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Previous article in this series: November 1, 2010, p. 59. *This constitutes the conclusion of the speech given by Prof. B. Gritters at the Seminary Convocation held this year in Southwest PRC in Grandville, MI, on September 15, 2010.

The minister’s tools

In this physician’s bag is one tool.

The one great difference between the medical doctor and the physician of souls is that the minister has but one instrument—a potent medicine, a powerful instrument of healing. It is the very word of God.

This the Scriptures make clear. “He sent his word and healed them” (Ps. 107:20). “My words are life to those that find them, and health to all their flesh” (Prov. 4:20-22).

And the heart and center of that word is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Healing is in His wings. With His stripes we are healed.

This word is miraculous in power, effectual to accomplish what no physical medicine can do. Here we see that, although the figure of a medical doctor is helpful, it is severely limited, because a man of God can do for spiritual afflictions what no medical doctor can do for the physical. By the Word of the gospel, blind men see, lame walk, deaf hear, dumb speak. This is amazing! The paralyzed feel and move again. By the Word, the withered hand is restored. To be more plain: through the Word, made effective by Christ’s Spirit, the drunkard can turn from his ways. The gambler and wife-beater and porn addict repent and are restored. Even the homosexual can be transformed. “Such were some of you,” says the apostle, “but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified…” (I Cor. 6:11). By the powerful word of God that works effectually in them that believe (I Thess. 2:13).

I see why the Reformed Form for Ordination of the Minister says, “What a glorious work the ministerial office is, since so great things are effected by it.”

The Seminary’s Calling to Train

As you can understand, the qualifications for this occupation are high.

To diagnose is no job for an untrained man. “How bad is it? How far advanced is it? Is it hereditary, or was it caught? Was this an injury but appears to have another cause?”

To administer the word is also no simple task. With what dosage? At what time? How often? What part of the Word, which is rich and complex? (Just because the minister/physician has only one instrument of healing, does not mean that it can be used simplistically, as though a child could administer it properly.) A man does not read Psalm 77 to an impenitent sinner. Nor does he apply the threats of Hosea to a downcast, dying, struggling saint.

It even takes great wisdom to bring the word publicly, to this particular congregation, at this particular point in their development, with these conditions they are facing. It takes the same great care to bring the word privately.

(An aside, in that connection: Our work in the seminary is not merely to train men, but to discern whether God has given them the wisdom and discretion to be physicians of the people of God.)

But the training must be rigorous, comprehensive, up-to-date, and therefore lengthy.

Rigorous first of all. Seminary training must test the constitution of a man. Can he survive the rigors of the ministry? I qualify: The ministry is rigorous for the man who is faithful. HCH used to tell us that a sluggard could make it in the ministry. It is possible that a man fritter away his time and then wing it on the pulpit and in the catechism room if he has the gift of gab. He avoids the hard pastoral calls, does not visit the sick and aged…. But for the faithful man the ministry is as rigorous an occupation as can be—almost as stressful and rigorous as the calling to be a faithful mother of many children. And seminary must test a man’s ability to endure the brutal and relentless demands.

To carry through the medical metaphor, seminary is like a stress test that checks the health of a heart by putting it almost to “full throttle” to see what happens. Can the man take it in this institution, or will he collapse? That is not cruel. What would be cruel would be to allow a pious man into the ministry without testing his constitution.

I remember when I was in seminary and my appendix needed to be removed in the middle of the night. I was lying on the examination table in Butterworth Hospital. Standing before me at 1 a.m. were two (I think) “doctors-to-be” who looked like they had not slept in days. Why in the world, I asked myself, would the head of the emergency room entrust me to their care? Until I realized, at some later time, that they were being put to the test: were they able to administer good medicine in the conditions that real doctors often find themselves—almost at the end of their rope. And…were they willing to do it, which is no less important a question, for would-be pastors as well.

J. Gresham Machen, one great warrior for the Reformed faith, said when they established Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, “We believe that a theological seminary is an institution of higher learning whose standards should not be inferior to the highest academic standards that prevail anywhere.”

Second, seminary education must be comprehensive.

The pastoral ministry is a vocation that requires a man to be as broadly educated as possible in all the areas of the gospel ministry. No pastor may be a specialist in one area, only to be grossly ignorant in another—an infectious disease specialist who knows little if anything about heart problems. We will not allow a man to specialize in practical theology, for example, to the exclusion of another important area—doctrinal theology, for example.

The pastor must be a kind of “general practitioner” who knows how to care for all the needs of the saints. All the men must know the full range of the spiritual needs of the people of God. As a doctor must learn biology, physiology, pharmacology, pathology, kinesiology; so a soul-physician the languages, hermeneutics, exegesis, theology, church history, practical theology, New Testament, Old Testament, missions, etc.

Seminary education must also be up-to-date.

Physicians must know the latest advances in science and medicine. Who among us would trust a doctor who was trained 30 years ago but never updated his qualifications? So in the ministry of the Word.

Now, the medicine is the same, always. But the way in which the people of God are assaulted, the manner in which diseases are spread and infections come into the people of God, and the shape and form they take, change all the time. And the minister must be aware of these things. Up-to-date in his qualifications.

In the Form for Installation of Professors, the seminary professors are mandated to issue cautions “in regard to the errors and heresies of the old, but especially of the new day….” The seminary professors’ calling is laid out in here: read and read and keep reading—everything that we possibly can, so that we are aware of, and can train our students to be aware of, everything. Our calling is to do research, careful scholarship, and model that to the students.

All this says something deeper about what is required of us professors here in the seminary. It’s not so much skill as it is faithfulness. We must labor with all of the might God gives. If I may modify the adage that “Genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration,” perhaps I may say that “Success (spiritual success in the seminary) is 10% ability, and 90% faithfulness.”

Warnings and encouragements

I conclude with some warnings, and one great encouragement.

To the seminary faculty and Theological School Committee: First, let us not be tempted to abbreviate the training unless absolute necessity demands this. No one here wants a medical doctor whose training was truncated because of a scarcity of doctors. We want qualified physicians. Pastors, too. Second, let us give ourselves to our work in the same way that we teach the men to give themselves to theirs…. And require of ourselves the highest standards of excellence in all our work.

To us ministers, and you students who would be ministers: First, the temptation will be to heal superficially—to put a bandage where surgery is necessary, or salve when lancing is required, or ignore the necessary calling to amputate—both in the public administration of the Word and the private. That failure is rooted in covetousness: “Every prophet and every priest is given to covetousness, and (therefore) deals falsely” (Jer. 6:14, 8:11). I cannot take the time to explain that tonight, but ask you to reflect on how that may be. Second, let us take or be ready to take our own medicine. “Physician, heal thyself ” did not apply to Jesus, but it applies here. Practice what you preach. That is, recognize the depravity of your own nature, the inclinations in your own flesh, the infections that rage within yourself, and the stench of your own sinfulness. Be brutally honest with yourself before God. And before you apply gospel medicine to anyone else, find for yourself that healing power that is the real Balm from Gilead.

To the people of God: First, receive as from the hand of God Himself the physician He has appointed for you. Second, allow the physician to examine you, probing carefully, and perhaps painfully, especially at the annual family visitation where this examination takes place. Third, receive the medicine he administers, both publicly and privately. Brother elders, give good advice, and help him to administer the medicine wisely.

The one, great, encouragement

The great encouragement we need, God gives. And what an encouragement it is, to all of us, but especially to the young men: God will use the word that you preach— the word you received from Him through the blood, sweat, and tears of good exegesis and homiletics—to heal His people! He will use the word you bring to bind up their wounds, for “he hath sent me [you also] to heal the brokenhearted, to preach… recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18).

I qualify here, too. For we realize that the word we bring does not work automatically, but only as the Spirit is pleased to use it. So we pray, “Heal them, and they shall be healed; save them, and they shall be saved!!” (I paraphrase Jer. 17:14). Also, realize that sometimes God makes the word you bring to be a savor of death to death. Who is sufficient for these things? But do we not remember what He said to Isaiah: “Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed” (Is. 6:10).

Nevertheless, God will use His word, as He has promised, to heal the brokenhearted, bind up their wounds, make the lame to walk, the blind to see, the dead to live. He will make the withered hands work, enable those who could not speak to shout for joy. And you will hear it with your own ears.

Gentlemen, prepare well. Endure the rigors. Be patient with the length of training (although it passes far more quickly than you will realize.) And pray: Lord, heal Thy precious church, Thy blood-bought people, Thy wounded, bruised, injured, infected, but precious people. “Heal me [us], O Lord, and I [we] shall be healed; save me [us], and I [we] shall be saved: for thou art my [our] praise” (Jer. 17:14).