Best Lessons from a Lifetime of Pastoring

Desiring God 2014 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor, the Vine, and the Branches: The Remarkable Reality of Union with Christ

The only reason I am willing to do this is because of the golden rule, that you do to others what you would want them to do to you. So I don’t do this as someone who feels he has learned in an unusual way, but because I’ve always found it challenging and stimulating to listen to other gospel ministers describe what it is they do and what lessons they have learned. And if you’re anything like me, you can learn both positively and negatively from every gospel minister. So there’s always something that it’s possible for you to learn.

I want to divide it into three parts, one or two of the lessons that I think God has constrained me to learn over 42 years now since I was ordained. The first of them has to do with ourselves and our people, the second has to do with ourselves and our preaching ministry, and the third has to do with ourselves and our walk with God. So these are three different dimensions — the relationship to our church family, the relationship to what lies at the center of our ministry, and then what lies underneath everything in terms of our relationship to God.

Love for God’s People

The first lesson about the relationship to our congregation is that perhaps the most important thing that I’ve learned is the absolute centrality of loving the people God gives us to serve. Isn’t this what Paul underscores in 1 Timothy 1:5? The telos of our charge, the goal of our charge, is love that is drawn out of both a faith without a mask and a good conscience. If one uses Aristotle’s principle, that the end that is in view will always determine the beginning, and that if you have a goal in view, the beginning ought to be determined by that, then this is our fundamental principle of our ministry. We must love our people.

That’s more important than anything else. It’s actually more important than our gifts, because our gifts without love will be like noisy cymbals and our ministry will be empty. And I think often for younger men that’s quite a challenge. We go into ministry and we have a deep sense of the importance of truth, but the only people who will gather around you because of the importance of truth are either people who are poorly taught in Scripture or cranks. And both of them will gather around the notion that the most important thing is truth — truth without love.

But in the gospel, there is no such reality as truth without love. And so it’s very important for us. Especially if we have a real passion for preaching we must understand that what is going to oil the wheels of our preaching is that the people to whom we preach know that we actually love them, and that some of those who one day will accuse us of being unloving will have no idea how much our hearts were broken by their alienation from the ministry of the gospel. And they will never know how much we actually loved them and cared for them.

And I’m sure for those of you who’ve been in the ministry for a few years in a particular congregation, we recognize this is not a virtue that we work up. This is the first fruit of the fruit of the Spirit, which the Spirit brings down. And so no matter what happens in the life of the church, you come to a place where you say, “I cannot but love them.”

I remember reading as a student the letters of John Newton. Now John Newton, I think, was probably a better letter writer than he was a preacher. He was such a good letter writer that he once published his love letters to his rather plain looking wife, and they were so full of love that one of his close friends reviewing the book in which he published them said that Mr. Newton had done all ministers of the gospel a grave disservice because now all of their wives would be looking for letters with such overflowing love. But he says in one of his letters:

My people know that I love them and that I’ve loved them over the years. And now I believe they would take absolutely anything from me.

One of the mistakes you can make when you’re a younger minister is to read what someone else does or says and assume, because you’re also a gospel minister, you can do it and you can say it, but you’ve not noticed the bond of love in which these things have been said. So this, to me, has been a really significant lesson.

Painful Love

It catches up in its wake, I think, a couple of texts, one from the Lord Jesus and one from the apostle Paul. Jesus loved the disciples. He loved his own who were in the world to the very end. And, interestingly, it’s in that context that Jesus says to his disciples, this three-year, embryonic church, “I have many things still to teach you, but you’re not able to bear them” (John 16:12). And there’s a real lesson in how love functions in ministry. It understands the dimness of people, the slowness of people, and is prepared to be patient with people. And remember, after the Exocet missile of what Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:1–2 about preaching, exhorting, and rebuking and so on, he then says, “careful teaching and very great patience.” And that’s only possible when we’ve come to love our people.

So first of all, in relation to our congregation, we must love. And that, of course, is the really costly thing about ministry. Preparing sermons can, as the Westminster divines said, be very painful, but love is going to be much more painful.

I wonder if you know these words of C.S. Lewis. He says:

Love anything and your heart will certainly be rung and possibly be broken. But if you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it round carefully with hobbies and little luxuries, like in our case, study, and preparation that can be both, but avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken. It will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy in relationships, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell.

So love our people.

Listening to Your Preaching

The second lesson is related to our preaching. Actually, I have three L’s here — applying apt alliterations artful aid, as my elementary English textbook taught me. We love our people, and we listen to our own preaching. I think I’ve only ever said that once before in public in a panel. And one of the other panel members turned to me in complete astonishment before I could explain myself and said, “Do you mean you actually listen to your own sermons on CD or whatever it is?” I said, “No, I don’t mean that at all. That would be unbearable.” Sometimes you probably need to do it, but by and large that’s unbearable and you can actually never hear yourself the way the congregation hears you. So I don’t mean listening to the recordings, but listening while you’re preaching. Do you remember how John Owen says that he discovered that the messages that went most powerfully from him were the messages that came most powerfully to him?

And of course, that’s going to be true in our study and our preparation, but it seems to me to be a key notion that we understand that when we are preaching, there is no one in the room who is more under this ministry of the word than we are. And that will communicate to the congregation, not that we are masters of Scripture, but that we are mastered by it. There is an extremely competent form of preaching that subliminally says to people, “I am master of this word.” But that isn’t the apostolic way. The apostolic way is, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:5, “We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord . . .” but there’s no period after that is there. Do you remember the words that follow? He says, “We preach Jesus Christ as Lord, and in combination” — this is a kind of hendiadys, technically, I think, which is one thing said by means of two statements — “we show that Jesus Christ is Lord, because when we preach him as Lord, it is evident that we are your bond slaves for Jesus’s sake.” And in a way, that’s love for the people applied to our teaching and preaching of the word of God.

I think the way I came to that a long time ago actually was this. I was puzzled why every time I preached, at the end, instead of wanting to go to the door as Presbyterians for some strange reason expect the ministers to do, I would have preferred if the pulpit had just opened up and swallowed me whole. And then it dawned on me, of course this is God’s way. This is God’s way of saying to me, “Ferguson, you are but the mailman here. And if I’m going to deal with anyone in this congregation through the ministry of the word, I need to keep dealing with you. I need to keep humbling you and emptying you.”

Hopeless, Sinful, and Weak

I remember Ed Clowney, whose name some of you will know, the first president of Westminster Seminary, telling me he had visited Martin Lloyd-Jones and in conversation he said to Dr. Lloyd-Jones, “How do you know you are preaching in the power of the Spirit? Do you sense some extraordinary elation?” And Lloyd-Jones said, “No. You know you’re preaching in the power of the Spirit when you are conscious that you are hopeless and sinful and weak.” And I remember Dr. Lloyd-Jones saying actually that he only remembered two times when he had preached perfectly and both times he was dreaming.

Now why this experience? Some of it is emotional and psychological when we are beginning, but why is it so persistent? It’s persistent because God wants us to be under the ministry of the word in which we ourselves are engaged. So if you are a pastor, perhaps you’re a pastor and you are the preaching pastor, when people say to you, “Under whose ministry do you sit?” Perhaps the second answer might be your favorite fellow out there on the web. But actually your first answer should be, “I sit under exactly the same ministry of the word that you do.”

That, I think, is why on the day he died, there was left on Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s desk a letter that he never opened, in which a man had been wonderfully helped by his last sermon. And he said to M’Cheyne:

It wasn’t so much what you said, marvelous though that was, but the manner in which you said it.

Now, why is that important? Why are these two points important? For this slightly scary reason. Over the long haul, the people in our congregations begin to associate us with the Lord Jesus Christ and they begin to associate what Christ is like with the way we preach his word. That’s a simple reality. It’s the reason why over the long haul, you’ll notice that often congregations under a strong ministry of the word, begin to seem to take on almost the personality of the minister. Why should that happen when we are being transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ? It’s because, scary thought as it is, people associate the style of the minister’s ministry with the master’s ministry, because his is the voice and the person through whom that ministry most frequently comes to them.

Living in the Presence of God

And that leads to the third thing. I’m sure I’ve gone over my eight minutes already. But the third thing, which I’m delighted to share because you know it already, is that along with love for the people, and along with listening to the word as we preach it, is the privilege of living the whole of our lives in the presence of our triune Lord.

In very quick succession, when I was a teenager, I encountered three things. First of all, I encountered that little book of Brother Lawrence called The Practice of the Presence of God, which is actually a slightly better title than it is a book.

Second, I had a minister as a teenager, a man called William Still — whose book The Work of the Pastor is a book you should all read, incidentally — who said to me one day, I don’t know whether he’d noticed I was beginning to fall in love, “Now Sinclair, you must always keep a sanctuary in your heart for the Lord that is hermetically sealed from everything else. Let absolutely nothing into that sanctuary.” And that coincided with my stumbling on the second volume of John Owen’s works, the major part of which is entitled On Communion with God the Trinity. So there were these three notions: what does it mean to practice the presence of God? What does it mean to have a sanctuary hermetically sealed for the Lord? And what do you do inside there?

Those of you who know that book, to put it into really theological terms just for a bit of Latin, Owen takes the so-called opera ad extra trinitatis, the outward activity of God the Trinity towards his creation and especially towards the church, and he links it with a doctrine that the early fathers held, usually called appropriations, in which they pointed out that in Scripture while the whole Trinity is involved in everything God does towards us, also in everything God does towards us one or other person will take a lead — the Father in planning and sending, the Son in coming and dying, the Spirit in being sent and applying. So it’s only when we get into a fankle, as sometimes some do, that we thank the Father for coming and dying for us on the cross. We all know that’s a heresy, but sometimes you begin a sentence in prayer out of which you cannot get without committing that heresy. I’ve heard many ministers do it.

But you see the side that Owen brings to the surface is that if this is true, then our fellowship with God is not fellowship with God, the monolithic block; it’s fellowship with the Father who has designed our creation and adopted us into his family. And there are things we praise him for, particularly. There is a koinonia that we have with him, particularly. And we have this fellowship with the Son who has died for us, who has come by the Spirit to indwell us, the Spirit who as John tells us Jesus said, would come and dwell in the disciples’ hearts and make those hearts a home for the Father and for the Son.

And as I look back, that may be just personally the most important of these three lessons, out of which the other two flow — that I am to live the whole of my life, every moment, every day, conscious that I am not alone, conscious that I’m an adopted child of the Creator, conscious that I am one for whom Jesus was not ashamed to die and call brother, conscious that’s true of all of those who profess faith in Jesus Christ, and conscious that when the Spirit comes, he transforms our lives into light in the Lord so that we’re not spending all of our lives, as it were, sticking pastoral elements onto them. But because of the work of the Trinity, we’ve actually become pastors.

Well, I think I need to stop. Thank you for coming and listening in the midst of the cattle market that’s over there and the huge number of people I saw leaving the building that made me feel, “Oh, so you don’t want to know in eight minutes what I’ve learned about being a gospel minister.”

is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary.