In responding to the question of how people get into the ministry, Josiah Tidwell remarks, "Some get into the ministry by mistake."Reportedly, a gentleman resigned from his position at work, declaring that the Lord had called him to preach. Six weeks later, however, he returned to ask for his job back. The puzzled foreman responded, "I thought you said the Lord had called you to preach." To this the employee declared, "He did, but after He heard me a few times, He changed his mind!"
The question, then, is, "How does one know that he or she is called to preach?"
That's the issue that I will address in the articles that follow in this series. I will show that there are natural, supernatural, and circumstantial evidences of a call. Putting all of them together should make it possible for a person to discover with a high degree of certainty whether or not he or she is called of God to preach the Gospel.
In this installment of the series, I will address the matter of natural evidences of a call. This entails, first, a discussion of what the "call" is not. Then I will explain what the call is, beginning with its natural evidences. I will present several examples from Scripture where natural abilities constitute a part of one's call to preach. At the same time I will present examples where natural abilities seem lacking in one who is called. Finally, I will examine the question of whether natural abilities alone are sufficient to constitute a call to ministry.
No doubt, some have entered the ministry for the wrong reasons. The list of such unacceptable motives can be numerous. Some are so obvious that people may wonder why they even need to be mentioned.
There are those, for example, who conclude that since they have tried their hand in working on different jobs and have failed every time, God must want them in the ministry. In the small town where I lived some years ago, a young man arrived to open a credit bureau. About a year later, his business failed. For him, that was the last straw. He announced publicly, "Since I have tried everything I can think of to make a living and have not succeeded at any, the Lord must be directing me to enter the ministry."
Focusing on such a motive for ministry, W. W. Melton writes, "Did you become a preacher because you have tried several business ventures; and having failed in all, you felt that the Lord had closed the doors to the business world and was forcing you to become a preacher? Remember the ministry is not to be made up of the fag ends of humanity, of men who could not succeed in other lines of work."
Hardly is the Lord of the Harvest looking for those who have failed in life so that He can give them a job in which they might finally be successful.
On the contrary, when He selected the twelve apostles, He sought those who were already hardworking men and doing well at their trade. He visited the workplaces of Peter, Andrew, James, and John to extend the invitation to join in His ministry. The four, along with Zebedee, father of James and John, had formed a company and were conducting a successful fishing business on the Sea of Galilee at the time. Luke specifically refers to this partnership (Luke 5:10). The business venture was large enough that they employed additional workers. Mark mentions these "hired men" (Mark 1:20).
Some think that John was the salesman for their fishing company. This work frequently took him to the palace of the high priest in Jerusalem. Being thus acquainted with the servants there, he was readily admitted to the courtyard the night of Jesus' trial. John himself explains, "Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest's courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the girl on duty there and brought Peter in" (John 18:15-16). Jesus chose busy and successful men as His associates in the ministry, rather than the lazy and unsuccessful.
Akin to that unacceptable motive for entering the ministry is that of those who choose it, wrongly believing it will provide an easy way to make a living.
Perhaps that is why Paul's list of qualifications for preachers excludes anyone who is a "lover of money" (1 Tim. 3:3) or whose heart is set on "pursuing dishonest gain" (Titus 1:7). A story used to float around that a lad announced to his grandmother that he thought the Lord was calling him to preach. She enquired of his reasons. He replied, "I just have that old lazy feeling, and I dearly love chicken," a favorite food for ministers of the day. The greedy conduct of the high priest Eli's sons in demanding portions of the food sacrifices that did not belong to them serves to condemn a similar attitude in the ministry for all times (1Sam. 2:12-17).
Others may also unwisely enter the ministry in response to the wishes of parents. It may be that their grandfathers and fathers were preachers. Now it is their turn to keep up the family tradition. On the basis of that zeal, mother and father may all but force a child to attend a ministerial training school. At last, with a degree from an institution, the son or daughter may feel trapped into a lifetime ministerial position for the sake of meeting the parents' expectations.
Certainly, the Lord can use the prayers and lives of dedicated parents in directing an individual of His choice to enter the ministry. Hannah dedicated Samuel to the Lord for a lifetime of service before he was born. As a barren mother, she most earnestly prayed, "O LORD Almighty , if you will only look upon your servant's misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life" (1 Sam. 1:11). Wisely, she made no attempt to specify what that service would be.
At least twice even Mary the mother of Jesus sought unwisely to direct the course of her son's ministry. At a wedding in Cana of Galilee, she suggested that He would do well to perform a miracle to relieve the embarrassment of a family entertaining guests at a wedding. (John 2:1-12). Their supply of wine had run short. When she offered her hint to Jesus, however, He made clear to her that His directions for ministry came from His heavenly Father. On another occasion, when it seemed that Jesus was working too hard, she demonstrated a commendable concern for her son's physical and mental well-being (Mark 3:21, 31-35). She made the mistake, however, of presuming upon an earthly relationship to Him. Perhaps she thought that her position as His mother constituted a prior claim on Jesus. Again, He sought to correct her misconceptions. None would fault parents for desiring the best for their children. In that effort, however, the parents must stop short of trying to direct the course of their children's lives. That duty rests with the Lord Whom they serve, including placing a son or daughter in the ministry.
Certain ones select the ministry as their vocation in life because of a desire to exert control over people.
Even though they may not be conscious of it, the need to dominate others becomes the driving force in their lives.
Other unacceptable motives for entering the ministry include a need for social status or professional distinction. Even the possession of a literary bent, a studious disposition, a love of books, or a "bookworm" personality, may drive some toward the life of a preacher. Further, a desire to serve one's fellow man, noble as that may be, is an insufficient motive for ministry. Indeed, some may conclude that they can do more good for people by serving in ministry than elsewhere and choose it for that reason. That alone, however, is not enough.
Even a heartfelt desire to serve the Lord may not be an adequate motive for entering the ministry. Immediately after his marvelous deliverance from demon possession, the maniac of Gadara requested to join Jesus' evangelistic party (Mark 5:18-20). The Gospel writer records that at the end of the episode: "As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him" (v. 18). The Master's response was, "Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you" (v. 19). Some reasons for Jesus' actions immediately appear. For one thing, young converts hardly qualify for the ministry at once. In fact, Paul says such ones should not be given responsible positions of leadership in the church. The apostle writes, "He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil" (1 Tim. 3:6).
Concerning motives for entering the ministry, in his lectures to divinity students at Yale University, J. H. Jowett declared, "He may take up the ministry as a profession, as a means of earning a living, as a desirable social distinction, as a business that offers pleasantly favourable chances of cultured leisure, of coveted leaderships, and of attractive publicity. . . . Now in all such decisions the candidate for the ministry misses the appointed door. His vision is entirely horizontal. His outlook is that of ‘the man of the world.'"
Despite the difficulty of nailing down a definition of the call to preach, most scholars who write on the subject attempt it.
For example, James Hoppin concludes, "The internal call, or the call of the Spirit, is an impression on a person's mind which he feels to come from God, through the circumstances of his life, the emotions of his soul, the conviction of his conscience, telling him that he ought to engage in the labors of the ministry as his life-time work."
To assist those who need a more detailed discussion of what constitutes a call to preach, I continue now by offering materials for self-examination as to whether or not one has received directions from the Lord for a life of specific ministry in the Church. In this article I will discuss the first of three categories of evidences on the question, natural evidences.
Natural abilities can constitute a part of one's call to preach.
Through the miracle of birth God gives some a disposition, a voice, an appearance, a personality, and other natural talents that fit them for the ministry as a life's work. For example, Paul sought to show the Corinthians the error of their way in selecting favorite preachers on the basis of personalities and to indicate the role God plays in endowing individuals with traits useful to the minister. After some discussion he writes, "Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (1Cor. 4:6-7). Certainly heredity, environment, and personal choice determine to a large degree what one becomes in life. The apostle, however, adds a fourth factor to consider, the mysterious and miraculous working of God in providing a person with what he or she needs to do the work the Lord has chosen.
Concerning all of this, Ralph Riggs comments, "Before the call comes it will be true in most cases that there will be a certain natural fitness for the work to which the Lord has called us. A voice that is not difficult to understand, and an appearance that is not objectionable, and an average amount of ability to think and to express oneself, will be good materials for the Lord to use." When these things are missing, Hoppin observes, "Some men have too much of the wild olive tree, or wild and sour crab-apple tree, in their natural temper to grow inside of the Lord's garden, to say nothing of being planted in the ministry, where cheerfulness, hopefulness, and kindness of disposition are so important."
Isaiah recognized all of this to be a fact in his life. Though he was speaking of the Servant who was yet to come, he no doubt also spoke what was true of himself. He declared, "Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name. He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver" (Isa. :1-2).
Jeremiah had an extended discussion with Jehovah as to the part that natural evidences played in his call to be a prophet (Jer. 1:4-9). The Lord knew all about him before his conception (vv. 4-5). God actually set him apart for the ministry before he was born. Jehovah ordained, appointed, and called him to be a prophet to the nations before birth.
Jeremiah reacted to this awesome information by expressing his reluctance in responding to the call (v. 6). He felt he lacked the required speaking ability of a preacher. His youth and inexperience left him lacking maturity. The Hebrew word na'ar suggests that Jeremiah was in his teens or early twenties at the time. Concerning Jeremiah's hesitation, Adam Clarke observes: "Those who are really called of God to the sacred ministry are such as have been brought to a deep acquaintance with themselves, feel their own ignorance, and know their own weaknesses. They know also the awful responsibility that attaches to the work, and nothing but the authority of God can induce such to undertake it." He adds a little poem: "How ready is the man to go/ Whom God has never sent!/ How timorous, diffident, and slow/ God's chosen instrument!"
Jehovah reassured Jeremiah (vv. 7-9). He declared him mature enough. His youth and inexperience would not hinder him. He would go where the Lord sent him. He would say what the Lord told him to. Despite the dangerous situations his ministry would bring him into, God would deliver him. He would minister with God-given abilities. The touch of the Lord on his lips would make him a preacher. The word of God in his mouth would give him all of the sufficiency that he needed.
Natural abilities may appear to be lacking in one who is called to preach.
At least, under the best circumstances one usually recognizes one's lack of ability for such a task. Moses certainly felt himself lacking the requisite speaking ability for a leader of God's people. Some said Paul did not possess a voice suitable for preaching.
The call of Moses to lead Israel out of bondage in Egypt is one of the most phenomenal in Scripture (Exod. 4:1-13). To say that he was reluctant to accept the commission, however, is to put it mildly. His first objection was to raise the possibility that the Israelites would not believe that Jehovah had sent him. To reassure him the Lord had him cast his rod on the ground where it became a snake. Then, when God instructed him to pick it up, it became a rod again.
Jehovah even gave Moses another miracle to encourage him to accept the assignment. As directed by the Lord, he put his hand in his bosom, and it became leprous. Yet when he removed it, it was totally clear of the dread disease. Then the Lord said, "But if they do not believe these two signs or listen to you, take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground. The water you take from the river will become blood on the ground" (v. 9).
Moses' second protest was to declare that he was not an eloquent speaker (v. 10). It is possible that he was simply overly reticent in his objection. Even so, Jehovah's response contained a wonderful promise. Scripture declares, "The LORD said to him, ‘Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say'" (vv. 11-12). Still, Moses requested God to send someone else as Israel's deliverer (v. 13).
By this time in the conversation the Lord was much displeased with His servant. The final agreement was that Moses would go and God would supply Aaron as the spokesman (vv. 14-16). God would put words in Moses' mouth, and he, in turn, would tell Aaron what to say. Hebrew history makes clear, however, that this arrangement was needed only temporarily. Before long Moses spoke forcefully for the Lord.
Some changed that the Apostle Paul did not have a pleasant speaking voice. They declared, "His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing" (2 Cor. 10:10). The source of such remarks, however, was his enemies. Rather than being an honest appraisal, what his critics said may not have been true. Certainly his sermons in the Book of Acts are full of excellent content and logically arranged. Luke judged the apostle's ministry as being of a much higher quality than his critics did. Concerning his preaching at Corinth, for example, Luke wrote, "Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks" (Acts 18:4). That he was a more effective speaker than even Barnabas is clear. As to his preaching at Lystra, Luke reports, "Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker" (Acts 14:12). In this case it was outsiders, unbelievers, who considered him to be the "chief speaker."
Whatever the case with an individual, however, natural abilities are not sufficient in themselves to constitute a call to preach the Gospel.
Obviously, some of the same qualities required of the minister are also necessary for the success of a businessman, a school teacher, or a politician. As Tidwell observes, "Such personal gifts as eloquence or aptness to teach do not constitute a call. Many men have these who are not called by the Spirit of God to be His preachers." With this conclusion Edmund Clowney agrees. He writes, "A man's ‘natural' gifts cannot add up to a probability that he should choose the ministry." By way of illustration he adds, "If you are a gifted speaker you should be effective as a lawyer or a salesman, but nothing can be said about your effectiveness as a preacher."
Spurgeon is even more explicit. He writes: "A man who would succeed as a preacher would probably do right well either as a grocer, or a lawyer, or anything else. A really valuable minister would have excelled at anything. There is scarcely anything impossible to a man who can keep a congregation together for years, and be the means of edifying them for hundreds of consecutive Sabbaths; he must be possessed of some abilities, and be by no means a fool or a ne'er-do-well."
If natural abilities were at the core of a call to preach, likely ministers would tend to be proud and feel self-sufficient.
Perhaps, in part, to counter that temptation the Lord's plan for the ministry arranges everything so that all glory will go to Him alone (1 Cor. 1:26-31). Paul, instead of being proud as a preacher, was overwhelmed at the greatness of his responsibility. He exclaims, "For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?" (2 Cor. 2:15-16). With this recognition that natural talents never make one sufficient for the ministry, the apostle writes further, "Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God" (2 Cor. 3:5).
If the natural talents for the minister overlap with those needed in other professions, and if that is all the evidence one had to go on, how could an individual determine which is the will of God for his or her life? Clowney answers, "Men with gifts for the ministry have the capacity for success in other fields, but they are not free to choose them. . . . Peter left his fishing boat, Matthew left the tax business, and you must leave any calling that keeps you from exercising the gifts of the herald of Christ, if these gifts are yours." Other evidences, then, must exist in the form of specific gifts for ministry. The following articles in this series will consider these.
In conclusion, this installment of the series has addressed the matter of natural evidences of a call to preach. First, came a discussion of what the "call" is not. Then we dealt with what the call is, beginning with its natural evidences. Several examples from Scripture illustrated the contention that natural abilities constitute a part of one's call to preach. At the same time, however, we considered examples where natural abilities appeared to be lacking in one who is called. Our conclusion, then, must be that natural abilities, despite their desirability, are not alone sufficient to constitute a call to ministry.
Clarke, Adam. Clarke's Commentary, Vol. 4. Nashville: Abingdon Press, n. d.
Clowney, Edmund. Called to Ministry. Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1964.
Hoppin, James M. Pastoral Theology. New York: Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1901.
Jowett, J. H. The Preacher, His Life and Work. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1912.
Melton, W. W. The Making of a Preacher. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1953.
Riggs, Ralph M. The Spirit-Filled Pastor's Guide (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1948.
Spurgeon, Charles H. Spurgeon's Lectures to His Students. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1945.
Tidwell, Josiah B. Concerning Preachers. New York: Fleming H Revell Co., 1937.