Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Altar Calls

David Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) was a Welsh Protestant minister, preacher, and medical doctor who pastored at Westminster Chapel in London for almost 30 years. Considered by many to be one of the greatest preachers of the twentieth century, Lloyd-Jones was devoted to fervent prayer and faithful ministry of the word. His passion for Spirit-empowered preaching, which he defined as “logic on fire,” made a profound and lasting impact on the church on both sides of the Atlantic.

Preaching and Calling for Decisions

In 1969, he delivered a series of lectures on the essence of powerful preaching to the students of Westminster Theological Seminary. These essays were later compiled and published as the book Preaching & Preachers,which has become a definitive text on biblical exposition. One of the many topics he addresses is that of ‘altar calls’: the issue of whether or not a gospel minister should call for decisions at the conclusion of his sermon by inviting people to come forward to be saved.

Personally, Lloyd-Jones did not subscribe to this practice and offered several compelling reasons why preachers should likewise avoid such invitations. But he also makes an important and charitable point regarding his position: “I am in no way querying the motives or the sincerity of those who use this method, or the fact that there have been genuine converts” (Preaching & Preachers, 295). God has surely used altar calls or other forms of invitations as a means of conversion for many. However, that does not mean that the practice is biblically sound.

While much more could be said about the history and the confusion that results from altar calls, below is simply a summary of the arguments against the practice which Lloyd-Jones gives in his lecture. Whether his reasons are compelling to you or not, you decide.

The Argument from History

Far from being a New Testament practice or a pattern throughout the entire history of the church, altar calls only came into the life of the church during the nineteenth century. In particular, the focus on calling for decisions was a result of the ministry of Charles G. Finney (1792-1875). As the father of American revivalism, Finney promoted several “new measures” in an attempt to produce spiritual conversions at his evangelistic meetings. One of these strategies was the so-called ‘anxious bench’ where people were invited to make decisions on the spot, and served as a precursor to the altar calls of today.

However, if one examines the teaching of Charles Finney, it becomes clear that his theology was radically different from the evangelical faith. Lloyd-Jones explains that “it is not an accident that it came in with Finney, because ultimately this is a matter of theology” (285). If the goal is to preach Christ in the power of the Spirit, then the results are left up to God. But if the goal is conversion—a result that only God can bring about— then ends will justify the means. Lloyd-Jones also adds that, at the same time, “we must never forget that an Arminian like John Wesley and others did not use this method” (285).

Pressuring the Will

Calling for decisions at the conclusion of a sermon applies direct pressure to the will of the hearer. However, Lloyd-Jones argues that it is dangerous, even wrong, to address the will in this manner.  Such an approach can produce results, but those results “may have no real relationship to the Truth” (288). His reasoning comes from Paul’s words to the Romans: “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (Rom. 6:17). Notice the order: their choice to obey came from the heart, and the heart had been moved by the truth of the gospel which they had first been taught.

Lloyd-Jones explains that the will is to be approached through the mind and then the affections. “As the mind grasps [the Truth], and understands it, the affections are kindled and moved, and so in turn the will is persuaded and obedience is the outcome. In other words, the obedience is not the result of direct pressure on the will, it is the result of an enlightened mind and a softened heart” (286). Yes, we want sinners to obey the gospel and choose to follow Jesus, but the preacher must be first concerned with proclaiming the word of Christ and praying that his hearers may “come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4; see also Rom. 10:17).

In reality, pressuring the will “may produce a condition in which what has determined the response of the man who ‘comes forward’ is not so much the Truth itself as, perhaps, the personality of the evangelist, or some vague general fear, or some other kind of psychological influence” (286-87). A person might choose to come forward to escape the torments of hell or to receive promised blessing from God—but you don’t have to be born again to want blessings or escape from suffering. (A similar argument can be made regarding applying pressure to the emotions, especially through the use of music. Have you ever heard of an altar call without music playing in the background?)

A Sinner’s Inability

Related to this idea of focusing on the will, Lloyd-Jones explains that this method “carries in it the implication that sinners have an inherent power of decision and of self-conversion” (289). An unbeliever can be led to think that if they answer the invitation to raise their hand, walk the aisle, and say a prayer, then they will be saved. The danger with this thinking is that coming forward to an ‘altar’ is not always indicative of true repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus. “This method tends to produce a superficial conviction of sin, if any at all” (289). It can lead a person to believe that conversion is the work of man rather than the work of God.

While salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, available to all who repent and believe the gospel, sinners will never obey the gospel unless the Holy Spirit first does the work of regeneration (more on this below). The Apostle Paul makes this abundantly clear: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Unless God makes us alive together with Christ by grace his grace, we will remain spiritually dead in our trespasses and sins; salvation is the gift of God, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:1-10).

Again, God may very well use a sermon to convict people of their sin and grant them the gift of repentance and faith so that, when a call is given, they respond wholeheartedly. But the bottom line is that God alone gives the growth; God alone gives life to the dead and calls nonexistent faith into existence (Rom. 4:17). To insist that an altar call is necessary for people to “make a decision for Christ”—that a sinner simply needs to be given a chance to choose and respond to an invitation in order to be saved—is an unbiblical notion.

The Work of the Holy Spirit

This leads Lloyd-Jones to emphasize what he considers the most serious issue: a misunderstanding of the doctrine of regeneration. “This work is the work of the Holy Spirit, and His work alone, no one else can do it. The true work of conviction of sin, and regeneration, and the giving of the gift of faith and new life is solely the work of the Holy Spirit. And as it is His work it is always a thorough work; and it is always a work that will show itself” (291). As an illustration of this, Lloyd-Jones refers to Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, and how his hearers cried out under conviction, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). They didn’t wait for an invitation to respond, and no music was needed to set the mood; the Spirit did the work.

Paul again explains this in unmistakable terms: “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16). Those who receive Christ and believe in his name are those who are have been born “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). In short, regeneration precedes faith. Even Jesus himself said that a sinner is unable to come to him unless the Father draws him (John 6:44)!

Advocates of altar calls insist that such invitations allow room for the Holy Spirit to work. But Scripture is abundantly clear the Holy Spirit of God works through the word of God! This isn’t to say that a preacher doesn’t need to instruct his hearers on what repentance looks like, or how to begin living life as a disciple of Jesus; even Peter told his hearers to repent and be baptized! (In fact, baptism—not responding to an altar call—is the biblical way we are to publicly identify ourselves with the church of Christ.) This also doesn’t mean that a pastor doesn’t need to be available after a sermon to speak and pray with those under conviction. Lloyd-Jones was insistent that a preacher must make himself available. But the work of conviction and regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit, and far be it from us to use means that imply (whether we think it does or not) that we can manipulate his work.

What Then Shall We Do?

Ministers of the gospel must boldly proclaim the words of our Lord to a lost and dying world: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28)! “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25)! Yet preaching the word and calling for decisions should not be separated in our thinking. A separate altar call is not necessary for the Spirit to do his work. “The appeal is a part of the message; it should be so inevitably. The sermon should lead men to see that this is the only thing to do” (296).

As the truth of the gospel is declared, as we prayerful preach the word in full reliance upon the sovereign power of the Spirit, the hearts of our hearers will either be hardened or softened. The word of God will be either the aroma of death or the aroma of life (2 Cor. 2:14-17). Our concern should not be with decisions or immediate visible results, but the Spirit’s work of regeneration and his fruit of repentance, faith, and love towards God and the brothers. In sum, as Lloyd-Jones reminds us, “We must learn to trust the Spirit and to rely upon His infallible work” (296).


For Further Reading:

Preaching and Preachers, by Martyn Lloyd-Jones

The Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, by Ian H. Murray

The Passionate Preaching of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, by Steven J. Lawson

Revival & Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858, by Ian H. Murray

Who Is the Savior?

One of the most glorious truths we learn about God from the Old Testament is that he is the Savior. Not only is he the sovereign Creator (Gen. 1:1; Ps. 33:9-11) and righteous Judge of all the earth (Ps. 7:11; Ps. 50:6), but he is also the gracious Savior, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Ex. 34:-57; Ps. 68:20; 86:5-15). The Old Testament in its entirety is, in one sense, the history of God’s saving and redemptive acts.

In Isaiah, the Lord declares to his covenant people: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isa. 43:1-3). This truth is then restated and affirmed in the most exclusive of terms: “I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior” (43:11; see also Isa. 45:21; Hos. 13:4).

However, centuries later, we come upon a band of lowly shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night near Bethlehem, surrounded by the shining brilliance of the glory of the Lord, and hearing the angelic proclamation: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11; cf. 1:47). This child, born of the virgin Mary, was given the name Jesus, for he had come to “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21-23). And this indeed is what he accomplished by his sinless life, his obedience unto death, his resurrection, and his ascension to the right hand of the Father. Jesus Christ is the “Savior of the world” (John 4:42; Acts 5:31; Phil. 3:20; 2 Tim. 1:10).

Are THere Two Saviors or One?

Is there a contradiction here? If there is no savior besides the Lord, and if salvation belongs to the Lord (Ps. 3:8), can there be another savior? The only way our answer can be “yes” is if this other savior is actually not another but God himself. And this indeed is the clear-yet-mysterious answer revealed to us in Scripture. The good news of great joy proclaimed to the shepherds that night long ago was that the Lord their God, the Holy One of Israel, their Savior, had come to dwell among them in the person of Jesus: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Therefore, throughout the New Testament, it is not just God the Father but the Lord Jesus Christ—the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God— who is declared to be the Savior. And one of the clearest places we discover this doctrine is in Paul’s letter to Titus.

Our Great God and Savior

Compared to its length, the book of Titus refers to the truth of God as Savior more than any other book in the New Testament. Paul speaks of God the Father as being our Savior (Titus 1:3; 2:10; 3:4) as well as Jesus Christ, God the Son (Titus 1:4; 2:13; 3:6). These references to “our Savior” are found coupled together in each chapter, with God mentioned first each time and Jesus shortly after, and serve as a powerful testimony to the deity of Christ.[1]

But one verse in particular stands out above the rest. It is found in Titus 2:11-14: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul declares that the one who has given himself for us to redeem us is none other than “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2:13). There are several features of this verse that are important to consider. First, grammatically, “Jesus Christ” is said to be in apposition to the preceding phrase. This means that it essentially serves as an alternate name for “our great God and Savior.”[2]
Second, the way this verse is laid out in the original language makes it clear that the terms “God and Savior” both refer to Jesus.[3] (A similar construction is found in 2 Peter 1:1: “…by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.”)

Third, the adjective “great” is never used to describe God in the New Testament. God’s greatness was assumed, but to apply this term to Christ would be rather significant. Fourth, we know that Paul is clearly referring to Jesus by this phrase since it is the Son, not the Father, who will be revealed at the second coming (Matt. 16:27; 1 Tim. 6:14; 1 Thess. 4:15-16; 2 Thess. 2:8).

Finally, this future appearance of Jesus is described as “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior.” Jesus is the glory of God the Father (see also Luke 9:28-35; 2 Cor. 4:4, 6; Heb. 1:3)! But in this letter, Paul also refers to the first coming of Jesus—his past appearance—by saying that the grace of God has appeared (Titus 2:11), and that the goodness and loving kindness of God has appeared (3:4). In other words, Jesus is the grace of God made manifest. He is the goodness and loving kindness personified. He is the glory of God incarnate.

So, who is the Savior? Is God the Savior or is Jesus the Savior? The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Our Triune God is the Savior. The message of both the Old and New Testaments is that salvation belongs to our God. It is purposed by the Father, accomplished by the Son, and applied by the Spirit. As Fred Sanders writes, “Christian salvation comes from the Trinity, happens through the Trinity, and brings us home to the Trinity.”[4]

Why Does ANY OF This Matter?

This of eternal significance because, as Jesus himself taught, “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23). The Apostle John also makes this teaching abundantly clear in his epistles when he writes: “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23; 2 John 9). To profess to worship the one true God, and yet deny the teaching of his only-begotten Son—as well as his apostles and prophets—that he indeed is God the Son, is to fail to worship God rightly.

If the Jesus you claim to believe in for salvation is not your “great God and Savior” (Titus 2:13), the eternal Word (John 1:1-3, 14, 18), “God over all, blessed forever” (Rom. 9:5), and the one in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Col 1:19; 2:9), then you are believing in a false Christ and are still in your sins. If your confession is not, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28), you have not believed or obeyed the Son, and the wrath of God remains upon you (John 3:36). This is the truth that Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other religious groups need to hear.

But the good news of great joy remains that salvation belongs to our Triune God, and he is mighty to save (Zeph. 3:17).

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9-10).

 


[1] M. J. Harris, “Salvation,” ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 763. See the discussion in Harris, Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008) 173-185.

[2] Andreas J. Köstenberger, Benjamin L. Merkle, and Robert L. Plummer, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 103-04.

[3] The notes from the NET Bible provide a helpful explanation: “The construction in Greek is known as the Granville Sharp rule, named after the English philanthropist-linguist who first clearly articulated the rule in 1798. Sharp pointed out that in the construction article-noun-καί-noun (where καί [kai] = “and”), when two nouns are singular, personal, and common (i.e., not proper names), they always had the same referent” (https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Titus+2).

[4] Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 10.

Jerusalem and the Sin of Presumption

The city of Jerusalem is a central feature of Luke’s Gospel. His entire narrative is set against the background of godly Jews longing to see the “consolation of Israel” and eagerly waiting for the “redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:25, 38). As the capital of the nation and the site of the temple, this unique city was associated with the presence of the divine Name and the place of true sacrifice; it was central to Israel’s life and hope (Deut. 12:10-11; Ps. 48; Isa. 52:7-10). It comes as no surprise, then, that Jerusalem plays an important part in the life and ministry of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus Christ.

The majority of Luke’s gospel is spent describing Jesus’ long journey towards Jerusalem, having “set his face” to go there (Luke 9:51) in order to accomplish everything that written about the Son of Man by the prophets. But what the prophets had foretold was that the promised Messiah would come to Jerusalem to suffer and die, having been ultimately rejected by his own people (Luke 18:31-33). Therefore, Luke’s overall description of Jerusalem is by no means optimistic.

The City that Rejected her Messiah

Jesus, in his lament over the city, identifies Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Luke 13:33-34; 20:9-18). Jesus, the Great Prophet, would soon suffer and die outside of her walls like all those who had come before and prefigured him. As he approaches and sees the city, amidst shouts of praise and acclamation from his many disciples, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and pronounces its impending judgment and destruction (Luke 19:41-44). Why? Because the city of God had failed to recognize its visitation by the Son of God. The city that was anxiously awaiting her promised Messiah—David’s greater son and anointed king—did not receive him.

He then proceeds to cleanse the temple and later foretells the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple again (Luke 19:45-46; 21:5-36). This tragic portrayal of Jerusalem is made complete when Jesus, the very salvation of God and redemption of Jerusalem, is condemned by his own and handed over to be crucified. God’s very own people, hardened by unbelief, were blind to the fulfillment of God’s promises right in their midst.

The City that Received his Mercy

Yet Luke’s Gospel does not conclude with a totally negative portrait of Jerusalem. It is presented in his final chapter as somewhat of a city of new beginnings. Not only do the resurrection appearances happen in and around the city, but Jesus declares to his disciples that the good news of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47)! And just as Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna blessed God in the temple at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, he concludes with a description of the disciples returning to Jerusalem “with great joy” and being “continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:52-53).

This then sets the stage for the book of Acts and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus and the Scriptures had foretold, the gospel of repentance and forgiveness was first proclaimed in all of its glory in Jerusalem, where 3,000 souls were added to the church (Acts 2:37-41). This number only continued to grow as the word was preached, the Spirit was received, and the church was edified (Acts 4:4; 6:7).  And as the church was scattered by persecution from the temple leadership and also began to send missionaries, the gospel spread like wildfire from Jerusalem unto the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8; 28:30-31).

No longer was Jerusalem needed as the dwelling place of God’s presence on the earth or as the place of sacrifice and worship; Christ, by his indwelling Spirit, was present with his church throughout the world. The hour had come when God would no longer be worshiped in the temple in Jerusalem, but in spirit and truth among the nations (John 4:21-24)!

The Danger of Presumption

This portrait of Jerusalem—the city that rejected her Messiah yet also received his mercy—serves as a warning against the subtle but serious sin of presumption. Paul writes extensively on this in Romans 2:1-11, 17-29, and 11:17-24. The self-righteous Jews and hypocritical temple leadership presumed that just because they were Abraham’s physical offspring, they were in God’s good graces (John 8:39). Since they were committed to the Law and upheld their religious traditions, since they had their temple and had as their capital “the city of our God”, they presumed that God was pleased with them. They presumed upon the riches of God’s kindness and patience, not knowing that his kindness was meant to lead them to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Their hard and impenitent hearts led them to neglect the weightier matters of the law, to boast in their own righteousness, to base their worship upon trite ritual rather than true repentance, and even to reject their very own Messiah. As a result, they incurred the judgment of God (Rom. 2:5)

Paul, speaking to the Gentiles included in the people of God, uses the metaphor of an olive tree to make his point clear: “So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches [i.e., Israel], neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off” (11:20-22). All, both Jews and Gentiles, can be guilty of this sin of presumption.

So how do we not become proud? The answer is to remember that there is a world of difference between saving faith and presumption. Saving faith wholly trusts in the kindness of God. It leads us daily to confess our sins and bear fruit in keeping with repentance (Luke 3:8). Presumption, on the other hand, takes God’s kindness for granted and blinds us to our need for continual repentance. True, saving faith is persevering faith—a faith that boasts in the work of Christ and God’s preserving grace. Presumption hardens our hearts to the mercy, grace, and holiness of God, and leads us to hypocrisy. Therefore, let us behold the riches of God’s mercy in Christ Jesus, abide in him, and continue in his kindness!

Read the Bible as the Author Intended

As Christians, we love the Bible. Many of us even have quite the collection—from that old King James Bible we used as a kid, to that new ESV Journaling Bible we received as a gift. One of the first apps we download on a new mobile device (whether out of devotion or guilt) is usually a Bible app. We love posting Bible verses on social media, sharing typography that moves us or a landscape that captures the beauty of a psalm. And while we know that some of the Old Testament and Revelation can be hard to grasp, for the most part we believe that all Scripture is profitable for our spiritual growth. So, we make it a point to read our Bible(s) often.

Superstition Ain’t the Way

Yet when we actually sit down to read the Bible, we often do so in a way that is all wrong, and even dangerous. We might say that Scripture is “God’s Word,” but we easily forget that behind the sixty-six books and forty-or-so different authors who wrote across a period of over 1500 years stands one divine Author telling one glorious story.  J. I. Packer explains:

“When you read a book, you treat it as a unit. You look for the plot or the main thread of the argument and follow it through to the end. You let the author’s mind lead yours. . . . You know that you will not have understood it till you have read it from start to finish. If it is a book you want to master, you set aside time for a careful, unhurried journey through it.

“But when we come to Holy Scripture, our behavior is different. To start with, we are in the habit of not treating it as a book—a unit—at all; we approach it simply as a collection of separate stories and sayings. We take it for granted that these items represent either moral advice or comfort for those in trouble. So we read the Bible in small doses, a few verses at a time. We do not go through individual books, let alone the two Testaments, as a single whole. We browse through the rich old Jacobean periods of the King James Version or the informalities of the New Living Translation, waiting for something to strike us. When the words bring a soothing thought or a pleasant picture, we believe the Bible has done its job. We have come to view the Bible not as a book, but as a collection of beautiful and suggestive snippets, and it is as such that we use it. The result is that, in the ordinary sense of ‘read,’ we never read the Bible at all. We take it for granted that we are handling Holy Writ in the truly religious way, but this use of it is in fact merely superstitious.”[i]

The Bible Tells a Story

The Bible is not simply a collection of motivational sayings or unrelated stories. God did not give us a box of inspired fortune cookies to dig through and crack open, ignoring what seemingly doesn’t apply to us and acknowledging only what makes us feel good inside. He gave us a book to read—a book that tells a story.

The Bible is the story of God’s saving acts in history to redeem sinners and restore all things for his glory. It is the story of a King and his kingdom. It is a story that begins at the very beginning of history, ends at the very end of history, and explains everything in between. “It is a single, coherent story, planned and executed and recorded by a single omnipotent, omniscient God.”[ii] And it is a story of grace that is ultimately centered on the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Yes, there are several different literary styles that make up the story of Scripture, but it is still telling one story of redemption. Yes, it is a collection of books composed by many human authors, but it is still the inspired word and the self-revelation of one divine Author. Once we begin to approach the Bible with this understanding—and with the eyes of our hearts enlightened by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:18; Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 4:6)—we will begin to read the Bible as it ought to be read.

Take Up and Read!

So, how do we put this understanding into action? First, it means actually reading the Bible through from cover to cover. Begin to familiarize yourself with God’s story of redemption. When you’ve finished, do what you do when you come to the end of your favorite television show or your favorite record album: go through it again! Sometimes it’s good to go slowly through the Bible, mining all of the riches we can out of each and every verse. But “binge-reading” the Bible can be just as fruitful.

Second, remember that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the main theme that unites the whole of Scripture together. Don’t get discouraged when reading about the borders of the twelve tribes in Joshua or the bizarre imagery in Ezekiel. Instead, keep your eyes on Jesus and the primary themes that run throughout the Bible: promise and fulfillment, creation and new creation, faith and obedience, sin and sacrifice, offspring and kingdom, and so on. You may not understand how every part of Scripture relates to the whole the first time through, but as you prayerfully keep your focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ, you will slowly but surely grow in your understanding and appreciation of God’s holy word.

Third, take advantage of your church’s teaching ministries (assuming you attend a Bible-preaching, gospel-centered, Christ-exalting church). Attend Sunday School classes; sit under the preaching of the word every week; join a small group Bible study. Additionally, go to your pastor(s) with your questions and concerns! Instead of doing a Google search, ask your pastor about any books or Bible reading plans that he recommends. He is a devoted student of Scripture and spends every day familiarizing himself with the story of redemption for your benefit. He prays for you and knows you better than some other guy’s blog ever will.

And fourth, rinse and repeat as necessary. Take up and read!


[i] J. I. Packer, “The Plan of God,” in God’s Plan for You (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 18–19.

[ii] Michael Lawrence, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry, 9Marks (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 30.

Paul in Ephesus: A Biblical Model of Pastoral Ministry

Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:17-38) takes place at the end of his third missionary journey. On his way back to Jerusalem, Paul summons them while at Miletus in order that he might encourage them in the faith and charge them to continue the work of caring for the church of God. As Alexander Strauch has noted, this speech is a virtual pastoral manual. Paul begins by first reminding the elders of his time spent among them, how he ministered the gospel to them. Yet before he begins his actual commands to the elders in verse 28, his opening remarks provide us with a model of ministry worthy of emulation. Here, we learn that the pastoral ministry consists of both demonstration and declaration of the gospel.

Pastoral Ministry as Demonstration

And when they came to him, he said to them: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews” (Acts 20:18-19).

First, Paul’s practice was public. Before Paul mentions the message which he taught them, he reminds them of the message that he lived before them. Here, Paul calls them to remember his practice—his character, his conduct, his work, his way of life. The Ephesian church could all testify to how Paul lived because they all knew him intimately! He had lived among them, in the same environment as the church. He was their brother, their friend, their pastor, and their fellow worker in the gospel. He didn’t live in isolation and wasn’t unapproachable. Like a good shepherd, he smelled like his sheep; he had dirt on his coat and fleece on his sleeves.

Second, Paul’s practice was above approach. He was confident that they could reflect on any portion of the three years that he had spent with them, from the very moment he stepped foot onto Asian soil, and his life would hold up to their scrutiny. They had witnessed firsthand his pastoral ministry, his godly character, and his courage in the face of persecution. But how exactly had Paul lived and ministered among them? This he goes on to clarify in verse 19.

Third, Paul ministered as a slave of Christ.  The word “serving” here means to act or conduct oneself as a slave, as one who is in total service to another. It is to be characterized by undivided allegiance to one’s master. Paul was controlled by the love of Christ and gratefully labored in the service of his good and gracious King. Paul also ministered with all humility. This is the same word found in Philippians 2:3-4, where Paul calls the church, based on the gospel of Jesus Christ, to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” This is humility which takes the form of unselfishness and self-forgetfulness; it’s not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less! Finally, Paul ministered with tears and trials. Paul was personally and emotionally invested in the Ephesians. He not only cared for them deeply but continued to serve his Lord despite the profound anguish he felt because of Jewish opposition.

These verses serve to highlight a crucial aspect of pastoral ministry: shepherding is deeply relational and inescapably personal. It’s not simply preaching a sermon or teaching a Sunday School lesson; it’s imparting a way of life, investing in and setting an example before the flock. We are to lay down our lives for the sheep in humble, grateful, and joyful service to our Lord and Savior. We are to walk worthy of our calling and model the gospel before them in joy and in sorrow, in peace and in trial.

Pastoral Ministry as Declaration

“…how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:20-21).

As Paul continues, he reminds them not only of the godly life which he demonstrated before them, but of the gospel message which he faithfully declared to them. He calls them to remember his preaching—his words, his message, his teaching, his witness. First, Paul’s preaching was bold. This phrase, to “shrink back,” means to avoid doing something out of fear. It’s same word in Galatians 2:12, where Peter “drew back” and separated himself from eating with Gentiles, fearing the Jews. Here, Paul reminds them that he did not keep silent during his time with them, but boldly declared the message of the gospel.

Second, Paul’s preaching was comprehensive. Notice the terms he uses to describe his gospel declaration. He proclaimed to them everything that was profitable; in verse 27, Paul will explain this as being the whole counsel of God, since it is Scripture alone that is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). He taught them doctrine, which means that he provided a structured explanation of the gospel for the purposes of retention and better understanding its content. And Paul testified to the truth of the gospel. He “bore witness,” which means he was eager to make a solemn declaration about the truth of the message he proclaimed.

Third, Paul’s preaching was both public and private. He was not only involved in public gatherings and preaching sermons before large crowds, but he was personally invested in teaching sound doctrine to individuals and families! In other words, Paul was devoted to the work of Christian discipleship. This is an often-neglected component of pastoral ministry. We fail to realize that while Sunday sermons are necessary, they are not sufficient (for more on this topic, I highly recommend The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne). Simply put, individual instruction is complementary to public proclamation. We are to apply the whole counsel of God in specific, Spirit-directed ways to the needs of our sheep.

Fourth, Paul’s preaching was for all people. The good news of Jesus Christ is to be preached to all without distinction; the ground is level at the foot of the cross. As Paul told Titus, “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (2:11; cf. 1 Timothy 2:4-6). What’s profound about this statement is not just that Gentiles are indeed included in the people of God (the “mystery of Christ” in Ephesians 3:1-12), but that Paul continued to preach to the Jews who persecuted him and rejected him! Paul showed no partiality in his pastoral ministry and gospel declaration.

And fifth, Paul’s preaching was all about repentance toward God and faith in Jesus. This is a beautiful summary of the gospel that all elders are called by God to declare. Repentance is necessary because all, both Jews and Greeks, have sinned and face God’s judgment (Rom. 1:18-3:23). However, by grace through faith in the risen Lord Jesus, everyone who trusts in him will be saved from God’s righteous judgment (Rom. 3:24-8:39). This phrase portrays repentance as an integral component of saving faith; both must be boldly declared if we are to be faithful ministers of God’s gospel.

Watch Yourself and the Teaching

Paul’s model of pastoral ministry as both demonstration and declaration is a recurring theme throughout the New Testament. In fact, this model of ministry also applies to the sheep as well. However, Paul’s emphasis is particularly found in the instruction given to pastors and leaders of the church. Paul commands Timothy: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:12-16). Pastors must pay careful attention to both their practice and their preaching to “care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). This is our calling as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Pastor, what kind of farewell could you deliver to your church?

Those Whom He Called He Also Sanctified

The call to holy living is made repeatedly throughout Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians. Though the church was already known for their work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope (1 Thess. 1:3), Paul nevertheless reminds them that the will of God is their sanctification (4:3). They had already been charged to walk in a manner worthy of the God who had called them into his own kingdom and glory (2:12), yet Paul writes to remind them that they had not been called “for impurity, but in holiness” (4:7). In typical Pauline fashion, he then concludes his letter with specific exhortations to holiness (4:1-5:22).

The unmistakable impression we are given—not just in this particular letter but throughout all Scripture—is that Christians are responsible for their progress in sanctification. We must strive for holiness (Heb. 12:14). Only those who endure to the end will be saved (Matt. 24:13). But just before he finishes writing to this rather exemplary church, Paul includes a short prayer in verses 23-24 that seems to place the burden of sanctification elsewhere. Here, we discover the doctrine of the preservation of the saints: that those whom God calls and justifies, he also sanctifies.

May God Himself Sanctify You

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 5:23).

Paul is praying that God himself would sanctify his people, his chosen saints, his called-out church. He’s praying that God would keep the entirety of their being blameless till the coming of Christ. So, who is responsible for the work of sanctification? The believer or God? The called or the Caller? The answer is a resounding “yes!” Of course, we understand that in justification our works have no place at all; it is a monergistic work. We also know that in sanctification our works are necessary; it is a synergistic work. By the power of Spirit we must kill sin, put off the old man, cast off the works of darkness, and walk in the light.

However, as Paul prayer here implies, it is ultimately our triune God who empowers us to do these things. It is only by his grace that we are enabled to walk in holiness. Sanctification is the work of God within us that is worked out by us. Paul makes this abundantly clear elsewhere when he writes: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Php. 2:12-13; see also 1 Cor. 15:9-10). Until the day when the Lord Jesus Christ returns, we are to walk worthy of our calling in complete reliance upon the grace of God that is at work within us. This verse, then, is a powerful and necessary prayer to pray!

But Paul is not simply expressing a mere wish that God would lend a helping hand with their sanctification. No; he is praying with the utmost confidence.

The Caller Is Faithful

He who calls you is faithful (1 Thess. 5:24a).

Paul grounds his prayer in the faithfulness of God. But before we consider the implications of this truth, notice first that God is referred to as the one “who calls you.”  But what “call” is Paul referring to here? While Jesus does mention that “many are called, but few are chosen”(Matt. 22:14), the word ‘call’ means more than just a general invitation. John Murray writes: “The terms for calling, when used specifically with reference to salvation, are almost uniformly applied, not to the universal call of the gospel, but to the call that ushers men into a state of salvation and is therefore effectual.”[i] This call is the call of God into the fellowship of his Son (1 Cor. 1:9), into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9), and to eternal life (1 Tim. 6:12). It is the call of God that brings the dead to life and things into existence that do not exist (Rom. 4:17). It is the call we see in1 Timothy 1:9: “He saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.”

In other words, this is the effectual call of God by which he summons his people, drawing them to himself in repentance and faith. J. I. Packer gives a helpful description of the effectual call:

“Original sin renders all human beings naturally dead (unresponsive) to God, but in effectual calling God quickens the dead. As the outward call of God to faith in Christ is communicated through the reading, preaching, and explaining of the contents of the Bible, the Holy Spirit enlightens and renews the heart of elect sinners so that they understand the gospel and embrace it as truth from God, and God in Christ becomes to them an object of desire and affection. Being now regenerate and able by the use of their freed will to choose God and the good, they turn away from their former pattern of living to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and to start a new life with him.”[ii]

This call is a crucial element in God’s unbreakable chain of salvation, which brings us back to the ground of Paul’s prayer in the faithfulness of God for the Thessalonians’ sanctification.

He Will Surely Do It

He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it (1 Thess. 5:24).

Here is the hope, the assurance, the peace, and the security of the believer—the very power behind the perseverance of saints. The God who calls us to salvation is the ever-faithful, covenant-keeping, unchanging God. He is faithful not only to forgive us our sins but to sanctify us and keep us blameless until we are glorified at the second coming of Christ. Paul’s confidence here is also expressed in Philippians 1:6: “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Perhaps the most powerful argument for the effectual call of God is found in Romans 8:30: “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Our faithful God simply cannot fail to bring his people to himself. The God who called us by his grace has not left our sanctification up to chance; those whom he called he also sanctified. In fact, when we repent and place our faith in Jesus for “salvation,” we are essentially trusting in Jesus for full, eschatological salvation; we are believing the promise of God that he will “sustain us to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:8)!

Trophies of God’s Preserving Grace

This brief discussion of 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 is not intended to be an exhaustive defense of some Calvinistic doctrine; this is simply a restatement of a Pauline doctrine, which he first received from the risen Lord! Jesus himself declared: “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39); “I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (10:28).  For Jesus to lose even one of those given to him by the Father to raise on the last day would mean a failure to accomplish the will of his Father.

Of course, this is a mysterious doctrine. That we are fully responsible for our sanctification, and that our sovereign God works irresistibly to that end as well, is plain in the Scriptures. But when the redeemed from every tribe, language, people, and nation are singing the song of the Lamb in his presence in the new creation, there will be no question as to who was ultimately responsible for their salvation. They will be an eternal testament to our loving and faithful God—a God who predestined, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified them—all “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:6).


[i] John Murray, Redemption: Accomplish and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015), 91-92.

[ii] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, Il; Tyndale House, 1993), 153.