Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Doctrine Applied: A Reformed Perspective on Ministerial Discourse

By Richard Holst

The awesome wonder of the ministry is that God uses ordinary men to save and sanctify sinners. When Paul charged Timothy “before God and the Lord Jesus Christ” to “preach the word,” he laid him under an obligation that was solemn, sublime and supremely challenging![i] The pleasure of preaching is wedded to a great responsibility, as has been recognized by Reformed people across the centuries. Commenting on the sending out of the Twelve, Calvin writes, “No one is qualified to become a teacher of heavenly doctrine, unless his feelings respecting it be such that he is distressed and agonized when it is treated with contempt.”[ii] The Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God describes the public ministry as a “weighty service” not to be undertaken lightly or without due preparation. The Larger Catechism urges us to execute the ministry painfully, plainly, faithfully, wisely, gravely, with loving affection and as taught of God — never in a spirit of self-confidence.[iii]  The Scottish preacher  who was asked if he trembled to ascend the steps of the gallows answered that he trembled less than when he ascended the steps of the pulpit. For R.L. Dabney, this weightiness is identified in the fact that preaching aims to persuade the mind and move the affections by means of faithful proclamation and persuasive application.[iv]

If all this is true, isn’t it important for preachers to get a right perspective on the ministry and on themselves? Though we may harbour thoughts of “greatness,” we know that if all were “great,” all would be ordinary. That there are and have been great preachers suggests that most of us really are more or less ordinary, entirely dependent on the Holy Spirit and always in need of improvement. This is no bad thing. It helps keep us humble and, if it stirs us up to improve, is not of itself discouraging. As Paul puts it in 1Timothy 4:16, it is good if it stirs us up to take heed to ourselves and the doctrine. The treasure is in a clay pot for the best of reasons; that the excellence of the power might be of God and not us and that we might never become smug and self-satisfied. Calvin wrote, “Those that intrude themselves confidently [into the ministry], and in a spirit much elated, or who discharge the ministry of the word with an easy mind, as though they were equal to the task, are ignorant at once of themselves and of the task.”[v]  The pulpit is holy ground, and, interestingly, in Korea, it is still customary for preachers to remove their shoes before entering the pulpit.

Despite the weightiness of the task, as John Piper argues it, is possible for men to enter the ministry for quite the wrong reasons, among them the hope of personal advancement.[vi] It might feel good to attract the admiration of those around us, but we should remember: there is something misleading about being a big fish in a small pond. Our Lord said, “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”[vii]
The apostle Paul had not the slightest interest in human adulation. That being said, his ministry was truly exceptional and effective. In a way that many of us cannot, he could discourse “off the cuff” with great power and incisiveness. Also, in a way that we might fail to grasp, he was well trained. We do not know what happened in his Arabian years, but we do know that he knew his Old Testament and was familiar with the beliefs of his opponents. We also know that he received from the Lord what he afterwards delivered to others – the apostolic tradition, that he served as part of a “ministry team” in the church at Syrian Antioch, and that after having tested his gift and having his call confirmed, he began the work to which he was called. 

His discourses, not just the summary accounts in Acts, but also those contained in his epistles, show that he was scripturally faithful, logically coherent, spiritually insightful, doctrinally comprehensive, and passionately persuasive. In these and other ways, he sets an example for all would-be preachers to follow, all who seek to discharge their ministry not “with an easy mind, as though equal to the task” but always in dependence on God and with an acute awareness of personal inadequacy. 

This leads us to the subject of improvement. While The Directory presumes that preachers are “in some good measure gifted,” it urges us to improve “in private preparations before [we] deliver in public what [we have] provided.”  Though some despise training, it is clear that we will always need to study to show ourselves approved by God. If being able to discourse like Paul is a proper aim, improvement is not an option; and the moment we think it is, we will be guilty of telling God and ourselves that we have “arrived” and have nothing more to learn. This is not an endorsement of standard theological training but an appeal for improvement and development in emphatically spiritual, biblical, and Reformed terms. Communication skills are requisite but not first in order of importance. To strive for an anointing is not requisite, but to understand the word and to faithfully deliver it in dependence on the Holy Spirit are. Being creative and interesting are not requisite, but speaking the truth in love and applying it consistently are. Moreover, the whole concept of mentoring, which seems to have applied in some way at Syrian Antioch and certainly did with Jesus and the Twelve, ought to be a component of all ministerial training, bearing in mind that those also who have been preaching for years still have something to learn from their fellows.

What else makes the ministry of the Word a weighty service? A particular challenge is the comprehensive or multi-faceted character of ministerial discourse. 2 Timothy 4:2, reminds us that preaching, reproof, rebuke and exhortation are included, a combination of didache and parenesis, declaration and exhortation. The minister should be “in some good measure gifted” in all aspects, not just in preaching, which is a “big ask.” We can imagine Timothy quaking as he read or heard the words of the apostle, doubtless asking himself the question posed earlier by his mentor, “Who is sufficient for these things?” If we answer, as we must, that our sufficiency is only of God, we do so mindful of the need for continuing application and discipleship in the school of Christ. Actually, the public ministry is a specialized branch of sanctification, something in which we must strive to advance, lest through failing to do so we go backwards.

Preaching the word comes at the head of the list. Heralding Christ always confronts our mediocrity but what a comfort to know that we do not preach ourselves! Christ is the power and wisdom of God [viii] and in the Pastoral Epistles, the “Word” is the great “given” of preaching content. It is that fixed body of truth identified as the gospel (2:9), the antithesis of the words of false teachers, who dispute over words while denying basic doctrines like the resurrection, (2:18) and whose teachings bring ruin to their hearers. Preaching stands at the head of everything, because it is God’s power to salvation (Rom. 1:16) and the Word of His grace, which is able to build us up and provide us with an inheritance among those who are sanctified (Acts 20:32). It never fails, never returns empty to the God Who gave it, being an aroma of life for life and death for death among those to whom it is proclaimed.

This is the Word we must be ready to proclaim twenty-four/seven! The adverbs “timely” and “untimely,” according to Calvin, apply equally to pastor and people.[ix] Reproof or correction follows preaching and is both declarative and persuasive.[x] Rebuke follows from reproof, and exhortation takes us that step further into “appeal,” as, for example, in Romans 12:1. This hortatory or parenetic ministry is always grounded in theological, historical, and experiential indicatives, reminding us of the essential relationship between doctrine and practice. We see it in Paul’s instruction to Timothy to exhort with “all long-suffering and doctrine because teaching provides the indicative out of which the imperative springs, providing the biblical rationale for everything urged upon our hearers. According to Calvin, “reproofs either fall through their own violence or vanish into smoke, if they do not rest on doctrine.”[xi]  The Directory for Public Worship puts it the other way around: “the doctrine is to be expressed in plain terms … and applied to the purpose in hand.”[xii] In our regular ministry, if it is well-rounded, we will revisit essential truths many times over in the hope that with every revolution of the spiral curriculum our hearers will advance understanding and have a more solid foundation for their Christian lives. 

Patience is also requisite. In general ministry as well as individual counselling, discouragement and frustration will be our frequent companions. Dullness, defensiveness, obduracy and deceitfulness in the sheep will frustrate and discourage and lead us to wonder if we are “beating the air.” According to Calvin, patience enables us to “submit to the many annoyances and insults, which nevertheless must be digested, if we are desirous to be useful. Let severity be therefore mingled with this seasoning of gentleness….”[xiii]
Doctrine is essential, not only for motivating recalcitrant sheep but also for encouraging dispirited and confused under-shepherds. If we wish to avoid our exhortations vanishing into smoke, we must preach and counsel with the great indicatives, but we will do no justice to the indicatives, if we fail to express “the doctrine in plain terms … and [apply it] to the purpose in hand.”[xiv] The first lesson to be learnt is that we must deliver what we have first received, to proclaim saving truth in propositional form. Paul’s discourses are full of indicatives, some majestic, others mundane, some literal-historical, others metaphorical, experiential and principial. Yet they all serve the purpose of giving the parenesis (exhortation) an appropriate rationale. 

Since “all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves nor alike clear to all,” [xv] the prerequisite of proclamation is sound exegesis. A working knowledge of the languages, an understanding of appropriate interpretive methods and an ability to use commentaries in a discerning way are all necessities. The workman approved by God cuts a straight path through God’s Word not by instinct, but by method. [xvi] Intuitive exegesis is usually misinformed.  

Exegesis cannot be an end in itself; therefore, all the above is to the end that the argument provides for “persuasion,” as Dabney puts it.[xvii] To aim for persuasion without argument is to violate the scriptural order, for “the presentation of evidence must in every discourse be the foundation of all true effect.”[xviii] The Directory puts it this way: “Arguments or reasons are to be solid, and, as much as may be, convincing.” But to become absorbed in textual minutiae is to go “over the top” in one aspect of a two-fold task. In opening our mouths, our hearts should be enlarged towards our hearers (2 Cor. 6:11) the argument having reached us first so that in ministering to others we can neither “perform” nor be dispassionate. It is what Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones called “logic on fire.” Our aim should be to “persuade through the dynamic of the text ….” [xix]
“How is the Word of God to be preached by those called thereunto?” 
“They that are called to labour in the ministry of the word are to preach sound doctrine, diligently, in season and out of season, plainly, not in enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power; faithfully, making known the whole counsel of God, wisely applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers; zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people, sincerely aiming at his glory and their conversion, edification and salvation.”[xx]


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Richard Holst, B.A., Dip. Soc., Cert. Ed., M.Phil.; retired pastor Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England & Wales; sometime lecturer in New Testament Exegesis, Wales Evangelical School of Theology 

[i] 2 Timothy 4:1-2
[ii] Commentaries: Matthew, Mark & Luke Part 1. 417, tr. John King 1847, reprinted by Forgotten Books, 2007
[iii] WLC 159
[iv] Evangelical Eloquence 233, Banner of Truth, 1999
[v] Commentary, 1 Cor. 99
[vi] BROTHERS WE ARE NOT PROFESSIONALS, Broadman & Holdan, 2002
[vii] Luke 6:26 
[viii] 1 Cor 1:24  
[ix] “To the pastor, that he may not devote himself … merely at … his own convenience… As regards the people, there is constancy and earnestness, when they (the pastors) arouse those who are asleep, when they lay their hands on those who are hurrying in a wrong direction, and when they correct the trivial occupations of the world.” Commentary: Timothy, Titus & Philemon 
[x] Also in 1 Timothy 5:20; Titus 1:9; 13; & Titus 2:15, with the consistent meaning of to expose someone’s sins with a view to convicting him. 1Timothy 5:20 brings reproof into the sphere of the assembled ekklesia; closely parallels our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 18:15-16. 
[xi] Commentary on Timothy, Titus & Philemon 
[xii] Section on Preaching, point 6 
[xiii] Commentary: Timothy, Titus & Philemon. It is worth noting that Calvin thought that his besetting weakness was impatience.
[xiv] Directory Section on Preaching, point 6
[xv] WCF 1.VII
[xvi] 2 Timothy 2:15
[xvii] ELOQUENCE, 233
[xviii] idem 19
[xix] Grant Osborn, Hermeneutical Spiral, 353, IVP, 1991
[xx] WLC 159