A question was submitted for the 2019 G3 Conference questions & answers session that asked the following question:
“I’m a young man who is preparing for pastoral ministry in the local church. As a seminary student, what counsel would you give to me as I prepare for the future?”
In the fall of the year just before we would move to Louisville to attend seminary the following January, my wife and I made an agreement that we would not purchase Christmas presents for each other and we would save money for the upcoming move. Without my knowledge, she wrote to several preachers asking for them to write a letter to me in order to provide wisdom for me as I prepared to move away to attend seminary. She compiled each of those letters in a nice binder and provided it to me as a gift that Christmas. I still look through it to this very day as it sits on the shelf in my study. One letter stands out to me as it states the following:
My word to you is to always remember that you are merely a vessel and He is the Treasure. Just a river bed for the river to flow. Any demands God makes on you is not on your ability but on the Christ who promised to be your sufficiency for the journey. Remember that any old bush will do if God set it on fire for His glory. May the Holy Spirit give you enough problems to keep you trusting, enough hurts to keep you broken, and enough victories to keep you praising Him. Only God can take nothing and indwell him so he can be more than a conqueror.
What great truth that I’m still thankful that I received early in the journey of ministry rather than after hitting difficulties along the way. What I would hope to do in this article is to provide encouragement and advice to a younger man who may be preparing for ministry and unaware of the fact that hardships are coming very soon. If you have a romantic view of ministry, you need to buckle your seatbelt.
I remember studying specific academic disciplines in high school and college while thinking to myself that I would never need it or use it in this life. That is not true when it comes to seminary. Study hard and read as much as you can knowing that you will need far more in ministry than you have time to learn in seminary.
Study the Bible. The calling of a pastor is to study, prepare, and preach the Word of God on a weekly basis. The original languages matter, and it’s critical to gain as much knowledge and ability as possible in order to rightly divide the Word of truth. In your rigorous study and technical development, don’t fail to read devotionally and spend time memorizing the Word for greater recall as you preach and teach through books of the Bible.
Read biographies. Learn to stand upon the shoulders of men who have gone before you in the gospel ministry. Read about their joys and the intense pain they experienced in ministry. Learn from their strengths and weaknesses in order to become a better minister of the gospel.
The ministry is not the place for laziness. There is hardly anything more shameful than a lazy preacher. Learn good work ethic. Set good patterns for your time in the text, your extra reading, your ministry planning, your staff meetings, and your care for God’s flock. If possible, learn to get out of bed early and give your mornings to God and your afternoons to men.
We expect doctors, lawyers, mechanics, and carpenters to get out of bed and work hard all day. Why should preachers sleep longer, work less, come home earlier, and go to bed less fatigued? Most preachers who are worth their weight in salt work long hours while trying to balance properly their responsibilities to the Lord in the church and their responsibilities to the Lord in their home. Why not serve God with as much energy and passion for the glory of God as do others who are laboring in the world of business or in the building of houses? Give yourself fully to God!
Never Give Up
My wife and I were on our honeymoon and we were finishing up a wonderful day with a sunset supper at a magical restaurant on the island of Aruba. Our table was in the edge of the water, our shoes were off, our feet was experiencing the gentle wake of the ocean as the sun was setting over the water. Life was perfect at that moment. Another couple nearby asked us a few questions when they found out we were on our honeymoon, and then they asked, “So, what do you do for a living?” I explained that I work for a printing company in Atlanta, but I’m preparing to be a pastor, and soon I will be going off to seminary for training. The gentleman responded, “Yes, it seems that the ministry is a popular career choice these days.”
Soon enough the honeymoon was over, and soon enough we were serving in ministry. Life did not remain perfect and ministry will test you beyond your wildest imaginations. You will begin the day preparing to read yourself full in preparation for Sunday’s sermon only to find yourself praying a man into eternity at his bedside at the local hospital before supper. You will pray earnestly for people only to find that they will earnestly slander you and degrade you. You will enter the pulpit ministry with the idea that so long as you study hard and prepare to feed the sheep each week faithfully from God’s Word that they will be satisfied—only to learn that they aren’t satisfied due to their selfish cravings. You’ll learn that people will disappoint you, betray you, make false accusations against you, and finally leave you all alone. Ministry is not for sissies.
In the ministry you will experience your greatest joys and your deepest pains. Some days you will think you’re smelling the fragrance of heaven only to wake up the following day to the smoke of hell. Ministry is hard, people are difficult, the trials are great, the disappointments are severe, the wounds are deep, they joy is sweet, the victories are exciting, the true friends you make are committed and faithful to the end, and the calling to serve God as a pastor is the greatest privilege of ten million lifetimes. Never forget that the ministry is not for sissies. The calling to be a pastor is the calling to be a man who trusts the Lord and stands firm on God’s Word. Sometimes you will be praised for standing on the Word and in other occasions you will be fired for it or even killed for it. If you have a romantic view of ministry, read 2 Timothy 4:1-5.
If you’re preparing for ministry, never forget that you need the help of God each day. If you’re a church member who’s reading this article, remember to pray earnestly for your pastors who labor to serve you through God’s Word each week.
An older wise pastor once told me, “As a pastor, you must have a tough hide and a tender heart.”
Every church would do well to have one, but far too often they labor in secret and are seldom recognized, but how beneficial it is for a church to have a man who labors in prayer on behalf of the church. That was the case for the church in Colossae—and as Paul closed out his letter to them, he named Epaphras and pointed out how he was a faithful servant in prayer.
Consider the purpose of Epaphras’ prayers. He wasn’t praying superficial prayers, but rather the kind of prayers that truly need to be prayed in the life of a local church. According to Paul, Epaphras struggled in his prayers. The word he used “ἀγωνίζομαι” which we translate “struggle” can mean “to fight” or “to engage in a contest.” The idea is to engage with a passionate zeal. This is not a light and easy prayer!
Prayers for Spiritual Maturity
Far too often many churches are praying for growth, but it’s numerical rather than spiritual growth that seems to be the focus. While we should pray for numerical growth, the foundation that such growth stands upon is spiritual growth. Epaphras spent time praying for the church in Colossae to become strong and complete—fully developed in their spiritual growth.
When was the last time you could see noticeable growth in your spiritual life? Sure, we set goals for physical health and we work to maintain or to stretch ourselves to hit our mark with weight loss, muscle gain, or whatever the category may be, but when was the last time you noticed spiritual growth? Have you set goals for your own personal prayer life? What about your knowledge of God through the Bible? When was the last time you spent time memorizing verses of Scripture in your personal study of the Bible? Bible memory is not just for children—right?
We need hearts that are zealous about reaching unbelievers and seeing our church grow numerically, but we must labor to see our church grow spiritually. It’s precisely this spiritual maturity that develops love for one another and when immaturity is defeated we learn to forgive one another, serve alongside one another, and overcome hidden sins that have been hindering us for many years.
Will you pray for your church in this way? Will you labor to see your church (including yourself in that category) pursue God with such passion that it results in a great deal of spiritual maturity?
Prayers for Satisfaction in God’s Will
One of the greatest truths we can learn is that we must find our true satisfaction in God. This present evil world will fail us and will never truly satisfy us. We must find our true joy and delight in God, and not just in the knowledge of God’s perfection and holiness, but in a complete satisfaction of God’s will.
Jesus taught us to pray in the model prayer, “let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We must pray for God’s will to be done, and we must find our satisfaction in God through Jesus Christ. Epaphras struggled in prayer for the church in Colossae to be fully assured in all the will of God. This involves contentment in the secret will of God and delight in the revealed will of God. This will include a peace in the midst of storms and strength during the waves of persecution. No matter what God’s will may be—we must learn to be fully satisfied in our God.
Do you pray for your church in this way? Do you have an Epaphras in your church? Imagine how your church could benefit from a man who struggled in prayer for his church. Far too many people today spend time complaining about their church rather than praying for their church. Imagine the difference that such a struggling prayer can do in the life of a church family.
Colossians 4:12 — Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.
Yesterday I had the privilege of preaching Romans 7:7-12 in our series through Romans. The key to understanding this passage is to understand Paul’s previous life before Jesus and the intended place of the law of God in our life.
Becoming a great pitcher is a difficult task. You must take the baseball that everyone is so familiar with and make people miss it. The key is to use deception. Many hitters are trained to look for the ball from the time the pitcher raises his hands in his windup toward the plate and look for the rotation and you will be able to tell what kind of pitch it is and be prepared to hit. All of this happens so quickly and that’s what makes hitting so difficult too. The success of some pitchers through the years has been to develop a pitch that they can throw with great success. For Nolan Ryan, it was the fastball. For Phil Niekro – it was the knuckleball.
The knuckleball is thrown in a completely different way than all other pitches. The approach to the plate is far different. The velocity is slower. The way in which you hold the ball is different – using your nails on the first three fingers and your knuckle on your fourth to hold the ball in place and release it without any rotation. This causes the ball to dance its way toward the plate. “To have the ball flutter and to render the power of the opposition totally useless, that to me is the pleasure in watching a knuckleballer,” said Dan Duquette, the executive vice-president of baseball operations for the Baltimore Orioles. Some have described the knuckleball as floating like a butterfly with hiccups. The key to success with the knuckleball is deception.
So it is with sin. God intended the law for our good. While the law cannot save us, it does serve as a guardian and teacher to point us to our need for a Savior who is the Son of the living God—rather than our own self-righteousness. However, sin has used the law as a bridge to our hearts in order to excite the affections for our depravity. According to Paul, sin used our heart as the base of operations for attacking us and bringing greater condemnation upon us. So, is it sinful? Is the law bad? Paul said, “God forbid!”
The fact remains, the law of God is for our good and is used to bring us the knowledge of sin. Before we can be saved, we must first understand our need for salvation. It’s through the law that we come to this knowledge and see our need for Christ. Paul stated plainly that without the law, he would have never known of his covetous heart. Interestingly enough, the tenth commandment is the foundational ingredient for all other sins.
Paul concludes with the fact that the law is good and the commandment is holy, righteousness, and good. Why is this true? It’s on the basis that they reflect the character of God. The law is good because God is good. The commands are holy and righteous and good because God is and it’s through the revealed will of God that we see both the boundaries of the law and the need to repent.
Teacher that Instructs
James 1:14–15 – But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
Mirror that Reveals
The law of God is a mirror of God’s holiness and our depravity (sinfulness). It serves to reveal to us our need of a savior.
Romans 3:20 – For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Hammer that Crushes
Jeremiah 23:29 – Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?
Fire that Consumes
In Jeremiah 5:14, the prophet claims that the Word is like a fire that consumes!
The sovereign God who has been transgressed by our sin owes us nothing, however, he has pointed out our failures and likewise pointed us to the cross – specifically to the hope in Jesus Christ. God has called us to repent!
Acts 17:30–31 – The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,  because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
The law is good, however, sin has used it for evil. We must never forget that God will never have his plans thwarted by the created being that we know as the devil. God will continue to use the good law to reveal our sin and to point us to our need to repent. This is true at the point of salvation and it remains true throughout our progressive sanctification in the Christian life.
Whether or not you’ve been raised in the life of a local church, test yourself to see how much you know about the church. Can you make a perfect score?
The church is God’s will for us as believers. Therefore, our knowledge of the local church and how it should function to accomplish it’s biblical purpose is critically important.
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Years ago, I was forced to attend a Roman Catholic Church mass to fulfill a requirement for a class I was taking in seminary. At first, I was not too pleased with this assignment, but as it turned out, it was quite an eye-opening experience to be sure. For me, having grown up as a protestant, I had never attended a Roman Catholic worship service—and I certainly had been taught much of their errors through the years. While I refused to engage in the mass due to the heretical teaching of transubstantiation, I left convicted. As a pastor of a local church and a seminary student, I was convicted for the lack of public reading of Scripture in our protestant worship services.
Over the years that would follow, I would eventually lead our church to incorporate more rather than less Scripture in worship. Why is the public reading of Scripture important and essential for our worship of God?
1 Timothy 4:13 — Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.
Establishing the Priority of Scripture for Worship
At the center of every Christian worship service must be the Word of God. We as believers must place a great priority upon the centrality of God’s Word among his people. By gathering together for the public reading of Scripture—from the very beginning of the service—it places a priority upon the Word. An honest evaluation for all believers would be to compare the amount of singing to the amount of God’s Word in a typical weekly worship service. Which one takes the priority?
As Paul wrote to Timothy (1 Tim. 4:13), he pointed him to the public reading of Scripture. Since books were scarce (especially parchments of God’s Word) and the educational level of people during the days of the early church often lacked the ability to read—the only time people could hear the Word of God was during public worship. Justin Martyr described a worship service from the second century:
On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. 
Each week as we gather for worship within the context of the church that I serve, we have an official call to worship from God’s Word. This is a means of the church being called to worship God through his Word from the beginning of the service. Such an official call to worship sets the stage for the fact that all of our worship must be connected to God’s Word, driven by God’s Word, directed by God’s Word, and honoring to the God of the Bible. We likewise desire to communicate to everyone who is present that the Word of God takes priority over everything else in our service.
The chief end of all worship of God will be achieved through his Word. Nothing can compete with God’s Word. Nothing can replace God’s Word. Therefore, with that firm understanding, there should be nothing that takes priority over God’s Word in the regular gathering of God’s people for worship on the Lord’s Day. John Owen, the great Puritan theologian, stated the following:
Our belief of the Scriptures to be the word of God, or a divine revelation, and our understanding of the mind and will of God as revealed in them, are the two springs of all our interest in Christian religion. From them are all those streams of light and truth derived whereby our souls are watered, refreshed, and made fruitful unto God. 
Establishing the Necessity of Scripture for Worship
If the only sufficient guide for life and the practice of our faith is the Word of God, why then would we gather together to worship God apart from his Word? Sadly today, many Protestant worship services contain far less public reading of Scripture than Roman Catholic Church services and in some cases—no public reading of Scripture at all.
If we will know God rightly and worship him properly, we must hear God speak through his Word. What Paul taught Timothy was emerging from the Jewish practice of reading the Scriptures in the synagogue. When Jesus visited the synagogue, he read publicly from the scroll of Isaiah. It should likewise be noted that Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians closes with the charge to “have this letter read to all the brothers” (1 Thess. 5:27).
Paul closed his letter to the church in Colosse with these words, “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16). This public reading was to the church, which implies public worship rather than casual meetings over lattes at the local Starbucks. We likewise see this clear pattern of the public reading of Scripture in the letters sent to the seven churches of Revelation (see Rev. 1:3). Rather than arriving late and skipping over the public reading of Scripture, make sure you’re on-time, quiet, and engaged in the reading of Scripture since it not only sets the tone of the worship, but is itself part of the worship of God each week.
Honoring God’s Design for Scripture
God’s Word was designed to be read aloud. As mentioned earlier, illiteracy was a common problem among the people of the early church, but as we move through the days preceding the Reformation, the people would gather for worship and they would not be able to hear the Word in their own language, because the Roman Catholic Church sought to control the text. Even when people could not understand Latin, they would read the Bible in Latin—completely concealing the Word from the people. They were elevating ecclesiastical opinion and their own doctrinal positions above sacred Scripture.
The Reformation was about unleashing God’s Word among the people. In the early days of the Reformation and during the time period of the Puritans, they understood the value and necessity of God’s Word in the common man’s language. They had heard stories of friends and family members being imprisoned and even burned for the sake of possessing a copy of the Bible in their own language. Thomas Watson stated emphatically that the Scripture “shows the Credenda, what we are to believe; and the Agenda, what we are to practise.”  Reading it aloud in the public worship of God is essential for making God’s will clearly known to the people on a weekly basis.
Finally, we must never forget that God’s design is to save people through the hearing of his Word (Rom. 10:17). Far more important than our story or our opinion or the sharing of our heart is the clear reading of God’s Word. The reading of the Bible must never be reduced to a simple precursor to what the preacher is about to say. The reading of Scripture must never be relegated to the level of an introduction to the preacher’s sermon. It must be clearly established among everyone who gathers within a Protestant worship service that they not only believe the Bible, but they place great priority upon the public reading of God’s Word as well.
Although the early church primarily used the Old Testament for their public reading, we have the privilege to use both the Old Testament and the New Testament for public reading within our worship services. In an age when prominent pastors are encouraging believers to “unhitch themselves from the Old Testament”—it would be wise to use both the Old and New Testaments on a weekly basis as a reminder that the totality of God’s Word is profitable.
2 Timothy 3:16 — All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
- Justin Martyr, First Apology, I. 67, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, 10 vols. (1885; repr. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 1:186.
- John Owen, The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God as Revealed in His Word, with Assurance Therein…, in The Works of John Owen, D.D. (Edinburgh: Johnstone & Hunter, 1850-1855), 4:121.
- Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), 30.
As we explore church history, we find the pattern of worship for the Roman Catholic Church repulsive and offensive on many levels. One such level is the use of graphic statues, figures, and the prayers to the saints. Beyond the obvious doctrinal truths regarding the need to worship God alone—why should we be offended by their worship practices?
As we fast-forward through history to our modern evangelical culture, we find pastors jumping (and sometimes falling down on the platform) on trampolines and attempting all sorts of gimmicks from zip line entries to motorcycle tricks all in the context of what is considered worship. Should we be offended by these practices too?
In short, as we consider the subject of worship, are there red lights and green lights—or does anything go? How should we approach the issue of the regulative principle? Does God regulate how we worship? If so, how does he do it? Is anything allowed in worship so long as God doesn’t forbid it? Are all things forbidden except those practices or elements that God specifies in his Word as essential? How do we discern what is forbidden and what’s required?
Regulative Principle: Is the Bible Sufficient?
The regulative principle is often misunderstood and rejected by people who claim to embrace the sufficiency of Scripture. In short, we have a few different positions to choose from in regard to governing principles to Christian worship. First, there’s the freedom principle or the inventive principle which claims that anything goes—so long as one’s heart is right in the process. This would allow for all sorts of tricks and the most elaborate automobile illustrations, zip line entries, video sermons, and various other methods of appealing to people and appearing to be relevant.
Another well known position is the normative principle which claims that anything goes in Christian worship so long as God does not forbid it in Scripture. Basically, this approach allows for nearly anything that’s not considered sinful. Once again, this would open the door for various modern inventions to gain the attention of people such as indoor fireworks, zip line pastors, and more—so long as the Bible doesn’t condemn it.
The regulative principle claims that we should only approach God in worship in the way that he has clearly described such worship in the Word. If God does not specify it in his Word, we should not employ it as a means of worship. In other words, if God has not approved it, we should not approach him with such methods and manners of worship. Once again, we must ask ourselves an honest question—do we truly believe in the sufficiency of Scripture or is that merely a historic creed that we like to embrace in word, but not in practice?
In the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, we find these words:
- LBC 1:6 — “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word, and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed
( 2 Timothy 3:15-17; Galatians 1:8,9; John 6:45; 1 Corinthians 2:9-12; 1 Corinthians 11:13, 14; 1 Corinthians 14:26,40).”
At the heart of the controversy of the Reformation was the idea of the authority of Scripture. Emerging from the Reformation era was the famous slogan, sola Scriptura. When it comes to a July 4th worship service in America, does the Bible say anything that would forbid indoor fireworks to celebrate America’s freedom? In a similar situation, a local church in Atlanta would like to celebrate the Super Bowl by having their pastors compete in preaching as they setup their entire worship service to mirror a football game—is the Bible silent on these two different worship services?
When it comes to the regulative principle—it’s not about the establishment of a list of forbidden practices in worship in order to rob people of their joy and freedom to worship God. It’s actually the opposite. The purpose of the regulative principle is to determine the boundaries for joy-filled worship and the Bible is absolutely sufficient to determine such boundaries. That was true during the days of the ancient controversies of the Roman Catholic Church and it remains so in our modern urbane church culture today.
Regulative Principle: Is the Worship of God Unique?
When Moses was in training to lead Israel, he was serving as a goat farmer in the wilderness. One day God appeared to him in a burning bush, and we can imagine that this was an extremely unusual and spectacular scene. We find the scene in Exodus 3:
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.  And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.”  When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”  Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:1-6).
It must be clearly observed that God required Moses to remove his shoes—for the ground was holy. That same dusty sod was not exactly holy the day before, but at that moment, something was quite unique and different as God had appeared to Moses in that bush. Therefore, God required that Moses remove his sandals. There is something unique about the worship of God and we see this from both the Old Testament to the New Testament. In 1 Timothy 3:14-15, we find Paul’s words to Timothy similar:
I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that,  if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim. 3:14-15).
There are certain behaviors that are acceptable within the gathered church and there are certain behaviors that are unacceptable. It’s not man’s preference nor his own opinion that dictates such boundaries. It’s God’s Word that provides the boundaries that are clearly established by God. If we operate by the freedom principle or the inventive principle which is fueled by pragmatic gimmicks, strategies, and tricks to appeal to the carnal masses—we will turn worship into entertainment and the church into a community social club rather than what God intended from the beginning.
The regulative principle is not about restrictions or the establishment of red lights for God’s people. It’s not a religious regulation principle that seeks to be negative as much as it’s committed to honoring the unique worship of a sovereign and holy God in the manner in which he has specified. When we redefine marriage and call it marriage—that does not honor God. When we redefine worship and call it worship—it likewise does not honor God. The regulative principle is not about preventing indoor fireworks or vivid motorcycle illustrations, but it is the principle that seeks to direct our worship to our triune God in such a way that what was once mysterious is now clearly revealed in Scripture—as Paul states in 1 Timothy 3:16:
Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
When rightly understood, reverenced, and preached among God’s people—we come to the reality that God is not boring and he certainly doesn’t need zip lines, motorcycles, and dress up costume preachers to make him exciting. He is exciting! Worship God!