How few the older men who are able to learn brand new lessons or even need to. It is a dangerous stage of life! Over fifty years ago I learned at a student week-end conference the Scriptures’ teaching on justification by faith. I believe that that discovery gave me life-enhancing understanding. There were other occasions in those years when truths like definitive sanctification, the free offer, the ‘five points,’ the chief end of man being to glorify and enjoy God, and the history of redemption one by one were lit up for the first time and they lit me up with understanding and affection. Those truths came to me in preached messages, or through books and articles, or through biographies, and even by some prefaces; then everything changed. I am not saying this to confirm any rut where most ministers of religion live. Let modernists awake to their defiance of God’s Word. Let lady ministers see what the Bible says about the role of women in the church. Let Arminians be conscious that salvation is of the Lord. Let hypers see the wonderful love of God offering his Son to be the Saviour of any who would come to him. It is never too late for an old minister to repent and learn the whole counsel of God. May your last years be your best years.
I am saying that the breakthrough to such insights does not happen so often these years to me, the thrill of grasping a brand-new truth. Maybe I am not reading as much as I used to. Certainly this is a period for polishing old truths so that they shine brighter. Or maybe to change the metaphor, of sharpening the blade of the Spirit’s sword for the best use. Now in my seventies I live at a time of confirmation, clarification, refreshment, correcting and self-exhorting. If you ask an older man about a conference which he has attended, in what ways was he blessed and especially what he learned, then he will struggle to answer, replying rather lamely that he had, say, seen again how much God loved him, or what a privilege it had been to know God and be his child. He is reassured by truths that the questioner knows very well already, but they are teachings which we need to go on appreciating and being sure of throughout our lives and in the world to come.
I have been asked to say what I have learned from the work of the ministry and from pastoring a congregation for almost 45 years. Who ever dares to give a message on such a topic? Fools rush in . . . It is a daunting request; you might be expecting insights like exploding fireworks and flashes of lightning, stuff that you had never thought of or been taught, words that revolutionize you, concepts that reach to heaven, mind-blowing understandings that will make your life different, but it cannot be like that. The living gospel is found throughout the Bible, not tucked away in a corner of a more obscure book. It is in your face as soon as you start to read the Scripture. So it is with the work of the ministry. There is nothing esoteric about it. The calling, work and message of the pastor-preacher are a plain part of Scripture. Who needs one man’s insights to explain this to us?
Every year many faithful ministers retire, and they do not leave us with such legacies. Few leave us with a farewell. Al Martin preached a measured series of messages as he left his congregation of almost fifty years in New Jersey a year ago. He took the opportunity to sum up convictions which were familiar enough to his friends. We were glad to hear them. Adolph Monod left the whole church his moving Farewell as his legacy even though these sermons were spoken just to a group of his friends during his final illness. There was nothing in that series of addresses that was new to the hearers. There should not have been. They were truths that had been spoken many times as a friend, husband, father, brother and pastor. It must be like that. What we see is the pathos of the occasion adding its own lustre to his words.
What I am to say is basic; all ministers know these truths and so the majority of preachers do not attempt to sum them up. Your response is bound to be, “We knew that already. He is only saying what we were aware of.” So pastors quietly resign from the oversight of one church and then move into a more itinerating kind of ministry at the end of their lives. It must be very hard to break the dynamic of a twice weekly encounter with a group of people who have shown you a deep affection for years, people whom you love in return. I could not love another congregation as I love this flock. To part from them will be unbearable. Again, it cannot be easy to end the weekly deadlines of preparing the preached word. Two big exams each week and your life spent preparing for them. Such privileges terminated, by your choice, the tension suddenly gone, the accompanying regrets or thanksgiving over, ended never to return in that deep way. Of course we did not live for preaching on Sundays; we lived to love and glorify God. Hence, obediently we will move into a new sphere for that prime motivation to continue in other useful ways – whenever that time might come for me and for every preacher.
Most ministers at the end of their ministries are overjoyed that they did not have a moral fall, or that they did not have a theological aberration, or in some such way brought shame on the gospel. They did not pick up some funny ideas and loaded them onto the consciences of an uncertain congregation. They had endured, and by grace they had survived the pressures of being a servant of Jesus Christ and his word in the 21st century. They had actually kept plodding on, preaching the word, pastoring a people and serving the Lord. To them that perseverance seems increasing astonishing as they look back. Their regret that their congregations did not experience a revival of religion is balanced by the fact that that they had never betrayed their Saviour. They had not been Peter at Pentecost, but neither had they been a Judas. What then does a long pastorate in one church teach you?
1. IT IS AS TOUGH AS EVER IT HAS BEEN TO BE AN ORDINARY, FAITHFUL MINISTER OF JESUS CHRIST.
Everyone comes to the close of his ministry with a sense of regret, an awareness of what such a divine message had demanded – a sense of heaven and being the spokesman of the Creator of heaven and earth – and, on the other hand, what he had given it, the gap between what he should have been and what he believe he were. In fact he harbours a suspicion that he’d never been a real minister, compared to esteemed friends, and role models from his youth and from church history. They were ministers; he was a minister manqué.
You have to resist such thoughts. How much comes from foolish false modesty. How much is rooted in unbelief. How many words like that are said in order to provoke a response from your hearers, “O no! We don’t think that . . .” You would blink with amazement if someone responded, “Yes, I often wondered whether you were a real minister at all.” Remember what you have been and what you did. You believed the Bible; you preached the Bible, all of it. You preached it in contemporary ordinary language to people doing battle with today’s demons. You communicated it to the people of your town, and what you communicated again and again was Jesus Christ and him crucified – the only Saviour. You exalted that Lord. You spoke much of him. You magnified him year after year. Of course you could have done that better; you should have done it ten times better, but you did it when pulpits around you were not doing it, or when your own pulpit had not been doing it for decades before you had that unusual call to become their pastor. A church wanted you . . .
You have been a minister of the new covenant. God called you to that work and put his treasure in a clay pot with your name indelibly on its side. Thus you have served the Lord. If there are things that need to be improved, then improve! If there is conduct and patterns of life that need to be changed, then change! If you have been believing errors that need to be exposed and rejected then do it! It is never too late. Change at 80! It is a high calling, and scaling these heights is tough. The air is rare; your heart beats faster; you get light-headed and the mists fall suddenly. Watch and pray.
i] How hard to mortify remaining sin. You know and teach the divine pattern, that we are given the indwelling God himself as the counterpoise to remaining sin to weaken its power. By the help of the Holy Spirit we are involved in the daily regimen of starving to death daily the flesh. It is we ourselves who have to do that; we do it by the power of the Spirit, but we do it. It is costly but essential work. This is progressive sanctification.
Yet, that is only half the process of sanctification; the other half consists of never taking our eyes off the Lord Christ, finding inspiration and comfort and hope from this living, sympathetic Friend. But we dare not emphasize that to the neglect of the duty of weakening self, pride, ego, the lusts of the flesh and the mind. So the exhortations of the Lord are ever to be taken on board; “If thine eye offend thee pluck it out; if thy hand offend thee cut it off; better to go to heaven with one eye than to hell with both your eyes.” Without a hand the forbidden fruit cannot be touched. Without an eye the object of desire cannot be surveyed. Paul urges us, “I don’t run like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (I Cor. 9:26&27). Indwelling sin is being compared in that passage to something like a Rottweiler dog. If you harbour such animal in your life than you make sure that it always does exactly what you tell it to do. Total obedience is essential; there is a little girl dancing along the pavement towards the beast, but the animal does not move an inch towards it. It does not even think of harming. Mortify your own remaining sinful nature, and never give up. It is demanding work, and one gets skilful in excusing oneself, but not one excuse will pass the muster of Heaven. Your neglect of mortification will lead to your congregation eventually knowing it. It is a holy instrument that God chooses to use. Who will drink water out of a rusty cup? My congregation needs a minister who mortifies remaining sin, and in that area we feel we are failures.
ii] How hard to accept the loneliness of the work. There is a solitude about the life of the pastor. You come across it in the writers of the psalms. How alone the psalmists can feel, like pelicans in a wilderness. There seems to be no one else zealous for the Lord of hosts. We are unable to share this feeling with others, though Elijah once blurted out his feeling of isolation. Even your own wife cannot enter into it. You feel at moments you are going crazy. If men knew how you felt they would think you were going mad. There is a fire in your bones which can find rest only in the Lord. There is an awful sense of loneliness as one is faced with preparing living, inspiring, saving messages for the next Sabbath which is just a few days away. You have to fashion them alone, and preach them alone with God alone to rely upon. You have to live with the consequences of it alone, and once that perhaps disastrous Lord’s Day is over (in one of those runs of 3 or 4 such dry Sundays) then in six days’ time you face two more sermons to preach alone. You will have leaders and deacons, and thank God for them, but you have to pray alone, study alone, write letters alone, visit alone, evangelize alone, make your mistakes alone, battle with remaining sin alone, stand against the whole current church and world alone. How favoured you will be to be able to share with the congregation in the mid-week meeting joys and sorrows without them thinking that the first is an ego-trip and the second is a cry for them to rub your back and say, “O no, pastor. I was blessed on Sunday.” We face a greater Judge than our own consciences and our people’s fine attempts to cheer us.
One of the penalties of living close to God is keen pain from this lowly and fragile life. It is sensitive men God uses to bless people, and so the life of the best minister is costly and desolate and uncertain, with mountains of disappointment, range after range. The book of psalms should shape our feelings and values more. Thank God for your officers who are your closest friends, and for your ministerial colleagues, and for your wife and children. Nevertheless, being a minister is accepting a life of isolation, and to gregarious men that is a heavy cross.
iii] How hard to be courageous. This is a common theme in Scripture, if not in the contemporary church, to be brave, to stand, to have guts, to tough out the disappointments. You find the apostle Paul asking a congregation that they pray that he would be courageous because a door had opened for him to serve God in some unusual way. Maybe a town’s leaders had requested him to visit them and explain Christianity, but there also a host of adversaries. What preacher is not apprehensive preaching in a street in the middle of town opposite the bank even though he has done it many times? I am cowardly sitting alongside a distinguished looking man on a train or plane as I prepare my mind and will to speak to him of the claims of Christ. It is still as tough as the first times I did it. Even the rare hitch-hiker can be a challenge as one moves the conversation into that sphere without the resort of desperation which is announcing yourself to him as “a preacher.” I castigate myself for not being spiritually-minded enough. That is the root of reticence – though I need to be a good listener and kindly in what I say and do. To be courageous, to be ready to be a little additional link in a chain that perhaps goes back to a praying grandfather – that is demanding. I know that foolhardiness, bumptiousness, a pair of leather lungs, a total insensitivity to others and an inflexibility of approach are all to be shunned, but God gives us a boldness to speak as we should wherever we are, in the pulpit, in the hospital, in the streets and from house to house.
iv] How hard to suffer for the sake of Christ. This is a huge theme in the New Testament. Do you remember this? It has been given to you not only to believe on Christ but also to suffer for him. Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps. ‘Timothy, join with me in suffering for the gospel.’ We share in his sufferings that we might share also in his glory. The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us. That I might know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings. Through many sufferings we inherit the kingdom of God.
Isn’t it an indictment of how unlike Jesus Christ I am that I am largely a stranger to suffering that’s come to me because of being a Christian preacher? My providence has been utterly benign, green pastures and still waters and yet I am the one in the forefront of leading the battle against the devil and all his works in our town. I oppose every form of immorality and sin. I exhort the people of God to resist sin and follow Christ alone. I exalt him in our community. Should there not be some backlash if I were doing this work powerfully? Are not all the powers of earth and hell ranged against the gospel? It is the last thing I desire. My martyr’s complex is not particularly high. I don’t court rejection or hostility. I enjoy a quiet life with some small successes, but has my emphasis on the fact of the Lord Jesus growing in favour with men, and my exhorting the people to get on with one’s neighbours all been at the cost of faithfulness to the Lord Christ? Do I have an itch for popularity that has compromised my commitment to the cross of Jesus Christ where I am crucified to the world and the world to me?
v] How hard to resist the sin that so easily besets me. For example, I talk easily. I reveal all my heart. It brought Samson down and many another servant of God. I lack the gravity of a mature man of God. “Oh, that’s Geoff,” defenders can say. Yes that’s true, but Geoff has been crucified with Christ, nevertheless he lives, yet not him rather Christ lives in him and the life he now lives in the flesh he lives by faith in the Son of God who loved him and gave himself for him. Crucifixion was not of the hands alone, or hands and feet alone. The whole person is transformed by crucifixion, the larynx, the tongue, the thinking processes, the sense of humour – all are affected by solidarity with Christ on the cross. How hard to resist the sin that is one’s besetting sin. Golgotha consciousness alone can aid us. How hard to live with the guilt of one’s frequent falls into such sins. Golgotha pardon alone can be our balm.
So how hard it is to be an ordinary faithful minister of Jesus Christ. The students considering the ministry see the preacher in the pulpit and are stirred by the gospel preached in the power of the Holy Spirit. They might feel the call. You want to encourage and then you also want to be blazingly open about the requirements, how tough to mortify remaining sin, accept a life of solitude, show courage and stand in an evil day, suffer for Christ and live with the guilt of a sin that easily besets you. However high you set the standard the wrong men will jump over the bar and the tender ones will shake their heads and sigh, “I couldn’t do that . . .”
2. THERE ARE INNUMERABLE AREAS OF REGRET.
I remember every member of the congregation who stayed for a few services, or maybe few years, and then grew disillusioned with my life and preaching and drifted off disgruntled. But that is not of first priority in my areas of failure. None left to hear more of Jesus Christ or a better gospel than the one they heard sitting at my feet. I thank God for that. They had another agenda hidden from me and the congregation, different ecclesiastical, social and philosophical convictions, and some of them moved on to where they could find their own prejudices gently rearranged on Sundays. It happens. But my regrets are more substantial than the dynamics of the movement of people into and out of a congregation.
i] I am sorry that I have not done more personal evangelism. The times I have defended the faith with a critic have been rare. Occasions on which I have gone back to a non-Christian’s home and explained the faith, answered his objections and spelled out the nature of Christianity have been too infrequent. I could have made a rule for myself that for every occasion on which I had preached publicly I would seek to speak to one unbeliever about the Lord Jesus, and then to seek and pray for such opportunities.
The occasions on which I have spoken to sinners have been fruitful. Some of them have come to church and become Christians. Their objections were paper thin, no weighty considered arguments – not at all. They had read an article or briefly heard a sentence or two and all their complaints about the Christian religion were hanging on that. For example, that ‘most of the wars in the history of the world have been fought over religion.’ They were the ones to be believing myths; my life was rooted in the history of the Sermon on the Mount, the cross and the empty tomb. I said a few words to them and they agreed with me instantly. When they said half smiling, “Who made God?” I said “He is eternal and uncreated,” and they nodded their heads satisfied. They changed and would hear more. Why haven’t I put myself in places where those sorts of exchanges could take place? I love to speak about Jesus Christ to people, more so these days than ever before. May God guide.
A mother from Swansea asked me to visit her son at the University in Aberystwyth. I was happy to do so, but he was resistant and embarrassed and did not want to hear of the claims of Christ. It seemed an unfruitful tense time, but his room mate sitting on a bed in the room was listening to all the conversation and the next week he turned up in church, became a Christian and married a girl in the congregation. I had not even been talking directly to him and yet the word was effectual.
The most fruitful evangelism in our church has been done by members of the congregation showing friendship to people to whom God has led them. I should have been more of an example in this. I should be explaining to them each week the people I was seeing, and encouraging these new arrivals feel at home in the Sunday congregation. It has been a failure in my life; my life has been consumed in preparing two sermons for Sundays. I pray that my last years will be my most fruitful years in personal evangelism.
ii] I am sorry that I did not do a Spurgeon on Sunday nights for the first five years of my ministry. In other words I wish I had given myself to the great texts of the Bible once a Sunday for that period. Consider these famous words of Jesus in Luke chapter 9 “Then he said to them all: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:23-26). There are three or even four great texts there: The Cost of Discipleship, Losing your Life in order to Save it, The Folly of Gaining the World and Losing your Soul, and Who will be those Whom the Lord will be Ashamed of when He Comes Again? These sorts of texts have been honoured by God to the salvation of hearers for twenty centuries. They are plain and they focus on the heart of the Christian message. These themes are what Ryle and Spurgeon and Whitefield and Wesley preached on. Those of us who listened to Dr. Lloyd-Jones on his visits around the United Kingdom heard him preaching on such passages as those with a heavenly anointing. Today there are entire and influential preaching movements which are cold towards such mighty texts being declared on single occasions. The followers of those schools regard those four verses of Luke 9:23-26 as a sub-section within a single sermon on the whole of Luke 9. They would make a few comments on each of those texts, moving on and on restlessly to their goal of completing their studies of the entire gospel of Luke in six months. Such sermons are mere glorified Bible studies.
There are mighty texts of Scripture which are gems of truth, summaries of the gospel. They are in the Word of God to be preached; their power is to be felt by a congregation, by the young and the old. If the Christian religion is divided into three sections, its devotional emphases, its ethics and its teaching, then the usual method of expounding the devotional is to take the Lord’s prayer and go through it clause by clause. The customary way of expounding the ethical is via the ten commandments and see it expanded in Matthew six and Romans twelve. It is a commendable expository approach. However, how have the divines dealt with the third section, the nature of the Christian faith? They have turned away from the big texts and mightiest passages and built the exposition of the faith on the Apostles’ Creed or the Westminster Shorter Catechism or the Heidelberg Catechism, admirable helpful statements, sure, but the great passages from Genesis 1, Genesis 3, Isaiah 6, Isaiah 53, John 1 and 3, Romans 1, 5, 6 and 8, Ephesians 1 and Ephesians 2 are those which present the heart of Christianity more naturally and winsomely.
I am pleading that texts that present the essence of the faith should not be dealt with en passant in the flight to ‘finish the book,’ even made more cerebral by being dissected on a screen from a Power Point projection. Where is the prophetic declaration? Where is the excitement of digging a hole in a field and discovering that the spade has struck the lid of a treasure box; “Look at this . . . and consider this diamond . . . and here is gold dust . . .” The preacher, upheld by God’s help, brings these themes to bear on the consciences of his hearers. Do they see this beauty? Do they feel the weight of these truths? Are they almost crushed? Do they feel they are teetering on the brink of a precipice almost falling off . . . “O the depth . . .” not hitting the buttons on the laptop built into the pulpit and bringing up the next coloured box with its three points on the screen. This is an exercise in addressing the intellects of the congregation. The atmosphere is one of the classroom rather than Pentecost. The doxology is diluted, and God himself in his power, holiness and grace beseeching men by one he has appointed and gifted is marginalized.
I wish I had learned early on how to preach the gospel from those vivid verses that sum up the plight of man and the power of God to save. Consecutive expository preaching at both services on a Sunday when you are actually beginning your ministry is an unwise self-imposed burden. You are forced to consider passages that do not readily lend themselves to popular preaching, and there is no greater need in our pulpits today. Now that I have learned my craft I preach evangelistically morning and evening, intermingling the emphases of my role-models, Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones. I love to sit under expository, consecutive evangelistic ministry.
iii] I am sorry that I did not rest in a routine of personal devotions early on. Settled into a place at a time and seeking the face of God sounds natural, like morning ablutions, but it is a living holy world you are entering and so there is bound to be dark spiritual resistance. It is the Holy One, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, whose face you are seeking. What a struggle for some of us, to impose upon the flesh a spirit of contrition, penitence and hunger for the divine, yet how essential to gain some progress there. How many pitfalls would have been avoided if only one had prayed more faithfully about issues and people. It was an issue spotted by the apostles themselves. They were the busiest of men; they had the grandest of concerns, to keep alive and joyful in God the holy widows, both Hebrew and Greek, of the persecuted congregation. They came to the conclusion that their balance of the ministry of mercy and the ministry of the word and prayer was askew to the detriment of the kingdom of God. They concluded that their priority as church leaders was this; “We will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” There is no explanation of how they worked this out, 50% praying and 50% the word? The latter could not have been study solely; it must have been declaration, the defence of the faith, pastoral visitation and so on. How did they spend their time dedicated to praying? In praise, in corporate prayer, in praying with the dying, in private devotions? Those elements are all present in the later chapters of Acts and in the epistles. The effect of this decision is indicated a few verses later; “the word of God spread.” There is no possibility of that without the prior commitment to prayer and the word. No spiritual growth, no conversions, no impact on a community, no revival of religion, no victory over temptation, no Christ-likeness without the word and prayer. Prayer is simply impotence stretching out to omnipotence. Did Jesus pray? Was there any man who less needed to pray, humanly speaking? He was full of the Holy Spirit, beloved by God, overcoming every temptation and sin, yet he prayed. How much more ourselves, especially before the big events that rise and advance irresistibly towards us.
When I mention prayer I’m not thinking about rolling on the floor, but about simple earnest praying regularly, and praying all the time. A young theological student named Prichard made an appointment with the greatly loved Rev. Henry Rees of Liverpool. He recounted his interview some years later. He never forgot that time together. He was taken upstairs to the study and they sat each side of the fire. Henry Rees spoke to him; “So your mind is bent on preaching the gospel. That is the most serious and solemn duty any man can ever engage in.” His hands were on his knees and he rocked slightly to and from as he spoke. “Praying . . . praying . . . praying . . . praying . . . praying . . . praying . . . praying . . . praying . . . praying . . .” repeating it many times, and then adding, “We are not aware of the thousandth part of the power praying has upon preaching . . .” Then, again slightly rocking back and for he went on repeating that word, “ . . . praying . . . praying . . . praying . . . praying . . . praying . . . praying.” Then he paused for a moment and said, “If I were called upon suddenly to preach on any great occasion, and had only two hours of time to prepare for it, I should spend them every moment in praying . . . praying . . . praying . . . praying . . . praying.” He wept a great deal as he spoke. Then he regained his composure and said, “I cannot tell you what are the best books to read. I don’t know much about books, but try to read those books which will be most likely to nourish and strengthen the spirit of prayer in you. The great thing with preaching is praying . . . praying . . . praying . . . praying . . . praying.” Soon the interview came to an end and Prichard went away convicted thinking that these were the most awesome moments he had experienced. If you want to humble a minister then ask him about his praying.
iv] I am sorry that I did not meditate more on the word of God. Of course that goes with prayer. Where I do meditate is over a passage of Scripture I am to preach upon. It seems a holy word to employ for such a functional task. I am talking about looking at a section of Scripture from as different an angle as I can envisage, putting it in different settings, seeing it from the perspective of different states and conditions of man, placing it in the context of the whole of redemptive history. But I have heard, as all of us have, of men who have spent hours in prayer. Some of that must have been in meditation. It must have been. They have considered a word that they read that day and then they looked at it word by word in the presence of God and responded to him . . . God (who is he? What has he done? What is he doing now? What will it be when I come into his presence?) commands (the God who spoke and it was done, who commanded and all things stood fast, the God who brought all things into being by his fiat, the God who gave his law on Sinai, the God who will judge the world by his law . . .) all men (without any exception at all, the greatest and the least, the people with learning difficulties, the scientist, the most moral of men . . .) everywhere . . . to repent. And so on, thinking about the words individually and in their structure, each one breathed out by God. To taste the cordial of heaven in what the Lord has written for our good. Our preparation for preaching overwhelms our personal communion with the Almighty. It is serving another end rather than the drawing near to God himself.
v] I am sorry that I did not learn to disciple people. I hear people talking about it, maybe more in the USA. I would like to have been there, unobtrusive, tucked away in a corner, watching and learning, seeing how they did that, the mechanics of it, the programme, the length, the homework, the expectations and the fruit. Where do men get the time to disciple? They have more discipline and so they can disciple, I guess. Every disciple I have met who announced he was seeking my input into his life ended up showing his own agenda and wanting confirmation. At first it had been hidden and I was naive, but then it came out and there were tensions.Is there a generally recognized approach to discipling? Is there a book to advise us that everyone else knows and uses? “I was greatly helped being discipled . . .” men say. Tell us how. It is to my loss that I know so little about discipling.
vi] I am sorry to be the frequent prisoner of circumstances, though kept sane by my assurance of the holy, wise and powerful providence of God, ruling and governing all his creatures in all their actions. The life of a minister is hazardous, dealing with events that are unpredictable and problems met for the first time and intractable. No book gives any assistance; fellow ministers shake their heads. Normally the minister feels he is not in control. He would like a five year plan, a year plan, a monthly plan and one for each week, the wheels of which are silently turning without any human involvement. You could tell the time by them. Such a minister envies the fixed routines of a monk. He would preach away a certain number of neatly spaced out Sundays, read through a dozen classic books a year, visit the members in turn and have six weeks’ annual writing time to produce a book on a topic no one else has written upon.
It is not like that, except for cult leaders; it has never been like that. There are the phone-calls that make you sit down. There are the Emails with their questions and invitations, the books that have to be read because the congregation is reading them, the queries from people whose marriages are breaking up for the most bizarre reasons, people who are leaving the church for undisclosed reasons (they never say, do they? They just write that they are leaving). The local group of gospel churches need a reassuring elderly presence; there are also committees. Then there is the family and one’s delightful duty to nourish and cherish one’s wife and not provoke one’s kids to wrath. In theory one seems to have loads of spare time, but one never has enough. So one makes lists, and the tough neglected issues are copied onto the next list, and onto the list after that. But in all these things we are more than conquerors. Its diversity and challenge is fulfilling,
What is my own conviction is that people come first, not study, not preparation, not writing, not further degrees, but people. I can say that so confidently because I am not disturbed by a host of folk knocking on my door or lining up to discuss something with me after the services. What a rare delight that someone actually wants to talk to you and ask your opinion and advice. At the end of many a day I write in my journal something like, “Nothing much happened . . . not much done . . . loads of little things.” One deals with people at the old people’s home, one sits with the students on a Sunday night, one is going across to the hospital, one is compiling the church newsletter or drawing up the agenda for the church meeting or answering one’s correspondents. One would not want it to be different, asking, “Choose Thou for me my time, my friends, my ministry, my days, my priorities.” God save us from being locked into book-lined studies with a Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob, protected by a secretary or two in outer offices, emerging for graciously given interviews with favoured people. Tell them often, “The doors of this church are always open to you, and the door of the Manse.”
vii] I fear I have watched too much TV. TV is like fire, necessary for warmth and washing and cooking, but also able to burn and destroy. It is present in our own house like some fascinating knowledgeable uncle whom yet we can shut up in a moment when he gets too garrulous. He can present live rugby 6 or 7 times in a year when Wales is playing. He can show us reports of snowfalls and tsunamis and planes crashing into the Twin Towers in New York and revolutions on the streets of Iran, all unmissable spectacles. Then he comes closer to home and he shows us farming programmes about Welsh rural communities in the Welsh language which are a personal delight. He has documentaries about history and science and medical breakthroughs. He has programmes about antiques, and quizzes between various universities. I can thank God for TV; if I could not I would not tolerate it in the house. I am not interested in films and comedy programmes and soaps and cooking and political discussions and motor cars and music and most of what is on the box. It leaves me sad and cold to glance at the announcements of what is going to be shown in fifty channels. “No thanks, Uncle. Not in this house.”
One night in 1962 we students were watching some TV programme in the lounge at Westminster Seminary, just four of us having popped in from different corridors for a break of ten minutes or so before making ourselves some chocolate and going to bed. There were always that kind of number briefly watching an extract of some trivia on a black and white screen, but usually no one at all was there. Dick Van Dyk’s programmes were popular I think. Then into the room came John Murray and he watched it for a half minute and finally said, “Sometimes you’d like to put your fist through the screen,” and left. Quite so. I want to watch what is good humoured and edifying, but feel that over the years I have found myself drifting into grey areas. Then shutting up uncle is not so straightforward. A pastor friend of mine decided to read Latourette’s fat volume of church history at the end of the day rather than watch the TV the news programme, and he completed the book. Good for him. I do not want to watch any of the grey area and even keep the true, just, holy and praiseworthy firmly under control, not always successfully. Let redeeming grace triumph over common grace always. That phrase in a succinct Latin quip would be memorable . . .
viii] I am sorry that my love for Jesus Christ is cool and shallow. “Weak is the effort of my heart and cold my warmest thought.” It was true for Newton and it is true for us today. Sometimes I think, “Do I love him at all?” Where is the affection, the glow, the delight and anticipation of meeting with him? M’Cheyne wrote in his diary, “Rose early to meet him whom my soul loves. Who would not rise early to meet such company?” I wish that that reflected my own heart’s longing for the Saviour. I wish I could give myself to him anew each Sunday, thinking, “I am going to go where the Lord Jesus is.” When I have nothing else to think about I wish my mind naturally gravitated to him. Here is someone who laid down his life for me. This is the one who delivered me from hell. Behold my Saviour who is taking me to glory for ever. Here is my beloved and here is my friend who is working all things together for my good. This dear Lord of mine is going to do an eternal makeover on my whole life. The Lord Jesus is my personal teacher and personal trainer and personal counsellor and personal bodyguard. He can protect me from the biggest devil in hell. Christ is so fascinating a personality, wise, caring, fresh, creative, stimulating, patient and so kind to me. It is my chief complaint that my love is weak and faint. I who encourage others to love him am amazed that I can love him so little, but what is more amazing is the fact that I love him at all.
3. THERE ARE AREAS TO BE GREATLY VALUED BY THE PREACHER.
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. Never take for granted that all the congregation knows it; 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 – such sermons are a ‘rapture’ and ‘a transport of delight.’ One longs to hear them. 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 in preaching is a seal from heaven declaring God’s assessment of the holy discharge of the office to which he called you. When you read the Acts of the Apostles do you ever find those first Christians (who had been with Jesus and now were traveling from town to town) setting up an altar in each community, taking off their traveling 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’s sacrifice where God the Son had died? Never. Not once did 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 that entire comprehensive epistle, 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 are singing words then our hearts and minds do not always find it easy to enter into the lines and stanzas that the hymnbook sets before us. Our thoughts are miles away from what our mouths are saying, but in preaching the word the sheep are addressed again and again and called back to the Shepherd. “Consider this . . . see the implications of this . . . Hallelujah what a Saviour!”
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 all 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 spokesman of Jesus Christ in the world, his vicarious representative, and the head of the whole church.” What effect do such beliefs have upon his own soul? It is always Groundhog Day in Rome; a man locked into the bleak routine of ecclesiastical and personal delusion. There are many like that; both men and women ministers who have never been called by God, others even thinking that they’ve been called to be ‘apostles’, leading themselves and others astray.
So from the throne of heaven the Lord tempers the conviction of our own call with weariness in our duties and many disappointments. How insufferable would be our lives without such a counterpoise. God permits the flesh to stir 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 I also have to 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. The command is worth obeying for such a loving Father, as much as in him lies.
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 now preaching about judgment and the pit? Lord stir my heart, please!” 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 dozen 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 them 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 any of 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, he can come 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 the Spirit loves.
4. THERE ARE GROUNDS FOR THANKSGIVING EVEN IN OUR DAYS.
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 to me hopefully of some future prosperity for the gospel. What resources are available for a new young church. 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 can be heard in every place in the world within 24 hours. Imagine the voice of Jonathan Edwards preaching “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” being available that very day from China to Argentina. The existence of these hundreds of thousands of 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 own 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 as the gauge for Him! 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 indicates that judging the presence of the Spirit by numerical criteria is most inadequate. Yet we all do it and want such an easy confirmation. We all desire 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 should we rest in? 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. But for special times of favour the numbers of those thus blessed by the Spirit will be largely increased.
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 exclusively for younger ministers is the absence in those gatherings at meal times and between sessions of the older men who have the experience of pastoral involvement that long years alone can give. Not all the ideas promoted by men who have recently entered the ministry with all the enthusiasm of youth will last the course of a ministry. They need to receive the wisdom of older pastors. 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, but who were also their own men. They developed and applied his convictions 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 the maturity of 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.
GEOFF THOMAS January 18 2010