Spurgeon and Dabney on the Call to the Ministry (Part 4 of 5)

Church History, Ministry, The Church

The Call of the Man of God is Ordinary

The first two assertions of the previous posts have been that the call to the ministry is Biblical and Spiritual.  In Part 2 (The Call is Biblical) it was shown that although Spurgeon and Dabney take radically divergent roads, they arrive at the same destination. In Part 3 (The Call is Spiritual), Dabney receded and Spurgeon was given the floor.  Yet if the discussion remained where it stands, there would be an unacceptable tendency towards imbalance.  While Spurgeon’s rhetoric captures something of that intangible fire a man ought to have for the labors of the gospel, he leaves himself open to certain criticisms.  When coupled with his earlier assertions that a pastor must receive a “similar” call to the prophets of old, this rhetoric may leave men with the impression that the ministry lies beyond the reach of any mere mortal.  There is a danger in setting the bar so high that any man with half a sense of his own sin will feel that he is hopelessly uncalled.  This tendency is patent on page 26 when he favorably quotes an old divine as having said “Do not enter the ministry, if you can help it.”  There is a danger that in Spurgeon’s world too many men might hold back when they ought to go forward.

It is at this precise point that Dabney’s treatment of the subject is most helpful.  He brings some needed clarity to these issues by pointing out that the call of a pastor is ordinary as opposed to the extraordinary call of a prophet or apostle.  This one insight does much to order a man’s thoughts on this topic, and it is a welcome reprieve from many unhelpful treatments of this issue.

Dabney’s Reprieve

Treatments of the divine call often appeal to the biblical examples of the prophets and the apostles.  Dabney takes great exception to this method for the simple reason that it confuses extraordinary with the ordinary.  The offices of prophet and apostle held extraordinary status in God’s redemptive historical economy.  They were extraordinary in that they attended the giving of special revelation, were usually accompanied by miracles, and were intended for a limited time.  It is therefore to be expected that the call to these offices would be similarly extraordinary.  The examples of Isaiah and Paul serve as apt illustrations.[1]

Is the office of Pastor in the New Covenant similarly extraordinary?  The answer to this question hinges on the question of revelation.  If special revelation is a closed canon, then extraordinary offices have ceased their Kingdom function.  It is the confession of the Reformed churches[2]  that the cannon is indeed closed, and that God has ceased to give new special revelation.  The Reformed churches therefore believe that the extraordinary offices, like the extraordinary gifts, have ceased.

The relevance of this observation is that a man need not (indeed, he ought not!) look for extraordinary signs that he has been called to the gospel ministry.  A pastor of a New Covenant church should not expect to have coal extended to his lips by singing seraphim, nor to be knocked from his mount by the blinding light of the resurrected Christ.

This is a constant theme in Dabney’s article, and it is one of his most valuable contributions.  It is at the same time liberating and condemning.  It liberates a man in that he is freed from fantastic notions of spirituality and the divine commission.  He is able to rest in “the law and the testimony”[3] as the faithful expression of the divine will.  The Word of God is sufficient to equip the man of God for “every good work,”[4] including the good work of his initial call.  Yet this truth is also condemning, in that it condemns the man who resists God’s calling under the pretence of prudent caution.  A man may protest that he is waiting for a sign, and he may even sound rather mature and measured in his approach, but Dabney is quick to point out the disobedience of such a hesitation.

This paper began with the theme of working out a sense of calling with fear and trembling, and Spurgeon has been quoted to testify to the dangers of an uncalled man who finds his way into a pulpit.  Yet there is another danger, a danger which Dabney captures well:

…the danger is not only on the side of running uncalled, but also of tarrying when he ought to run… to stay out of the pulpit when called to enter it is also a sin, a sin which can only proceed from evil motives, and which must naturally result in the damnation of souls which should have been saved through the disobedient Christian’s preaching, but were not, and which must bring him under the frown and chastisement of an offended Savior” (Dabney, p. 44).

(By: Nicolas Alford)

[1] See Isaiah 6, Acts 9:1-19.

[2] See chapter one of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, especially paragraphs one and two.

[3] Isaiah 8:20.

[4] 2 Timothy 3:16-17.


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