The Task of the Ministry

In four distinct phases the task of the ministry of the Word is spelled out in the Form of Ordination. He must (1) preach the Word of God, (2) lead the congregation in public prayer, (3) administer the sacraments, and (4) together with the elders, exercise Christian discipline. Two things are to be immediately observed here. First of all, it ought to be evident to us that although our Form distinguishes a four-fold labor, the task of the minister of the Word is really one. All of these aspects of his labor constitute a form of the preaching of the Word. In the second place, to this other forms of the preaching of the Word may be added. Thus, for example, the call-letter that is used in our churches stipulates the following as expected labors of the minister of the Word: “Preaching twice on the Lord’s Day, attending to catechetical instruction, to family visiting and calling on the sick, and furthermore of all things that pertain to the work of a faithful and diligent servant of the Lord, all these agreeably to the Word of God.” 

It follows from all of this that it is quite impossible to make a complete list itemizing the varied labors expected of the minister. A characterization of this office must be left general. Both the congregation and the minister must realize that it is expected of him that he be “a faithful and diligent servant of the Lord.” In any way in which he can minister to the spiritual needs of the flock of Christ, he must stand in readiness to do so, and the church must not expect other labors of him that would detract from the faithful and diligent execution of this calling. With this in mind we may consider the description of his labor as we find it in the Form of Ordination. The opening statement of the Form expresses succinctly the preacher’s task of preaching the Word. It states: “That they faithfully explain to their flock, the Word of the Lord, revealed by the writings of the prophets and the apostles; and apply the same as well in general as in particular, to the edification of the hearers; instructing, admonishing, comforting and reproving, according to every one’s need; preaching repentance towards God, and reconciliation with him through faith in Christ; and refuting with the Holy Scriptures, all schisms and heresies which are repugnant to the pure doctrine.” 

Several things are to be observed here. Fundamentally important is it that this entire charge is not the product of man’s thinking but is most emphatically in accord with the Word of God itself. The Form of Ordination offers considerable Scriptural proof for this which we will not quote now. Essentially the same description of this office is contained in the words of Paul to Timothy: “Preach the Word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” (11 Timothy 4:2) 

The task of the preacher is to explain the Word of God. He must be a teacher. When some of the sheep fail to understand his instruction and ask him questions concerning the things he teaches, he must not become indignant or turn from them in disgust, but he must exercise all patience to teach. Painstakingly he must explain Scripture with Scripture so that the truth is unveiled with such clarity that all can understand. 

The office of the minister is not that of a lecturer. He must also apply the Word of God which he explains in the preaching to the church. To this application belongs, first of all, a self-application. Without this the effectiveness of the preacher’s teaching is to a large extent lost. The preacher himself must live according to the Word of God so that in his entire life is clearly manifest a most powerful application of that Word. The preacher who warns his congregation against the sins of worldliness while he himself indulges in worldly pleasures is not going to effectively convey his message to the congregation. The preacher who preaches emphatically against the sin of covetousness and uses all of his oratorical ability to persuade the congregation to give more liberally toward the support of Kingdom causes is going to be disappointed with the response to his preaching if he himself manifests a mercenary walk of life. Even as the example of parents in the home is a very potent means of instructing the children, so the example of the pastor is not without influence within the church. The Word of God must then be applied to himself and then he must be instrumental in applying that Word, the power of which he himself tastes, to his flock. This he must do by “admonishing, comforting and reproving according to everyone’s need.” 

In this task the preacher often “steps on toes.” He creates enemies which simply cannot be avoided. There are always some who are willing to hear the Word of God as long as it has no application. They readily assent to the historic facts of the Bible and unhesitatingly express agreement with the doctrinal confession of the church. However, when it comes to practicing the things they profess to believe, it is a different story. A preacher who gives a theoretic exposition of doctrine or relates historic incidents from the Bible is, in their judgment, a good preacher, but if he applies these things to the congregation so that they begin to affect their way of living, their evaluation of him undergoes a radical change. Yet, the preacher must always apply the Word of God. It is for him, not a matter of choice, but a responsibility of his office. 

In close connection with this the Form of Ordination states that the minister of the Word must “preach repentance towards God, and reconciliation with Him through Faith in Christ.” Under this heading the preacher is mandated to proclaim the whole counsel of God. He must preach the full-orbed gospel or, in the words of Canons II, 5, “the promise of the gospel is, that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified, shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.” Of course, also this needs explanation. The preacher may not preach the Arminian lie. He may not speak about reconciliation with God along the lines that all Modernism advocates. He must preach the truth concerning God and His eternal and unchangeable works, about Christ and His redemptive accomplishment, and about man and his salvation by grace alone. He must show the truth that God has reconciled His people unto Himself in Christ Jesus, and he must demand sincere and wholehearted repentance on the part of all, while at the same time he shows that the act of repentance and the way of repentance is the fruit of Divine grace in those who are indeed the children of God. The preacher is an ambassador of God, and therefore he may come only with God’s message. 

Finally, in this connection, the preacher is enjoined to “refute with the Holy Scriptures, all schisms and heresies which are repugnant to the pure doctrine.” Not infrequently strong opposition is found in the church to this phase of the preacher’s task. As long as the preacher limits his refugation of heresy to those false doctrines that were taught centuries ago the opposition remains rather mild but if heresies of a more recent date or current evils in the church are refuted, the dislike for the preaching becomes rather acute in some. The preacher is accused of trying to break down other churches or of being a chronic fault-finder and the like. Little do these people seem to realize that it is an essential part of the preacher’s calling to “refute heresies and schisms.” He must do this, not simply because the Form of Ordination by which he is ordained into office says so, but because the Word of God in Titus 1:9 says: “That a minister must hold fast the faithful Word of God, that he may be able by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convince the gainsayers.” The mouths of many unruly and vain talkers who subvert whole houses must be stopped. They must be rebuked sharply. (Titus 1:10-11) And the preacher must boldly refute and expose all heresy, not because he wants to be destructively critical, but for the truth’s sake. For that reason this refutation of heresy must always be “with the Holy Scriptures.” This is very important. The preacher may not rail against another man’s opinion simply because he does not agree with it or has some personal prejudice against it. That is not preaching. Rather, if another is teaching that which is in conflict with the Word of God, he may and he must use the Word of God to show from it that the teaching he is combating is of the lie. When this is done we must remember that it is not the preacher then who is expressing disagreement with and is being critical of this false doctrine but God Himself through His Word is declaring the truth over against the lie of man. To safeguard the church against the danger of being infiltrated with all kinds of human philosophies, the preacher must diligently and faithfully expose heresy in whatever form it may appear and over against it hold forth the Word of Life. 

The second part of the minister’s task is that of offering the public prayers of the congregation. His task is not only that of prophet and teacher but he is also a priest of God in behalf of the people. This part of the ordination form reads as follows: 

“It is the office of the Ministers, publicly to call upon the name of the Lord in behalf of the whole congregation; for that which the apostles say, we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the Word, is common to these pastors with the apostles; to which St. Paul alluding, thus speaketh to Timothy: ‘I exhort therefore, that first of all supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority,’ ” etc. ( I Tim. 2:1-2

It is evident that this refers to more than the mere fact that in congregational worship the minister leads the congregation in prayer. Oh, to be sure, he also does this, and we do not minimize that part of public worship. However, the emphasis here, as is especially evident from the passages of Scripture cited, appears to be that a faithful and diligent minister of the Word is one who carries the needs and burdens of the church upon his heart. The true spiritual welfare of the people of God is his deepest concern. He knows their trials and temptations and the dangers that beset them each day. He realizes too that without God they cannot stand, but will surely fall. Hence, he brings them continually to the throne of grace. He never ceases to pray for them. The preacher, as representing Christ in the congregation, is an interceding high priest giving himself over continually to prayer. One cannot help wondering how much praying for the congregation preachers can do in many of the activities in which preachers indulge today?