Prof. Engelsma, is professor emeritus of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reforemd Seminary. Previous article in this series: September 1, 2008, p. 465.
* This is the second and concluding installment of the text of the address—the final rectoral address of the speaker—on the occasion of the graduation of Mr. Heath James Bleyenberg from the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary on June 12, 2008 at Hope Protestant Reformed Church, Walker, MI.The Necessity of Courage
The courage that speaks the word boldly is necessary—necessary in every minister—and the necessity is nothing less than the God-ordained necessity of the preaching of the word for the salvation of the elect and the gathering and preservation of the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. That boldness is necessary is plain from the prayer of the early church in Acts 4:29: “Grant…boldness.” The church was not praying for something incidental to her life, but for a necessity.
The word of God must be spoken. Christ is pleased to utter His living voice to save His own and gather His church through the preaching of His word.
The word must be spoken fully, with nothing held back. The word must be spoken according to the specific need of the congregation, as required by the particular need of the believer or child of believer, and in view of the precise obstacle that bars the way to Christ on the mission field, or the way of following Christ after conversion, which is also the concern of missions.
Salvation through preaching is not a magical thing, as if the preacher repeats, “Jesus saves,” in every situation, and, presto, preaching is the means of grace.
To a congregation troubled by the lie of antinomianism, the minister must preach Jesus as the sanctifying Savior, who uses commands, exhortations, and admonitions. To a domineering husband, in deep marital trouble, the minister preaches Jesus as the Savior who says, “Love your wife, as I love mine.” To a mission audience inclined to regard Jesus as one among many saviors, the minister preaches Jesus as unique, particular, and exclusive, the only name given under heaven by which we must be saved.
In an address to the Kampen seminary in 1882, when he was seventy-three, the father of the Secession, Simon van Velzen, said this about the necessity of courage in the minister—a subject on which that courageous servant of Christ was eminently qualified to speak:
Courage is the soul of the preaching. Courage gives power and strength to the preaching; it shows the authority and the majesty of the Word. If, on the contrary, one is a preacher without courage, he on his part hinders the influence of the admonitions, the proper judgment of the matters, and the most penetrating conception. This scandalous weakness humiliates the ministry, causes the hearers to hold the ministry in contempt, shamelessly to reject the yoke of the Lord, and arrogantly to look down on the ministers.¹
If a minister lacks the courage to speak boldly, the word will not be preached as it ought to be preached for the salvation of the church and the glory of the Lord Christ.
And there are always pressures on the minister that he not preach the word as it ought to be preached.
There are always what Acts 4:29 calls “threatenings,” which tend to frighten the minister so that he does not speak the word boldly and, therefore, in reality does not speak it at all. Courage to speak boldly is necessary because of threats. In Acts 4:29, the prayer for boldness was occasioned by threats against the apostles—severe threats, threats to their earthly freedom, their bodily ease, and their very physical life. The call on God, “Behold their threatenings,” not only indicated the fact of the threatenings, but also the effect that these threatenings were likely to have on the preachers, if God did not grant courage. Like us, the apostles naturally feared the threats, and naturally would cease preaching Jesus.
There are threats against the minister also today, threats that have this in common, that they intend that the minister in one way or another not speak or teach in the name of Jesus.
For some ministers in other lands, and soon for ministers in the nations of the West, the threats consist of open, physical persecution.
But there are other forms of threats, which are just as hurtful to the minister and just as powerful to stop him from speaking the word.
There is the threat of contempt, slander, and ostracism from the compromising and apostatizing Reformed churches.
There is the threat of criticism, lack of popularity, hostility, and even departure of members from one’s own congregation.
There is the threat of disapproval from one’s colleagues in the ministry, and a certain exclusion from the group. “Peer pressure” is every bit as much a reality, and powerful, in the ministry as in high school.
There is the threat of loss of friends. One reason why a minister must be watchful concerning special, close friendships in the congregation is that friendship must never be permitted to shut his mouth regarding truths that his special friends might oppose. I suppose Paul had friends in the churches in Galatia. He said that some were willing to gouge out their own eyes in order to give them to the apostle (Gal. 4:15). But he rebuked those friends, publicly and sharply, “O foolish Galatians.”
There is the threat of being cast out of one’s own congregation. Herman Hoeksema’s admonition to me on my last day of class with him, many years ago now, has always lived in my soul, “Preach the word; and if the Protestant Reformed Churches cast you out for preaching the word, preach the word!” He was not referring to deposition for heretical preaching or sinful behavior. Nor was he referring to dismissal on account of foolish behavior, or on account of a minister’s stubborn insistence on his own agenda, resulting in the troubling of the congregation and denomination. But he referred to an unjust and wicked expulsion from the church because the church refuses to hear the bold preaching of the word of God, such as Hoeksema himself suffered at the hands of the Christian Reformed Church.
Yet one more powerful threat against bold speaking of the word is the charge that the bold speaker jeopardizes, and even disturbs, the peace of the church. This threat may be the most powerful of all against the faithful minister, for he loves the church and desires her peace.
It would be instructive to review church history with particular regard to the doctrinal crises during which defenders of the faith were admonished, and threatened, not to speak the word of Godwith appeal to the peace and unity of the church. This was the charge against Athanasius: by his resolute confession of the Godhead of Jesus he disturbed the oneness of all Christendom. This was the charge against the Reformation. Think of the letter of Cardinal Sadolet to Geneva: Calvin and the Reform broke the unity of mother church. This was the charge against the orthodox at the time of Dordt: by their intolerant insistence on fine points of difficult doctrine they divided the Reformed Church in the Netherlands and unsettled the Dutch nation. The same was charged against the Secession in 1834.
This was also the charge against the fathers of the Protestant Reformed Churches in 1924 and in 1953. In fact, when I consider the pressure in 1953 on the faithful ministers “not to break up the small denomination, not to divide families, and not to separate friends” by a bold speaking of the word of God concerning salvation by (sovereign) grace in the covenant, I regard it as a modern wonder that those ministers continued to speak the word with all boldness.
The apostles themselves were threatened with the charge and penalty of being disturbers of the peace of the (Jewish) covenant community and even of the world: “These that have turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
Against all these threats must every minister have the courage to speak the word boldly.
Such is the necessity of courage in the face of powerful threats that Scripture warns that forever outside the new Jerusalem are the “fearful,” that is, those who under threats failed to confess Jesus Christ (Rev. 21:8). Here we may well recall the warning attributed to Luther:
If I profess with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God, except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved.²
Courage is necessary, and, therefore, God gives courage to His ministers.
The Possibility of Courage
The courage required in a minister is a gift—a work of almighty grace in the minister’s soul, as much as is sanctification. Courage is not a natural quality of the personality of some, which others lack, in which case, of course, those who are without courage are excused and those who have, and exercise, courage can be criticized.
In the remarks about himself that are the closest to an autobiography that Calvin ever wrote, in his preface to his commentary on the Psalms, Calvin described himself as bashful and timid and, therefore, altogether disinclined towards the ministry.3 Scholars scoff at this description of himself by the Reformer. They insist on portraying Calvin as naturally strong-willed, aggressive, and domineering. But one thing Calvin was not. He was not a liar. He was naturally what he said he was: bashful and timid, “which led me always to love the shade and retirement.”4 All the man’s remarkable courage was, in fact, God’s gift to him.
Fact is that we ministers are all naturally fearful, cowards, intensely solicitous of our own earthly advantage and, therefore, averse to speaking the word of God with boldness.
The apostles and early church prayed that God would give the needed courage, which even the apostles lacked: “Lord . . .grant!”
Today also, the church and her preachers must pray for the minister to receive courage as a divine gift.
God answers this petition by putting the minister in mind of several truths. First, the word we must speak, and speak boldly, and the word that men are wickedly trying to silence with their threats is God’s word: “Grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word.” It is a divine, saving, authoritative, God-glorifying, and glorious word. The minister de rives his courage from the word itself that he is called to speak.
Second, we ministers are God’s servants: “Grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word.” We are not the servants of men, not even of men and women in the church. We have no duty to please men. God has called us. We are bound to His service. Him, we are called, and determined, to please.
And what a God is this God whose servants we are!
Courage—indomitable courage—rises in the naturally fearful soul of the minister as he keeps in mind that the God whose servant he is and whose word he must speak is “the Lord”—the sovereign and almighty God in the risen Jesus Christ. Even the threats are His decree and by and under His power. This is the confession of the church that prays for courage in Acts 4:29. “For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done” (Acts 4:27, 28).
With these truths in mind, we are, and cannot but be, courageous.
Graduate Bleyenberg, in the final judgment you will give account of your ministry to the Lord Jesus. Be sure of this. The question that Judge Jesus will put to you about your ministry will not be, “Did you manage to avoid all criticism, opposition, and suffering, because you successfully skirted every controversial issue, skillfully avoided addressing the real weaknesses and troubles of the congregation, and pleased everybody?” But His question will be this: “Did you preach the whole counsel of God, and did you speak my word boldly?”
He will then give you the opportunity to prove that you spoke His word with boldness by displaying before Him and the whole world the “marks of the Lord Jesus” (Gal. 6:17)—the scars, or, as it is in the Greek original, the “stigmata,” of your suffering on account of your bold preaching of the word in the face of the threats. Perhaps, for you, whose ministry stretches some years into the future, those stigmata will be physical scars. But surely they will be the scars of a soul lacerated by criticism, of a name loaded with opprobrium, and of an earthly life wounded by painful losses.
To the churches, the exhortation is, “Pray for courage for your minister.” And when God grants your request, do not bristle at the gift as it expresses itself in bold preaching and teaching, nor immediately commence efforts to silence the bold speaking of the word. Rather, receive it as a necessary aspect of the gift of the glorious gospel of your salvation.
“And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness”
¹ Simon van Velzen, “De Vrijmoedigheid die Vereischt wordt in den Dienaar des Woords: Rede Uitgesproken bij het Overdragen van het Rectoraat (Kampen: G. Ph. Zalsman, 1883), 29. The translation is mine.
² No one has yet found this saying in Luther’s writings. So true to Luther’s spirit and ministry, however, is the saying that no one challenges its authenticity.
³ “my natural bashfulness and timidity,” John Calvin, “The Author’s Preface,” in Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), xliii.
4 Ibid., xli.