The Bible verse that still kills me
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The Bible verse that still kills me
In my part of the Christian hive, the bees have been buzzing recently about an apparent shortage of senior pastors—the ‘minister drought’ as it’s been dubbed. Various theories have been put forward. It’s the system. It’s the selfish materialism of the current generation. It’s the ridiculous burden of administration and compliance that senior ministers now have to bear (and about which they loudly complain). It’s our failure to cast a positive vision. It’s that Phillip Jensen was a savant and we don’t have a replacement. And more besides.
I’m not going to try to untangle the spaghetti of factors and influences that are at play in regard to this particular question.
But the discussion has prompted me to think again about something that has been on my mind for a while.
Why is it that some churches have the happy knack of recruiting a steady stream of people for full-time gospel ministry, and other churches don’t? Even accounting for demographic, socio-economic and other contextual factors, some churches keep sending keen, gifted, godly men and women off to theological college and into full-time ministry; and others not so much.
Why is this?
Reflecting theologically on my own experience of being ‘recruited’ like this, and of seeing it in action in various ministries for the past nearly four decades, I can identify at least four key factors. Perhaps there are more. But in my observation, when these four factors or drivers are all present, people with full-time ministry on their hearts somehow keep bubbling to the surface and heading off to Bible college.
Over the next few posts I’m going to explore these factors—not so much because doing so might help solve a particular current problem, but because these four factors are an indicator of good health for any church. In fact, if they are not present in your current ministry, then the failure to recruit people for full-time ministry might be the least of your problems.
The first key factor is that the radical call of the gospel to die to self and live for Christ is being boldly preached, taught and exemplified.
I still vividly remember when this happened with me.
I was about 20, a keen but still very green young Christian, fresh from the country and a misspent youth in high-church, charismatic Anglicanism. I was discovering for the first time the heart-expanding delights of expository Bible preaching. I never knew that so much profound truth could be found in a Bible passage, if you took the time to really listen to it. And I never anticipated what wonderful spiritual carnage could be wrought by concepts like ‘election’ and ‘propitiation’ and ‘biblical theology’, when they went off like colour bombs in your head.
All in all, it was dawning on me that this Christianity caper was a deeper and more profound thing than I had realised.
Then, one evening at a conference, a preacher gifted with clarity and boldness explained 2 Cor 5:14-15 to me. “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
As the truth of these verses started to break over me, the whole universe went out of focus for a minute. And when it resolved back into sharpness, everything had changed. As it says in the following verses, The old had passed away; behold, the new had come.
It’s not as if I was unfamiliar with the gospel up to this point. I already knew and believed that Christ had died as my substitute, that my sins were forgiven by his blood, and that eternal life had been granted to me as a gift by his grace. I knew and believed that Jesus was Lord, and that I should obey him. I was a Christian (as I guess Paul assumed his Corinthian readers were).
But the message of 2 Cor 5:14-15 went further or deeper than that. It showed me what the gospel of Jesus’ death really meant for my life. It meant that it was over—my life, that is.
It was not just that Christ had died for me on the cross; he had died as me. He had died not only as my substitute but as my representative. As a consequence of his death, I had also died. One died for all; therefore, all have died.
And so my old life was dead and gone, with all its dreams, ambitions, desires and preferences. A new life had now begun, in which I lived not for myself but for him who for my sake died and was raised.
This is how the love of Christ controls or compels us (verse 14). It first kills us, and then raises us to a new life of service to the Christ who in love died our death.
I’m not saying that this was the moment that I started thinking about a future in full-time ministry. It was when it dawned on me that in the new life I was now living, I was already a minister of and for Christ. The driving agenda of my new life was to be the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ that God had initiated in Christ and given to his people (i.e. the one that Paul describes in the following verses, 2 Cor 5:18-6:1). I my new life, I was one of the ‘fellow workers’ of 6:1, who together constantly appeal to the world and to one another to be reconciled to God, and not to receive his reconciling grace in vain. (For those who have Greek, I strongly suspect that the sunergountes of 6:1 is referring to Paul ‘working together’ with the Corinthians, rather than with God—although the latter is also true, as in 1 Cor 3:9.)
In other words, well before any thought entered my head as to whether I should head down a particular pathway into ‘full-time gospel work’, I had already been recruited for a lifetime of gospel service—to my spend my time, energies and resources seeking to help everyone around me be reconciled to God, and to live more and more for him, who for their sake died and was raised.
If there is such a thing as the ‘call to ministry’, I think this is it. It’s the radical call of the gospel to come to Christ and die; to begin a new life in his service, as one of his ambassadors in the world (as 5:20 puts it). It’s not a message for an elite squad of gifted recruits. It’s a challenge for every Christian.
Where this revolutionary message is being boldly, clearly and persistently preached, and by God’s Spirit is having its profound effect in Christian hearts, then a growing army of gospel ambassadors will be recruited. And some of these will be gifted with the abilities, character and opportunities to engage in this ministry full-time, with the financial support of others. But whether or not it becomes our full-time occupation, it remains our full-time role. It’s who we are, in this new life that we live for him who for our sake died and was raised.
That’s the first key factor. We won’t raise up some Christians for full-time occupational gospel ministry unless we are calling all Christians to be sold-out, full-time, servants of Christ. And this happens, at the first level, through the clear, bold preaching of passages like 2 Cor 5:14-15 (or Col 3:1-4, or Mk 8:34-38, or Gal 2:20)—that is, through the preaching of the gospel of Christ’s death and ours.
That takes us to a second and obviously related factor. Granted that we are all called to this radical service of Christ—how are we to think about the relationship between doing that as a full-time occupation (as a pastor or other gospel ‘worker’) and the daily secular work by which most of us earn a living? In my observation, churches or other ministries that have figured this issue out, and teach on it clearly, also seem to be those who raise up lots of people for full-time ministry.
But let’s leave that for next time.
Many thanks to those who gave feedback and suggestions about the proposed revisions to the Two ways to live (2wtl) outline. Very useful indeed! I’ve also been doing quite a bit of work over the past couple of months on some new training material that makes use of the 2wtl outline. My thought is to split the current 2wtl course in half, and create two completely new resources:
one that focuses on learning or knowing the gospel thoroughly and deeply, by working through the six points of 2wtl and exploring their meaning and connections (let’s call it Learn the Gospel with 2wtl)
and another that deals specifically with having gospel conversations, and how the 2wtl outline can equip us for that (Share the Gospel with 2wtl).
I’m planning to share some drafts of the first of those resources (Learn the Gospel) in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for that.