Posted On July 28, 2019

The Sufficiency of Scripture and Pastoral Ministry

by | Jul 28, 2019 | The Sufficiency of Scripture, Featured

The aim of pastoral ministry is to shepherd the people of God toward Christ that they may be formed into His image. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:28-29). While the process of shepherding people includes such things as evangelism, discipleship, and equipping for ministry, the question is this: how are the shepherds of the Church to fulfill their calling? That is, how are they to win the lost? How are they to teach the newly saved? How are they to nourish seasoned saints? How are they to equip the Church for the work of the ministry?

As it is with those who shepherd literal sheep, so it is with those who lead the people of God. The shepherds of the Church are given a staff to guide and a rod to rebuke, both of which are the Word of God, and both of which are to be utilized under the guidance of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17-18), with humility of spirit (1st Peter 5:3), and with a genuine desire to edify the Church (Ephesians 4:11-16). Since the Scripture itself encourages the people of God to seek counsel from others (Proverbs 24:6), it’s acceptable for shepherds to consult persons and resources outside of Scripture as they carry out their calling. However, all things must ultimately be tested by the Word to ensure that they’re in accord with and useful for wielding the Word in the life of the Church.

Shepherds are Commanded to Teach Sound Doctrine

One way we see the primacy of the Word in the calling of shepherds is the commands that are given to them in the pastoral Epistles. For example, Paul writes, “He [the elder] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). This text requires several things of pastors. First, shepherds must have a tight grip on “the trustworthy word as taught”, which I take to mean they must both grasp it well and be fully convinced of it in their own minds. They must possess both a strong handle on the truth and a passionate love for the truth.

Second, shepherds must hold “to the trustworthy word as taught”, which implies that the teaching they know and love derives not from themselves but from some source of authority outside of themselves. For Titus, the source of authority was the teaching that Paul received by the command of God. “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior” (Titus 1:1-3, emphasis mine). Since the core of Paul’s teaching is now contained in the Scriptures as we know them, we can say that pastors must hold to the Scriptures in all they teach and do.

Third, shepherds must have the ability to give instruction in sound doctrine, which obviously means that their job is to teach the Word of God. Leadership, pastoral care, administration, and many other things are important, but pastors are essentially teachers. They are men of God who are called to spend their lives seeking to understand the truth, love the truth, be shaped by the truth, and embody the truth in their way of life. Then out of the overflow of their hearts and habits, they are to learn the art of ministering the “trustworthy word” to the people of God in a way that inspires them to love God and one another—that is, to be formed into the image of Christ.

Finally, shepherds must have the ability to rebuke those who contradict sound doctrine, which is to say, they must be able to defend the “trustworthy word as taught”. They must be highly skilled warriors on the battlefield of truth and error. Of course, as they do so they must also learn to emulate the character of Christ. As Paul said to Timothy, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2nd Timothy 2:24-26, emphasis mine). Thus, shepherds must be brave and full of love, bold to stand against error and quick to be kind, able to pierce with the sword of the Spirit and able to heal with the hand of mercy. They must always seek repentance, restoration, and unity—even when they have to engage in fierce battles for truth.

It is an inescapable fact that the shepherds of the Church are commanded to teach sound doctrine with their words and their manner of life, which is tantamount to saying that they must lead by teaching and applying the Word of God. They may draw on other persons and resources, but all things must be tested by the Word.

The Pastoral Function of the Word in the Life of the Church

The Word of God has fallen on hard times in many evangelical churches, for their leaders seem to think that it must be altered, adjusted, packaged, and marketed for the modern palette. While this conviction often flows out of a desire to see the lost saved, the lost cannot be saved when they are presented with something other or less than the very words of God. The gospel is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16), and the gospel is articulated in those words, beginning with Genesis and moving through Revelation.

I have heard several well-known pastors say that much of the preaching in Christian churches today is out of touch with modern people, and I tend to agree. But I think the problem is one of presentation, not of content. In other words, I think the issue is not so much that out-of-touch-pastors are preaching the Word on its own terms, as it is that they haven’t learned how to preach it well. Any passage of Scripture can be presented in such a way that people are led to see the relevance thereof for their everyday lives. This, in fact, is one of the primary tasks of the preacher.

I derive this conviction, mainly, from Paul’s well-known words in 2nd Timothy 3:16-17. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” The central claim of this text is that the Bible is “breathed-out” by God, which means, at least, that it derives from God and presents the very words and wisdom of God. Because this is so, the entire Bible is profitable for a number of things that are essential to life and crucial for pastoral ministry.

First, all Scripture is profitable for “teaching”, which means that it’s useful for imparting the knowledge of truth. The Scripture teaches us the truth about theological matters like God, creation, humanity, morality, sin, redemption, the Church, Heaven and Hell, and the final judgment. It teaches us the truth about practical matters like romance, marriage, sexuality, raising children, work, play, money, philanthropy, friendship, time management, and planning. It teaches us the truth about matters of the heart like happiness, humility, pride, depression, stress, hope, love, and a proper sense of self. And it teaches us the truth about spiritual disciplines like Bible study, worship, prayer, fasting, meditation, silence, rest, service, and evangelism.

The God-breathed words of Scripture touch upon every vital matter of life, and therefore they are imminently useful for pastoral ministry. No other book or resource in the world is as relevant as the Word, and thus, why would we turn from its wisdom towards anything else? Why would we commit the twin evils of Israel who both forsook “the fountain of living waters”, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, “broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13)?

Second, all Scripture is profitable for reproof, which means that it’s useful for rebuking God’s people when they sin. The Word of God pierces right through our defenses and peers into the depths of our souls. It does not trifle with trivial matters, but cuts to the core so that God might heal our diseases rather than treat our symptoms. The purpose of such soul-piercing rebuke is to lead us away from destruction and toward a fuller life in Christ. Just as a shepherd must sometimes use his rod to strike the sheep and keep them from falling off a cliff or wandering near a wolf’s den, so pastors must sometimes use the Word of God to rebuke the people of God and keep them from stumbling or falling prey to their enemies.

A few years ago, I got into a discussion about the pastoral ministry of rebuke with a thirty-something pastor of a new church. He insisted that pastors are not called to rebuke God’s people, but only to ask them leading questions. I drew his attention to 2nd Timothy 3:16-17, but he replied, “Does this text say pastors are supposed to rebuke God’s people or does it say that the Scripture is supposed to rebuke God’s people?”

I replied, “Have you never read the next four verses?” Then turning in my Bible I read, “I charge you [Timothy] in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2nd Timothy 4:1-4).

Yes, part of the calling of pastors is to humbly rebuke the people of God by the Word of God when necessary (see Titus 1:9, 13; 2:15). If we do not perform this duty, the sheep will certainly wander into all kinds of danger and perhaps even fall prey to our enemies. Of course, it’s essential that we first humble ourselves before Scripture and learn what it means to receive the rebuke of the Lord before we give it. But woe to the shepherd who does not learn the art of rebuke, and woe to the people he serves. Both he and they are in great danger. 

Third, all Scripture is profitable for correction which means that it’s useful for guiding God’s people in the way they should go. The word for “correction” here can mean “rebuke”, but given the context of this verse, I don’t think that’s what Paul has in mind. Rather, I think he’s saying that, whereas the Scripture is useful for rebuking God’s people when they sin, it’s also useful for reorienting the course of their lives so that they will head in the right direction. Our sin has radically corrupted our ability to discern the will of God and follow in the ways of God, and we simply must be corrected so that we’ll learn to head in the right direction. Just as a shepherd must sometimes use his staff to guide the sheep, pastors must sometimes use the Word of God to guide His people; in fact, they are constantly engaging in this practice. Since the Word of God has the power to lead the people of God in the way that they should go, it is therefore sufficient for pastoral ministry.

Finally, all Scripture is profitable for training in righteousness, which is the positive outcome of correction. Whereas correction says, “No, don’t walk in that way,” training in righteousness says, “Yes, walk in this way.” Whereas correction warns us away from disobedience, training in righteousness teaches us obedience, and—ultimately—what obedience has to do with love. Jesus said in John 14:21, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” Therefore, all Scripture is able to train us to display our love for God by gladly and willingly obeying his commands. I cannot imagine a source of wisdom more useful than that.

The end result of this four-fold purpose of Scripture is that the people of God become competent and equipped for every good work. In other words, God uses the Scriptures to raise His children and teach us how to be Christians. Since God has purposed to use His Word for such massively important things as these, I submit to you that it’s nothing less than malpractice to minimize or withhold it from His people as we carry out the pastoral ministry.

A Final Plea

For those who serve as shepherds of local churches, I want to close by pleading with you to amplify your personal love of the Word of God and your practical skill in utilizing it in the course of your ministry. Let the sufficiency of Scripture be more than a theological or theoretical conviction for you; rather, let it be a joy-producing truth that causes you to interact with people and carry out your ministry in the light of the wisdom of the Word. And for those who worship Jesus as members of local churches, I want to close by pleading with you to amplify your personal love of the Word of God and your practical skill in applying it to life and ministry. Further, I want to encourage you to pray for your shepherds along with those who serve Jesus throughout the world.

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