I remember when I heard it. I was riding my bike listening to the audio of a panel discussion. I couldn’t keep pedaling. It’s a quote from D.A. Carson at the 2011 Gospel Coalition conference.
I sometimes tell students at the seminary that I have learned during the last thirty five years that most of the students do not learn most of what I teach them. What they tend to learn is what I most emphasize; they tend to learn what I come back to again and again—what I put at the center.
Therefore, if it is a broad sweeping discipline that I am trying to pass on to them, only a few of them will pick that up—the other eggheads like me. But on the other hand, if at the heart of a teacher’s ministry is a passion for the gospel, a passion for men and women, even while they are teaching advanced Greek grammar and that sort of thing, it does shape their priorities and values beyond the discipline itself.
(D.A. Carson, speaking at The Gospel Coalition: Training the Next Generation of Pastors and Other Christian Leaders, Panel Discussion: R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Mark Driscoll, David Helm, Don Carson and Ligon Duncan, The Gospel Coalition 2011 National Conference, Apr 13, 2011; quote at 25:00-25:30 minutes)
You may be confused why this quote terrifies me. It terrifies me because I teach for a living. And as a teacher, I too emphasize all sorts of different things. And Carson’s comments terrify me because they force me to evaluate what I prize at the center of all that I teach. What do I come back to again and again? What is at the heart of my ministry? Is it the gospel—a passion for the fame of Jesus Christ?
Consider what you are really passionate about—the thing behind all of the other things in your life. What is it that you think about when you are just sitting around or driving across town? What do you day dream about? If I spent the week hanging out with you, what would I remember most?
These are scary questions.
A great example of keeping the “main thing” central in one’s teaching is seen in the fatherly advice from Proverbs 1-9. Over and over—and just before and just after everything else that the father talks about—the father in Proverbs calls his son to treasure the supremacy of wisdom and the commands of God (cf. 1:20-33; 2:1-22; 3:5-8; 4:1-27; 5:1-2; 6:20-23; 7:1-4; 8:1-9:18). I think the takeaway is that there are 1,000 pursuits in life—but above them all and through them all—we are to seek to know God in wisdom.
It’s so tempting in the teaching ministry of a church or in a seminary, or in life generally, to be pulled into 1,000 separate noble pursuits. But what I learn from Carson and Proverbs is that we have to keep the main thing, the main thing— since everything else will probably be forgotten.