How Unconditional Election Sustains Pastoral Ministry

Article
02.05.2019

By God’s grace, I’ve served as a pastor now for over two decades. Occasionally, younger pastors ask me how to achieve longevity and success in pastoral ministry. I often respond, “Be a Calvinist.”

I’m joking of course.

Sort of.

Yes, I know there are fruitful, Bible-believing, gospel-preaching, non-Calvinist pastors. I count such men as brothers and celebrate their labors.

Yet for me, the theological framework commonly called “Calvinism,” and the doctrine of unconditional election in particular, has profoundly shaped my understanding of success in ministry and sustained me through the toil of shepherding. It’s been a key to my own ministerial survival.

DEFINING THE DOCTRINE

Why is unconditional election so beneficial to day-in, day-out church labor? To answer that, we should first define it.

Unconditional election means at least these two things:

  1. that before creation God elected, or chose, or predestined, certain people to be saved, and
  2. that his choice to save certain people was based solely on his sovereign, good pleasure and not based on any condition external to himself.

Hence the term “unconditional.” God doesn’t predestine someone contingent upon the condition that he foreknows they will one day believe the gospel. Just the opposite: people believe the gospel because God has first freely chosen them. God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy. He is sovereign in salvation.

I won’t take the time to make the biblical argument for unconditional election here. The doctrine has many able defenders. In my own theological journey, I found Jesus’ words in John 6 as well as Paul’s teachings in Ephesians 1 and Romans 9 to be particularly decisive. Nor will I delve into the philosophical challenges this doctrine raises.

Instead, I want to address another pressing question: So what?

DEFINING SUCCESS

What difference does such a fine theological distinction make for the pastor in the trenches of ministry? When was the last time your opinion about the nature of election determined what you said at a hospital bedside, or how you structured an elders meeting agenda, or what closing hymn you picked?

The practical implications of unconditional election don’t immediately jump out at us. But when we see God’s will as decisive in salvation, it should fundamentally re-frame how we think about the task of pastoral ministry. In short, unconditional election means that our job as pastors is primarily to be faithful.

Yes, God determines the outcomes of ministry according to his own purposes. He will save and sanctify his chosen people. But this is key: God does his saving and sanctifying through his Word and gospel as it is proclaimed and taught and obeyed by us. Consider Paul: “Faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). God has ordained both the ends (the salvation of the elect) and the means (his Word).

So we pastors do have a part to play; we don’t sit idly by in the name of predestination. No, we do the proclaiming, the teaching, and the obeying, and then God accomplishes his purposes in his time. In a ministry built on unconditional election, success is measured by faithfulness to the divinely appointed means rather than by numbers of conversions or church attendance.

SUSTAINABLE SHEPHERDING

Seeing success as faithfulness in light of God’s unconditional election lifts a great burden from our shoulders as shepherds. God merely wants us to do our part and trust him for the rest. Knowing this can carry our shepherding for the long haul, especially when we don’t see the results we’ve been praying and laboring toward.

Consider how this might look like in four different areas of ministry:

Evangelism

If God has sovereignly chosen to save some and to do so through the proclamation of the gospel, then our goal in evangelism is to speak the gospel clearly, and to live in a way that lends credibility to that gospel. Whether people believe or not is out of our hands. We’re in the proclaiming business, not the converting business. God will grant saving faith as he has planned, like when Paul preached to the Gentiles in Antioch and “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48)—or when he preached to Lydia in Philippi and “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14).

If someone rejects the gospel, you need not feel like an evangelistic failure, or fret that if you had just used a different illustration, or made a better argument, or smiled more, then you could have nudged the person across the goal line of belief. Don’t ask “Was I convincing?” Instead, ask “Was the gospel accurate?” The first question is exhausting, but the second question seems attainable. And even when someone rejects Jesus in the moment, they might still be elect and come to believe later. This possibility should inspire us to keep speaking the gospel as God gives opportunity, even to those who seem most closed to it. Always remember: faithfulness is success.

Preaching

The congregation sitting before you is usually a mixed bag: old, young, single, married, non-Christian, newly Christian, nominally Christians, and maturely Christian. How can you reach them all for Jesus with one sermon? Will you do a topical message that targets the felt needs of a different portion of your audience each week? Will engineer your church’s ethos to target a specific demographic? Or why not try to touch everyone with a sermon series built around summer movie titles since, you know, everyone loves movies. You could even show movie clips as sermon illustrations!

But if God has unconditionally chosen to save and sanctify whom he will through his Word, then our task in preaching is first and foremost to communicate the Bible clearly and accurately. When we make the main point of the text to be the main point of the sermon and then apply that main point to the church, we have succeeded. Like the farmer, we can sleep soundly knowing that “the seed sprouts and grows; he does not know how” (Mark 4:27). We preachers don’t have to be an experts at cultural analysis or trend-spotting or video editing or storytelling or apologetics. Just be a preacher who explains and applies the Bible as faithfully and clearly as you can week after week, and trust that the Word will work among the elect in God’s time.

Furthermore, we can preach from any part of the Bible and have confidence that the Lord can get the job done since “all Scripture is God breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). God can work among his predestined people through Leviticus just as well as John. That’s liberating and provides us with a lifetime library of effective preaching material.

Counseling

I find counseling to be one of the hardest parts of pastoral work. People and their problems are so complex. How do we persuade them to think and act correctly when they’re facing giant issues like addiction, marital conflict, abuse, or grief?

When we aim for faithfulness, success looks like providing compassionate, biblical counsel and leaving the soul-healing to God, knowing for sure “that he who began a good work in you will bring it on to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). We can make it our goal to learn how the gospel applies to life and how to share those insights pastorally.

Most pastors know that in counseling one should keep healthy boundaries and avoid a savior complex. Somehow, they have to go home at night and not carry a sense of ultimate responsibility for all those heart-breaking situations. A robust belief in unconditional predestination gives a theological foundation for laboring and then letting go, which in turn enables longevity.

Suffering

Suffering is one of those things they often don’t prepare pastors for in seminary. And yet, it’s a universal experience for pastors. As Paul exhorted Timothy, “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3).

Suffering can come in the form of external persecution. It can also come from within the church: betrayal, disappointment, apostasy, slander and gossip, emotionally draining cases, unrealistic expectations, complaints and criticisms, crises, and loneliness. In addition, we bear that ever-present sense that there’s more to do. As Paul said, “There is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28). I don’t know how Paul bore the responsibility of all those congregations. I can barely handle one church. We pastors try to look competent, but we’re often confused, exhausted, and scared.

Thank God the fate of his church doesn’t hinge upon us. He merely calls us to be faithful, even in trials. Especially in trials. As Paul said, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the Word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:8–10).

Did you catch that? Paul endured suffering for the sake of the elect. It’s precisely because God has an elect people, and because God’s Word is unhindered and effective, that we can endure tribulation. God uses our faithful suffering for the gospel to bring his chosen children home.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE

Again, these ideas aren’t just theological theory for me. They’re fundamental to my sustainability plan. I currently pastor a large multinational church in the Middle East. There are scores of cultures in the congregation, as well as unreached peoples all around us. If God’s work rests on my ability to decode all the different cultures and be persuasive and relevant to each one, and on top of that to break through to the unreached, then I’m sunk. What’s relevant to one society can be repulsive to another.

But unconditional election gives me hope. Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). All the elect will come. And they will come because Jesus himself calls them through his word: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me” (John 10:26). My part as a pastor is to consistently proclaim the gospel and the Bible and trust that Jesus will do the summoning and the feeding.

And you know what? This works. When you ask our church members what draws them to this congregation, you’ll hear one particular answer over and over. They’re here because of the centrality of the Bible and the gospel. The gospel holds this hyper-diverse flock together like a supernatural chemical bond.

And so my mission, and yours, is clear: faithfully preach the Word, counsel with the Word, sing the Word, pray the Word, and obey the Word. “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:1–12).