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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
As printed in The Baptist Preacher, February 1846
The subject of our present address may be thus stated, "What may be considered as constituting a scriptural call to the gospel ministry? The subject thus proposed, appears to us to have an important bearing on the well-being of our churches, and the prosperity of religion; and to require, therefore, a proper view and a corresponding action.
To form a just solution of this query, or, in other words, a correct view of this point, is indeed highly desirable; inasmuch as, from the nature of the case, an erroneous decision must be attended with injurious consequences. An ignorant enthusiast, on the one hand, who pertinaciously adheres to his notion of a divine call, will endeavor to thrust himself on the church and the world—confidently intruding where angels might tremble; while, on the other hand, an intelligent disciple, who is diffident of his call to the ministry, will shrink from the undertaking—fearful of running before he is sent. Such will be the result, on the one hand and on the other, of a mistaken view of this matter, and this consideration furnishes a strong reason for endeavoring to ascertain the truth, as to the question now before us.
The reality of a scriptural call—say, if you please, a divine call, to the gospel ministry, ought not to be questioned, merely because the idea may have been abused, or mistaken views formed on that point. It may be made satisfactorily to appear, nor is it necessary, nor indeed is it proper, in maintaining this point to resort to that often misapplied passage, Heb. 5:4, "No man taketh this honor unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron."—A passage which, (as the connection shows) is referable, not to the gospel ministry, but solely to the high priesthood.
The fact, that there is provision made by the King of Zion, for the sure perpetuation of his church on earth, and for the continuance of the gospel ministry goes to prove as it necessarily involves the reality of a call to this important work—in such a way as he (the King himself) has been pleased to adopt. What that way is, it will be our aim presently to ascertain, and lay before you. But first, notice this guarantee of which we have spoken—this security for the continuance of the church and the ministry. Brief testimony may here suffice.
Hearken then to the prophetic declaration, Dan. 2:44, “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed." And hearken to the assurance given by our Lord, in accordance with this prophecy, Matt. 16:18, "Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." The purpose of grace here declared, looks forward through all time, to that glorious consummation, when "the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it." (Isa. 2:2)
The continuance of the church on earth bespeaks, of course, the continuance of the ministration of the Word; and the testimony of Paul assures us of the provision which has been made for this from first to last. Ministers, both ordinary and extraordinary, are represented by the apostle as the gifts of the ascended Saviour. "He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ." (Ephes. 4:11, 12)
Aware of the peculiarity of the apostolic office, we do not pretend to ground our view of this matter on the vocation of the first twelve, which was the personal act of Christ, in his bodily presence on earth. We do not indeed perceive that it was in any such way, that the elders of the churches were appointed to their office in the days of the apostles. That the apostles, those prime ministers of the King, were invested with authority to proclaim his word and to teach his will independent of church sanction, there can be no question.
They had new facts to publish—new truths to unfold, and a new economy to establish; and they were furnished with miraculous powers, to evince the truth of their mission, and to sustain their high pretensions. If, therefore, any person should now lay claim to a divine commission, infallible and independent of all human sanction, he will have no right to demand our credence, unless he can produce some token or evidence corresponding with that claim:—otherwise, (and we ask particular attention to this point, otherwise) the church may be intruded on by everyone who may take it into his head that he is divinely commissioned to engage in the work of the ministry.
Hitherto we have attended to it on the negative side only. We turn now to the positive, and repeat the query—"What may be considered as constituting a scriptural call to the gospel ministry?"
We here assume that the subject of this call is possessed of genuine piety—the basis of all other requisites in this case; and we remark, that if we can ascertain what are the essential qualifications for the Christian ministry, we shall arrive at a solution of the question, for he that is possessed of these, may be considered (as Mr. Fuller remarks) to be called of God to exercise them. "As every man bath received the gift, even so minister the same," is the divine injunction, "as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Only let him take heed that if he speak, it be according to the oracles of God." (I Pet. 4:10, 11) The question then assumes this form: “What are these essential qualifications, which constitute or evince a call to the gospel ministry? We conceive them to consist of two sorts: Proper exercise of mind, and talents or gifts suited to the work.
First—proper exercises of mind.
There ought to be a desire for this work. The office of a bishop includes the work of teaching, and in regard to that office, Paul mentions a desire as being supposed to exist on the part of the individual. “This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” (I Tim. 3:1) Now it follows that an evangelist—that any person engaging in the work of the ministry, should feel a desire to be so engaged.
It is very probable that this desire may be, in a great measure, quenched, in the hearts of some who ought to have been encouraged, and to have taken courage, to come forth and to go on. But still we say there ought to be a desire for the work. It forms a first principle in the spring of action towards this employment. And we may add that there ought to be a specialty in this desire,—an earnest longing to be thus engaged in the service of "the Captain of our salvation" if so it might be.
It follows that this desire must be of the right sort. The same motives and feelings of heart which actuated an apostle must actuate every minister of the gospel, for both engage in the common cause, and both serve the same Master. Let us then take Paul for a model. Of the nature of his feelings and motives, he himself has fully informed us, and has certified the truth of his professions by his labors and his sufferings. Let him speak:
"Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life or by death." (Phil. 1:20)
"God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Gal. 6:20)
"Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel, is, that they might be saved." (Rom. 10:1)
"Knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men." (II Cor. 5:11)
"For the love of Christ constraineth us." (II Cor. 5:14)
"Therefore I endure all things for the elect's sake." (II Tim. 2:10)
"Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face, and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith." (I Thess. 3: 10)
These quotations will suffice to exhibit the principles by which this man of God was influenced; to let us see that the glory of God—the honor of the Redeemer—the salvation of dying sinners, and the prosperity of the church, were the objects which inspired his zeal and governed his heart. Such were his principles; and to the influence of these principles it was owing, that he was enabled to say, with the prospect of "bonds and afflictions" before him—"None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God." (Acts 20:24)
While we insist, however, on the exercise of principles such as these, we do not say that the pious and conscientious minister of Christ is exempt from feelings of quite another sort—feelings which too often arise from his own nature, and mingle their muddy streams with the pure fountain of holy and heavenly motives. "This is a lamentation, and shall be for a lamentation." (Ezek. 19:14) But it is of the prevailing principles that we have been speaking. These govern the course and stamp the character of the man.
Nor do we pretend, in holding forth the apostle Paul as the model, that we can present you with a race of ministers (or even with one) who can vie with him in that ardent and unabating zeal—that noble, self-sacrificing spirit, which marked his shining career. But this we say, that the minister who is scripturally called will be found a participant of the same spirit—will aim for the same path, and will follow, though at humble distance, in his footsteps. We may mention here, what indeed has been implied in our remarks, the necessity of an ardent thirst for an increasing knowledge of holy truth—for a right understanding of the mind of the Spirit, as revealed in the volume of inspiration.
But this desire to be personally engaged in the work of the ministry, and characterized, though it may be, by right principles, is subject, as we have before remarked, to be checked, where it ought to have free exercise and be put into operation. Such an effect may arise from an apprehension of difficulties to be encountered and work to be performed, to which there may be a distressing sense of insufficiency. In such a case it is no wonder that there should be a shrinking from the task, even where there is an earnest zeal of the right character, and an earnest wish to lend a helping hand in carrying on the work of the Lord.
Now, in counteraction to this shrinking disposition, a strong impression may take place, which ought not to be slighted; an impression consisting in a persuasion of duty, duty to go forward, through all difficulties, in the public service of the great Master. This impression then—this conflict between an apprehension of insurmountable difficulties on the one hand, and a sense of duty on the other— may constitute another element in a scriptural call to the work of the ministry.
We have now, brethren, presented to your notice what we consider to be one species of qualifications, appertaining to a call to the gospel ministry. They regard, as we have seen, the exercises of the mind. But these exercises, be it observed, are not to be considered as sufficient of themselves to constitute the call of which we are speaking. They may exist in the absence of other qualifications necessary to the work of the ministry. And this brings us to notice—
The second species of qualifications requisite in this case, namely, the talents adapted to the work.
The possession of such talents is obviously implied in the apostolic requisition—"apt to teach." (I Tim. 3:2; and II Tim. 2:24) Talents are of two sorts—natural and acquired. In order to this "aptness" of which the apostle speaks, there must be some considerable stock of natural talent;—a mind capable of invention, or of forming original ideas, and a faculty to communicate these ideas to others. Pious persons, possessed of but small gifts, may employ them usefully in admonition and exhortation; but to sermonize—to exhibit the gospel in its various bearings, and to explain and illustrate its sacred truths—this is another matter, and requires that talent of a different order be brought into action.
Now, while the individual himself is the judge of his own desires and motives—of all his own exercises of mind, others must judge of the fitness of his talents for the work: and the proper persons for this judgment are those with whom he stands immediately connected, together with any others who, by them, may be called on to aid in such a case. For, as the minister is to be considered in the capacity of servant of the church, it is perfectly fit and proper that his qualifications should be submitted to be thus judged of. From such evidence as the sacred records furnish, we may conclude that this mode of procedure is in accordance with the usage of the New Testament churches.
Under the superintendence of the apostles, and their deputies, the evangelists, the churches appear to have formed their own judgment, and made their selection of their own officers. This judgment of the church may indeed be sometimes erroneous; but fallibility, in the present state of things, is not to be urged as an argument against the course here presented. It appears to commend itself to us as the proper course and the best; and we have no idea that we should be benefited by referring the matter to his Holiness of Rome, though he clothes himself with the mantle of infallibility.
With respect to acquired talents, a small stock may suffice to mark out the person as the subject of a gospel call; but we would not say that a small stock is sufficient to qualify him as a minister of the gospel. There is a distinction to be made between a divine call to the work of the ministry, and a preparation for the work; and an individual (we conceive) may be so far qualified as to give satisfactory evidence, or to induce the persuasion, that he is designated to that work, while as yet he is almost entirely unqualified for its performance.
The buds of promise may be discerned in the natural talents of the person, through the medium of a small share of acquired ability; and after a while he may receive the sanction of the church as a probationer, with a view to his improvement in knowledge, particularly in the knowledge of holy truth, by all the means which may be afforded for that purpose.
A man so far qualified,—experiencing the exercises of mind which we have stated, and possessed of the talents which shall be judged suitable for the work, may, in our estimation, be considered as the subject of a scriptural call to the gospel ministry; to be fully invested with the office when it shall appear to be expedient.