High on the lists of assurances of a call to preach are its supernatural evidences. Concerning the essence of such a call, Josiah Tidwell declares, "It is internal, by the direct agency of the Holy Spirit on the heart of the individual. God makes known His will; there may be external or providential circumstances confirmatory of it, but they do not call one."
Writers repeatedly speak of the fact that a call of God to preach comes in a highly personal way to each individual. W. W. Melton writes, "Men are called into the ministry by the Holy Spirit. Just how can men know when they are called of God? The answer is not a simple one. . . . The experiences of men differ. There are many instances in the Old Testament where God spoke to men audibly; there are others where the Lord made His will known by miracles." Some have a sudden and phenomenal experience. Most, however, hear a silent voice within speaking sufficiently for them to become thoroughly convinced of the call of God upon their lives.
The emphasis in this article of the series on the call to preach is on its supernatural evidences.
In some form or another, there will be a divine witness within. There will also, however, be a divine work within. The call of God to the ministry of the Gospel involves more than simply hearing a voice in some mysterious, though convincing, way. Lasting works of grace wrought deep within the soul of the individual literally shape that person into a preacher. Of course, on some occasions in Scripture, God granted a sudden and phenomenal experience which separated an individual from what he had been doing before and dedicated him to a life spent in the preaching of the Gospel.
First, then, as Melton concludes, "Most often men are convinced in this decision (to preach the gospel) by a conviction within their souls. There is a sense of divine oughtness from which there is no escape." This "oughtness," this general sense of destiny, becomes a driving, powerful force in their lives. Moses experienced such long before his dramatic call to minister at the burning bush (Exod. 3:1-4:17). Luke writes of that prior feeling in the bosom of Moses when he says, "When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his fellow Israelites. Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not" (Acts 7:23, 25).
History certainly confirmed that this "sense" of a call within was genuine. Regrettably, though, Moses acted hastily upon it. As Luke takes note, he felt his call, but others had not yet recognized it and so rejected his premature efforts at national leadership in Israel. Moved by that feeling of a call and a sense of justice, he murdered an Egyptian who was abusing an Israelite (Acts 7:24). As a result he was forced to flee to a strange land and leave behind the very people he expected to lead out of their Egyptian slavery (v. 29). For forty years, then, Moses may have wondered about the genuineness of his call because of this failure in early efforts at ministry. It simply was not convincing enough to sustain him in his God-given assignment.
Not all was lost, though. Moses' forty years of tending sheep at the back side of the desert produced a remarkable maturation in his soul. The change appeared when Jehovah came with the phenomenal call at the burning bush. God's man was no longer the youth who was anxious to rush hurriedly into an awesome place of responsibility in leadership. No doubt he still felt called, but now he questioned his own qualifications to take on the task of a national leader. He and the Lord had a lengthy conversation before Moses finally accepted his assignment (Exod. 4:1-17). Even today young ministers need to spend time maturing rather than acting hastily on their sense of a call to preach. They will wisely spend some of it in a ministerial training school.
Again, though, Moses was not wrong in recognizing this "inner sense" as indicating a call to leadership.
Paul speaks of those who have a "desire" to preach and commends them for it. He writes, "Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task" (1 Tim. 3:1). Ralph Riggs speaks of this as one becoming "conscious of an interest in and an inclination toward" the service of the Lord. He explains further that accompanying this "there will dawn upon us a high estimate of the office to which it seems we are destined. We will realize that this is the most important ministry and life which it is possible for a human to have. Other things are earthly, this is heavenly. Other things are human, this is divine. Other things are for time, this is for eternity. Other things are for the world, the flesh and the devil, but this and this alone is for God."
In my own case I had this sense of the importance of the pastoral ministry arise in my heart in the early stages of my call to that office. Indeed, I came to realize that two things alone really count in this world. They are people and ideas. The pastor especially has the privilege of spending his whole life focusing on the importance of both.
It is not accurate to suppose that one has a general sense of a call to preach sweep over him or her on a single occasion and thus concludes that God wills a lifetime in the ministry. C. E. Colton says that the call does not come to most like a flash of lightning. Indeed, if one has but a momentary impression, it may best be forgotten. Rather, "little by little the impression is deepened until it becomes a conviction of God's call."
In time, then, individuals come to a settled conviction that they are indeed called of God to preach.
Their assurance lies in the nature of the experience itself. As with conversion, the event is self-validating. They can no more explain what it is like to be called of God than they can explain what it is like to be born again. It is as impossible to fully explain as is any miracle of the Almighty. Rather than appearing to them as something they take on for themselves, it is something that is imposed upon them, required by the will of God. In regard to coming to a settled conclusion that one is indeed called of God to preach, J. H. Jowett declares, "If we lose the sense of the wonder of our commission we shall become like common traders in a common market, babbling about common wares."
The Bible offers support for these conclusions about the inner conviction in the call to preach. For example, Jesus spoke of such experiences between Himself and His followers when He was on earth. As to recognizing the voice of God, He illustrated from the life of the shepherd and his sheep. Concerning their relationship He said, "His sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice" (John 10:4-5). The called minister of the Gospel will come to feel about his work as the Master did His. His students took note of His devotion to His duties on this earth. John reports that, witnessing His fervor in the cleansing of the Temple, "His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me'" (John 2:17). Like Jesus, preachers feel that their ministry is their very life. The minister will reply as the Master did when urged to eat on one occasion: "'I have food to eat that you know nothing about. My food,' said Jesus, ‘is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work'" (John 4:33-34).
Paul also spoke about the certainty and the life-consuming nature of his calling. He said, "Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" (1 Cor. 9:16). He viewed himself as being a steward of what had been committed to his trust for management. During his day a steward was an overseer of a wealthy person's estate. He was, of course, accountable to the owner for the way he directed all of the affairs of his master's holdings. Any neglect on his part would not meet with favor from the master. The apostle recognized, then, that if he did not preach, he would be held responsible for it. To be faithful in his charge, though, brought not only approbation from the owner of all he managed, but also deep inner satisfaction.
A call to preach, however, involves much more than just hearing the Lord and concluding that the inner voice is the essence of the call.
Individuals come short in understanding the nature of the ministerial call if they picture themselves looking at the familiar military recruitment picture with its message, "Uncle Sam wants you!" and being so moved by it that they enlist in the armed services. A larger part of the call involves lasting works of grace wrought deep within the soul of the individual, which literally shape him or her into a preacher. It includes the impartation of divine grace, gifts which manifest themselves outwardly in the form of abilities that fit one for the ministry.
Like Paul, one is "made a minister" through such God-given ministerial abilities. As he explained to the Ephesians, "I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God's grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ" (Eph. 3:7-8). Such "grace" or "ability" comes as a gift by the working of the Spirit. Edmund Clowney explains, "That is, the calling of an individual to the church of Christ is determined by the gifts Christ has given him, by the ‘measure' of the Spirit he has received." He expresses the concept another way, also, saying of the Lord, "When he gives, he calls; when he calls, he gives."
In a comparison of these ministry gifts of Christ (as detailed in the Book of Ephesians, chapter 4) with the gifts of the Holy Spirit (as listed in 1 Cor. 12), distinctions readily appear. While Scripture refers to both as gifts, the one group comes from Christ and the other from the Holy Spirit. The first comes as a work of grace, the impartation of ministerial ability, and amounts to a calling. The second appears in the form of various manifestations, including divine utterances, in the demonstration of divine attributes such as wisdom and knowledge. The first involves an unseen work of grace within while the second appears as an external operation of the Spirit by His own initiative. The ministry gifts of Christ remain constantly with the recipient, yet the gifts of the Spirit are but momentary manifestations of divine grace. Thus, the one is lasting, permanent, composing a large part of what a ministerial call is all about, while the other is temporary. Some of the ministry gifts may come at the time of one's ordination to ministry. No doubt this is what Paul had in mind when he charged Timothy to "fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands" (2 Tim. 1:6).
These all refer to a stable and permanently abiding work of grace done in the life of the minister. The preacher also experiences momentary and passing spontaneous divine ability through the manifestations of the Spirit--wisdom, knowledge, prophecy, etc.--but those manifestations are not sufficient to constitute a call. Thus, when one simply cannot preach, has not the ability to hold a group together, or in general does not have what it takes to make a go in the ministry, that person may have good reason to question his or her call, though all ministers may feel a lack of these things at times.
Not all ministerial gifts from Jesus bring into being the same product.
Writing of these gifts, Paul explained, "It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers" (Eph. 4:11). When one has received the God-given abilities to fill one of these offices, Christ then makes that person a gift to His Church. His intent, then, is that these various ministries, all working together, "prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up" (v. 12).
The illustration of Christ giving these ministers as gifts to His Church comes from an ancient military custom. Paul refers to Psalm 68:18 as saying, "When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men" (Eph. 4:8). The passage pictures Jehovah returning from battle victorious over His enemies. As great generals of the past, He has with Him the spoils of battle, which He shares with the citizens back home. The spoils include prisoners of war He has taken. Many are talented and educated persons. He presents them to friends. They will become servants managing estates, teaching children, and tending the sick as doctors, according to their previous training and experience. In a similar way, Jesus gives persons like Paul to the Church as God-made pastors, teachers, or evangelists.
On some occasions in Scripture, God granted a sudden and phenomenal experience that separated an individual from what he had been doing before and dedicated him to a life spent in the preaching of the Gospel. Among the several who had such a dramatic call were Isaiah and Saul of Tarsus.
A mighty encounter with Jehovah started Isaiah on his years of prophetic ministry (Isa. 6:1-13). It began with an awesome disclosure of the majestic Being. He saw the Lord sitting on His throne, high and lifted up. Around Him stood a group of seraphim, angelic beings, literally "burning ones." In their worship they cried, "Holy, holy, holy." By this they acknowledged God as being separate, distinct, in a class by Himself.
Isaiah's response to the vision was one of repentance. He explains, "'Woe to me!' I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips'" (v. 5). Fortunately, immediate cleansing followed. The prophet later testified, "Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for'" (vv. 6-7).
As soon as the purging experience concluded, Jehovah proceeded to extend to Isaiah a call for ministry.
He asked a simple question, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" (v. 8). The "for us" contains a strong hint of the participation of all three Persons of the Trinity in Isaiah's call. The prophet's response was equally direct: "And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!'" (v. 8). The Lord accepted his surrender and followed with a discussion of the nature of the prophet's ministry (vv. 9-13). He revealed that Isaiah would not experience a great deal of success. Most of the people of Judah would not accept his message. A similar word may prove timely for some ministers at certain times and circumstances today. Isaiah did receive the promise, however, that a remnant would respond to his ministry and maintain a measure of spiritual vitality in the nation just as the stump retains the life of a tree that has been cut down. That remaining life once again appears as young saplings grow out of that stump.
The account of the call of Saul of Tarsus appears three times in the Book of Acts. The record is in the third person as Luke reports it in 9:1-9. In the other two, Paul, as he was later called, presents it as a personal testimony (22:1-21; 26:12-18). As is often the case with the Synoptic Gospels, so also here in the Book of Acts some of these accounts have details that others do not. There is even a surface contradiction. In 9:7 Luke says Paul's associates heard the voice that spoke to him on the occasion of his conversion and call to preach. Paul, however, reports that they did not hear that voice (22:9). The problem easily resolves itself, though, when one realizes that those companions heard the sound of the voice but simply did not comprehend the message it contained. A similar thing occurred once during the ministry of Jesus. On an occasion when the Father spoke His approval of the Son, John writes, "The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him" (John 12:29).
The call of Saul to preach came instantaneously with his conversion. As the chief persecutor of the early believers, he was on his way to Damascus to arrest as many of them as he could find. However, "As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?'" (Acts 9:3-4). The sinner immediately surrendered with, "What shall I do, Lord?" That produced in him the new birth. Then, while Saul was yet prostrate in the dirt, Jesus extended the call to preach to him. He said, "Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you" (Acts 26:16). Through the ministry of one named Ananias, Paul was baptized in both the Spirit and water (Acts 9:17; 22:16). At the same time, he was thrust into the ministry as a missionary (Acts 9:15-16; 26:17-18). Years later standing before government officials, Paul explained, "So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven" (Acts 26:19).
The emphasis in this article of the series on the call to preach has been on its supernatural evidences. In some form or another, there comes a divine witness within. There is also, however, a divine work within. This call to the ministry may well include hearing the Lord's voice in some manner, but it is the works of grace wrought within the individual by the ministry gifts of Christ that fashion him or her into a preacher. Finally, on some occasions in Scripture, God separated an individual for ministry by a sudden, extraordinary experience. This was the case for both Isaiah and Saul of Tarsus. Certainly the examples covered in this article point out the great importance of supernatural evidences of an individual's call to preach the Gospel.
Clowney, Edmund. Called to Ministry. Phillipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1964.
Colton, C. E. The Minister's Mission. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1951.
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.