The concept of spiritual fathers and sons is found in Scripture. For example, the Apostle Paul refers to Timothy as his “beloved son” (2 Tim. 1:2; 2:1), for he had become Paul’s “beloved and faithful son in the Lord” (1 Cor. 4:17), his “true son in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2), who served him “as a son with [his] father” (Phil. 2:22). As Ambrose was to Augustine, Paul was instrumental in leading Timothy to Jesus. As John Calvin put it, Paul “had begotten [Timothy] in Christ; for, although this honor belongs to God alone, yet it is also transferred to ministers, whose agency he employs for regenerating us.” Paul uses this language of the spiritual father-child relationship in other epistles to describe his bond with those whom he led to Christ and subsequently discipled. For example, writing to the church in Corinth, he says, “For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15, NKJV). Likewise, he calls Onesimus “my son . . . whom I have begotten while in my chains” (Philem. 10, NKJV).
A faithful gospel ministry will have this mark. It will beget spiritual children and make disciples of Jesus Christ. We should thank God for the men and women He has used in our lives to lead us to Christ and nurture us in the truth. The late John Stott once reflected publicly on a man who was something of a Paul in his own life:
I thank God for the man who led me to Christ and for the extraordinary devotion with which he nurtured me in the early years of my Christian life. He wrote to me every week, I think, for seven years. He also prayed for me every day. I believe he still does. I can only begin to guess what I owe, under God to such a faithful friend and pastor.
Stott wrote that in 1973, after nearly three decades of service in the Christian ministry.
Is there a Paul or Ambrose in your life, someone mature in the faith whom the Lord has used or perhaps is still using to develop and mold you in the Christian life? Give thanks to God for him or her. Such a mentor is a priceless gift from God. Is there a Timothy or Augustine in your life, someone who is younger than you in the faith and looks to you for guidance and encouragement as a Christian? More than likely, that tender soul sees you as a spiritual father or mother, or at least as a big brother or big sister in Christ. Such a tremendous responsibility is understandably daunting and can fill us with fear. Yet what an awesome privilege to be used by the Lord in such a way. Ask God for wisdom, patience, and love. Or perhaps there is a non-Christian in your life who is attracted to your kindness. Sometimes the turning point for a nonbeliever is not an argument but a person, as it was for Augustine when he met Ambrose. Pray earnestly for that precious person as you seek by God’s grace to model the love of Jesus. Pray that the Lord will give you the opportunity to explain the reason for the hope that is in you and that the Lord may open that person’s heart to trust in Christ and find rest in Him.