Although you have asked me to write to you concerning the pastoral labors of a minister of the gospel and particularly concerning the work of dealing with the problems and troubles which beset the people of God, I write to you concerning these things with a great deal of hesitancy. This hesitancy is born of the conviction that the man has not yet been born who knows always the best way to deal with the problems which he confronts in the lives of God’s people. There are, as you know, many times when a feeling of almost utter helplessness sweeps over us and we scarcely know how to do the work to which God so clearly calls us.
I write of this because you must understand that I do not have nearly all the answers to the problems which a pastor faces. If my reluctant consent to write about these things be construed on your part as an admission that I know all the solutions, then you will be sadly mistaken.
There is a point here, however, which ought not to be overlooked. I know that you, as does any conscientious pastor, have this same sense of helplessness when you are confronted with serious problems among members of your flock. But this is not necessarily bad. I am reminded of what the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians in II Corinthians 12. You will recall that he talks in the early part of the chapter about visions he received of the third heaven. He adds to this brief biographical narrative, “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.” You recall how Paul prayed three times that this thorn in the flesh, this messenger of Satan, be taken from him. But the Lord would not answer that prayer, at least in the way Paul desired. The Lord said instead: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Paul comments on this answer of the Lord and says, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
In other words, God sent this messenger of Satan to buffet Paul in order that he might remain weak in all his labor on behalf of the gospel. He had to be weak, or else God could not use him. Why was this? The answer is that only when he was weak did the power of Christ rest upon him. Only when he was weak was he really strong, because then his power was not his own but the power of Christ.
This is important. We may take it as a general rule that only when we perform our work with a sense of our own helplessness will we be fit instruments in the hands of Christ. If we are strong, then we are strong only in our own strength. And then we are of no use to Christ, and we will be of no use to God’s people in their troubles. But when we are weak, then we have no strength of our own, and then only the strength of Christ pervades us and what we do.
This has both an objective and a subjective side to it.
From an objective point of view, the fact is simply that there are in the power of men no solutions to the problems of life. This is a fact. Men’s theories, men’s skills, men’s diagnostic procedures, men’s experience, men’s cleverness at handling life’s problems—all mean nothing at all. Only Christ can heal the wounded soul and bring the balm of Gilead to the hurts of life. Only Christ can restore and make whole again. Only Christ can bring about solutions to life’s problems. And this is because of the dread power of sin which lies at the root and heart of all the troubles and problems which we face. If sin is not removed, the problems remain and the troubles continue or grow worse. But what man is able to remove sin from the heart and life of his fellow man? What man can reach into that heart and change it? What man has the power to cleanse from sin and from the guilt of sin? The cross is the only power. And that power is to be found only in our merciful High priest.
The subjective side of this is that a pastor who is worthy of the name does his work in this consciousness. It is true, of course, that God is pleased to use men and that Christ works His perfect work through human agency. And central to this all is the preaching of the Word—a work entrusted to those who are called to be pastors. But this does not alter the fact that the faithful pastor knows that he is, after all, nothing but an instrument—indeed, sometimes little more than a passive instrument. Paul writes of this in another place to these same Corinthians: “And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” I Corinthians 2:1-5.
It remains therefore a fact that the pastor who goes to his sheep in the confidence of his own ability to handle the situation and to solve the problem goes in the wrong spirit and will be of no use to Christ. But the pastor who goes in the consciousness of his own weakness and with a deep sense of his inability to accomplish anything at all is the man whom God is pleased to use.
You see, God must have the glory, and He alone. The saints must stand not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. The power of Christ must rest, upon him. And the saints must clearly see this that healing and restoration are wrought by the effectual working of Him Who is the only Shepherd of His sheep.
While we are on this subject, it might be well to spend just a little time on that whole matter of the qualifications of a pastor who must do this type of work of which we speak.
Again, I do not want to enter into a discussion ofall the qualifications of a pastor. This is a subject discussed also in Poimenics class in Seminary, and you have had that training. But there are a few things which I do want to say about this.
In the first place, a pastor must be a minister of the gospel. He is a minister of the gospel also as he performs his pastoral functions. I am sometimes afraid that this is lost from sight in the Church today. A minister already in Seminary is offered special courses in all areas of pastoral work. He can pick up courses, e.g., in youth counseling, in what is called “a ministry to the unmarried,” in counseling the mentally ill, in working with the aged, etc., etc. All kinds of courses are offered. And some seminaries even grant degrees in various fields such as these so that one who obtains such a degree becomes an “expert” in his particular field. Or, if he has not succeeded in getting these courses while in Seminary, he is offered such courses while active in the ministry; and the offerings come from various institutions, clinics, counseling centers, and such like.
Now I am not, as such, opposed to certain courses which could be offered to help the pastor in these areas of his labors. But there are dangers. One danger, quite obviously, is that he becomes an expert in one field only, a specialist. He, in pastoral work, is like the doctor who specializes in diseases of the foot. And this particular doctor does not particularly care if his patient is dying on the examining table from a heart attack as long as the fungus on his foot is being properly treated. That is one danger. The other danger is that the pastor forgets that he is a minister of the gospel. He so thoroughly studies his own specialty that, in order to justify this specialization, he invents techniques, procedures, diagnostic methods and treatments which are adaptable to his own narrow little corner. And through all this, the fact that he is a minister is somehow forgotten. A pastor is a minister of the Word. That is, he is called and sent by Christ to bring Christ’s Word as Christ’s ambassador. This Word is then the Word of Christ which comes with all its power to destroy sin and work everlasting salvation.
This must not be construed as meaning that the minister is the only one who is able to help God’s people in their troubles. There is a certain role which the people of God as a whole have. While we shall have to discuss this in more detail later, it is not out of place to point out now that we are all called to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. We are called, says James, to pray for one another that we may be healed; for the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
But the point here is that the congregation functions in her calling as an organic unity. Behind the work of the minister in his preaching on the Lord’s Day stands the congregation through which the minister is called. And his work bears fruit only when God’s people support that Word preached through their prayers and through submitting to that Word. Behind that preaching stands the congregation which searches the Scriptures, studies God’s Word and lives with the constant testimony of that Word on its lips. Without that the preaching is ineffective. Behind the elders stand the saints who help one another in the difficult pathway of life, who support the elders, who pray for them, who approve of their work when censure is performed, who really exercise discipline themselves through the office of elder. Behind the deacons stand the people of God who not only give of their gifts to help the needy, but who are themselves filled with works of charity and benevolence. And so, behind the pastor stand those who belong to the Church of Christ and who in the communion of the saints bear one another’s burdens. Without that the work of the pastor will never survive.
But all that does not alter the fact that the pastor is a minister. He brings the Word of Christ. He has no other calling than this. This is his first and foremost qualification. He may be sure that if he brings any other word than that of the Scriptures, his work will accomplish exactly nothing. No matter what may be the situation which he faces, he must preach. He must say, Thus saith the Lord. Only then can he work.