The saving grace of pastoral work
It was one of the most stirring and direct messages to pastors and workers that I have ever heard. In it the speaker said that God did not call him into ministry because he was somebody special and had extraordinary gifts for preaching. “No,” the speaker affirmed, “God called me into the ministry to save me! He couldn’t trust me to be a layperson!”
Quite a sobering thought!
Recently I heard that speaker again. He reiterated the same seminal idea: the reason he serves as a pastor is because it is the only way God can save him. Though he was referring to himself, this assertion seemed to resonate deeply with me. I was unexpectedly and emphatically reminded of the humbling call to the gospel ministry and also stimulated to biblically and personally explore that idea to see whether this assertion may be more than just a personal philosophy. Is the call to the gospel ministry somehow a grace that God uses to save me?
The calling of the apostle Paul seems to lend credence to this unflattering reality. Scripture may insinuate that this man of such noble stature and proud reputation was indeed a hard man to win, so hard that Jesus had to do it Himself (Acts 26:12–18). Not only did Jesus win Paul to Himself He also appointed him to the gospel ministry. Is it possible that Jesus could not leave Paul to serve only as a member in the pew? How long would a man like Paul last in the pew of a local church? Of even greater concern, with a gospel zealot like Paul in the pew, how long could the other members last there? Did Paul’s hard nature require a position that would force him to rely completely upon Christ on a more demanding scale or else risk a miserable failure?
A critical tie
Romans 1:1 gives us a hint. Paul understood the critical tie between his call and his personal relationship to Christ: “Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God.”1 The Greek for bondservant is doulos. As an adjective it signifies being in bondage. As a noun, the way it is used here, it means “servant” and indicates subjection without the idea of bondage.2 In other words, it is not a forced subjection but a voluntary one—subjecting one’s will and life wholly at the disposal of another.3
Paul’s call and success in serving as an apostle hinged unequivocally upon his personal subjection and adherence to the lordship of Christ. I believe this is to be true for every gospel minister. It is an uncompromising obligation that we adhere to our Lord in every way or risk a miserable failure.
A great deal of literature is available on the multifaceted nature of the gospel ministry, but that is not my purpose here. My burden is different and best expressed in two statements from the pen of Ellen G. White: “We shall seek God earnestly, and as ministers of God preaching the gospel, we should carry these great truths into our daily lives, and show that we are living examples of what we preach—that we are carrying into our everyday life practical godliness—then wherever we go we will be a power.”4 “The success of a minister depends upon his deportment out of the desk. When he ceases preaching and leaves the desk, his work is not finished; it is only commenced. He must then carry out what he has preached. He should not move heedlessly, but set a watch over himself, lest something that he may do and say be taken advantage of by the enemy, and a reproach be brought upon the cause of Christ.”5
Simply put, our call demands adherence to Christ and adhering to Christ is an experience of being saved in Christ.
Our pride and self-confidence as ministers of the gospel can sabotage the purpose of God’s call. While it may be good to have a bit of holy ego, it is an absolute imperative to have a large dose of humility to keep the holy ego in check. That humility comes from remembering who we are and whose we are. As the Lord said to Israel through Moses: “The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples” (Deut. 7:7). So we must ever remember that it is not because we are something great that God chose us but because He is great! Let these sobering words sink in: “Therefore understand that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Deut. 9:6).
The admonition and warning to the children of Israel prior to inheriting the Promised Land also rings true to us as ministers of the gospel: “When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.
“Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments, His judgments, and His statues which I command you today, lest—when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them; and when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; when your heart is lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage” (Deut. 8:10–14).
When the Lord has prospered our preaching, multiplied our congregants, expanded our houses of worship, placed us in positions of administrative service or high repute among preachers, increased the tithe of our churches, caused us to be well traveled because of our preaching par excellence, or simply given us the grace of many years of service, then we are admonished to remember the strong counsel, “Do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments, His judgments, and His statues” (Deut. 8:11). In the daily grind and growth of our ministry experience we are to remember God and to remain reverent before Him, exemplified through a humble life of loving obedience.
Ellen White makes a spine-tingling denouncement: “The reason why there is so little of the Spirit of God manifested is that ministers learn to do without it. They lack the grace of God, lack forbearance and patience, lack a spirit of consecration and sacrifice; and this is the only reason why some are doubting the evidences of God’s Word. The trouble is not at all in the word of God, but in themselves. They lack the grace of God, lack devotion, personal piety, and holiness. This leads them to be unstable, and throws them often on Satan’s battlefield.”6
The truth is that in our pastoral routines, it is so easy, like Mary and Joseph journeying back from the Jerusalem Passover celebration, to leave Jesus behind. Neil B. Wiseman and H.B. London Jr., in their great book The Heart of a Great Pastor, write: “In pastoral routines, it is easy to forget that ministry at its core has a supernatural linkage with the resources of God. Although most pastors can preach, counsel, visit, comfort, raise funds or lead without divine enablement, everyone does it better with God’s help . . . . God never intended a pastor’s work to be mere human effort.”7
We sabotage the purpose of the call when we distance ourselves from the Master and lose the reverence by which the work of the gospel is to be performed. Like Mary and Joseph, we must go back and find Jesus so that we are not without Him for the rest of our journey. A man or woman of God who is distant from Jesus cannot be trusted with the things of God. By close proximity to Jesus, ministers of the gospel become people of holy integrity. Samuel Logan Brengle says that spiritual authority and leadership are “not won nor established by promotion, but by many prayers tears and confessions of sin and heart-searchings and humblings before God, and self-surrender and a courageous sacrifice of every idol and a bold and deathless, and uncompromising and uncomplaining embrace of the Cross and an eternal unfaltering looking unto Jesus crucified. . . . That is a great price, but it must be unflinchingly paid by him who would be not merely a nominal, but a real spiritual leader of men.”8
As real spiritual leaders, we cannot be distant from the people we shepherd. It is a fatal mistake to believe that great preaching suffices for the absence of pastoral visitation. By temperament I am an introvert. My natural tendency is to shy away from people. I have discovered that yielding to this personality trait does not help build strong bonds, subsequently leading to lost opportunities. However, having learned this lesson the hard way, I now make a concerted effort to mingle among the people as one who desires their good, visiting with them in their homes to help meet their needs. Ellen White writes: “If he [the pastor] neglects this work, the visiting of the people in their homes, he is an unfaithful shepherd, and the rebuke of God is upon him. His work is not half done.”9
As real spiritual leaders we cannot be distant from our families. Broken pastors’ families can be a most harmful, negative influence in the ministry. “A pastor’s family is invaluable. Failure at home can lead to failure in ministry. If you cannot live happily with your wife and children, how can you counsel others and lead their families? You must devote the time and energy required to maintain a healthy home life.”10
It is imperative that in our effort to remain reverent to the calling of God, we safeguard our marriages and family. I have a son in college. My greatest concern is that I have been so busy with the ministry that I have failed to instill in him the raw material he needs to live a life of godly integrity away from the safeguards of home. Time will tell. I have come to learn that my greatest achievement is not the good work I have done with the church but what I have done in my own home.
As real spiritual leaders we cannot be distant from proper temple care. The apostle Paul exclaimed that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and, therefore, we are not our own but have been bought with a price (1 Cor. 16:19, 20). Surely, we believe this. But if this is the case, why do we not take better care of ourselves? Why do we suffer with high blood pressure? Why are we overweight? I have often wondered how much of the gospel is not being preached because our consciences are pricked by its testimony against us. God knows our stubbornness, which is why He called us to the gospel ministry. Through it we are confronted by the very things that in the pew might not move us. Do not skip over it; live it so that you can preach it in all honesty.
Through adjusting our proximity in these areas, ministering as He did, our Lord is able to help us work out our own salvation with fear and trembling and complete the work He started in us (Phil. 2:12; 1:6). The call is designed to save us.
Not just a theory
All in all, I believe I am a better man, husband, father, and church member because of His call upon my life. This call has placed an urgent demand upon my life to model to my children the grace of Jesus, so that when I stand up to preach about grace, they are firsthand witnesses. As a husband, the regular study of the Word has inspired me to love my wife honestly, compassionately, and joyfully. The practical duties of the work help me to consistently live a godly life not only in relation to church members but in my own neighborhood as I seek to demonstrate the love of God where I live.
I cannot testify for anyone else, but for me, the call of God is a gift of grace that, in the faithful discharge of its duties, brings about the fruit of His salvation in me. For that I will be eternally grateful.
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1 All Scripture passages are from the New King James Version.
2 W. E. Vine, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), 562.
3 Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), s.v. Rom. 1:1.
4 Ellen G. White, Sermons and Talks, vol. 1 (ebook, Ellen G. White Estate Inc. 1990), 63.
5 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 380. Emphasis supplied.
6 Ibid., 383.
7 H. B. London Jr. and Neil B. Wiseman, The Heart of A Great Pastor: How to Grow Strong and Thrive Wherever God Has Planted You (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1994), 40.
8 Samuel Logan Brengle, The Soul-Winner’s Secret (London: Salvation Army, 1918), 22.
9 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1970), 440.
10 Jonas Arrais, Wanted: A Good Pastor (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference Ministerial Association, 2011), 59.