During my lifetime, I probably have read every major classic Reformed book on the Christian ministry. I am grateful for the wealth of resources that ministers and ministerial students have for their instruction and growth today.
We are blessed to have William Perkins’s The Art of Prophesying (Preaching) and The Calling of the Ministry, Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor, Gardiner Spring’s The Power of the Pulpit, John Brown’s edited volume The Christian Pastor’s Manual, Charles Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students, Thomas Murphy’s Pastoral Theology: The Pastor in the Various Duties of His Office, and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Preaching and Preachers. We also have the model and counsel of godly ministers of past ages, such as that of Samuel Miller in James Garretson’s An Able and Faithful Ministry. To this might be added many helpful books by or about more contemporary pastors of God’s flock.
If, however, I had to choose only one book on pastoral theology to have in my library, I would pick The Christian Ministry by Charles Bridges (1794–1869). It is an amazing book in its thorough coverage of all the practical aspects of ministry, and that in a most biblical, experiential, and searching manner. It was written not as theory, but as the hard-won personal experience of Bridges, who was a diligent and gifted pastor.
Birth of a Pastoral Classic
Bridges was an evangelical minister in the Church of England, serving for more than four and a half decades as vicar (pastor of a parish church) at Old Newton near Stowmarket, Weymouth, and Hinton Martell, Dorset. What Spurgeon said of Bridges’s exposition of Psalm 119 can equally be applied to his book on Christian ministry: it is “worth its weight in gold,” especially “for its surpassing grace and unction” (Commenting and Commentaries, 149). Bridges also wrote expositions of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes that continue to be read and valued today.
“If I had to choose only one book on pastoral theology to have in my library, I would pick ‘The Christian Ministry.’”
The origin of The Christian Ministry lies in a letter that Bridges wrote to a friend about reasons why Christian ministers lack spiritual power. This letter stirred up interest, and Bridges’s friends asked him to write a larger treatment of the whole work of the ministry. Thus, in 1830 the book was born. The Christian Ministry was well received at the time, going through eight editions by 1854. As it approaches its two hundredth birthday, the book continues to be treasured as a standard text for pastors and preachers. Though its language is occasionally a tad quaint, the principles it presents are timeless.
For Men Called to Ministry
In the first part of the book, Bridges wastes no time but gets right into the trials and difficulties of ministry as well as its encouragements. He offers counsel on good habits for ministry — habits best developed before entering this sacred vocation. For example, while he commends the use of biblical commentaries, he also urges the preacher and teacher to give priority to studying the Holy Scriptures himself, lest the bias of the commentator control how he reads the word rather than the truth of the word forming his convictions (55–57).
In this part, he also addresses the qualifications for ministry, including godly character, a clear understanding of sound doctrine, and spiritual gifts to teach and exhort. This is a great section for men who sense that they may be called to the ministry and are struggling with how to respond.
THE OBSTACLES TO MINISTRY
The second part of the book presents fundamental reasons why the ministry is not successful. Bridges stresses our dependence on the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Life-giver. Without the divine influence, no one can come to Christ (John 6:44, 65). He also notes the opposition of fallen human nature, the power of Satan’s devices, and the challenges of particular communities, as well as sometimes the lack of a personal, internal call to ministry.
Part three talks about the reasons why we can lack power in the ministry due to our personal character. This section is deeply convicting, yet also a treasure trove for the minister’s repentance and spiritual growth. Bridges covers problems such as our lack of self-denial, fear of man, conformity to the world, and spiritual pride. He recalls the lament of Henry Martyn: “too much time to public ministrations, and too little to private communion with God” (150). It would be good for ministers to read this part of the book once a year for the sake of self-examination.
THE WORK OF PREACHING
The fourth part is really the meat of the book, titled, “The Public Work of the Christian Ministry” — that is, the work of preaching. Bridges is very enlightening on how to preach both law and gospel, and the connection between the two. The 45-page section on doctrinal, applicatory, and discriminatory preaching, called “The Scriptural Preaching of the Gospel,” to me is the highlight of the book.
Bridges says, “Christian experience is the influence of doctrinal truth upon the affections” (259), and sermons enriched by the experiential element “flow directly to the heart with a warmth and impressiveness, like the enlivening glow of the sun, as contrasted to the cold clearness of moonlight” (261). Bridges agrees with John Newton’s assertion that many preachers “seem to lay too much stress upon a systematical scheme of sentiments, and too little upon that life and power, that vital, experimental, and practical influence, which forms the character, and regulates the conduct, of an established Christian” (259).
In this fourth part, Bridges also argues persuasively for a method of “perpetual application” in preaching, applying each exegetical point made with “suitable exhortation, warming, or encouragement” (275). His subsequent four pages (277–80) on discriminatory preaching are packed full of wisdom, stressing that there are three lines of demarcation in preaching: (1) “between the church and the world,” (2) “between the professing church and the true church,” and (3) between “the different individualities of profession within the church” — such as different degrees of faith, strength or weakness, and so on.
“I cannot recommend ‘The Christian Ministry’ by Charles Bridges highly enough. Read, pray, and grow.”
Bridges then goes on to discuss topical and expository preaching, providing invaluable advice for each, as well as extemporaneous and written sermons. Both sections are page-turners. In the last section of the fourth part, Bridges addresses seven qualities manifest in scriptural preaching and expounds each of them as only a mature preacher could do: boldness, wisdom, plainness, fervency, diligence, singleness, and love. I know of nothing in any other book on this topic that so succinctly and beautifully unpacks the preaching of the word as Bridges does in under 150 pages.
THE CARE OF SHEEP
The last section of the book, concerning the pastoral work of Christian ministry, is priceless. Bridges highly commends the shepherd giving individual attention to the sheep. He notes the great advantage of personal work in cases where even solid preaching does not impact individuals, for “the word is brought to them in small parcels, and with the most direct applications” (350). Bridges’s pastoral treatment of different cases in his flock, such as the self-righteous, the false professor, the young Christian, the backslider, those lacking assurance and those who have it, as well as how to distinguish natural and spiritual convictions, is simply superlative.
Read, Pray, Grow
No minister of the gospel should pass by this book. He will be enlightened and helped in his personal life and his public ministry immensely. Take ownership of this book as you read it. Read it slowly. Mark it up. Put your notes in the margin. Examine yourself as you read it. As the Spirit illuminates and convicts you, pause your reading to seek the Lord in prayer. The Christian Ministry would also be a great book for ministers to study and discuss together, a portion at a time.
I cannot recommend The Christian Ministry by Charles Bridges highly enough. Read, pray, and grow.