Do the Right Thing

How can a minister of the gospel feel encouraged that he has done something right—that at some point in his ministry the blessing of God thrives. We know Scripture declared that if one desires the office of bishop, he desires a good thing (1 Timothy 3:1). Stories of unresponsive or even hostile churches and communities, oppressed pastoral families and ministries shortened by depression, dereliction of duty or moral failure can put a deep shadow on the goodness of the ministry.

The word stands nevertheless. Among other applications of the idea of desiring a good thing, two are quite transparent. One, a person that goes into Christian ministry should desire it. He should do so because something about it has engaged his affections. He sees its outcome as having eternal value; he sees the preparation for its execution a pleasant expenditure of time; he sees its content as a never-ending challenge. Though not a path to worldly power, the gospel minister has concluded, along with Moses, that even “the reproach of Christ” far outweighs all the “treasures of Egypt” (Hebrews 11:26).

If unworthy motives drive unworthy and uncalled persons to desire the office of bishop and pose as instructors of God’s people, we must see with even greater power that the biblical reasons for desiring the office are yet untarnished. They transcend all the motives of those who “have their reward” in the niche-popularity engendered by idiosyncratic doctrine, promises of prosperity and mesmerizing authoritarianism.

Two, the text shows us that the office is a “good” work, a noble and beautiful investment of life in an intrinsically worthy labor. This means that it is morally upright and pleasing to the eye of the sanctified soul. Its central duties focus on those things that constitute absolute inherent goodness. It is a virtuous and beautiful occupation. Its most compelling task is the disclosure to man of the holy beauty and goodness of God. In his great hymn, “O What Matchless Condescension,” William Gadsby reminds us:

In His greatest work, redemption,
See His glory in a blaze;
Nor can angels ever mention
Aught that more of God displays;
Grace and justice
Here unite to endless days.

 Justice, holiness, righteousness and commensurate vengeance interplay in mysterious and transporting symmetry with mercy, grace, lovingkindness and commensurate, yet utterly free, forgiveness in the message the bishop proclaims. This message produces in man a desire for that true goodness to press him into conformity with the “good and acceptable and perfect—the will of God” (Romans 12:2).

Let’s extend the idea of goodness to one more observation that pertains almost exclusively to its impact on the gospel proclaimer. One of the gracious benefits of the goodness of this work comes in the captivating delight, the elevation of spirit, that on occasions comes in the delivery of gospel truth with the intensity and earnestness that it deserves. Sometimes a minister involved in this good work will be, like John in the Apocalypse, called up. In his elevation of spirit he will behold the one who sits on the throne with the scroll in His hand; he will feel the purity of worship given by the angels and elders that surround the throne; he will taste the glory of the exalted Lamb that was slain whose worthy death brings forth an unending chorus of hallelujahs. The human spirit coiled in mortal unglorified flesh can bear but little of such an elevation of perception, but when it comes one wonders how any mortal could treasure anything beyond the glory encased in gospel truth. The distress of many a dark day in ministry succumbs quickly to the sense of holy beauty and condescending love that surround the senses in such a moment of proclamation. No other work on earth has such a potential for goodness as this.

The very worthiness of the work, however, involves the possibility of the keenest disappointment and the most troublesome conflicts. The alignment of our experience with Scripture gives existential verification to the perplexity of Paul’s lamentations:  “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? … What then has become of the blessing you felt? . . . I am again in the anguish of childbirth. … I am perplexed about you” (Galatians 3:1; 4:15, 19, 20). “I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. … I am afraid that …  your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. … I am not the least inferior to these super apostles. … If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. … I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you” “I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish. … I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced” (2 Corinthians 11:1, 3, 5, 30; 12:11, 20, 21). When eternity is at stake, and the glory of God will be displayed either in wrath or in “joy inexpressible full of glory,” emotions may be pressed to the lowest depths or the most ecstatic heights. Desire for success can be intense and the perception of failure can be debilitating.

Scripture however, gives simple, clear, and straightforward instructions for a God-honoring ministry. God has not made the stewardship complicated, dependent upon magnetic powers of personality or unique methods of attracting crowds. We can know that we serve God faithfully as stewards of His truth, performing the call in the way He has commanded. Though our spirits are refreshed when real human beings who are the sheep of God find spiritual pleasure from our ministry, we need no independent confirmation from human centers of power, but find satisfaction before the court of heaven when we act with transparency and consistency toward the revealed mysteries of the gospel (1 Corinthians 4:1–4). Finally, our approval as well as our authority is from above not from the courts of human opinion.

Among the clear instructions we have in which we should seek pleasure before the Lord are these. We are responsible to deal faithfully with the biblical integration of Law and Gospel (1 Timothy 1:3–11). Those who do not give themselves to this will make shipwreck concerning the faith (1 Timothy 1:19, 20). We must pray regularly and fittingly for all levels of society and especially for those of the household of faith. We saturate our prayers for the success of the gospel as it is preached with a view to the salvation of those who hear (1 Timothy 2:1–7). When we select others to gospel ministry we must examine ourselves in accordance with the standards set forth and also make sure we do not introduce into this calling those whose lives and aptitudes are at odds with the biblical requirements (1 Timothy 3:1–7).

These requirements include a high view of the place of the church in God’s eternal scheme as the “pillar and buttress of truth” as revealed particularly in the person and work of Christ (1 Timothy 3:14–16). In light of this stewardship of truth, the minister must see to it that he corrects and excludes doctrinal error and that he maintains close attention to the promulgation of correct doctrine. Additionally, the qualifications for ministry require he not stagger in his cultivation of holiness (1 Timothy 4). A particular thing that must be done in pursuit of both of these functions is to give attention to the public reading of Scripture and, on that basis, give both exhortation and doctrinal instruction (1 Timothy 4:13). He does not need to come up with new ideas but to give himself to these things as he was commissioned to do at his being set aside for ministry (1 Timothy 4:15, 16).

Other exhortations flow in contextual relationships throughout Paul’s pastoral instructions. They give specific things to do by which a minister may know that he is following his call faithfully. On issues of revelatory truth the minister should “teach and urge these things” while avoiding any other teaching (1 Timothy 6:2, 3). The deposit of truth (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14) must be guarded as a sacred trust. It constitutes the material through which God implants the knowledge that alters mind, conscience, and affections to engage sinners in His redemptive purpose. Never minimize the necessity, and thus importance, of setting it clearly before those who have come to hear. Never use cunning or tampering with God’s word merely to evoke a response or even avoid offense. The Spirit of God alone has the power of transformation and He uses only the truth He has revealed to do it (2 Corinthians 4:2).

On a style of life that plunges one to ruin and destruction the man of God must “flee these things” (1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22) and set righteousness, faith, love and peace as his dominant themes for living. Orthodoxy and uncompromised teaching therefore necessarily include patience and gentleness in instruction and a willingness to suffer from those who oppose revealed truth (2 Timothy 2:24–26; 3:10–13) without allowing the resultant pressures to smother the transcendent wonder of the saving and sanctifying power of Scripture: the sacred writings (2 Timothy 3:14–17). If we apologize for preaching revealed truth we leave the impression that it does not really matter if one consents to believe it. This increases the gripping power of the devil’s snare in their minds.

In light of how clearly Paul as well as the other writers of the New Testament expressed their confidence in the eternal benefits of revealed truth for a redeemed life, a few easily remembered imperatives may serve as light in times of darkness. “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David as preached in my gospel.” “Preach the Word.” “Teach what accords with sound doctrine.” “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity and sound speech.” “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” “I want you to insist on these things so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.” When one may find difficulty in discerning whether anything is going right in ministry, he can look at the simplicity of these commands, do them, and know that he is doing the right thing.

This edition of the Founders Journal contains testimonies of seasoned pastors about “One thing I did Right in Ministry.” In the stranglehold of discouragements and sometimes wrinkle-browed opposition, a stabilizing focus often is needed. Having invested in the practice of biblical ideas that rises above the ambiguities of day-by-day interactions and distracting demands can give health to one’s soul. It also can give a spiritual satisfaction that one’s sheep are receiving sustaining nourishment. Based upon the authority of biblical admonitions we can shove aside the fluff of ephemeral distraction and cultivate that which we know to be right, good and filled with holy power.

Tom Ascol recommends discreet and targeted distribution of literature as having great potential for education and edification of the people of God. He did this in two churches and observed a significant increase in spiritual maturity of those who took seriously the blessing of wisdom from approved saints of the past.

Jeff Johnson writes about the spiritual grace of patience while engaging God-ordained means of church ministry. He shows that the minister of the gospel must not panic and employ worldly gimmicks in building a church, but must wait on the Lord and His promise that, by His truth and Spirit, Christ will build the church for which He has died.

Phil Newton and Kurt Smith write about the blessing to one’s personal growth and to the lives of the congregation resulting from expositional preaching. They looked to the mandate “Preach the Word … in season, out of season” and simple obedience to it.  It would be hard to do wrong and highly consistent with doing right if one sets before his congregation week after week a cogent and earnestly engaging exposition of revealed truth. We are reminded of the blessings of that kind of ministry.

Jeff Robinson built on the biblical principle of “teaching others also” in developing an intern program. Doing ministry under the encouraging guidance of a sheep-loving, biblically sound pastor multiplies the experience of the days spent in such a context and helps sound convictions about pastoral ministry mature rapidly.

Tom Hicks writes about the central message of expositional preaching: the Person and work of the incarnate Son of God Jesus Christ. Advice for life from historical narratives and objectives to pursue for success in business and relationships sometimes pass in today’s evangelical culture, for Bible-centered preaching. If however the message of Christ is not central, if we miss the themes of “the grace that was to be yours” through the “sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” (1 Peter 1:10–11), we have missed the point. All of these “right things” in ministry can be intensified in the soul of the minister when he personally finds a guide to remind him of each of these graces.

Tony Rose writes about finding a personal guide to challenge, instruct, and feed one’s own soul. For him Samuel Rutherford has been of great benefit—Christ-centered exposition, patience in seeing the hand of God, humbly receiving guidance from another, reading a soul-enriching book— all these come when one finds a long-gone, ever-faithful, fire-tested, Spirit-changed, Bible loving guide to help think through both theology and life. One of those that match that description is Charles Spurgeon. Our “One Thing I did Right” then is capped with a couple of sections from his advice to his own ministerial students in the Pastors’ College, “The Minister’s Fainting Fits.” Spurgeon, all too familiar with the malady about which he seeks to give advice, worked on the assumption that “Fits of depression come over the most of us.” He wanted to examine “why the heralds of the daybreak find themselves at times in tenfold night.”1 We pray that these short words of advice will encourage your soul and give you some very practical advice about equipping the saints for the work of ministry.

1 Charles Spurgeon, “The Minister’s Fainting Fits” in Lectures to My Students. Four volumes in one (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1990) 1:167. This specific volume was originally published in London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1881. The parts included her are on pages 174-75 and 178-79.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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