There are also several factors in our current spiritual environment that drain a pastor’s vital zeal for ministry. We must oppose these forces with the grace of our Lord. Hebrews 4:14 says, “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession.”
What are these pressures? Some of us find ourselves in denominations where the standards of doctrine are being downgraded. We find ourselves in situations in which we must decide when and where to make a stand. The counsel of God’s Holy Word is to hold fast to the solid truths of the Word of God. God’s Word is truth, be it the written Word we know as the Bible, or the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.
Some of us face opposition, perhaps from peers within our own denomination or from members in the pew who want us to join them in abandoning the historic doctrines of Reformation Christianity or to downplay the necessity to experience those doctrines in a personal and spiritual way. Brothers, we are called to “hold fast our profession” and the profession of our forefathers. A Christianity that is only a vague theory about the nature of things or a program for personal improvement and/or the amelioration of social evils is really no threat to the world or anything like “the power of God unto salvation.”
Some of us are confronted with a cult of man-made traditions or a demand for trendy innovations in church life and worship. Such man-made imperatives bear down upon us, clinging to stagnation or calling for change. We are commanded to resist such ungodly demands as part of holding fast our profession of faith in the God who has commanded us to worship Him in the way appointed in His Word.
Some of us labor in situations where little growth is evident, numerical or spiritual. We are confronted with a painful lack of practical godliness and hunger for communion with God. We are confronted daily with unbelief, with apathy, with ignorance, with spiritual deadness, or with man-centered worldliness. Such signs of spiritual declension are enough to crush the soul of any servant of God and bring us to tears of sorrow and grief. Yet the call comes to us to “hold fast our profession,” even in an evil day. Though we have to labor in churches in which very few members “pray their pastors full so that they may preach them full” (as some old Dutch pastors used to say), we are called to “hold fast our profession.”
We are called to labor in the midst of the moral climate of a nation in which humanism is dominant, in which there is little regard for the holiness of God’s name, the authority of His Word, or the demands of His law. Many are such fools as to say that there is no God (Ps. 14:1); there is no fear of God before their eyes (Ps. 36:1), and God is not in all their thoughts (Ps. 10:4). God’s kingdom does not come as we would have it. His revealed will is contradicted without shame or embarrassment, even among professing Christians. When we are discouraged and ask with Isaiah, “Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?” (Isa. 53:1), we are called to “hold fast our profession.”
When these discouragements take an inward turn, we must redouble our efforts to persevere. Perhaps we are burdened with overwork. We labor under the endless demands of pastoral counseling, church administration, and sermon preparation. We may work through the week but come to the Lord’s Day still feeling woefully unprepared to preach the Word and find ourselves exhausted at the end of the “day of rest.” Here too we are called to “hold fast our profession.” We may find our souls in agony and yearn to see broken human beings brought to faith and restored after the image of Christ. When we say with Moses that our hands grow heavy in intercession (Ex. 17:12) and confess with the apostle Paul, “I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you” (Gal. 4:19), we are called to “hold fast our profession.”
Some of us are crippled by debilitating loneliness—perhaps having no congenial or like-minded colleagues in our locality. Maybe we feel deprived of kindred spirits who share our longing for the vital, experiential reality of the doctrines of grace we proclaim. Then too we are called “to hold fast our profession.” To be a minister of the gospel in our day is often to tread a lonely path. In 1989 a hundred different occupations were surveyed and rated in terms of loneliness, and the second-loneliest job on the list was that of minister of the Word. Number one was a night watchman. Doesn’t that tell us something? We are performing a lonely task, as men who watch for the souls of others, but even then the call comes: “Hold fast.” Our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, went alone to tread the winepress of the wrath of God on our behalf.
Some of us labor in the midst of strife and disunity within our own flocks. A minority of vocal members spreads foolish accusations and slanderous gossip that wound our fellow Christians, divide our churches, and grieve our souls. The group of critics perhaps is small as a percentage of the congregation, but the damage they do is disproportionately large. James Sparks wrote a book about such people and the evil they do, titled Potshots at the Preacher.1James A. Sparks, Potshots at the Preacher (Nashville: Abingdon, 1977).
Isn’t that what goes on many times? You feel that there are people in the church who are angling to get you. They cause you great grief. They provoke a tendency to defensiveness in you. They engender bitterness within your soul. They force you into situations sometimes where it seems whatever you say or do will land you in trouble. And again, the advice is draw near to the throne of grace to obtain mercy and find grace to help you in your time of need, and hold fast your profession.
Then again, some of us are discouraged because we feel the withdrawing of the presence of God in our soul’s consciousness for no apparent reason. Or perhaps after tackling important assignments or just before we have to preach under difficult circumstances, we may be assailed with temptations to doubt and distrust or by thoughts of our inadequacies and failures. When wave after wave of providential affliction breaks on our heads, even then the apostle says, “Hold fast your profession.”
Perhaps more than anything else, some of us are discouraged on account of our own weak spiritual condition. Deep within we know that we resist having to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Christ. We don’t wrestle as we should against our own inward corruption. We are too comfortable with our natural self-centeredness. We tell ourselves that we deserve better treatment. In 1651, some Scottish ministers spoke for all of us when they confessed their “exceeding great selfishness in all that we do; acting from ourselves, for ourselves, and to ourselves.”2Horatius Bonar, Words to the Winners of Souls (Boston: American Tract Society, n.d.), 47.
We are too unacquainted with ourselves, and so we are estranged from God. We study more to learn the right words to say than to experience spiritual realities as we should. We drink too much from human cisterns rather than draw water from the divine well. We are prone to wander from our Shepherd; we are prone to rest too little in God. Filled with ourselves, distracted by the cares of this life, or enticed by the deceitfulness of riches, we have little hunger or thirst for the living God.
Our private lives sometimes contradict our ministerial lives; we are more holy in the pulpit than we are in private. This inconsistency wears away at our spiritual sensitivities, and deep within we are discouraged by ourselves and with ourselves. We know that we have abandoned the simplicity of faith. We have abandoned the godly concern we ought to have for the welfare of our flock, for the glory of the name of God. When the tide of unbelief sweeps in, we begin to excuse our unbelief more as an affliction to be pitied than a crime to be condemned and a sin to be repented of. We turn our unbelief into an excuse for self-indulgence, and before we know it, our ministries revolve around ourselves rather than God. We are our own greatest discouragements, our own greatest obstacles.
Under such conditions, where do servants of the Lord look for strength? Most fundamentally, you will find your strength in God’s Word, “which is able to build you up,” even in the midst of dissension in the church (Acts 20:32). Here in the Word we hear our Great High Priest speaking the words of eternal life (Heb. 4:14–16). Grace has been poured into His lips (Ps. 45:2). At the same time, His arrows are sharp when aimed at the target of the sins that live in our hearts (Ps. 45:5).
Here in Christ we find the intercessor who is fully competent to meet our every need. As William Symington observed, Christ is a skillful intercessor who knows God and us perfectly and thus can plead for us in accordance with both God’s law and our needs. His intercession is marked by moral purity and absolute righteousness, pleasing in every way to the Judge of all the earth. Christ is a compassionate intercessor, “able to enter into their feelings, and to make their case his own.” His intercession is prompt and timely, obtaining grace just at the point in the crisis when we most need it. He is an earnest intercessor, who presents His petitions for us with warmth and fervor. Christ intercedes with authority, as once licensed and authorized by God to obtain mercy for His own. He is unique as the Mediator who alone atones for sin and obtains all the graces of the covenant. Christ is a prevailing intercessor whose Father always hears Him. And He is a constant intercessor who never ceases to watch over us with His full energy.3William Symington, On the Atonement and Intercession of Jesus Christ (New York: Robert Carter, 1847), 284–96. Jesus Christ, who is “the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever” (Heb. 13:8), will be your anchor when you begin to slip away, your friend when you are have to stand alone, and your helper when your situation appears helpless. Therefore, go to the throne of grace.
Encouragement for Today’s Pastors
By Joel R. Beeke and Terry Slachter