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Recently, a Ligonier Ministries staff member who also is a member of Saint Andrews Chapel, the church where I preach, remarked, “R.C., when you are in the pulpit, you have a gleam in your eye like I see nowhere else.” This person went on to say, “I can tell you really like it.”
I hadn’t realized that my love for the pulpit was that transparent, although I have confessed to many people who have asked that being the minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrews is one of my favorite things. It is a singular delight for me, and one I never believed I would be privileged to enjoy.
When I was ordained, my “call” was to a teaching position in a college. The teaching ministry to which I was ordained was, and continues to be, my chief vocation. I was not ordained specifically to the pastoral ministry. However, with my ordination to the teaching ministry came all the privileges and responsibilities of the clergy. That meant that I could officiate at weddings and funerals, administer the sacraments, and occupy the pulpit in churches.
Over the years, I have had the privilege of preaching in churches across the nation and overseas. But it is one thing to preach as a guest speaker; it is quite another thing to have your “own” pulpit and congregation. I understand full well that the pulpit does not belong to me and neither does the congregation. These are Christ’s lambs whom He purchased with His blood, but it my task is to feed them with His Word. Here the joy of the privilege of preaching meets the burden of responsibility that goes with it.
As the Old Testament priests were called of God to weep between the porch and the altar, so the modern preacher should trail his tears between the study and the pulpit. The pulpit is holy ground. It is that sacred place where the ministry of the Word issues forth.
Notice that we speak not so much of the ministry of the minister but of the ministry of the Word (to which must be added the ministry of the sacraments). We make this distinction because it is imperative that we locate the power in preaching where it belongs. It is not the preacher who is the power of God unto salvation. It is not my preaching that God promises will not return to Him void. The power is in the Word as God attends it with the power of the Holy Spirit. As Paul noted to the Corinthians, we may plant, another may water, but it is God who gives the increase.
What made Charles H. Spurgeon such a powerful preacher was not his eloquence or his personality: It was that God visited his preaching with the power of the Holy Spirit. I am convinced there was a link between Spurgeon’s loyalty to the Word and his accuracy in expounding it, and God’s blessing upon his preaching.
We preachers always hope God will use our sermons to pierce the hearts of our hearers. Yet we tend to try to make it happen in our own power. Every Sunday after the worship service, I greet our people at the door. Many of them say kind words about the sermon. I appreciate that, but when I get into the car to go home, I still turn to Vesta and ask, “How was my sermon?” She always says nice things about the sermon (she knows how easy it is for her to crush me). Yet no matter what words she uses, I can always tell from her response exactly what she thought. Sometimes she says, “This morning I didn’t think of you as my husband, but only as my pastor.” When she says that, I know something special happened with the sermon.
I want to preach well. I try hard to do so. But I have to keep asking myself about what it means to preach well. I have come to believe that to preach well is to preach faithfully, to expound the text accurately and boldly.
Just yesterday, after church, I listened to The Bible Study Hour on the radio. It was a replay of a sermon by the late James M. Boice on justification by faith alone. I realized that it was the first time I had listened to his voice on tape since he died in June 2000. As his voice came over the airways, I was gripped by a host of emotions as memories of our times together in ministry raced through my mind. But in minutes, those memories receded and my grief over his death passed, and I found myself in rapt attention to his words.
Near the end of Dr. Boice’s sermon, I turned to Vesta and said, “Who preaches like that today?” The question was rhetorical, as we both knew the answer—not too many. Jim’s sermons minister to me; though his life in this world is over, his ministry of the Word continues to bear fruit.
So it is with Spurgeon and other great preachers. God will use a man’s labor over and over again if that labor is to the honor and glory of God.
The first year I was a Christian, I heard a minister remark about the vocation of preaching. He said, “God only had one Son, and He made Him a preacher.” Even then I had a high view of preaching and the pastoral vocation. Yet my career has been in teaching rather than preaching. Why? The answer is simple. I was afraid of the pastoral ministry. I felt neither worthy of it nor up to its demands. I still feel that way.
It breaks my heart to know how many pastors are wounded by their congregations, how many are discouraged, how many leave their vocations every year. It is a holy vocation, and we need to honor it as such.