I used to say my goal as a pastor-teacher was the salvation of sinners and the upbuilding of the body of Christ - winning the lost and edifying the saints. But there was an erroneous assumption behind this goal. The assumption was that my only role in saving people was to preach the gospel to the lost and pray for them. Then after they were converted and joined the church, my instrumentality in their salvation was over, and I was simply God's agent in their relative degree of edification or sanctification.
My error was in thinking that only the salvation of the lost depended on my preaching, not the salvation of the church.
For a time, therefore, it seemed strange to me that the Puritan pastor preached to his flock as though their eternal lives depended on it. Why did Richard Sibbes (d. 1635), who was known as "the sweet dropper," plead so earnestly with the saints to "keep grace in exercise"? His answer: because "it is not sleepy habits, but grace in exercise, that preserveth us."
The Puritans believed that without perseverance in the obedience of faith the result would be eternal destruction, not lesser sanctification. Therefore, since preaching and the pastoral ministry in general are a great means to the saint's perseverance, the goal of a pastor is not merely to edify the saints but to save the saints. What is at stake on Sunday morning is not merely the upbuilding of the church but its eternal salvation. It is not hard to see why the Puritans were so serious.
What Redirected My Focus
But it was not Sibbes and Baxter and Boston and Edwards and Spurgeon who caused me to change my goal. Paul wrote to Timothy, "Take heed to yourself and to your teaching: hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers" (1 Tim. 4:16). The "hearers" Paul has in mind are not people outside the church (as verse 12 shows). Our salvation and the salvation of those who hear us week after week depend in large measure on our faithful attention to personal holiness and sound teaching. More is at stake in our work than greater or lesser progress in sanctification. The salvation of the elect is on the line.
In 2 Timothy 2:9-10 Paul recounts his suffering for the gospel and says, "I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which in Christ Jesus goes with eternal glory." When Paul says he suffers for the salvation of the elect, he does not mean merely people who are not yet converted. For he states in Colossians 1:24: "I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the church." Not only that, he says in the immediate context (2 Tim. 2:12): "If we endure, we shall also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us." The salvation of the elect depends on their not denying Christ and on their enduring in faith and obedience.
Since Paul's pastoral labor is a means of helping the elect endure, therefore he sees all his labor as instrumental in their salvation. Is it any wonder that Paul groaned under "the daily pressure" of his "anxiety for all the churches" (2 Cor. 11:28)?
In that beautiful passage of 2 Corinthians where Paul teaches that God comforts us in order that we may comfort others, he goes beyond comfort and says, "If we afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation" (2 Cor. 1:6). Again it is the salvation of church members for which Paul suffers and labors.
Paul's Example of Saving Work
One example of how Paul's pastoral labor leads to the salvation of the elect is found in 2 Corinthians 7. The Corinthian believers had fallen into sin. Paul wrote them a letter that grieved them deeply. But Paul rejoices because their grief produces a repentance: "For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret" (v. 10).
What then was Paul's goal in this tough pastoral letter? It was repentance unto salvation. Paul's admonitions had caused the wavering believers to sober up and to work out "their own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12). He had brought back a wandering sinner from the error of his ways and thus "saved his soul" (James 5:19-20). The eternal life of the elect hangs on the effectiveness of pastoral labors. Oh, how earnest we should be in attending to ourselves and to sound doctrine!
It is the job of a pastor to labor so that none of his brothers and sisters is destroyed. Paul's pastoral heart seemed about to break as he saw the failure of love in the church at Rome (Rom. 14:15). The strong were flaunting their freedom to eat foods which for the weak would have been sin (v. 14). It is astonishing what Paul saw at stake here: "Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died" (v. 15)! Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God" (v. 20)!
The same admonition was given to the Corinthian believers who tended to flaunt their indifference to meat offered to idols. "Take care," Paul told them, "lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. . . . And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died" (1 Cor. 8:9-11).
The Seriousness of Destruction
There is no way to weaken this word "destroy" (apollumi). Its opposite is salvation, and nothing less, as 1 Corinthians 1:18 and 2 Corinthians 2:15 make clear. If a brother is destroyed, he is lost. The reference is to destruction beyond death, because Paul uses the same word when he says, "If Christ has not been raised. . .then those also who have fallen asleep [died] in Christ have perished [been destroyed - in hell]" (1 Cor. 15:17-18).
What is at stake in pastoral admonition and in preaching is not merely the church's progress in salvation but its salvation. But what a mistake it would be if we drew the conclusion: "Let us then preach only messages which show the simple plan of salvation week after week." This is most emphatically not the way to tend the flock over which "the Holy Spirit has made you guardians" (Acts 20:28).
When Peter said, "Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation" (1 Peter 2:2), he did not mean by "mil" what Hebrews 5:12 does in contrast to meat. All he meant was to hunger for the Word of God's grace (1:25) as much as a baby hungers for milk. For only by feeding on the Word can you grow, and only by growing can you attain final salvation. A steady diet of "gospel messages" which do not help the saints grow out of the infancy not only stunts their character but also jeopardizes their salvation.
Christians Are Not Static
We must remember this: there is no standing still in the Christian life. Either we are advancing toward salvation or we are drifting away to destruction. If we do not point our people to the inexhaustible riches of Christ by unfolding for them "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27), then we steer them onto the rocks where they can make shipwreck of their faith (1 Tim. 1:19).
This is what Hebrews 2:1-4 teaches. There are two possibilities: giving heed to the Word of the Lord (vs. 1, 3) or drifting away from it. There is no sitting still in the river of indifference. Its current runs to the falls. Therefore, verse 3 asks, "How shall we escape [God's just retribution] if we neglect such a great salvation?" Neglecting our great salvation means not giving heed to what has been revealed by the Son (1:2), not setting our attention on Jesus (3:1; 12:2).
The result will be drifting away from the Word and therefore away from salvation. "Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God" (3:12). "We share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end" (3:14). The Son "became the source of eternal salvation to all who [go on obeying Him - present tense, continuous action]" (5:9).
Feed Your Flock
Therefore the way to save yourself and your hearers (1 Tim. 4:16) is not to arrest the growth of your people by a meatless diet of "salvation messages." This had sent the "Hebrews" straight backward toward destruction (5:11-14). The way to save the saints is to feed them all the Scriptures, for it is the Scriptures "which are able to instruct you for salvation" (2 Tim. 3:15).
One final word on eternal security. It is a community project. And that is why the pastoral ministry is so utterly serious, and why our preaching must not be playful but earnest. We preach so that saints might persevere in faith to glory. We do not merely preach for their growth , but because if they don't grow they perish. If you are a Calvinist (as I am) you rest in the sovereign word of Christ: "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish" (John 10:27-28).
The elect will love the Word of God, the elect will grow, the elect will repent, and the elect will must assuredly be saved (Rom. 8:29-30). But they will not be saved apart from your teaching. God has ordained that there be pastor-teachers not only for the purpose of edification but also for the purpose of salvation. Oh, that our preaching might have the flavor of eternity in it. For eternity is at stake every week.