Graduation from a medical school implies a competency in medical practice. Newly minted physicians are now ready for deployment as doctors and practitioners of the healing arts. Law schools spew out freshly degreed lawyers, ready to pass the bar examination and begin a career of service as attorneys and members of the bar. From graduate and professional schools of every type and description flow armies of new professionals, eager to prove their professionalism.
And here, right before our eyes, we see hundreds of ministers of Christ, ready to receive diplomas and be granted their degrees. In just moments, these scholars of theology and the arts of ministry will receive their educational rewards, “with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities, appertaining thereto.”
There is but one problem — not one of these ministers is qualified to enter this calling. The minister of the Gospel cannot take his newly inked seminary diploma and go hang out his shingle. There is no bar association to certify professional readiness. There is no medical society to endorse and qualify. We are graduating the incompetent.
Don’t misunderstand me at this point. These graduates have earned their degrees, and their degrees are of the highest quality. Countless hours of learning and scholarship and dedication are invested in these degrees. Not one of these graduates is unworthy of the degree to be awarded. They have studied with a faculty of world-class scholars. They have passed examinations and requirements aplenty. They are set to receive degrees and diplomas many thousands would covet and millions will respect.
Still, they are incompetent. Trust me on this. They may look impressive, and they are, but they are not up to this task.
In this sense, they are just like every other minister. Consider the experience of Martin Luther, the great father of the Reformation. As recounted by historian Derek Wilson:
One morning in the late summer of 1506 Luther was escorted into the chapter house where the entire company was gathered. He knelt before the prior and made the solemn vows which were required for full admittance to the order. After prayers a traditional hymn was sung during which he was invested with the white tunic, scapular and cope and the black cowled cotta. He was now a monk. He received from the prior a lighted candle as a symbol that he had entered the kingdom of light. The company now processed into the church where Luther knelt before the high altar and prayed aloud for God’s blessing on his life as a monk. Finally, the prior led the community in interceding for their new brother, that, after a life of faithful service, he would be received into eternal blessedness. Then Luther was escorted to the stall in the choir which would be his until the day he died. The ceremony moved him deeply. Was this not what Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century church doctor, had written of as the ‘second baptism?’ Now Martin was as innocent as a newly christened baby and virtually assured of his place in heaven. He experienced hours, perhaps days, of euphoria.
At this point, a decade before he would famously nail his theses to the Wittenberg church door and spark the fires of reform, Luther was determined to be a competent and faithful Augustinian monk and priest.
On May 2, 1507, Luther was set for his first service to preside as priest. His proud father, whom Luther had at first disappointed by entering the ministry rather than the law, brought twenty guests with him from Erfurt. The stage was set for Luther to show himself a competent priest. It was not to be.
In his own words, written years later:
When at length I stood before the altar and was to consecrate, I was so terrified by the words aeterno vivo vero Deo ['to thee, the eternal, living and true God'] that I thought of running away from the altar and said to my prior, ‘Reverend Father, I’m afraid I must leave the altar.’ He said to me, ‘Go ahead, faster, faster!’
Luther felt the weight of his calling with such an intensity at that moment that he knew with full force and blinding realization that he was incompetent and unworthy. He wanted with every fiber of his being to flee from the task, but, as Richard Marius translated, the prior admonished Luther, “Get on with it.”
Well, we are not here to consecrate Augustinian monks nor to ordain priests. Nor did Martin Luther remain an Augustinian monk. But, in their own way, every single one of these graduates is, in truth, pretty much where Luther was. And, truth be told, it doesn’t get better over time. Experience may be a teacher, but it is not a qualifier for ministry in itself. These ministers will remain incompetent until the day they die. What shall we say? Get on with it?
Not hardly. The true minister knows that we are “frail children of dust, and feeble as frail.” For, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” [2 Corinthians 4: 7-11]
Jesus Christ calls his ministers from the ranks of the incompetent, so that He will show his singular competence through them. He uses earthen vessels to demonstrate his own life in us. He confounds the wisdom of the wise by using the unworthy to demonstrate his worth.
These graduates have followed the admonition of the Apostle Paul to Timothy. They have invested years of study so that they can present themselves to God as workers who need not be ashamed, who rightly handle the word of truth. [2 Timothy 2:15] They are scholars of the Word of God, trained theologians and teachers, gifted servants of the church. But the sole competency is that of God himself.
When Jesus taught his own disciples to pray, he told them to pray like this:
Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. [Matthew 6:9-13]
This prayer starts with the reminder that God in heaven, the transcendent Holy One, is alone to be worshipped. His name is to be made holy. Our priorities are set and our horizon is established as we pray, “Your kingdom come.” Our singular purpose is to see his will done on earth, even as it is in heaven. Our absolute and undeniable dependency is affirmed as we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” We are taught by the Bread of Life to pray for the forgiveness of our sins, even as we learn to forgive and show to others the grace and mercy we have experienced in Christ. We pray lest we succumb to temptation, and we feel the breath of Satan on our necks as we pray “deliver us from evil.”
This is a most subversive prayer, for it relativizes all earthly kingdoms and dethrones all earthly powers. It is a prayer of confident hope and consecrated ambitions for it points us to the accomplishment of the will of God on earth. This prayer defies the powers that be and acknowledges the omnipotence of God and God alone. It is a prayer as practical as bread and as desperate as the forgiveness of sins. It is a prayer that takes us to the throne of grace and then cries out for rescue from temptation. This prayer takes on the demons and the Devil and promises deliverance.
Bu the church has also learned to pray, as the saints know to pray: “For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” These words, echoed throughout the Scriptures, explain how it is that we can send these graduates out, incompetent and weak and human as they are, knowing that God will show his glory in them.
These three words, kingdom, power, and glory, resound as the battle cry of ministry and discipleship. We send these graduates out as citizens, ministers, and vice-regents of a kingdom that cannot be shaken. They go out as those whose destiny is secure in Christ as those whose course is charted by King Jesus. They are the called, the sent, and the chosen. They are a race of whom the world is not worthy, who are themselves the unworthy made worthy in Christ and in Christ alone.
They go out in power. Not the power of profession or the power of wealth. They may not look to the world like an intimidating militia, but they are the army of God — “soldiers of Christ, in truth arrayed.” They are the powerless made powerful in Christ; the weak through whom the Lord will show his strength. The gates of hell shall not prevail against the church they shall serve, and the forces of evil will flee their proclamation of the Gospel and the Word of God.
They are arrayed in glory. Not an earthly glory accompanied by office and status and entourage, but the glory of the crucified, risen, ascended, and reigning Christ — a glory hidden now from the world but one day revealed to every bended knee and each confessing tongue. They are vessels of clay who bear the glory of the incorruptible Christ, who show his wounds and bear his scars and will both live and die to the glory of God alone. Death holds no sting and Satan holds no scepter to them.
They will go out to preach and to teach and to tell a lost world about Jesus and his love. They will break bread and share the cup and proclaim the Lord’s death for sinners until He comes. They will baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They will preach the Word, in season and out of season. They will teach, preach, correct, rebuke, lead, serve, follow, guide, and encourage. They will tend to the flock of God and serve churches. They will preach and pray as the saints are laid to rest. They will push back against the darkness as the children of light. They will plant and water and sometimes reap, and their labor will never be in vain.
How is all this secured? We send them out, knowing that all these promises are secured in Christ and in Christ alone. We know so because Christ has taught us to pray, “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”
This is a commencement address and charge to graduates of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, delivered May 15, 2009 by R. Albert Mohler, Jr., President.
Derek Wilson, Out of the Storm: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007).
Richard Marius, Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999).
The stained glass window is found in All Saints’ Chapel at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Photo by R. Albert Mohler, Jr.