What Is One Thing You Did Right in Ministry?
I Started a Book Table—Tom Ascol
One of the first things that I did when I became pastor of the church I now serve was to start a book table where good books at discounted prices were made available to our congregation. Through experience in the previous church I served I had learned that those who read, lead. Even with limited opportunity to distribute good books (I was the Assistant Pastor) it became evident that a book thoughtfully recommended could be instrumental in the spiritual development of Christians.
Within a few weeks of preaching my first sermon in my present church I purchased a handful of small books and started recommending them to our membership. Among that first batch was Words to Winners of Souls by Horatius Bonar and David M’Intyre’s The Hidden Life of Prayer. My goal was to start small and devotional—to provide books whose content was obviously relevant and easily digestible. I had benefitted so much from good books that I wanted to share the blessing with others.
A man in the church who understood the value of good books helped underwrite the cost of the next set and within a matter of months we had a table full of good titles for sale as a fixture in our foyer. Within a year or two, the “Book Table” became a line item in our budget and the church adopted a policy that if anyone who wanted one of the books but could not afford to pay, he or she could have it in exchange for a promise to read it.
I often recommend books both publicly and in private conversations. When someone takes my recommendation I try to follow up in a few weeks to ask what they think of the book, what they are learning or if the book has raised any questions for them. That has led to some very fruitful conversations and opportunities for ministry.
Fruitful does not always mean easy however. On occasion I have had members and prospective members get upset by a book. Once a deacon stormed into my study on a Sunday morning and threw on my desk a book I had encouraged him to read the week before. He declared loudly enough for several other people to hear, “If that book is true, then I am not a Christian!” What tome evoked such a response? Walt Chantry’s Today’s Gospel, Authentic or Synthetic. That deacon and I had many hard conversations after that. We discussed the nature of saving faith, true repentance and the new birth, among other things. That book helped establish a biblical framework for such talks.
Trusting God Even When Life Hurts by Jerry Bridges is the most popular book that has ever graced the shelves of our book room (the table became too small). Over the years we have distributed multiple thousands of copies of that book. Many people had become familiar with it from our church shortly before a major hurricane tore across southern Florida in 1992, leaving dozens of damaged church buildings and parsonages in its wake. Because it was fresh on the minds of so many, our people purchased copies for every pastor and church that we learned had been affected. We also gave money and additional books to help several pastors start rebuilding their personal libraries.
A culture of appreciation of good books took root in the church over those first few years and has continued to the present. With a little encouragement, members began buying books for family and friends, often including an appropriate title with a birthday or Christmas gift. Over the years it has become second-nature for many of our members to use books in evangelistic and discipleship relationships. I frequently lead small groups of members in reading through a carefully selected book. People who are not accustomed to reading or to reading theologically oriented books can be encouraged to make the attempt when they know that others will be conversation partners along the way.
By encouraging members to read good books I inadvertently helped develop a support system for my own “continued education program.” Readers love to discuss what they are reading and they are always looking for recommendations of what to read next. In the early years here I was usually on the recommending end of such conversations. As reading became more customary among our members and with the increased access to books in not only print but also digital and audio formats, it was not long before I found myself regularly receiving recommendations as well as making them.
Through the years I have seen good books supplement the ongoing preaching and teaching ministry of the church, encourage personal and spiritual growth, help with counseling, equip for ministry and help people develop a growing love for truth. As such, good books can be like personal assistants to a busy pastor. With apologies to a Puritan author whose name I have forgotten, a book can speak when a pastor cannot, should not, will not and is not.
So I would encourage every pastor to start a book table if one doesn’t already exist in the church he is serving. That is one thing that, by God’s grace, I did right early in my ministry.
I Waited on God—Jeff Johnson
I peered out the door once more to look at an empty parking lot. This time however, it was past time for the worship service to start. “Maybe people are running late,” I thought to myself. But as I continued to wait and wait, with my sermon notes in hand, I came to the disappointing conclusion that nobody was going to come. After taking a few moments to pray, I cleaned the coffee pot, turned off the lights, and locked the door behind me.
This was almost fifteen years ago, at the very beginning of Grace Bible Church of Conway, Arkansas. It has taken a lot of time to get from there to where we are now, but I am thankful that I have waited—I am thankful that I waited, not for the crowds to come, but that I have waited on God!
The verse that encouraged me to wait on God was Psalm 127:1: “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” Though I was young and full of ambition, according to this verse, I had two options: I could spend a lot of time and energy in my attempt to grow a ministry in the power of the flesh, or I could wait on God to build the house. Though I knew it would be hard, I sought to follow George Muller’s well-known exhortation: “God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supplies.”
Or course, waiting on God is hard—even harder than blazing ahead. I, as do many, like to see results quickly. There is pressure from all directions to be successful—and success is so often judged by how fast one can grow a church. This may be one of the reasons churches are eager to consult marketing firms, buy into the newest church-growth technique, and spend so much energy and time convincing the saints to buy into the latest ‘vision.’ But rather than pushing ahead of God and begging man to get on board, one of the best things I did was seek to be faithful to pray and continue to wait on God to build the house.
My waiting started while in Bible college. I felt called to preach and had an insatiable desire to learn the Bible. I could not wait to start pastoring and share with others all the things I have learned. Though young, I had friends even younger who were already pastoring. Why not me, I thought. But, looking back now, I am glad that I waited. I was not ready for such a weighty responsibility. Preaching is one thing, pastoring takes a little more humility, experience and wisdom. It seemed like forever then, but now I look back and see how fast things transpired. It was not long before I was thrust into the ministry. Without seeking it, a door was opened to start a church with a few precious families in the city that I was happy to call home. Rather than moving off and likely jumping from church to church, waiting on God has proven to be the best thing for me! Now after pastoring the same church for sixteen years, I am thankful that I waited on God!
As a pastor of a small church plant, I couldn’t wait for us to have our own meeting place. In those early days, we were meeting in the living room of my little apartment. My pulpit was a flimsy music stand that would slowly compress down under the weight of my Bible. “Oh, if we only had an official meeting place, something outside of a living room, then people would take us more seriously” I thought. But, we had no money, and real estate in Conway was expensive.
And to make things worse, during this time another church was being planted in Conway—it turned out to be one of the fastest growing churches in America! Unlike us, they began with a few deep-pocketed investors and a marketing strategy to reach every single person in the Conway metro area with their message of starting a church. Rather than starting small with a few families like us, for six months they blitzed the community with advertising before opening their doors. And, when their doors did finally open on their first Sunday, they had a clown, a fog machine and 500 in attendance. From 500 to 1,000, from 1,000 to 5,000, the church continued to grow. Not only did they have their own place to meet, they quickly opened up satellite campuses across the state. By comparison, here we were, almost totally unknown and with no budget to spend on billboards or other such branding. But rather than getting impatient and rushing ahead, we continued to preach the Word and wait on God.
Within a year office space became available at the right price. Not before and not after, but the exact time we needed it, God sent a large sum of money to us and we were able to purchase all the needed church furniture. Moreover, my grandfather donated and delivered a custom built, Spurgeon quality pulpit to our new location. Things came together supernaturally and so quickly that all our little group could do was give God the glory. In this, I am thankful that we waited on God!
While in this office space, God brought us more members and it was not long before we needed a little more room. So we looked to God and waited some more. And as God promised, those who wait upon the Lord shall not be disappointed (Psalm 25:3, Romans 10:11). Right when we needed it, God provided us a mobile home almost free of charge. We were so thankful—it was everything we needed. I am thankful that we waited on God!
While meeting in the mobile home, we continued to grow. And there came a point that we felt cramped. Though we needed a larger place, we still did not have sufficient funds to secure a facility that would accommodate us. As we continued to minister and trust the Lord, the dean at the local Baptist college visited one particular Sunday morning. He recommended that we try to rent the chapel at Central Baptist College (CBC) where he worked. I remember responding by saying something of the nature: “That would be awesome, but there is no way they would they agree to allow a non-BMA church to meet on the campus of the BMA Baptist college and even if they did, then there is no way we could afford it.”
But I had forgotten that it was God who had always taken care of us and who had promised to continue to supply our needs. While not thinking much more about the advice of the visitor, the next morning he called me with the news: the keys to the beautiful chapel with its $80,000 grand piano and stained glass windows would be waiting for us. I couldn’t believe it. When I called the president of the college to confirm and learn what they would charge for rent, I was even more surprised when he said: “fifty dollars a month.” We could only say “Thank you God!” “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). With this too, I am thankful that we waited on God!
It has been over four years since we moved into the CBC chapel and what a blessing it has been. We doubled in size the first year and doubled again the next year. God has not only brought growth, He has entrusted us with many young men who desire to dedicate their lives to the ministry. I would have never imagined that our church would also be starting a seminary with the opportunity to train the next generation of ministers, send out missionaries and possibly plant new churches. But here we are in the process of doing just that. If I would have put all my energy into trying to make something this big happen, I know I would have wasted my time. Therefore, I am thankful that I waited on God!
Well, having no contract with CBC, we knew it was just a matter of time before we would need a building of our own. CBC has been more than gracious and we have stayed twice as long as we anticipated. The Sunday I broke the news to the congregation that we had been given six months to find a new place, I reminded these saints about God’s past faithfulness and His ongoing promise to provide. I explained that we were neither going to hammer them each week to give to the building fund nor were we going to start fundraising. It was evident that we needed to trust and wait on God.
Learning that it could take close to a million dollars to purchase a property that could accommodate our growing needs, with the clock ticking and the pressure mounting, we received the amazing news that a 7,000 square foot building in the middle of town could be ours free of charge if we wanted it. And what could we have said but “We will take it, and to God alone be the glory!” The building is in a great location, is large enough for growth and we had sufficient funds to remodel without going into debt. Perhaps we could have moved ahead faster in our own efforts, but I am thankful that we waited on God!
After all these years God has been faithful. We have no right to take any credit, but all the glory and praise belongs to Him who richly provides us all things. Though we have labored hard, it truly has been God who has built the house. It was discouraging that lonely Sunday when I was the only one to show up for church those many years ago, but with all the discouragements and growing pains, I am thankful that I waited on God!
I Did Expository Preaching—Phil A. Newton
I grew up under very poorly done topical preaching. When I came to faith in Christ as a teenager and subsequently sensed God’s call to ministry, I had few models of solid biblical preaching. I too, followed in stride by preaching some pathetic topical sermons. Gripped by inerrancy, I kept gravitating back to the need to “preach the Word.” As a college junior, I attended a pastors’ conference in Birmingham, Alabama that solidified my view of preaching. I listened to the late Stephen Olford, former pastor of churches in London and New York City, preach expositionally. I literally could not get up from the pew after the first sermon! The power of opening a biblical text and letting the text speak staggered me. Before the week ended, I committed to the Lord that whenever He found pleasure in me preaching that I would do my best to preach expositionally.
The journey from that 1975 conference to the present day, serving on a couple of church staffs and pastoring four churches, preaching in other churches and in international settings has given me the opportunity to continue to learn to preach expository sermons. While a number of seminaries in the seventies neglected teaching exposition, I was fortunate to have one professor who emphasized it (unfortunately, another did not). I even took a class in expository preaching, something that seemed an oddity in 1977. But taking a class on expositional preaching doth not the expositor make! That’s why I call it a journey over the past forty-one years since making a commitment to preach expositionally. I’ve faltered many times, no doubt, to let the text speak. Yet the Lord, along with four congregations, has been patient with me in learning how to work through a biblical text and expound it so that its doctrines and applications are set forth to the benefit of the hearers. Along the way, I’ve seen a number of positive outcomes with expository preaching.
- Biblical exposition feeds my own soul devotionally. One must not approach a text for preaching as though it is yet another academic exercise in ministerial profession. It’s not just our Sunday duty. Instead, the Word is life, food, and drink that nourish the soul. Many weeks, while feeling the struggles of discipline and Christian walk, digging into the Word in preparation to preach has reenergized me spiritually.
- Biblical exposition has challenged and transformed me theologically. I’ve found over the years that the best way for me to be reoriented theologically is to work through doctrine in the biblical text. My journey in the doctrines of grace came twenty-six years ago as I attempted to preach expositionally through Ephesians. Week-by-week, neglected and hazy theological ideas came into focus. It is no exaggeration to say that exposition has rocked me theologically. For that, I’m profoundly grateful to the Lord.
- Biblical exposition forces me to deal with subjects and themes outside my comfort zone. Face it, some issues we would rather dodge than stand before the congregation and open them knowing that we’ll likely offend or be misunderstood or open a taboo subject. We might even get fired! But preaching through books of the Bible will not allow us to hide from texts—nor should we. We need those texts and subjects; so do our congregations. Give the people the Word.
- Biblical exposition brings reformation to the church. The most natural way for a church to experience biblical reformation is through biblical exposition. In that way, the pastor has no need to pick the theological and ecclesiological topics that he wants to incorporate where they’ve been previously neglected by other pastors. If he is patient and persistent, the pastor will address basically everything as he works through books of the Bible. With that approach, a congregation sensitive to God’s Word realizes that the pastor is not trying to lead them down some sinister path of change. He’s just opening the Word and letting the Word by the Spirit do the work in the church.
- Biblical exposition exposes me to a wider range of competent scholars, expositors and theologians. I’ve often wondered about non-expositional sermon preparation. The preacher spends his time studying a topic, hunting for illustrations and stories and finding suitable applications. He doesn’t do much wrestling with biblical texts, so he doesn’t need to dig into Calvin, Luther, Lloyd-Jones, Carson, Stott, Broadus and others. But in expository preaching, the preparation time means digging into the text, considering the original languages, interacting with commentaries, feeding the soul from fellow expositors and supplementing with theologians who address the themes of the text. My reading expanded when I got serious about exposition. Otherwise, I would not be ready for Sundays. A range of old and contemporary friends, sit on my bookshelves along the four walls of my study. They join me each week in preparing to expound the Word to my congregation. I’m thankful to have these friends as dear colleagues in expositional ministry. They have taught me and stood by me for four decades of ministry.
- Biblical exposition feeds my congregation a more balanced diet of God’s Word than other approaches in preaching. While my first audience in preaching must be the Lord (2 Timothy 4:1), the aim must be to make sure that His people regularly receive the Word. We live in an era when far too many people who regularly attend worship in evangelical congregations, know very little about the truths of Holy Scripture. Some of them may be capable of using an evangelistic outline that they learned in a class but are unskilled in discipling a new believer in biblical doctrine, woeful in explaining some of the great themes of God’s Word or unable to trace the story line of Scripture. While these believers can certainly study the Word on their own, much of the fault for their paucity of understanding lies in the pulpit where pastors have neglected biblical exposition in favor of an easier, more entertaining approach to preaching. Knowing that I must give an account before the Lord for how I shepherded the flock entrusted to me, that daunting fear looms larger if I’m failing to recount to the church the massive truths of who the Lord is, what He has done redemptively and how He will be glorified among the nations. Paul told the Ephesian elders that he “did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable” (Acts 20:20). Will that be said of me when I finish my course as pastor?
I’m always learning as a biblical expositor. With every text and every sermon, I’m reminded of the depth and riches of what God has given to us in His Word. Consequently, preaching never gets boring; the preparation never becomes blasé. With every sermon and the labor that goes into preparing it, I’m enriched before I stand in the pulpit. I pray that my congregation will be too. While I’ve made many mistakes in ministry, the best thing that I’ve done is to remain committed by the grace of God to biblical exposition.
I Started a Pastoral Internship—Jeff Robinson
As I reflect back on a particularly difficult stretch of ministry in the local church, there is one thing I led our elder board to adopt that continues to bear fruit today and for which I am deeply grateful—we invested in several younger men called to Gospel ministry.
Motivated by Paul’s admonition to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2, we sought to “entrust these things to faithful men,” by developing an internship for men who exhibited clear gifts and call to ministry. Over two years time, four young men participated, all of whom remain involved in local church ministry in some form or fashion today.
While I did not possess an abundance of ministry experience in my first pastorate, I was privileged to serve alongside two other elders with more than 70 years of combined experience in pastoral ministry. Things in that ministry were rocky from the beginning and after one year, I began to realize my stay might be short. With this in mind, I wanted to capitalize on whatever time the Lord gave me there and felt the best way to do it was to use the strengths we had and see if God might raise up other men for ministry.
As it turns out, He did.
One of the young men had completed a seminary degree and three others were seminary or Bible College students. We sought to give them practical, hands-on experience to supplement the excellent subjects they were studying from Greek and Hebrew, church history, apologetics and systematic theology.
I was privileged to gain two degrees in the things of God—a master of divinity in biblical and theological studies and a doctor of philosophy in historical theology—yet, I felt ill prepared to lead and feed a local church. I designed our internship program for these men to remedy shortcomings in my own experience. We assigned them texts and mentored them in sermon preparation and allowed each young man to preach in a church service. We took them on hospital visits, shut-in visits and allowed them to sit in on acute counseling sessions. What seminary education was teaching them in theory, we hoped to enable them to practice in reality. We sought to give them experience in many of the things Puritan Richard Baxter wrote about in his Reformed Pastor and Christian Directory.
While I made myriad mistakes during those early years as a pastor (and still make mistakes as a pastor), I am thankful that the Lord allowed me to invest in some small way in the lives and ministries of these four men and pray that they will continue to impact God’s kingdom for His glory for many years to come.
I Was Committed to Expositional Preaching—Kurt Smith
I must begin by making a personal confession that when asked to consider writing on this topic, I initially found it difficult. When assessing my own personal ministry, I have multiple regrets over bad decisions, indiscretions, misjudgments and wasted opportunities which could have been avoided had I only followed the wisdom of God’s Word with greater consistency. Adding to struggles with remaining sin, by and large, I have faced a ministry to people whose rebellion against the truth turned into a campaign against the messenger of truth, sowing discord, fabrication and public slander thereby seeking to discredit me. Coming away from this kind of trial with the request to write one thing I did right in the ministry was a little daunting to say the least.
So, what is something I did right in ministry? The one thing I have done right, to which I can, with clear conscience testify, is that I have consistently been faithful to the expositional preaching of God’s Word. Whether “in season [or] out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2), by God’s grace and mercy, I gave myself in full obedience to His command to always “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2). And, for the most part, in my experience the preaching of God’s Word has been “out of season”. In other words, where the Lord has typically sent me has been among people to whom the exposition of His Word has been unwelcome.
Yet, it has been in these turbulent circumstances where the Lord has taught me what He impressed so strongly on His prophet Ezekiel: “…be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. And you shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear, for they are a rebellious house” (Ezekiel 2:6b–7, ESV). What I have learned and continue to glean from this is that in preaching God’s Word, I am never to regard the conduct of those who hear it. I am proclaiming the Word of God because He has commanded it to be proclaimed period. If therefore, it has pleased God to place me in the midst of “briers, thorns [and] scorpions” (Ezekiel 2:6) as my ministerial station, I will nevertheless utter His Word because this is His calling and imperative. Thankfully, I can say with integrity, this one thing I have done by God’s empowering strength.
But I must stress that not all to whom I have expounded God’s Word fit in the category of the “rebellious house”. While I have witnessed God’s Word expose the darkness of men’s hearts through the medium of preaching, I have also seen the body of Christ greatly edified. One of the families who came to the last church where I was pastor, remarked that they came only because they knew the Word of God was faithfully preached there. The husband bore witness how his life personally, his marriage, and the raising of his children is no longer in a fog, but fixed clearly on the Scriptures alone. I think of a young man I met recently who testified that when he heard me preach on John 3 and the new birth seven years ago, God gave him the assurance of salvation. Another man expressed his gratitude for coming to a greater understanding of the place and purpose of elders in the church through a series of messages I expounded from the Pastoral Epistles. He observed how the biblical qualifications of the elder were set forth with greater clarity than what he had understood before, thus he now knows what to look for in a potential elder. And three months ago, a man who had listened to a sermon I preached from Matthew 5:21–27 entitled, “Are you a Murderer?” wrote the following: “I discovered Pastor Smith today since Chris and I upload all the sermons for www.wilderness.com and I was listening while delivering the mail. The powerful oratory of this sermon caught my attention immediately, and then the substance. By the end of the sermon I had to get Chris on the phone and thank him for adding Pastor Smith’s sermons to our lineup. Then I got home and had to share this with the wife as I always do when a sermon really arrests me. Now I want to hear the next few sermons as well. I am a debtor to any pastor whose sermons unzip my heart, arrest my conscience, and drive me to the blood of Christ for fresh mercy.” These testimonies are certainly not meant to “toot my horn” but to simply give examples of how the Lord has edified His people through this one thing I have done right in ministry by preaching His Word.
Reflecting, therefore, on the one thing I did right in ministry, I am grateful it was faithfully preaching God’s holy Word. Personally, if I couldn’t affirm this above all, then I am not fit to be a pastor as God has called men to serve in this sacred office. John Owen (1616–1683) crystallized this fact best when he wrote: “The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word…This feeding is of the essence of the office of a pastor, as unto the exercise of it; so that he who does not, or cannot, or will not feed the flock is no pastor, whatever outward call or work he may have in the church.”1
I Preached Christ—Tom Hicks
When first convinced I was called to pastoral ministry, I remember feeling overwhelmed with the responsibility of it all. I thought that being a good pastor meant being a good administrator, an excellent student, a sound theologian, good with people, a gripping public speaker, a strong leader, a humble servant and so on. And certainly a pastor needs to have elements of all those things, but it seemed to me that a good pastor needed to be good at almost everything. Soon, the Lord graciously sent influences into my life to teach me that pastoral ministry isn’t ultimately about me. My pastoral mentor, Fred Malone, taught me that the greatest hindrance to pastoral ministry is the pastor himself and that faithful pastors preach and minister Jesus Christ. A pastor’s highest responsibility is to commend Jesus. I also remember attending a National Founders Conference where I met Geoff Thomas, a pastor whom I highly respect. At one point in our conversation, he said, “At my age, I have nothing left to prove, only to speak warmly of the Savior, but that’s the hardest thing to do, isn’t it?” That resonated deeply with me, and “speaking warmly of the Savior” has remained the greatest desire of my ministry.
(1) Christ-Centered Preaching Leads Christians to Worship. Preachers must work to explain the text in such a way as to form distinct doctrinal ideas in the minds of their hearers. But the preacher is also to turn the sermon to Jesus Christ, showing how Christ Himself is on display in the Scriptures. The Bible teaches us to preach Christ-centered sermons (Acts 8:12; 8:27; 17:3; 1 Corinthians 1:23; 2 Corinthians 4:5; Colossians 1:28) manifesting His love, grace, truth, and justice through whatever particular text is being preached. In my experience as a preacher, at the point in the sermon when I make the connection to Christ, people’s faces light up with joy and gratitude or reverence and awe, depending on the text. I’m convinced that the end of preaching is not simply teaching people to understand or believe sound doctrine. Nor is it simply getting people to do what the Bible says. The end of preaching is worship, and a sermon can only lead people to worship if Jesus Christ is preached because Jesus is the fullest revelation of God to men (John 1:18; Colossians 2:1, 9).
On the road to Emmaus, Jesus opened the Scriptures and began to teach His disciples. “And beginning with all the prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). The disciples responded to Christ’s own Christ-centered teaching with heartfelt worship. “They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road, while He opened to us the Scriptures?’” (Luke 24:32). When I preach, people don’t usually thank me for deep insights, for providing detailed analysis or historical background, though I hope they sometimes benefit from those things. But people do tell me that the sight of Christ has helped them to persevere as Christians. They tell me that they love seeing Christ in all the Scriptures. Believers say along with those who came to Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21).
(2) Christ-Centered Counseling Encourages Godly Change. Often when people come for counseling, they simply want relief of some kind. This is sometimes true even of Christians who come for counseling. People who are depressed just want the depression to stop. Those who are struggling in their marriages are willing to do whatever it takes to have a happier marriage. And very subtly, people can be motivated to make changes in their lives simply to get relief from pain. Spouses are willing to make changes to find rest from the constant conflict that is taking place in their marriage. And it would be very easy for a pastoral counselor simply to tell people, “If you believe and do what the Bible says, then the problems you’re experiencing in your life will get better.” The fact is, if people believe and do what the Bible says, they may get some relief from their pain.
But the pastoral counselor’s job is to lead people to worship and grow in Christ. That means pointing people to Jesus, and exhorting them to change because they believe Him and love Him. Often in marriage counseling, both the husband and the wife say that the problem is with the other person. The other person won’t change. They blame one another. And each of them is waiting on the other to make the first move. And if one of them does change, that one gets discouraged because the other isn’t changing too. The only way through this is to preach Christ to both spouses. They both need a great vision of the beauty, goodness, love, and grace of Jesus Christ. And they both need to humble themselves before Christ, trust Him and obey Him, no matter what the other person does. The goal of counseling isn’t to give people a better life in this world. It’s to lead people to know Christ more deeply, to suffer with Him if necessary, and to obey Him faithfully for His glory. This is the only way I’ve seen any real progress in counseling. And it has been one of my greatest joys in pastoral ministry to watch people renew their love for Christ and be willing to submit to Him, no matter what else changes.
(3) Christ-Centered Ministry is Good for the Minister. Striving to be centered on Christ in my heart, home and ministry has helped to check the proud and sinful tendencies in my own heart. Christ reminds me that I can’t save anyone, but that He alone is the Savior. I don’t have to get my way among the other elders because the church belongs to Christ, not to me. I’m to speak the truth in love and love my brother pastors. I don’t have to convince the congregation of sound doctrine because Christ alone rules their minds and hearts. My job is faithfully to declare what I have received and leave the results to Jesus. I don’t have to make people obey Christ because Christ alone is powerful to work holiness in the hearts of His people. In discipline situations, I have sometimes been tempted to become angry and frustrated when people are destroying their lives and the lives of others. But I’m reminded that I too have broken God’s law and deserve hell, just like those under discipline and that my only hope is redemption in Christ. The kindness of God leads us to repentance. And so my job is to minister Christ, to stay on Christ, never tiring of holding out the same message of hope and life in Him.
The more focused I am on Jesus, the less likely I am to think that ministry is about me or that my efforts can accomplish the work that Jesus alone can accomplish. When my thinking is centered on Jesus, I find that He is the most powerful motive to diligence and hard work in the ministry. My work is not in vain. The outcome is in His hands, not mine. When my eyes are fixed upon Jesus, I work, not to change people, not to build my own kingdom, not to be a good pastor, but to love Christ and glorify Him.
I Found a Personal Guide in Samuel Rutherford—Tony Rose
It feels a bit odd writing about what I did right in ministry. However, I can say with confidence that one thing I did right in ministry was finding Samuel Rutherford as a personal and pastoral guide.
Like waking in the morning and waiting for your vision to clear it took a few years of ministry for my eyes to adjust and see the “exposing” nature of pastoral work. Serving a local church and the weekly study of Scripture were performing a work on my own self without my awareness. Working hard to respond to the relentless demands of the church body began a painful dismantling of a soul insufficiently structured to bear up under the weight of real pastoral work. The continual work of studying Scripture to tell others what God was saying to them cast an ever growing light onto my insufficiencies. The realities of ministry exposed the reality of me. The pastorate will do this to every man God calls.
It was 1991. I was married, the father of three daughters and a few years into my second pastorate. The self-exposure had reached critical mass and I found myself in desperate need. I felt the weight of Hebrews 4:13, “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” I began a determined search for someone who could speak a language clear enough, sophisticated enough and expansive enough to heal my anguished soul. I was tired of trying to look like a man of God. I needed someone who could teach me the difference between having the appearance of godliness and having the power of godliness. My soul needed more than a preacher or a theologian. I needed a soul-physician. Was there anyone who had been where I was and had come out well on the other side?
My search was turning up very little help among contemporary writers. Through a series of events I “stumbled” onto the English Puritans and in particular the Scottish divine, Samuel Rutherford. He was the man who had the vocabulary and skill to speak words that healed. Though he came from across the centuries and across the ocean Rutherford became and still is my pastor, my dear friend, and my guide. Let me offer a few reasons for having a mentor like Rutherford:
- Much of Rutherford’s writing is personal correspondence. A letter offers riches that other forms of writing cannot provide. Letters are addressed to specific persons, at specific times and surrounded by specific circumstances. Rutherford’s personal correspondence provided a clear demonstration of applying the gospel to daily life.
- Samuel Rutherford endured suffering and persecution. Suffering and persecution are harsh and yet extremely effective teachers of the real gospel of our suffering Savior. According to 2 Corinthians 1, sufferings are the school through which we learn the comfort of God. Without suffering we cannot know the comforting grace of God and are left incapable of offering effective gospel comfort to believers in their sufferings.
- Learning from one who lived in a different century has several advantages. First, if his writings survived it usually means that he was addressing issues of the ages not merely issues of the day. Secondly, he is not clogged up with the prejudices of our day and will see things differently than we do. Thirdly, he is dead and can no longer mess up!
The core of what Rutherford did and still does is sharpening my understanding of Christ and of myself. Failures in ministry, small and large, can be traced to a faulty conception of self or of Christ and His gospel. A clear-eyed awareness of the deceptive nature of our own hearts and the redemptive power of God’s grace in Christ are foundational to keeping a man faithful in ministry. The best way to explain Rutherford is to let him speak for himself.
Rutherford had a spiritual, verbal and moral dexterity to speak the gospel into life’s most difficult moments. He could offer more comfort and deliver more confrontation in one sentence than most of us could in three paragraphs. I think this ability was hard won by his own suffering for and submission to the Jesus he called Lord. His security in Christ enabled him to speak with a transparent honesty rarely found among us pastors. Rutherford expressed to a friend, “It hath pleased His holy Majesty to take me from the pulpit, and teach me many things in my exile and prison that were mysteries to me before. I see his bottomless and boundless love and kindness, and my jealousies and ravings, which, at my first entry into this furnace, were so foolish and bold as to say to Christ, who is Truth itself, in his face, ‘Thou liest’. I had well nigh lost my grips; I wondered if it was Christ or not; for the mist and smoke of my perturbed heart made me mistake my Master, Jesus . . . Alas! I knew not well before what good skill my Intercessor and Advocate, Christ, hath in pleading, and in pardoning me such follies.”2 Later in the same letter he wrote, “I am now brought to some measure of submission, and I resolve to wait till I see what my Lord Jesus will do with me … I see Providence runneth not on broken wheels; but I, like a fool, carved a Providence for mine own ease, to die in my nest, and to sleep still, till my grey hairs, and to lie on the sunny side of the mountain, in my ministry at Anwoth (the town his church was in).3 Through his suffering and submission to the Lord Jesus he learned what every pastor must learn if contentment in ministry is to be attained. He expressed to a friend that he had learned “Anwoth is not heaven and preaching is not Christ.”4
During Rutherford’s imprisonment he received a multitude of requests for counsel and direction. One friend was suffering from relentless doubts concerning Christ and his salvation. Rutherford responded with wisdom, boldness, and comfort in keenly constructed words that only God could provide through a human instrument. Rutherford told his friend, “Your heart is not the compass Christ saileth by. He will give you leave to sing as you please, but he will not dance to your daft spring (tune) . . . Your thoughts are not parts of the new covenant; dreams change not Christ. Doubtings are your sins, but they are Christ’s drugs and ingredients that the Physician maketh use of for the curing of your pride . . . since faith apprehendeth pardon, but never payeth a penny for it, no marvel that salvation doth not die and live, ebb or flow, with the working of faith. But, because it is for your Lord’s honour to believe his mercy and his fidelity, it is infinite goodness in our Lord that misbelief giveth a dash to our Lord’s glory, and not to our salvation.”5 I recommend slow and repetitive reading of this counsel. It is concise. It is over-full of truths from God’s gospel. Our contemporary minds are not usually fit to grasp such writing in one reading.
Samuel Rutherford may not be the man that speaks to your soul but you will need someone who can. I pray this small taste of Rutherford’s pastoral art and skill will whet your appetite to find such a guide.
1 John Owen, The Works of John Owen: Volume 16 (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, reprinted 1968), 74–75.
2 Rutherford, Samuel, Letters of Samuel Rutherford, The Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, PA. 67
3 Ibid, 68
4 Ibid, 59
5 Ibid, 87