Prof. Engelsma is professor emeritus of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
“And now, Lord, behold their threatenings: and grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak they word.”
It is a strange and dangerous fact that so little is made, and even said, about the qualification of courage in the minister of the word of God. One may scour the standard works on preaching and preachers without coming across even the mention of courage, much less a chapter devoted to this virtue, as the virtue deserves and demands. There is much about earnestness, humility, self-discipline, love, holiness, diligent study, aptitude to speak, devotion to the congregation, and more, but never a word about courage.
This neglect is dangerous.
It is dangerous because the neglect may, in fact, indicate that the emphasis on humility and love desires a ministry devoid of courage, or intends to excuse cowardice in the ministry.
It is dangerous because neglect of courage as a requirement for the ministry tends to leave the young minister unprepared for the conflicts he will surely face—conflicts that demand courage on his part.
Overlooking courage as an attribute of the minister is dangerous simply because courage is necessary for a faithful ministry. Without courage, the other virtues—earnestness, humility, diligent study, devotion to the congregation, and all the rest—important as they are, go for nothing. They are unavailing.
This minimizing, if not ignoring, of courage is also strange.
How prominent, how vitally important, was courage in the ministry of the prophets in the Old Testament! Courageously, Hanani the seer rebuked godly King Asa for his league with the pagan king of Syria, although the outcome for the prophet was that Asa was enraged with him and put him in prison (II Chron. 16).
With courage, Hanani’s son, Jehu, confronted King Jehoshaphat: “Shouldest thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the Lord? Therefore is wrath upon thee from before the Lord” (II Chron. 19:2).
To instance no other, at His call of the prophet Jeremiah, Jehovah made the prophet “a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brasen walls against the whole land” (Jer. 1:18), describing the prophet’s courage in the face of opposition to the word he would bring—opposition, not from the heathen, but from the people of God and their officebearers.
How we rightly celebrate courage in the outstanding champions of the truth, defenders of the faith, and reformers of the church! Athanasius, Gottshalk, Luther, Calvin, de Cock, Kuyper! We honor their knowledge and confession of the truth, to be sure, but especially their courage, without which the truth they knew and confessed would not have prevailed, nor benefited the church.
It would certainly be strange were we Protestant Reformed professors, ministers, elders, and people to slight courage in a minister, inasmuch as Herman Hoeksema, to whom under Christ we are so much indebted, exemplified courage in the minister.1 Already in his seminary days, he deliberately called the state schools “the gates of hell” in a Christian Reformed congregation known to oppose Christian schools, with the result that that congregation promptly closed its pulpit to Hoeksema. In his first charge, another Christian Reformed congregation in which there was strong opposition to the Christian schools, Hoeksema preached sharp sermons on the necessity of good Christian schools. The result was that members left the congregation—and him—as he knew they would. Regardless that it cost him his promising place in the Christian Reformed Church, hatred, and deposition, as well as lifelong isolation in the community of Reformed churches, Hoeksema confessed sovereign, particular grace, not only in election, atonement, and conversion, but also in the preaching of the gospel of election, the cross, and conversion. He also confessed the antithesis regarding the Christian life. As the necessary implication of these two truths—sovereign, particular grace and the antithesis—he strongly condemned the popular doctrine of common grace, already then a sacred cow in the Reformed churches. In his own congregation, First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, MI, he began teaching marriage as a lifelong bond in the face of members who had remarried after divorce. Still more, he was courageous to testify sovereign, particular grace in the covenant, with regard to the children of believers, against fierce opposition in his own congregation and denomination, at a cost to himself that only a minister can fully appreciate.
Above all, the omission of courage from the list of qualifications for the ministry is strange because of the insistence on courage in a minister in Scripture. I have already reminded us of the importance of courage in the prophets in the Old Testament. No less insistent on courage in a minister is the New Testament. That the word “courage” seldom appears in the New Testament with reference to preachers is of no consequence. The characteristic itself plainly marks all the New Testament preachers of the gospel. Think of Paul and Barnabas on the mission field in Antioch in Pisidia, preaching Jesus Christ and justification by faith alone and warning an obviously hostile crowd, “Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish; for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you” (Acts 13:41).
Think of Paul again, now addressing the church—the church he himself had gathered and organized, but falling away from the gospel and Christ: “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you?” (Gal. 3:1).
Think of the courage of the apostles Peter and John in Acts 4. Boldly, they confessed Jesus as the Christ of God to the Sanhedrin, which had recently murdered Jesus, in the face of severe threatening.
The courage of the minister is expressed in the New Testament Scripture by the repeated statement that the minister spoke the word “with boldness,” and by the prayer, which is also repeated, that God would give His ministers boldness to speak the word.
We have such a prayer in Acts 4:29: “Grant unto thy servants that with all boldness they may speak thy word.” This was a prayer by the church at the very beginning of the history of the church of the new covenant, not alone for the apostles and their co-workers at that time, but also for the church’s preachers down the ages.
It was a prayer for Heath Bleyenberg. It was a prayer for all our seminarians. It was a prayer for all us ministers.
It was a prayer that I hope my address puts in the hearts and on the lips of us all, if it is not already there.
What Courage is
The courage that must characterize the minister is the spiritual strength of a regenerated heart that enables, andimpels, him to preach the word of God in the face of some threat to himself if he does so. The courage that Scripture calls for in the minister expresses itself in a bold preaching of the word, so that courage is virtually identical with bold preaching. If it were not for the fact that the topic could leave the wrong impression, I might have titled the speech, “The Boldness of the Minister.”
In response to severe threatening of the apostles by the leaders of the Jews, with the purpose that the apostles “not…speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:17, 18), the church prayed that God the Lord would “grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they many speak thy word” (v. 29). This was a prayer for courage, but courage in the form of the strength of heart to preach the word of God.
Similarly, in Ephesians 6:19, Paul asks the church to pray “for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel.”
In I Thessalonians 2:2, the apostle reminds the Thessalonians that “we were bold in our God to speak unto you the gospel of God in much conflict,” even though the apostle and his companions had just suffered and were shamefully treated at Philippi. According to verse one, it was this courage to speak the word boldly that explained that “our entrance in unto you…was not in vain.”
The courage of the minister, then, must not be confused with a merely natural forwardness of action and speech that amounts to nothing more than self-promotion, rooted in pride, and that is not only unbecoming a minister, but also harmful to his ministry. Such a minister is the proverbial bull in a china shop.
Nor is this courage, so highly recommended by Scripture, merely a minister’s stubborn, unyielding holding to his opinion, insisting on his way, and standing for his cause, even though this stubbornness proves to be costly to himself. There is a wise saying in the church that it is not the suffering that makes a martyr, but the cause for which he suffers. There are many who are ready to suffer and even to give their life for false religion and idols. One thinks today of the Muslim suicide bombers. But they are not martyrs. They do not lose their life for Christ’s sake. They are merely foolish, evil self-destroyers. Only the man or woman who gives his or her life for Christ and the gospel is a martyr.
Likewise, a minister who resolutely maintains an error, or persists in advancing his own personal cause, often to the injury of the church, is not courageous, but merely obstinate.
The grace of courage is boldness on behalf of the word of God; boldness to speak that word; boldness to speak it where it is not welcome and where speaking it will bring opposition and therefore suffering to the preacher; boldness to speak just that aspect of the word of God that is needed because just that aspect is presently denied or opposed or questioned; boldness to speak that particular aspect of the word that is being opposed to just that audience that is opposing it.
The opposite of this courage is cowardice in a minister. Either he is silent, or he deliberately avoids preaching those doctrines and precepts that might anger his audience, or he is careful to avoid speaking certain truths to that audience that needs the message he withholds.
Courage will boldly proclaim the word of God to the ungodly and unbelieving world. As the minister has opportunity, he will testify of the one true God, of His wrath upon the wicked world, for example, in the storms and floods now devastating the United States, and of Jesus Christ as the only Savior from sin and the only escape from this wrath and as the Lord over all by His resurrection from the dead. The courageous minister will expose and condemn the world’s idolatry and unrighteousness—its lawlessness.
Increasingly in Western society, this proclamation of the gospel of God meets with threatenings. Like the Jewish Sanhedrin in the apostles’ day, the civil authorities today in Europe, Great Britain, and North America “strictly threaten” the true church and her ministers “that they speak henceforth to no man in this name” (Acts 4:17). Overt persecution is impending, and even now breaking out.
When the state decrees that all religions are one and must be tolerated, courage will be required to proclaim that the God and Father of Jesus is the one true God and that all other gods are idols. When the state legislates that condemnation of homosexuals is a hate crime, courage will be required publicly to preach that homosexuality is a vile passion and that homosexual sex is an abomination, and to call such sinners to repentance.
Courage will boldly proclaim the word of God to the apostatizing churches, particularly the apostatizing Reformed churches. As he has opportunity, the courageous minister speaks to them the word of God concerning sovereign grace—the grand doctrines of Dordt—including sovereign grace in the preaching of the gospel. In view of the heresy—the plain, gross heresy—of the Federal (Covenant) Vision in the deepest bowels of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, he will speak the truth of sovereign grace in the covenant of grace. This is the truth that also in the covenant, with regard to the salvation of the children of believers, the salvation of God in Jesus Christ has its source in election—election accompanied and served by reprobation—and that the covenant and its salvation, therefore, are unconditional.
With boldness, the courageous minister will also proclaim to the departing Reformed churches the life of sanctification according to the law of God: Sabbath observance as obedience to the fourth commandment; chastity in single life; fidelity—lifelong fidelity—in marriage; and the calling of Christians to have no fellowship with unbelievers, with their works of darkness, and in their ungodly organizations.
This courage will cost the minister. He will be maligned, scorned, and—what is harder to bear—ignored.
Courage will boldly proclaim the word of God to the minister’s own congregation and denomination. Especially is courage necessary for the bold proclamation of the word to one’s own church.
Boldly, the minister must speak the whole counsel of God, and not only certain parts that the congregation might prefer.
Boldly, he must proclaim the grand, but offensive, doctrines of grace set forth in the Canons of Dordt. He must not only mention them once in awhile, but preach them, including their particularly offensive aspects: total depravity; reprobation; limited atonement; particular grace, that is, grace that is not for all, but for some only.
Boldly, he must proclaim the truth of salvation by grace alone as this truth is rightly defended, maintained, and developed in the Protestant Reformed Churches regarding the covenant of grace.
Boldly, he must proclaim a God of holiness, as well as a God of love; a God who is terrible, as well as lovely; a God of anger and chastisement upon His sinning child, as well as a God of grace.
Boldly, the minister must address the particular sins that disgrace the congregation and expose it to the judgments of God. It does not take courage to condemn sin in general. No minister will incur the wrath of members for lambasting sin. Billy Graham has won fame and fortune by haranguing sin. But let the minister warn against a noticeable distaste for distinctively Reformed doctrine, or against the use of the Sabbath for pleasure, or against feuding among the members, or against mothers working outside the home to the detriment of marriage, home, and family, or against men and women drinking too much, indulging in unseemly parties, and hanging out in bars, and then there will be angry opposition.
Boldly, he must exhort love among the members of the church. But the exhortations must be specific and pointed. No courage is required to preach a vague, general, and undefined love. But it takes courage to admonish husbands to treat their wife with kindness and gentleness; to command fathers to give up some of their recreational activities, and even unnecessary working, in order to spend time raising their children; to exhort wives and mothers to sacrifice their gifts, careers, and personal interests for their husband and children; to “beseech Euodias…and Syntyche” that, once and for all, “they be of the same mind in the Lord” (Phil. 4:2); and to give pointed warning, without mentioning her name, to Mrs. Busybody in the congregation, that she is not permitted to gossip, and to those who greedily listen to her, that they have a devil in their ear, as much as she has one on her tongue.
Boldly, the minister must be negative in his proclamation of the word to his own congregation, not only positive. He must be bold to be negative in the face of strong pressure from some in his congregation that he not be negative, but only positive. He must be negative in preaching sound doctrine: salvation by efficacious, irresistible grace is the gospel; the teaching of universal, resistible grace is a false gospel. He must be negative in preaching holiness of life: the unbreakable marriage bond is the narrow way to the face of God; remarriage after divorce is adultery, and adulterers and adulteresses will be forever outside the celestial city.
With boldness, the minister must preach precisely the doctrines regarding which there is weakness in his congregation. He must preach justification by faith alone in the meaning of the doctrine in Romans and Galatians, when there is proud self-righteousness and legalism. He must preach justification by faith and works in the meaning of the doctrine in James, when there is a lax antinomianism and carelessness of life.
Boldness of preaching in the Protestant Reformed Churches is by no means limited to addressing the error of a lack of zeal for the grand doctrines and the narrow way of life of the Reformed faith, which I might call “the error on the left.” Boldness is also required for addressing the error of a zeal for these doctrines and this way of life that is not according to knowledge, which I might call “the error on the right.”
In my own ministry, the pressure from the right was as threatening as that from the left, and I had to contend with an overwrought and misguided zeal for the great doctrines of the faith, as much as with apathy towards them. I refer to opposition to preaching the “must” of the law, as well as the “may,” the “can,” and the “will,” as though preaching the “must” (“We must obey the law of God!”) were self-righteousness and Pelagianism. I refer to the insistence that every sermon mustexplicitly and even mainly be a repudiation of common grace and the conditional covenant, as though only such sermons were the gospel of grace. I refer to the objection—the strenuous andthreatening objection—to urgent exhortations, for example, a sermon onJames 4:8, “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you,” as though this were blatant Arminianism. I refer to the contention that all the congregation mustobserve certain rules which a member himself has invented as essential to an antithetical life, even though these rules are nowhere to be found in Scripture, in the creeds, or in the church order, for example, that auction sales on behalf of the Christian schools are “worldly,” and that the preacher must thunder forth these commandments of men.
Boldly, the minister must rebuke his own church when this is necessary. Paul rebuked the Galatian churches, as also the congregation of Corinth. Christ commanded the angels of various churches in Asia Minor to warn the congregations that He was about to remove their candlestick from its place and to vomit them out of His mouth (Rev. 2:5; 3:16). “Ye adulterers and adulteresses,” James said, to Christians and Christian churches (James 4:4).
Courage will boldly proclaim the word of God to the objects of mission on the mission field and to churches recently formed by missions. Surely the missionary must know the people and their culture; surely as a wise man who desires the salvation of the people he takes them by guile; and surely he knows and practices the methods of missions, as well as the principles. But just as surely this does not rule out boldness in speaking the word in missions.
How boldly Paul and Barnabas preached and warned at Antioch in Pisidia! (Acts 13) They did not coddle those who rejected and opposed the truth, but “waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles” (v. 46).
How boldly Paul proclaimed the one true God, condemning the idols, in Lystra (Acts 14).
To the Thessalonians, the apostle could write concerning his missionary labor among them, “we were bold in our God to speak unto you the gospel of God in much conflict” (I Thess. 2:2).
How bold was the early Christian missionary in response to the question of the Frisian king stepping into the water in order to be baptized with his entire tribe! When the king asked, hesitating, “What was the destiny of my ancestors?” the missionary replied, “Your pagan ancestors are in hell.”
And the missionary apostle was bold to write of the sovereignty of God in predestination to the newly-formed church at Rome (Rom. 8-11), as he was bold to require of the very young congregation at Corinth chastity and lifelong faithfulness in marriage (I Cor. 6, 7).
In all this bold preaching, the minister is, and must be, motivated by love for the people, desirous that they be saved. Therefore, boldness does not, and may not, produce recklessness of speech, disregard of time and place, brutality of attitude and action, or even carelessness how the message of the gospel is phrased.
We desire that the members of our own congregation go to heaven with us; we desire that men and women on the mission field be gathered unto Christ; we want the Reformed churches to forsake their erroneous teachings and worldly walk and to stand with us in and for the truth; we hope that even our witness to the world may be God’s means to rescue some from His wrath.
But this desire of love does not, and may not, cut the nerve of boldness in preaching.
For boldness, born of courage, is necessary.
(to be concluded)
¹ This is 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.
² The speech was given to an audience consisting of the faculty of the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary, the seminary graduate and other students at the seminary, the members of the Theological School Committee of the seminary, the members of the synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches, members of the Protestant Reformed Churches, and visitors from other churches.