I frequently find myself in conversations in which Christian students are considering their commitment to ministering to others. The card they play in order to avoid such commitment is frequently, “I have to remember that I’m a student first.” Maybe Mom and Dad have so drilled it in that it’s the default response. Maybe on move-in day, as Johnny Freshman shut the car door for the last time, Mr. or Mrs. Freshman whispered profoundly, like Tom Hanks’ “Earn this” from Saving Private Ryan, “Remember, Johnny. You’re a student first.” Maybe it’s just a noble-sounding way to live out a self-centered existence. Whatever it is, it’s not true for the follower of Christ.

To be fair to Mom, Dad, and Johnny, it’s true that his primary vocation for the next four(ish) years is that of student. Inordinate amounts of money have gone into this pursuit, and many “educations” have been wasted because of the lack of that very perspective. But believing moms and dads should consider a new tactic, lest they build for themselves a worshiper of academic achievement(who probably already is one).

What I tell students most often is a Piper quote, usually with an attempted impersonation: “You are ten thousand times a Christian!” College student, as its own identity, not grounded in identity in Christ, yields all sorts of perversions. Obsession over grades, prideful competition, self-centered lonerism, and a forgetting of eternity are just a few.

College is not a necessary step in the life of a person, an American, or a Christian. It is an option. A wonderful and rare option when considering the opportunities of the world, but an option nonetheless. The only necessity is the giving of one’s life for the enjoyment of the glory of Christ, and others’ subsequent enjoyment of that glory. It is only in understanding that foundational purpose, along with the setting of this broken world, full of sin and lost souls, that college begins to fit in. It is then that a student can ask, “What ought I to do with these four years? How much should I study? How much should I read the Bible? How much time should I give to others? To helping them know Jesus?” These are all valid questions without cookie-cutter answers. Poor students make poor witnesses for Jesus and ungrateful image-bearers, but so do obsessively perfectionistic students who tout “being excellent” as their sole Christian purpose.

When Johnny Freshman (or more likely Johnny Junior) is able to zoom out and understand his four years of college as one chapter in the larger story of God’s redemption of this broken world, then he can establish aims that are greater than simple academic achievement. They may very well include academic achievement, but it is never the end. The souls of men are the end. The glory of Christ is the end(see III John 4, I Thess. 2:19-20, I Thess. 3:8, Philippians 1:20-26 for evidence of the non-contradiction in the last two statements).

So remember this, Johnny: You are not a student first. There is nothing about your performance as a student that defines you in the eyes of your Father. To quote the apostle Paul, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God”(Colossians 3:3). And because of this, your life is not “of any value nor as precious to [yourself], if only [you] may finish [your] course...to testify solemnly to the gospel of Christ Jesus”(Acts 20:24). Your testifying to the gospel of Christ may take on more dimensions that Paul’s very specific call as a frontier missionary, but make no mistake, that is your call. You are a disciple of Jesus, and you are now in the business of putting the glory of His grace on display to all you know, both in word and in studies.

To ask yourself:

  1. Why do I study? Why do I study as much(or as little) as I do? What does it have to do with Jesus?
  2. Why have I chosen my major?
  3. How do the souls of people contribute to my perspective on college?