Five Marks of a Calvinist Pastor’s Ministry
The label “Calvinist pastor” is something of a Rorschach test. Some see a fiery preacher who always talks about the wrath of God and ignores evangelism. Others picture an arrogant theologian who spends more time with dead, Protestant reformers than living church members. I’m not sure how many people envision a humble, gentle, evangelizing servant with beaming confidence in the Word of God.
I wish more did.
I don’t like the term, “Calvinist pastor.” Christian pastor is a better title. Nonetheless, I understand there are those who do not affirm the doctrines of grace like I do. The last thing I want to do is imply one must embrace Calvinism to be a good pastor. Rather, in this article, I simply aim to reflect on how an affirmation of the doctrines of grace can spur a pastor on to greater degrees of faithfulness.
Just to be clear, the heart of Calvinism is God’s initiative in salvation. It begins with my utter inability to save myself and ends with God’s promised preservation of my repentance and faith. In the middle is the work of Christ, dying in the place of all who would ever repent and believe. A pastor who affirms these truths will minister out of them as well. He does so in a number of ways. I’ll mention just five overlapping marks of a Calvinist pastor.
HE LIVES FOR GOD’S GLORY
Calvinism is often referred to as “big God theology.” Verses like Isaiah 48:11 loom large. The Lord says, “My glory I will not give to another.” For his role as Creator and Redeemer, God deserves all the glory.
Far be it for a pastor with such a high-view of the sovereignty of God to draw attention to himself. A God-centered mind is fixed on shining a spotlight on the Lord. A God-centered pastor is quick to parrot the words John the Baptist spoke of Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease.”
This affects how pastors present themselves in the pulpit, in private, or on social media. In a word, they make much of Christ, not themselves. They heartily accept praise and encouragement. But they’re sure to clarify that whatever good they accomplish (and pastors do much good), is God at work in them (Phil. 2:13).
HE MODELS HUMILITY
Calvinists are rightly known for affirming the doctrine of total depravity. Before Christ, we may not have been as bad as we could have been, but we were too bad to choose Christ. We needed God to intervene (John 15:16; 1 John 4:19).
Someone aware of what he’s been saved from will never forget it. An awareness of past sins will fuel a humble heart. Paul told Titus the church should avoid quarreling and be gentle (3:2). Why? “For we ourselves were once foolish” (3:3). Good works flow from the heart of someone who knows he’s been saved.
The Calvinist pastor never says, “I’ve arrived,” and he’s quick to confess his sin. He welcomes criticism, too. He even invites it. He’s so aware of the depth of God’s grace, and he’s eager to extend grace to others.
HE EXPRESSES JOY
There ought to be a real happiness that marks the lips and life of the Calvinist pastor. Of course, it should mark every pastor! But, again, since the Calvinist is sure he didn’t cooperate one iota with God in salvation, it’s fair to expect gratitude bursting forth, like a phoenix, from his redeemed heart.
I have a friend, a dear older saint, who used to remind me to smile when I preach. “Jesus died for you, Aaron, why don’t you smile more?” he would ask. I suppose as a young preacher my mind was burdened with getting the text right, communicating it powerfully, and generally doing a good job. Nonetheless, my brother made a good point. My mind was on myself, not Christ, and joylessness abounded.
The importance of being joyful is something every pastor needs to hear. Still, there’s something unusually troubling about a pastor who believes in God’s meticulous providence but lets the cares of the world weigh him down.
HE PERSUADES TENDERLY
A faithful pastor is always encouraging others to pick the better way. The unbeliever should choose the way of faith that leads to eternal life. But even Christians have decisions to make. The path of holiness is crooked this side of heaven. Like a shepherd nudging sheep in the right direction, a pastor urges his people to move toward the Lord. Pastors persuade.
The Calvinist pastor knows all the nudging in the world won’t help unless the Lord changes the heart. Just as God had to open the heart of Lydia so she would “pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14), the Spirit has to move within our hearts before we’ll take a step Godward.
It’s tempting to aim for behavior modification. By raising our voice or showcasing our knowledge, pastors can intimidate people. But not only is this wicked, it doesn’t finally work. A parent who screams at his child may find the little one more compliant. But compliance isn’t the goal. We aim for changed hearts.
God’s Word is a pastor’s crook. We may speak passionately, boldly, and with authority—but we are never to manipulate. Yelling is not our crook. Tears are not our crook. Prizes are not our crook. Gently but with conviction, we wield God’s Word. We persuade tenderly.
HE WALKS IN HOLINESS
Calvinist pastors don’t have the market cornered on holiness. This is the mark of a Christian pastor. But it’s also true that a Reformed understanding of the cross-work of Christ demands the robust pursuit of holiness. Let me explain.
Many Christians today (maybe even most) would argue Christ died for all in order to make it possible for all to be saved. The cross, they say, makes salvation a compelling option. However, someone who affirms limited atonement—or, better, particular redemption—insists Christ died to completely accomplish the salvation of a particular people, his church.
What does this have to do with holiness? The Bible joins together the accomplished work of Christ on the cross with the ongoing work of the Spirit in the heart. The two cannot be separated. Christ didn’t just die to save the church from hell, he died to send the church down the path of sanctification.
- “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:14).
- Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14).
The pastor committed to the efficacious atonement of Christ ought to be just as committed to personal holiness. He won’t neglect to examine himself (2 Cor. 13:5). He’ll be sure there are others in his life exhorting him to godliness so that his own heart will not be hardened by the “deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13).
Calvin (who I am sure is more than a little troubled by so many people calling themselves “Calvinists”) urged everyone to be faithful in their calling. “Every individual’s sphere of life,” he argued , “is a post assigned him by the Lord.”
If you are a pastor, this is a post to which God has appointed you. By all means, tend to your doctrine. But, by God’s grace, don’t forget to tend your hearts, too.