The Work of the Minister of the Word*

* This is the text of the speech given by Prof. Engelsma as rector at the opening of the 2007/2008 school yeear of the Protestant Reformed Seminary—submitted at the request of the editors.

“Give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.” 

I Timothy 4:13


In this section of I Timothy, the apostle treats of the offices in the church.

Chapter three lays down the qualifications of bishops and deacons.

In chapter four, attention is given to the pastoral office. This is the office described in I Timothy 5:7 as that of the teaching elder: “the elders…who labor in the word and doctrine.”

That chapter four concerns the office of the pastor, or minister of the word of God, is evident from verse six, which speaks of “a good minister of Jesus Christ.” A duty of the man who exercises the office in view in I Timothy 4, according to the first verse of the chapter, is to warn the brothers and sisters against “seducing spirits and doctrines of devils.” This, of course, is the calling of a minister of the word and sacraments.

Also the charge in the last part of the chapter makes plain that the apostle addresses ministers: “Put the brethren in remembrance of these things”; “refuse profane and old wives’ fables”; “these things command and teach”; “be thou an example of the believers”; “take heed unto thyself and unto the doctrine”; as well as verse thirteen, which we consider more closely on this occasion.

I Timothy 4 describes the work of the pastor in the congregation. The description comes to the pastor in the form of an exhortation and admonition: “give attendance to” (v. 13); “neglect not” (v. 14).

I limit myself to that aspect of the minister’s work expressed in verse thirteen: “Give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.”

Another important aspect of the minister’s work is his taking heed to his own personal spiritual life and to his own personal godly behavior. This aspect of every minister’s calling is linked inseparably to his work of taking heed to the doctrine. In fact, taking heed to his own spiritual condition and conduct comes first, both in verse twelve (“be thou an example of the believers”) and in verse sixteen (“take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine”). Emphasized in chapter four concerning the minister of the word is the same thing that chapter three stresses concerning bishop and deacon, namely, the essential importance of godliness in the officebearer. Such a life empowers and adorns the pastor’s work of giving attendance to doctrine.

It is this work of the minister that I consider with you as we begin a new year of study, instruction, and learning.

It is obvious how the description and exhortation of the work of the minister apply to us in the seminary. For us who teach, this is the work we are doing in the way appropriate to the seminary. For the students, this is the work to which you are called and for which you are preparing.

Teaching Doctrine

The work of the minister of Jesus Christ can be stated very simply: “teaching.” “Doctrine” both in verse thirteen and in verse sixteen (“take heed…unto the doctrine”) is the activity of teaching. Three related activities are required of the minister in verse thirteen: reading, exhorting, and teaching. Teaching is the fundamental activity, which the other two activities serve.

Every pastor is a teacher, and he carries out every aspect of the pastoral office by teaching. Every sermon and catechism class must be teaching. His work with the young man or young woman who has fallen deeply into sin must be teaching. At the bedside of the sick, in the hospital with the dying, and at the grave with a bereaved family, he teaches. When he counsels a couple regarding marriage and speaks at their wedding, he teaches.

This is the significance of Paul’s reference to the office of the minister inEphesians 4:11: “pastors and teachers.” One is a shepherd of the flock of Christ, and can only be a shepherd of the flock, by teaching.

The content of the prescribed teaching is the “doctrine,” that is, the truth revealed in Holy Scripture. This content is an integral part of the activity of teaching. The pastor may not teach anything he pleases, or anything that pleases his audience, as long as he teaches something, or even as long as he teaches something religious, but he must teach the doctrine of Scripture.

The doctrine, as the content of our teaching and in the precise meaning of I Timothy 4:13, must not be understood in a restricted sense: truths to be believed, or the “five points of Calvinism,” or the “essentials of Reformed doctrine.” Rather, the doctrine is all the truths of Holy Scripture. To say it differently, the doctrine is the one body of revealed truth that is the Holy Scripture.

The doctrine that we must teach is the truths that Christians mustbelieve, but also the truths that Christians mustpractice; truths that make up the Christian confession, but also truths that comprise the Christian life; double predestination, but also submission of servants to their masters.

What the apostle has in mind with the doctrine that he commands Pastor Timothy (and us) to teach is evident from I Timothy itself. Centrally, it is the great mystery of godliness: “God was manifest in the flesh” for the salvation from their sin of elect sinners, who believe on Him by the irresistible working of the Holy Spirit. The Reformed, Christian minister of the word must teach the incarnation of the eternal Son of God in Jesus Christ, implying Christ’s atoning death, bodily resurrection, and return to judgment, as the saving work of the triune God in sovereign grace (I Tim. 3:16).

In relation to this central truth, the doctrine we are called to teach includes many other truths: creation and the fall (I Tim. 2:13, 14I Tim. 4:1-5); redemption (I Tim. 2:5, 6); the necessity of officebearers in the instituted church, and their qualifications (I Tim. 3, 4); and the godly behavior of believers and their covenant children—submission of wives at home and in the congregation (I Tim. 2:8-15), the modest apparel of women at church (I Tim. 2:9), the subjection of employees to their employers (I Tim. 6:1-5), the contentment of all Christians regarding material possessions (I Tim. 6:6-10), and the liberality of rich Christians (I Tim. 6:17-19).

This is what the professors at this seminary mean when we insist on, and teach the students to make, expository, doctrinal sermons: The minister must explain and apply the truths of Scripture.

Teaching that Exhorts

This teaching is to be hortatory. It is not on the order of a learned lecture that only informs the congregation, but it is preaching that exhorts and admonishes. This kind of teaching the apostle requires of pastors when he writes, “give attendance…to exhortation.” Exhortation and doctrine are not two different activities, as though on Sunday morning the minister teaches doctrine and on Sunday evening he exhorts. Rather, his teaching of doctrine is a teaching that exhorts. The apostle charges the same kind of teaching in verse eleven: “These things command and teach.”

We teach the gospel of salvation in the blood of Jesus with the call—the urgentcall—to repent and believe this gospel. We teach a godly walk with the exhortation to walk in this way. We teach concerning false doctrine and a wicked way of life with the warning that the people who hear us reject this doctrine and avoid this behavior.

The exhortation is urgent.

The warning is vehement.

The preacher beseeches the people of God to be reconciled to God.

He urges any unconverted or backslider to turn to Christ Jesus as set forth in the teaching of the gospel in heartfelt sorrow over sin and with a true faith.

The youth of the pastor does not detract from the validity and urgency of the exhortation, as verse 12 points out: “Let no man despise thy youth.” This is something that no longer is any concern of mine. But it will be a concern for you seminarians. Remember, and convey to your congregations, that you come in your exhorting with the authority of the Lord Christ who has called you and whose word you are teaching.

Two dangers are to be avoided. One is exhortation without teaching. In this case, there is mere emotional and oratorical bluster. We have all heard the radio preacher, or seen the television evangelist, whose exhortation is empty bellowing, consisting of loud repetition of some command, whether “love your neighbor,” or “don’t get drunk.”

The other danger is teaching devoid of exhortation. In this case, there is dry logic and abstract dogma.

The ideal, which must also be the rule, is the kind of teaching that characterized the Scots Reformer John Knox, as described by the Reformed church historian, J.I. Good, in his Famous Reformers: “When he preached, he fused logic and passion, and stormed at once the head and the heart of his hearers.”

A fusion of logic and passion!

Storming at once both the head and the heart!

Hortatory teaching!

To this hortatory teaching of the doctrine, the minister must apply himself with zeal and diligence. This is exactly what “give attendance to” expresses: “apply yourself zealously to.” In verse eight of I Timothy 3, the word translated “give attendance to” in I Timothy 4:13 is translated “given to” in the warning that a deacon must not be addicted to wine. As a deacon must not be addicted to wine, a minister must be addicted to teaching.

Teaching the doctrine is not for a pastor an eight-to-five job, five days a week.

I heard firsthand once from a Reformed consistory seeking a minister for their vacant church that the man whom the congregation called informed the consistory that he would never work or be “on call” on Mondays since this was his “day off,” that during the summer he would always be away at his cottage on a lake from Friday afternoon until Saturday evening, and that he expected at least five weeks of vacation in the summer.

My advice to the consistory was that they summarily inform the man that they withdrew the call. I added that they ought also to inform him that the reason was that it was evident that he was no undershepherd of Christ at all, but a mere hireling. Christ is “on call” for His flock every Monday; Christ works for His church on Fridays and Saturdays also during the summer; and, although Christ certainly allows His men to go away and rest awhile, and although it is certainly good for the church that she give her pastor a vacation (a vacation that he willingly gives up in case of need), undershepherds of Christ do not “expect” and demand long vacations.

For the minister of the word, teaching is not a duty to be gotten out of the way. Something is seriously amiss if, on Monday, he looks up against the need to make two new, good sermons as a dreary task.

The minister is to be devoted to teaching. He must spend long hours at it. He must work hard at it. He must pour himself into the work.

“Give thyself wholly” (to the work of the ministry), we read in verse fifteen—the Authorized Version’s forceful translation of the apostle’s even more forceful word, ‘be’ (in the work). Teaching the doctrine must be our life, and this is why the church supports us financially.

In the way of giving attendance to teaching, we heed the warning of verse fourteen: “neglect not the gift that is in thee”—a warning against laziness, carelessness, and, thus, neglect of duty in the minister. This is not a remote danger for, or a rare sin in, ministers, I fear. Neither is it a minor evil. When I read this warning, I think of the “slothful servant” in Jesus’ parable of the talents, whose punishment is the “outer darkness” (Matt. 25:14-30).

Jesus condemns the slothful servant as “unprofitable” (Matt. 25:30). The careless, lazy, neglectful minister is unprofitable to the church and churches, and to Jesus Himself—a damning indictment.

The description of the work of the minister in I Timothy 4 also refers to his “profiting.” Verse 15 holds before him the eminently desirable prospect that “thy profiting may appear to all.” Out of lifelong, diligent application of himself to the work of teaching will come progress and development in the minister, so that he is profitable to the church and to Christ—an exhilarating, and rewarded, privilege.

This giving of attendance to the work consists, chiefly, of diligent, careful preparation of sermons. The Lutheran homiletician M. Reu wrote this about the minister’s preparation of sermons: “He [the minister of the word] will…hold himself to the rule to prepare his sermons with a meticulous care extending to individual words, and to write them out in full, for years and years” (Homiletics). The Presbyterian R.L. Dabney wrote this, in his Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric:

Whatever may be your method, excellence can only be the result of strenuous effort. He who labors most on each sermon is usually the best preacher . . . . To preach a sermon is a great and awful task. Woe to that man who slights it with a perfunctory preparation and a careless heart.

Required Reading

Of the preparation of oneself to teach, reading is an important, indeed necessary, part. The work of the ministry includes reading: “give attendance toreading.” Like the activity of exhorting, reading bears on the one, great work of teaching the doctrine—teaching the doctrine in the right, hortatory manner.

A minister must read. He must read, not only in preparation for a specific teaching assignment—a sermon, a catechism class, a Bible study—but constantly, as ongoing preparation of himself for his lifelong work.

A minister must read widely: important secular works—history, literature, philosophy, and science; heretical theological books; and, especially, sound theological books.

He ought to read a good daily newspaper, not only the sports section, but also the sections of local, national, and international news, the business section, and even the entertainment section. The reason is not that he harbors the lust to step down from his exalted position as minister of the word into the realm of politics, or that he himself has investments, or that he plans to take his family to the movies. But he must know the world—the culture— in which the church and the churches are living and in the midst of which and against which the church (and himself!) are called to shine as light in the darkness.

By all means, the minister must read the theological magazines and journals that keep him abreast of current issues and ecclesiastical developments. Since we are determined in this seminary to be concrete and practical, I recommend that you seminarians read the latest issue of the Canadian Reformed Churches’Clarion magazine (August 3, 2007) and the latest issue of the United Reformed Churches’ Christian Renewal magazine (August 22, 2007). These issues confirm the longstanding charge by the Protestant Reformed Churches that the heresy of the Federal Vision now troubling many of the reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America—the doctrine of justification by works and of salvation by the will and work of the sinner within the covenant—is the fruit of the covenant doctrine of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”). This is the doctrine that holds that by a gracious promise to all the children alike God establishes the covenant of grace with all the physical children of believing parents alike. The promise, however, and the covenant itself with all its saving benefits depend upon a condition—a work that the children must fulfill, not upon the eternal, gracious election of God.

If a man does not care to read, he is not called to the ministry. If a man in the ministry does not read, he will be a poor stick of a minister, at best.

I offer some practical advice to the students, not because I think that you do not enjoy reading, but because I know that the many other demands upon a minister will put pressure on you that squeezes out reading.

Set aside time for reading: the first thing Monday morning; late in the evening, when meetings have ended, your wife and children are in bed, and the telephone mercifully falls silent; an hour or two late in the afternoon; during the summer months, when there is some relief from the other work, including certain hours of your vacation, as long as the reading does not adversely affect the family.

Do not allow yourself to be waylaid by much recreation. You will be a pastor of many men who work only eight hours a day, five days a week, and who therefore have much time for many recreational activities—golfing, tennis, hunting, fishing, boating, traveling, running, biking, playing ball, and what not more. I am not criticizing these men or these activities. But as a minister you do not have such time. Do not allow yourself to suppose that you may pattern your life after theirs. Do not indulge the notion that somehow you miss out on life if you do not waste an equal amount of time in similar activities. Do not often yield to their well-meaning invitations to join them in these pleasant pursuits. Note well that the apostle of Christ addressed the well-known and oft-quoted words, “bodily exercise profiteth little,” to us ministers (I Tim. 4:8). Recreation must not distract us from the required reading that is useful for teaching the doctrine, to say nothing of the many other, indeed endless, responsibilities of the pastor of the congregation and minister in a denomination. Build up your library. A large library does not necessarily indicate a good preacher, but a meager one usually indicates a poor minister. Be bold to suggest to your consistory that it ought to encourage your reading and, if possible, designate money in the budget for books and magazines for the minister.

A minister who does not read becomes stale. His well soon runs dry. His teaching becomes monotonous. The congregation quickly tires, if not of him, then of his teaching.

Quite unconsciously, the apostle himself set us the example of giving attendance to reading. An old minister, in prison, about to end his ministry in a martyr’s death, as almost his last words, he requested that one “bring…the books, especially the parchments” (II Tim. 4:13).

A cloak to keep him warm, and some books to read!

Every minister worth his salt smiles through his tears as he reads this pathetic plea of that most amazing of all the servants of Jesus Christ, but understands the request.

Reading Scripture

Above all, however, the pastor is to read the Scriptures. They are chiefly in view in verse thirteen.

A pastor must read the Scriptures publicly, as an aspect of his teaching.How he reads them is a topic in itself. There is a scandalous public reading of the Bible by ministers. They stumble through the chapter as though it is new and strange territory. There is no regard for proper emphasis on the right words and phrases. They mispronounce words.They skip words. Their tone is dispassionate. They ignore commas and periods. The teachers of English in the congregation are giving them an “F.” Some members are amused. Other members are irked.

We must give attendance to how we read the inspired word of God at church. Reverence for the holy word of God demands it. It was said of Abraham Kuyper that his reading of the Scripture passage for the service was itself a sermon that moved the congregation deeply.

But the pastor must also read Scripture privately in a studious fashion. Scripture must be our main reading. We must read it in preparation for every task. We must read it particularly in preparing every sermon— read it with concentration that produces sweat. We must read it as part of our daily personal worship of God. We must read it as the sacred object of our continuous study.

Oddly, if my own experience is any indication, the minister is tempted to fail here: we find ourselves too busy to read the Bible.

The reading of Scripture comes first in the charge to the preacher: “Give attendance to reading.” There is good reason for this in light of the minister’s main work, namely, teaching the doctrine. Scripture is the source and content of all the teaching. The Spirit gives us our message out of Scripture and by means of a studious, believing reading of Scripture. Thus does the Spirit put our gift to good use for our own progress and for the profit of the church.

Colleagues and seminarians, this is our work!

And the incentive?

“For in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (v. 16).

Do we hear the Holy Spirit so that we are motivated to read, exhort, and teach the doctrine?

“In doing this, thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.”