Topic The call to the ministry Time October 2016 Place APC, South Africa
For these sessions I want us first to go down to the beach – the beach at Miletus to where Paul called the Ephesians elders together as described in Acts 20:17-35 and spoke to them saying
You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus .... Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have not coveted anyone's silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.
Paul says to these elders (28) Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. It was the Holy Spirit who had made them elders. It was not something of human devising.
Now this idea is very much under attack in our day. A survey of some 400 men thinking about ministry in the 21st century revealed that 40 % were confused as to what was a divine call. That is not surprising when we hear what some are saying. Let me give you an example. An American writer called Dan Phillips has written on the Pyromaniacs Blog (eg here)
The concept of a call to pastoral ministry or a call to preach is deeply ingrained, and deeply traditional. It is down there at the point of men wearing pants when they preach. You don't question it, you just do it. Actually, it's deeper, since it is believed to be a Divine necessity, a movement of the Holy Spirit. I've heard of "the call" looming as a critical facet of ordination committee meetings. The candidate has to relate his sense of calling. If he can't, his "call" is suspect at best.
So I'll just ask one question. It should be a really obvious question. In fact, it should be the first question, shouldn't it? … What verse in the Bible talks about a pastor's "call"? The answer, of course, is no verse. Not one.
I have already read to you Acts 20:28. It is not a solitary verse. In Romans 10 Paul asks how a man can preach if he is not sent. How can you be a messenger or a herald or an ambassador if you are not sent? In 1 Corinthians 12:28 Paul says God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers. Ephesians 4:11, 12 is similar Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. In 2 Corinthians 4:1 Paul speaks of how through God's mercy we have this ministry and in 5:18 of how God gave us the ministry of reconciliation.
What this mistaken rejection of the call is, is an over-reaction It is true that some have sounded rather mystical when they have spoken about the call and that has made some fearful. Even as far back as the nineteenth century American Presbyterian R L Dabney, for example, there is concern over advocates of the call making reference to the call of Old Testament prophets. Certainly these are not the same things but the best people who turn to verses like Jeremiah 3:15, 23:4, 32 and 27:15 are only seeking to support their case with such arguments. These verses speak interestingly of God giving his people shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding … shepherds over them who will tend them, so that they are no longer ... afraid or terrified and none are missing and false prophets of whom God says I did not send or appoint them, I have not sent them.
Dabney says “the church has always held that none should preach the gospel but those who are called of God”. There is a certain uniformity in the way the case is presented by the traditionalists but most of them have something more to say too. Let me take four examples from four different centuries and meld together what they say. They are very similar but supplement each other. The four are John Newton from the eighteenth century, C H Spurgeon from the nineteenth, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones from the twentieth and Stuart Olyott from the present.
First let me draw your attention to 1 Timothy 3:1-7, from where most of the ideas promoted come from. There Paul says
Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgement as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil's trap.
These verses tell us two main things about the ministry.
1. It is good to aspire to be an overseer, to want to be one
2. However, it is not a calling that is open to just anyone. Certain qualifications are necessary. We can divide these qualifications into six
1 In general he must be above reproach
2 More specifically he must be positively faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,
3 Negatively not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a money lover.
4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?)
5 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgement as the devil.
6 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil's trap.
1. Avoid being mistaken
Spurgeon begins a lecture to his students on this subject by saying
When I think upon the all but infinite mischief which may result from a mistake as to our vocation for the Christian pastorate, I feel overwhelmed with fear lest any of us should be slack in examining our credentials; and I had rather that we stood too much in doubt, and examined too frequently, than that we should become cumberers of the ground. … As well be a professor without conversion, as a pastor without calling. In both cases there is a name and nothing more.
Towards the end of his paper he has a sometimes amusing section that draws on his experiences with the pastor's college. He gives several examples of men clearly not fit to serve.
- In some cases it is clear that their only motive is “”an ambitious desire to shine among men”. Ambition is all very well but not in the ministry.
- Also “men who since conversion have betrayed great feebleness of mind and are readily led to embrace strange doctrines, or to fall into evil company and gross sin … Unstable as water they will not excel.”
- He turns away, too, “those who cannot endure hardness”.
- There are those of “enormous vehemence and zeal, and a conspicuous absence of brains”, mere talkers.
- He has seen many who “cannot teach and will not learn, and yet must fain be ministers”.
- He talks about physical infirmities, such as a narrow chest. Microphones have perhaps made a loud booming voice unnecessary. Other infirmities are likely to preclude a call.
- There is certainly no room for those simply unable to do anything else. He says his answer to such people is
Yes, I see; you have failed in everything else, and therefore you think the Lord has especially endowed you for his service; but I fear you have forgotten that the ministry needs the very best of men, and not those who cannot do anything else. … A man who would succeed as a preacher would probably do right well either as a grocer, or a lawyer, or anything else. A really valuable minister would have excelled at anything. There is scarcely anything impossible to a man who can keep a congregation together for years, and be the means of edifying them for hundreds of consecutive Sabbaths; he must be possessed of some abilities, and be by no means a fool or ne'er-do-well. Jesus Christ deserves the best men to preach his cross, and not the empty-headed and the shiftless.
- He speaks too of a man very full of himself who was rather surprised when Spurgeon said
“Sir, I am obliged to tell you that I cannot receive you." "Why not, Sir?" "I will tell you plainly. You are so dreadfully clever that I could not insult you by receiving you into our College, where we have none but rather ordinary men; the president, tutors, and students, are all men of moderate attainments, and you would have to condescend too much in coming among us." He looked at me very severely, and said with dignity, "Do you mean to say, that because I have an unusual genius, and have produced in myself a gigantic mind such as is rarely seen, I am refused admittance into your College?" "Yes," I replied, as calmly as I could, considering the overpowering awe which his genius inspired, "for that very reason."
He still insisted on Spurgeon hearing him preach as “it would be the greatest possible pleasure you could have." Spurgeon agreed it might be, but, he said to him he felt himself unworthy of the privilege, so bade him a long farewell.
- One more sort he is not happy with are those who say "Mr. So-and-so is prepared to receive the doctrines of the College whatever they may be!" Young men who have not made up their minds on theology, ought to go back to the Sunday-school until they have.
In more recent times Stuart Olyott has spoken to the subject in a similar way. He repeats Al Martin's six wrong reasons for men seeking to be ministers.
1. An inaccurate assessment of one's own gifts and graces. It is bad enough when someone thinks they have a wonderful sinning voice when they haven't. People who think they have what it takes to be a minister when they do not are a menace.
2. An uncrucified lust for the authority and attention connected with public ministry.
3. An unbalanced concept of spirituality. It is a mistake to think that being a minister somehow guarantees a greater spirituality.
6. The unsanctified or the unwise ambition of parents, pastors or friends.
2. Rightly motivated desire
Newton,who Spurgeon quotes with approval, wrote a letter on the subject. He begins by acknowledging the great uncertainties, difficulties and perplexity of mind, heightened by the variety of different opinions of his friends, that he knew before entering the ministry. Now he says it “seems to me an easy point to solve” though he does not suppose all will find it so at once. He makes three points. First, he says the ministry consists of a warm and earnest desire to be employed in this service. He recognises that the desire can be unrealistic but as a general rule it is a good sign of a call, other things being equal.
Spurgeon's begins in the same place. The first sign of a heavenly call is an intense, all-absorbing desire for the work. There must be “an irresistible, overwhelming craving and raging thirst for telling to others what God has done to our own souls”. He quotes the old rule “Do not enter the ministry if you can help it” that is, if with good conscience, you can follow another calling, do so.
This desire, he too says, must be thoughtful. It must not be a mere sudden impulse. He tells the story of how once as a child, living in the country with his grandfather, he
saw a company of huntsmen in their red coats riding through his fields after a fox. I was delighted! My little heart was excited; I was ready to follow the hounds over hedge and ditch. I have always felt a natural taste for that sort of business, and, as a child, when asked what I would be, I usually said I was going to be a huntsman. A fine profession, truly!
That is a mere whim, however. A man's desire for the ministry must be something more.
The desire must also be thoroughly disinterested. Motives are important.
This desire should be one which continues, a passion that bears the test of trial. It ought to be a growing desire.
In the twentieth century Martyn Lloyd-Jones said similar things. His teaching has been summarised by Steve Lawson. He too puts first what he calls an inner compulsion within to preach the Word. There must be “a consciousness within one’s own spirit, an awareness of a kind of pressure being brought to bear upon one’s spirit.” He spoke of an irresistible impulse, “some disturbance in the realm of the spirit” that “your mind is directed to the whole question of preaching.” He says
You do your utmost to push back and to rid yourself of this disturbance in your spirit which comes in these various ways. But you reach the point when you cannot do so any longer. It almost becomes an obsession, and so overwhelming that in the end you say, “I can do nothing else, I cannot resist any longer.
Lloyd-Jones goes further when he speaks of what he called an overwhelming constraint within. He must preach regardless of what others may say. With this, however, he also added a sobering humility. “The man who is called by God” he said “is a man who realises what he is called to do, and he so realises the awfulness of the task that he shrinks from it.”
Olyott also makes this what he calls the first of four irreducible elements in a call - desire, born of right motives. He speaks of a reaching out for the office – intensely, consciously, deeply, with an abiding desire, and of being willing – an indigenous deep desire to take the responsibilities of oversight – weary of forbearing, unable to remain silent.
The desire, however, must be born of right motives. Echoing Spurgeon he says it must be a considerate desire – not unrealistic or romantic – seeking to assess the pressures, responsibilities and demands of the ministry realistically; a constraining desire – a desire to serve Christ and his people which grows each day, and is most intense in one's holiest moments; a 'disinterested' desire – lacking in personal ambition – looking to the object of the ministry, not itself. He says “this desire may be present almost from birth, from conversion, or later. But it must be there!”.
3. Success with the lost or at least a great love for them
Interestingly Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones both have something not in Newton. Spurgeon says that before entering the ministry a man must have seen a measure of conversion-work going on under his efforts. He does not suggest that such conversions will necessarily come quickly but they must occur. Perhaps it is better to say that if a man does not see anyone converted in the first few years of his ministry then he ought to consider whether he is called. Even then circumstances do vary.
Lawson suggest that Lloyd-Jones would include as a criterion a loving concern for others. God gives to the one chosen to preach an overwhelming compassion for people.
The true call always includes a concern about others, an interest in them, a realisation of their lost estate and condition, and a desire to do something about them, and to tell them the message and point them to the way of salvation.
Lawson quotes him
I used to be struck almost dumb sometimes in London at night when I stood watching the cars passing, taking people to the theatres and other places with all their talk and excitement, as I suddenly realised that what all this meant was that these people were looking for peace, peace from themselves.
Perhaps this slightly less prescriptive item reflects the way conversions were so much less common in twentieth century London compared with the nineteenth century.
4. Appropriate gifts and graces
Newton's second observation is that there must in due season appear some competent sufficiency as to gifts, knowledge, and utterance. If the Lord wants a man to teach others, he will provide him with the means. These gifts will not necessarily be evident at first. Personally, I have seen men eager for the ministry but not able, at first, to preach well.
Spurgeon similarly says there must be aptness to teach and some measure of the other qualities needful for the office of a public instructor. As Newton notes this ability will not necessarily come fully formed at once. Spurgeon says this is not something we should simply try and work out on our own. In some cases it will only be when a man actually tries to preach that he will know more certainly whether it is to be his calling. We ought to listen willingly to the opinion of the godly – although they can be wrong. Spurgeon recommends asking the opinion of wise friends who hear us.
- Teaching gifts alone are not enough. The man must have a good character. Spurgeon mentions “sound judgement and solid experience”. You must be fitted to lead, prepared to endure, and able to persevere. In grace, you should be head and shoulders above the rest of the people, able to be their father and counsellor.
- Olyott puts gifts and graces under two different headings. He begins with graces, which he says indicate genuine, mature, Christian experience. These are the chief requirement in Scripture, not gifts. There must be an evident display of such graces, revealing a balanced godliness. “The desire to be holy must be stronger than the desire to preach and teach, or the desire to preach and teach is under suspicion “ he argues. He recognises that such graces are not cultivated overnight. They do not come quickly or easily. A would be minister should be working to cultivate these graces, However. “That's the clue which shows whether your desire is born of right motive”.
- The gifts, indicate God's provision. Desires and graces are not enough, there must be evidence that God has given a man the appropriate gifts. He does not give men to the church who have insufficient gifts to edify his people. “Where God calls a man, he equips him in this area.”
- 5. A providential opening
- For Newton and Spurgeon the vital final element is a corresponding opening in providence. Again we must not be too quick to decide whether this has happened or not. In some cases there maybe a long wait. “If you had the talents of an angel” says Newton “you could do no good with them till his hour is come, and till he leads you to the people whom he has determined to bless by your means.”
- Spurgeon labels his final requirement that your preaching should be acceptable to the people of God. He agrees with Newton that God usually opens doors for those he calls, as Newton says.
- Lloyd-Jones also spoke both of outside influence – the input and counsel of other believers confirming our own sense that we are called - and of how corporate confirmation must come, if we are to be ministers.
- Olyott simply says that an opportunity to minister indicating providential approval is necessary as the last step. If the other elements are present but there is no open door, he says
you must wait for God to open one. When this happens, it is the seal of your call. Until then you will have some hesitations about your call. But you can do no good. until his hour has come. Wait for the opening which God brings about.
The work of preaching is the highest and greatest and most glorious calling to which anyone can ever be called.
Charles Bridges author of The Christian ministry suggests that it is the lack of a divine calling that is the main cause of failure in the Christian ministry. Surely he is right to say that a failure at this point is bound to lead to trouble further on down the line. It is very important for us to be absolutely clear on this vital matter. Have you ever watched someone buttoning a cardigan or shirt and starting with the wrong button? If you start wrong like that, it will never put itself right.