Letter V: Advice to a Young Minister
Humility is the secret of fellowship, and pride the secret of division.
The fifth letter is ministry advice to a young man who has set into ministry. The man has asked Newton what to expect in ministry. Newton’s advice should be heeded by anyone who has or will enter into ministry. And, while the letter is directed specifically to the preaching pastor of a congregation, the observations, warnings and encouragements are use to anyone involved in Christian ministry at any level:
Greeting & Commendation
I. You Will Meet With Difficulties
A. Have you prayed?
B. Don’t be naive.
C. Sweet then bitter
II. Three Difficulties You Will Meet
A. General Observations
2. Two temptations.
a. The temtpation of anger and bitterness
i. Ruin your work
ii. How to respond.
b. The temptation of self-importance
1. A danger few will avoid
2. Do not mistake gifts for grace
3. How God protects us.
D. Spiritual Weakness
2. Never preach again.
Here is the letter with analysis:
This is a curious introduction. Newton is writing to an (apparently) young man who has recently been ordained to the ministry. However, he does not merely praise young man; he also includes a prayer:
I hope he has given you likewise a heart to devote yourself, without reserve, to his service, and the service of souls for his sake.
As Newton will make clear, the work of a Christian minister can be brutally difficult. Only a man whose heart is devoted to Christ’s service will complete this work.
I. YOU WILL MEET DIFFICULTIES
The body of the letter concerns the difficulties which a minister will meet. Newton first begins with a general statement.
A. Have you prayed?
You have, doubtless, often anticipated in your mind the nature of the service to which you are now called, and made it the subject of much consideration and prayer.
As Newton will make plain, the difficulties of ministry are supernatural: they are snares and temptations, and “natural” responses will only make things make things worse.
B. Dont’ be naive.
I remember being in law school, thinking I had some idea what being a lawyer would be like. I quickly learned, I had only learned enough to later learn how to be a lawyer.
Likewise with pastoral work: One can train, but even those most closely connected to a pastor cannot quite understand the nature of the burden. There is something unique in the weight of ministry:
But a distant view of the ministry is generally very different from what it is found to be when we are actually engaged in it. The young soldier, who has never seen an enemy, may form some general notions of what is before him: but his ideas will be much more lively and diversified when he comes upon the field of battle. If the Lord was to shew us the whole beforehand, who that has a due sense of his own insufficiency and weakness, would venture to engage?
C. Sweet Then Bitter
God is gracious. It has been the experience of many men that their earliest work of ministry is sweet. However, soon (for many if not most), the ministry will turn painful.
But he first draws us by a constraining sense of his love, and by giving us an impression of the worth of souls, and leaves us to acquire a knowledge of what is difficult and disagreeable by a gradual experience. The ministry of the Gospel, like the book which the Apostle John ate, is a bitter sweet; but the sweetness is tasted first, the bitterness is usually known afterwards, when we are so far engaged that there is no going back.
At this point, Newton’s reader could easily be discouraged, therefore, he circles around to the supernatural help we seek and need for this work
Yet I would not discourage you: it is a good and noble cause, and we serve a good and gracious Master; who, though he will make us feel our weakness and vileness, will not suffer us to sink under it. His grace is sufficient for us: and if he favours us with an humble and dependent spirit, a single eye, and a simple heart, he will make every difficulty give way, and mountains shall sink into plains before his power.
II. THE DIFFICULTIES YOU WILL MEET
A. General Observations
1. Satan will seek you out for injury
You have known something of Satan’s devices while you were in private life; how he has envied your privileges, assaulted your peace, and laid snares for your feet: though the Lord would not suffer him to hurt you, he has permitted him to sift, and tempt, and shoot his fiery arrows at you. Without some of this discipline, you would have been very unfit for that part of your office which consists in speaking a word in season to weary and heavy laden souls. But you may now expect to hear from him, and to be beset by his power and subtilty in a different manner. You are now to be placed in the forefront of the battle, and to stand as it were for his mark.
2. You are example.
The minister holds a special place in the congregation; not as a priest but as an example. The minister is more visible, and thus his sins are more obvious. Therefore, the minister has a special burden upon him when it comes to sin.
So far as he can prevail against you now, not yourself only, but many others will be affected: many eyes will be upon you; and if you take a wrong step, or are ensnared into a wrong spirit, you will open the mouths of the adversaries wider, and grieve the hearts of believers more sensibly, than if the same things had happened to you while you was a layman. The work of the ministry is truly honourable; but, like the post of honour in a battle, it is attended with peculiar dangers: therefore the Apostle cautions Timothy, “Take heed to thyself, and to thy doctrine.” To thyself in the first place, and then to thy doctrine; the latter without the former would be impracticable and vain.
Newton next warns of opposition. Opposition is an odd thing: much of it will come from within the church, within the congregation. And since it will come from inside the church, it will not be the opposition of an overt atheist (such opposition, unless it comes to persecution, unless it comes to persecution, is not the gravest difficulty). Since it comes from other Christians (at least professing Christians), it has a special unhappiness to it.
The trouble with opposition, is not the opposition itself even though ” you will perhaps find it a heavier trial than you are aware of”. The greatest danger in opposition comes as the temptation to sin. It is to the temptation and its response that Newton turns.
a. Temptation to anger:
First, by embittering your spirit against opposers, so as to speak in anger, to set them at defiance, or retaliate upon them in their own way; which, besides bringing guilt upon your conscience, would of course increase your difficulties, and impede your usefulness. A violent opposition against ministers and professors of the Gospel is sometimes expressed by the devil’s roaring, and some people think no good can be done without it.
i. It will ruin your work.
If the minister turns against his opponents in anger — even if he is completely right in his factual assertions — he loses. The power of God in Christ is the power of reconciliation; it is love of one’s enemies.
To love one’s enemies is something which seems admirable from a distance. But to love someone who is openly and repeatedly antagonistic is a grievous trial. Here, the supernatural burden and help of the Christian life must become obvious.
It is allowed, that men who love darkness will shew their dislike of the light; but, I believe, if the wisdom and meekness of the friends of the Gospel had been always equal to their good intentions and zeal, the devil would not have had opportunity of roaring so loud as he has sometimes done.
ii. How to respond
We must love our enemies. In showing others grace we (1) give the example of Christian love and humility which we preach to others; and (2) we give space to encourage love and humility from the others. This reminds me much of the example of example of Robert Chapman (an admirable and very readable biography of Chapman illustrating his graciousness was written by Alexander Strauch under the title, “Agape Leadership” — highly recommended).
The subject-matter of the Gospel is offence enough to the carnal heart; we must therefore expect opposition: but we should not provoke or despise it, or do any thing to aggravate it. A patient continuance in well-doing, a consistency in character, and an attention to return kind offices for hard treatment, will, in a course of time, greatly soften the spirit of opposition; and instances are to be found of ministers, who are treated with some respect even by those persons in their parishes who are most averse to their doctrine. When the Apostle directs us, “If it be possible, and as much as in us lies, to live peaceably with all men,” he seems to intimate, that, though it be difficult, it is not wholly impracticable.
We cannot change the rooted prejudices of their hearts against the Gospel; but it is possible, by the Lord’s blessing, to stop their mouths, and make them ashamed of discovering it, when they behold our good conversation in Christ. And it is well worth our while to cultivate this outward peace, provided we do not purchase it at the expense of truth and faithfulness; for ordinarily we cannot hope to be useful to our people, unless we give them reason to believe that we love them, and have their interest at heart.
b. The temptation of self-importance
If you survive the opposition, it will lead you to think you are strong. But the trouble here is pride. Satan does not care how you sin, but only that you do in fact sin:
—Again; opposition will hurt you, if it should give you an idea of your own importance, and lead you to dwell with a secret self-approbation upon your own faithfulness and courage in such circumstances.
It will take a supernatural work of God to both permit one to stand & to stand without pride. To stand in humility takes a gracious work of God:
If you are able to stand your ground, uninfluenced either by the favour or the fear of men, you have reason to give glory to God; but remember, that you cannot thus stand an hour, unless he upholds you. It shews a wrong turn of mind, when we are very ready to speak of our trials and difficulties of this kind, and of our address and resolution in encountering them. A natural stiffness of spirit, with a desire to have self taken notice of, may make a man willing to endure those kind of hardships, though he has but little grace in exercise: but true Christian fortitude, from a consciousness that we speak the truths of God, and are supported by his power, is a very different thing.
Thus, the one who stands in humility has cause for praise.
C. The Temptation of Popularity
Newton first grants that his reader does stand in real danger of such a temptation: he has real abilities. He then sketches out the temptation with some quick detail. For a man with Newton’s remarkable abilities, one easily concludes that Newton speaks of this temptation some experience:
If you should meet with but little opposition, or if the Lord should be pleased to make your enemies your friends, you will probably be in danger from the opposite quarter. If opposition has hurt many, popularity has wounded more. To say the truth, I am in some pain for you. Your natural abilities are considerable; you have been diligent in your studies; your zeal is warm, and your spirit is lively. With these advantages, I expect to see you a popular preacher. The more you are so, the greater will your field of usefulness be: but, alas! you cannot yet know to what it will expose you. It is like walking upon ice. When you shall see an attentive congregation hanging upon your words: when you shall hear the well-meant, but often injudicious commendations, of those to whom the Lord shall make you useful: when you shall find, upon an intimation of your preaching in a strange place, people thronging from all parts to hear you, how will your heart feel?
Newton stops and underscores the difficulty of this temptation: it will be strong. But, oddly, this temptation will be invisible until it is too late. The minister is being praised for doing his job well, for preaching clearly.
There is a story that Spurgeon was told, after preaching, what a wonderful job he had done. He responded, “So the devil whispered in my ear as I came down the steps of the pulpit.”
It is easy for me to advise you to be humble, and for you to acknowledge the propriety of the advice; but, while human nature remains in its present state, there will be almost the same connexion between popularity and pride, as between fire and gunpowder: they cannot meet without an explosion, at least not unless the gunpowder is kept very damp. So, unless the Lord is constantly moistening our hearts (if I may so speak) by the influences of his Spirit, popularity will soon set us in a blaze.
In our age of celebrity pastors, this temptation has repeatedly and publicly struck and killed. Thus, Newton’s observation is only more relevant today:
You will hardly find a person, who has been exposed to this fiery trial, without suffering loss. Those whom the Lord loves, he is able to keep, and he will keep them upon the whole; yet by such means, and in a course of such narrow escapes, that they shall have reason to look upon their deliverance as no less than miraculous. Sometimes, if his ministers are not watchful against the first impressions of pride, he permits it to gather strengh; and then it is but a small thing that a few of their admirers may think them more than men in the pulpit, if they are left to commit such mistakes, when out of it, as the weakest of the flock can discover and pity. And this will certainly be the case, while pride and self-sufficiency have the ascendant.
Newton offers a final warning: success in ministry does not mean that the minister is necessarily godly:
Beware, my friend, of mistaking the ready exercise of gifts for the exercise of grace. The minister may be assisted in public for the sake of his hearers; and there is something in the nature of our public work, when surrounded by a concourse of people, that is suited to draw forth the exertion of our abilities, and to engage our attention in the outward services, when the frame of the heart may be far from being right in the sight of the Lord. When Moses smote the rock, the water followed; yet he spoke unadvisedly with his lips, and greatly displeased the Lord. However, the congregation was not disappointed for his fault, nor was he put to shame before them; but he was humbled for it afterwards. They are happy whom the Lord preserves in some degree humble, without leaving them to expose themselves to the observation of men, and to receive such wounds as are seldom healed without leaving a deep scar. But even these have much to suffer. Many distressing exercises you will probably meet with upon the best supposition, to preserve in you a due sense of your own unworthiness, and to convince you, that your ability, your acceptance, and your usefulness, depend upon a Power beyond your own.
C. Spiritual Weakness
Newton ends with two examples of spiritual weakness. Unlike the previous two temptations, these trials come from within rather than from without. It is not what others say to us or about us, it what we say to ourseves.
First, is hypocrisy, then comes despair.
This one is almost impossible to avoid. The minister must proclaim the perfect law of God, the perfect standard of love and patience. Yet, no minister can ever be as perfect as the Bible he exposits. As we all know by sorry experience, to know the truth does not immediately turn into a perfect life. Our knowledge can easily exceed our conduct:
Sometimes, perhaps, you will feel such an amazing difference between the frame of your spirit in public, and in private when the eyes of men are not upon you, as will make you almost ready to conclude, that you are no better than an hypocrite, a mere stage-player, who derives all his pathos and exertion from the sight of the audience.
b. Never preach again.
It is hard to understand the strangeness of being a preacher. Each week, one must repeatedly open a text, expound it and apply it. It must be done in a clear and lively manner. The sheer amount of work, skill and creativity is quite remarkable. It is true that many (perhaps most?) preachers fail in this task. They repeat stories, plagiarize, and are plain dull. The congregation gains little from the husks the man in the pulpit dispenses.
However, there are many godly men who pray and labor and produce good, useful sermons. This is hard work. It is also a supernatural task. There are times where God, for his own good purposes, withholds his strength. This is also a trial and temptation:
At other times, you will find such a total emptiness and indisposition of mind, that former seasons of liberty in preaching will appear to you like the remembrance of a dream, and you will hardly be able to persuade yourself you shall ever be capable of preaching again: the Scriptures will appear to you like a sealed book, and no text or subject afford any light or opening to determine your choice: and this perplexity may not only seize you in the study, but accompany you in the pulpit. If you are enabled, at some times, to speak to the people with power, and to resemble Samson, when, in the greatness of his strength, he bore away the gates of the city, you will perhaps, at others, appear before them like Samson when his locks were shorn, and he stood in fetters. So that you need not tell the people you have no sufficiency in yourself; for they will readily perceive it without your information. These things are hard to bear; yet successful popularity is not to be preserved upon easier terms: and if they are but sanctified to hide pride from you, you will have reason to number them amongst your choicest mercies.
I have but just made an entrance upon the subject of the difficulties and dangers attending the ministry. But my paper is full. If you are willing I should proceed, let me know, and I believe I can easily find enough to fill another sheet. May the Lord make you wise and watchful! That he may be the light of your eye, the strength of your arm, and the joy of your heart, is the sincere prayer of, &c.