The 2019–2020 school year didn’t go the way faculty, staff, and students envisioned it. In August 2019, as the year began, no one on campus was pondering the possibility of a novel coronavirus spreading across the world. Instead, the calendar was established and schedules were published. Professors and students envisioned doing what they had done the year before: gathering in seminary classrooms each day, studying God’s Word together, and talking about how pastors serve people with Word and Sacrament. Everyone expected that the year would go as planned.
That expectation was based on the faulty assumption that human beings, because they can establish plans and put items on a calendar, control their own lives. Through the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lord taught everyone on the seminary campus to see things differently. James, the brother of our Lord, warned against the unrecognized pride that leads people to think that whatever they envision they can bring to completion. “You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14). We did not know, as the school year began, that classes during the final quarter of the year would have to be held online. We had no idea there would be no in-person graduation service at the close of the year. The lesson is obvious. Sinful human beings, even those covered with the righteousness of Christ through faith, do not control the future.
God’s people are welcome to plan and set a vision for the future. Our vision, however, must be placed before God as a prayer: “Lord, this is what we see ourselves doing. But these are only our plans. If our plans serve your loving and saving purpose, then bring them to fruition.” That’s the attitude James encourages regarding any vision we set: “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:15). We humble ourselves before the Lord, acknowledging our inability to see what he sees. We confess that we can only plan. It’s the Lord who directs every-thing according to his perfect will. With both heart and mouth we gladly say, “Lord willing, the vision we set and the plans we make for the 2020–2021 school year will come to pass.”
Vision comes naturally to mind when one hears “2020.” Those of us who need the assistance of corrective lenses recognize that 20/20 vision is a gift from God. The Lord who could give that blessing directly has chosen to work through eye doctors and many others to do so. He does the same thing when it comes to 20/20 spiritual vision—he grants it indirectly, through his gospel, which he places in the mouths of his gospel ministers. The seminary’s vision is to be the Lord’s instrument for granting the blessing of 20/20 spiritual vision to men who will proclaim his gospel as pastors and missionaries.
Since the Lord chooses to give the blessing of 20/20 spiritual vision through his Word, as it is read, heard, and pondered, life at the seminary centers around the living Word of Christ. In his final letter, the Apostle Paul directed Timothy to prepare future gospel servants who would be able to carry on the work after he had finished the race: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). Timothy was to train men who knew and believed in Jesus as their Savior and could be counted on to proclaim the truth they had received. At the end of the following chapter, St. Paul explained that a thorough study of the Holy Scripture must be at the heart of that preparation. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16–17). The Spirit who gave the writers of Scripture the thoughts and words they were to write also equips future pastors to minister to—and with—the people of God.
Though much has changed at the seminary from its founding in 1863 to the 2020–2021 school year, the life-giving, clear-vision-granting Word of God remains at the center of it all. Faculty, students, and staff have the privilege of gathering in the chapel each morning to receive the Word and to respond to it with thanksgiving. Each of the curriculum’s areas of study—Biblical Theology, Historical Theology, Systematic Theology, and Practical Theology—aims to help pastors and future pastors see more clearly.
As professors and students together reflect on God’s Word, the Lord is at work. He’s continually seeking to remove the scales from their eyes, so that they might see themselves as they really are. Though the sinful flesh wishes to see only the goodness of his heart, the Lord speaks the painful truth, “The heart is deceitful above all things” ( Jeremiah 17:9), so that the individual must view himself the way the Apostle did: “the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15) of sinners. When the Lord speaks his word of absolution to the future pastor who sees his sinful-ness more clearly than he ever has in the past, then the individual can see Jesus properly. Jesus is not the Lamb who takes away a few sins from those who have been mostly good. He’s rather the one whose righteousness covers the worst of sinners. The eyes that see Christ as the Savior of all function the way God desires them to.
The Lord who enables future pastors to see themselves clearly and to see Jesus clearly then begins to transform their vision of others. The individual who confesses, “I am the worst of sinners,” cannot look down on others, as if they were worse. If faith in Christ is a gift of God, completely undeserved, a pastor cannot act as if he is more worthy of love than the person who is impenitently engaging in homosexual activity, for example. Instead, the Lord moves the future pastor, in light of Christ’s death for all, to “regard no one from a worldly point of view” (2 Corinthians 5:16).
As professors and students consider God’s Word together, the Lord opens their eyes to see abundant opportunities for gospel ministry all around them. Proclaiming law and gospel to the world cannot be reserved for a more convenient time, because “now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
The seminary’s vision for 2020 and beyond is to be the Lord’s instrument to correct the vision of men who will serve as pastors in our synod.
That means seeking, through the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, to form Christians who view themselves as sinners and see Jesus as their perfect Savior. It also means helping pastors and future pastors see all the people around them as objects of God’s love in Christ, whom they have the privilege of serving with the gospel until Jesus returns.
President Earle Treptow teaches systematic theology.
This article first appeared the 2020 issue of Preach the Gospel.