The Marks of a Gospel Minister
Herman Bavinck in his Reformed Dogmatics begins his exposition of the doctrine of God with these striking words: ‘Mystery is the life blood of dogmatics.’ Bavinck is not telling us that systematic theology is an impenetrable puzzle. Rather, he is saying that incomprehensible and inexplicable wonder lies at the very heart of God’s self-revelation to us in his Word. No passage in the Bible better articulates this than the words of Paul from Romans 11:33-36. After expounding for eleven chapters the glorious gospel, the only fitting conclusion that Paul can find is this: ‘O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!’ This concluding doxology from Paul is the very atmosphere that is to mark the life of every minister of the gospel and indeed of every Christian believer.
I want to point out four pulse beats that the apostle highlights in this passage.
1. The Pulse Beat of Unimaginable Wonder
After gazing upon the sheer splendour and extravagance of God in Christ, Paul’s first impulse is doxological. He has considered God’s sovereignty in salvation. He has pondered God’s justifying of the ungodly through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. And his first movement is not how to best defend these truths but how to glory in what God has done. We need ministers exceedingly able to teach. Beyond this, though, we need men who are doxological and have been captured by the gospel. We need men who are gripped by grace, and marvel at the wonder and glory of the gospel. This captivating wonder is where Paul begins. That first little word ‘O’ expresses it all. Here is living experiential piety at its purest, for it is piety that has been generated and quickened to life by the doctrine of the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
2. The Pulse Beat of Intellectual Humility
Paul goes on, ‘How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord?’ Bavinck argues quite remarkably that the incomprehensibility of God is the starting point and fundamental idea of Christian theology. God is infinitely higher than we are; his ways are past finding out. The secret things belong to the Lord our God. Thus, a holy reverence must mark all that we say about this glorious, ineffable, triune God who has made himself known to us in the person of his Son, our blessed Saviour Jesus Christ. What Paul is actually telling us here is that the grace of the incomprehensible God is what knocks the intellectual arrogance out of our lives. We stand before God with heads and hearts bowed, for who has known the mind of the Lord? We know but the outskirts of his ways. We need men trained in our seminaries who are ‘unembarrassed supernaturalists,’ to quote Benjamin Warfield. Men who are unembarrassed and unashamed to say, ‘It is the Lord.’
3. The Pulse Beat of Grace-Constrained Acclamation
Look where Paul’s doxology ultimately brings him: ‘For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever.’ Is this where our theological teaching ultimately leads us? Whether we’re expounding Christology or the intricacies of Hebrew grammar, is it possible that you are not left saying, ‘From him, through him, and to him are all things; to him be the glory’? That is where all seminary study must lead us. It might be through sore heads and weary nights, but ultimately it leads to this conclusion: to God be the glory! This is grace-constrained acclamation. It comes from the lips of men subdued by God. These are the kind of men who leave an aroma of true piety behind them wherever they go.
4. The Pulse Beat of Self-Denying Devotion
Paul concludes: ‘I beseech you therefore, brethren, [in the light of this] by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ Simply notice what the apostle is saying here. The gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ leads us first to doxology and then to self-denying devotion.
William Borden studied at Yale in the early years of the twentieth century. A wealthy young man, he set his heart to go to Burma to preach the gospel. But after he graduated, he was persuaded to tour various university campuses to call young men to give up their small ambitions and to go out east and preach the gospel. For some years he did that, criss-crossing America. Finally, the time came to fulfil his heart’s desire to bring the gospel to the people of Burma.
He set sail, and the first great port in which he landed was Alexandria in Egypt. But in Alexandria, William Borden was struck down with cerebral encephalitis. He would die in Alexandria; he would never see Burma. As he lay dying, he heard some doctors at his bedside discussing his case. He heard someone say, ‘What a waste, what a waste!’ This young man was in the prime of his life. What a waste. However, when Borden heard those words, with what little strength he had, he replied, ‘No reserve, no retreat, no regrets.’ That is self-denying devotion. That is where the gospel of grace seeks to bring us all.
Ian Hamilton is Pastor of Cambridge Presbyterian Church, now worshipping God on Sunday mornings in All Saints’ Church, Jesus Lane, Cambridge and in Resurrection Lutheran Church, Huntingdon Road, on Sunday evenings.
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