Gratitude for Grace in Ministry

Do you have a critical, jaded spirit towards the church? [1] 

Albert Mohler, in a 2009 episode of his talk show, asked, "Why Do Pastors Leave the Ministry?" noting the troubling trend that evangelical ministers are staying in congregations for shorter windows of time, with an average of about three years in a call.  Many are also quitting entirely.  Why?  Perhaps in part because three years marks a point where a minister is really getting to know the people in his congregation, and the congregation is really getting to know him.   The reality of sin in the congregation is by this point increasingly transparent - in a way it was not when the call was first accepted.  The reality of the minister's inability to change people (if not understood from the beginning) is also clear by this point, stripping away any misplaced confidence in personal ability.   Evidences of lack of spiritual growth and change, along with evidence of spiritual decline, can make the work of the ministry at times seem more of a disheartening grind than a high and glorious calling.  At the same time, years or decades of the sacred work of sermon preparation, prayer, and pastoral ministry tempt the heart to slide into considering it routine and mundane.  It is at these confluences of ministry realities and temptations that wearied pastors may succumb to a jaded, critical spirit in ministry.

In his Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards warns that because of remaining sin the believer's spiritual sight is easily darkened or dulled "to all spiritual objects." [2]  This is true for every Christian; those called to church office are no exception.  Our vision for the powerful, supernatural, gracious work of God is too small and easily diminished because, as Edwards says, we have "distempters of the eyes" and "sight enfeebled." [3]  So when a critical, frustrated spirit rises in my heart, I need to ask, "Is my spiritual sight clear? Am I seeing the powerful, supernatural, gracious work of God in His church?  Am I taking note of and rejoicing in God's ongoing work of new creation, His bringing life where there was death, beauty where there was ugliness, holiness where there was sin, love where there was selfishness and bitterness, faith where there was unbelief?"  To most accurately assess yourself you could ask what your wife, kids and closest friends hear from you about the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Despite the visible form and condition that may discourage you, do people hear and see gratefulness, thanksgiving?  Do they see a spirit of love and affection for the church, for her ministry and ministers?  Or a critical spirit, a dismissive spirit, or a depressed spirit?

Wherever your attitude, you can be certain it will affect those around you.  Charles Spurgeon in his excellent chapter on earnestness in pastoral and pulpit ministry says:
For the sake of our church members, and converted people, we must be energetically [earnest], for if we are not zealous, neither will they be.  It is not in the order of nature that rivers should run uphill, and it does not often happen that zeal rises from the pew to the pulpit.  It is natural that it should flow down from us to our hearers; the pulpit must therefore stand at a high level of ardour, if we are under God, to make and to keep our people fervent... a dull minister creates a dull audience.  You cannot expect the office-bearers and the members of the church to travel by steam if their own chosen pastor still drives the old broadwheeled wagon.[4] 

Spurgeon's words of "earnestness," "fervor," and "zeal" apply to our spirits when we become critical and jaded.  Just as a ministry without zeal weakens a congregation, so also a ministry lacking a thankful awareness of God's grace at work can lead to an unthankful and unhappy congregation.

So how can we tackle the problem of a critical, jaded spirit towards the church and her ministry?  Undoubtedly there are many potential avenues of addressing the heart issues underlying this problem: the steady need to be personally refreshed in the gospel of Jesus Christ, to walk in renewed sweet communion with Him, to live in the Word and prayer by His Spirit.  These are essential to tackling the problem.  However, there is another exercise which can prove tremendously beneficial in the life of ministry and the life of your congregation: developing gratitude for the marks of grace displayed in others.[5]     

The immediate question is, "How?"  

We need to know and remind ourselves what marks of grace, or evidences of grace are.  A beekeeper needs to know signs of health and growth in his bee population if he is going to produce honey; pastors, elders, and church members need to be students of the marks or evidences of the grace of God in the lives of people to spur on spiritual development. 

An important, initial distinction needs to be made between common or natural graces and special or supernatural graces.  Common or natural graces, which we undoubtedly should be thankful for and rejoice in, are found both in Christians and non-Christians.  For example:  your unbelieving neighbor brings your garbage bin back to the house for you. This is an act of kindness, for which you should be thankful to God and to him.  But what is it rooted in?  Perhaps a twinge of conscience, maybe a good mood, maybe some understanding of the social benefits of this, but most certainly the ultimate source in the unbelieving heart is tied to a self-love, or some other sinful idolatry, rather than love for God showing itself in love for one's neighbor.
In contrast, special or supernatural grace is the fruit of the regenerating, transforming, sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian.  God's glory is the motive, end, and goal of actions or characteristics rooted in special grace.  They are fruits that stand as evidences of the work of the Holy Spirit--proof of the power of the Word of God, in transforming, uniting and conforming people to Jesus Christ. These marks of grace are what the minister needs to intentionally study.  

Scripture is replete with biblical examples of marks of grace in the saints.  Study them.  Study fruits of the Spirit displayed throughout the Old and New Testaments.  Study the heroes of faith, praying and meditating on how their marks of grace reflect, point to, and are ultimately found in Christ Himself.  Study Christ Himself, listen to Him.  When you see Christians pursuing a life conformed to the Ten Commandments, positively desiring to keep them in love to God, especially as they are expounded by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, you will know you are seeing evidences of grace. However small the growth may be, if it is in Christ, it is by grace. When you see Christian parents prayerfully living out the call of Deuteronomy 6 to instruct covenant children in the grace and knowledge of God, this is a mark of grace. When you see a Christian leaving a job, a social setting, a relationship, because he wants to avoid the pattern of spiritual decline exposed in Psalm 1, you are seeing evidence of the Spirit's work. When you see a woman, single or married, pursuing the paradigm of Proverbs 31, you are seeing marks of grace.  When you see someone who is beginning, however slowly, to exemplify the Beatitudes, you are seeing evidences of grace.  You are seeing the work of the Triune God.  And yes, when a Christian, out of love for God and neighbor brings back their garbage bin, this is an evidence of grace.  

Is there a biblical basis for calling Christians to look for evidences of grace in the church and the individuals that make up her body?  Yes, Scripture not only gives us warrant, but also commands us in Old and New Testaments.  Consider Psalm 48.  The reader is called to: "walk about Zion" (Psalm 48:12).  What is the Psalmist calling God's people to?  To admire the city of Jerusalem, the center of Old Testament temple worship, the place of the presence of God in His abounding grace and sure promise of complete salvation in the Christ to come.   To admire the city that God established, then to admire the God who established it.  They were called to take an unhurried walk to examine the stone and brick buildings, understanding that God established them by His grace. The Psalmist calls us to meditate on and give thanks for the spiritual reality that the temple and city display: God is building a spiritual city, a people saved by Him, set apart to Him.  The New Testament equivalent of Jerusalem, of Mount Zion, is the church, the bride of Christ.  Psalm 48 doesn't call us in the new covenant administration to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem: we are to do this in the church.  Walk around it--open your church directory--and look for God's gracious works!
Psalm 48 provides a pattern of how to do this.  The Psalmist says "consider her bulwarks, palaces" (Psalm 48:13) - a clear call to take note with specificity the evidences of the grace of God.  In the transition to verse 14, the Psalm gives us the goal of our search and study: trace the graces back to the giver and source of all grace, "for this God is our God forever and ever."  (Psalm 48:14)  The Psalm is also passionate in calling us to communicate our gratitude for God's evident grace to others, "Let Mount Zion rejoice, let the daughters of Judah be glad, because of your judgments", and above all to communicate our thankfulness to God (Ps. 48:1, 8, 9, 10).  The whole Psalm is intended as a song of worship.

The New Testament is replete with similar examples.  Paul's ministry exemplifies this over and over in the opening words of his epistles (cf. Romans 1, 1 & 2 Corinthians 1, Ephesians 1, Philippians 1) and throughout these letters.  As a Spirit-inspired apostle of Jesus Christ he takes note of evidences of grace with specificity, communicating his gratitude to God and the people of God for them.  Revelation repeats this pattern, as our Lord Jesus Christ addresses the seven churches of Asia Minor and through them the church of every generation.  Jesus commends the churches for the very marks and evidences of grace that are made possible only by and through Him!  Certainly there are rebukes and warnings as well.  In some cases, like many of the prophets, Paul's address to the Galatians, and the words of Christ to the church at Laodicea, there is little to no commendation, due to the urgency of error and sin that needs to be confronted and a concurrent void of marks of grace.  At times strong correction, prayerful intercession, and sorrow are the only legitimate response to someone's life.  Yet, recognizing and addressing these occasions, individuals, and at times, churches,  does not negate the simultaneous call to look, listen, and take specific note of evidences of grace, to trace them back to the Giver, and to communicate gratitude.  Take note of the evidences of God's powerful, supernatural, actively recreating work for your own encouragement, for the encouragement of fellow Christians, and so that you can praise Him for His unstoppable grace.  Open your eyes and see: His mercy, His redeeming love, His new creation is being written over and over throughout His church.  He is building a glorious church as He saves people from sin and conforms them to the image of Christ His Son.  He is sanctifying his bride so that she grows in holy beauty.   

Pursuing a life marked by the biblical paradigm of gratitude for marks of grace is crucial for ministry.  Our souls have to overflow spiritual gratitude for the grace of God to us and others if we are going to reach people.  Only an overflowing heart can make our life communication passionate and alive to others.  A church that overflows with spiritual gratitude will shine.  There will be an evident, tangible, distinct sweetness.  When rebuke or warning is needed it will then be spoken in a context that evidences love, humility and gratitude, with a gospel heart, and Christ-centered focus.  It will be vibrantly gracious rather than critical, petty, jaded or dull.  There will be growth in love to God, and love to others, rather than self-love.  What would we and our churches be like if we were transformed to conform to Christ in this?  Take a few minutes to walk mentally around the parts of Zion you know.  As you consider the mighty works of God in the hearts and lives of the saints around you, give thanks and praise to Him, and tell them.  Encourage each other, and join together to worship our great God and Savior, the God of all grace: 

"Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power..." 
"Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth."  Revelation 4:11, 5:9-10 (ESV)

William VanDoodewaard is Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.

 [1] I am indebted to the grace of God at work by His Word and Spirit through Joel Beeke in his sermon "Do You Love the Church?", Rich Ganz in his sermon, "The Glory of Christ in the Church", C.J. Mahaney in his sermon "Sustaining the Pastor's Soul", Albert Mohler in his radio show, and the example of my dear friend and mentor Barry York for much of this content.
 [2] Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1994), 122.
 [3] Edwards, 122. 
 [4] Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim, 1990), 146-47.
 [5] C.J. Mahaney, "Sustaining the Pastor's Soul" Philippians 1:3-8. Together for the Gospel Conference, Louisville, KY, April 2008.