The Protestant Reformed Churches need (indeed, all churches need) preachers. They need preachers soon. The need is till the end of time. For the pulpits in the congregations—one-fifth of them now vacant—and the mission fields, the churches pray to the Lord Christ, “Send pastors!”
In the previous editorial (April 1, 2005), I explained why the church places such high value on the gift of faithful preachers. By ministers who are faithful, God perfects saints, performs essential ministry, edifies the body of Christ. This institution of Christ must be preserved among us by God if we are to continue as churches. And I urged upon us to “press this need upon capable young men,” as Synod 2004 asked (Acts, p. 24).
But the young men must desire the office and seek the work as something attractive. The young men may. They can. For the work of the ministry is an occupation like no other. Its joys are above the joys of all others.
Every young man may know the beauty and joy, even exhilarating delight of the gospel ministry. The Form for Ordination speaks of it as “a glorious work.”
First, they realize that theirs is nothing less than an ambassadorship (Eph. 6:20; II Cor. 5:20). If President Bush would appoint one of our young men to be ambassador to, say, the United Kingdom, what a privileged position that would be: a position of great responsibility—representing the most powerful nation on earth; a position of high earthly honor—speaking officially for the President of the United States of America. But the gospel minister represents a far higher Authority, an exceedingly more glorious Ruler—the Lord of all lords and the kings’ King, Jesus Christ. On behalf of Christ the minister speaks. The power of the resurrected, living, and enthroned Lord he represents. What is more glorious than that position?
Second, the joy of the ministry comes from the knowledge of what God accomplishes by it. The Form for Ordination speaks of the ministry as such a “glorious work” because “so great things are effected by it.” Do the young men realize what the ministry accomplishes as it is used by God? Why, the resurrection victory of the Lord Jesus Christ is given to God’s people through the gospel ministry. Before a minister begins his work, he may know that the victory of Jesus Christ is his victory, which is given to the elect by preaching. No other occupation can make such astounding claims. No other prospective employer can promise so much. Though he can promise much, he cannot guarantee victory like Jesus Christ can. The gospel ministry is a work in which you begin with victory, in which you go out proclaiming victory, which you perform by carrying out victory.
When the white horse of Revelation 5 rides forth (the White Horse is the gospel preaching), it goes forth executing the eternal and efficacious counsel of God, carrying forth the victory of the Lamb who has all power. His is the battle bow and the garland wreath of victory. He goes “conquering and to conquer.”
Consider: By the gospel ministry, enemies of God are transformed into allies! Poor struggling sinners are freed from sin’s slavery! Through preaching, sins are forgiven! The gates of the kingdom are thrown open! Through sermons, terrors are driven away, and Jesus appears on His throne as powerful and tender in His love for fearful saints. The Word retrieves wandering sinners. Prodigal sons and daughters come home by the gospel! Hard hearts are broken! Hope grows! Heaven is opened! Saints are ushered home!
But God accomplishes more by the minister’s labors: Worship itself takes place through preaching. In it, God converses with His friends. By its power, these friends respond with bowing down in honor, ascribing to God great worth, and extolling that worth. Why, the preaching gave them the vision of King Jesus on His throne, before whom they bow. Preaching describes the works of God, and for these works the people of God say: “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!” Preaching manifests God’s perfections, to which believers respond: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory!” Preaching holds forth the promises of God, on account of which the people purify themselves (I John 3:3), and sing in hope of perfection.
“So great things” God (God!) carries out by a minister’s work.
That is not to say that the work is all joy.
The gospel minister is a soldier in combat—fiercest warfare. This is no peacetime endeavor, the gospel ministry. War has been declared. The minister is on the frontline. No wonder the form for the preacher’s ordination has this charge to him: “Bear patiently all sufferings and oppressions as a good soldier of Jesus Christ,” and this prayer by the congregation: “Grant him the courage to bear the difficulties and troubles which he may meet with in his ministry.” No recruiter for the Army may hide the difficulties from a prospective soldier. No church may pretend the gospel ministry is easy, for those who seek to avoid hard work.
Mercifully, the Lord does hide much of the difficulty. He does not allow men to see the details. Moments after the approval of my final, oral examination by synod, I was sobered by the comments of two veteran ministers, in which one asked the other over a cup of coffee (in my presence): “Jay, if you knew the difficulties you would face in the ministry, would you ever have aspired to it?” If men do not spare us, the Lord does spare us the gritty details.
But He does not hide the reality that the work will include many sorrows, that the burdens will be heavy.
That may be one reason why, when Jesus told the disciples to pray that God “send forth” laborers into the harvest, He did not use the normal word for “send” (from which we get our word “apostle”) but used the word for “send” that means “thrust out.” The cost is so high, the work so arduous and taxing, that none will take it up unless the Lord thrust him out into the harvest.
The call to ride with the White Horse, however, is a sweetly irresistible call. When it comes it makes those who were initially unwilling to be willing (Ps. 110:3). Still vivid is my memory of the night the Lord powerfully turned my heart—a heart that had resisted and fled from His call—into a heart willing to seek the ministry. The next morning: a letter informing my parents, and a call to my pastor, “What’s the first step to prepare for the ministry?” And I was never so happy in my life. That, too, is the working of “irresistible grace.”
And the joys of the work overshadow the sorrows a thousand times. The rewards far outweigh the costs. The troubles are “not worthy to be compared” to the blessings. The prophet receives a “prophet’s reward” (seeMatt. 10:41).
Here and now the minister receives reward. He sees the fruits God gives to his work. Think of it: he can see young people and children come to genuine repentance and hearty faith, become equipped to join the battle for Jesus Christ. His heart rejoices with the parents who weep with joy in this milestone for their children. Firsthand he listens to the vows made between a young man and woman, and then later hears some of them promise to raise their newborns in godliness and truth. He witnesses warring couples reconciled by the power of the Spirit’s Word. At the deathbed, he has the privilege of hearing the confident testimony of dear saints who die with their hands in Jesus’ hand. In catechism he can observe the wide-eyed children in whose heart the Spirit is working awe before God’s beauty (the joy of many ministers is at its peak in catechism!). He hears personal testimony of the saving power that the sermon had to help in a particular, but unknown to him, distress: “How did you know my needs this morning?” (and sincerely responds, “I didn’t; God did”). He truly experiences the reality of I Timothy 4:16: “for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.”
And we have not even mentioned the “crown of glory” that the Chief Shepherd will grant when He returns (I Pet. 5:4).
The charge to the congregation in the Form for Ordination ends with the promise: “You who receive this man in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward.”
Although ministers endure hardships from some members of the church, the people of God do receive the minister “in the name of a prophet.” They hold him in reputation. To them, the feet of those who bring the gospel of peace are beautiful and pleasant. A constant source of joy and encouragement for ministers.
A faithful minister is ashamed of his own shortcomings, weaknesses, and many faults. He hardly dares think of, much less expect, a reward. He knows he is unworthy of the many helps and words of gratitude from the saints. But when they receive him anyway, he learns what he, as a Reformed minister, has been busy teaching: free grace.
God is very good. To ministers, too.