Founders Journal 74 · Fall 2008 · pp. 28-30
Wanted: A Few Weak Men
For many years the United States Army recruited soldiers by means of a now classic poster of Uncle Sam, his brows fully furrowed to highlight an austere countenance, his finger pointed directly at the face of potential enlistees. The whole picture sought to communicate gravely the slogan emblazoned across the poster beneath Sam’s red, white and blue torso: “I want you.” This was a major part of the army’s overall campaign to recruit soldiers under the slogan, “Wanted: A few good men.” When I was younger, I once heard a preacher say that God, like your local military recruiter, is looking for a few good men.
Without a doubt, the Christian minister’s calling bears many similarities to the job description of the soldier: the faithful man of God is perennially engaged in battle against an enemy whose strategies are as unpredictable as they are lethal; God’s man is to go about equipped in full battle array–the impenetrable armor of God, and he is equipped with the sword of the Spirit as his weapon. In summary, the faithful gospel minister is a man of war and Scripture is replete with warfare imagery. Thus, the gospel ministry is no place for those weak of heart.
But there is one significant difference between the calling of the earthly soldier and the warrior who marches under the banner of the King of Glory: For God’s warrior, strength lies in weakness and ultimate victory on the battlefield will only come through full, immediate and wholesale surrender. And profound suffering, for God’s herald, is the only boot camp that will fit him to survive the theatre of war.
These differences never rang with greater clarity to me than during Ray Ortlund Jr.’s recent visit to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Ortlund, a veteran minister who presently serves as pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, delivered the annual E.Y. Mullins Lectures at Southern and for three days, he gloriously articulated a God-exalting, pride-slaying vision of the Christian ministry. It was a much-needed antidote to the ethos of professionalism that dominates the landscape of evangelical ministry today.
During his first lecture, Ortlund unpacked 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 and powerfully reminded us that “a crucified Savior can be preached only in divine power” and Christ can be preached in divine power “only by crucified preachers.”
This is the quality of weakness that must typify the soldier of Christ. In Paul’s day, great rhetoricians were in demand in much the same way as are the televangelist superstars of our day. These speakers came with lofty words and high-minded ideas. They displayed an air of omni-competence and were not remiss to put their brilliance on display to dazzle their listeners.
Yet, the apostle Paul operated through another strategy, one that led him to admit to the Corinthians, “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom ” (1 Corinthians 2:3-4a). Why such an unexpected admission? As Ortlund reminded us, Paul operated this way because “God’s strategy for all of humanity is to destroy the wisdom of the wise” through “choosing the weak to shame the wise.” As John Piper so succinctly put it, brothers, we are not professionals. We are weak and clueless and foolish, yet chosen by God as instruments to herald His gospel. How humbling! Why does God work in this way? Verses 4-5 in 2 Corinthians 2 provide the answer: “ in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest on the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” God works this way so that the faith of sinners may rest upon the bedrock of divine grace and He works this way so that He gets all the glory. Preaching that stakes the claim of power for itself empties the cross of its effectual glory. Paul understood this well, as Ortlund further reminded us, “Paul was fully dependent upon the Holy Spirit’s power to prove the truthfulness of the cross That is the wisdom and power of God. The changing of the human heart is a miracle and God does it through weak preachers.” For all who would presume to proclaim the oracles of God, let us not be intimidated by our weakness; instead, like Paul, let us boast in it so that God’s glory might be manifest.
In his second message, Ortlund examined 1 Thessalonians 1:2-5 and asserted that humility must be the distinguishing mark of the faithful minister. “The divine power with which we preach to our people is inseparable from the kind of men we are with other people,” he said. In other words, in preaching to our congregations, we must adorn the gospel with the sweet savor of Christ, for therein lies the power of God. It was Paul’s deep and selfless love toward the people that embodied his ministry to the Thessalonians. Such love is paradigmatic for the type of affections that a faithful minister must display toward his people in order to see the gospel come “not only in word, but also in the power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).
Ortlund’s final message, from 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, demonstrated perhaps the single most countercultural aspect of the gospel ministry: A minister’s greatest spiritual breakthrough comes, not through power encounters with God, but through the most harrowing experiences of his life. Ortlund pointed out that Paul did not reach a spiritual pinnacle through being lifted up to the third heaven; rather, Paul’s intimacy with God increased exponentially as he suffered from a providentially placed thorn. The thorn had the net effect of keeping Paul humble and dramatically emphasized his weakness and dependence upon the might of the Lord. “Authentic Christianity does not produce a race of men who rise above need,” Ortlund said. “Paul is not threatened by his weakness because it is through it, through the thorn, that Christ’s power and presence rest on him.” So much modern-day preaching, particularly at the popular level, exudes precisely the opposite ethos. Indeed, much contemporary preaching merely employs cute aphorisms that commandeer the Bible to promote a form of human wisdom, a form of “wisdom” that promises to meet ten thousand felt needs. These promises are empty, however, because they bypass the one thing needful to give them credence: the power of God. As Ortlund pointed out, the human heart never changes and human sinfulness continues to need the same remedy of divine grace. The contemporary church needs precisely the sort of minister of which Ortlund spoke: men who, conscious of the depth of their own weakness, operate under a battle plan of humility adorned by an unshakable confidence in the power of God and the Word of God.
The gospel ministry is a calling of deep paradox. God’s man must be strong in the Lord, but strong in the power of His might. The herald of Christ must hear and heed the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:13, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong ” all the while operating out of the selflessness of verse 14, “Let all that you do be done in love.” For God’s man, the way up is down, the path to greatness is through full dependence upon sovereign grace. This stunning gospel paradox has outfitted some of the greatest preachers in history–Spurgeon, Bunyan, Luther, Calvin–all of whom suffered greatly, worked humbly and were used profoundly.
Ortlund’s clarion call to ministers and future ministers at the seminary recalls the words of A.W. Tozer, words that should be emblazoned on the hearts and minds of every man who is wrestling with the call to ministry: “Before God can use a man greatly, he must bruise him deeply.” This is the radical paradox that must typify the faithful herald of the gospel, a paradox which Piper summarizes in his customary pithy style: “We are fools for the sake of Christ. But professionals are wise. We are weak. But professionals are strong. Professionals are held in honor. We are in disrepute. We do not try to secure a professional lifestyle, but we are ready to hunger and thirst and be ill-clad and homeless.”
Brothers, God is looking for a few men whose strength lies in their weakness, whose heart beats with love for sinful men, who seek to walk the narrow road that leads to life along a path fraught with vicious enemies–some of whom are invisible, others of whom are camouflaged as friends–and deadly dangers, toils and snares too numerous to name. Are you ready to enlist?
1 John Piper, Brothers, We are Not Professionals: A Plea for Radical Ministry (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 1.