On a cold February day in Scotland, I read these words on a simple plaque: “George Wishart, 1513-1546 . . . The lettering G W on the roadway marks the spot where he died.” Falling snow obscured the “GW” from my sight and veiled the distant outline of St. Andrews castle. On the roadway, Wishart was burned at the stake for preaching the gospel. Within the walls of the castle reformer John Knox preached the same gospel before being enslaved for 18 months on a French galley. Shivering slightly, I wondered: What would these men have to say to me and to my generation of ministers?
A moment of self-disclosure: I’m a young pastor, 29 years old, with only six years of ministry experience and a lot to learn. I see my ministry as a part of a larger work of God taking place across multiple generations, a work represented in part by The Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, and the churches and church planting networks involved in the “gospel resurgence.” It is an exciting time to serve God’s church and watch God at work. But the experience of standing on that snowy road, drinking in the history of St. Andrews, was a healthy reminder that we are not pioneers in gospel ministry. The unquenchable light of the gospel, though it may ebb and flicker, never goes out, nor has it ever lacked preachers to tend it.
Wishart and Knox present a challenge to our generation of ministers: learn from this rich heritage of gospel ministry. The good deposit we have received has been passed along for centuries, and we do well to gaze often down the chain of runners. While we long to participate in God’s work in our generation, we must not model ourselves only after men of our own times. Doing so will give us a diminished vision for faithful ministry.
This is not merely a plea to read theology from previous eras. Yes, we may love Luther, Edwards, and Warfield’s theological insights, but whom do we seek to imitate in our ministry? Who are our pastoral heroes? If the men we follow come from the same generation and pastor similar churches, we have a problem. Faithful gospel ministry cannot be confined within one generation and one subset of evangelical culture. Pioneers, by definition, are people with no past to learn from—they’re the first ones here. But we are not pioneers.
Let me suggest two ways my generation of pastors and preachers would do well to learn from our heritage.
Study Older Preachers
In our day of podcasts and internet streaming, each of us is only a few clicks away from hearing outstanding sermons from multiple preachers. In many ways this is a tremendous blessing, but there’s also a danger. If we all listen to the same voices—even gifted, gospel-loving voices—we’ll all repeat the same mistakes. No one hears his own accent. It takes an outside ear to tell us we’re pronouncing “tomato” funny. Our generation of preachers, even as we strive to be faithful to the text, will inevitably have an “accent”—emphases and phrases and values unconsciously adopted. It is impossible for us to entirely escape this tendency. But it is dangerous to be unaware of it. If we blithely assume that every previous generation has seen the gospel exactly as we do, our children and grandchildren will inherit a truncated version of the gospel.
So let us listen to the sermons of the men God is raising up in our generation. But let us also listen to gospel heralds from other times and places. Take advantage of the tremendous resource of the Martyn Lloyd-Jones sermon library. Read sermons from other centuries and remember that these words were once preached by real men to real congregations of struggling saints and sinners. Sit down for coffee with a preacher who has labored in the pulpit for decades and learn from him. It’s one thing to preach a good sermon at a conference; it’s another to preach many sermons, good and bad, over many years to the same congregation. Let us learn from those men what it takes to remain in the pulpit for a lifetime and value that feat more than the number of downloads a single sermon receives.
Study Older Pastors
The previous point was specifically about sermons and preachers. Here I’m referring simply more broadly to the lives of pastors. Some jobs are new arrivals; you won’t find 200-year-old books on network administration. But pastoring is not a 21st-century development, and our generation is not the only one to write books on church life, the call to ministry, counseling, or any other form of pastoral “shop talk.” There’s something bracing about reading Horatius Bonar exhorting his fellow Scottish pastors in Words to Winners of Souls or Charles Bridges diagnosing the causes of “ministerial inefficiency” in The Christian Ministry. They assume things we forget. They take for granted aspects of pastoral character from which we excuse ourselves. We would do well to listen to their assumptions.
So let us devour every form of pastoral literature we can find. Read the Puritans on preaching and soul care. Read letters of spiritual counsel from men like John Newton. Read the biographies of our pastoral forefathers, and especially read the biographies they wrote about each other. Wisdom is learning to assess challenges in the context of centuries, not moments; pastoral wisdom is learning to see the challenges our churches face in light of the generations who have served Christ’s church before us instead of our own limited experience. Reading about their lives will give us this kind of wisdom.
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. If we will listen to their voices, they will challenge us, exhort us to faithfulness, encourage us to stay the course, and remind us that they experienced the same kind of trials we experience. May our generation of pastors be deeply marked by the lessons the centuries will teach us. Because brothers, we are not pioneers.