John Newton and the Ministry
Salvation is by grace through faith. You are not saved by your works, nor are you kept by your works. The fact of the matter is that you can be fully justified by faith in Jesus Christ and freed from condemnation and yet have a lot of growing to do. Even those who have been believers for many years can identify places in their lives that need to change. But we can rejoice that no one is saved by reaching a certain level of sanctification; we are saved by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone to the glory of God alone.
However, the qualifications for ministry and the qualifications for salvation are not the same. Though there are no qualifications for salvation, there are strict qualifications for entry into the ministry. Paul mentions some of them in our text. In verses 2-7, Paul lists sixteen qualities that a man has to have if he would be an overseer. Desire for the office, though good (as Paul affirms in verse 1), is not enough. Paul goes on to say, “An overseer must be above reproach….” There is no alternative path. If you would be an elder in the church, you have to have these characteristics in your life.
The freeness of salvation and the strict standards for the ministry are both exemplified in the life of John Newton, author of the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Newton, who lived from 1725 to 1807, was about as bad a person can get before he was saved during a violent storm in his twenty-third year. “I was exceedingly vile,” he said. “I not only sinned with a high hand myself but made it my study to tempt and seduce others upon every occasion.” Set upon a life at sea by his father, Newton served in the Royal Navy, then in the service of a slave ship. His badness continued: “He had to leave the ship in a hurry after [a] bout of troublemaking . . . Newton’s next move was to work for a shore-based slave trader in Sierra Leone. He indulged in every available vice including witchcraft.” Newton was especially known for his blasphemous tongue; so extreme was he in his foul language that he even shocked the salty sailors of the British Navy and was often rebuked for his cursing. Though raised by Christian parents, Newton slid fast into atheism and the depths of sin and licentiousness.
However, this changed one night during a terrific storm as he was taking passage back to England from Africa. The ship he was on almost sank, and the atheistic Newton began to pray. It was a beginning. “About this time,” he wrote, “I began to know that there is a God who answers prayer.” As Aitken, a biographer, writes, “From that day, March 21, 1748, until his death in 1807 he never let a year go by without recognizing in prayerful thanksgiving what he called his ‘great turning day’ of conversion.”
Though Newton was a genuine believer, he didn’t become perfect overnight. There were many ups and downs for this convert to Christ. In fact, it took many years for him to see the evil of the slave trade in which he had been involved. Even after his conversion, Newton captained several slave ships himself. Though he later became very involved in the opposition to this gruesome and hideous trade, his conscience took a long time to wake up to that particular issue. But though the growth in grace did happen, his salvation was effected long before. Newton was saved by grace, and Newton was kept by grace.
However, when Newton began to feel the stirrings in his soul to go into the ministry, he didn’t just assume that because he was a Christian he could go right into the pastorate. In fact, long before he was interviewed for a position in the ministry, Newton spent six weeks of his life in self-questioning to make sure that he was a proper candidate. He ended these days with this prayer:
Lord, give me a humbling sense of my sins, give me a humbling view of thy glory, give me a humbling view of thy love, for surely nothing humbles like these. All my pride springs from ignorance. . . . May I be nothing in my own eyes, may I be willing and desirous to be the servant of all.
Newton had been a believer for about 10 years when this took place. Unlike some, he didn’t just rush into the ministry. Like Paul, he took it and its qualifications seriously. And God blessed his ministry. For the rest of his life, Newton exercised a very effective ministry in Olney and then in London. He is known for his hymns and his influence upon the life of Wilberforce and the fight against the slave trade.
Paul begins his list of qualifications with the absolute insistence that the man of God be “above reproach” or “blameless” (ver. 2). Most expositors agree that this phrase summarizes all the qualities that come after it. All the qualities in verses 2-7 are really an unpacking of what it means for the overseer to be above reproach.
Or course this doesn’t mean that the man of God must be sinless. Mounce explains that the word refers to “the type of external personal reputation that would be a credit to the church.” Once, when a candidate was interviewing for a teaching position in a university, the president of the institution asked one of the professors who had interviewed the candidate what he thought about him. The professor answered that he was good in his field and a good teacher. “Of course, we expect that,” answered the president. “What I want to know is what else does he have that the other candidates do not?” The professor answered, “He is of the highest moral character and I can guarantee that he will do nothing that would ever embarrass this university.” The man was hired. In the same way, Paul is writing to Timothy that they should never allow a man to enter the pastorate who had a questionable reputation. No matter how much theology a man might have under his belt, or how articulate he might be, or how good a public speaker, nothing can replace the necessity of a good reputation, a blameless character.
Though Paul directs these instructions toward potential elders, we must not think that such standards are only for the elder/overseer. These standards are for every believer. There is no such thing as various levels of spirituality in the church. Those who are in positions of spiritual leadership are not meant to be elevated or more spiritual than those who do not hold such offices. We can see this in the fact that overseers are supposed to lead by example. What Paul says to Timothy is applicable to all pastors: “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (4:12). The qualities that Paul mentions in these verses are absolutely essential partly because the elder is supposed to mirror to the church in his own character what they are supposed to be like. An elder certainly can be no example of piety if he is not above reproach.
Paul goes on to explain what he means by this in the following verses. In particular, he shows that the man of God must be blameless with respect to himself (vs. 2-3), with respect to his family (vs. 4-5), and with respect to outsiders (vs. 6-7).
The Personal Life of the Overseer (vs. 2-3)
Paul begins by listing a number of qualities that have to do with the personal life of the overseer. What is striking about these characteristics is that they can almost all be summarized under the idea of self-control, an idea made explicit in several of the terms. What was true then is true now. Self-control is not a mark of a lost culture. The world tells us to “just do it,” to “quench your thirst,” to go for carnal delights. When Paul stood before the Roman procurator Felix, he “reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment,” a message that “alarmed” the Roman governor, and caused him to send Paul away (Acts 24:25). Peter wrote to the believers in his day:
For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. (1 Peter 4:3-5, ESV)
If that is not a perfect description of college life in modern America, I don’t know what is. What Paul is saying is that the overseer (and all believers) are to live not under the control of such sinful passions but under the control of the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph. 5:18,19). They are to live lives of self-control.
Ultimately, the matter of self-control is a matter of idolatry. (Did you notice the connection in the Peter passage above?) We have to exercise self-control with our passions and appetites because the human heart has only so much space. God must have first place in our hearts; we cannot give him first place if we fill it up with other things.
The first way in which self-control is to be exercised in the overseer’s life is in the area of sexual morality. When Paul says that the elder must be “the husband of one wife,” he is not saying that a man cannot be an elder unless he is married. After all, Paul was not married. Nor is Paul saying that an overseer cannot be married more than once (putting the emphasis on the word “one”), thus forbidding widowers who had remarried or divorcees who had remarried from becoming elders. Nor is Paul referring only to polygamy (since Paul requires widows supported by the church to be “the wife of one man” in 5:9, and this cannot be a reference to polyandry, which was not practiced at that time). Rather, the Greek simply says that the man of God must be a “one-woman-man.” What this means is that if he is married, he must be faithful to his wife. He must be sexually pure. This of course would also forbid polygamy and any other sexual activity outside marriage between one man and one woman. And sexual purity applies as much to the unmarried as to the married. Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thess. 4:3-5). A man of God must be pure in his heart and in his body; he must avoid all things that would tempt him to thoughts and desires and actions that are incompatible with such purity. The world may laugh at such a standard; but we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. His smile, not the world’s, is what matters.
The next three words that Paul uses to denote the qualifications of a pastor all imply self-control of some kind: “sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable.” The first refers to mental self-control – vigilance – the property of being clear-minded, a man with clear judgment, one who does not show imbalance in decision-making. The next word is a word which is used for self-control in general; it is translated “sober” in the KJV, but we must not take this to mean sobriety merely with respect to drink. It includes that, but would also include self-control with respect to all passions and bodily appetites. The third word speaks to the outcome of inner self-control. It points to the good behavior and the outward deportment of a man who knows how to control himself.
In the same way, “not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” are all qualities of a man who is self-controlled. He is not enslaved to alcohol or strong drink. In the same way, an overseer is not enslaved by drugs, caffeine, or tobacco. As Paul put it in another place, “I will not be dominated by anything” (1 Cor. 6:12). Further, a man of God is not captive to fits of rage, but knows how to master his temper. In contrast to the violent and argumentative man, the pastor should be gentle, even to those who are not! Paul instructs Timothy in his next letter to him,
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. (2 Timothy 2:24-26, ESV)
As he is not a slave to physical appetites or fits of rage, so he is not a slave to money. The man of God is no Scrooge. In contrast to the false teachers, who thought that gain was godliness (6:5), the overseer is not a lover of money. He preaches that the believer’s treasure is in heaven, and he models this by his lifestyle and priorities.
There are two qualities that perhaps don’t strictly fit under the rubric of “self-control;” Paul says that a pastor must also be “hospitable” and “able to teach.” The KJV translates the first word as “given to hospitality.” I love that! In the first century, there were no hotels, and to aid the spread of the gospel, Christian hospitality was essential. But I think it also implies that Christian pastors cannot be standoffish. They do not live in a world to themselves but are willing to give their lives, their time, and their homes to meet the needs of others.
“Able to teach” is significant because it is the only reference in this list to the duties of an elder. All the other qualities refer to his moral character. What that tells me is that a minister’s morality is more important than his oratory. Yet it is exactly the opposite in our day. And with modern technology, people are turning to YouTube instead of the church for their spiritual diet, and so it is becoming easier for people to be drawn to preachers without knowing anything about their personal lives. And so preaching ability is becoming more important than a preacher’s fidelity. This is entirely an unbiblical state of affairs. It remains to be seen what the long-term consequences of this will be; I fear it will not be good.
A minister must be able to teach. Again, this does not mean he must be a Charles Spurgeon. Paul himself evidently was not a Spurgeon! (See 2 Cor. 11:6.) Nevertheless, if a man cannot articulate the Word of God in a way that feeds the flock of God, he is not qualified. Vast theological knowledge is not good enough; a man must be able to communicate that knowledge if he is to be a good teacher. As Paul put it to Titus, “He 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” (Tit. 1:9).
A man of God does not make his ministry go by force of personality. He is not leading a social club. His job is not to make people feel good about themselves. Rather, his job is to preach the Word of God faithfully, clearly, passionately, with light and heat.
Though “able to teach” does not seem to fit under the category of “the personal life of the overseer,” yet in some sense it does. Public teaching issues from private feeding. What a minister is in his study, he is in the pulpit. If a man is not willing to give personal time to the diligent study of the Word of God, he is not fit to go into the office of an elder. “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4, KJV).
The Family Life of the Overseer (vs. 4-5)
The Puritans loved to call the family a little church. This is entirely appropriate, since in the New Testament, the church of God is likened to a family, with God at the head, Christ our elder Brother, and believers as brothers and sisters. Thus, it stands to reason that if a man cannot manage his own household, he is totally unfit to occupy a position of spiritual leadership in the church, and that is exactly the point that Paul makes in these two verses.
One of the ways in which a minister’s conduct at home expresses itself is in his children. Paul says that “he must . . . with all dignity” keep “his children submissive.” This does not mean that he rules his house with an iron fist. This is why Paul added the words “with all dignity.” He means that the man of God has the respect of his children. He has followed Paul’s advice in Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
I have just finished two autobiographical accounts of two Marines who fought in the 1st Marine Division in World War 2. Both these men were enlisted, but they both had a lot to say about the officers who led them. One officer was called “Shadow” by his men because of how skinny he was. He was brave, but his men had no respect for him because he lost his temper all the time. He would throw his cap into the mud and stand there and yell at and curse those he thought had done something wrong. On the other hand, there were other officers who did have the respect of these men. These officers were always characterized as leading by example, as being gentle and understanding. In the same way, a man of God leads his family and the church through gentleness and understanding, gaining respect and leading the way by example.
Paul is not saying that a married man has to have children or he cannot be an elder. What he is saying is that a man who aspires to the office of an elder needs to have shown some leadership abilities elsewhere. Ryken points out that in the first century, “many households . . . extended beyond a person’s immediate family, and thus required the head of the household to provide effective leadership for servants and other laborers.” An implication of this is that even unmarried men who have demonstrated real leadership in their secular jobs or in tasks assigned to them in the church can point to this as evidence that they are ready for the role of pastor.
The Public Life of the Overseer (vs. 6-7)
Paul ends the qualifications of an elder with two last concerns. One is that he is not a new convert: “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (ver. 6). Sanctification and growth in grace – which includes growth in humility – does not happen overnight. A new convert simply is not ready to lead the church; there is a lot of growing that needs to be done. One sad effect of putting someone into the ministry who is not spiritually mature is becoming conceited and proud. Paul’s description of pride as “the condemnation of the devil” hints at the cause of the devil’s fall: it was pride. Pride made Satan into all that he is, and is therefore something to be avoided at all costs.
Thus, an overseer needs to be spiritually mature. He needs to have walked with God for a while before going into the public ministry of the Word. This does not mean he has to be old in a physical sense; Timothy was a young man. But Timothy evidently had been born again for some time and was thus spiritually mature.
Finally, Paul says that an elder must have a good reputation with those who are outside the church: “Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil” (ver. 7). This does not mean a pastor must be liked by the world. A man of God must not be a people pleaser. What Paul is getting at is that even the world should not be able to point the finger of accusation against the man of God. John Chrysostom pointed out that Paul and the apostles, though they were persecuted by the world, yet were never blamed for being immoral: “They were slandered as deceivers and impostors, on account of their preaching, and this because they could not attack their moral characters and lives. For why did not one say of the Apostles, that they were fornicators, unclean, or covetous persons, but that they were deceivers, which relates to their preaching only? Must it not be that their lives were irreproachable?”
One cannot meditate on these virtues without seeing Christ in them. Christ is the only one who was really completely above reproach, blameless. No man can say what Christ said to his accusers: “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” (Jn. 8:46). No one! Christ was crucified, not for a crime, but for telling the truth. We can only approximate his character while here on earth.
Which is why I am glad that salvation is by Christ, and not by me. I am glad that my righteousness is in Jesus. Paul put it this way: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:8-9). Christ makes us righteous, even though we are not.
And yet, he doesn’t stop there. Christ not only gives us a righteous status; through the Holy Spirit he is beginning to make us like himself. As we grow in grace, we approach the blamelessness of Jesus Christ. Paul went on to say:
That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:10-14, ESV)
Our justification and our sanctification are in Christ. By his grace we have both. So let us look to him.
 Jonathan Aitken, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, p. 18.
 Ibid, p. 18.
 Ibid, p. 19.
 Ibid, p. 19.
 Aitken, p. 149.
 Mounce, The Pastorals (WBC), p. 171.
 Philip G. Ryken, 1 Timothy (REC), p. 117.
 The first was A Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie, and the second was With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge.
 Ryken, p. 116.
 Ibid, p. 120.
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