Five Lessons Learned from a Lifetime of Pastoring
I am more sinful than I first thought I was. The constant opening of my heart to self-examination while researching sermons has revealed the twists and turns of sin in my own heart. The result has been a greater thankfulness for our Father’s plan of grace, our Lord Jesus’ suffering for my sins, and a greater understanding that anything I know of truth and holiness is only because of the Spirit’s work in my heart to keep me from falling. But strangely this very recognition of my own remaining sins as a Christian and pastor has not discouraged me simply because it makes me understand even more the height and depth and breadth of the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. This painful process has enabled me to keep Christ and His Gospel more at the center of my thinking and preaching both to the saved and the lost at the same time. I am more sinful than I first thought I was.
2. God’s grace is greater than I first understood. Certainly “the doctrines of grace” have been a joy and a comfort to me most of my Christian life. Finally understanding that grace is not just an influence to help us use our unregenerate abilities to be saved, but a sovereign and effectual gift of God showered upon us from above to rescue us from ourselves and Satan, to bring us by His infinite power out of slavery to sin and Satan into His bosom for eternity, shocked me. It made me wonder why He chose to save anyone, must less myself. But however glorious grace was in the beginning, its testimony to God’s sovereign rule and beneficent love has grown in my mind each passing year. Christians need God’s grace as much as they did when they first understood the bloody death of Jesus for their life of sins. So, to stand before a congregation, seeing once-profligate sinners, once-rocky marriages, once-suicidal souls now singing joyfully of God’s great grace in Christ and Him crucified is almost more than I can handle with composure. Every sin repented of, every marriage growing in God’s grace, every saint who has found the love of Christ enough for this life and the next, sends my mind and my heart to the courts of heaven, where we will rejoice together glorified by God’s infinite grace. For the pastor, every sin repented of, every commandment obeyed, every praise to God from the lips of his sheep is as much a miracle of grace as the gift first bestowed upon himself. God’s grace grows greater each year in the eyes of pastors who have been given the privilege to watch it work wonders in the hearts of his sheep, as well as in his own heart and mind.
3. The Lord Jesus Christ is more central in the Bible than I first understood. I believe in the literal, grammatical, historical method of study. But with all the debates about exegeting a text first in grammar and historical context for expositional teaching, there is an additional element of interpretation often overlooked. And that is the obvious truth that there would be no revelation after the fall unless its purpose served to fulfill the promise of Gen. 3:15 in the incarnation and completed work of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Pick any verse from the Old Testament you wish. Somehow that verse reveals the condemnation of human beings under the covenant of works, but also the faithfulness of God to permit sinful man to live until the revelation of Christ in Bethlehem, on Calvary’s hill, in the empty garden tomb, in the glorified honor of our victorious King of Kings, in His return to end this world in judgment, and to make all things new in the new heaven and earth. Every text serves the great covenants of works and/or grace. Such an understanding enables preachers to exegete accurately the text, explain the historical settings near and far, and most importantly to explain the text under the whole counsel of God. We must not put Christ into a text by fanciful imagination, but neither must we leave Him out of a text which serves to advance His coming or to explain His accomplishment! The Lord Jesus Christ is more at the center of the Bible than I first understood.
4. I am the most needy member of my congregation. It is not that I have committed every sin as each member, nor that I am less committed than others. But I am the most needy member of my congregation to whom I minister each day. If we do not pay close attention to ourselves and to our teaching, persevering in these things, then we will put in jeopardy our own salvation in its authenticity as well as that of those who hear you (1 Tim. 4:16). You must read the Scripture each day. You must pray for yourself as well as your family and church. You must repent of each sin in mind, word, or deed before a Savior who already shed His blood for that very sin. You must look into yourself and find that there is no reason that God should save you except for the greatness of His grace and mercy. And you must “look unto Jesus” before you speak to your wife and children, your church friends, and the multitudes of lost sinners and false saints who you pass by each day. For only if you face the day as a “saved sinner” and adopted child of God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, will you find the humility to give your life to serve sinners of every stripe, and have strength to show them the undeserved grace which first found you in the face of Christ crucified, risen, exalted, reigning, and coming for you. Only then will you argue successfully against Satan’s distractions, accusations of hypocrisy, and his false gospel of works-righteousness for God’s favor. Yes, the pastor is the most needy member of his congregation. He needs his own daily prayers and the prayers of God’s people in order to take one step of loving obedience to the God of grace.
5. I must do my work by faith. That may sound too simple at first. But Paul wished that the Corinthians would return to the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ (2 Cor. 11:3). Of course, you should have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as your own Savior for assurance and strength each day. Of course, you should believe that the Word of God preached and taught is the means the Holy Spirit uses to change any sinner’s heart or to sanctify any saint. Of course, you should believe that God’s Spirit is united to your spirit at the point of the new birth and that Christ dwells with you and in you by His Spirit each day. These things are to be believed each day by every Christian. But especially, the pastor must believe that, no matter what he sees with his eyes, no matter what he hears with his ears, the Lord Jesus Christ is building His church each day and that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. If God saves through the Word, blessed by the Spirit, then there is no reason to despair at the lack of response from professing Christians or the hardest unbelieving heart. Christ saves at the right time each day all over the earth those souls chosen by the Father before the foundation of the world. He calls us to preach and teach and exhort in the Gospel. But Christ alone works in the heart. There is no reason to trade in the same means He and His Apostles practiced and commanded to begin the church. There is no reason to substitute the all-sufficient Word of God proclaimed and taught with attractive additions copied from the unbelieving world. Christ builds His church upon His truth, proclaimed and taught both by church-authorized pastors and teachers as well as the faithful saints who proclaim Christ to others as they go. No, we must do our work by faith in the truths of Scripture to please our Shepherd as He builds His church. You must do your work by faith and trust Christ to reap what is sown.