When I began my theological studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, I had only heard stories of Dr. Alan Tomlinson. In many ways he was a legend to me, and rightfully so. I know of no other man with as many near death experiences as Dr. Tomlinson. I still remember the first time I met him in person. As I sat down and ate my Chick-fil-A sandwich at the new student orientation luncheon, he sat beside me. Wanting to get any advice I could before starting seminary, I asked him what books I should read to prepare for my studies. He suggested, How to Read a Book, The Grammar Book, and The Memory Book. And those books were great, but they would pale in comparison to the preparation I would receive over the next few years. Sitting there that day, I had no idea God would use Dr. Tomlinson to change the trajectory of my life.
After sitting through New Testament with Dr. Tomlinson, I quickly figured out what he was all about. Learning the Biblical languages and understanding the first century context were his bread and butter. It all sounded great to me, after all, I wanted to “do the right thing.” But after taking Elementary Greek and, well, not doing so well, I didn’t think I had it in me. But that didn’t stop Dr. Tomlinson. Some how, some way, he caught wind that I wasn’t taking Intermediate Greek with him the next year. After a brief, two hour, meeting in his office he had done it. He gently dragged me kicking and screaming into the first century.
I say gently for this reason: after sharing about my struggle with Greek, Dr. Tomlinson offered to tutor me in the summer so I would be caught up with the other students. I took him up on that offer, and it changed my life.
Here are four lessons I learned from Dr. Tomlinson.
- Remain teachable.
Dr. Tomlinson is one of the brightest men I know. With most, that knowledge leads to a prideful, critical attitude. It’s not so with Dr. Tomlinson. He consistently told us in class, “There isn’t a day that goes by where the Bible doesn’t correct me.” No matter what stage of life you are in, whether you have your Ph.D. in Systematic Theology or you have never taken a seminary course, choose to be a lifelong learner.
- Remember, God is powerful through your weakness.
One Wednesday after class I approached Dr. Tomlinson in need of some guidance. I was preaching that evening to students at the church I was serving at, and I simply felt inadequate for the task. Dr. Tomlinson guided me to 2 Corinthians and gave me the following encouragement, “Michael, remember, God is powerful through your weakness.” This moment altered my perspective of ministry. If you feel inadequate for the task God has called you to, remember “[his] grace is sufficient for you, for [his] power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corin. 12:9).
- Give your life to those around you.
We live in a culture where most pastors and professors are inaccessible. This was not my experience at Midwestern and there is no better example than Dr. Tomlinson. He consistently misses his lunch break because he is engaging with students. He made his choice years ago; his life would be spent pouring into others. Dr. Tomlinson’s character impacted me even more than his knowledge of first century Rome. Are you accessible? Are you approachable? Pour out your life to those around you.
- Know your limits.
When my last year of seminary started, I was in over my head. Enrolled in Intermediate Greek, Elementary Hebrew, and Theological German, I overestimated what I could do. When Dr. Tomlinson found this out, he directed me to “go straight to the registrar and drop one of them in a New York minute!” You can imagine what I did. I walked straight to the registrar and dropped one of them. It’s possible he saved my life that semester; he certainly saved my sanity and GPA.
Know your limits. If you try to do everything at once, you’ll end up doing everything halfway. There is no need to rush through life trying to be as busy as possible. Learn to say no. Work hard and simultaneously rest in the finished work of Christ.
These are just four lessons I learned from Dr. Tomlinson. His legacy can be seen in the countless lives changed over his decades of faithful ministry. I’m sure his students over the years could compile an endless list of lessons. Maybe one day it will happen. Either way, I am forever grateful for my time with Dr. Alan Tomlinson at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.