by John M. Frame
A Charge to Graduating Seminary Students
This is a very special time of the year, for professors as well as graduating students. There you all sit, bright and scrubbed, full of all the knowledge we’ve been able to cram into you over the last few years, eager, idealistic, full of great ambitions, most of them wholesome. Yes, most of you, all of you I would say, are anxious for the battle, excited about spreading the wonderful Word of God’s grace, casting down imaginations, bringing every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. We professors observe your great ambitions, and your great faith, and we expect wonderful things from God and you. Often those expectations are marvelously fulfilled. Our graduates start new churches, help churches to grow in spirit and in numbers, write books, preach the Word to people in cultures hungry for the gospel. Often they come back and tell us what God has been doing through their labors, so that we praise God.
But it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes our graduates have had unhappy ministries. Indeed, it has happened so often that we professors, like fathers and mothers watching their sons go off to war, may come to graduation with mixed emotions, mingling our joy with prayers for your perseverance, indeed for your survival, in the Lord’s work.
Why are there so many unhappy ministries in Reformed churches today? Why are there so many congregations that are divided by strife over doctrinal and practical matters? Why are there so many churches which begin with fifty members and thirty years later are still struggling along with fifty members- or forty, or thirty-five? Why are there so many Reformed churches where visitors come to services for a few weeks and then leave, believing that no one cares about them? Why are our churches so powerless in their attempts to reach young people, the poor, the black, the Hispanic, the uneducated? Why is Reformed scholarship, the pride and joy of our movement, now making so little impact upon our culture? Why is the Reformed world-and-life view having so little influence on national institutions, at a time when other Christians are in the forefront of the American dialogue?
Well, if I could answer all those questions, I might have to charge the graduates every year. That would never do. And of course these questions are complex. There are many reasons for unhappy ministries. And sometimes, let me quickly remind you, these reasons are not at all the fault of the minister. You may be called to a church, told that that church has six faithful families. Two weeks after you arrive, three of those families inform you that they’re moving away; one, you discover, is in the midst of a divorce; in another family, the husband is tired of shouldering his church tasks and wants to resign from the session and from his Sunday school teaching; the last of the six families, you discover, hasn’t been to church in six months, and no one really knows why. Exaggerated? Not too much. That kind of thing really happens. That’s not your fault; that’s the working of Satan and his human servants; that’s just the way it is, sometimes, in a fallen world. When that happens, you just have to make the best of it and pray a lot.
But sometimes it is our fault. And sometimes when things work out well, it is to our credit, though ultimately the praise belongs to God alone. One very happy experience I’ve had since moving to California, after many years of unhappy ministries, has been my association with New Life Presbyterian Church of Escondido. I’ve asked myself many times why this church has been doing so well, while other churches I’ve known, other churches I’ve loved, have experienced such unhappiness. Has it simply been a sovereign decision of God, where God has mysteriously, even arbitrarily, determined to bless this church and to withhold blessing from others? Well, God’s decisions indeed are often mysterious to us. But he also often tells us in his word what he is doing and why he is doing it; and when he does, we need to pay attention.
O.K., here’s the heart of it: I think that in many, though certainly not all, unhappy ministries, there is a common syndrome, and that syndrome is distressingly similar to the attitude of the wicked servant in Jesus’ parable of the talents. It begins, as our problems often do, with a false picture of God. “Master,” the servant says in verse 24, “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.” Now what’s wrong with that? God is hard sometimes, is he not? His judgments are terrible. He visits the iniquities of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of them that hate him. He takes the wealth of the wicked by his mighty power and therefore, in one relevant sense, harvests where he did not sow. Like other lies of Satan, this one contains truth. In fact, like other lies of Satan, this one exhibits theological cleverness. But you can see how wrong it is, can’t you? This servant has no understanding of the master’s love and grace. This master doesn’t hate his servants. The two faithful servants found that out. The master commended them, gave them great responsibilities, invited them to share his own happiness.
Dear brothers and sisters, we know about God’s love and grace, don’t we? We know that in Christ, God has given his very lifeblood for us. And he is still ready, eager to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think. There is no way we can begin to measure the length, the breadth, the height, the depth of the love of Christ. And yet with all of that, do we sometimes forget? Do we lose what Jack Miller calls the “grace perspective” on our ministries? Or, worst of all, are there some of us who do not believe in a God of love, the God of the Bible? How easy it is, despite our theology of grace, to get into the habit of thinking of God as a harsh, mean taskmaster and nothing more. And what a terrible toll such thinking takes- upon our frame of mind, upon our decisions, upon our ministries.
In short, the result is that we begin making decisions out of fear, rather than in faith. We believe that God doesn’t really want to bless our ministries, and so we seek only to cover our losses. Sometimes, using all the theological cleverness we’ve picked up at seminary, it comes out sounding like this: “God isn’t interested in results, but only in faithfulness.” Another ingenious half truth! God wants faithfulness above all, of course. But he also wants results. He is the God of results. He speaks and things happen. And he wants his people to care about results. The apostle Paul became all things to all men that he might by all means save some. You can’t be faithful unless you are seeking results! The two faithful servants in our parable invested their master’s money in ways calculated to bring a good return. Of course, in the world of investment, nothing is certain. But faithfulness involves trying, seeking the best results possible. The wicked servant didn’t try. He did not seek success, only an excuse for failure. He did not look for winnings, only ways of covering his losses.
This happens so often in unhappy ministries. Let’s say the exodus of members begins, and the elders don’t understand what is happening. One family hasn’t attended for six months. Well, the minister reminds us, he did visit that family seven months ago in the annual elder visitation. He has no idea what the problem is, but after all, the delinquent family really ought to come and see their pastor, shouldn’t they? He has done, he thinks, what he is obligated to do; he has been faithful, he thinks. Beyond that, the results are in God’s hands. Thus the minister covers his losses with clever theological rationalization, while his church is going to Hell. He defends his own fear and, yes, his laziness- that’s what Jesus calls it in our passage- while God’s sheep wander away.
The legalistic mind is so theologically clever. The Pharisees could justify nearly any kind of conduct. The legalist likes best to reduce his obligations to a neat list: this is what I must do; that is what I must not do; for the rest, I do what I like. As long as I see every family once a year and preach biblical sermons, no one can fault me. And so the wicked servant in our parable hid his talent in the ground, having persuaded himself that that was his minimum obligation, that no one could find fault with him if he returned the talent intact. Burying the talent didn’t accomplish anything, but the servant thought it would at least cover his tracks. We all know how hospitals, when discharging patients, insist that they ride out in wheelchairs, even when they are perfectly able to walk. That is a worthless and silly use for a good wheelchair. It doesn’t help anybody. But it helps the hospital to cover its tracks if a legal problem develops. I wonder how often our decisions in our ministries are like that- decisions not seriously intended to accomplish anything for God, but merely to cover ourselves, if we come under attack.
How easy it is for a kind of “minimalism” to creep into our thinking- the idea of doing the minimum we think we can get away with, rather than what will honor Christ and build up his people. The same temptation faces me often in the academic field. In the press of a heavy schedule, I’m often tempted to think of some other scholar of whose work I have a very low opinion. I note to myself that this other scholar often does things I consider shoddy and gets away with them. Why, then, I wonder, shouldn’t I save some time and energy by cutting corners the way he does? Cutting corners isn’t always wrong. Sometimes footnotes, for instance, are a necessity, sometimes an encumbrance; you have to decide what’s best in each situation. But cutting corners is wrong when it impoverishes thought and inhibits communication. And thus the minimalistic mentality can become deadly. It asks, not “how can I serve others?” but “how much can I get away with, so as better to serve myself?” It focuses, not on the example of divine love, but on the example of the least competent people we know: “He gets away with it; why shouldn’t I?”
How different from the Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ! He left his comfortable campground with the ninety-nine sheep and searched through the menacing desert until he found the sheep that was lost. He gave his life for the sheep. Jesus did not seek some clever theological rationale for maintaining his own comfort; Satan offered him several, and he turned them all down. He didn’t emulate the least competent of God’s servants to determine the minimum he could get away with; no, he went beyond Samson, Moses, David, Abraham, to achieve nothing less than his father’s own perfection. He did always those things which pleased his father. Jesus didn’t seek some legal principle to cover his tracks in case of challenge; no, quite to the contrary: he took upon himself all the guilt and suffering which we deserved. Jesus did not seek to reduce his responsibilities to a neat job description consisting of a few simple obligations. He loved his own, and indeed loved them “unto the end.”
That’s the kind of attitude God seeks in each of his ministers- nothing less than the unconditional love of Jesus Christ for his people. We can therefore see why James advises us not to become teachers, knowing that we will receive more severe judgment. God expects much of us, much indeed. But don’t get too preoccupied with God’s demands. That could lead you back into legalism again. Think about God as the father of Jesus Christ, who gave his son for us. Think of him as the one who loves us with a love unmeasurable. Think of him as the one who wants to bless us far more than we want to receive his blessing. Think of him as the one who indeed sometimes withholds his blessings for mysterious reasons, as he did with Job, but who even in the valley of the shadow of death is leading you inexorably toward the eternal glory. That kind of love will motivate you out of sheer gratitude to begin a good shepherd ministry- a ministry where you forget about covering your tracks and lay your life on the line for God’s people. It does happen. I believe that is the secret of New Life, and of all those churches which God is blessing today. May God give you the joy of such a ministry, and may you all hear, on the last day, the master’s word, “Well done, good and faithful servant… Come and share your master’s happiness.”