Reflections on a Teaching Career: “What a Great Savior!”

John D. Currid
Professor of Old Testament
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte

The following is adapted from remarks made at an RTS faculty retreat. 

The Chief Academic Officer of RTS, Dr. Bob Cara, asked me to speak on the topic, “what is the one thing you would tell a new, young faculty member starting one’s career at RTS?” I just finished my 23rd year at RTS, and I taught at Grove City College for 13 years before that. With 36 years of teaching experience, I suppose Bob thought I might have something to say. But as I prayed and thought about that question, I was somewhat stumped. What is the one thing I would advise Mike McKelvey or Blair Smith or other new professors here today? I suppose I could tell you a thousand things . . . but what is the one thing? What is the big kahuna? What is the grand salami? What is the big cheese? A passage from Paul gets to the heart of what I want to say.

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Cor 2:1-5).

I was recently reading about a group of American pastors who decided to travel to London in the 1880’s to hear and learn from some of the great English pastors of the day. On their first Sunday in London they went to hear a famous preacher who pastored a large church of 3,000-4,000 members. The Americans listened to his preaching, and as they left the church they marveled and proclaimed, “What a great preacher! What a great preacher!” The next Sunday the group decided to attend the Metropolitan Tabernacle in central London to hear Charles Spurgeon preach. They listened to him, and as they left the church they marveled again . . . but this time they proclaimed, “What a great Savior! Hallelujah! What a great Savior!”

That illustration underscores my charge to you young scholars today, and it comes from the passage we just read: your duty as a minister of the gospel and as a seminary professor is to direct and point people to “Jesus Christ and him crucified”! You must draw the students’ eyes to Jesus . . . both of their eyes!

I have learned in 36 years of teaching that it is so easy and alluring to make other things the center of one’s ministry in the seminary. I would argue that perhaps the greatest seduction is that we would make ourselves the subject of ministry. See what I have published . . . see how students love my classes . . . see the influence I have at RTS or in the church or in evangelicalism. In this day of narcissism and celebrity professors and pastors, this is dangerous and harmful. It is the siren’s call.

A few years ago, some of you will remember, a well-known writer and churchman spoke at the Evangelical Theological Society meetings. He presented his lecture in a large room with a stage, and behind him was a huge screen projecting his image and presentation. And there were hundreds of scholars and others attending that session. At the close of the session, much to my surprise and chagrin, people rushed the stage to take iPhone photos of the speaker and to have selfies made with him. It was like a rock concert. It reminded me of the time a few years ago that my wife and I went to see da Vinci’s masterpiece the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. We could barely see it, no matter admire it, because of the hordes of people snapping iPhone pictures and selfies with the painting.

Men, we must resist self-promotion and being self-centered in our ministries. Now we can say to ourselves, “well I’m not like that,” but the reality is we are all like that. Calvin said in the Institutes that “there is no one who does not cherish within himself some opinion of his own pre-eminence.” We ought to be honest with ourselves, and have a heart to heart with ourselves. We must be like Paul, that monumental exegete, who called himself “a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, set apart for the gospel of God.” A bond-servant! There is no room for hubris and petty pride. Our ministry as seminary professors is about “Jesus Christ and him crucified!”

We need to have the attitude once displayed by Charles Spurgeon. After he had finished preaching one Sunday morning, a man came up to him, and gushingly said, “That was the greatest sermon that has ever been preached!” Spurgeon looked at the man, and said, “Yes, the Devil told me that five minutes ago!”

I have made it a habit in every class that I teach that I present the gospel message; I assume nothing, and I learned that early in my seminary-teaching career. One day I was sitting in my office, and David Jussley, Professor of Preaching at RTS-Jackson, knocked on my door and he had a student in tow. The student was one I knew well; he was a third year student who had taken a number of classes from me, and he served as an intern in the church where I was an assistant pastor. He was one of those students for whom I had great expectations as he would go into the pastorate. He had all the pedigree: he was brought up in a PCA church, he was part of RUF in college, and was a bright and knowledgeable seminarian. David told me that the student had something to tell me. The student looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “I have just been converted.” He had been listening to another student preach in preaching class, and as he heard the gospel preached plainly he realized that he did not know Christ. During my time at RTS, similar conversions have taken place a number of times. There are lost souls in our midst, and so, even when I am parsing a hithpael verb pattern . . . intensive, reflexive . . . I try not to forget the souls I am dealing with.

Many years ago when I was a young biblical studies instructor, an Orthodox Presbyterian named Bob Atwell sat me down to talk with me. He was one to listen to: he was one of the first students at Westminster Theological Seminary, he had witnessed first-hand the trials of J. Gresham Machen, and he had been in the ministry well over forty years. Rev. Atwell said to me the one thing he tried to remember all the days of his ministry was this saying, “when I look to myself I am discouraged, but when I look to Christ I am encouraged.” I know that is not a novel thought, but I think it gets to the heart of what I wanted to say. So, men, my prayer for you is that when students leave your classrooms they will not say “What a great teacher!” but they will say “What a great Savior!”