January 11, 2017

John MacArthur on Ministry Longevity

by Eric Davis
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“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).

Though he was facing a brutal death before the ink could dry, I imagine that the apostle Paul had great joy at the time he wrote those words. Nothing could’ve been more thrilling to him than to be able to finish well. Nothing could’ve put him at greater peace prior to execution than having faithfully run the race in biblical ministry.

I recall sitting before our elders and professors just prior to launching into pastoral ministry: “You are going to have to keep a long obedience in the same direction.” With only eight years of pastoral ministry in the church I serve, I often think about the need to endure, especially as I see men in my generation disqualifying. And even more especially as the Lord shows me my own weaknesses.

For help in ministry longevity, it makes sense to look to those men who, by God’s grace, have weathered decades of the normal ministry storms without sinking. In our day, one of those is Dr. John MacArthur. This February, Dr. MacArthur will have been faithfully shepherding Grace Community Church for 48 years. That’s about 576 months or 2496 Sundays.

Whatever an individual with that track record has to say about ministry longevity is going to be valuable. In a sermon that I have found particularly helpful, Dr. MacArthur draws from the apostle Paul’s life, giving nine characteristics of an enduring ministry (each point will be summarized):

  1. To endure in ministry, the New Covenant is embraced as superior.

old-rugged-cross-christian-stock-photoIt’s fitting that this first point is deeply theological. How does it promote an enduring ministry? The Old Covenant was the Law, which exposed men to sin and condemnation and could not save. The New Covenant of the Person and work of Christ is different. It brings life, righteousness, and salvation. And, it is the everlasting covenant. Further, the New removes the veil of the Old. The New Covenant is also Christ centered. Thus, it centers on him who is the fullness of redemptive history. Finally, the New Covenant is empowered by the Holy Spirit. He is endowing God’s work of the New Covenant in redemptive history at this time. When we embrace these things, we are rightly positioned for a ministry empowered by the true God, which is key to an enduring ministry.

  1. To endure in ministry, ministry must be understood as a gift of God’s mercy.

The apostle Paul considered his ministry as a gift from God, motivated by mercy (2 Cor. 4:1). Church leaders must resist any thought that they are pastoring because they have earned it. No man deserves the privilege of pastoral ministry. You are sinfully proud and a candidate for disappointment if you suppose that your education, giftedness, skill, or experience renders you deserving of ministry. Dr. MacArthur says, “I tell pastors all the time, the best way to approach ministry is to start from the fact that you deserve absolutely nothing. And whatever you get is a mercy.” This will produce ministry longevity.

  1. To endure in ministry, a pure heart must be maintained.

Paul wrote, “But we have renounced the things hidden because of shame…” (2 Cor. 4:2). He was certain about the need for a pure heart. We fight to renounce every temptation for a secret life of sin. We don’t fall into sin. We fight against it. We renounce the things that are hidden because of shame. We don’t fall into moral iniquity and we do not defect. We fight against any seeds of lust which might grow from our hearts (cf. Jas. 1:14-15).

Secret sins eat at character. If you’re going to have an enduring ministry, you must be dealing with sin in your own heart all the time. Time and truth go hand in hand. Given enough time, the truth comes out. People who endure triumphantly, who endure to the end, and who breathe that rare oxygen at the peak of faithful ministry are those who have renounced hidden sins.

Enduring ministries come to people who win the spiritual battle with temptation and sin on the inside over the long haul.

  1. To endure in ministry, the word of God must be preached accurately.

preach-itIf we twist the Scripture at all for our own ends, we’re going to get caught. We will run in to a passage that puts us in an impossible dilemma, that betrays the way we twisted Scripture on a prior, or many prior occasions.

Paul modelled this well. Though many hated him, wanted him dead, betrayed him, and defected from him, he never watered down the message. No matter his trials, hardships, difficulties, discouragements, assaults, and criticisms, he unwavering preached God’s word.

And as a consequence, faithfulness to the truth over the long haul commended him to the consciences of people, even his enemies. He knew that the truth had such a self-evidencing power that even where the truth was rejected, resisted, and hated, it still commended itself to the conscience as true. On the other hand, if we twist and manipulate Scripture, we can’t keep that up over the long haul. We will have to take our show on the road. We will have to go from town to town, place to place, and live in a world where no one sees our real life and real relationships.

Enduring ministry will be a biblical ministry. There is an integrity in that biblical ministry that lasts years and years because it’s a true representation of Scripture.

  1. To endure in ministry, it must be remembered that results do not depend upon man.

Paul understood that in gospel ministry he faced an impossible task. He couldn’t save anybody. On his own couldn’t convince anybody to be saved. He couldn’t reason them into salvation by the sheer force of his mental powers. He couldn’t scare them in to salvation by the threat of hell. He couldn’t lure them in by the offer of comfort.

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The preacher’s job is not to overcome consumer resistance. It cannot be done by him. As soon as we think it can, our theology is bad. If I thought I was responsible for the salvation of sinners, I think I’d be in a mental institution. That’s just way too much responsibility. We are responsible before God for being faithful to the message. Enduring ministry never bears an unnecessary burden as if God isn’t doing His part, or I’m not doing my part. Enduring ministry is faithful to the truth of the gospel and rests in divine sovereign grace.

  1. To endure in ministry, the man must be certain about his own insignificance.

There’s a common thread that runs through the hearts of faithful, enduring men in church history. They never saw themselves as significant. “We have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7). Paul’s opponents said he was lowly, unskilled, without human wisdom, and offensive in appearance. He didn’t come with flowery speech. He didn’t come with fancy insights and intellectual labyrinths to dazzle them. He was weak. And Paul knew and affirmed all of this.

If you want to have an enduring ministry, you cannot direct effort at self-promotion. The power of the glorious gospel is not the produce of human genius or human technique. The pastor must recall that he is a weak, common, plain, fragile, breakable garbage bucket.

But such weakness does not prove fatal to the gospel because the power is not from ourselves. We cannot save anybody. Things like personal insight, clever appeal, and manipulating people’s emotions will not get anybody into the kingdom. It is a recognition of our weakness that thrusts us to proclaiming the truth and trusting in the sovereignty of God to use that truth. It’s never the messenger, it’s always the power of the message.

Paul would never ever be the explanation for the impact of his ministry.

  1. To endure in ministry, he must be certain about the benefits of suffering.

Paul was well-convinced that his suffering was key for his faithfulness. “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

He embraced suffering because suffering tore down his self-confidence and made him dependent. In 2 Corinthians 4:11, he said, “We who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake.” There were often plots among the Jews and the Gentiles to kill him. He risked death to display the transforming power of Christ. He saw sacrificial suffering of all kinds as a way to weakness. And the way to weakness was the way to power.

  1. To endure in ministry, there must be an unwavering commitment to the truth.

With all of the suffering and deprivation he endured, we might ask Paul, “Why did you do this? Why did you embrace suffering? Why do you live in that way?” The answer is because of Paul’s firm commitment to the truth.

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Dr. MacArthur said, “People will sometimes say to me, ‘Do you think about how people are going to react to what you say?’ All I think about is if what I’m going to say is true. If I believe it’s true, I say it. I hope I say it in a gracious way, most of the time. I hope I say it in a way that’s not in itself by its inflection offensive. But if I believe it, I say it.”

An enduring ministry belongs to people who have long-term, unwavering convictions. If on the private side we say we believe something but on the public side we’re unwilling to say it, then people will not trust our integrity and we  will not survive over the long haul. Silence might mean comfort, acceptance, popularity, and even keeping your life. But like Luther, we must say, “I am bound to speak and I can do no less. Here I stand.” What he believed is what he said. This is conviction, which is a staple of long-term ministry. A person with deep conviction will not be hunting for the right thing to say. Instead, he will hunt for the people to say it to.

  1. To endure in ministry, the glory of heaven must be more important than anything in this world.

Paul put it well: “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

Ministry longevity means that we value the spiritual ore more than the physical. The eternal is more important than the temporal. The heavenly is more important than the earthly. We keep our eyes fixed on the real weighty things; the eternal weight of glory; those things which are beyond all comparison and exceeding all limits. I have my sights set on what is eternal. I don’t lose heart because I’m fixed on the future glory of heaven.

Persevering in ministry is not a certainty. However, as we embrace these principles, by God’s grace, we will set ourselves up for faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
  • Greg Lawhorn

    Great article! I have HUGE respect for Dr. MacArthur, going back to when I was converted in 1978.

    By the way, I’m pretty sure that the “salivation” of sinners isn’t even God’s job! There’s a typo in #5, “If I thought I was responsible for the salivation of sinners, I think I’d be in a mental institution.”

    • Jason

      “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together and some produce saliva.” Colossians 1:17 (the Strangely Explicit Version)

    • Eric Davis

      Thanks Greg!

  • Karl Heitman

    Thanks for putting this together, bro!

    • Eric Davis

      My privilege, Karl. Thanks for reading

  • hopechurch

    This has got to be the best quote from your article – “The pastor must recall that he is weak, common, plain, fragile, breakable garbage buckets.”

    That made my day!! Thanks Eric

    • Eric Davis

      Glad you were encouraged by that unflattering quote!

      • Matthew

        I understand what that quote is trying to convey but I don’t think it’s an accurate statement to make. I know that we believers are still in sinful flesh and we struggle, we are a work in progress. But to say that a believer indwelt by the Holy Spirit is a “garbage bucket,” seems to minimize the work that Christ completed on the cross. I know that we are weak and frail and apart from the Lord Jesus Christ we can do nothing (John 15:5). But 1 Peter tells us of our status as believers,

        1 Peter 2:9

        But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

        I know that before God saved me, I was a “garbage bucket,” and in no way am I saying that I have arrived and no longer struggle with sin. One of my favorite hymns is “Come Thou Fount,” especially for the line, “prone to wander, Lord I feel it,” but I was cleansed by Christ’s precious blood, and the heart of stone I had was replaced with a heart that could hear and respond to the Lord.

        It just seems disrespectful to refer to a believer as a trash receptacle when we have been saved by grace through the blood of Christ, set apart to be a light in a dark world, vessels for His gospel. That’s what is amazing about the gospel that the sovereign God of the universe became flesh and died for sinners. Soli Deo Gloria. I don’t know, am I wrong in this?

        • Paul referred to himself and the ministers of the Gospel as “the scum of the world, the dregs of all things” (1 Cor 4:13), and as “earthen vessels” (2 Cor 4:7), which is significantly less flattering than it initially sounds. I’ve written a bit on this here: http://thecripplegate.com/the-orienting-principle-for-christian-ministry/

          Those who tend toward self-pity and self-flagellation need to hear your caution, because they can be tempted to wallow in their garbage-bucketness. (Of course, that’s nothing but a different species of pride. Piper once said, “Boasting is the response of pride to success. Self-pity is the response of pride to failure.”) But in this age of the celebrity pastor and personal branding and church marketing, it would almost seem impossible to have too low a view of oneself, as long as there is a corresponding high view of God and the Gospel.

          I think the key is to locate all the glory in the treasure that the earthen vessel carries. If we think, “Wow, how important these earthen vessels must be because of the treasure they’re carrying!” we’ve missed the point. The paradox is intentional: priceless treasure in Styrofoam cups — or, if you like, in garbage buckets — so that all glory goes to God and His message, and not the messengers.

          • Karl Heitman

            Very insightful, Mike. Thanks for that Piper quote.

            In addition to what you’ve stated, I still find myself amazed when I read that Paul viewed himself as “the chief sinner” (1 Tim 1:15). He wrote that–as a true Apostle–after having done plenty to advance the Gospel. After all that ministry, he still evidently had a very low view of himself.

        • Eric Davis

          Hi Matthew – thanks for the comment and I hear what you are saying. I could not improve upon what Mike said. I would encourage you to read his helpful post. In 1 Cor 4:13, that Greek word translated “dregs” did have the idea of the junk/garbage from scraping a dirt pot. So, the idea of a garbage bucket is pretty accurate to what the apostle Paul was saying there. Even so, praise God that he decided to save us!

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  • Vinod Anand S

    Very good post Eric and a timely one for me. A very thank you for this.

    • Eric Davis

      Thanks Vinod. May God strengthen you in your ministry.