional apostasy is fairly write large across higher education, which makes again the stewardship of this day for us all the more important. But there’s something more than that.

This is the thirty-first time I’ve had the privilege of doing this. The first time in 1993, let me tell you something, the roster of fellow or of sister theological institutions was considerably longer then than it is now, which is to say a good many theological seminaries that once were are now not. Various reasons for that and various pathologies explain that trend. It does make the stewardship of this moment all the more precious.

I was in a context in which I was talking to some leaders of theological education, it was during our re-accreditation visit, and so they came from different traditions. They came to do work on behalf of the two accrediting commissions, and that was good work. And by the way, they acted nobly and helpfully, and for that I am thankful. But one of them basically said to me, “You know you’re living on borrowed time.” Now, I want to tell you what he meant. I was irritated when he said it, but I’m more irritated now than then. Sometimes you hear something and you think, “That irritates me, but I got to not let it show and then maybe it will irritate me less in the future.” No, it irritates me more.” Because let me tell you what he was saying, he was saying, “You’re like an ice cube. Some of us melted faster, you’re melting more slowly.” I just want to tell you that is not the history of this school. And the future of this school is entirely in the hands and in the providence of God.

But I will tell you this: this faculty, this board of trustees, and I believe I speak for students too, we’re not here just for today. We are here for tomorrow and for as many tomorrows as the Lord shall allow before he comes to claim his Church when the trumpets shall sound. We are not here just for today. We have made very clear we are here for yesterday.

Now, there are a lot of institutions that’d be ashamed by that, we are here for yesterday. The creed that we confessed is from the fourth century. That’s by intention. We are here for the prophets. We are here for the apostles. We are here for the evangelists and the missionaries. We are here for the faithful throughout all the ages. We stand in that line. We are here with Martin Luther. We sang his hymn. We declared the same gospel.

We’re here for the present, that’s true. And what a glorious present. I mean there are so many schools that don’t have a present like this, certainly Christian schools, certainly theological seminaries. This is actually unprecedented. This present is phenomenal. Or to put it another way, you guys look great. I just can’t tell you what an encouragement it is. Christ loves his Church. He loves you. His love brings you into his love for the Church. We’re here for the future, and that’s huge.

One of the joys of being president of this institution–and Mary and I think about this very often–one of the joys is we get actually to see the future. We get to see the future in you. True, yes in you, mostly in you, but we get to see the future in other ways. At the first graduation ceremony I presided over, it came to me to ask that all the babies be lifted up. I just have to say that over time, this is a very productive student body. It’s glorious. So there we actually see the future in diapers, and how glorious is that?

There are many colleagues with me who share this because in the student body right now are the children of many of the students who passed across this stage and received their degrees from Southern Seminary and Boyce College a generation ago. But we see the future and we’re summoned to it. It requires us to turn to Scripture.

I do believe this is the shortest scriptural passage to which I’ve been drawn for an opening convocation. It’s one verse. First Corinthians chapter 15, verse 19: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” I want to tell you that this one verse, 1 Corinthians 15:19, is one of the centering verses of my life. So part of what I’m doing here today is a bit confessional as a Christian just to tell you, this verse drives me. This verse grounds me. This verse convicts me. This verse compels me.

Now of course that’s true of all the Scripture, but in particular, let’s look at the context of first Corinthians and even in 1 Corinthians 15. This is of course the great passage in which the Apostle Paul is making clear the truthfulness and the centrality of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. This is the text in which he puts everything on the line.

He begins the chapter in verse one saying, “Now, I would remind you brothers of the gospel, I preach to you which you received and which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preach to you, unless you believed in vain, for I delivered to you as a first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures and that he appeared to Cephas then to the 12.” Paul goes on to speak of the various witnesses and eventually thousands who were eyewitnesses to the physical, bodily glorious resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. The resurrection of Christ, according to Paul, is one of the two truths that he delivered unto the church as first importance. In other words, before you can know anything else of the Christian faith, you have to know this: Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. And the Father raised him from the dead on the third day, according to the Scriptures. Every one of those words is absolutely necessary: died for our sins; raised on the third day; both of those in accordance with the Scriptures.

Now, I’m not thankful for any kind of theological confusion. I’m not thankful for any kind of theological problem, except I sort of am, just to be honest. I’m thankful that the Apostle Paul wrote this, and he wrote it because the Holy Spirit compelled him to write it because it was to a real problem in which theological clarification and codification was desperately needed. So in God’s providence, I’m glad in a sense that this was necessary in order that we would have this because Lord knows we’re living in a day that needs this codification and clarification and amplification.

You may know that just in the last week a book came out about the de-Churching of America and even the national news talked much about this. This book attempts to explain how all these “Christians” are no longer Christians–or at least they were attending church and they’re not now attending church, and Lord knows that’s a true situation in many ways.

But what I sought to bring in terms of clarification was there’s just a real urgent question to be asked as to whether those were actually Christians. In other words, did they believe that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures? Did they ever believe that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures? Because if not, they may have been any number of things, like Episcopalians or Congregationalists or United Methodists or Presbyterians or Southern Baptists. But if they don’t believe those truths, they’re not and never have been Christians. I’m thankful for the clarification.

It’s majestic and it’s lengthy. We don’t have time to look at all of 1 Corinthians 15. Paul’s logic is both positive and negative. He shows himself a master of the rhetoric. He makes very clear the glorious truths of the resurrection and he also makes abundantly clear the fact that if Christ is not raised from the dead, then we are still dead in our trespasses and sins. Indeed, look at verse nineteen: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Today, we sang powerful hymns. We’ve heard trumpets and a booming pipe organ. We’ve heard from this choir. We’ve experienced on this day of convocation remarkable things. But, if Christ is not raised from the dead, this is all stupid pageantry, and empty noise. All the promise we’re talking about is actually just stupidity. It’s vacuous. It’s empty.

The Holy Spirit led the Apostle Paul to write every word of this. Verse nineteen has convicted me from the first moment that I read it and as I grew older and came to understand it because the way the Holy Spirit led the Apostle Paul to write this is so poignant. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we of all people must be pitied.” Let me tell you, I did not know when I first read that text what I see now and came to see over years. We know a good many people who think of Christianity as a therapeutic mode–a kind of spiritual assistance, a value added to life, it’s a variant of spirituality, and produces nice music.

One of the authors who was responding to this new book writing in the pages of The Washington Post said that what he misses now that he has been de-churched is congregational singing. He said he missed that because there was no other context in his life in which he sings with people he doesn’t know. There’s something therapeutic about the experience. The Apostle Paul here actually hits that head on. His basic argument is this: if Christianity is a therapy, then what a pitiable people we are. If Christianity is a spirituality, that’s all it is. If Christ is not raised from the dead, then we’re just stupid spiritual people. If we believed in Christ and if in Christ we have hope in this life only, we’re of all people most to be pitied.

I want to speak to the faculty of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and I cannot tell you what a joy it is to teach with these men and women. I will say, as I say over and over again, if I could study anywhere, I would study with you. I’m so thankful of the students of this institution, both the seminary and the college are studying with you. I am envious of our students for the opportunity of studying with you–the most wonderful assemblage of Christian scholars I could imagine.

But if Christ is not raised from the dead, you’re a bunch of well-robed fools. Your teaching is for nothing.

I speak to the administrators of this school. Again, they are some of the most amazing people with whom I get to work. But, if all we’ve done here and if all you’ve invested your life in is managing this institution and all that it takes, you are fools. Because we’ve been doing all of this and you’ve been accomplishing all of this as if it serves some higher purpose. But if Christ is not raised from the dead, there is no higher purpose.

I want to speak particularly to the students. I want to speak to the students of the seminary, especially first to those who are called to preach and teach the Word of God. You are the first reason this institution exists. You are the central reason this institution exists. Everything else we do is an extension of the primary trust assigned to us in raising up a generation of preachers and pastors and teachers for the church of Christ. Again, I want to say to you, I’m envious of what you are now experiencing in the classroom from this faculty, in the presence of each other. I’m envious for you. But I also want to just give you a word, if Christ is not raised from the dead you are wasting your life.

Now, that does not mean that you’d be better off studying somewhere else because you’d be wasting your life there too. But frankly, if it’s all about this life only, then it’s a short drive from 2825 Lexington Road to the cold dirt of Cave Hill Cemetery.

But Christ is raised from the dead. That’s why we’re here. We’re here because Christ is raised from the dead. He died for our sins and on the third day he rose from the dead.

That makes all the difference in the world, and it certainly centers us in what’s at stake, which is nothing less than life and death. In fact, what we are doing here is actually more than most people would hear when we say “life and death are at stake.” When most people hear that, they think only in physical terms. Their horizon is just this life. But when we say it’s a matter of life and death, we mean eternity–life in Christ, sins forgiven, raised with Christ, reigning with Christ. On the other end though is death–hades, hell, darkness, gnashing of teeth.

The words of finality in the Bible are just astounding. Consider the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Abraham says to the rich man, “Between where you are and where we are, a great chasm has been fixed so that no one can go from us to you, nor can anyone go from where you are here.” It’s a cataclysmic, conclusive, final judgment. Heaven and hell hang in the balance. And as we know, it’s not just heaven and hell. It’s biblically defined as life and death. Hell is worse than just physical death. It’s infinitely unspeakably worse. And to reign with Christ is not just to live on as we live now, but to live gloriously. So all that’s at stake.

I think all of us as Christians would say, at least tacitly we know all that’s at stake. It’s just good for us in the beginning of a term to look at each other in the eye and say, “We know all of that’s at stake. Every bit of it’s at stake. Life and death is at stake. Heaven and hell are at stake. Truth and lies are at stake. Souls are at stake.”

But it’s because of that that Christians, and in particular Southern Baptists established a school like this, so that there would be an incubus, or, a nursery for the faithful service of the future with life and death hanging in the balance.

I’ve seen other presidents of other schools make their pitch in fundraising. They’ve got bells and whistles we don’t have. Places like Vanderbilt, Stanford, and the Ivy League schools can pull out all the stops in their fundraising pitches. The pitch goes something like this: we’re going to transform the world by this or by that. But, because we know that Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, what good is Stanford going to be? What good will Stanford be when the trumpet sounds? Who’s going to care about Vanderbilt from the vantage point of heaven or hell?

Now, in common grace, insofar as any institutions do good, and I’m not getting into the equation of how much good they do and how much wreckage they create, that would be another convocation address. I’ll simply say that wherever there is any good Christians come to understand, we should be thankful to God for that good. If there’s one decent English class taught in one of those schools, well that’s one decent English class. Stay out of the religion department. Stay out of the history department. For that matter, stay out of the English department. But if there is one good class that’s taught, we’ll say, “Okay, that was good.” But it’s for this life only.

The glory of us being together in this room is that this room is just a foretaste of what is to come–and it’s because Christ is raised from the dead. But he has assigned to us a task. It’s a task of making disciples of all the nations. As an institution serving his church, it is our task to raise up preachers and teachers of the Word of God–servants of Christ in a multiplicity of disciplines to make a difference for eternity. We are here to raise up and to train evangelists and missionaries to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.

I just wanted to share with you from the heart this one verse, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we’re of all people most to be pitied.” But the Apostle Paul comes back and says, “But Christ has been raised from the dead.” And then comes the rest of this chapter: but Christ has been raised from the dead. Because Christ has been raised from the dead then just imagine how much more important our task here truly is. We cannot even begin to grasp the weight of what we are doing here. Just understand what it means that there’s a faculty sitting here committed to these truths and absolutely committed to and invigorated by teaching students the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

Christ is raised from the dead and so we get to sing songs like we have. And we’ll sing and we get to sing them, not only because they are interesting tunes for this time, but because they are thunderous truths for all time. And we get to go to class, we get to take exams, we get to write papers, we get to sit and eat and out on the lawn, sometimes to play, to fellowship, to learn, to study, to the glory of God.

If you’re doing all that for this life only, you are wasting your life. It’s all vanity. But if you’re doing all of that for eternity, then let’s be thankful to God who has given us this opportunity. And let’s be committed to wring everything we can out of every book, every class, every project, every lecture on both sides of the equation. And let’s not miss any opportunity to gather together like we are right here, because brothers and sisters, this is glorious. So look around the room as we get ready to sing and feel the glory.