Training the Next Generation of Evangelical Pastors and Missionaries

The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) Annual Meeting | Orlando

The Thesis: Knowing God and Enjoying Him is the Greatest Need

The greatest need of the next generation of pastors and missionaries is exactly the same as the greatest need of every generation of pastors and missionaries that has ever or will ever exist. And therefore the central task of those who would train them never changes.

In fact, this great need is so central to all of life, and so definitive for all ministry, and so relevant to all cultures, and so ultimate compared to all other values, that it should be the all-absorbing passion of every Christian scholar and teacher,especially those who train pastors who shepherd the church and missionaries who plant it among the unreached peoples of the world.The need that I have in mind is the need of pastors and missionaries to know God and to find in him a Treasure more satisfying than any other person or thing or relationship or experience or accomplishment in the world—more satisfying than the honor or speaking to a plenary session of the ETS, more satisfying than the publishing of articles and books, more satisfying than the preciousness of friends. The greatest need of every pastor and every missionary is to know God better than they know anything and enjoy God more than they enjoy anything.

Therefore the supreme challenge of every scholar and teacher who would prepare these pastors and missionaries is: How shall I study,how shall I teach, and how shall I write, and how shall I live—how shall I give my seminar paper in Orlando, how shall I speak of sacred things over supper tonight, what will be my vigilance regarding television in the privacy of my room, will I rise early enough to pray concerning the magnitude of truth that is at stake in the workshops of this meeting—how shall I study and teach and write and live, so as to help pastors and missionaries know God better than they know anything, and delight in God more than they delight in anything? That is the supreme challenge of your life.

I know that there are other demands on us in the pastorate and on the mission field, if we are to do our job well. There are hundreds of them. And they change from year to year, even month to month, and from city to city, and church to church, and mission to mission, and people to people, and culture to culture. But there is one demand that never changes, and it is the main demand, and it is the hardest demand of the ministry to fulfil, and it is the most crucial demand if we are to do our jobs well—pastors and missionaries need to know God better than we know anything and must be more satisfied in all that God is for us in Jesus than we are in anything else—including our wives or husbands or children or ministries.

There are hundreds of other things to talk about in the ministry if we are to do our job well, but nothing comes close to the magnitude of the importance of this. I stress it for at least five reasons.

Five Reasons for Focusing on the Primacy of Knowing and Enjoying God

1. One is that doing our job well as pastors and missionaries means mainly bringing more and more people, among more and more peoples, to know God and to delight in him above all things. That's what our job is. And therefore the most fundamental,essential, pervasive need of our lives and our ministries is that we ourselves know God and enjoy God above all things. The absence of other skills and knowledge in ministry may hinder this job. But the absence of this all-pervasive necessity destroys our job.

2. The second reason I stress this is that when pastors and missionaries know God better than they know anything and delight in God more than they delight in anything, all the other important relationships and practices of ministry are sustained by God-exalting motives, and refined in the fire of God-centered truth, and empowered by the energy of God-saturated spiritual life. All that is secondary and good and important in ministry is sustained and refined and empowered by focusing on something else, namely, God. God does not destroy secondary things when he is known and loved above them.

3. The third reason I stress the centrality of knowing and enjoying God is that there is a tremendous, relentless,almost irresistible pressure in the churches today, and in the academy, and in mission agencies, to take God for granted, while we give ourselves to other things that are perceived to be more strategic or urgent or practical. There is a strange tendency today to say, "Yes, yes, of course, knowing and loving God is supremely important. How could anybody disagree?" And then to say, as if it were a tribute to God, "We take that for granted in all of our seminars and courses and syllabi and lectures and books and mission conferences and leadership gatherings. It is foundational for all we do."

But the problem with this is that you can't take it for granted that students or pastors or missionaries or teachers know God better than they know anything and find more satisfaction in him than in anything else in their lives. You can't assume that. The foundation simply isn't there.

The evidence for this is the emergence of the spiritual formation movement. It would not have occurred to anyone to add courses in spiritual formation if students were walking out of their Biblical classes aflame with a passion for the glory of God standing forth in the exegesis of his Word. It would not have occurred to anyone to add courses in spiritual formation if students were coming out of systematic theology and church history with their minds amazed at the majesty of God and their heart burning within them like the men on the road to Emmaus (Luke24:32).

In 1905, J. Gresham Machen experienced something in Germany that almost swept him away from orthodox Christianity. He wrote home from Germany about the incredible impact of Wilhelm Hermann, the systematic theologian at Marburg. Hermann represented the modernism that Machen would later oppose with all his might. But that wasn't all. Machen wrote:

My chief feeling with reference to him is already one of the deepest reverence. . . . I have been thrown all into confusion by what he says—so much deeper is his devotion to Christ than anything I have known in myself during the past few years. . . . He believes that Jesus is the one thing in all the world that inspires absolute confidence, and an absolute, joyful subjection; that through Jesus we come into communion with the living God and are made free from the world. . . . His trust in Christ is (practically, if anything, even more truly than theoretically) unbounded.

It simply would have been unintelligible to Machen if someone had said: What the seminaries need is courses in spiritual formation so that students can experience communion with God and learn about unbounded trust in Jesus and see examples of absolute,joyful submission to the purposes of Christ. Machen would have simply said, "You don't need special courses. Just take systematic theology with Wilhelm Hermann." If that could be said of a course from the likes of Hermann, what should be said of ours who esteem the Scriptures so much more highly? The spiritual formation movement in our day is a symptom of failure, as much as a sign of hope.

So when we hear this response: "Yes, yes, knowing God better than we know anything and delighting in God more than we delight in anything is foundational, we take that for granted—in our seminary courses and in our church growth seminars and in church planting workshops, and in our cross-cultural missionary training—yes, yes, that is foundational, we assume that, we take that for granted," we may very calmly say, "It is not to be taken for granted, because it isn't there."

And even if it were there as a foundation, there is a deeper reason why we shouldn't take it for granted, namely, God does not like being taken for granted, and he never intended that knowledge of himself or delight in himself be the quiet, hidden foundation for something else. The problem with the metaphor of "foundation"is that foundations are unsightly structures, out of sight and forgotten, while they hold up all the rooms where we do what we like to do: the kitchen where we like to eat, and the den where we like to watch television, and the bedroom where we like sex, and the living room where we like to meet with friends. They all depend on the foundation. But who ever thinks about the foundation?

The metaphor is a Biblical one. It is true. And it is utterly inadequate. God is not just our foundation. He is the food we eat.He is the entertainment of the eyes of our hearts. He is the lover of our souls. And he is the all-satisfying friend for our deepest loneliness. He does not mean to be taken for granted as the ground of our being while we enjoy other things. He means to be pervasive in every room and every course and every syllabus and every book and lecture and sermon and seminar and workshop and conference."Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1Corinthians 10:31). "Whoever serves, let him serve in the strength that God supplies that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ to whom belongs the glory and the dominion for ever and ever" (1 Peter 4:11).

4. Which leads me to the fourth reason why I am stressing that the greatest need of pastors and missionaries is and enjoy God above all things. When you smile and moan with delight at the Thanksgiving table next Thursday, you will not be glorifying the chair that holds you up, but the turkey in your mouth. And if you multiply your pleasures that evening with the ecstasies of your marriage bed, these delights will not be attributed to the mattress on which you lie, but to the person in your arms.

The point is this: The purpose of God in all pastoral labor and all missionary service is to be glorified publicly. God's aim is to be admired and magnified and honored in all the churches and in all of culture and among all the nations. And God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. This is the overarching point of all the Scriptures. I was struck again with this truth a few days ago in reading the prophet Ezekiel. Sixty times he tells us that God does what he does so that Israel and the nations will know that he is the Lord.

For example, in chapters 38 and 39—the prophecies concerning Gog and Magog—God says to this mysterious ruler, Gog, "I will bring you against my land that the nations may know me, when through you, O Gog, I vindicate my holiness before their eyes"(38:16). Notice the zeal of God that the nations "know" him and that his holiness be vindicated "before their eyes." Not in a corner or quietly or secretly, not taken for granted, but publicly and for all to see.

Then when Gog has done his work against Israel, the wrath of God will turn and be kindled against Gog himself. So the Lord says, "I will summon every terror against Gog, says the Lord. . . . So I will show my greatness and my holiness and make myself known in the eyes of many nations. Then they will know that I am the Lord"(38:21,23). "I will send fire on Magog and on those who dwell securely in the coastlands; and they shall know that I am the Lord"(39:6). "And my holy name I will make known in the midst of my people Israel; and I will not let my holy name be profaned anymore;and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, the Holy One in Israel" (39:7). "And I will set my glory among the nations; and all the nations shall see my judgment which I have executed, and my hand which I have laid on them. The house of Israel shall know that I am the Lord their God from that day forward" (39:21f).

I cite the witness of God in Ezekiel as typical of all the Bible. The uniform witness of Scripture is that the ultimate aim of God in all judgment and all mercy is that his glory might be magnified publicly among all the peoples of the earth. This the very meaning of missions and it is the ultimate aim of all pastoral labor—to display the glory of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.

Now, of course, I am assuming something. I am assuming that knowing the glory of God and enjoying the glory of God is the way that God intends for us to display and magnify the glory of God. My great guide among the mountain ranges of the Scriptures on this matter has been Jonathan Edwards. Here is the way he says it:

God glorifies himself towards the creatures also [in] two ways: (1) by appearing to them, being manifested to their understanding; (2) in communicating himself to their hearts, and in their rejoicing and delighting in, and enjoying the manifestations which he makes of himself. . . . God is glorified not only by his glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. . . . [W]hen those that see it delight in it: God is more glorified than if they only see it; his glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart. God made the world that he might communicate, and the creature receive, his glory; and that it might [be] received both by the mind and heart. He that testifies his idea of God’s glory [doesn’t] glorify God so much as he that testifies also [of] his approbation of it and his delight in it.

The greatest need for pastors and missionaries today is that we know and enjoy God—that we see and savor the glory of God. This is essential for displaying the glory of God. And that is the goal of all ministry and missions. Let me illustrate the need.

Charles Misner, a scientific specialist in general relativity theory, expressed Albert Einstein's view of preaching like this:

I do see the design of the universe as essentially a religious question. That is, one should have some kind of respect and awe for the whole business. . . . It's very magnificent and shouldn't be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion, although he strikes me as a basically very religious man. He must have looked at what the preachers said about God and felt that they were blaspheming. He had seen much more majesty than they had ever imagined, and they were just not talking about the real thing.

Einstein died in 1955, when I was nine years old. If he were alive today, his indictment would be even stronger, because today we have the Hubble telescope sending back infrared images of galaxies (of the 50 billion that may exist) from as far away, they say, as 12 billion light years (twelve billion times six trillion miles). And over against this majesty we have a steady diet on Sunday morning of practical "how to's" and psychological soothing and relational therapy that betrays, sooner or later, that the preachers do not know God as they ought and do not regard him as infinitely glorious and worthy of one focused hour a week. "They are just not talking about the real thing."

Even though God himself has spoken to them and said, "To whom then will you compare me? . . . [I] bring out their host [all the stars—in all 50 billion galaxies] by number, calling them all byname; by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing" (Isaiah 40:25-26). Einstein felt instinctively: If the God of the Bible exists, and if pastors and missionaries really know him and count him their greatest treasure,then something is profoundly wrong. "They are just not talking about the real thing."

What's wrong is that knowing God better than we know anything else and treasuring God more than we treasure anything else is not the passion of many pastors and missionaries. We have been driven and deceived into feeling that reading the next book by Barna or Drucker or Schaller is more crucial for ministry than understanding the visions of Ezekiel or the mysteries of God in Romans 9-11 that catapult Paul into song:

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?" "Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?" For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen.

The aim of the pastorate and the aim of missions is the glory of God. And knowing God and enjoying God above all things is the indispensable and all-important pathway to this end. That's the fourth reason for making it the centerpiece of my message.

5. One final reason (out of many!): knowing God and being satisfied in him above all earthly pleasures frees us for the kind of love that will suffer the loss of all things for the sake of every good deed and for the sake of finishing the great commission. The great commission will not be finished without martyrs (Revelation 6:11). And churches will not make God look like our all-sufficient, all-satisfying treasure if pastors and people have all the same values and priorities and lifestyle commitments that everybody around them has. Unless we become a lot more radical in the risks we take and the suffering we embrace, why should anyone believe that our treasure is in heaven—in God—and that he is more valuable than anything here?

The key is being utterly certain and utterly satisfied that "in his presence is fullness of joy and at his right hand are pleasures for evermore" (Psalm 16:11). Or as Paul said, that "to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). This is the key to the sacrifices demanded by love. No sequence of texts in the Bible makes it plainer than Hebrews 10-13. Here is a portrait of the people we need in the pastorate and on the mission field today.

First, the case of the early Christians in Hebrews 10:34, "You had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one." They suffered the loss of their property with joy in order to show compassion to the prisoners. How? What released such love?—"Since you knew that you had a better possession and an abiding one." They treasured God more than anything.

Then the case of Moses in Hebrews 11:24-26, "By faith Moses,when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he looked to the reward." He suffered the loss of all that Egypt could offer in order to embrace suffering as a leader of the people of God. How? What released such love?—"For he looked to the reward." He treasured God more than anything in Egypt.

Then the case of Jesus Christ himself in Hebrews 12:2, " . . .who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross,despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." Jesus embraced the suffering of the cross and gave shame no sway in his life so that he might die for his people. How? What released such love?—"For the joy that was set before him."

Finally, the case of the readers—you and me—in Hebrews13:12-14, "Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come." Here is a call to every Christian, but especially to every pastor and every missionary: Let us go to him outside the securities and comforts of the camp and bear abuse for the sake of his name. How? What will release such love? For "here we have no lasting city, but we seek a city which is to come." The city of this world is not our satisfaction, God is.

Where does the love come from that can suffer the loss of all things and make plain to the world that God is gloriously more to be desired than life itself? It comes from being certain and being satisfied that God is a better possession than all our goods, and that the reward of his presence is vastly better than the fleeting pleasures of Egypt, and that the suffering of our cross is not worth comparing to the joy set before us, and that the city which is to come will last forever and will be the habitation of God.

In other words, the lever that unstops the river of love for pastors and missionaries is knowing God better than you know anything and delighting in God more than you delight in anything.This is the greatest need in the next generation of pastors and missionaries, just as it has always been the greatest need of every generation of pastors and missionaries.

Concluding Exhortations

Someone might ask me now, "Why didn't you talk about your assigned topic, training the next generation of pastors and missionaries?" If I took the few minutes that I have to talk to you—and I may never stand before you again—and devoted my time to giving you my list of practical ideas about how I think theological education should be done, I would betray one of my basic convictions, namely, that knowing and being comes before doing and shapes doing. The problem we face in theological education is not technique, it's not curriculum, it's not time, it's not the busy-ness of our students; it's not pragmatic administrators; it's not lack of funds for research. The problem is that we don't have an all-consuming passion to know God in the fullness of his perfections and to enjoy him more than we enjoy anything in the world. Until your studies of God's word and God's ways fill your head with wonders and fill your heart with joy and your life with love, students will probably leave your classes feeling like they need some course on spirituality or some church experience to make the magic thing happen.

So I would only close with three exhortations and look to God to do the rest.

1. First, in all your studies seek to know God,the Creator of the universe, the Ruler of all things, the Savior of the world, the Sustainer of all being, the Guide of all history.Seek to know him as a Person with a character. Labor not to treat him as an idea. Fix your gaze on his glory in the face of Christ. Resist the vague, cloudy image and strive for a clear, sharp spiritual portrait with lines and contours that make him this and not that. Ask with every chapter of Scripture and every article and every book you read: what can I learn of my God from this? Where is God in this? And resist the addiction of methodological narcissism,that never finds the treasure because you never look up from the map.

2. Second, saturate your studies with the prayer of Psalm 90:14, "Satisfy us in the morning with thy steadfast love,that we may rejoice and be glad all our days." Plead with God that he not leave you unmoved by the glories revealed every day in the sky, and in the Scriptures. When you are drawn away from the greatness of your work by some silly financial scheme, pray earnestly the words of Psalm 119:36, "Incline my heart to thy testimonies, and not to gain!" When you feel the page go blank in your hand, plead the words of Psalm 119:18, "Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law."

Paul said in 2 Corinthians 1:24 that he was a worker with them for their joy. Spiritual joy—joy in God—is not native to the fallen human heart. It is a fight from start to finish. So be like Warfield when it comes to mingling prayer and study. When he was challenged that "ten minutes on your knees will give you a truer, deeper, more operative knowledge of God than ten hours over your books." "What!" he responded, "than ten hours over your books, on your knees?"

And be like John Owen who knew the secret of communion with God in the very act of study and theological controversy:

When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth—when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us—when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts—when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for—then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men."

And I would add, then will our students be set aflame by the authenticity of our knowledge of God and the intensity of our delight in him.

3. Finally, "take your share of sufferings as a good soldier of Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 2:3). Do not begrudge the day of your affliction. Luther noticed that, in Psalm 119, there were three rules for understanding the Scriptures and knowing God: Oratio, meditatio, tentatio (Prayer, meditation, trial). And trials (Anfechtungen) he called the "touchstone." Psalm 119:67, 71, "Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Thy word. . . . It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Thy statutes."Do not begrudge your sufferings in the school of Christ, he said,"[They] teach you not only to know and understand but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God's word is: it is wisdom supreme."

He proved the value of trials over and over again in his own experience. "For as soon as God's Word becomes known through you,"he says, "the devil will afflict you, will make a real doctor of you, and will teach you by his temptations to seek and to love God's Word. For I myself . . . owe my papists many thanks for so beating, pressing, and frightening me through the devil's raging that they have turned me into a fairly good theologian, driving me to a goal I should never have reached."

And have not most of us in this room seen our God more clearly and loved him more dearly because of the meditations and prayers and sufferings of this great man! And so it can be with you. May God make it so—for the sake of the pastors and the missionaries and the churches and the nations, who need to know God and enjoy him above all things.