This past Tuesday, I had the privilege of giving a pastoral charge to two men coming to be licensed to preach within the bounds of our Presbytery. The charge to those being licensed or ordained is a solemn event, happening only once in a man’s life and ministry. The charge was built largely on the ministry of the Apostle Paul and some of his charges to Timothy and Titus in the pastoral epistles. Though one can only say so much in a three to four minute charge, I carved out five practical points for these men as they enter in on a preaching ministry. Here is the essence of that charge:
1. Prioritize first preaching to yourself whatever you plan on preaching to others.
John Owen once famously declared, “Truly no man preaches that sermon well to others that doth not first preach it to his own heart”. . .Unless “he finds the power of it in his own heart, he cannot have any ground of confidence that it will have power in the hearts of others.” We never want to step into the pulpit without having seriously and soberingly preached first to ourselves whatever passage we are preaching to the congregation. When a man does not preach the Scriptures to himself, first and foremost, he will deliver hyper-intellectual, experientially theoretical, or dry and lifeless sermons to the people of God.
In Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon explained the dire need a minister of the word must have to be so affected by God’s word that he has a burning fire for the proclamation of it within. This will only come as we preach God’s word consistently to our own hearts, the Holy Spirit fanning the flame of love for the triune God and the ministry of His word. Spurgeon wrote,
“I have such a profound respect for this ‘fire in the bones,’ that if I did not feel it myself, I must leave the ministry at once. If you do not feel the consecrated glow, I beseech you return to your homes and serve God in your proper spheres; but if assuredly the coals of juniper blaze within, do not stifle them, unless, indeed, other considerations of great moment should prove to you that the desire is not a fire of heavenly origin.”
2. Keep Christ and Him crucified and risen central in all your preaching.
The Apostle Paul said, “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Nearly every man I have known began his ministry of preaching starts it off his ministry with this commitment. However, as the years roll on, so many deviate from this and allow themselves to be sidetracked by subjects and emphases that–while they may have roots in the teaching of Scripture–supplant the central focus of Scripture on Christ and the salvation that is in Him alone. As Geerhardus Vos explained,
“It is possible, Sabbath after Sabbath and year after year, to preach things of which none can say that they are untrue and none can deny that in their proper place and time they may be important, and yet to forego telling people plainly and to forego giving them the distinct impression that they need forgiveness and salvation from sin through the cross of Christ. . . there ought not to be in your whole repertoire a single sermon in which from beginning to end you do not convey to your hearers the impression that what you want to impart to them, you do not think it possible to impart to them in any other way than as a correlate and consequence of the eternal salvation of their souls through the blood of Christ.”
3. Give yourself to a continual study of biblical, systematic, exegetical, and historical theology.
In 1 Timothy 4:13-15, the Apostle charged young Timothy, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. . Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. There is so much to learn. The late John Gerstner was once asked how much theological preparation does a man need for effective ministry. He said, “If I knew that I only had five years to live. I would spend four preparing for ministry and one ministering.” Although some might find this statement somewhat lopsided, the point is simple. We need to be men who are continually digging into the Scripture, solid theological works, and the annals of church history. As we do, the Apostle says that our “progress will be evident to all.” We need men who are humble, hungry, and teachable. We should also recognize that this is not merely something we should do in preparation for a preaching ministry–it is something that we will need to do this throughout the entirety of our ministries.
4. Stay single-minded in your commitment to the the gospel ministry, particularly in light of suffering for the sake of the gospel of Christ.
As the Apostle Paul told Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:3, “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.” If we are to have a fruitful and effective ministry of the word and the gospel, we need to stay single-minded to the call of God. Too many ministers have allowed themselves to become preoccupied with civilian affairs. We are not to divide our time between the ministry of the gospel and community organization. We must resist becoming “half pastor/half politician.” Whatever the distracting agendas, the man of God must give himself wholly to that which God has deemed most important.
This is especially the case when hardship or opposition arise because of the word. The Apostle Paul could press though all the challenges, trials, and opposition on account of the word because he remained single-minded in his commitment to the mission of God. In 2 Tim. 2:10, he explained, “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.”
5. Watch over your life
In 1 Timothy 4:16, Paul told Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” There are a thousand different ways that Satan seeks to devour ministers–e.g. love of provision, love of praise, love of pleasure, and love of power. Many men have started off strong and then spiritually declined because they stopped keeping watch over themselves. Since we have an irreconciliable war raging within us, the flesh wrestling with the Spirit and the Spirit with the flesh, we need to be especially resolute in mortifying sin and in guarding our hearts.
We can professionalize ministry in such a way and to such an extent that we learn how to hide the true spiritual condition of our hearts. A number of years ago a pastor and theologian I greatly admired for his robust Reformed expositions of Scripture took his own life. It came out that he had been having affairs with women in various related congregations for approximately two decades. During that time, this minister wrote solid books, spoke at major conferences, taught in seminaries, and carried on in regular Lord’s Day preaching and teaching. When some of his ongoing sin came to light, he was asked how he was able to minister while living in unrepentant sin. He replied, “I leaned on my gifts.” That is a sobering thought for any man to whom God has given gifts for preaching and pastoring. A mentor once wisely taught me, “You can lose the ministry and keep your family but you can’t lose your family and keep the ministry.” There is an ever present need to take heed to ourselves. Our lips are always a few steps ahead of our feet. There, we must be resolute in guarding against the multitude of temptations that Satan will seek to use against us.