The Subjective Call of God

(On Mondays, The Preacher considers the vitally important subject of The Call – how God calls a man into a pastoral and preaching ministry. Each week we look at some scriptural principles and some practical considerations, as well as learn from a wide range of individual testimonies.)

Having looked last time at the necessity of a call from God into a pastoral ministry, in this study we look at the internal or subjective sense of call that often begins that process in a man’s heart.

Whatever you may think of it, I have had a definite and irresistible call from God to serve Him in the Church.  During the last three years I have become increasingly conscious of this call, and my life now could be summed up in the words ‘separated unto the gospel of God’.  There is no higher service; I ask no other.

(John Stott) [i]

God’s call begins with God

“None but He who made the world can make a Minister of the Gospel.”

John Newton

As we have already stressed, this is something that begins with God and not with me.  The clue lies in the very terminology – the call of God.   Even when we consider what it means, in Paul’s words, to aspire to the work of eldership, when properly evaluated that aspiration will be discovered to have been planted in a man’s heart and soul by God.

There is, says Jesus, a “Lord of the harvest” (Matthew 9:38), and he appoints and assigns workers, wherever he desires in the work of the kingdom.  That is applicable to the work of pastoral ministry as it is to that of cross-cultural ministry to which that verse is perhaps most commonly applied.

God’s call could begin with a desire in our own hearts

Charles Spurgeon claimed that, “The first sign of the heavenly calling is an intense, all-absorbing desire for the work. In order to a true call to the ministry.” [ii]

John MacArthur writes, “In 1 Timothy 3:1 the apostle Paul has written, “If any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.” The word translated “aspires” is (ὀρέγεται), a word occurring only three times in the New Testament. It means “to stretch oneself out in order to touch or to grasp something, to reach after or desire something.”” It pictures a runner lunging for the finish line. The second time the word appears is in 1 Timothy 6:10 where it is translated “longing” related to money, which is the object of so much love as to make it the very foundation for “all sorts of evil.” The third usage is in Hebrews 11:16 where it is rendered “desire,” with the object of desire being a “better country.” So each context determines how legitimate the stretching and reaching is.

“The second word speaking of inner compulsion in 1 Timothy 3:1 is (epithume), a verb meaning “to set one’s heart upon, desire, lust after, covet. The noun form of this verb usually has a bad sense, but the verb has primarily a good or neutral sense, which expresses a particularly strong desire. This aspiration for the ministry is therefore an inward impulse that releases itself in outward desire. Sanders noted that it is not the office but the work that is the object desired.” It must be a desire for service, not for position, fame, or fortune. So this aspiration is good as long as it is for the right reasons.” [iii]

God’s call could begin with a desire to care for souls

Very often, the call to pastoral ministry begins, at least from a human perspective, with a desire in the heart of a man to care for souls, to minister to the spiritual needs of men and women in his local congregation.  He does not wait for an official role to be identified for him or a formal job title to be given to him.  He just naturally finds his heart burdened by and drawn to pastoring other believers.

It has often correctly been said that ever before an elder is set apart as an elder he is already doing the work of an elder.

It is important to also bear in mind that the aspiration Paul speaks of in 1 Timothy 3:1 is an aspiration to the office of overseer, not just to be a preacher.  Therefore, he will, in some sense, aspire to every aspect of the work of the overseer – preaching, caring, serving, overseeing, ruling, rebuking, correcting etc etc.

God’s call could begin with a desire to minister the Word of God

While the work of the overseer involves more than this, as we have seen, it certainly involves this.  It is, of course, the one distinctive qualification of the elder as opposed to the deacon – the ability to teach.

Speaking of my own personal experience, there is no doubt that from an early age I had a real burden for teaching and preaching, and that came before the desire to care for souls, it has to be said.   I found a great delight in reading and studying the Scriptures that overflowed in a desire to share what I had found with others.

God’s call could begin with an awareness of the need

Thought it must be stressed that the need is not in itself sufficient for a call, as that would be a purely emotional response, it is often the way that God plants the seed of a call in a man’s heart.  You might hear the plea of a pastor labouring away in a country where the need of gospel churches is great and feel God tugging at your heart strings, whispering – You are the man!

God’s call could begin with someone recognising a gift or ability in us

We might, for example, be asked to take part in a service or Bible study and someone detects in our voice, our manner or our words an ability or even an authority, that prompts them to draw it to our attention.  This requires great care and sensitivity as we react because our hearts are deceitful and proud and we love the praise of others, but it might be a means God uses to awake within us a sense of call.

Derek Prime testified, “My own conviction concerning the call to the ministry was present soon after my conversion in my teens.  It surfaced when it was my turn to give the talk at the young people’s meeting of the church through whose witness I had been brought to Christ.  The pastor was present, and afterward he turned to me and asked, “Derek, have you ever thought of the ministry?” [iv]

I want to commend this approach to all men in oversight roles in local churches.  We should be looking out for men in our fellowships, praying over our membership lists, that God would identify in his own way those we should be speaking to about and encouraging in considering some form of ministry.

God’s call is irresistible

This is what lies behind the Spurgeonic advice I refer to in my own testimony.

“John Ryle, a nineteenth century bishop of Liverpool, had no early sense of call, and when he shared his decision to enter the ministry it came as a complete surprise to everyone.  His explanation was, “I felt shut up to do it and saw no other course of life open to me.” [v]

“In order to a true call to the ministry there must be an irresistible, overwhelming craving and raging thirst for telling to others what God has done to our own souls…..what if I call it a kind of στοργή, such as birds have rearing their young when the season is come; when the mother-bird would sooner die than leave her nest.  It was said of Alleine by one who knew him intimately, that “he was infinitely and insatiably greedy of the conversion of souls”; he was “inspired with an impatience to be occupied in direct ministerial work.”…..If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor, or a grocer, or a farmer, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a senator, or a king, in the name of heaven and earth let him go his way; he is not the man in whom dwells the Spirit of God in its fulness, for a man so filled with God would utterly weary of any pursuit but that for which his inmost soul pants.  If on the other hand, you can say that for all the wealth of both the Indies you could not and dare not espouse any other calling so as to be put aside from preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, then, depend upon it, if other things be equally satisfactory, you have the signs of this apostleship.  We must feel that woe is unto us if we preach not the gospel; the word of God must be unto us as fire in our bones, otherwise, if we undertake this ministry, we shall be unhappy in it, shall be unable to bear the self-denials incident to it, and shall be of little service to those among whom we minister.” [vi]

I apprehend the man who is once moved by the Spirit of God to this work will prefer it, if attainable, to thousands of gold and silver; so that; though he is at times intimidated by a sense of its importance and difficulty, compared with his own great insufficiency (for it is to be presumed a call of this sort, if indeed from God, will be accompanied with humility and self abasement), yet he cannot give it up.

John Newton

“More important still, behind this advice there is the basic truth that God always give a clear call to those whom He has chosen for the ministry so that when that call comes they can do nothing other than respond to it. They will not be able to say ‘no’ to it. It follows that if someone thinks he may be called to the ministry but is not absolutely certain, then he should wait until he is sure. God does not give uncertain calls.” [vii]

Pastor Al Martin compares the standard advice given by Spurgeon – that of “if you can possibly do anything else, do not preach, do not go into the ministry”, with that attributed to Robert Dabney which he sums up as, “if you can preach at all, do not, you dare not, do anything else”. [viii]

At one end of the spectrum, Dabney seems to be saying that if you have the desire and ability to preach and pastor, assume that God has so gifted you unless, in Martin’s words,  the “impediments are so clear and the obstacles so evidently from God”.   Spurgeon’s says, again in Martin’s words, “if you can do anything else and maintain a good conscience, invest your life in any other calling but that of the Christian ministry.” (emphasis mine).

Personally, I don’t view these two positions as being so far apart as it might at first seem.   Since it is a godly aspiration to consider pastoral ministry, would it not be right for a man to explore the possibilities and options, to push at doors to “test everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).   

I would agree with both Spurgeon and Dabney.  I think they are both correct.  I would have no hesitation in saying to a man who I thought might be gifted for pastoral ministry, or who himself possibly senses such a call – give God the chance to turn you down

  • God’s call brings a deep sense of unworthiness

“Another element of a call is a deep and abiding sense of personal weakness and unworthiness. He who feels aright in view of the difficulties and responsibilities of the work, must with Paul say, “Who is sufficient for these things?” “[ix]

So, what steps should we take if, in these and possibly other ways, we begin to sense what just might be a call of God to pastoral ministry

Pray

Proverbs 3:5-6; Isaiah 30:21

But I was dreadfully afraid of mistaking my mere human emotions for the will of God. So I resolved to make it a subject of close deliberation and prayer for a few days longer, and to look at the proposals from every possible aspect.”

John Paton [x]

Jim Packer’s biographer comments, “He was convinced that, being shy, he did not relate easily or naturally to other people. In particular, he felt (as he still feels) acute difficulty in speaking to children. This, he argued to himself, was inevitably going to cause him difficulties in ministry. Yet he was convinced that — whatever the difficulties — he wanted to minister to the people of God. Finally, during his third year at Oxford, in 1946, Packer spent a long Sunday afternoon thinking and praying about his future.” [xi]

Share

If applicable, share your thoughts and your desire with your wife or, if applicable, with a woman you envisage making your wife in the future, and together wrestle in prayer with God, for if God is calling you, he will also be calling your wife or prospective wife.  Without your wife’s wholehearted agreement and support you dare not venture into pastoral ministry.

Share with your spiritual leadership and ask them for their counsel but also for their prayers – both for you and with you.  One of the great joys of my time in ministry in Liverpool was when a young man begin to explore whether God’s call was on his life for pastoral ministry and I met with him and his wife every fortnight to pray about this one issue.

Take counsel, too, with other godly people who know both God and you well.

Here’s more wise advice from Spurgeon. “Considerable weight is to be given to the judgement of men and women who live near to God, and in most instances their verdict will not be a mistaken one.  Yet this appeal is not final nor infallible, and is only to be estimated in proportion to the intelligence and piety of those consulted.  I remember well how earnestly I was dissuaded from preaching by as godly a Christian matron as ever breathed; I endeavoured to estimate, with candour and patience, the value of her opinion; but it was outweighed by the judgement of persons of wider experience.  Young men in doubt will do well to take with them their wisest friends when next they go to the country chapel or village meeting-room and essay [attempt, try] to deliver the word.  I have noted – and our venerable friend, Mr Rogers, has observed the same – that you, gentlemen, students, as a body, in your judgement of one another, are seldom if ever wrong.  There has hardly ever been an instance, take the whole house through, where the general opinion of the entire college concerning a brother has been erroneous.  Men are not quite so unable to form an opinion of each other as they are sometimes supposed to be.” [xii]

Weigh

With God’s help, a man in this situation needs to reflect at length on all the characteristics and areas of gifting required for pastoral ministry, drawing both from Scripture as well as the wisdom of counsellors.  This needs great care, but we are instinctively self-deceiving and usually kinder to ourselves then we merit, but if we share our own insights and observations with wise and godly advisers, we will limit the possibility of self-delusion.


[i] Dudley-Smith, T. (1999). John Stott: The Making of a Leader. Downers Grove: IVP.  p18

[ii] Spurgeon, C. H. (1954). Lectures to my Students. London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott. p26

[iii] MacArthur, J. (1960). Pastoral Ministry. Nashville: Nelson.  pp89-90

[iv] Prime, D. a. (2004). On Being A Pastor. Chicago: Moody Publishers.  p26

[v] Prime, D. (2003). Pastors and Teachers. Hants: Christian Books. p19

[vi] Spurgeon, C. H. (1954). Lectures to my Students. London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott.  pp26-7

[vii] Prime, D. (2003). Pastors and Teachers. Hants: Christian Books.  p16

[viii] Martin, A. N. (2018). The Man of God Vol. 1 Pastoral Theology. Montville: Trinity Pulpit Press.  P35-36

[ix] Prime, D. (2003). Pastors and Teachers. Hants: Christian Books. p28-29

[x] Paton, J. (2007). John Paton, Missionary to the New Hebrides. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust.  Pp53-54

[xi] McGrath, A. (1997). J. I. Packer: A biography (Grand Rapids: Baker. Grand Rapids: Baker. P30

[xii] Spurgeon, C. H. (1954). Lectures to my Students. London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott. p29

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