What is the key to ministry longevity? There is a key, and John Piper finds it in the ministry legacy of John Newton. Here’s how Pastor John Piper explained it in his 2001 biographical message to pastors entitled, “John Newton: The Tough Roots of His Habitual Tenderness.”
Newton’s realism about the limits of this life, oh how helpful it is to hear his realism. Only so much is possible in a fallen world. We groan waiting for the redemption of our bodies. And if we don’t realize the limits of our ministry, we will absolutely go crazy trying to fix the world and fix everybody. He said, “My course of study, like that of a surgeon, has been principally in walking the hospital.”
He did not, however, become cynical as he walked the hospital and saw the irremedial diseases of Bedlam. You know that word bedlam comes from the insane asylum hospital in his day. He said, “I endeavor to walk through the world as a physician goes through Bedlam. The patients make noise, pester him with impertinence, hinder him in his business, but he does the best he can and gets through.”
I read that last November or somewhere and I just said, “Thank you, thank you. That is all I have got to do, the best I can, get through, get through this mess, get through that mess, get through this mess. Thank you, Newton. Thank you for telling me that is the way you did your ministry. You just walk through an insane asylum and you are pestered by this person and grabbed by that person and you reach out, you touch, you pray, you bless, you call, you do, you get criticism you didn’t call soon enough, you didn’t say this and you just look up and say, ‘Sinner, though I am, I did the best I could. I am going to keep going.’”
And that is the key. Realism keeps you going. Perfectionism wipes you out. So have Newton’s realism. Here is the picture. You had to put him in a picture, right? It is so beautiful. He is standing at his window looking out on the sun about to come up. The day is now breaking. How beautiful its appearance, how welcome the expectation of the approaching sun. It is this thought makes the dawn agreeable that it is the presage of a brighter light.
Otherwise, if we expect no more day than in this minute, we should rather complain of darkness than rejoice in the early beauties of the morning. Thus, the life of grace is the dawn of immortality, beautiful beyond expression if compared with the night of thick darkness which formerly covered us, yet fate and indistinct and unsatisfying in comparison to the glory that will be revealed. Compared with the present condition only, there is a lot of darkness left, but the sun’s ris-ing in your life, its rising in your life and the glory is going to be beautiful.
So be realistic, folks. We groan inwardly waiting our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. Our groaning in this life will never end. There will be mental illness. There will be physical illness. There will be church disputes. There will be marital stresses. There will be wayward children till Jesus comes. And if we can’t muddle our way through the insane asylum of this world, we will quit. Let’s help each other not quit. Newton has helped me. I want to help you.
That is one root. The next root is his humility and gratitude. He was overwhelmed by amazing grace, how sweet the sound to save a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I am found, was blind but now I see. Till the day he died he never ceased to be blown away by the fact that he had been saved and made a preacher of the gospel that he once labored to destroy and mock.
He wrote his own epitaph and read it on his grave which is now in Olney. It used to be in London. They moved it so a subway could go through underneath the church. John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy. Near 16 years at Olney in Bucks and... and then he left the number blank... years at this church in Saint Mary’s Woolnoth.
He was overwhelmed by this and he wrote and he didn’t see how anybody could know how he was saved and not treat others with kindness. He said, “A humble, humble under such a sense of much forgiveness to himself, he finds it easy to forgive others.”
If you are a hard pastor, you don’t properly know what has happened to you. If you are a hard pastor, your first reaction is a hard reaction, you are to duly feeling the wonder that you are saved.