Imagine that you want to purchase a new, sturdy, handcrafted kitchen table, assembled from the finest pieces of oak. You happen to live near an Amish community, and you know that the Amish have a well-earned reputation for fine furniture that endures the test of time. So you find an Amish carpenter – we’ll call him “Ezekiel” – and you arrange to meet Ezekiel at his shop. But when you arrive, you notice something very strange: there is not a single scrap of wood in the entire shop. There are tools scattered everywhere but not a single piece of wood to be seen.
Ezekiel emerges from the back of the shop and greets you with a firm handshake. “This may be a silly question,” you say, “but where is the wood?”
“Oh, I don’t use wood. I’m a wood-less carpenter,” he says.
You leave the shop, confused. What kind of carpenter doesn’t use wood? Wood is at the very heart of carpentry. There is no such thing as a carpenter without wood, just like there is no such thing as a computer programmer without code, or a doctor without medicine. Wood is absolutely essential to the role of carpenter.
The gospel is at the very heart of pastoral ministry. You cannot have true ministry without having the gospel at the very core. This means that the call to ministry is a call to gospel work. The gospel is absolutely essential to the role of pastor.
How come? There are many reasons, but let me offer a couple that are of critical importance.
The Gospel Fixes Our Identity in Christ, Not in Ministry
Sometimes men pursue ministry because they want to be praised and admired by others. They want to be the guy in charge, the guy calling the shots, the guy behind the microphone. Most jobs don’t have a built in affirmation flow. Mechanics and engineers are rarely praised for their labor. But a guy in ministry can receive a disproportionate amount of encouragement and admiration (“That was such a wonderful sermon, pastor;” “Your counseling has changed my life, pastor”).
Or, the opposite can happen too. An experienced pastor of two decades is still only a few bad decisions away from an approval crash. Seasons of intense criticism can come, where all those compliments he used to receive evaporate like mist on a lake.
Both the pastor pursuing admiration and the one under intense criticism need to be rooted in an unchanging gospel reality: Their identity is fixed in Christ, not in ministry itself. See, the gospel reminds us that because of Christ, we already have all the acceptance we will ever need. Our striving for glory and recognition grinds to a halt when we remember that we possess the only acceptance that really matters. The gospel also shields us from arrows of criticism. It reminds us that God loves us and delights in us because of Christ, not because of our ministry success.
If you feel called, there is one thing you must never forget: Whatever God may say in the future regarding ministry, he has already spoken the most important things about you through the cross.
That’s why the gospel is so essential for ministry. It installs guardrails for the man pursuing ministry that protect him from distraction, and it guides him towards the real reason for his role.
Pastors Lead with the Gospel and Through the Gospel
Effective pastoral ministry always involves helping people comprehend how the gospel speaks to their particular situation. If you want to be in pastoral ministry, you must first be able to apply the gospel effectively to your own life, and then to the lives of others.
A good example of this can be seen in Galatians 2, when Peter and Paul square off in an epic Apostolic throwdown. Peter had arrived in Antioch some time back, and he had enjoyed food and fellowship with the Gentiles. But when the representatives from Jerusalem arrived, Peter suddenly bailed out on the Gentiles. He refused to eat with them or spend time with them.
When Paul arrived on the scene, he took up the task of bringing Peter back to his gospel senses. But what’s really interesting about this passage is not Peter’s sin of hypocrisy (Peter was never shy about sinning), but how Paul actually diagnosed the problem. In verses 11-14, Paul says:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (underline mine)
Paul interpreted Peter’s behavior not just in reference to the law, or the words of Christ, or particular Jewish customs, but in reference to what it revealed about Peter’s understanding and application of the gospel itself.
Paul said that Peter’s conduct was, “…not in step with the truth of the gospel.” Yes, Peter had drifted into hypocrisy, but Paul made it clear that Peter had a much more serious problem. He drifted from the gospel! He had to help Peter understand how the gospel applied to his particular sin and situation. In Paul’s mind, that was probably the most important thing he could accomplish.
The work of pastoral ministry is helping people apply the gospel to their particular sin and situation. To the Christian who is bitter, we encourage her to, “…forgive, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). To the husband who is passive: “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church” (Ephesians 5:25). And to the Christian who is stingy with his money, we say, “ For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
In other words, pastoral ministry is about helping people locate where the gospel speaks to their struggles, fears, anger, and selfishness. Tim Keller says, “All of our problems come from a failure to apply the gospel.” If you aspire to pastoral ministry, you must first be able to do this in your own life. You must be well acquainted with the gospel.
Do You Know the Gospel?
If you long to be in pastoral ministry, the starting place is the gospel. You must know the gospel, love the gospel, and delight daily in the glory of the gospel. The gospel should be aimed first at your own struggles and fear and sins. Your love of approval must be smothered by the resplendent weight of the gospel. Your fear of criticism must be crucified by the retelling of the gospel. The gospel is of help through you because it has been applied to you.
There is no pastoral ministry without the gospel. Reach for nothing more, accept nothing less.