Spurgeon and Dabney on the Call to the Ministry (Part 2 of 5)

Church History, Ministry, The Church

Click here to read the first post in this series.

The Call of the Man of God is Biblical

The assertion that the call of the man of God is Biblical has first in view the Biblical concept of the call rather than the Biblical qualifications.  The Biblical qualifications prerequisite for ordination into the gospel ministry have already been mentioned.[1]  It is with these qualifications that any thought about being called into the gospel ministry must begin.  If a man does not measure up to the standards laid out there for a shepherd in the church of God (or their strong potentiality is not there in seed form), he must either wait until he has grown into these things or abandon his pursuit of the pastorate.

Qualification and Calling 

While the qualifications are crucial to the process of ministerial evaluation,[2] it must also be recognized that qualification does not necessarily equate to calling.  To possess the requisite qualifications is an absolutely necessary condition, but it is not a completely sufficient condition.[3]  This truth can be illustrated within the walls of Christ’s Church: a man can for example be eminently qualified for the foreign mission field, yet through the circumstances of his home church or the particular dynamic of his family he may determine that he is not called to serve in that capacity.  So too a man may be evidently qualified for the eldership,[4] yet not be called by God into that office.  To be called is not just to be qualified; it is to be certain of a further Spiritual commission and impulse toward the work of the ministry.  This doctrine of a special divine calling runs parallel in the Scriptures with the doctrine of qualification.  They are distinct yet never divorced: an uncalled man is in fact unqualified and unqualified man is never truly called by God.  It is therefore the purpose of this first division to demonstrate that this doctrine of ‘further calling’ is indeed Biblical.  True to the modus operandi of these posts, this will be accomplished by listening intently both to Spurgeon and to Dabney.

Spurgeon, Dabney, The Call, and The Bible

Both of these men assert in the first pages of their respective articles that this special divine calling is indeed Biblical and applies to the New Testament Pastor.  Spurgeon counsels the ministerial aspirant that

No man may intrude into the sheepfold as an under-shepherd; he must have an eye to the chief Shepherd, and wait His beck and command.  Or ever a man stands forth as God’s ambassador, he must wait for the call from above… (Spurgeon pp 22-23).

Dabney is much pithier, yet states the same truth when he says “The church has always held that none should preach the gospel but those who are called of God” (Dabney p. 26).  There is therefore unity between Spurgeon and Dabney as to the Biblical nature of a special divine call.  Yet while they make similar assertions regarding the validity of the doctrine of the call, the two roads they use to arrive there are radically divergent and illustrative of the divide between the two men in their overall approach to this issue.

Charles Spurgeon rests this doctrine of calling on the foundation of the Old Testament prophets.  He surveys the examples of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, showing that all these men were the recipients of a special divine calling out of secular vocation and into the prophetic ministry.  Spurgeon asserts that New Testament pastors are the inheritors of the prophetic office,[5] and can therefore only enter the ministry if they are under the sure conviction that they have received a “similar call.”[6]

Robert Dabney does not agree with Spurgeon’s method.  Indeed, the second sentence of his article is a direct repudiation of the reasoning Spurgeon employs.  After asserting that the church has “always held that none should preach the gospel but those who are called of God,” Dabney counters “The solid proof of this is not to be sought in those places of Scripture where a special divine call was given to Old Testament prophets and priests, or to Apostles, although such passages have been often misapplied” (Dabney, p. 26).

So while both men assert that there is a necessity of calling, they are immediately divergent in their Biblical justifications for this concept.  It remains for the reader to plot a safe course, using the Bible as his final guide.  As will be shown under heading three (The Call of the Man of God is Ordinary), Dabney is correct to chastise Spurgeon’s method of relying so heavily on the office of Old Testament prophet.[7]  Requiring a “similar call” confuses the diversity of the extraordinary office of prophet and the ordinary office of pastor.  Dabney does admit that there is a “general analogy between the call of a prophet or apostle and that of a gospel preacher” (Dabney, p. 26), but Spurgeon is clearly basing his arguments on more than “general analogy.”

Predictably, these two men are at their most helpful when they are most guided by Scripture.  After his survey of Old Testament prophets is complete Spurgeon turns to a far more helpful and relevant discussion of the New Testament titles associated with the office of a pastor.  By highlighting the names ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:18-19), steward (2 Corinthians 4:1), and angel (Revelation 2:1), [8]  he traces a common theme of calling inherent in these titles.  An ambassador, steward, or angel (messenger) is never a self-appointed man.  His authority and commission is always derived from the authority of the one he represents and serves.  If a man claimed to be the American ambassador to China, yet could show no proof of being set apart by the American government for that service, he would be rejected by the Chinese as a fraud.  So too, if a man claims to be an under-shepherd of God he must first receive the divine commission, the calling of the Man of God.  Spurgeon goes on to enumerate many direct examples of this call being mentioned or presupposed in relation to pastoral ministry.[9]  In this, we find Dabney and Spurgeon speaking with one voice, as Dabeny points as well to the direct examples of a call in Scripture, and to that telling title of ambassador[10].

Robert Dabney’s most helpful contribution at this point is to differentiate the Biblical call from unbiblical theories of mysticism and excessive charismata.  He is jealous to protect the primary role of the Scriptures as the means through which God communicates to his people:

What, then, is the call to the gospel ministry?  Before the answer to this question is attempted, let us protest against the vague, mystical and fanatical notions of a call which prevail in many minds, fostered, we are sorry to admit, by not a little unscriptural teaching from Christians.  People seem to imagine that some voice is to be heard, or some impression to be felt, or some impulse to be given to the soul, they hardly know what or whence, which is to force the man into the ministry without rational or scriptural deliberation.  And if this fantastic notion is not realized- as it is not like to be, except among those persons of feverish imagination who of all men have least business in the pulpit- the young Christian is encouraged to conclude that he is exempt.  Let the pious young man ask himself this plain question, is there any other expression of God’s will given to us except the Bible?  Where else does God authorize us to look for information as to any duty?  The call to the ministry, then, is to be found, like the call to every duty, in the teachings of God’s revealed word.  The Holy Spirit has ceased to give direct revelations.  He speaks to no rational adult now through any other medium than his word, applied by his gracious light to the understanding and conscience.  To look for anything else from him is superstition.  While the call of prophets and apostles was by special revelation, that of the gospel minister may be termed a scriptural call.[11]

Complimentary Clarity

If this call is biblical and essential, how then can a man be sure that he has received it?  If both Spurgeon and Dabney (although they part ways in their exegetical foundations and experiential epistemology) agree that this call is Biblical, what actually constitutes a call to the ministry?  If we can expect no voice to be heard, no angel to appear, and no coal to be extended to our lips, then what remains?  Spurgeon answers this question in four points, Dabney in seven.  Their respective lists testify to the complimentary clarity which is obtained by reading both men on this issue, and ought to be treasured by the man who is seeking to know the will of God as to his own calling into the gospel ministry.

The answer of Charles Spurgeon to the question, “how may a man know whether he is called or not” is that he sees in himself and his circumstances the following four signs:

  1. An intense all absorbing desire for the work
  2. Aptness to teach and some measure of the other qualities needful for the office of public instructor
  3. A measure of conversion-work going on under his efforts
  4. That his preaching should be acceptable to the people of God.[12]

For Dabney, this call is unpacked under seven divisions:

  1. The testimony of the Church
  2. The general doctrine of Christian vocation and faithfulness to God’s calling which is a common duty to all believers
  3. Clear outward circumstances of God’s providence
  4. A conformity to the Biblical qualifications, namely a hearty and healthy piety, a fair reputation for holiness of life, a respectable force of character, some Christian experience, and aptness to teach[13]
  5. The clear needs and necessities of the Church for faithful ministers
  6. The testimony of the Spirit through his Word
  7. Through fervent and incessant prayer.[14]

Clearly both Spurgeon and Dabney affirm that a man must measure up to the Biblical qualifications, yet they also affirm that there must be further providential and ecclesiastical indicators that he has received a divine call.  At the confluence of the Biblical data and the insights of these two old counselors it is seen that the call of the man of God is indeed Biblical.  Only the great Shepherd can truly call and cultivate His under-shepherds.[15]  Having shown that this call is Biblical, it will be shown in the next two posts that it is both Spiritual and Ordinary.

(By: Nicolas Alford)

[1] The Biblical qualifications are found primarily in the passages from 1 Timothy and Titus references above, with the Acts and 1 Peter passages providing further detail and insight.

[2] The absolute necessity of being biblically well qualified for the work of the ministry is well expressed by Richard Baxter on pages 68-71 of The Reformed Pastor.

[3] At this point, this post is following Spurgeon rather than Dabney.  Their divide on this point will become apparent as this series unfolds.

[4]  This series of posts will use the various titles of pastor, elder, shepherd, and overseer as synonyms.  The author holds to the doctrine of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith as stated in chapter twenty six paragraph nine, commonly known as the ‘two-office’ view.  This is not to say that a vocational pastor and a non-vocational elder will have no diversity in their roles, but it must be maintained that the difference is one of degree and practicality as opposed to kind.

[5] Spurgeon is not arguing against cessationism.  A New Testament pastor is a ‘prophet’ in the sense that he dares to stand before the congregation of God and utter the solemn words “Thus says the Lord…”  Yet the source of his insight into the will of God is not direct, special revelation in the way of the prophets of old, but rather through the inspired and finished Word of God, the Holy Bible.

[6] Spurgeon, p. 23.

[7] The reader should not miss the deep irony of a Presbyterian chastising a Baptist for grounding his arguments too heavily in the Old Testament.  On the doctrines of baptism and the new covenant these two men would swap hermeneutical methodology, and the chastisement would be inverted.

[8] The word translated as “angel” in Revelation 2:1 is defined as one sent, a messenger, angel  (Mounce, Willam D.  The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993).  Spurgeon is following the interpretation of the “church letters” in Revelation which identifies the “angels” as the messengers of the churches, i.e. their pastors.

[9] The passages he references are 2 Timothy 2:21, Acts 4:15, Ephesians 4:11, Acts 20:28, Galatians 1:1, Jeremiah 3:15, 34:4, 15:19, 2 Corinthians 2:15, and Mark 3:13.

[10] “The true proof that none should preach but those called of God is rather to be found in such texts as Acts xx. 28, “Take heed… to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath hade you overseers”; 1 Corinthians xii. 28, etc.; and in the obvious reason that the minister is God’s ambassador, and the sovereign alone can appoint such an agent” (Dabney p. 26).

[11] Dabney, p. 26-27

[12] Spurgeon, pp. 26-35.

[13] Dabney, p. 31

[14] Dabney, pp. 27-46

[15] The voice of Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones could be added to this conversation as well.  He is sited on page 80 of Ian Murray’s biography as having said “A preacher is not a Christian who decided to preach, he does not just decide to do it.  It is God who commands preaching, it is God who sends our preachers” (Murray, Ian H.  D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The First Forty Years 1899-1939.  Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982).  Also, Charles Bridges cites Newton as having said “None but he who made the world can make a Minister of the Gospel” (Bridges, Charles.  The Christian Minsitry.  Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1959).

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