* Commencement address delivered on the evening of June 12, in the First Protestant Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The minister of the gospel is called. He is called of God. He is called of God to be a minister of the gospel.
A long time ago, when I was still a student in the seminary, I happened on a day to be in conversation with a minister of the gospel. We were talking about this very thing—the calling of the minister. In the course of our conversation he made the statement that he did not believe that a man is actually called of God to be a minister of the gospel. He said that He for one had never heard the voice of God, calling, mandating, charging him. His being a minister of the gospel he ascribed to the fact that he had chosen this particular profession, seeing that it had appealed to him, had therefore prepared for it, and had subsequently been called and ordained by the church. If a minister is really speaking the truth about himself in talking that way, he has no moral right being in office. He is a usurper. Surely not to be guilty of having intruded himself, a minister of the gospel must have heard God’s voice calling him to the ministry of the gospel.
I wish to speak on this idea for a few moments. I have arranged my material under two points, namely 1) the reality of the calling and 2) its significance.
That the minister of the gospel, worthy of the title, is called of God is the very teaching of the article XXX1 of our Belgic Confession. Here the statement occurs and I quote, “Therefore everyone must take heed, not to intrude himself by indecent means, but is bound to wait till it shall please God to call him; that he may have testimony of his calling, and be certain and assured that it is of God.” Since the Belgic Confession is one of our official creeds, we here express it as our firm belief that, according to the Scriptures the minister of the gospel is called of God. Such is our confession. But what does it mean that the minister of the gospel is called of God? Surely it can mean nothing less than that God speaks to him, makes him to hear His voice, mandating, charging and sending him, laying upon him the necessity of proclaiming Christ’s gospel. We should understand that God speaks to the minister of the gospel, whom He calls, as truly as He spake to Moses out of the midst of the burning bush. He hears God’s voice as truly as Moses heard God’s voice, mandating him and arming him with the word that he was to speak to the children of Israel; and as truly as the rest of the prophets heard God’s voice and the apostles. Truly God’s ministers are called of, God now, today, as well as in days of old. And they know themselves as called of God, are aware that He sends them, puts His word in their mouth, and that therefore it is His gospel that they proclaim. That the prophets of old had this awareness, that they knew themselves as called of God is plain from the superscriptions that appear above their discourses. “Thus saith the Lord,” and, “The word of the Lord came unto me,” and, “The burden of the word of the Lord.”
We must hold fast the truth and fact the ministers of the gospel, worthy of the title, are called of God. If He called His prophets of old, why should He not in this new dispensation of the world still be calling His servants. Certainly when the last apostle died, God did not lose His voice.
In the light of these observations we see what it means that the ministers of the gospel are called of God, perceive what are the elements that enter into the constituency of this calling, namely the following: First, that the minister of the gospel is chosen of God for the work of the ministry; second, that God forms him for this work, by reason of which he is God’s organ through whom God speaks His gospel; third, that God makes him to hear His voice, mandating, sending and thereby authorizing him to proclaim His gospel and that God qualifies him for this ministry by His Spirit.
It is obvious that the word “calling” in this context has much the same meaning as the word “anointing.” Truly, the minister of the gospel worthy of the name is the anointed of the Lord, and as such God’s own gift unto His people. It is so true what Paul says, namely, “And He (the exalted Christ) gave—mark you, gave—some, apostles; and some prophets; and some, evangelists; and some pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 6:11-12).
Not that the ministers of the gospel of this day are to be placed on a level with the prophets and the apostles of the holy scriptures. By the latter God gave us His word, so that when the last apostle died the canon of the scriptures was closed. It is only upon this word, gospel, as upon a foundation, that Christ builds His church. Hence it is that word and that word alone that the ministers of the gospel, the pastors and teachers in the church, who came after, proclaim as identifying themselves with it. It is as mindful of this difference that we say that the minister of the gospel is called of God as truly as the prophets of old were called of God. As viewed from this angle there is no difference.
Truly then, God calls the men of His choice to be ministers—ministers of His word. Why should this not be true, I considering who God is. He is God to whose power there is no limit. By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the hosts of them by the breath of his mouth. He spake, and it was done. He commanded, and it stood fast (Ps. 33:6, 9). He quickens the dead, and calls those things which be not as though they were (Rom. 6:17). His people He calls out of darkness into His marvelous light—His people, which in time past were not a people (I Pet. 2:9ff). The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God (Rom. 8:16). If there be these workings of God, why can there not also be even today that working of God whereby He calls the men of His choice TV be ministers of His gospel? It can’t be because it is easier to call a simper out of darkness into the light than to call a man to the ministry of the gospel, so that, though God is capable of the former, He lacks what it takes to do the latter. To deny that God calls to the ministry of the gospel is a matter of utmost seriousness. It comes close to saying that there is no God.
We must now face the question how God in this day calls His servants to be ministers of His Word. He calls His servants in this day not apart from His church, not as circumventing the church, as He did in days of old in calling His servants, but through the church as His organ, by her voice. Moses was not called through the church, but the Lord spoke to him from out of the burning bush apart from the church. Samuel was not called through the church, but the Lord spoke to him from out of the holiest place of the earthy tabernacle. So it was with all the prophets of the Old dispensation. The Lord spoke to them directly usually in visions or in dreams, but always as circumventing the church. This had much to do with the fact that it was the dispensation of shadows. The church had not yet attained to spiritual majority. For the Spirit was not yet. But when the fullness of time was come, God sent “forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons, and because ye are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying Abba, Father.” The church therefore is no longer a child, differing nothing from a servant, but a son, and as such heir of God through Christ (Gal. 4:1ff). This being true, the church has received new rights, including the right to engage in the calling of her officebearers, definitely the ministers of the gospel, which is but saying that, as was just said, God now calls his servants through His church as His organ, through the agency of her voice.
The voice of the church is heard first of all in the election by the consistory in cooperation with the congregation. Second, the voice of the church is heard in the message, “Come over and help us,” that the church directs in the call letter to the one that was chosen. Third, the voice of the church is heard in the charge that the church directs to the one chosen on the occasion of His ordination—the charge, “Take heed, therefore, beloved brother, and fellow servant in Christ unto thyself and all the flock, over which the holy Ghost hath made thee overseer, to feed the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood: love Christ and feed His sheep, taking the oversight of them not by constraint, but willingly: not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind, neither as being lord over God’s heritage, but as an example to the flock. Be an example of believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Neglect not the gift that is in thee, meditate upon those things, give thyself wholly to them, that thy profiting may appear to all; take heed to thy doctrine, continue steadfast therein. Bear patiently all-suffering, and oppressions, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ, for in so doing this thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee. And when the chief shepherd shall appear, thou shalt receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.” (Form for the ordination of ministers of God’s Word). Let us observe that the content of this admonition is almost literally taken from the Scriptures. What it means is that it is the very commandments and gospel of God that the church here speaks to the called one. However, if the called one, in addition to being called of the church, is also called, being called of God, the voice of the church by which he is being made to hear these mandates and this gospel must become to him the very voice of God. And this it does, if he is being called also of God, by a working of God that consists in His speaking these mandates and this gospel in the mind and heart of the called one, laying, impressing, binding them on his heart in such a way that the admonition directed to him by the church becomes to him the very voice of God mandating, sending and authorizing him to proclaim God’s gospel. Then he feels in his heart, is convinced in his soul, that he is called of God to the sacred ministry—for He has heard the voice of God and not alone the voice of the church. The trouble with that minister of whom I spake is that, if he was speaking the truth about himself, he had heard the voice of the church only and not also the voice of God.
Our fathers had understanding of these things, as appears from the first of the three questions that is put to the called one on the occasion of his ordination. The question reads, and I quote, “First I ask thee, whether thou feelest in thy heart that thou art lawfully called of God’s church, and therefore of God Himself to this holy ministry.” This can mean but one thing, namely, dost thou feel in thy heart that God called thee through the church, that is, has the voice of the church become unto thee the very voice of God, so that thou feelest in thy heart that in being called of the church thou art called of God. That this is the meaning is plain from the following statement found in the call letter, “Now, dear reverend brother, may the king of His church so impress this call upon your heart and give you light, that you may arrive at a decision that is pleasing to Him and if possible for us mutually gratifying.” Let us mark the clause, “impress this call upon your heart.” If God does so—such is the implied idea—thou wilt feel in thy heart that thou art called also of him, and in this case thou wilt come over and help us.
Certainly, if the voice of the church has not become to a man the voice of God, and if the church nevertheless ordained him, because she does not know the heart, he is nevertheless in office, yet not truly so, seeing that he was called of the church only and not also of God. To the question, “Dost thou feel in thy heart that thou art called of the church and therefore also of God, he replied with an “I do,” while he should have replied with an “I do not.” And so the church ordained him, for God only knows the heart. This is a matter of utmost seriousness, because, if a man is not also called of’ God, he is not going to be qualified for the duties of the office by the Lord God either. Nevertheless the man is going to be held fully responsible for His conduct in office.
That God calls His servants implies that by His Spirit and His word He also qualifies them for the work of the ministry by continually putting in their hearts appropriate mandates and the gospel. That there is a special qualification for the work of the ministry is clear from the admonition that is directed to the called one on the occasion of his ordination. For example, the mandate, “Give attendance to reading, to exhortation and to doctrine,” are words directed not to the flock but to the one called to be the shepherd of the flock. God continues to speak these and similar mandates in the heart of His servants, and thereby qualifies them, continues to call them spiritually. Of this working of God the laying on of hands is expressive. This laying on of hands is not a meaningless ceremony, but an action of the church indicative of how God spiritually qualifies His servants for the work of the ministry, for the duties of the office.
It ought to be clear that the significance of the calling of the minister is immeasurably great. It is that important as to be indispensable. First, that the minister is called means that He is sent—authorized. And authority here is right—the right to proclaim God’s gospel. Everyone has not this right, but only he who is sent. The sent one alone is ambassador of God. He only has the right to implore, officially, implore, Be ye reconciled to God. How then, in the words of the apostle, shall they preach, except they be sent? (Rom. 10:15a.). The rest of this verse is a quotation from Isaiah. Let us take notice of it. It reads, “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things.” Surely, the feet of such are beautiful indeed. But let us consider that they are preachers, that is, sent ones, ones’ sent of God through the churchas His organ. One who preaches though he be not sent intrudes himself upon the office. The feet of such an one are not beautiful in the sight of God. I said, the minister is sent of God through the church as His organ, yes, and through the church and the church only, the church as institute, and not through some individual or organization that owes its existence to the will of man. This is a correct teaching. It is surely the teaching of the scriptures. It was to the church that the Holy Ghost said, “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.” It was the church that laid hands on them and sent them away (Acts 13:2, 3).
As was stated, the calling implies spiritual qualification. This is the other reason why the calling is indispensable. Let us consider that the minister must preach. Now preaching consists in explaining God’s gospel to the flock and in applying it according to the needs of the flock. In preaching, therefore, the minister comes to the flock not with the literal word of God but with his own word. To do the former the minister should have to read the Scriptures and refrain from adding to the portion read one syllable of explanation. But this would not do. This would not be preaching. The task of the minister is to explain and apply the Word of God. But this explanation is his own word. Surely preaching the gospel is a glorious engagement. But it is just as precarious as it is glorious, for there is always the question whether God’s gospel is truly being preached, whether the word of the minister is substantially the word of God. There will be no danger that it is not, if the minister only be called of God, for the calling implies qualification, and qualification here includes all that is needed in the way of spiritual gifts to preach the gospel. It includes being led of Christ’s spirit into the truth of the scriptures in order that they may be rightly understood. It thus includes insight into the scriptures. It includes the will prayerfully to study the scriptures continually, persistently, day and night. It includes the desire and courage to preach and to vindicate sound doctrine against heresies and error. It includes also prayer to be thus qualified. For the minister cannot pray either. Qualification therefore includes everything in the way of spiritual gifts. For in himself the minister is nothing except an empty vessel and a sinful man. Surely, the calling is indispensable. For only if a man be called will he be qualified.
There is still the question how a minister knows in his heart that He is truly called not of the church alone but also of God. As was explained, God makes the minister to hear His voice, and the result of this working of God is that there forms in the heart of the minister the firm belief that he is called of the church and therefore also of God. And then he also will bear the fruit of being called of God. Then he will surely take heed unto himself and to all the flock to feed the church of God. Then he will love Christ and feed His sheep. Then he till be an example of believers. Then hewill take heed to his doctrine and continue steadfast therein. Then he will bear patiently all sufferings and oppressions as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. For, being called of God, God speaks these mandates in his heart; God, in a word, qualifies His servant. And in the way of his bearing these fruits, the minister more and more makes sure his calling to the sacred ministry.
Once more then, how shall they preach except they be called . . . sent? Except they be called, they may not preach—for they have not the right. Except they be called, they cannot preach—for they are not qualified.