What does a pastor do when he begins to lose heart for his role and task? In 2 Corinthians chapter four Paul provides us with three heart-protecting, heart-strengthening realities for the disheartened pastor.
1. The Call of Christian Ministry
No pastor will long retain a heart for the ministry if he loses sight of his call to the ministry. Paul’s awareness of the nature and purpose of his call strengthened and protected him from joyless ministry.
Paul references this call in 2 Corinthians 4:1 with the phrase, “having this ministry.” Then in rapid-fire succession, he describes the nature of this call. In verse two: “an open statement of the truth.” Verse three: “our gospel.” Verse four: “the gospel of the glory of Christ.” And finally verse five: “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.” Paul’s ministry—like every pastor’s ministry—was a call to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified. It was a ministry of proclamation. And it was the call to “this ministry” that strengthened Paul’s resolve to not lose heart.
Paul’s personal history with the Corinthian church provides a vivid example of how the Lord strengthens a pastor’s heart by reminding him of his call to “this ministry” of proclamation. This made all the difference for Paul when he originally arrived in Corinth and experienced opposition to his preaching of the gospel. When he was tempted to lose heart, the Lord revealed himself one night in a vision and said to him, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you and no one will attack you or harm you for I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9–10).
And so Paul did not lose heart. He remained in Corinth so that through his preaching those whom God had chosen would come to faith. The Corinthian church was created by the grace of God, through Paul’s ministry of gospel proclamation. In effect, the Corinthians became a living illustration of verses four through six. And the glorious nature and effect of this call to proclaim the gospel sustained Paul in ministry.
Though Paul’s call and ministry were certainly unique, we too have been called to “this ministry.” As we declare the truth of the gospel to those who have been blinded by the god of this world, the same God who dispelled darkness at creation will dispel the darkness of their heart. And what a sight they will see: the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. As we proclaim him, God gives sight to them. Pastoral ministry is an ongoing confrontation with the god of this world, with blindness, with hardness of heart, and with remaining sin. But we do not lose heart, because we have been called to “this ministry” to proclaim this message of the gospel that gives light, reveals glory, and transforms lives.
And because we are called to preach this message, we must do so with integrity, as defined in verse two: “We refuse to practice cunning or tamper with God’s word.” This message must not be tampered with or altered in any way, and we must resist any impulse to do so. Those who tamper with or try to add to this message under- estimate it. We are not innovators. We are proclaimers.
Not only are we proclaimers, we are proclaimers of a particular message. We do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord (v. 5). We don’t preach to draw attention to ourselves. We preach to draw attention to him. After being captured and captivated by the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, who would want to preach about themselves? If you have been called to “this ministry,” you will desire to proclaim him, to please him, and to live aware that your call is purely by the mercy of God.
The mercy of God is where Paul begins. Look again at verse one: “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God . . .” Paul’s resolve to not lose heart was informed by his awareness of the mercy of God in his conversion and call to ministry. He never stopped marveling at the mercy of God. Some thirty years after his conversion, Paul wrote to Timothy, “Though formerly I was a blasphemer and a persecutor and insolent opponent. But I received mercy” (1 Tim. 1:13). He never lost sight of mercy in his conversion and call to ministry so that he would never lose heart.
How about you? Have you lost sight of mercy? Have you gotten over it or become familiar with it? Are you still amazed? No doubt there was a time when you were very conscious that your call to “this ministry” is because of the mercy of God. Do you continue to live like Paul with this keen sense of the mercy of God in your life?
If you have lost sight of mercy and lost heart in ministry, let’s take a moment for a heart-strengthening review of how we got here. Though different in the details, I know that your story follows the same basic trajectory as mine. In light of my sinfulness and God’s holiness, the only explanation for receiving this call to “this ministry” to preach the gospel is the mercy of God. Every day, there is sinful stuff that takes place in my heart. Every day, I fall short of my calling as a Christian and a minister of God’s Word. I am not worthy of this task of proclamation. In fact, I am decidedly unworthy. But because of God’s mercy, I have been entrusted with this gospel and called to preach the gospel.
And when I do preach the gospel, God, in his marvelous mercy, dispels the darkness that captivates hearts because of sin and Satan. Because of his mercy, God gives sight to the blind. They see that bleeding sacrifice. They hear the cries of Calvary. They perceive his sacrifice as for them. They recognize him as their sin-bearing, wrath-absorbing substitute. They acknowledge Jesus as the one the Father raised from the dead, satisfied with his perfect life and substitutionary sacrifice. When sinners see these glorious truths, they turn from their sin and trust in the Savior for the forgiveness of sin and their lives are transformed. By the mercy of God, we have the privilege to proclaim this message. Friend, if you are discouraged in ministry, remember this!
We see the transforming effect of God’s mercy in verses four through six. If we only had verse four, the situation would indeed be hopeless: “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” But look at verse six: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” From hopeless to glorious! God does what only he can do. And he brings this about through verse five: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”
Pastor, you are in verse five. Do you see your face there? Do you see the mercy of God at work through “this ministry”? Through your ministry? The apparently hopeless individual experiences this creative act of God through the means of your proclamation of the gospel. The person whom “the god of this world has blinded” sees the light of the glory of God when you proclaim the truth about Jesus Christ. Here is powerful encouragement for every discouraged pastor. Keep this in view, and you won’t lose heart.
How do we put these verses to work in our soul? Quite simply, we resolve to think about our congregation in light of the truth contained here. As pastors, it is too easy for us to become preoccupied with the sins of those we serve. We can forget their conversion and lose sight of that moment when this creative act of God took place. All of this tempts us to lose heart, to become impatient and irritated. That is why we must constantly remind ourselves of the work of grace in their lives. We must recall the moment when they turned from their sins and trusted in the Savior for the forgiveness of sins.
God recently sent someone to me to help me to keep this in view. It was a friend of mine who was converted through my preaching. Every year, this friend has been faithful to send me an e-mail on the anniversary of the day he was converted. This year, he wanted to do more than send an e-mail. He wanted to meet with me and say, “Thanks again.” So in the midst of all that could have preoccupied my time and attention, all the difficulties and challenges related to pastoral ministry, I found myself sitting across from this friend. And as he described his experience of conversion to me again—his transition from verse four to verse six through my proclamation of verse five—his smile filled the room. He thanked me again for preaching the gospel and told me again of the difference it has made in his life. I went back to work that day with a fresh heart for the work, amazed at the privilege I have been entrusted with to proclaim the gospel.
Brothers, may we never lose this wonder. May we never lose the sense of wonder that we have been called to pastoral ministry, the wonder that we have been called to proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified, the wonder and marvel at the fruit of preaching the gospel.
This was one way Paul resolved to not lose heart: by remembering that he had been called to “this ministry” by the mercy of God. But it wasn’t the only way. For not only was Paul called to the ministry of proclamation, he was also called to a ministry of suffering. We’ll consider the context of Christian ministry next time.
This post is part of a series entitled “When a Pastor Loses Heart.” It is adapted from a sermon I preached at Together for the Gospel 2012 entitled, “When a Pastor Loses Heart,” and was published by Crossway in The Underestimated Gospel, edited by Jonathan Leeman. Used by permission of Crossway.