by Daniel R. Brown
The call of God to the gospel ministry, apart from salvation, is the single greatest qualifying mark for anyone who is a minister of the gospel. For this reason, ordination councils examine a man in three separate areas: his conversion, his call to the ministry, and his convictions on doctrine. The call of God is widely recognized as a first order priority by virtually every book on pastoral theology. These authors, crossing every spectrum of theological position, devote a section or an entire chapter to the subject. Most churches will usually ask a potential pastoral candidate to give expression to his call to the ministry.
Even after this emphasis in both our literature and our practice, the call of God has fallen upon hard times. My experience in ordination councils, as well as discussions with pastors and teachers, indicates that a great deal of confusion and doubt surrounds the discussion of God’s call to the ministry.
I believe there are several causes for this increasing lack of clarity about God’s call to the ministry. First, while an abundance of literature addresses the call of God, authors tend to describe the call in their own terms, so that great variety exists in how the call is defined and described. Second, the call of God is confused with a subjective, existential experience equivalent to someone saying, “God spoke to me.” Third, some are openly antagonistic against the call of God to the ministry (e.g., Friesen, Decision Making and the Will of God). This is not an apologetic against that position, but if a man states that he is definitely not called by God, I am willing to take him at his word. Fourth, the call of God is a part of understanding God’s individual will for one’s life. Those who deny that God has an individual will for the life of each Christian will undoubtedly choke on accepting God’s call to the ministry.
A brief word needs to be said about what the call of God is not. The call of God is not special visitation by God to a person via a dream or vision. The call is not happening to open up the right Chinese fortune cookie or seeing an apparition of Christ.
The call of God does involve a subjective aspect, in the same way that understanding God’s individual will for a person involves some subjectivity. We are rightly unwilling to give credence to the subjective, unconfirmed speculations of some. We want believers to be grounded in the objective Word of God. Yet we do understand that there is a subjective aspect to our Christian life. For example, the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are the children of God (Rom. 8:16). This verse indicates that there is an internal, subjective aspect to our assurance of salvation in addition to knowing and claiming the explicit, objective promises of Scripture.
The call of God to the ministry fundamentally includes two aspects. First, the call entails an overwhelming desire which, in my understanding, means a desire to preach. In 1 Tim. 3:1 Paul describes this “desire” with two different words. “If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” The first word (oregetai) means “to stretch oneself out in order to touch or to grasp something” (Abbott). It carries the idea of the runner who stretches for the finish line, desiring victory. In this sense, the first word involves an aspiration for the office. The second word Paul uses (epithumei) is often found in a negative context in the NT and translated as “lust” when the object of the desire is improper. The root idea of the term means a “burning upon” or a “desiring with passion.” Here the context is positive, but the strength of the term remains, “he desires (lusts or covets) a good thing.” The “desire” is not a whim or a passing fancy, but a passion that changes the course of one’s life.
The second aspect of the call of God in a man’s life includes an inescapable conviction based on the Word of God. The Scripture will grip a man’s heart and, when coupled with a passion for the ministry, will never release him. As this is an individual aspect of how God leads to His call, no two preachers will have exactly the same approach or testimony.
The call of God does not happen in a vacuum. Christ, in His active role of headship, calls men to the ministry (Eph. 4:11), the Holy Spirit directs the call (Acts 20:28), and the church verifies the call (Acts 13:2-3). The church has a major role in protecting the ministry and, therefore, the church should agree with a man’s call and qualifications prior to his entering the ministry. Thus we can say with Paul, “He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry” (1 Tim. 1:12).
Holy Sonnet VIII
John Donne (1572-1631)
If faithful souls be alike glorified
As angels, then my fathers soul doth see,
And adds this even to full felicity,
That valiantly I hells wide mouth o’erstride:
But if our minds to these souls be descried
By circumstances, and by signs that be
Apparent in us, not immediately,
How shall my mind’s white truth by them be tried?
They see idolatrous lovers weep and mourn,
And vile blasphemous conjurers to call
On Jesus name, and Pharisaical
Dissemblers feigne devotion. Then turn,
O pensive soul, to God, for he knows best
Thy true grief, for he put it in my breast.
Dr. Dan Brown is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Central Seminary. Prior to coming to Central, he served as senior pastor of Kendall Park Baptist Church, Kendall Park, NJ. He has also served at churches in Michigan and Texas and at camps in Texas and New Jersey. He is a member of the Independent Baptist Fellowship of North America, the Evangelical Homiletics Society, and the Evangelical Theological Society. He and his wife, Mary Jo, have four daughters.