Today John MacArthur marks the 50th anniversary of his service as senior pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. MacArthur is an author of dozens of books on theology, Christian living, expository preaching, and cultural and church issues. He has endured much and seen even more in his years at Grace. He is indeed a man whom God has granted faithful endurance.
A few months ago, I had the privilege to talk with MacArthur about persevering in ministry. That interview is captured here.
You’ve served as pastor of Grace Community Church for nearly five decades and no doubt have walked through innumerable dangers, toils, and snares. What posed the most serious threats to your persevering in the ministry?
Pastoring is really an effort to be the instrument of the Spirit of God in the sanctification of God’s people to see them conformed to Christ. I often think about the fact that election is purely God’s divine purpose before time, justification is a divine act in a moment, and glorification is a divine act in a moment. And in the biography of every Christian’s life, sanctification is this long, drawn-out process of conformity to Christ. And the instrument of that, of course, is the Word of God and the Spirit of God through the means of the shepherding of God’s people.
So I think the hardest part about pastoral ministry is the suffering Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 11:29: “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” You know it’s not about the numbers of people in your church. It’s not about a successful worship service. It’s not about a big event. My life sort of rises and falls in terms of gratitude and joy on the basis of what I see in the sanctifying process in God’s people—the flock the Lord has given to me.
It’s disappointing when you see people you’ve poured your life into, and you know they’ve had enough exposure to the truth to be maturing and faithful, and yet they are unfaithful or sinful or, even worse, sometimes mutinous in the life of the church, doing what they can to fight against leadership and cause division. On the positive side, the greatest joy is to see someone come to Christ and then flourish and grow into Christlikeness. The opposite of that is the most difficult thing to deal with, and sometimes you wind up questioning whether you’re the right person—maybe they need someone else speaking into their life. Particularly if you’ve been in the same place for a long, long time, you’re wondering if they’ve heard you so much that you sort of don’t have any influence left.
I think that for an enduring, long-term ministry, you live long with the wonderful, even multigenerational, blessings. I’ve stood by the bed of a dying, beautiful, sweet lady from a precious family whom I’ve known for decades. She and her husband are now both in heaven. Her children are in the church, her grandchildren are in the church, and now her great-grandchildren are coming into the church and being ministered to and nurtured as children. This is an incredible blessing—to see a church have the kind of continuity where it brings joy to somebody like that who’s looking down on three more generations. On the other hand, the downside is, you’ve got people exposed to the same kind of ministry, the same kind of fellowship, and they seem never to get on the path of sanctification and demonstrate much progress. That can be discouraging.
You’ve preached book by book, verse by verse for decades. How have you sought to keep growing in your ability to preach and in your passion for the task itself? How can we keep our preaching from growing stale?
I started preaching when I was young; my first sermon would probably be 60 years ago. I’ve found that what energizes me in preaching is the bottomless treasure of Scripture. It doesn’t matter how many times I go back to it. It doesn’t matter how many times I reexamine a passage. It’s an inexhaustible diamond mine. I just keep finding diamonds all over the place, and they have multiple facets. I would say at this point, at my age, I am more enthusiastic, more passionate about the things I preach than maybe I’ve ever been. And I’ve always been enthusiastic about it.
It doesn’t matter how many times I go back to [the Bible]. It doesn’t matter how many times I reexamine a passage. It’s an inexhaustible diamond mine.
But I still love the process of discovery. That keeps me fresh. I’m still trying to understand every nuance of every passage and every doctrine. I just would say after all these years in the Word of God, week after week, day after day, 60 years of this kind of preaching, the Word is more precious to me now than it’s ever been before, and preaching it is a greater privilege than it’s ever been. It’s now possible for me not only to prepare but also to draw from a well of the past that informs me even as I’m preaching. So there’s a kind of richness in my own experience. I think if I was on the road, and I had 25 sermons and I was going all over the place preaching the same 25, I’d wither and die. Or if I changed churches every seven or eight or nine years and I recycled the same sermons, I don’t think that would give me anywhere near the joy and the blessing of having to preach for 50 years to the same people every Sunday morning and Sunday night and know that I can’t just repeat what I’ve said, because they’ve already recorded it.
This has put me on course to continually search to understand the Scripture and the truth it yields better and better. It isn’t the exercise of preaching that I love. I’m happy to do that. It’s the privilege of proclaiming what I’m discovering. So it’s the discovering process that’s really underneath everything and is the reason I’ve stayed at Grace Community Church, other than that I haven’t had a lot of offers. The other reason I’ve stayed is I was afraid I would forfeit this freshness that being at the same place forces me into, and it has been the most incredible blessing in my life.
How have you approached your devotional life through the years, and how can a pastor remain fervent day in and day out, year in and year out, in his use of God’s ordained means of grace?
I’ve never really been able to see the difference between studying the Scripture to understand what it means so I can communicate it to somebody else and a devotional approach. So if I’m reading it, I stop and ask, “What does this mean?” That’s just the way I’m hardwired. The study energizes me. But on the side of study, simply reading Scripture is important. Through all these years, I’ve tried to do that in many different ways.
But I do two other things at a devotional level. I’ve loved reading biographies of people God has uniquely blessed, because I always wanted to compare myself with others whom I saw as far beyond me in their walk with the Lord and in their usefulness to him. So I love the sort of humbling effect of standing in the shadow of someone God has used in a mighty way, whether it’s David Brainerd, William Tyndale, or whoever.
The Word is more precious to me now than it’s ever been, and preaching it is a greater privilege than it’s ever been.
And the other thing is reading rich doctrinal material, whether an article, a systematic theology section, or a book on a given doctrine. That’s what my heart reaches out for in a devotional sense. Many years ago when I was in seminary, I got a copy of Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God. And I didn’t know that anybody could have that many thoughts about God at the time. Recently I read Sinclair Ferguson’s book The Whole Christ, and it enriched my grasp on sanctification and antinomianism.
Over the long haul, how do we keep Christ and the gospel at the center of our ministries—and keep other things from crowding them out?
On the road to Emmaus, Jesus said, “Look, I’m the theme of the Old Testament,” and he went into the Law, the Prophets, and the Holy Writings and spoke to them of all the things concerning himself. It’s anticipation of Christ in the Old Testament, it’s incarnation in the Gospels, it’s proclamation in the book of Acts, it’s explanation in the Epistles, it’s glorification or exaltation in the book of Revelation. If you’re a sequential expositor, you never get far away from Christ. You may be looking directly into his face in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. You’re then hearing his gospel being proclaimed throughout the book of Acts. If you preach through the New Testament, by the time you finish the Acts, you haven’t taken a breath without Jesus Christ being at the center of it. Then you get into the Epistles, and immediately they’re explaining who he is and why he came and what he accomplished.
The reason I do sequential exposition of books is because I’m afraid not to, because every word of God is true. If you do that, Christ is the unending theme of absolutely everything. You know this is where your focus has to be: as you gaze at his glory, you’re changed into his image from one level of glory to the next by the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18). I remember finishing the Gospel of John for a second time. I had preached through Matthew, Luke, then Mark . . . I did the Gospel of John for a second time because many who had joined the church hadn’t been there when I first did it. I finished John and said, “What would you want to do after this?” And they said, “Now we know the fullness of Christ in the New Testament. We think it would be wonderful to go into the Old Testament and find him there.” It’s sort of like finding Waldo—you can’t find him if you don’t know what he looks like. But when you know what he looks like . . . you find Christ everywhere.
If you’re a sequential expositor, you never get far away from Christ.
When the people get a glimpse of Christ in his full glory, they desire that. And I’ve never found any subject, any person even remotely close to him, who’s better for my own sanctification and the sanctification of our people.
Much has been written about pastoral burnout, and at least some of it seems linked to wrong expectations and disappointment. How can young ministers overcome that challenge?
The idea that you’re going to leave the ministry out of disappointment is a failure to understand that it was never about you; it was a service to which you were called. If you were in the military and your job was to stand and guard the food while everybody else went to battle, and you were a good soldier, you’d be there doing your duty, doing what you were commanded to do. You’d be honored to be in the triumph in the big picture. I think we let too many guys get away with leaving the ministry because of some personal dissatisfaction. I think that can be fueled by a failure to be in the Word of God, a failure to be a faithful expositor. So I tell young guys, “Look, the first two or three years of your ministry, do exposition, work hard, go deep into the text, pour yourself into that, and you’ll start good habits. Those habits will take over, and it won’t depend on self-discipline in the future—it’ll just be a habit. You just do it because you do it. And once you establish those kinds of consistent habits, that will sustain you through the hard times.”
If you don’t have those kinds of habits established in the early years, it’s harder to survive disappointment. Again, it goes back to trust in the Word of God, trust in the purposes of God, and trust in the call of God, where he’s placed you. Be faithful to the Lord, be grateful for the service to him. Let him take care of the results. I’ve often said, you take care of the depth of your ministry, and let God take care of the breadth. Someone once came up to an old preacher and said, “My congregation is too small.” He replied, “Maybe it’s as large as you’d like to give an account for at the day of judgment.” So I used to pray, “Lord, don’t give me any more people. I don’t want to be responsible for any more people.”
Have you detected patterns in friends and colleagues who’ve failed to endure in ministry? If so, how can those help us?
In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul compares the old covenant and the new covenant, talks about the fact that he’s a minister of the new covenant and gives all the ways it’s better. Then he comes in chapter 4 and says, “Having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart” (2 Cor. 4:1). Ministry is a mercy. It’s an undeserved mercy. That means I don’t deserve it. I couldn’t earn it. So why would I walk away from it if it doesn’t satisfy me? It is a mercy that I’m even in the ministry. . . . I think Paul sees it as a mercy, even as he suffered.
You take care of the depth of your ministry, and let God take care of the breadth.
He suffered and not only from things on the outside but even worse, all for the care of the churches. It was a life of suffering because he was so burdened over their sanctification being halted so frequently by false teachers and other things. I think if you’re going to endure in the ministry, you have to understand that being called to minister God’s Word is a mercy; it’s such an incredible privilege that you need to take it for what it is and not ask for more. The Lord has probably given you all he’s gifted you to handle.
Let’s say I’m a seminary student training for pastoral ministry or a brand-new pastor serving in my first vocational ministry position—how would you advise me to avoid the many pitfalls that threaten me both as a Christian and as a pastor?
Let’s assume you’re going to teach the Scriptures, let’s assume that’s in your commitment. I would say this: Love your people. To be able to survive 50 years, five decades, and not crash and burn and not develop animosity or disappointment in people—love them. You know the real work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer is to produce love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control. All those things need to be manifestly evident in the life of a pastor so he can survive.
If you don’t have those graces in your life by the Holy Spirit, you’re not going to survive. One of two things is going to happen. Either you’re going to go, or the people are going to go, and you’re going to be in a revolving-door church. You’re going to bring them in the back door with whatever you’re doing and run them right out the side door after they get to know you. So the one thing I’d say is take heed to yourself and to your doctrine. And by that I mean, let those people know that you give your life for them because you love them.
I’m holding in my arms the great-grandchild of the people I ministered to first. The families love me, and they love my wife, Patricia, and they love our family and our kids and our grandkids. There has to be integrity in your life, so take heed to yourself. The only way you can survive is by walking in the Spirit and having the Spirit manifest his fruit in your life. I’d say the proof of the character of a church is not its ability to attract young people. It’s its ability to hold old people. That’s the character of a church.
I’d say the proof of the character of a church is not its ability to attract young people. It’s its ability to hold old people.
If you asked me what marks Grace Community, I would say this: generations of people in the same families who love their church, who embrace their church in every way, who give generously and constantly, who serve, volunteer, fellowship, worship. That kind of endurance doesn’t come from a program. It comes from an affection that runs deep between a shepherd and his people, and it’s tested at every possible level through those decades. The end result and fruit of it is the richest of all spiritual experiences for the pastor and his people. But not many men experience that.