Spurgeon and Dabney on the Call to the Ministry (Part 1 of 5)

Church History, Ministry, The Church

It is difficult to imagine an issue which more directly bears upon the blessing and peace of a local church than the divine call of its pastor.  A man called by God and fitted with pastoral gifts is himself a gift to the church.  A man who is deceived by a false sense of calling inevitably brings pain on himself and trouble to the church.  It is therefore incumbent on a man to work out these things with fear and trembling.  Likewise, the church of Jesus Christ must take all care and prudence to corporately confirm the private sense of calling a man may have, lest by his ordination they receive the trouble in the stead of the gift.[1]

The Clear Relevancy

These concepts are often summarized and expressed under the general heading of “the call to the ministry.”  The relevancy of this issue is patent to any who love the church of Jesus Christ and can be expressed from several perspectives.  It is clearly relevant to the man who is seeking personal certainty of his own divine calling.  As this sense of calling may forever mark a dramatic change of course in his life and the life of his family, a man should not venture into these things lightly.   He may at times feel like the patriarch Jacob, wrestling with God throughout the night until he is satisfied that his call is indeed divine, rather than carnal in its origin.  This personal certainty is often referred to as the “internal” call.

The subject of the divine call is also deeply relevant to the particular local church which is tasked with confirming a man’s inward sense of calling.  Simple Christian experience testifies that many a man has been deceived in his own heart as to the divine origin of his desires and his fitness for the pastoral office.  A church must therefore take great care in its role of evaluating and confirming these things in a man.  This dimension of the issue is commonly referred to as the “external” call.[2]

Yet there is also clear relevance, not only to the individual man and his potential local church, but to the whole of the Christian community in all places.  Untold sorrows, shame, and struggles have been the result of irresponsibility and confusion vis-à-vis the divine call of the man of God.  An uncalled man who stumbles his way into the ministry under false assurances (both internal and external) brings havoc not only on himself and his church, but also sends shockwaves throughout the kingdom.

The Heavy Responsibility

Christ’s church must therefore handle its confirmation of the divine calling of the man of God with great care and gravity.  A church endeavoring to be faithful in this responsibility will of course go first to the Scriptures for guidance.  Bibles must be laid open, and passages such as 1st Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, Acts 20:17-38 and 1 Peter 5:1-4 must be studied and prayed over.  Then, having examined the relevant passages, they ought to turn next to the deep wells of church history, seeking the best counsel of those brethren who have wrestled through these issues in ages past.  It is only the conceit of modernity that turns a deaf ear to the voices of history.  Untold thousands of churches have either brought upon themselves a blessing or a curse as they have attempted to discern the validity of a potential divine calling of a man, and the modern church ought to always seek to learn from both the sorrows and the joys of those who have come before them.  The old proverb is deeply relevant: In the multitude of counselors, there is safety.[3]

This utilization of church history and key voices from the past is precisely what Pastor A. N. Martin prescribes in his classic lectures on Pastoral Theology entitled The Call of the Man of God.  There he advises his students to mine the best gold offered on this subject from the library of history.  Two of the voices from history which Martin highlights as particularly valuable are the 19th century Baptist Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and the 19th century Presbyterian Robert Lewis Dabney.

From the fact that these two men are singled out by Martin as particularly helpful, one would expect to find these men in substantial agreement on the matter.  That is, however, not the case.  While they often evidence substantial agreement, these two men at times have views on this issue that are nearly as far apart as one could imagine two evangelical Christians holding on such a directly Biblical and crucial topic.

Martin’s purpose in recommending these two men with their disparate views is not to introduce confusion into what can already be a difficult process.  Rather, he seeks to bring balance by comparing and contrasting two schools of thought.  These varied schools of thought exist because the call of a man to the pastoral office overlaps somewhat from the objective realm into the subjective.  Although it is always the same God who is calling and it is always the same office a man is being called into, the secondary circumstances may vary greatly from man to man.  Two men’s divergent personal experiences and perceptions of being called and received into the Christian ministry may therefore tend greatly to influence their views on the subject.

Martin recommends these two men because he believes that an accurate understanding of this topic exists somewhere between their two views.  He intends for his students to balance out the extremes of the one with the other.  In his second lecture on this subject Martin exhorts his listeners with some humor, saying

Don’t yield your mind to any one man’s counsel on this subject.  As you read Spurgeon, don’t accept him as the guru, as fully balanced and the final word.  If you do… some of you might not stay the rest of the week… On the other hand, if you take Dabney as the final word [there are] some of you that may feel you ought to move beyond your present sphere of usefulness in the church of Christ and aspire to the pastoral office without sufficient internal and external warrant to do that.  So please don’t read Dabney and fall asleep tonight without reading Spurgeon.  And if you read Spurgeon, be sure before you come tomorrow morning you read Dabney to balance yourself out…[4]

It would seem that what A.N. Martin has in view is a sort of sanctified regression to the mean.  This series of posts intends to take his advice.  As the various issues at play are discussed, the best of Spurgeon will be weighed with the best of Dabney, and the weaknesses of both will be weighed against Scripture.  Three Scriptural elements of the call of the man of God will be highlighted and discussed.  It will be shown that this call is Biblical, Spiritual, and Ordinary.  As the discussion unfolds our ears will be constantly open to the counsel of Charles Haddon Spurgeon on the one hand, and Robert Lewis Dabney on the other.[5]

Read the next post in the series by clicking here.

(By: Nicolas Alford)


[1] “That hundreds have missed their way, and stumbled against a pulpit is sorrowfully evident from the fruitless ministries and decaying churches which surround us” (Spurgeon, p. 25).  Because these posts will quote extensively from two respective works by Charles Spurgeon and Robert Lewis Dabney, their quotes from these two sources will be referenced by their last names.  The full citations are as follows:

Dabney, Robert Lewis.  “What is a Call to the Minstiry?”  Discussions of Robert Lewis Dabney, Volume 2: Evangelical and Theological.  Accessed 1 March 2010.  Available from http://www.archive.org/details/DiscussionsOfRobertLewisDabneyVol.2EvangelicalAndTheological

Spurgeon, Charles, “The Call to the Ministry,” Lectures to my Students.  Reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954.

[2] This distinction between the “internal” and the “external” call (in concept if not in name) is one of the most consistent features of the various treatises available on the call to the ministry.  For a classic example see The Duty of Pastors and People Distinguished by John Owen (pp. 1-49 in The Works of John Owen Vol. 13).  For a modern example see On Being a Pastor, by Derek Prime and Alistair Begg (pp. 17-34).

[3] Proverbs 24:6b

[4] The audio of this quote can be found from minutes 27:30 to 28:40 in the audio file The Call of the Man of God, Lecture 2.

[5] The two primary source documents used in this synthesis are Spurgeon’s second chapter in Lectures To My Students, “The Call to the Ministry,” and Dabney’s section in volume two of his Works entitled “What is a Call to the Ministry.”  See the footnote 1 for the full citations.

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