The Summons Of The Saviour
Twenty-one years ago today, I preached my first sermon in my first church. At about the same time, many of my friends and contemporaries in the ministry preached their first sermons as well. However, as the years have unfolded, a significant number of those fellow ministers have quit the ministry, dropped out, fallen by the wayside.
Some have quit because their congregations expected too much of them. Some have quit because of the relentless demands on one’s time and energy in the pastorate. Some have quit because the grass is greener in other pastures—and the green of which I speak is money. Some have quit because they do not see changes taking place in the lives of the people or in the world about them. Some have quit because temptation conquered them.
Of course, as I have thought about that, I have realized that many congregations do expect too much of their ministers; the pressures of this calling are intense and draining; the “green” is greater in other pastures; and the ministry provides no exemption from either frustration or temptation.
However, none of that justifies quitting the ministry. Remember, for example, that Moses was terribly abused by the people he sought to lead. Jeremiah was ridiculed and belittled by those he sought to serve. Hosea was broken on the rack of a poor and sacrificial love. Matthew gave up the far greener pastures of tax collecting to follow Jesus. And Paul bore upon his body the physical scars of his costly service. But notice, please, that none of them turned away from the call which was theirs.
Therefore, what I am suggesting to you is this: that many of those who are dropping out of the ministry and many of those who are abusing their roles as ministers today are doing so because they lack “the summons of the Saviour.” They lack the true call of God to the Gospel ministry. They are not called—and never have been called. That is the reason they fall apart and go astray, and consequently damage the Body of Christ in our time. Today then, I want us to examine what we mean by the summons of the Saviour, the call to be a minister of the Gospel. And I want us to begin here…
The true call to the Gospel ministry possesses three parts.
There is what I would term the universal or general aspect of the call. That is to say, a person going into the ministry must have experienced the call which is common to all Christians to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. To be gripped by the piety of prayer, to believe with all one’s heart that the Word of God written in Scripture is God’s Word for today, to hold as your profoundest hope that all the world shall accept Christ as Lord and Saviour, and to dare to live as God’s man or God’s woman in the world—that is the universal call to all Christians.
Last winter I delivered the Staley Lectures at Montreat-Anderson College. I remember seeing a young man on the campus who had written on his T-shirt, “0 and 0.” I asked him what that meant. He replied: “It means ‘out and out for Jesus.'” Well, A Christian is one who is out and out for Jesus and that is the first part of the call to the ministry.
Then there is the providential aspect of the call. This means that a person who is thinking of entering the ministry must have the physical, emotional, and intellectual gifts which are necessary for carrying out ministry.
I shall not forget talking with a young man who was mildly retarded. He told me how his great desire was to be a minister. When I talked with him I was moved to tears by the depth and quality of his faith. He was “out and out for Jesus,” but he did not possess the providential gifts which would enable him to be a minister. College and seminary were out of the question for him. It was not easy, but I was able gently to lead him toward another avenue of service to his Lord and ultimately he did very well in that endeavor.
You see, before you enter the ministry, you must have the physical strength to stand the rigors of the calling. You must have the intellectual strength to be a student all of your life and never turn away from the books and the subjects which must be mastered. And you must be strong enough emotionally to bear the slings and the arrows of outraged parishioners or anyone else who chooses to attack you. So the providential aspect is the second part of the call.
The last part of the call is the special part—the secret, sacred call of the Holy Spirit. When a young woman or young man comes to the Presbyterian Church to be taken under care as a candidate for the ministry, one of the questions asked is this: What leads you to believe that you are called to the ministry? That question zeroes in on the call of the Holy Spirit. So many times I hear people answer that question by saying that they feel called because they got such and such a score on the vocational aptitude test, or they were influenced by the model of some minister they admire, or they were responding to the suggestion of friends, or they wanted to find a way to do some good in the world. Now there is nothing wrong with any of those things, but not one of those things, and not all of those things combined can equal the secret call of the Holy Spirit of God.
This past week I searched the Scriptures and studied twenty-two different calls given to people by God. The one thing they all had in common was that in every instance God’s Holy Spirit was active and powerful and personal. His Holy Spirit spoke so that people heard. They were called and they knew it. Just so God speaks clearly and distinctly to those He is calling to the ministry. He comes in divine initiative. He comes in sovereign communication. He comes in secret conversation. When you experience the special call of God’s Holy Spirit, you know it!
So the true call to the ministry possesses those three parts, and…
The true call to the ministry comes in three ways.
I think it is important for us to remember that God calls different people into His service at different times. Alexander Maclaren could not remember a day when he did not feel especially called to the ministry. Thomas Chalmers was five years old when he received the call—in fact, he used to set up his toys and preach to them! Some people are called later in life. Jeremy Taylor was a barber before he became a minister. John Henry Jowett was a law clerk, Phillips Brooks was a schoolteacher, Martin Lloyd-Jones was a physician before there came to them the call to be prophets of God. Samuel was called when he was a little boy, Isaiah was called when he was a young man, Moses was called in the full maturity of his years. The call comes at different times.
And the call comes by different means. Sometimes it comes through dramatic circumstances. I think here of the experience of the great Methodist preacher in England, Peter Mackenzie. Peter Mackenzie was asked once to substitute preach in a small rural Methodist church. He had once toyed with the idea of becoming a preacher, but then he had rejected it. However, in a moment of weakness, he accepted this invitation. When the appointed day arrived, he was so terrified that he climbed up into the attic of his house to hide, hoping no one would find him. While he was hiding there in fear, he heard three men come into the house downstairs. They had been sent from that little church to escort him there to preach. In a moment of desperation, Mackenzie did what he never counseled anyone else to do—and what I would never counsel anyone to do. He opened his Bible, stuck in his finger, and began to read where his finger was pointing. His finger fell upon Acts 10:19. Remember now that his name was Peter Mackenzie. This is what he read: “And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Behold three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them!’ ” Now that is a dramatic call!
Sometimes the call comes through what I would term congregational constraints. There was a time when John Ruff was preaching in St. Andrews, Scotland. Seated in the congregation was a young man named John Knox. Many people in that congregation felt that John Knox should be in the ministry, and they communicated that to John Ruff. As a result, in the midst of his sermon, Ruff turned to John Knox and addressed him directly saying: “Take upon yourself the public office of the ministry. You must, or you will be unable to avoid God’s heavy displeasure.” Knox was so stunned and embarrassed that he began to weep and fled from the church. Later, of course, he came back, and went on to become our great Presbyterian ancestor. Sometimes the mood of a congregation with regard to some person is so powerful and overwhelming that they feel constrained to lay hands upon that person and extend the call.
But most often the call comes by a kind of inner impression. For Mary it was the visit of an angel. For Jeremiah it was the blossoming of an almond rod. For Moses it was a burning bush. For Isaiah it was a spectacular theophany in the midst of public worship. But in every case, it was something that laid hands upon their heart, something that captured the soul, something that compelled obedience, something that could not let go. When the call comes, no matter which way it comes, it will not let go of you and you cannot let go of it. So the true call comes in three ways, and…
The true call to the ministry produces three results.
First, when you receive the true call to the ministry, you find your thoughts moving from sensual concerns to spiritual concerns. You begin to focus more and more on the soul and the things of the soul.
Next, you find your life moving from selfish concerns to social concerns. The giant passion of your life is no longer what you can do for you, but what you can do for others.
Then you find your point-of-view moving from the littleness of time to the greatness of eternity. Your center of gravity in life moves away from earth and toward heaven.
Now, mind you, being called by God into the ministry does not separate you from evil. It puts no wall between you and temptation. So while you are still subject to all of the things that hurt and hamper others, still you are expected to preach and to live the Word of God. And I want to tell you something: in order to do that, you must have the flags of the Spirit flying in your soul. You must have the trumpets of heaven blowing in your heart. You must have the energies of the Omnipotent moving through your life. You must be caught up in the rushing torrent of God so totally that you cannot say “no.” You must be able to say with Paul in Galatians: “God set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, and revealed His Son to me so that I might preach Him.”
In other words, you must be possessed by God. This is the mark of authentic call: to know that you are chosen by God and that you are sent by God. Such ones do not collapse. They may get depressed, yes, they may be defeated, yes. There may be times when they are mightily discouraged and filled with despair, yes. But they do not quit, for the simple reason that they cannot quit. And I, by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, am one of them.
I love mountains and I have seen many of them. I have seen Austria’s Hahnemkamm wearing a necklace of skiers. I have seen Switzerland’s Mont Blanc which is so beautiful but so deadly. I have seen Mount Mitchell towering in splendor over America’s Blue Ridge. I have seen Mount Rainier with its snowy peak, spangled by the sun. I have seen Mount Fujiyama jutting up out of the soil of Japan and into the imagination of all who behold its regal beauty.
I love mountains. That is why I was intrigued by a book called Annapurna. It is about two men who climbed to the top of Annapurna, the second highest mountain in the world, over 26,000 feet. When they reached the top, they were moved, not primarily by a sense of victory at having made it, or by a sense of wonder at the spectacular view. Instead, they wrote that they felt a great nearness to God!
I cannot climb mountains, but I do know what it is to scale the peaks of the prophets of God. I know what it is to be called by the Holy Spirit of God into the Gospel ministry. I know what it is to climb higher and higher in the Spirit until the air is so thin that sometimes you cannot breathe. But I say to you today, that I will keep on climbing. And what I long for and hope for and pray for is that you will join me. And together we shall scale and scramble and climb and claw our way to the highest peaks of service we can know…until there is nothing between us and God but a thousand hopes and ten thousands dreams of service. Yes, I want us to climb higher and higher, into the Son…always and forever, into the Son…