Certainties That Drive Enduring Ministry, Part 1

Desiring God 2007 National Conference

Stand: A Call for the Endurance of the Saints

When I was still a young boy, my dad reminded me of the words of the apostle Paul: “Take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:13). Then he said something I’ll never forget: “A lot of people have said and done a lot of things, but when the smoke clears, they’re not all standing.” And he directed me in those early years to Paul’s epitaph: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). Dad challenged me very early in my life to make that my goal.

Being Thankful Backwards and Forwards

My dad went to heaven in 2005 at the age of ninety-one, and into his ninety-first year he was still teaching a Bible class every Sunday. His father, my grandfather, died at a much earlier age from cancer, and I clearly remember standing by his bedside. I think I was about nine or ten, and my father said to him, “Dad, is there anything you want?” He replied, “I want to preach one more sermon.” You see, he had prepared one and didn’t get to preach it but was feeling like the prophet Jeremiah, who said, “There is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9). So my dad took his father’s notes, printed them, and passed out the sermon at the funeral. The title of that sermon was “Heavenly Records.” So my grandfather preached on heaven from heaven.

I cannot thank God enough for the legacy of such men who were faithful to the very end. Going the other direction, I am even more grateful that my four children know and love our Lord and are raising their dear ones in his nurture and admonition. Recently on a Sunday night I baptized two of my own grandchildren. I stood in the water and heard the precious testimonies of Ty and Olivia, cousins to one another and both grandchildren to me.

Their parents and I could hardly contain our gratitude to God for his grace in our lives and for the blessing that Grace Community Church has been in our lives. There is nothing like the tremendous, relentless, comprehensive, and unified effort of a whole congregation of godly people bringing the truth of Scripture to bear on young lives. I delight in the one church I’ve been privileged to pastor for all these years, and especially for the joy of seeing my family grow in that church and be spiritually anchored there.

Wanting to Leave and Start over Somewhere Else

Many pastors move from church to church and serve numerous churches over the course of a lifetime. Sometimes the trials of ministry have almost made me wish I could do that. I’ll never forget walking into a staff meeting one day many years ago where five young guys whom I had personally discipled were waiting for me. I cared for those men, having met with them in the early hours during the week to go over spiritual things, pray with them, and build them into a staff of pastors who worked alongside me.

As I walked in I couldn’t help saying, “I just want to tell you guys how much I love you,” to which one of them responded, “If you think we’re your friends, you’ve got another thing coming.” They then tried to muster support from the rest of the staff and elders to depose me as pastor and take me out of the pulpit! They failed, but the sad fallout was that four out of the five men left the ministry for life. It was almost more than I could bear. I would have gone if I knew of anywhere else to go. That was about my eighth year in the pulpit at Grace.

About eighteen years in, 250 people left the church. They said my preaching was too long, too irrelevant, too dull, and a whole lot of other things. A few of those people were church elders, and that tempted me to question everything. Again I would have gone, but there wasn’t anyone handing me any invitations. That was by the grace of God, however.

The Best Is Now Because . . .

I am grateful for all I have been through, for this is the best, the most wonderful, the most satisfying, and the most fulfilling time of my entire life. I thank God for every day he has allowed me to shepherd Grace Church. People have asked me, “How do you have such a long, enduring ministry?” From God’s viewpoint, his divine, sovereign providence has worked in a myriad of ways (both known and unknown to me) that have kept me where I am.

But what about from my side of things? I will tell you immediately I’m not going to present any clever insights, novel approaches, or imaginative ideas that I’ve managed to develop. I have no innovative technique to recommend to you. I’ve invented no clever strategy. I have no confidence in the schemes and strategies of men, especially when it comes to doing the Lord’s work, so giving you such a program is the furthest thing from my mind.

There is only one thing I have endeavored to do, and that is focus my entire life on biblical principles, sound doctrine, and divine truth. While all the circumstances of life ebb and flow and the sands of human fashions shift, the foundation you want to be building on is the bedrock of God’s Word. Since those early years with my dad, I have sought to be like the man in Luke’s Gospel whom Jesus said built his house by digging deep and laying a foundation on solid rock (Luke 6:48).

That doesn’t happen because you wish it to happen, however. You can’t merely speak it into existence, contrary to what some people say. As Jesus said, it’s not merely coming to him and hearing his words but acting on them (Luke 6:47) that makes a person like the wise builder he described. The blessing comes not in the knowing but in the doing, as Jesus told his disciples in the upper room (John 13:17).

Paul on the Mount Everest of His Life

My dad pointed me toward one of the wisest builders of all when he cited the life and words of Paul to me in my young life. When Paul wrote in his last letter about fighting the good fight, even to the end of his days, he was at the Everest of his life, breathing the rarefied air understood only by those who not only climb to the very pinnacle but also make that climb with nobility and integrity. Paul managed to do that, even though all in Asia had forsaken him. The rest of 2 Timothy 4 indicates that his life — even at the end — was filled with its normal disappointments. There was no great crowd cheering Paul on when he reached his epic moment and finally approached the finish line. In fact, the church had largely turned their affections away from him, and the world was about to chop his head off.

Paul’s Way Up Was, in a Sense, Down

Let’s go back to Paul’s life at the beginning of 2 Corinthians:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:3–9)

The comfort came because Paul’s life was saturated with suffering and affliction. Everything that could come at that man came at him: physical persecution, deprivation, and illness, alongside spiritual battles and disappointments. The thematic backbone of 2 Corinthians, in fact, is a chronicle of Paul’s highs and lows:

  • “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal flesh.” (2 Corinthians 4:8–11) “As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger . . . dishonor. . . slander. . . . We are treated as impostors . . . having nothing.” (2 Corinthians 6:4–10)

  • “When we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn — fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us.” (2 Corinthians 7:5–6)

Even the great apostle Paul suffered from depression? Yes, he did.

  • “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one — I am talking like a madman — with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” (2 Corinthians 11:23–29)

  • “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7–10)

I just want you to see all those passages because that’s the man who came to the end of his life and said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” How did Paul manage to do that? The disappointments he faced were enough to crush him. In fact, the main occasion for the writing of 2 Corinthians was that the church had turned on Paul to follow false teachers — after he had invested nearly two years of his life bringing them the knowledge of Christ! Paul knew the pain of unrequited love. Sometimes it seemed that the more he loved them, the less they loved him back!

Some in the church hammered on him even for his appearance. They said his appearance was unimpressive and his speech was downright contemptible, which is to say he was ugly and couldn’t communicate. Now if you’re ugly but can communicate, you can make it; or if you’re handsome and just stand there and talk, you can survive for a while. But the false teachers were endeavoring to take him out on every front! They wanted to discredit Paul as much as possible so they could remove the people’s confidence in him and replace his teaching with their own lies.

“Paul knew the pain of unrequited love.”

It’s hard to bear such rejection when you’ve poured your life into a congregation. I don’t come close to having gone through all that Paul did, but I’ve been in one church long enough to see just about every kind of attack on my character, life, and ministry; so I’ve made a study of Paul’s life to learn how to survive. One phrase I have camped on is, “We do not lose heart” (2 Corinthians 4:16). The Greek term is ekkakeo, which contains the root kak, always a reference to evil, sin, and fallenness. This is more than just not getting discouraged or burned out; it is a commitment not to defect spiritually, whether through cowardice, laziness, immorality, indifference, or abandonment of calling and duty. But how?

Paul Embraced the Superiority of the New Covenant

First, Paul embraced with all his heart the superiority of the new covenant: “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart” (2 Corinthians 4:1). The ministry he was referring to is described in the previous chapter as “the ministry of the Spirit” (verse 8) and “the ministry of righteousness” (verse 9), in contrast to the “ministry of condemnation.” It is the ministry of the new covenant, which the Old Testament predicted:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:31–33)

That covenant is salvation in Jesus Christ. It is better because the new covenant gives life: God “made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). The laws of Moses passed a death sentence; the gospel of Jesus Christ gives life. Paul went on to explain that although the old covenant was a “ministry of condemnation” (verse 9), it had a certain glory because it is a reflection of God’s holiness. Nevertheless, the new covenant has a surpassing glory because it provides forgiveness and lasting righteousness (verses 10–11).

It also brings hope, which produces courage. That is why Paul wrote, “Since we have such a hope, we are very bold” (verse 12).

It is clear, for the old was veiled, but with the new, the veil is gone (verses 13–14).

It is Christ-centered, for the veil is removed “through Christ” (verse 14).

It is empowered by the Spirit, transforming us into the very image of the Lord from one level of glory to the next (verses 17–18).

To know the gospel, to believe it with all your heart, and to be called to proclaim it is the most noble and exalted privilege any person could ever have! That led Paul to write:

Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? (2 Corinthains 2:14–16)

In spite of everything, Christ wins in the end.

If you were to ask who the most important people in a city are, you would probably hear about the mayor, the city council, and the people who run educational programs. That is not how God would answer the question. There’s a core of people in every city who influence people for eternity. They have a profound impact on their damnation or their salvation, an aroma of death or life. Who in his own strength could have that kind of impact? Paul was stunned by the divine privilege of ministry and never lost sight of it.

My son Mark, when he was sixteen, sat down next to me and said earnestly, “Dad, when you preach, it’s really something. But the rest of the time you’re nothing special.” He got it exactly right! He was trying to process what happened to his father when I get in the pulpit. In the pulpit what I say has divine power when I am accurately proclaiming the Word of God. At home when I have a great idea about how to fix something, it’s usually stupid; but whenever someone walks up to me and says, “After I heard you preach I came to Christ,” I want to step back and catch my breath. If you want to have an enduring ministry, never lose the sense of wonder and glory of the new covenant — the message the world has been waiting for. It’s here, you know it, and God will use you to proclaim it. You matter. There’s no one on this planet as powerful as the people of God, for we affect eternity.

Paul Embraced the Reality That Ministry Is a Mercy

Let’s go back to 2 Corinthians 4:1, where Paul said, “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.” He embraced the reality that ministry is a mercy, which is grace bestowed upon the undeserving. The godly response is gratitude, as we see from Paul’s words to Timothy:

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1 Timothy 1:12-15)

Sometimes pastors say to me, “My church isn’t treating me well. I deserve to be treated better!” Really? Remember that your salvation is a mercy. The fact that you’re not in hell is a mercy. Ministry itself is a mercy. People often talk about burnout in ministry, but long ago I realized that burnout is not because the work is too strenuous. You don’t hear ditchdiggers complaining that they’re getting burned out digging ditches. What makes people burn out is discouragement, and discouragement is connected to unrealistic expectations. If you realize, however, that you deserve nothing and that everything good in your life is a mercy from God, you know what you need to be able to thrive.

“There’s a core of people in every city who influence people for eternity.”

What happened when those 250 people walked out of the church? I was tempted to react in the flesh and say, “Those people don’t appreciate me. I’m not going to take this!” and then go home to complain to my wife. The right response is, “I don’t deserve to stand up and teach any of these people. If they all walked out next Sunday, I’d be getting what I deserve.” It is a mercy I have not so affected my wife that she walked out. It is a mercy I have not somehow disappointed my children and made them turn away from Christ. It is a mercy I haven’t stood in the pulpit and said such stupid things that my congregation ran me out of town!

Paul Embraced the Necessity of a Pure Heart

There is a third element I want to mention to you. Paul went on to say, “We do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:1–2). What is more important than holiness? “Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God,” Paul would write a little later on (7:1).

He wanted to present the church to Christ “as a pure virgin” (11:2). “I fear,” he admitted, that “I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced” (12:21). Paul wrote against all forms of sin and categorized them into useful personal checklists, which he first applied to himself. That is why he had no secret sinful life, which is particularly significant since he was an ex-Pharisee who was a master hypocrite. According to Jesus in Matthew 23, the Pharisees were whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones; so they were masters at covering up hidden shame.

Time and truth go hand in hand: given enough time, the truth will come out. James explained that lust is conceived on the inside, but it soon gives birth to sin (James 1:14–15). I’ve spent forty years in the same congregation. Some of those dear people know everything there is to know about me upside down and backwards and about my children and grandchildren. If you’re living a hidden life, it’s going to come out, and you’re not going to make it. The only way to avoid that problem is dealing with sins of the heart on an ongoing basis.

Paul was honestly able to state, “Our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you” (2 Corinthains 1:12). The conscience is not a heavenly court, but it is the highest earthly court, for it is the soul’s warning system. Romans 2 explains that it either accuses or excuses us. It is to the soul what pain is to the body. Your conscience makes you feel guilty, anxious, sleepless, and filled with regret or it brings joy, affirmation, peace, and contentment.

I remember reading years ago about an Avianca airplane that flew straight into a mountain. It was a Boeing jet full of people that was on its final approach to landing. When the plane’s radar detected that the plane was off course and headed for a mountain, it triggered an electronic warning voice that said, Pull up! Pull up! Pull up! Inexplicably, the pilot did not pull up. The last sound recorded on the cockpit recorder was the pilot saying, “Shut up, gringo!” just before he switched the warning system off. Less than a minute later, he hit the side of the mountain, and everyone on board perished in an instant. The radar described the reality, and the warning system reacted, but the pilot did precisely what many foolish people do with their own consciences.

God has placed inside each one of us a conscience that acts as an early-warning system. The more you saturate your conscience with the Word of God, the better informed and more useful it will be to you. That was the testimony of King David, who wrote, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11). That was the testimony of Paul, who could say, “My conscience is clear. I’m winning the battle on the inside.”

In 1749 Charles Wesley wrote a little-known hymn called “I Want a Principle Within.” I think we should sing it more often as a form of self-protection:

I want a principle within 
Of watchful, godly fear, 
A sensibility of sin,
A pain to feel it near.
I want the first approach to feel 
Of pride or wrong desire,
To catch the wandering of my will 
And quench the kindling fire.

From Thee that I no more may stray, 
No more Thy goodness grieve
Grant me the filial awe, I pray 
The tender conscience give. 
Quick as the apple of an eye, 
O God, my conscience make;
Awake my soul when sin is nigh, 
And keep it still awake.

Almighty God of truth and love, 
To me Thy pow’r impart;
The mountain from my soul remove, 
The hardness from my heart.
Oh, may the least omission 
Pain my reawakened soul,
And drive me to that blood again, 
Which makes the wounded whole.

Paul Embraced the Duty of Accurately Handling the Word of God

Paul explained to the Corinthian church that he and his coworkers in Christ steadfastly “renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). The Greek word translated “cunning” (panourgia) speaks of someone capable of doing anything to reach his goals by being shrewd, unscrupulous, and deceptive.

There are plenty of so-called ministers like that, but all true ministers of Jesus Christ shun such manipulative techniques, following instead the example of Paul and company: “We are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:17). Nothing purifies a person’s motives like remembering that “all [things] are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).

Be faithful and true to the Word of God. Have a relentless commitment to biblical fidelity. If you don’t do that, you can’t survive long in one place. You’ll have to take your show on the road or on TV, where it is easier to manipulate people since they don’t get to know you day in and day out. If I manipulate a passage of Scripture for selfish ends, eventually I’m going to get caught. Rather, my commitment is to follow Paul’s command to Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). That requires lots of hard work and study, but that is the minister’s calling.

The truth of Scripture has an ally in a very foreign place, the human heart, “for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Romans 2:14–15). There is no ally in the human heart for your thoughts and ideas, but there is for divine truth, so be careful to handle it accurately to bring about the best results.

is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church, as well as an author, conference speaker, president of The Master’s University and Seminary, and featured teacher of Grace to You.