Biblical Counseling and Penance: Insights from Martin Bucer on the True Care of Souls

Concerning the True Care of SoulsThe Biblical Counseling movement started through Jay Adams’ discontentment with the influence of secular psychology on seminary curriculum for pastors. While Biblical Counseling as a movement is relatively young, Christian pastoral care has existed since the days of the early church. In the spirit of historical questions such as “where was justification by faith before Luther?”, biblical counselors ought to ask similar questions such as “where was Biblical Counseling before Jay Adams?”.

One example from church history of a faithful pastor unfolding his methodology of pastoral counseling is found in the work of Martin Bucer’s “Concerning the True Care of Souls.” Martin Bucer (1491-1551) was one of the main leaders of Reformation in the sixteenth-century whose influence was felt throughout Europe and even to us today through his works on pastoral care and ministry. His greatest legacy is most likely his influence left upon John Calvin, who sought refuge with Bucer in Strasbourg during his exile from Geneva from 1538 to 1541. One ought to mention also his influence on the early editions of the Book of Common Prayer.

In this work Martin Bucer bases his care of souls upon the language of Ezekiel 34:16:

I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.

He then analyzes the various conditions in which shepherds might find their sheep and offers wisdom for ministering to the needs of parishioners.

In this chapter titled “How the Hurt and Wounded Sheep are to be Healed,” he explores the role of repentance or “penance” in the life of the church as a cure for sheep who are wounded. He describes the hurt and wounded sheep with the following definition: “they are those who remain in the church and communion of Christ, but fall into open and notorious sins and abuses.” (98-99) For those who are wounded or hurt, Christ desires to bind up and heal their wounds. The means of binding and healing hurt sheep are found in the following description:

This medicine is nothing less than getting the one who has sinned to recognize his sin sufficiently to cause and move him to a position of true acknowledgment, regret and sorrow for his sin; and in this way going on to comfort him again and strengthen his hope of grace, so that he may become enthusiastic and desirous of true reformation. (101)

This is nothing less than the goal of those who desire to lead others through biblical counseling. Consider the definition of counseling given by Heath Lambert, “Counseling is a conversation where one party with questions, problems, and trouble seek assistance from someone they believe has answers, solutions, and help.” 1 Jeremy Lelek defines biblical counseling as, “a model of care that brings Scripture to bear on the multitude of struggles that plague the human soul, while simultaneously offering scriptural, gospel-saturated insight on how human beings can flourish.” 2 The modern definitions of Lambert and Lelek overlap with Bucer with the idea of counseling for the soul which aims for true spiritual reformation as marked by (1) an awareness of sin, (2) genuine repentance, (3) comfort and hope in grace, and (4) desire for change. 3

Martin Bucer argues that one of the main mechanics in the church which drives the body to strive towards this reformation is the ordinance of penance. Protestant ears might perk up at this point but Bucer ascribes to the word penance what many Christians describe as church discipline. Bucer links penance as an ordinance with the process seen in 1 Corinthians 5 where Paul calls the church to grieve over the sin committed within their midst while calling offender to repent. (108) In penance, the church calls individuals in sin towards repentance and exercises the keys of the kingdom in church discipline in instances where the individual is now showing signs of repentance from their actions (Matt 18:15-20).

If “the purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out”, (Prov 20:5) a counselor will draw out sin in the human heart. Most situations in which someone might seek counseling will involve the dynamics and effects of sin because of the depravity of the human heart. Biblical counselors recognize that every human being lives their life before the eyes of God and is responsible to him for their actions. Many steps in counseling will involve exposing habits and patterns of sin in the heart of the counselee and connecting these areas of sin with their damaging fruit. As the counselor seeks to bring awareness to the habits of sin in the human heart he is also calling for the counselee to have an accurate view of their sin and its effects in his or her life.

He argues that penance or discipline for the church is “the best discipline and government…in order that people might be drawn, led and encouraged from all that is wicked to all that is good.” (117)

Here is an extended quote which captures the essence of his perspective on penance:

So we can simply say that when people have fallen into the more serious and gross errors and sins and have come through to a true acknowledgement of their sins, and have a right spirit as children of God, there will always be this lamenting, weeping, praying, pleading, confessing, and repenting; and this is indeed a powerful medicine which will totally purge, cauterize and burn out all desires to sin and evil incilinations to offend, both in those who have thus grievously sinned, and also in the others who through this penance are moved to recognize clearly the horror and harm of sin, to consider and to recoil from sins all the more earnestly. (119-120)

Here are five visible connections from this work between Martin Bucer’s pastoral theology and Biblical Counseling:

1. Penance and Biblical Counseling are both done within the context of the local church.

Martin Bucer ties the practice of penance with the role of the church exercising the keys of the kingdom. The jurisdiction of the local church includes the responsibility in binding and loosing (Matt 16:18-20, 18:15-20). The church exercises the authority of Christ in admitting members into its fellowship through the ordinance of Baptism as a public sign of their entrance into the kingdom of God based upon a profession of faith and evidence of conversion. For those who are in the church, the church maintains its health and unity in the Gospel through binding and loosing those to their sins. The church binds through holding sinners to their sin and pressing upon them the seriousness of their offense before God as well as loosing them from their sins in the witness of in the demonstration of sufficient evidence of their repentance. (117-8)

While secular counseling seeks to better all individuals under the umbrella of humanity, Christians understand that God is calling all people everywhere to turn to him (Acts 17:30). True transformation is found in repenting of sins and entering into the kingdom of God through the new birth (John 3:3). In the local church through the regular ministry of the Word Christians are spurred on towards holiness. Biblical Counseling properly done serves the congregation in ministering the gospel within the context of the local church.

This protects counseling from being a mere transaction of goods between two independent agents but places interpersonal ministry within the life of the local church. It also supports genuine change with the boundaries of a healthy local church regenerate membership where individuals understand that unrepentant sin is a spiritual danger to themselves. In the local church, an individual cannot just cancel the next appointment if the psychiatrist says something the counselee finds uncomfortable. Under the shepherding of pastors, individuals seek personal reformation through the interpersonal ministry of the word with the keys of the kingdom present to help personal reformation.

2. Penance and Biblical Counseling must be done by all members of the church.

All church members participate in this act of penance personally on a regular basis for smaller sins and in occasionally before the whole body for corporate health. Corporate penance helps the sinner to see the seriousness of their sin as well as to maintain the church’s witness to their profession as a Christian. Penance serves as a perpetual reminder of the seriousness of sin as well as the seriousness of the call towards holiness.  He even discusses the witness of Scripture that Christians ought to be penitent and mournful over the sins of others, as well see in Paul’s response to the news of sin in the congregation at Corinth. (119)

With the proper exercise of penance goes the spiritual seriousness of a congregation. He laments, “and who can deny that it is because there is no correction, punishment or penance in the church for sins, however horrible they may be, that the young people and people, in general, have become so much more easy going in their attitude to all offences?” (120)

Biblical counselors have recognized that the ministry of the word equips Christians to minister to one another (Eph 4:11-12). Even the first instance of church discipline in Matthew 18 starts with two members of the congregation discussing an issue of sin with one another (Matt 18:15). How blessed is a church in which issues of smaller sins are consistently nipped in the bud through loving redemptive conversations with one another before the seeds start to grow! It is through equipping congregants to minister the word to one another that can help spur one another on towards holiness and make penance part of the ethos of a local church.

In describing the benefits of penance for a congregation he says, “those who had sinned and the whole church were helped thereby to become more hostile towards sin, more free from sinful lusts and desires, and more zealous in all godliness.” (126)

3. Penance and Biblical Counseling focus on the condition of the heart, not on external action.

Many Protestants connect penance with the Roman Catholic sacrament which Luther railed against in the early years of the Reformation. Yet Bucer gets to the heart of where penance went wrong in the Roman Catholic Church:

There was little emphasis on true and faithful repentance, as was sadly evidence in both father confessors and penitents. This reversal and complete abolition of the beneficial practice of penance all started with the carers of souls place more emphasis and insistence on the outward activities than on true faith and heartfelt repentance. (126)

Bucer earlier details how the Roman Catholic Church transitioned from considering the specifics of particular sins and moving towards grading each manifestation of sin with an associate “price” to pay in penance. Sins such as killing or divorce would get greater penance while lesser sins such as lying or gossiping would be assigned a lesser degree of penance. While this simplifies the process of discipline into spiritual “whack-a-mole”, it overlooks the dynamics at play in the human heart to which sin is only the fruit (Matt 7:16). He argues that all calls for repentance must be made towards the conscience and not solely human behavior. (124)

To use contemporary terminology, it leads to “moralism” for “these outward activities, however seriously they are taken, can be undertaken by anybody, whereas true repentance and amendment of life can only be undertaken by those who are in true faith commit themselves entirely to Christ our Lord.” (126)

One of the main values of Biblical Counseling is a focus on heart transformation as the key to true life-change. 3 It attempts to focus on the unconscious desires, beliefs, and commitment of the heart in order to diagnose their connection to a particular sin present in the life of a counselee. All spiritual transformation is based upon the fruit of Christ’s death and resurrection (John 12:24). Behaviors might modify through classical conditioning but hearts will not change unless they are united by faith to Christ. Then spiritual life will begin to transform the person’s heart. In the Reformation Bucer was making these same arguments against the Roman Catholic system of penance as well as pointed back to the ancient fathers who followed this same practice of considering the heart of an individual in the particular prescriptions of pastoral care. (126)

4. Penance and Biblical Counseling must be specific to each individual person.

Bucer brings up the objection that penance that many contemporary critics will propose that calling people to repentance drive individuals out of the church over personal grief for sin. He shows his pastoral heart in the following comment:

Great diligence and true spiritual wisdom and astuteness are necessary in order to impose and moderate penance in such a way that people are caused, moved, and brought and encouraged to excerise genuine, childlike faith and amendment of life in accordance with true faith. (128)

He says that (1) situation, (2) life circumstances, (3) strength of Christian life, and (4) circumstances of the church life must all be taken into account when prescribing actions for to display genuine repentance for sin. (126)

Bucer clearly states his goal: “the penance is always to be moderated so that it is a true and beneficial medicine against the sin, and does not make the injury worse.” (123)

At this point, Bucer moves his conversation to discuss the role of the pastor in walking someone through what God-honoring repentance looks like when confronting a particular sin. The shepherd applies the medicine of the word and prescribes its dosage in prayer, confession, and mortification of the flesh. All of these actions require for a pastor to show what Bucer said earlier: “Great diligence and true spiritual wisdom and astuteness.”

As biblical counselors seek to draw out the heart they understand that every counseling situation will be different. If you have ten people who are struggling with sinful lust you will have ten different situations with different dynamics to their struggles. I see both Bucer and biblical counselors gently guiding their counselees into self-understanding and prescribing biblical actions towards personal holiness and renewal.

5. Penance and Biblical Counseling is seen as preventative medicine for future sins.

While penance expresses sorrow for past sin, it is itself not a form of personal punishment for sin. God is not asking from sinners a mere display that they are sorry for what they have done wrong. Rightly understood penance helps sinners begin the process of personal reformation.

Penance is not a satisfaction for past sins, but a medicine against present and future sins, because it is intended to purge and purify the remaining lusts and sinful desires and thus to protect against future transgressions. This is how the ancient describes penance and satisfaction: satisfaction is rooting out the causes of sin and closing the door to incentives to sin.

At this point, the connections between penance and Biblical Counseling become most clear. While the Roman Catholic church added many negative connotations to the practice of penance and even the word sounds archaic to our modern ears, what Martin Bucer describes as penance is what all Christians would see as the central mechanism of sanctification in which sinners strive to put to death sin and pursue holiness. Penance is a particularly useful tool in the counseling toolbox in how sober reflection upon sin is a meant “to subdue and cast down the impudence of the flesh and make sad and bitter all pleasures apart from God.” (127) Hoping to bring individuals towards godliness cannot happen without a sober reflection upon the presence and effects of sin in our lives.

To use Martin Bucer’s language, biblical counselors seek to apply “medicine against present and future sins.” They also seek to equip counselees with resources to “protect against future transgressions” and close “the door to incentives to sin.” This is how marriages are rebuilt, relationships are restored, and lives brought back to flourishing. One of these prescriptions is the practice of penance within the local church. As counselors strive to help others learn what it means to follow Jesus in challenging circumstances or in the face of sin, it will involve leading counselees to loosen their grip on this world and on sin while pressing onward towards their eternal reward.

The rest of Martin Bucer’s work reflects carefully upon the role of the shepherd in the local church. While there are many things that pastors can take away from this work, biblical counselors who care for “the True Care of Souls” have an ally from the past in Martin Bucer.


Jared Poulton (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Pastor of Children and Families at First Baptist Church Dublin, in Dublin, GA, and a current PhD student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Biblical Counseling. He is married to Kerry Poulton and they have two children, Riley and Oliver. Jared and Kerry are originally from South Carolina. You can follow Jared Poulton on twitter at @Jared_Poulton, or see his personal blog at @jspoulton.wordpress.com.

1. Heath Lambert, A Theology of Biblical Counseling: The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 13.

2. Jeremy Lelek, Biblical Counseling Basics: Roots, Beliefs, & Future, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 13.

3. See Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp, How People Change (2nd Ed. Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2008) and Jeremy Pierre, The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2016).

15 Quotes from Prayer by John Onwuchekwa

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John Onwuchekwa serves as pastor of Cornerstone Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church is apart of the Building Healthy Churches series published by Crossway.

Pick up a copy here

 

 


Prayer is breathing. There’s no better metaphor of what prayer should be for the Christian. (pg. 17)

 

Our churches prayers get reduced to a tool for transitioning from one activity to the next. (pg. 17)

 

God rewards the prayers of novices, which encourages consistent prayer in the lives of His people. (pg. 24)

 

Calling on the name of the Lord is more than just saying His name aloud. Throughout the Bible, the name of the Lord is synonymous with the nature of the Lord. To call on His name is to make an appeal to His character. (pg. 33)

 

If prayer clings to the hope we share in Christ, then prayer should reflect our togetherness in Christ. If prayer has a gospel shape, then by implication it must have a church shape. (pg. 37)

 

If your life’s primary concern is to make your name great, you’ll be uncomfortable in Christian community. (pg. 52)

 

The local church takes the theory of Christianity and makes it tangible – in love, deed, and especially in prayer. (pg. 62)

 

When we pray together, we want to address the misconceptions about God, pray for those things many of us neglect, and show that substantial prayer doesn’t have to take a substantial amount of time. (pg. 78)

 

A community that routinely confesses sin together is a community that is glad, growing, gracious, and grounded. (pg. 82)

 

A prayerful community of confession is a peaceful community. (pg. 84)

 

A church that practices prayer is more than a church that learns; it’s also a church that leans. (pg. 92)

 

Gathering to pray helps us embrace our responsibility to each other while allowing us to be content with our limitations. We’re no one’s saviors. Prayer allows us to leave things unfinished in the lives of people. (pg. 104)

 

Successful evangelism isn’t measured by the end result, but by our faithfulness to the task. (pg. 113)

 

Prayer replaces apathy with compassion. (pg. 115)

 

Cultivating prayer in the life of the church is a marathon, not a sprint. (pg. 125)


Evan Knies is from West Monroe, LA. He is married to Lauren. He serves as Minister of Students at Bullitt Lick Baptist Church in Shepherdsville, KY. He also serves as the Executive Assistant of the Nelson Baptist Association. He is a graduate of Boyce College and presently an M.DIV student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the Billy Graham School. You can follow him on Twitter @Evan_Knies

Three Reflections upon the Banner of Truth US Conference 2018

US_ministers_web_banner_2018_1As I pulled onto the historic Elizabethtown College campus in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, after my multi-day, 750+ mile journey, I was hit with an odd nervousness. I had signed up to attend the Banner of Truth conference on the mere knowledge of their reputation as a publishing company and the speakers who would set to address this gathering of pastors. I had no previous experience or companions to help me in this new environment, which led to a bit of aimless wandering as I sought directions towards registration and lodging.

At the end of my three day personal retreat at the Banner of Truth Conference, I walked away refreshed, encouraged and refocused on my calling to serve as a pastor. The three days included excellent preaching, reverent worship, new relationships and too many visits to the Banner of Truth bookstore.

I walked away with three personal reflections which highlighted the personal impact of this conference. These three reflections also serve as advertisements for others who are considering whether the Banner of Truth conference might be worth adding to their yearly calendar of conferences and seminars.

Preaching 

Banner of Truth is well known for its republication of classic Reformation and Protestant works. In a day of chronological snobbery and growing functional illiteracy, many classic Christian works which where treasured by the generations of the past are fading from memory. Banner of Truth is working to republish many of these works to ensure that they last for the generations to come.

Along the line of these classic works, the comment was regularly made by the conference speakers concerning the unique nature of this conference, which was a gathering of a particular group of people around a particular set of books. In the same stream of deep theological reflection and piercing pastoral application found in all of the Banner books, the preachers proclaimed the importance of the pastor as servants of Christ. Every message was gripping and pointed at the unique calling of the pastor as one who ministers in service to the church of Christ under Christ’s authority. The preachers examined the multiple perspectives on Scripture concerning the calling and requirements for serving as ministers.

There were two talks that I remember that particularly challenged and encouraged me: Alistair Begg’s second sermon of 1 Timothy 4 on Paul’s exhortation to Timothy and Dr. Mohler’s second sermon on John 15 on Jesus, his servant ministers and the world.

One can trust based upon the nature of the Banner books that the preaching will reflect the nature and depth of their published works at any conference one can attend.

Fellowship

The Banner of Truth conference has a different feel from many conferences pastors can attend today. Having attended conferences with over 10,000 attendees, it was quite different to see the first session gather with roughly 450 pastors. This greatly impacted the nature of the conference. Rather feeling like one individual in a sea of faces, I found myself regularly seeing and greeting the same people, whether in line for the salad bar or shoulder to shoulder looking at the newest Banner of Truth title. This led to many great interactions with different pastors and establishing new relationships with others in ministry. The conference intentionally focuses on helping pastors build relationships with others through shared boarding options, intentional breaks between talks and environments for fellowship instead of herding thousands of people in and out of large rooms and whisking away speakers to other engagements.

There was a unique unity in diversity at the conference. Everyone at the conference had a similar set of beliefs and convictions about ministry from the nature of the Banner of Truth books. Yet there was a great diversity in the education and denominational backgrounds with Presbyterians and Baptists from all across the country and the world. I was encouraged to see Baptist pastors serving in the Northeast area of the US and enjoyed meeting pastors from Ghana and Kenya who were preaching expositional sermons to their congregations and have been reading Banner of Truth books from before I was born. I established a great relationship with an older pastor who even encouragement me with the gift of a book and enjoyed discussing my theological heroes with a group of students and alumni from Westminster Theological Seminary.

The speakers even made themselves regularly available. They sat among the pastors under the preaching of the Word and were very approachable. One speaker made a passing comment which caught my attention which led a great extended interaction later that evening. In a day in which most pastors conferences are maxing out large facilities, it was encouraging and refreshing to be in an environment which supported relationships with other likeminded pastors across denominational lines.

Books

The bookstore was outright dangerous. Every title was discounted and first time visitors were granted the ability for a special “Book Room Tour” which culminated with a number of titles at steeply discounted prices. Every session began with at least three book recommendations, which meant many trips to the bookstore and many calls to my wife.

In discussing a few titles with one of the speakers, I made the mistake of ending our conversation by asking if the titles in my hands were good choices to reassure myself of the potential purchase.

“If they weren’t good books, they wouldn’t be out on the floor.”

Well said.

For anyone who is looking to build a theological library, it was very helpful to have the entire Banner of Truth catalog visible and available with the Banner of Truth staff floating around the bookstore to answer questions. First time guests will have the pleasure of the “Book Room Tour”, which lived up to the expectations set by the veteran Banner attenders concerning its discounts.

All in all, I left Pennsylvania rejuvenated and refocused for pastoral ministry. If you are looking for a pastors conference to attend with fantastic preaching, encouraging fellowship and excellent resources, I highly recommend marking your calendar for the next Banner of Truth Conference.


Jared Poulton (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Pastor of Children and Families at First Baptist Church Dublin, in Dublin, GA. He is married to Kerry Poulton and they have two children, Riley and Oliver. Jared and Kerry are originally from South Carolina. You can follow Jared Poulton on twitter at @Jared_Poulton, or see his personal blog at @jspoulton.wordpress.com.

6 Thoughts For the Non-Traditional Seminary Student

photo-1521001873985-dbe43de9452eMany things about my seminary experience would fall into the category of “non-traditional.”

I remember receiving counsel at the beginning of my seminary education about starting slow.

“Consider three classes the equivalent of a full-time job.”

“If you are a full-time student, consider limiting your outside work to 25 hours a week.”

Well, the need to keep my full-time eligibility for my scholarships and to feed another hungry mouth who was born in my second semester threw my neat and clean, page-protected plan for seminary out the window.

Seminary for my family had its particular challenges. My wife and I moved to Louisville, KY to pursue a Master of Divinity at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the Fall of 2014. Three and a half years, 89 credit hours, two kids, two different full-time management jobs later I received my diploma.

My wife and I regularly make passing comments about how crazy the whole period was for our family and we are thankful that God sustained us through that exciting and challenging season. My busiest semester included 5 seminary classes, 40+ work weeks and the birth of our second child. It goes without saying that my wife is the MVP on my family’s roster.

Many people make comments about “principles for thriving in seminary”, such as the Gospel Coalition article “Your 4 Priorities in Seminary“. and I would heartily recommend a work such as “How to Stay a Christian in Seminary” by David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell. They all emphasize the priority of the local church, the family and a personal relationship with God, not just knowledge of Him.

But a non-traditional student, one who works a full-time or 30+ hour job and continues his or her education at a full-time or part-time pace, has their own particular challenges.

In addition to the great material that others have written about being successful in seminary, here are 6 thoughts I would recommend for the non-traditional seminary student:

Stretch your days, maximize time

Depending upon the type of job you work, if you are going to work full-time and study full-time at some point you are going to need an alarm clock.

The key to working full-time and studying full-time is efficiency; making the most of your time when you have time. For the 9-5er’s your study time is either nights, mornings or weekends. For the non-traditional worker such as the service industry, your study time is the inverse, either mornings, nights or weekends. But for anyone, get into the habit of setting that alarm clock and getting up early or staying up late and setting the alarm clock for work in the morning.

Everyone works differently and the needs of the family are different at different periods. While managing at Chick-fil-A, I ended up closing regularly and sometimes would accomplish assignments after an 11 pm close while my family was asleep. When I was with Starbucks, I got into the habit of waking up at either 4 or 5 am and studying before work or when the family got up for the day. If I had a later morning shift such as getting to work at 7 am, I would go in early and put in an hour of school before work.

Make sure to maximize the little seconds as well. Listening to lectures on drives, having Quizlet apps for language vocabulary, carrying a textbook or backpack with you wherever you go for that 20-minute lunch break, you’ll be surprised how much you can accomplish in the little moments of your day.

Get a calendar and plan ahead

Before every semester I would pull out my calendar and write out all of my assignments and due dates. Then I would go to my work and plan out as far in advance I could my work responsibilities and add my weekly schedule. Then factor in family events, birthdays and date nights. Then I would go back through and see where potential conflicts or busy periods might make school or work complicated and plan to work on assignments differently.

Different industries have different peak periods. For food service, Holidays were really busy times. There were many black Friday’s I was preparing for exams and finishing up papers. If you are in sales or customer service, ask your boss what periods are particularly busy and when you might be expected to work more than normal. Do you have a busy work period around a major project that you might need to start earlier?

Also make sure you communicate with your professors far in advance if you are going to have to miss class for a work responsibility. They appreciate the heads up and can help give you the same material ahead of time.

Build good relationships with your employers

Most bosses do not care if you are in school, but they care if you are a good worker. I know when I was at Southern, many businesses for better or for worse had preconceptions of the seminary student. Some thought they were great, others not so much.

Never use seminary as an excuse to be lazy or call out of a job responsibility. Your work is your responsibility and how you are providing for yourself. If you have a job, God has called you to do it, and it reflects more than just you as a worker. Many people today have bad notions of seminaries and churches because of students who were bad workers for the 2 years they were in town.

If anything, reflect what you are learning by striving to be a good worker. If you are in a pinch for an assignment or have a last-minute thing come up, your boss is going to be much more willing to work with you if you have significantly contributed to their success as a business rather than if they cannot trust you as a worker.

Be strategic about classes and professors 

Many students do not know about the many ways classes are offered by their schools. For the non-traditional student, say goodbye to the four classes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. A great thing about Southern was the variety of classes they offered such as modular-hybrid, online, block and evening classes. Some classes are full-term, others are half-term. Some classes you only need to be “in-class” for two days. The key is to plan out classes which fit well with your work schedule.

I would stack two three-hour block classes on top of each other on a Thursday afternoon so that I could work an 8-hour opening shift and be in class for 6 hours.

One semester I took 2 modular courses, 1 block course, 1 online course, and 1 regular (Tuesday/Thursday) course.

Also for the particularly disciplined, see if you can test out of any classes for credit. I would not recommend this for most people, but as I was heading towards the end of seminary and needed to take Hebrew, I knew it was going to be impossible to make sure that I was in class every week twice a week. So I bought the book, got some flashcards and plowed through Introduction to Hebrew and passed the test. The next semester I took Modular Hebrew Syntax and Exegesis and passed with an A-.

Again I would not recommend that for everyone, but know your options.

Also, relationships with professors are very important during seminary for many reasons. Many non-traditional students are not able to build great relationships with professors because of the nature of online or hybrid courses. So if you have a professor that you like try to take the same professor for multiple classes or shoot for smaller classes. My favorite class was a Puritanism class with four people. I did not know every professor, but I tried to be intentional with a couple of them.

Take Good Notes on Everything

If you are a non-traditional student, you most likely are not going to have as much free-mental space to absorb the content as much as others. There are some days you are not going to be able to give your full attention to a lecture.

But the time in the classroom is not the end of the seminary education. Take notes that you can return to later. Take great notes on lectures, notes on books that you want to return to later, conversations with professors or fellow students. Use Onenote or Evernote. If there is an idea you want to pursue but do not have the time, write it down and return to it later. Have a running dialogue or conversation in your textbooks.

You might not be able to process it all now, but make sure you at least write it down in a way that you can access later. I have organized all of my notes on Onenote and return to things from lectures regularly. I have read back through notes and made connections I never made in the moment.

Commit to Serve in the Local Church 

There is an analogy somewhere of a glass jar with big rock and small rocks. If you make the big rocks the priority, the little rocks will fit. If you do not prioritize the big rocks, they will not fit.

A big big rock is the local church. After a long week, Sunday can feel like a deserved day of rest. Many students can hesitate to participate in church, let alone serve. But the best way to balance a seminary education is with service in the local church. Serving is one of the best ways to get to know others in your church as well.

Step out. Put your name on that sign up sheet and let others make commitments for you. I bet they are looking for another hand in the nursery.

When in seminary I played guitar at church and helped in the nursery. There were many times in which I groggily plumped on the floor and played with one-year olds. But putting my name on a list and having people sign me up forced me to make service a priority.

Also do not underestimate the service of attendance in the local church. Many seminary students can become discouraged in wanting to serve in pastoral ministry but not seeing any doors opening up for them. I remember once at my church a pastor made a comment thanking me for my service of attendance. I stopped and asked him what he meant. He responded by saying that it is a service and encouragement to other Christians, particularly the leaders, to see members faithfully participating and attending services and events sponsored by the church. Do not underestimate what your presence and participating means to others.


One of the things non-traditional students need to accept is that they are not going to have the same experience as the regular student. Many days I slumped into the back of a 2 pm class having already worked 9 hours and burning off twelve shots of espresso, staring down 7 hours of lectures. When others were off to spend free-time in the library, I was running to my car in the middle of a lecture to put out fires at my store (sometimes literally).

Non-traditional students can easily become discouraged in comparing themselves to others. Their experience looks different than the traditional student. Jealousy and comparison are close and ready to take over your mind as you drive home after a long day of work and school.

For the non-traditional student, I’ve been there. I understand. But, don’t be discouraged. Don’t worry about what other people are doing. You have been given today to accomplish the task in front of you, whether you are working, studying or with your family. Do your best, pray, be faithful.

Remember God is calling you to be who he created and designed you to be, not your ideal version of what a seminary student should look like. Don’t get caught up in needing to be a pastor one day or getting the best grade in the class or on what you are not able to do. Be who he has called you to be. Focus on what he has given you to accomplish today, in loving your family, working your job and the privilege studying his Word. Be the non-traditional student he has called you to be and let Him take care of the rest.


Jared Poulton (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Pastor of Children and Families at First Baptist Church Dublin, in Dublin, GA. He is married to Kerry Poulton and they have two children, Riley and Oliver. Jared and Kerry are originally from South Carolina. You can follow Jared Poulton on twitter at @Jared_Poulton, or see his personal blog at @jspoulton.wordpress.com.

Book Review: Reformation Worship

9781948130219_1500x1000c“The recovery of the gospel in the Reformation was ultimately a worship war–a war against the idols, a war for the pure worship of God.” (49)

“Reformation Worship”, a new title compiled by Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey, presents a fresh look at the liturgies of the Reformation period. As the true gospel was recovered in the preaching and theology of the Reformers in the face of the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformers across Europe applied these truths practically in Christian worship services. On the eve of the Reformation, gathered worship displayed Catholic theology. Mass in latin, altars for the sacrifice of the mass, the priestly vestures; everything communicated to the people in practice the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church.

As these Reformed pastor-theologians began to challenge the teaching of the church, it was only a matter of time before the battle moved into the practice of the church.

This volume offers a fresh look at the liturgies of many of the Reformation churches of Europe from 1523 to 1586 as well as commentary from Reformation leaders such as Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin, Cranmer and Knox to their churches explaining the changes from Scripture in contrast to their previous Catholic masses. Many of these liturgies are new translations for the first time in English. The work also begins with three chapters from the editors which outline a simple theology and history of Christian Worship in one of the clearest and best presentations one will find.

From a personal perspective, this volume helped bridge the gap between some of my experience and knowledge of the Reformation period. I spent a few years worshipping in the Anglican tradition and fell in love with the richness of the forms and doctrine. Everything about gathered worship felt different from the non-denominational, Charismatic or contemporary services which I had grown up in. But that experience seemed to stem from a different stream of Christian history than the rest of the Evangelicalism to which I had been exposed. It was interesting to see in reading this volume that what the Anglican or high church traditions currently practice on Sunday mornings was universally practiced by all of the Reformation churches. It has only been through church history that their practices have changed into what you find today in many churches which believe what the Reformers believed but did not practice what they practiced on Sunday mornings. Even chronologically, since the European Reformations preceded the English Reformations and much of the impact upon the Anglican tradition comes from Marian exiles seeing Reformation worship in places like Geneva, Basel and Zurich, the Anglican liturgies are heavily indebted to their European cousins.

At this point, you might be wondering what value a book which translated a bunch of old church bulletins has for the average Christian today. Gathered worship is for the glorification of God in Christ, the building up of the saints and a public witness to the world. The Reformers recovered this vision for Biblical worship. But in particular, the Reformers add two (but definitely not limited to two!) unique perspectives which challenge the church today:

First, Gathered worship is the most formative mean of personal of corporate growth in the Christian life. The practice of regularly gathering on Sunday mornings, week after week, month after month, year after year, has an inevitable impact on the formation of who you are, what you believe and how you live. Particularly because of the Christian and God-ward nature of corporate worship in the preaching of the Word, the praise of God, the edification of the saints, the effectiveness of formation in a Biblical direction is based upon the elements (or absence of elements) of a church service. This work shows how the truths recovered in the Reformation express themselves in the gathered service for those who are looking for a new Reformation in our day.

Second, Nothing in the church service is adiaphora or indifferent. Nothing in the church service is a throw away. Whatever happens when the church gathers from architecture to songs to solos to dress to order of service to prayer to lack of prayer to giving to motions to reading, everything not only is formative but communicates what is true and what is valuable for that particular church.

The worst thing would be for our churches today to be filled with many things that we are communicating to each other and the the world that we find valuable that God in his word does not find valuable.

Do we value prayer? Do we value God’s Word?

The worship services of the Reformers, what they did, honestly make most of our churches, in comparison to their services, look spiritually anemic. They recovered a biblical vision for the whole of Christian life and presented this glorious vision for their parishioners every Sunday.

“While the recovery of the true gospel sparked liturgical reforms, it was in fact the weekly impact of these reformed liturgies that carried this gospel back to the people and sent shock waves across the churches of the European mainland and the Atlantic Isles.” (26)

Now, the size of this book is a bit intimidating, but the wealth of spiritual insight and potential longterm impact of these ideas being reintroduced to today’s churches is incalculable. Every pastor and Christian will glean deep insights from this work which by God’s grace will hopefully impact the worship of God in Gospel-proclaiming churches for ages to come until Christ returns.

Interested in this book? Click the Link Below!

Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present

I received this book from New Growth Press in exchange for my honest review. Feel Free to visit their website to see excellent Gospel-Centered resources: www.newgrowthpress.com


Jared Poulton (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Pastor of Children and Families at First Baptist Church Dublin, in Dublin, GA. He is married to Kerry Poulton and they have two children, Riley and Oliver. Jared and Kerry are originally from South Carolina. You can follow Jared Poulton on twitter at @Jared_Poulton, or see his personal blog at @jspoulton.wordpress.com.