A portrait of John Owen by John Greenhill
What will Bring About the Desired Change?
Times are a changing. There has been a shaking among some nations of the Western world. Latent forces have been asserting themselves. Some layers of society have found a voice. Leadership has brought change to Europe and to the United States. Is this the beginning of better things for our Western civilisation? One would hope so. But what about Christianity? Can a change be brought about in the church? We invariably resort to prayer for revival as the answer. But is there something related to that prayer that we are missing?
The Puritan divine John Owen (1616-1683) points out something that is vital to grasp: “When God shall be pleased to give unto the people who are called by his name, in a more abundant manner, pastors after his own heart, to feed them with knowledge and understanding, when he shall revive and increase a holy, humble, zealous, self-denying, powerful ministry, by a more plentiful effusion of his Spirit from above, then, and not until then, may we hope to see the pristine glory and beauty of our religion restored unto its primitive state and condition.” (Works, Banner of Truth, vol.7, p.195) There is a similar thought from John Wilson, writing in 1741: “When he (God) is to signally to increase his kingdom, he will raise up and qualify ministers for the work, who shall be men of large hearts...inspired by a burning love to Christ and the souls of men, inclined to prefer the good of Jerusalem above their chief joy.”
The connection between the condition of the church and the state of the ministry
There is abundant evidence that the condition of the church in any age is related to the state of the Christian ministry at the time. Richard Baxter (1615-91), whose ministry transformed the face of the town of Kidderminster, said: “If God would but reform the ministry and set them on their duties zealously and faithfully, the people would certainly be reformed. All churches either rise or fall as the ministry doth rise or fall, (not in riches or worldly grandeur), but in knowledge, zeal and ability for their work.” (The Reformed Pastor, Banner of Truth, 1974, p.14) Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones made a similar observation in his day: “Is it not clear as you take a bird’s eye view of church history, that the decadent periods and eras in the history of the church have always been those periods when preaching had declined? What is it that always heralded the dawn of a Reformation or Revival? It is renewed preaching. Not only a new interest in preaching but a new kind of preaching. A revival of true preaching has always heralded these great movements in the history of the church.” (Preaching and Preachers, Hodder, 1971, p.24).
The ministry to pray for
If we are to pray for the raising of the quality of the present ministry or for a new generation of ministers, what should we be looking for?
1) That they be men of God
The ministry is a holy calling. Paul exhorts Timothy: “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.” (1 Tim 4:16) The old saying is true: “A minister’s life is the life of his ministry.” It was said of Robert Murray M’Cheyne: “His preaching was the giving out of his inward life, the unfolding of his own soul’s experience as he grew in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour.” How true also is his oft-quoted saying: “A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.” The lack of holiness can have dire consequences. We need to heed some solemn words from John Owen: “If a man teach uprightly and walk crookedly, more will fall down in the night of his life than he built in the day of his doctrine.” (Quoted in John Blanchard, The Complete Gathered Gold, EP, 2006, p.493).
In seeking to learn lessons from the ministry of Jonathan Edwards, Iain Murray observes how foolish it is to think what we need today is Edwards’ sermons in modern dress. “The truth alone is not enough...In preaching God makes men part of the message. Their heart and spirit has to be in harmony with what they say and this can only be as they are ‘filled with the Spirit’. Edwards concurred exactly with David Brainerd, who wrote in the closing pages of his diary: ‘Lord, let thy kingdom come. I longed for a spirit of preaching to descend and rest on ministers, that they might address the consciences of men with closeness and power’.” (Heroes, Banner of Truth, 2009, p.43).
2) That they be men of the Word
The whole end of the gospel ministry is to represent God and declare God’s Word in all its fulness. “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Pet 4:11). God sent Christ as the “Sun of Righteousness” to this fallen dark world. To convey Christ’s light to human beings, God uses the means of “appointed ministers in his church to be subordinate lights, and to shine with the communication of Christ’s light, and to reflect the beams of his glory on the souls of men” (Jonathan Edwards). The preacher comes with a “Thus saith the Lord God”. He is a herald and a trumpeter, sounding out the message. His primary responsibility is faithfulness to the whole counsel of God, “whether they will hear or whether they will forbear” (Ezek. 2:5). David Wells, in comparing the past with the present in preaching, said: “If the spirit of Puritanism was best represented graphically by a preacher in an elevated pulpit, the arm raised in vigorous punctuation upon the truth of God, that of modern evangelicalism is best represented today by the ubiquitous happy face, a bright smile beckoning smiles in return... It wishes not to appear disagreeable. It veers away from intruding upon the world any truth that might be discomfiting.” (God in the Wilderness, IVP, 1995, p.28)
There is much emphasis today on the need to be relevant but, as Simon Weil has said, “To be always relevant, you have to say things that are eternal.” God’s Word abides unchanged and unchanging. Basic human needs remain unchanged since the Fall. In an address on J Gresham Machen (1881-1937), author of, among other works, God Transcendent, Carl Trueman exhorts preachers: “Preach the gospel of a transcendent God who saved men and women through the terrible and awesome sacrifice of His own Son on the Cross... And don’t worry if it’s not trendy. Being a bank manager is not trendy, but people still need to go to banks for help with their finances; being a car mechanic is not trendy, but people still need to go to a garage to get an MOT certificate; and people will still need someone to tell them how to get right with God.” (Christianity, Liberalism and the New Evangelicalism, Onesimus Books, 2002, p.26)
3) That they be on fire for God
A minister of the gospel is not only ‘a shining light’ but also ‘a burning light’. Jonathan Edwards, in explaining how a gospel minister is to be ‘a burning light’, points to the Holy Spirit “the spring of divine life”, and whose energy is likened to fire. The Spirit’s presence, he believed will be seen in a preacher as “a holy ardour”. “The inward holy ardour of his soul is exercised and manifested in his being zealous and fervent in his administration; for he is a burning light: which implies that his spiritual heat and holy ardour is not for himself only, but is communicative and for the benefit of others.” (‘The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister’ in Works, Banner of Truth, 1974, vol.2, p.957) John Willison of Dundee (1680-1750) said: “When he is signally to increase his kingdom, he will raise up and qualify ministers for the work who shall be men of large hearts...inspired by a burning love to Christ and the souls of men; inclined to prefer the good of Jerusalem above their chiefest joy.” (Practical Works of John Willison, Glasgow, 1844, p.433)
Many are familiar with the definition of preaching by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones: “What is preaching? Logic on fire! Eloquent reason! Are these contradictions? Of course they are not. Reason concerning this Truth ought to be mightily eloquent, as you see it in the case of the Apostle Paul and others. It is theology on fire. And a theology that does not take fire, I maintain, is a defective theology; or at least the man’s understanding of it is defective. Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire (Preaching and Preachers, p.97). Earlier Thomas Scott (1747-1821) declared: “He who will set the hearts of other men on fire with the love of Christ, must himself burn with love.” (Force of Truth, Banner of Truth, 1984, p.60) The value of this is summed up by Samuel Chadwick: “Men ablaze are invincible. The stronghold of Satan is proof against everything but fire.”
Our whole concept of the ministry needs to undergo a change. We have gifted preachers in our churches and on our platforms, but we need something more. Surely Richard Baxter has a point when he says, “The preacher that speaks as if he saw the face of God doth more affect my heart though with common words than an irreverent man with the most exquisite preparations.” May we echo then the prayer of the dying David Brainerd: “I saw that God had the residue of the Spirit; and my soul longed it should be poured from on high.” (Heroes, p.43)