Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. * This is the text of the commencement address given at the seminary graduation of Daniel Kleyn, James Laning, Darren Thole, and Martin VanderWal on June 16, 1997.
Delegates to the Synod of 1997, members of the Theological School Committee, esteemed colleagues of the faculty, graduates of the class of 1997, and fellow saints in Christ: Beginning with his first convocation service and throughout his four years in the seminary a student hears certain themes repeated over and over. Tonight I present without apology to you who graduate some of those themes one last time.
There are certain characteristics of a Reformed minister. He must be committed to the truth of Holy Scripture, the faith once delivered to the saints. He must be committed to the truth as summed in the Reformed confessions, the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards. And he must be committed to this truth as it is, by God’s grace, taught in the Protestant Reformed Churches. And to be a Reformed minister he must be called by Christ. Christ is the Good, the Chief, the Great Shepherd of the sheep. Christ cares for His sheep through those whom He calls to this office. To be a minister a man must be authorized and qualified by Christ to minister to the people of God. And if the minister is faithful to Christ who calls him, he will shepherd the people of God with the Word of God. This call of Christ to the ministry comes through the church.
All this we assume to be true. You are committed to the Reformed faith. If not, resign your candidacy, leave the churches, and go elsewhere. But you are committed to the Reformed faith and, the Lord willing, Christ through the church will call you to the ministry. The question we propose to answer in this address is: What ought a Reformed minister look like in the light of Scripture? What are the gifts, talents that according to Scripture must characterize the Reformed minister? We must be selective, we cannot be exhaustive. I Timothy 3:2-9 and 4:11-16 list the fundamental, indispensable gifts which every bishop (minister or elder) must have. We will consider some of these.
There are certain natural gifts (we all realize that there’s a certain spiritual dimension to these natural gifts) necessary for the minister. The first are intellectual gifts. A minister needs a thorough knowledge of the Word of God. What we mean is that he must know the Scriptures; he must be “at home” in the Bible. But more than this, the minister must know the doctrines of the Word of God and he must know how these doctrines are related to each other. He must know and apprehend the truth of Scripture and be able to defend that truth against the many errors and heresies abounding especially in our day.
The minister must know the history of the church. He must know how God gathered the church throughout the ages. The minister must know the battles in which the church was engaged and how the church developed her understanding of the doctrines and truth of the Word of God. He must have a good grasp of historical theology.
The minister must be able to work with the original languages of Holy Scripture, the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New. Only having a thorough knowledge of these will the minister be able to bring out of the Scriptures things old and things new.
All this means the minister must have the desire and ability to spend many hours with the books! The fact that you have completed four years of seminary instruction, the fact that you have successfully completed a six-month internship and that you have done some preaching in the churches, the fact that you have successfully sustained your oral, comprehensive examinations before the synod, all this does not mean that you have arrived! All this doesn’t mean that you are theologians or even good ministers. The most that the seminary can give you are the tools which you need to use in a lifetime of study. This is what God calls you to do when He says, “Neglect not the gift that is in thee…. Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them…. Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them… ” (I Tim. 4:14-16). Hence, plan on a lifetime of serious and diligent study of the Word of God. Learn from the giants of the past and be a lifelong student of theology.
This is what the Reformed minister looks like. He’s a student of the Word!
Then there are those gifts relating to the people of God. The Reformed minister must have a sympathetic understanding of the people of God entrusted to his care. By “understanding” we mean that the minister must know, not just human nature in general, but the human nature of the children of God. The minister will know then that the people of God are sinners, saved in Christ, but sinners. They have but a small beginning of the new obedience and, therefore, will manifest all kinds of weaknesses and sins. They will be involved in a daily battle against their sinful natures, and in this way they need to grow in sanctification. But the minister must also have an understanding of the individual members of the congregation. He must know their strengths and weaknesses as well as their individual needs and circumstances.
But that must be a sympathetic understanding. The word “sympathetic” means to “feel with.” The minister represents Christ, and Christ is “touched with the feelings of the infirmities” of God’s people (Heb. 4:15). The minister, then, after the example of the chief Shepherd, must feel with God’s people. This means, for example, that he must not merely know that they sorrow, but must weep with those who weep. He needs to rejoice with those who rejoice. He’s got to bear with the weak. He must have sympathetic understanding of their fears and doubts, their struggles and temptations. Only then will the Reformed minister be able to bring to bear the Word of God to the needs of the people of God both in his public preaching and teaching and in his private counseling of God’s people.
This is what the Reformed minister looks like. He’s a man of sympathetic understanding.
The Reformed minister must also be apt to teach (I Tim. 3:2). Literally he must be skillful in teaching, i.e., he must be able to teach. This means that the minister must be able to make clear what Scripture teaches. He must have the gift from God to unfold the mystery of the gospel. The Bible calls ministers “pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11). The minister is a pastor, i.e., one who shepherds the flock of God, and he is a teacher. This doesn’t mean the minister is both a pastor and a teacher; he’s a pastor/teacher. This is one office. The idea is that the minister shepherds the people of God by means of teaching them out of the Word of God. Hence, the Reformed minister is always teaching. When the minister preaches, he is teaching. He’s teaching in the catechism classes and when he leads the Bible study societies. Not only so, but when he admonishes the wayward he does that by teaching them from Scripture the right way of faith and repentance. When the minister comforts the dying and sorrowing, he does so by teaching them from the Word of God. When he encourages the sick or the aged, he does that by teaching them from Scripture. This is in harmony with the nature of inspired Scripture. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (II Tim. 3:16). If God’s people are not instructed in righteousness; if they’re not taught the doctrine of the Word of God, they will be destroyed for lack of knowledge (Hos. 4:6).
The Reformed minister must be a skillful teacher. This is what he looks like.
Among the spiritual gifts a minister must possess we mention first the fact that he must be a child of God. It’s certainly true that God can bless His church through an ungodly man. Scripture speaks of those who preach Christ from spurious motives in Philippians 1:15-18. Some were preaching Christ out of envy and strife, some out of contention and not sincerely, while others were preaching out of pure motives. But the apostle doesn’t care, because, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is being preached, and in that he rejoices. God even used a wicked Balaam, held up in II Peter 2 as the example of a false teacher, to bless His people. And Jesus sent Judas along with the other disciples to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 10). So, in the objective sense, God can and has used a reprobate to minister to His people.
But we take the subjective viewpoint and emphasize that the Reformed minister must be a child of God. This means he must be characterized by a genuine spirituality or piety. The minister must have a deep sense of his own sinfulness and his need of the grace of God in all his work among God’s people. He must be deeply impressed with the holiness, the goodness, the greatness of God! The minister must be a man who fears God! He, in fact, must be an exemplary Christian, one who is a worthy example to the people of God. This means the Reformed minister will be a man of prayer. He will set aside time each day to spend in personal private devotions. He will meditate on God’s Word and he will pray daily for God’s grace and Holy Spirit to enable him to shepherd the people of God. The minister will do this because he knows that “God will give his grace and Holy Spirit to those only, who with sincere desires continually ask them of him, and are thankful for them” (Heidelberg Catechism, q. 116).
This is what the Reformed minister looks like. He’s a godly, spiritual, pious man who fears God and is given to much prayer.
The Reformed minister must also be a man of patience. He needs this gift because of the sinfulness of the people of God. He needs to bear long with the weaknesses of God’s people. Especially does the minister need patience with those who are quick to criticize him, particularly his preaching. The Scriptures require of a minister that he not strive, but be gentle and patient (II Tim. 2:24-26).
The Reformed minister must be truthful with the people of God. He must always speak the truth — publicly in his preaching and teaching, privately as well. He must speak the truth even when it hurts. If all of God’s people are called to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15), how much more isn’t that necessary for the minister!
The minister must also be faithful. He must not waver in his love and commitment to God and His truth. Neither must the minister waver in his love and commitment to God’s people and his calling to care for them.
The Reformed minister needs boldness. He needs boldness to take a resolute stand for the truth even in the face of opposition. He needs boldness to make known the “mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6:19).
In all of this the minister must be an example to the believers. Scripture requires this of ministers. The inspired apostle tells the saints in Philippi to “follow us as your examples,” and he exhorts Timothy, the preacher, “Be thou an example of the believers” (Phil. 3:17; I Tim. 4:12). So it is with the Reformed minister. He must be a model of the Christian’s life for the people of God to whom he ministers. He must never contradict by ungodliness what he preaches and teaches. The minister must be able to say to the people of God, speak as I speak, do as I do, live as I live, train your children as I train mine, love your wives as I love mine.
This is what the Reformed minister looks like.
But the greatest gift the Reformed minister needs is the love of God. The love of God, according to Colossians 3:14, is “the bond of perfectness.” Love is a bond, it unites, makes one. In other words, God’s love is fellowship. And it’s a bond of perfectness. Love exists only in the light. God’s love cannot flourish in the darkness of sin. In sin there’s no love, only hatred and lust.
That bond of perfectness is in God. God is love, says Scripture (I John 4:8). This is the chief virtue of God’s being, He is love. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit live together in the bond of perfect love. The wonder of it is that God in His perfect love chose us and all of His people in Christ before the foundation of the world to be His beloved saints. In love God sent His only begotten Son into the world to suffer and die on the cross to redeem His chosen from sin and death. And God shed abroad His love in our hearts by the Holy Spirit so that we love Him and reveal that love of God to one another in the communion of the saints.
Holy Scripture carefully describes God’s love as self-denying and self-sacrificing. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” … (John 3:16). In love, therefore, we always deny ourselves and seek the good and salvation of our fellow saints. I Corinthians 13 speaks of God’s love: “Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never fails.”
The gift of God’s love is indispensable for the Reformed minister. He must have it or he cannot be a minister. This is plain from the emphasis Scripture places on this gift. Love, Jesus taught us, is the fulfilling of the law of God. It’s the fundamental mark of Jesus’ disciples, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love for one another” (John 13:35). Love is the fruit of the Spirit, according to Galatians 5. It’s the more excellent way, according to I Corinthians 13. You may speak with the tongue of men and angels, but without love you’re only making noise like a cymbal. You may have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, you may have all faith so as to be able to move mountains, but if you have no love you are nothing! Nothing profits you without the love of God.
The Reformed minister has a heart filled with the love of God! And because he does, the Reformed minister is a humble man. He has a deep sense of his own sins and sinful nature. Daily he struggles against the weaknesses of his faith and the evil lusts of his sinful nature. And he has a deep sense of God’s greatness, and goodness, and glory. He fears God! He stands in awe before the Almighty. He knows that he cannot function without God’s grace. He can’t preach one sermon, comfort one sorrowing soul, encourage one sick or dying child of God, admonish one wayward saint, teach one class without the grace of God.
Knowing this he is a man of prayer. Daily he seeks the grace and Holy Spirit of God to enable him to be a faithful Reformed minister to the people of God. And, strengthened by means of the Word and prayer, gladly in love to God and for His people, humbly as before God’s face, he spends himself and is spent in the ministry of the Word!
No one put it better than the late Rev. Gerrit Vos did in a letter to me shortly after he became emeritus, “My son, of all the things I counseled you, remember this, be humble. There is a humility which is feigned, that’s abominable in God’s sight. Be humble from the heart, and God’s people will bear you up in their arms.”
This is what a Reformed minister looks like.