The Importance of This Joy
We may readily see that the presence or absence of such a real, spiritual joy on the part of a minister of the gospel affects his entire ministry. On the one hand, it affects the minister’s approach to his labors. It affects the willingness and faithfulness and devotion and readiness and zeal and alacrity and energy with which he approaches his labors. On the other hand, the presence or absence of such joy will also necessarily have its affect upon the faithfulness and obedience of the minister as far as his message, the Word of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the “faith of the gospel,” is concerned.
Perhaps this can best be pointed out negatively and by way of contrast. What is the effect of a lack of true joy and its attendant confidence and contentment? Having no joy in his labors, the minister consequently has no interest in them. They hold no attraction for him. He would rather neglect them or find excuses to avoid them and to busy himself with other things. He becomes dull, lazy, slothful. When it is time for him to be in his study, laboring with the Scriptures, he will find excuses to be elsewhere, or he may indeed be in his study but reading the latest best-seller or the newest issue of some magazine. When it is time to go to the pulpit, he goes only out of a sense of duty, and before long it will not be difficult to discern both his lack of study and his lack of enthusiasm. Catechism preparation and teaching will be given “a lick and a promise.” Pastoral visits will be dull and as brief and as few as possible. There is simply no zest for the labor. The minister has a job, rather than a calling; and he must, of course, do something in order to draw his pay.
But there are further effects which arise very easily from such a lack of joy, especially if it persists. After a while, a pastor may begin to look for reasons for his gloomy and pessimistic situation; and he may begin to look for substitutes for the real joy of the ministry. It is right here, I think, that from a subjective point of view we can pin-point the source and the cause for many a departure from the truth and from the true calling of a minister. When a minister casts about for possible reasons for his dissatisfaction, he may rather readily focus upon the results, the fruits, of his labors, especially of his preaching. But he looks at those results from an outward and rather carnal point of view. There is not much growth. The congregation which he serves remains rather small and struggling and insignificant and of little power. There do not seem to be any “great things” accomplished. Perhaps there is very little ex pressed response to his preaching. Society meetings are poorly attended and rather dead. Catechism classes are a drag, and it seems as though there is little interest and cooperation on the part of either pupils or parents. And when the minister looks for a reason, he hits upon themessage. That message must be changed. It must be made more popular, more appealing! This may begin by merely filling the “sharp edges” from the truth. It may proceed to making the message more “evangelistic.” It may continue by making the message more “adapted” and more “relevant,” more appealing and more “geared to the times.” But somehow, unless the process is interrupted, the end is that the gospel is corrupted into the Arminianism which is so common in our day or into the social gospel which is becoming ever more popular in Reformed churches. Thus, gradually but inevitably, the truth of the gospel is lost and denied; and the final result is that the light is removed from the candlestick.
There are other departures which frequently go hand in hand with that which I just mentioned. “Gimmicks” are introduced. Song services or evangelistic services replace the evening worship. The choir upon special occasions renders an oratorio at the time of the evening worship. So-called “youth services” are introduced. Liturgicalism and formality makes inroads. The preaching of the Word is deemphasized. Expository preaching is neglected. All these—and anyone who watches the ecclesiastical, scene can mention more such elements—find their way into the church as substitutes for the true preaching of the Word.
But what is behind this?
I do not know whether you have faced the question as to what, from a subjective point of view, explains the rise of all the departures and heresies which plague the churches, also the churches of the Reformed family here and in the Netherlands. Objectively; of course, the trouble lies in a departure from the authoritative standard of the Word of God and a departure from the confessions. But what explains this departure subjectively?
You say, perhaps, that it is sin and carnality, both in the pulpit and in the pew. And this is true, in general. But can we be more specific?
And then I answer: the trouble lies in a dissatisfaction with the message, a dissatisfaction with the “foolishness of preaching,” Along with this goes a dissatisfaction with the power and the effects of the preached Word. Behind this lies a lack of the real, spiritual joy of the ministry of the Word. Missing that joy, and failing to see wherein that joy properly consists, a minister (and his church and consistory may very well be party to this and encourage him in it) looks for substitute joys. He tries to find delight in mere carnal things, in externals. He seeks pleasure in the things of man, mere natural man: man’s work and man’s accomplishments. He begins to substitute a gospel which is of man and according to man. He aims to establish for himself and for his church a name and a place in the world and according to the standard of mere men.
To be sure, if this is a permanent thing and if this tendency is not stopped, one can only conclude finally that such a minister is thoroughly carnal. He never was in his heart a true minister of the Word. He never was spiritually motivated. Principally, he always did “make merchandise” of the church and of the gospel. But it is possible also for the true minister of the Word to become temporarily discouraged and gloomy and pessimistic. And at such a time, if he loses his bearings and loses from sight the real nature of the joy of the ministry and proper object of that joy, he stands in danger of “going off the deep end” and of trying to find the remedy for his lack of joy in the wrong direction and by the wrong means.
Hence, the minister must be mindful of the proper object of the joy of the ministry. And we may confront the question: what may and what ought the minister of the Word rejoice in? What object should he keep in view in his ministry?
The Proper Object of the Minister’s Joy
In the first place, and from a subjective and very personal point of view, the minister of the gospel may and ought to rejoice in the very fact that the Lord has called him and counted him worthy of the ministry.
That is an amazing wonder, you know! You and I will never be able to fathom the wonder of that. How is it possible that the Lord will use and does use a sinful man, a man who is altogether unworthy and unable in himself to speak God’s Word,—how is it possible that He uses such a man to proclaim His holy Word? How is it possible that the Lord puts a mere man, and a sinner besides, in the exalted position of being the ambassador of the Ring Sovereign? And how is it possible that in spite of all his weaknesses and sins, all his failures to live up to the demands and the holiness of his exalted office, the Lord maintains the minister in his office?
This is pure grace! It is a wonder that has no other “explanation” than pure, sovereign grace!
And what a reason for rejoicing there is in the experience that one is the recipient and heir of such grace!
The apostles themselves rejoiced in this. Think of what Paul writes to his spiritual son Timothy in I Timothy 1:12-14: “And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.” Or think of what Acts 5:41says about the apostles when they had to suffer in and because of their labors as Christ’s witnesses: “And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name.”
But also from the objective viewpoint the faithful minister has abundant reason for joy.
First of all, he may and ought to rejoice in the fact that Christ is preached.
The apostles found their joy in this. Take the example of the apostle Paul. Even when he was in prison and was hampered in his work, and even when there were those who were his personal enemies and rivals and preached out of strife and envy, it was his joy that Christ was preached. Thus he wrote to the saints in Philippians 1:18: “What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice.”
Make no mistake. The apostles did not rejoice, and we may not rejoice, simply in the preaching of a vague and general Christ, as though it made no difference what was said about the Christ and how He was presented in the preaching. No, they always militated against this. And now, as then, there are many false Christ’s preached in the name of the gospel. And there is no real joy in the proclamation of a false Christ. On the contrary, Christ, the Christ of the Scriptures, the Christ of God, the Christ in all His fulness and riches as the revelation of God’s sovereign purpose and power to save His people and to realize His everlasting covenant of grace,—that Christ must be preached. The Christ of the infallible Word, the Christ Whose knowledge has been set forth and systematized in our Reformed confessions—and let me add, because there are many who do no more than lip service to those confessions today: those confessions as they are adhered to and maintained in our Protestant Reformed Churches,—that Christ must be preached.
He must be preached! He must be set forth evidently. He must be expounded according to the Scriptures. He must be proclaimed with authority. He must be proclaimed in all His meaning, both objective and subjective, and in all His significance for the faith and the calling of the people of God in the midst of the world.
In this there is joy: real, spiritual, solid joy. I have said it before from the pulpit, and I will say it again now: if I could not proclaim that Christ, I would rather not preach. There would be no joy in the ministry for me. I would resign.
And there is good reason for this. That Christ is the sole content of the Scriptures. To make known that Christ in all His exalted greatness and power to save, to exalt that Christ in all His fulness of riches as the revelation of the God of our salvation, that is the sole purpose of the gospel and the sole purpose of the preaching of the gospel. The gospel is not humanistically oriented. It is not the proper purpose of the preacher to “save souls” or “to save the world,” as is the presentation of the social gospel. No, when a preacher preaches Christ, the Christ of God, and when all his preaching exalts no one else than the Christ of the Scriptures, then he achieves, then he attains fulfillment as a minister. Anything else is disappointing and futile. It may seem glamorous and attractive to proclaim another gospel. It may seem outwardly as though one accomplishes much more by doing so. He may attract large audiences by means of humanistically oriented crusades.” He may become a popular figure of world renown. He may gain status in the eyes of the world. But unless a preacher preaches Christ, he can attain “no fulfillment as a minister. He is engaged in an utterly vain and futile labor which will surely prove to be disappointing and empty in the end. There is no genuine joy for the minister except when he preaches Christ only and always! For the minister is servant. And the glory of a servant lies exactly in the fact that he serves!
In the second place, and in close connection with the fact that the proper object of this joy is the preaching of Christ, the preacher may also rejoice in the confidence of the certain fruit, the certain success, of his preaching.
That fruit is both negative and positive. The preaching bears fruit in them that perish and in them that are saved, in them that are hardened and in them that are called. We must remember this. The preaching of Christ is always successful. It always bears fruit. It is never a failure. The fruit may not be fruit according to man and according to the standard of man. Judged according to the latter standard, it may seem to be a total failure at times. And we must indeed be careful that we do not yield to the temptation of judging the success or failure of the preaching according to human standards. If we do so; we will soon come to the conclusion that the preaching of the cross is foolishness; and we will forget that the foolishness of God is wiser than men. No, the preaching of the gospel is always successful. Also from this point of view the Word of God speaks very plainly. What is the secret of the apostle Paul’s confidence? What explains his consuming and never failing optimism? What is behind his joy? How is it that in the face of all kinds of trouble and opposition and apparent failure the apostle can continue to rejoice, and in his joy can continue to labor with unflagging zeal? Just listen to him in II Corinthians 2:14-16: “Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savor of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savor of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savor of death unto death and to the other the savor of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things?” There you have it: “. . . God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ!” The apostle is never a failure, no matter what may be the effect of his preaching! What could be more joyful than to be engaged in a venture, a task; a mission, whose success is absolutely guaranteed in advance? Yes, that is the guarantee which the minister of the Word has!
That fruit is certain, of course, because it is Of Christ. The fruit is not of the preacher, nor of the hearer, but of Christ. It pleases Christ to work His work through the “foolishness of preaching? It pleases Christ to gather his church through the means of the preaching. He it is, who from the beginning to the end of the world gathers and defends and preserves, through His Spirit and Word, a church chosen unto everlasting life and agreeing in true faith.
Again, it is important to remember this, so that the preacher seeks his joy in the proper object. We cannot always see this fruit in the immediate scene. We are inclined to become impatient, to run ahead of the Lord. We are inclined to put stock in outward, natural things, in outward growth and size and status and recognition. And then we can become very disappointed and disillusioned. For we expect great things from the thunder and the fire of the preaching; and when we wake up to stark reality on “blue Monday” and discover that to all appearances the thunder and fire of the pulpit has produced but a scarcely discernible ripple on the surface of the congregational waters, we can become utterly despondent and find ourselves with Elijah under the juniper tree. We have forgotten that the power of the preaching is not the thunder of the human word, but that its real power is the power of the speech, the indispensable and sure speech, of the still, small voice, the effectual and silent and internal and invisible whispering of the Spirit of Christ. Hence, never forget it: Christ works His work through the ministry of the Word, and the fruit of that work is absolutely certain. God always makes the preacher triumph!
The Way To This Joy
About this, after all that has been said, I can be brief. But let me be emphatic.
The way to the joy of the ministry is, first of all, faithfulness. And there is no other way! Never be tempted to try another way!
It is the way of faithfulness as far as the messageis concerned: faithfulness to the truth of the gospel! This cannot be emphasized too strongly in our day. Ours is a day of apostasy; a day when preachers are no longer satisfied with the message which the Lord Christ has commissioned them to preach. That is too tame. That is too old. That is too unexciting. That is too unpopular. That is too ineffectual. Ours is a day, too, of ecumenism when the truth of the gospel is being sacrificed more and more in the interests of a man-made unity of the church which has absolutely nothing in common with the true unity of the body of Christ. But be not deceived! The way of corrupting the gospel, the way of heresy, is not the way to real joy! Just witness the fact that those who follow this path must always be trying new, methods and new paths to satisfaction and joy. They are grossly dissatisfied, no matter what they try. And do not forget: these false teachers are facing a day when they shall be still more dissatisfied. They shall never hear the Word of the Lord Christ: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord!” They shall be cast out into the place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Their final lot shall not be joy, but everlasting grief and unhappiness.
But by faithfulness I mean also devotion to the work. I mean a willingness to spend himself and to be spent. A preacher must not look for a life of ease. He must not look for excuses to put the work on others. There is always plenty of work to be done; and this is especially true of the labors of the ministry in our little denomination of churches. One does not have to look for work. And a preacher is not a man who may expect to put in his eight or nine hours a day, punch the clock, and be finished for the day. He must expect to labor day and night. This also is the example of the apostles, remember. It is well to remember this. I have said upon occasion that I have great sympathy for the minister who is busy; but little sympathy for the man who complainsthat he is busy. The danger is not usually that a minister is too reckless about expending his energies. The preacher can well afford to be rather reckless in that regard. He must consider himself expendable. This is the demand of his high calling. It requires his all, his very best efforts, all his energies, and then just a little more! After all, he has only one life to spend in this glorious calling, at best only the short span of thirty or forty years. Not only so; but the situation in, our day is critical, and all the signs of the times remind us that the time is short. The Lord is coming! Let us labor while it is day, ere the night cometh in which no man can work!
Finally, the way is dependence upon divine mercy. Notice how the apostle emphasizes this: “Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not.” Without that mercy, we would surely faint. Upon it the minister of the Word is dependent. He has no sufficiency of himself. His sufficiency is of the Lord.
Hence, the way is the way of prayer. The minister of the Word must lead a prayerful life, particularly with respect to the specific needs of his ministry. For in prayer he turns to the fountain and source of all mercy, expresses his dependence upon God’s mercy, and opens his soul to the blessings of divine mercy. Therefore, be instant in prayer!
May the Lord our God, in His providence and blessing, soon give to our candidate a place in the ministry of the Word, and then in that ministry give him joy. And may He give that joy to us all as ministers of His Word, and also to His church to whom He has committed the ministry. Then we have joy indeed!