What would you say is the first and most essential thing for pastoral ministry?
I think often times I’m guilty of assuming this thing. I jump right to other important issues: teaching ability, meeting the character qualifications, and so on.
But the first and in some sense most essential thing is that an elder be a Christian. I know. That goes without saying. But it needs to be said. How can a man preach the gospel to others without first having laid hold to Jesus Christ himself? Richard Baxter put it so well in The Reformed Pastor:
“Take heed to yourselves lest you should be void of that saving grace of God which you offer to others, and be strangers to the effectual working of that gospel which you preach; and lest, while you proclaim the necessity of a Saviour to the world, your hearts should neglect him, and you should miss of an interest in him and his saving benefits. Take heed to yoruselves, lest you perish while you call upon others to take heed of perishing, and lest you famish yourselves while you prepare their food. Though there be a promise of shining as stars to those that turn many to righteousness (Dan. 12:3), this is but on supposition that they be first turned to it themselves: such promises are made caeteris paribus, et suppositis supponendis. Their own sincerity in the fiath is the condition of their glory simply considered, though thier great ministerial labours may be a condition of the promise of their greater glory. Many men have warned others that they comen not to the place of torment, which yet they hasted to themselves; many a preacher is now in hell, that hath an hundred times called upon his hearers to use the utmost care and diligence to escape it.
“Can any reasonable man imagine that God should save men for offering salvation to others, while they refused it themselves, and for telling others those truths which they themselves neglected and abused? Many a tailor goes in rags that maketh costly clothes for others; and many a cook scarce licks his fingers, when he hath dressed for others the most costly dishes. Believe it, brethren, God never saved an my for being a preacher, not because he was an able preacher; but because he was a justified, sanctified man, and consequently faithful in his Master’s work.
“Take heed, therefore, to yourselves first, that you be that which you persuade others to be, and believe that which you persuade them daily to believe, and have heartily entertained that Christ and Spirit which you offer unto others. He that bade you love your neighbors as yourselves, did imply that you should love yourselves and not hate and destroy both yourselves and them.”
Perhaps this is why our recent ordination vows began with the question: “Do you reaffirm your faith in Jesus Christ as your own personal Lord and Savior?” What an important question!
First, the question assumes the elder “reaffirms” their faith. It’s not a first profession. As Paul tells us in 1 Timothy, the elder must not be a novice, a beginner, someone new to the faith. Instead, he must be a man that already possesses a solid understanding of the things of God and now stands to affirm once again that he has tasted the goodness of God in salvation.
Second, the question roots that faith in Jesus Christ. The elder’s faith must not be general and misty. His hope of eternal life must not rest on shoulders other than the Lord’s. He’s not just a positive thinker or a vaguely spiritual person. His trust is in Jesus, the only Christ, the promised Messiah, the Son of God, God the Son, the only Mediator between God and man, the Savior of the world, the crucified and resurrected Lord, the coming King, the reigning Sovereign, the One who lives to make intercession for us, the Alpha and the Omega. The elder reaffirms that he has faith in this Jesus–not the Jesus of Tom Brokaw specials, not the Jesus of seminar groups, not the Jesus of Islam or Christian cults. He must believe on Jesus as He offers Himself in the gospel.
Third, this profession must be personal. Jesus must be the elder’s very “own personal Lord and Savior.” The pastor must have a saving interest in Christ. He must possess the Lord. He cannot preach “the Jesus that Paul preaches” lest he gets beaten by every demon that knows Jesus and knows Paul but has never heard of the preacher! He cannot profess the faith by proxy. Mom and dad’s faith won’t do. Another pastor’s relationship with the Lord won’t suffice. He must reaffirm that indeed he has fellowship with the living Christ–not merely as a subject of the King but as someone in communion with the King. It’s not merely that the elder belongs to Christ; that’s accomplished by the mere fact that the Lord is the God who already owns all things. But Christ Jesus must belong to the elder as well. That requires the elder have been born of God, receiving the gifts of repentance and faith, and living in holy communion with the Lord.
The question calls for a simple affirmative answer: “I do.” Stop now to consider what a wonder it is to be able to answer the question that way. “I do” know Jesus. “I do” have a personal relationship with Him. “I do” claim Him as my Lord and Savior. “I do” reaffirm it, before all on in the assembly and all in heaven. Not everyone on earth can say “I do” to that answer. The elder can say it only because God in Christ has redeemed Him, set His love on him before the foundation of the world, and made him His own through the cross work and resurrection of Christ Jesus. So much is confessed about both the elder and the Savior in those two words.
“I do.” With those two words on this first question the entire ceremony is transformed from ordination to marriage. We witness the renewal of vows far deeper than those of office holders. We see and hear the bride of Christ pledge herself again to the Groom of heaven. And with that “I do,” the elder pledges to make ready the entire bride for that glorious day when she shall descend the aisle of the heavens from God to meet the Bridegroom for eternal consummation in holiness, love and joy. We read this first question and answer and we cry, “Come, Lord Jesus!”