For some, a single sentence has changed the trajectory of their ministry. For me, it was a paragraph from Richard Baxter’s classic book The Reformed Pastor.
Our whole work must be carried on under a deep sense of our own insufficiency, and of our entire dependence on Christ. We must go for light, and life, and strength to him who sends us on the work. And when we feel our own faith weak, and our hearts dull, and unsuitable to so great a work as we have to do, we must have recourse to him, and say, “Lord, wilt thou send me with such an unbelieving heart to persuade others to believe? Must I daily plead with sinners about everlasting life and everlasting death, and have no more belief or feeling of these weighty things myself? O, send me not naked and unprovided to the work; but as thou commandest me to do it, furnish me with a spirit suitable thereto.” Prayer must carry on our work as well as preaching; he preacheth not heartily to his people, that prayeth not earnestly for them. If we prevail not with God to give them faith and repentance we shall never prevail with them to believe and repent. (The Reformed Pastor, 105)
Richard Baxter has taught me at least three lessons that clarify the pastoral vocation and bring more of God’s power into the task of preaching. They’re summed up in the above passage, but I present them to pastors as a cascade, each point flowing from the one before it, starting with the fact that pastors are primarily teachers.
Pastors Are Primarily Teachers
Baxter (1615–1691), as the late J.I. Packer has described him, “usually called himself his people’s teacher, and teaching was to his mind the minister’s main task.” Baxter wrote his most famous book, The Reformed Pastor, to make this case, because he was convinced that unless pastors themselves understood their calling, there was little chance parishioners would. During Baxter’s day, and in ours, the question comes down to this: What are pastors for?
The New Testament makes it clear that pastors — the office of elder (presbyteros) or overseer (episkopos) — serve the church with official authority through teaching the apostolic gospel as handed down to us and preserved in the Bible. This is our chief task — a task that was widely understood in the early church and recovered during the Reformation, but that too often gets downplayed in our modern thinking.
To be sure, this downplaying is seen not so much in the church’s activity, but in the pastor’s own vocational clarity. When it comes to the church’s activity, most evangelical churches still feature the preaching moment as the high point of its weekly gatherings. Teaching has certainly not been abandoned, but I still doubt we appreciate its central place in how we conceive of our calling. I’m referring to the level of our basic self-understanding.
For example, imagine, pastor, that you meet a new neighbor and they ask you what you do for a living. You respond by saying, “I’m a pastor.” Now, doubtless, your neighbor has a category for that. They hear you say “pastor,” and they immediately picture something. At the bare minimum, especially if they’re secular, they hear you saying that you’re religious. Now what they think hardly matters, but what does matter, and what I’m most concerned about, is what you and I picture in our minds.
“We should think of ourselves primarily as teachers of our flock for the purpose of their salvation.”
What are we thinking when we hear ourselves say, “I’m a pastor”? Do we think, as the New Testament would lead us, that we’re teachers? We should think that. Baxter would certainly say so. The pastoral vocation, Baxter argued forcefully, is about explaining the gospel for the salvation of souls — in public and private, from the pulpit to the gathered church and sitting across the table from individual church members. We should think of ourselves primarily as teachers of our flock for the purpose of their salvation.
Having learned this from Baxter, I commend it to you, brother-pastor. Regardless of how much you still need to grow in teaching, as a pastor you are primarily a teacher, and you should think that way about yourself. Our calling starts here.
Pastors Teach for the Salvation of Souls
It’s vital, at this point, to remember that we’re not simply teachers, but teachers with a purpose — and that purpose is the salvation of souls.
In the paragraph that changed how I view ministry, Baxter references work five times:
- “our whole work”
- “a work as we have to do”
- “the work” (2x)
- “our work”
This is a loaded word for Baxter. He uses it several times throughout this section, and interchangeably with the word oversight. It goes back to his introduction, where he tells his reader that he aims to expound Paul’s exhortation in Acts 20:28: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock” (KJV).
A pastor’s taking heed of his flock, or overseeing them, consists mainly of his teaching them for their salvation. We cannot teach apart from this intent. “Our work,” according to Baxter, is to teach our flock, publicly and privately, for the sake of this supernatural goal. That’s what he has in mind by the simple phrase our work. And it’s also what puts our work in a completely different category from other kinds of teaching.
Under Baxter’s influence, I’ve tried to make remembering my aim a repeated exercise throughout the sermon-writing process. Before I start to write (where I turn my exegesis and reflection into the words I plan to speak), and in my last review (where I think deliberately about tone and potential real-time dynamics), Baxter asks me, What do you want God to do in the hearts of your flock?
“We want the saved to experience full salvation, and we want the lost to be saved.”
At one level, the most immediate answer is that we always want our hearers to faithfully understand God’s word and what it means for us right now. That’s the point of preaching. But within the larger understanding of our work, as Baxter explains it, we want their salvation. We want all those who are in Christ to be “mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28), to be transformed more into Christ’s image (2 Corinthians 3:18), and to be assured of Christ’s love (Ephesians 3:16–19). We want the saved to experience full salvation, and we want the lost to be saved. We preach the sermon in our hands, as we do all of our other teaching, for that.
Pastors Can’t Produce the Harvest
Now it’s not hard to see why Baxter says, “Our whole work must be carried on under a deep sense of our own insufficiency, and of our entire dependence on Christ.” This is because in our work, in our teaching, we intend something we ourselves cannot accomplish. We desire something we cannot create. We want our people to be saved, but we can’t save them.
We can’t heal their marriages. We can’t make them stop ruining their lives. We can’t make them care, or care less, or embrace, or disavow. We can’t make them more gracious and less judgmental, or more joyful and less cynical. We want these, and a hundred other things, for these souls in front of us, and we can’t produce any of it. Why did we become pastors, again? What other vocation feels so feeble? Indeed, we are fools for Christ’s sake (1 Corinthians 4:10).
And what does one do in such a predicament? What do you do when you want something you can’t reach? You ask for help. You pray.
This is the most basic explanation for why anyone prays petitionary prayers. It’s because God’s grace in us leads us to desire things we can’t do, so we ask him to do it. When pastors understand they are primarily teachers, and the goal of their teaching is the salvation of souls, then pastors will pray. There is really no other way to fulfill our calling. This is what leads Baxter to say that “he preacheth not heartily to his people, that prayeth not earnestly for them.”
What if we come to preaching with the goal of our preaching in mind? Or better, what if we reconsider our entire vocation in terms of primarily being a teacher whose goal is supernatural? What if we prayed earnestly that God would accomplish this supernatural goal through our teaching, and then we actually taught “standing” upon such prayers?
With a deep sense of our own insufficiency, entirely dependent upon Jesus, having prayed that he do through our teaching ministry what only he can do, our preaching then becomes a kind of enactment of our own wrestling with God for our flock. We stand before our congregation and preach for what we’ve already prayed for, carried by the same Spirit who has guided us in the praying. This inevitably means more of the Spirit’s power in our preaching, and certainly less of our own.
Put altogether, it’s simple: pastors are primarily teachers, and the goal of our teaching is the salvation of souls — a supernatural goal we can’t produce. This understanding leads us, naturally, to prayer. We ask God to do what only he can do, and this accompanies the task of preaching (and the whole of our work) with a heartfelt dependence on Jesus. And that’s where the power’s at.