5 resolutions for pastoral ministry.
This article has also appeared on For The Church.
Around the age of nineteen, perhaps the greatest American theologian who has ever lived began recording what would eventually amount to seventy resolutions that would go on to define the rest of his ministerial career. Indeed, the “Resolutions” of Jonathan Edwards are among the most intrepid personal intentions ever written, and were merely the prologue to Edwards’ future foray into doctrinal and ecclesiastical writing. And though I will never equate the theological prowess or eloquence Edwards displays throughout his evangelistic life, I am, nonetheless, determined to resolve myself to the Lord’s Spirit and grace for the duration of my ministry. As I embark upon the calling to which God has given me, I am, therefore, personally proposing and publicly proclaiming the following resolutions, which, under the grace and faithfulness of God, I hope to maintain and execute for the sake of his name.
I resolve to zealously resist the temptation to resort to a gimmicky presentation of God’s good news. There are a lot of aphoristic sermons tendered nowadays that do nothing but demean and debase “the glorious gospel of the blessed God,” with which the church is entrusted. (1 Tm 1:11) By diminishing the glory and grandeur of God’s news of deliverance with a mawkish and saccharine approximation of its implications, the gospel is robbed of its severity and urgency. It is no light matter to preach God’s Word. There is no occasion in the pulpit for cutesy presentations of the only news that can rescue men’s souls. Scottish divine Patrick Fairbairn, in his Pastoral Theology, asserts that the pastoral office “has to do with the oversight and care of souls.”1 Everlasting life is at stake. This does not mean that the delivery of sermons must be inundated with verbose exposition and pietistic jargon. However, it does mean that I am not at liberty to play with the message of redemption and reconciliation through Jesus’s blood by being cute or quaint or pithy in its proclamation when the eternity’s of men and women are in the balance.
I resolve to intentionally construct my ministry on the metrics of grace, which are difficult, impossible even, to measure, but are nonetheless the grounds for all true and lasting spiritual and ministerial growth. Coupled with the syrupy presentations of the gospel is the felt need to “bulk up the numbers” of those attending church each week. Laconic preaching and blatant marketing hold hands to lead many into the shallows of biblical discipleship and have them stay there. In a growing number of venues, the church service has become a production — and I’m not even referring to the Hillsong-Bethel-entertainment-style of production. There is a burgeoning pastoral sense that every weekend at church has to be memorable, has to be experienced, has to be sold. I get the feeling that many ministers across these United States have been misled into believing that the “old pathways” of “sound doctrine” aren’t good enough to build a church around, especially if you want to not only attract but keep the millennial visitors. Glancing at the modern landscape of church growth philosophy and church-planting methodology would likely make you believe that in order to grow your church, you should operate all its functions more businesslike. However, the longer you run your church like a business, the sooner you will find yourself running a business and not a church. Policies and procedures are good to have; an attitude of excellence should, indeed, define all the activities the church governs. But God’s rubric for ministry efficiency doesn’t always follow our affinity for metrics. This is precisely because the metrics of grace aren’t always seen, they’re felt — which makes them terribly hard to quantify.
I resolve to determinately fight the urge to define the success or failure of my ministry on the amount of congregants or “Amens” in each service. I pray that my soul would not be so fickle as to rely on man’s acclaim or applause or attendance as validation of my ministerial efforts. There is, perhaps, no more slippery or more seductive slope on which a minister can find himself than that of chasing the approval of his peers and identifying the quality of his ministry on the measure of his influence. Preachers are no more immune than anyone else to the fallacy of equating one’s identity with accomplishments. A pastor can all too easily succumb to the deceptive and degenerative behavior of quantifying his worth on the scale of his achievements. Ministers, young ones especially, quickly drown themselves in schedules and calendars and meetings and appointments all in the pursuit of making sure their résumé of doing bolsters their identity. But Jesus preaches a different message. In him, I am made to see that the significance of my life has no bearing on who I am. In the final analysis, the only title that carries weight in the courtroom of identity is not the one I make for myself but is the one that’s given to me by Christ himself. Jared Wilson, nearly echoing Dr. Fairbairn, writes that “pastoral ministry is about souls, not stats.”2 As a minister of the gospel, I am not called to please people, usher in a realized utopia, or fix everyone’s lives. (Gal 1:10) I am called to point people to their only true salvation in the bloodied hands and side of the Savior. My commission is to “hold on to the pattern of sound teaching” and “guard the good deposit” (2 Tm 1:13–14) regardless of the results. And though I will struggle and strive for the sake of the gospel with my life, God is always sovereign over the results. (1 Cor 15:10) The fruits are in his hands. Though my flesh might desire to incessantly look at the numbers and the stats to ensure I’m getting a good ROI on my ministry investment, it is the grace of God alone that precisely liberates me from worrying and stressing over the outcomes, giving me the ability to be faithful in the moment. The energy I expel for the sake of the gospel is reward enough in itself.
I resolve to stubbornly exposit the Scriptures with an ethic of the gospel in which the sinner is utterly exposed and the Savior is forever exalted. As not only a believer of the Word but a student of its message, and a student of the art of proclaiming its truth, I affirm the seminal need for the right interpretation and propagation of “sound doctrine.” That is, it is undeniably necessary for the passion and death of the Lord Jesus to be the sum and substance of every sermon — for it is in that passion and death that all life, hope, and peace are found. To uphold the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ as exceedingly expedient and necessary is to exalt all that encompasses the name of the Lord Jesus, the one who “will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:21) He is the reason. The rationale for laboring after the work of the ministry is found in Jesus’s scars. The lashes which heal are those that support, sustain, and strengthen also. (Is 53:5) If I am not speaking the words of Jesus’s life and death then I am merely wasting everyone’s time. I’m giving them platitudes that can be heard elsewhere, and probably more eloquently and professionally at that.
I resolve to faithfully and fervently unfold the Word of Jesus’s pardon for sinners because sinners are all that there are. And I am chief among them. (1 Tm 1:15) I cannot lose sight of who I am amid all the biblical and theological vocabulary I intake. At the end of the day, notwithstanding the doctrinal insights I have made, I am still just as desperate as everyone else, perhaps even more so, for the glad tidings of God’s deliverance. I am such a sinner who has been exposed and who, indeed, is in dire need for the grace which he himself tenders. The passionate proclamation of God’s message of redemption only results from a heart that is cognizant of his own need for redemption. As Paul Tripp writes in his book, Dangerous Calling, “You simply cannot be a good ambassador of the grace of the King without recognizing your need for the King in your own life. Public ministry is meant to be fueled and propelled by private devotion.”3 It is, therefore, unequivocally necessary that I never forget who I am: a sinner saved by grace. I am my own most desperate congregation. And so it is that in every venue, regardless of audience, my aim ought to be to exalt the bloodied God by whose stripes I am healed, I am exonerated, I am saved.
I am not naïve enough or brash enough to believe that the foregoing resolutions will be executed in their entirety at all times. I know my heart and I know for certain that I will break these intentions at some point. I pray to God along with the psalmist, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek thy servant.” (Ps 119:176) I pray for God’s Spirit to empower and embolden me to live in them longer than those made at the turn of every new year. It is my chiefest desire to resolve my life to these ends, that the power of Christ may rest upon me and flow through me, and shine onto those around me.
Patrick Fairbairn, Pastoral Theology: A Treatise on the Office and Duties of the Christian Pastor (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1875), 39.
Jared C. Wilson, The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 152.
Paul Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 197.