Dr. Jeff Robinson (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a senior editor for The Gospel Coalition. A native of Blairsville, Georgia, he also pastors Christ Fellowship Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and serves as senior research and teaching associate for the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies and adjunct professor of church history at Southern Seminary. He is co-author, with Michael Haykin, of the book To the End of the Earth: Calvin’s Mission Vision and Legacy, and co-editor with Collin Hansen of 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me. Jeff and his wife, Lisa, have four children.
T4L: Hello Dr. Robinson! We’re excited to have you do this interview with Theology for Life Magazine. Can you tell us a bit about yourself? What ministries are you currently involved with?
Dr. Robinson: I have a pretty busy ministry life at present. Beyond being a father and a husband, I’m most fundamentally a pastor. I serve as lead pastor of Christ Fellowship Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Louisville. I have the privilege of serving with four elders there. I do most of the preaching and am deeply involved in the shepherding of our congregation. I also serve as a senior editor with The Gospel Coalition, where one of the primary aspects of my job is editing a series of books aimed at young and new pastors—12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry is part of that series, as is 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me, the first series volume published in March by Crossway under the TGC imprint.
T4L: Wow! Sounds like you’re a busy guy! As you were editing 12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry was there any particular hero (or heroes) that stood out to you that you learned from/about?
Dr. Robinson: Actually, there were several and that’s one of things that so excited about the book. Previously, though I have taught church history survey courses for many years, I had not encountered Janani Luwum and knew precious little about Wang Ming-Dao and John Chavis. Of course, I’ve taught and written quite a bit about the other figures in the book, but it reminded me that the church has existed for more than 2,000 years, and we’ve been studying and writing about her history for about as long, but I don’t think we’ve plumbed the depths in terms of the unsung heroes who have walked the Calvary Road of suffering for the sake of Christ and His gospel.
Wang Ming-Dao’s story is a particularly compelling, I think, because he compromised. One of my pet peeves with much history, particularly biography, that’s written is that it’s hagiography—meaning we portray our heroes as virtually sinless and spotless. As Christians, we know better. These saints of old may have lived exemplary lives, but they are deeply flawed. They are sinners.
At one point, Ming-Dao compromised. He abdicated. His faith was weak. Of course, he repented and was restored, but the compelling part of his story is ugly, but it’s a reality to which many of us can relate. To quote a famous children’s hymn, “we are weak, but He is strong”. Wing Dao’s story reminds us of that. Also, with Luwum and Chavis, you get to see that political persecution and racism are nothing knew. Those things didn’t begin with baby boomer America or Ferguson. They’ve been around since Eden.
T4L: It is quite interesting to hear about such candor in these biographical reaccounts that you’ve mentioned! How refreshing! Continuing along the lines of lessons from history…As you already know, John Calvin is world-famous for his writing and preaching. What can Pastors, even those very well familiar with Calvin, learn from his approach to sermon preparation and delivery?
Dr. Robinson: I think it’s very simple: preach the Word of God and trust the Word of God. Of course, it is well-known that Calvin was exiled from Geneva and then returned in 1541. When he came back to the church in Geneva, Calvin picked up preaching in Psalms where he had left off at the time of his exile. Calvin’s confidence wasn’t in human ingenuity. It wasn’t in his intellectual ability—and Calvin was a towering intellect. Calvin’s confidence was in what Paul calls the “foolishness of preaching” the Word of God. That’s what we learn from Calvin and the best exegetes from the history of the Church—live in the text, preach the text, trust the text—the seed, to be watered by the Spirit of God to transform sinful human hearts. Calvin certainly did.
T4L: Amen! In the book, Randall Gruendyke talks about Charles Simeon ministering in hard soil. What can Pastors today learn from him when it comes to ministering to difficult and challenging people?
Dr. Robinson: Perhaps more than any figure in the book, Simeon faced a set of circumstances that are common for many pastors. His congregation was irascible. They didn’t like Simeon for a long time. I think of what God calls Israel many times in the Old Testament—they were a rebellious house, a stiff-necked people. But Simeon stayed with the work. He persevered and trusted God.
In our here-today-gone-tomorrow culture, it’s easy for pastors to want to flee a hard field of service for greener pastures—I know, I’ve been there. But Simeon trusted that God is sovereign, that God had called him to love that congregation, to shepherd that congregation—regardless of the people’s disposition toward him. That’s the beautiful part of his story—God gave him persevering grace. That’s something I pray for regularly—persevering grace. I don’t think we talk about that enough as Christians, and we certainly don’t talk enough about that as pastors.
T4L: Spurgeon often faced intense periods of discouragement in his ministry. What advice do you have for pastors and ministry leaders facing periods of deep personal discouragement?
Dr. Robinson: Discouragement and ministry are dance partners and will be until Jesus returns. After the Surrey Music Hall disaster near the beginning of his ministry, in which several were killed, Spurgeon was never the same. He struggled with anxiety. He was often deeply depressed. He nearly quit the ministry. But Spurgeon is one of many, many pastors who have battled depression and chronic discouragement.
Really, discouragement is only as far away as your e-mail inbox or next Monday after you’ve preached on Sunday. Spurgeon teaches us try and give ourselves entirely to pleasing God. You will seldom, if ever, please the people in your church and your goal should never be to try and please the people in your church. Moses faced discouragement, Paul faced discouragement. If you spend more than a week in pastoral ministry, you are likely to experience discouragement.
T4L: Very true. How does John Newton remind us that pastoral struggles and doubts are not infrequent or unusual but the norm in ministry?
Dr. Robinson: Newton had to wait for a lengthy period of time to undergo ordination and actually enter pastoral ministry in the Church of England. I graduated from seminary and waited two years, which seemed like an eternity after spending so many years preparing for time in the local church. I’ve had friends wait quite a bit longer than that. I actually knew one guy who had to wait nearly six years. None of us likes to wait, but it is often God’s school in which He works sanctification in us at multiple levels, particularly in deepening our faith.
T4L: That is certainly an area of great difficulty to many, myself included. Waiting on anything, while trying to maintain faith in your calling is hard. This is part of the reason why we can find these types of books to be so helpful. J.C. Ryle is well-regarded for his writing, and his ministry—like that of Charles Spurgeon—continues to impact God’s people today. How can men like J.C. Ryle and Charles Spurgeon help Pastors today, who are interested in writing for public consumption, learn to develop and grow in their craft?
Dr. Robinson: I tell my pastor friends all the time who show both an aptitude and desire for writing to write. Write about your experiences and how God is using it in your life and ministry. It could be that you start writing in a journal or just a personal blog, but write in ways that will encourage and help other pastors.
They encourage us to write on practical theology and doctrinal issues, especially those we may have spend significant time studying. Writing is like most everything else, the more you actually do it, the better you tend to get at it. I’d encourage pastors to look for opportunities to write and to hone their craft. I think by writing. Often, I don’t really know what I think about an issue until I study it and then write about it. Writing and carefully editing what you write will help your sermons, it will help you to crystallize your thoughts, it will make you a more careful thinker, and I think it can even make you a more effective and skilled preacher of God’s Word. It certainly can help you communicate better with the people whom God has called you to shepherd.
T4L: Wonderful encouragement, sir! Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview, Dr. Robinson!