Jesus Is Better Than Seminary

Gems from John Flavel

In 17th century England, God raised up a minister who is largely overlooked in our day, although more has been written of him in the last several decades.[1] His name is John Flavel, and he was a Puritan. I just began reading the 6-volume set of The Works of John Flavel and a couple other biographies, and let me just say, I can’t put them down. He is theologically rich yet pastorally applicable. He brings incredibly dense doctrines like the hypostatic union (the union between Christ’s divine and human nature) down to the layperson and applies passages in such a way that moves my soul like I haven’t felt in a while. But an introduction to Flavel’s life and theology is beyond the scope of this brief article. Instead, I want to show you, using Flavel’s own words, that Jesus is better than any seminary or theological education the world offers.

Flavel writes, 

Take away the knowledge of Christ, and a Christian is the most sad and melancholy creature in the world: again, let Christ but manifest himself, and dart the beams of his light into their souls, it will make them kiss the stakes, sing in flames, and shout in the pangs of death, as men that divide the spoil.[2]

So, for Flavel, knowing Christ was paramount. If you didn’t know Christ, you didn’t know God; and if you didn’t know God, you were not saved. Flavel was well trained in the biblical languages and strove to understand backwards and forwards every major biblical controversy of his time; so, he loved studying and learning. He believed in a methodological study of Scripture, but affirmed that one doesn’t need to study the Scriptures methodologically in order to be saved—though if you do, you will have a “well-digested knowledge of Christ.”[3] Here is what he says,

Practical and saving knowledge of Christ is the sincere Christian’s excellency above the self-cozening hypocrite, Heb. 6:4, 6. but methodical and well-digested knowledge of Christ is the strong Christian’s excellency above the weak, Heb. 5:12, 13, 14. A saving, though an immethodical knowledge of Christ, will bring us to heaven, John 17:2. but a regular and methodical, as well as a saving knowledge of him, will bring heaven into us, Col. 2:2, 3.[4] 

In other words, you don’t have engage in a rigorous study of Scripture to be saved. Think of the dying thief at Jesus’s side. Do you think he ever studied Jesus’s Bible the way the Scribes and Pharisees did? Likely not! But what does Jesus say to the thief upon his repentance? “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). So, saving faith is not dependent upon how much you know of Scripture. To be sure, you will reap eternal treasures of knowledge if indeed you dive deep in Scripture. In his poetic words, “a regular and methodical [study of Scripture] … will bring heaven into [you].” 

Yet, Flavel warns us: “Many learned philosophers are now in hell, and many illiterate Christians in heaven.”[5] That we know the Bible well does not guarantee a secure entrance into heaven. Take the Scribes and Pharisees again. They knew their Bibles more than anybody else in their time, and what did Jesus tell them? “Woe to you” (Matt 23:13–39). Why? Because they didn’t really know their Bibles. They didn’t truly believe in it. The eyes of their hearts were not enlightened with its eternal knowledge (Eph 1:18). On the one hand, they knew their Bibles; on the other, they didn’t know it at all. On these lines, Flavel writes,

Let us see that our knowledge of Christ be not a powerless, barren, unpractical knowledge: O that, in its passage from our understanding to our lips, it might powerfully melt, sweeten, and ravish our hearts![6] 

We cannot truly know God’s word until it “melts, sweetens, ravish[es] our hearts.” The truths of God’s word are meant to be felt and applied. If you don’t love God (feeling) and love your neighbor (application), then you don’t know God (Matt 22:39).

Jesus is better than seminary because no seminary can provide what Jesus provides: he freely implants a spiritual and efficacious knowledge (Jer 24:7; 31:34) into hearts of his people (Ezek 36:26). Truly knowing Christ is loving and obeying Christ. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). A saving knowledge of Christ isn’t “unpractical,” but always leads into application. Indeed, we cannot help but live in a radically new way once God saves us. God prepared us for a new life in the Spirit, which consists of radical, biblical application (Eph 2:1–10). Therefore, our knowledge of Christ feeds our love for Christ, which arbitrates our obedience to Christ (2 Cor 5:14).

John Flavel knew that Jesus is better than seminary. He knew that you could spend four years at an institution and not truly see or know Jesus. To be sure, many seminaries all across the globe offer a wealth of biblical knowledge, but no seminary can ever die for your sins and grant you a new heart. I’m thankful to God for the institution that I study at because they point me to the Christ, Jesus the Son of God; but I am even more thankful for the Christ who died for my sins, shepherds my heart by the moving of his Holy Spirit, and secures for me an eternal seat with God the Father in heaven. May we learn from Flavel who saw saving, spiritual knowledge as a means of God’s grace to save his people from the eternal fires of hell. 

Therefore, go deep in the Book, Christian; but do not that think mere head knowledge saves you. [E]very true Christian hath the knowledge of all the essentials, and may know the orders and places of them all.”[7] Seminary can equip Christians, but it cannot make Christians. Only God can grant us true, saving knowledge that penetrates our hard hearts so that we see that Jesus is not only infinitively better than seminary, but anything else in all creation.

[1] For a great overview, see Brian H Cosby “John Flavel: The “Lost” Puritan,” PRJ, 1 (2011): 113–132.

[2] John Flavel, The Whole Works of the Reverend John Flavel, vols., 1–6 (London; Edinburg; Dublin: W. Baynes and Son; Waugh and Innes; M. Keene, 1820), 1:35.

[3] Ibid., 1:21.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 1:38.

[6] Ibid., 1:41.

[7] Ibid., 1:22, emphasis mine.