Spurgeon and Dabney on the Call to the Ministry (Part 3 of 5)

Church History, Ministry, The Church

The Call of the Man of God is Spiritual

Care must be taken when using the term Spiritual.  Confusion abounds both within the church and without as to what true spirituality entails.  To the 21st century pagan,[1] spiritual is a catch all term for a host of diverse and quasi-religious enterprises which find their roots more in Romans 1:18-25 than in 1 Corinthians 2:10-16.  Even within the church, it not difficult to see the influence this modern paganism has had on Christian thought.  Christians too often use “spiritual” as a loose synecdoche for all that is subjective, private, emotional, and/or intense.  It is not difficult to see why the misapplication and misunderstanding of the word “spiritual “ and of spirituality in general can be detrimental to the order and fidelity of the church.  In order to understand what is meant by a Spiritual call, this term must be rescued from its various abuses.

What is a Spiritual Call?

When it is asserted that the call of the man of God is Spiritual, two points must be understood.  First, true biblical spirituality is always centered on the person and work of the Holy Spirit.  God the Father sent the Son into the world to save sinners, and when Jesus Christ ascended to heaven he promised to send the Helper.[2]  It is this Helper, the Holy Spirit of God, who both gifts a man for and calls a man into the pastoral office.  Second, the Holy Spirit speaks to His people through the revealed and finished Word of God.  This second point is not to deny that the Spirit can and does confirm His will through the voice of his church and in the prayer closet of the inquirer, but these confirmations must always be married to the source of the Spirit’s communication: God’s Word.  A radio broadcast may be received in a car, a handheld device, or even streamed on the internet, yet it is always the same signal.  So also the Holy Spirit may communicate His will through the public preaching of his Word or through personal Bible meditation, private prayer, and Christian counsel.  Some diversity in the method of delivery is lawful, as long as it is always the same content, the same signal coming through.  God has spoken by the Spirit through the Word; we do not look for new sources or new voices.  A Spiritual call to the ministry is therefore one that comes from the Holy Spirit Himself, and is communicated through the Word of God. [3]

The Spiritual Call of Dabney and Spurgeon

What do the two old counselors of this paper have to say on this topic?  For Dabney, the “utterance of the Holy Spirit” is the very essence of the call.  He writes that “The full and certain call to the ministry is uttered by the Holy Spirit, both to the candidate himself and to the church.  The medium of its utterance is God’s dealing with the candidate and the principles if the written Scriptures” (Dabney, p. 27).

These words are direct and accurate, yet at this point Dabney must yield the floor to Spurgeon, who captures not just the bare facts, but puts in words the intangible Spiritual yearning a called man has for gospel ministry:

If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor, or a grocer, or a farmer, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a senator, or a king, in the name of heaven and earth let him go his way; he is not the man in whom dwells the Spirit of God in its fullness, for a man so filled with God would utterly weary of any pursuit but that for which his inmost soul pants.  If on the other hand, you can say that for all the wealth of both the Indies you could not and dare not espouse any other calling so as to be put aside from preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, then, depend on it, if other things be equally satisfactory, you have the signs of this apostleship.  We must feel that woe is unto us if we preach not the gospel; the word of God must be as fire in our bones, otherwise, if we undertake the ministry, we shall be unhappy in it, shall be unable to bear the self-denials incident to it, and shall be of little service to those among whom we minister (Spurgeon, pp. 26-7).

Spurgeon captures a sense of the holy passion which called men have so often spoken of.[4]  These posts have argued against a sensationalist view of spirituality and calling, but the proverbial pendulum must not be allowed to swing back too far.  It is true that a potential pastor must first be Biblically qualified and must then seek out the will of God through His Word and His church, yet this is no argument for a cold and stoic formalism in these matters.  To resist excessive charismata does not necessitate spiritual malaise.  Indeed, strange voices and vague impressions are always weak substitutes for true Spirituality.  The Word of God is like fire,[5] and the Holy Spirit uses it to thoroughly ignite a man’s passion for the work of the ministry.  Spurgeon’s key contribution to understanding the Spiritual nature of the Biblical call is that “the word of God must be as fire in our bones.”[6]  An analogy can be drawn to that phrase used by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 1:5, that our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance.  The Spirit calls a man through the same medium He does all His speaking, namely the revealed Word;[7] yet that Word must be ignited within him.  Only then will he understand the Spiritual call to the ministry.[8]

(By: Nicolas Alford)


[1] Mirriam-Webster online lists “pagan” as a synonym of “heathen.”  The definition of heathen is an unconverted member of a people or nation that does not acknowledge the God of the Bible.  “Pagan” can therefore be used to describe non-Christians generally, especially those who have little-to-no knowledge of Biblical truth.  The politically correct term would probably be “un-churched.”

[2] John 3:16, 17:7.

[3] The above paragraph could easily be expanded into several treatises, but for the sake of brevity the author will assume general agreement with these principles and not seek to defend them further in these posts.

[4] It should be acknowledged that Dabney sternly rebukes what Spurgeon here promotes.  “Away with the notion that the young man is not called to preach unless he hath fallen in love with this special work, in some senseless and unaccountable manner, as though pierced with the invisible arrow of some spiritual Eros, or Cupid!  It is nonsense, it is wickedness.  The Holy Spirit is a rational being, the Bible is a rational book, and every Christian emotion which he produces in the human soul by applying Bible truth is produced according to the laws of the human understanding; it is a reasonable emotion prompted be reasonable and intelligent views of truth” (Dabney, p. 34).  While these posts are siding with Spurgeon at this point, Dabney will be brought in under the next division to provide needed balance.  The advice of Pastor A.N. Martin to read both of these men proves here to be quite helpful.

[5] Jeremiah 23:29

[6] It would seem that Spurgeon borrowed this language from John Owen who writes “It appeareth, then, from the proceeding discourse, that a man pretending to extraordinary vocation by immediate revelation, in respect of self-persuasion of the truth of his call, must be as ascertained of it as he could be of a burning fire in his bones, if there shut up” (p. 31 The Works of John Owen Vol. 13, emphasis added).

[7] “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 of every other duty, in the teachings of God’s revealed word” (Dabney, p. 27).

[8] The comments cited by Horatius Bonar in his small book Words to Winners of Souls are deeply relevant.  He cites the Swiss Reformer Oecolampadius as saying “How much more would a few good and fervent men effect in the ministry than a multitude of lukewarm ones!.”  Bonar also writes “When the church of Christ, in all her denominations, returns to the primitive example, and walking in apostolic footsteps seeks to be conformed more closely to inspired models, allowing nothing that pertains to earth to come between her and her living Head, then will she give more careful heed to see that the men to whom she entrusts the care of souls, however learned and able, should be yet more distinguished by their spirituality, zeal, faith and love (pp. 1-2, Words to Winners of Souls, emphasis added).

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