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In Retrospect: A Minister Looks Back [2]

Category Articles
Date April 13, 2010

[The second part of a paper given in January 2010. The first part can be found here.]


i] There is the utter delight and enormous cost of preaching. There is joy that is unspeakable in exalting God as a congregation listens, magnifying his grace, describing the loveliness of Jesus Christ to men and women as an omni-caring Saviour, the most inspirational of teachers, the one who is the complete answer to God’s wrath towards my many sins, and my sovereign protector. How good is this news? The very best you can hear in a million years. Don’t miss it please; we deserve eternal death because we are sinners, but Jesus Christ, because he loved us, died for us. The old phrases are still the best to describe preaching the Word of God with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven – it is a ‘rapture’ and ‘a transport of delight.’ One would not change one’s blessed estate as a minister of God for all the world calls good and great. Can you see preachers’ tenacity in staying in their pulpits while they can declare the good news about Jesus Christ?

Joy in the Holy Spirit is the fruit of a personal seal from heaven declaring God’s assessment of the office. When you read the Acts of the Apostles do you see those first Christians who had been with Jesus and now were traveling from town to town setting up an altar in every community, taking off their travelling clothes and putting on a religious costume and going through a ritual in front of the altar they’d built involving bread and wine? Did they tell the curious onlookers that they were repeating Golgotha when God the Son had died? Never. Not once do they do that. Everywhere there is preaching and teaching and it centres on the Messiah, the Christ who is Lord. This is Jesus of Nazareth crucified and risen and reigning. Forgiveness of sins comes through him alone, so ‘Repent and turn to him as your Lord.’ That is the Christian message, and that alone. When Paul tells the Romans that he is not ashamed of the gospel he summarizes it in eleven chapters of teaching followed by five chapters of high ethic. He does all this to explain the gospel and its implications to any who profess to believe it. There is no mention of the Lord’s Supper in the entire letter, not once.

Preaching is the climax of worship. In the first part of new covenant worship the movement is from us to God in adoration, praise in word and song, confession and thanksgiving, intercession and the longings of an empty heart that none in the whole universe can fill but God. Then God responds to us in his Word, and we listen; we are drawn in; our response is unplanned and spontaneous. We find our sins being brought to our attention; there is a new determination to please God better, or an eruption of joy at the colossal achievements of the Redeemer, or thanksgiving for new understanding. Constantly during the sermon we are grabbed by God, shaken, embraced, enlightened, encouraged, rebuked and instructed in righteous living. One ministry to our souls comes hurrying on the heels of another, one exhortation follows a correction and then a new conviction. When we sing words our minds find it hard to enter into the lines and stanzas that the hymnbook places on our lips. Our thoughts are miles away from what our mouths are saying, but in preaching the Word calls the sheep back again and again.

The preacher captures our attention by the Word. He loses a member of the congregation for a moment, their eyes are glassy, and then he pauses and cruises for a moment telling them a story from the Bible or from experience drawing them in again. Then we take a breath and really lay the Word of God on them. Preaching is a daring proclamation of Christ in the glory of his person and the perfection of his finished work by the enabling power of the Spirit of God who has been sent from heaven. Expounding the Word minus the Spirit’s affectionate energizing can still display the foolishness of the gospel, but it does not possess Christ’s power. Preaching reveals the degree of care the pastor has for his flock. Good pastors die for their sheep as they pray for them. Good pastors die for their sheep as they prepare the food they give them. Good pastors die for their sheep as they wearily search after the backsliders. Good pastors die for their sheep as they mortify their own self love.

ii] There is the constant call of God. Again this is a breathtaking claim. The Creator of the Milky Way, the God who made the universe by himself, has called you personally to speak up for him, and represent him to his people and to the sceptical listening world. You’ve tested that call. You studied the Bible to know the whole counsel of God. You knew what your mission had to be. You had a group of excellent role models and you sought their counsels. You examined your gifts with judgment day honesty. You studied and sought to grow in usefulness. Finally a church called you to preach to them; it still does, many years later. You can do nothing else but be a pastor-preacher.

There is no motivation to growing godlikeness and usefulness that can be compared to an assurance of the divine call; no special religious experiences can compensate for its absence. The sense of divine vocation could produce a self-consciousness of staggering proportions which might have the most detrimental effect. For example, think how a man in the Vatican gets out of bed in the morning, does his ablutions and has breakfast and thinks, as every morning, ‘God has made me the representative of Jesus Christ in the world, his vicar, and the head of the church.’ What does that do for his own soul? It is always Groundhog Day in Rome; a man locked into a bleak routine. There are many like that; both men and women ministers who have never been called by God, people thinking that they’ve been called to be ‘apostles’, deluding others and themselves.

So God tempers the conviction of our own call from the heights of heaven with weariness in our duties and many disappointments. How insufferable would be our lives without such a counterpoise. God permits the flesh to awaken in even the most useful of his servants. Remaining sin is in ceaseless conflict with our sense of call. I have mourned about falls and failures, but then also acknowledge that I have something that esteems, approves and sees a glory and delight in the Word of God. The spirit still is willing although the flesh is weak. So, as George Whitefield grew weary in the work though not of the work, we too are weary of our ill hearts. James Fraser compares the minister to a loving son who has a twisted ankle but is asked by his father to take a message for him. Off he goes, hobbling along, delighted to give his father pleasure by obeying, but inelegantly and painfully with every step advanced. Still the command is worth obeying for such a loving Father as much as he is able to do it.

That divine call helps us when we are aware of our lack of involvement in our preaching, when our unconverted hearers do not burden our spirits, when we ask ourselves, ‘Do I believe what I am preaching about judgment and the pit?’ That deadness drives us to prayer; ‘Lord help me. I believe and preach but in part. I mourn for this. How hateful and loathsome this deadness is, yet ever show this sin to me that I may have my sorrow stirred. Deliver me from a perfunctory attendance to weekly routines. Cause my compassion to ignite again.’ Next Sunday will soon be here, and then again I must fulfil my calling to speak as though God did persuade men through my voice, and face, and gestures and whole personality from head to toe – his appointed servant. The heart still makes the best orator. Let me not fail him who is my life.

iii] There is the possibility of a certain time to be divinely favoured. There are days better than good days; Sundays greater than the best Lord’s Days we have known. Each Friday morning for the last eleven years I have met with ten others and we pray for the Holy Spirit to work mightily on the next Sabbath to convict and regenerate, illuminate and sanctify. We pray for a divine energy to fulfil our longing, that we be ‘clothed with power from on high’ as he has promised, ‘you shall receive power,’ and as the testimony of the early church was displayed, ‘with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.’ There are men who on certain occasions were equipped for a mighty work: Stephen was full of grace and power; Paul’s speech ‘was not in plausible words of wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and power,’ and then the gospel came ‘not in word only but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much assurance.’ We pray for one such day. One spark is enough to cause a blaze. ‘Just a spark from heaven to ignite this sacrifice which we have laid on the altar . . . please Lord, for the honour it will give to your Son.’ Revival is a blaze, a larger effusion and a bestowal of the Holy Spirit to many people at one time – a fresh enduement of life and power.

During the Second World War a soldier named Tom Allen was visiting London and he heard Dr. Lloyd-Jones for the first time. ‘I became completely unconscious of everything except the word that this man was speaking. Not his words, mark you, but Someone behind them and in them and through them. I didn’t realise it then, but I had been in the presence of the mystery of preaching, when a man is lost in the message he proclaims.’ Tom Allen was convinced that he was being addressed personally, and that with an authority greater than that of the human messenger. Andrew Bonar once said, ‘It is one thing to bring truth from the Bible, and another thing to bring it from God himself through the Bible.’

So one cultivates such an attitude of dependence on the Holy Spirit, crying to him for his assistance, and expecting answers both in life, preparation and delivery. ‘All we achieve is nothing without your help and blessing,’ we cry. ‘It is so hard to work without your aid.’ So as we prepare we know the Holy Spirit works by his sword, which is the Word of God. We are saved from speculation by systematic theology. We are unashamed to say that. The system of doctrine the Spirit has given to the sacred writers will not be contradicted by them. The difficult will show its meaning via the plain. Thus we will be led by the Spirit. He is the Spirit of order and not chaos. Then we cry for pathos and wisdom and love as we prepare. We expect to gain deliverance from the log-jams of preparation and that the hindrances are also blessed by God.

In declaration when such moments of heaviness come and the people grow cold and leave you for happier imaginations, you bring them back as you cry to the Spirit for help. Sometimes you cry out loud, ‘Spirit help me now . . . come and work in us now or we will not glorify our Lord . . .’ Generally in our hearts we ask for help; we pause; we tell the people what we are trying to say; we refresh them with an illustration. He can come suddenly who came in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. The wind, the dove, the fire, the still small voice . . . even now, reading this, breaking, bending, recommissioning, stirring, filling us anew, falling upon us, but particularly in the preaching, encountering a congregation and honouring the Son of God whom he loves.


i] There are the books; one new English language Christian book which you would not disdain to have on your shelves appears on average each day of the year. It seems that no period in history, no commentary on a book in the Bible, no significant figure, no study of the original languages, no failure in pastoral problems, and no handling of medical ethics lacks any number of books, or articles to help us think of that subject with profit. I am glad I read many books when I was younger. The presence of these publishing houses and authors is a sign of the vitality of evangelism today, especially in the USA. The hunger to read these books speaks of some future prosperity for the gospel. What resources are available. Yet there are worrying signs that the younger generation is not reading as once it did. There was a time when the Banner of Truth special students’ offer in the weeks before Easter would result in hundreds of pounds’ worth of books being bought by Aberystwyth students year after year. Today there is no demand at all. The presence of a Christian Book Shop can supply all that they need all the year round, but students in every university in the country are not reading as they once did. They are not reading. Access to books old and new has never been easier.

ii] There is the indispensable world wide web. It contains much that is reprehensible, instructions in how to make bombs, scenes of torture and ugliness. Sites reflect the baseness and depravity of man, but what resources there are for the preacher. When I began my ministry, then preparing three messages a week, all consecutive passages, was an intolerable burden to us all, and yet God helped and I learned to preach that way. How I would have esteemed to consult the sermons that are printed and recorded there each week. Sinclair Ferguson is going through Romans for the first time and one can hear those sermons the day after he has preached them. Kenny Stewart, Iain D. Campbell, John Piper, Edward Donnelly, Al Martin, John MacArthur, Derek Thomas, Joel Beeke, Ligon Duncan and hundreds of others can be heard and read week by week. There are 61 talks of Iain Murray on the web on historical figures and movements of God in the church, lectures on Religious Fanaticism and figures like Spurgeon. All these will last for ever. Any special word, favoured by being preached in demonstration of the Spirit and power will be immediately put on line and heard in every place in the world within 24 hours. Imagine a copy of Jonathan Edwards preaching ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ being available that very day everywhere. These sermons are a statement of the maturity, breadth and richness of the gospel today. It is hard to keep up with this free stuff, let alone purchase books. That is another reason why book sales are in decline.

iii] There are the burgeoning congregations of the people of God. In many countries they are not large, and they are not growing in any conspicuous way in our nation, but they are viable, and did not exist in many important towns forty years ago. How thankful we are for them, for the love of the people, their serious-mindedness, their insistence that their ministers preach the whole counsel of God, their demand for and delight in systematic expository preaching, their understanding of the doctrines of grace and their faith in all of the Bible. How do you mark the presence of the Holy Spirit in an assembly? You can hardly make arithmetic the mark, counting the number of those present. The cults, the crowds in St Peter’s Square every Sunday, the pilgrimage to Mecca of millions each year, the millions of Hindus going to wash in the Ganges when the lining up of planets and stars makes it propitious, all indicate that judging the presence of the Spirit by numerical criteria is inadequate. We all do it. We all want to preach to larger numbers than we are reaching now. It is easier to preach to 200 than to 20. Yet what marks of the Spirit’s presence are there? I would suggest such graces as worshipping with reverence and godly fear, everything being done decently and in order, church members loving one another with pure hearts fervently, an evangelistic concern for the lost, holy living, trust in God with all the heart, growing affection for the Lord Jesus Christ. What encouragement to see such congregations serving God in every major town.

iv] There are elders in the land. First came the hype, forty-five years ago, and then came the reaction; zeal for elders was mocked as overblown. ‘This was too high an expectation,’ we heard, but the truth of church government by eldership had been seen and grasped. It has prevailed, so that most gospel churches in the nation now have both elders and deacons, and what godly men these church leaders have proved to be. There is now a balance in the role of eldership and their cooperation with the pastor in church leadership and with the deacons in the ministry of mercy. The eldership gives ballast to churches in enduring the attacks of contemporary secularism. I never feel alone; I am always one of a team. The ability to work with other gifted men is a mark of God’s blessing on a congregation.

v] There is a network of ministers and fraternals, a brotherhood of preachers who share their lives and vocations, getting advice and kindly giving it if asked. I belong to such a gathering which meets once a month for prayer and Bible Study and I give that fraternal high priority. All ministers are on the same level; older ministers must see to it that they give all respect and appreciation to younger men. Younger ministers need to listen carefully to older preachers. One of the losses coming from the divisions of conservative Presbyterian churches in Scotland has been the absence of older men from one General Assembly. A gathering of churches without the white hairs of old age is an impoverished assembly. The danger of the trend of having conferences of younger ministers is the absence in those gatherings at meal times and between sessions of the experience that time and pastoral involvement alone can give. Not all the ideas that men who have recently entered the ministry have accepted with all the enthusiasm of youth can last the course of a ministry. How they need to hear the wisdom of older men. The Christian ministry is about service, truth, serious-mindedness, Christ-like living, profound knowledge of Scripture, man-management and holy love. They are not fashionable virtues in our age, certainly among the young. I had those men whom I label the ‘Doctor’s boys’, the men who were a generation above me who had been influenced pervasively by hearing Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and talking with him at Bala and Cilfrew at ministers’ conferences. They were so accessible to me, affectionate, humble, amusing, evangelistic, holy, readers of the Puritan books as they appeared, attenders of the Puritan Conference. How blessed I was to have them as my role models. They were real ministers in my eyes. I thank God for every remembrance of them.

vi] There is the remnant. People ask me about the state of the gospel in the USA and I tell them how impressed I am with Christian influence in mature individual believers, American families, Christian churches, schools, colleges, the vast seminaries, the radio network and the conferences. Godliness thrives alongside hostility to Christianity. It is the same in Wales on a much less encouraging scale, but still the presence of believers in the main cities and towns and the university communities, a network of Christian Book Shops. We are still here. We have not been extinguished. God has kept us, and will do so.

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