An Earnest Ministry—
the Need of the Times
John Angell James
“Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we implore you in Christ’s stead–be reconciled to God.” 2 Cor. 5:20
In this truly wonderful passage, viewed in connection with its context, are set before us with beautiful simplicity, yet with surpassing grandeur–the theme, the design, and the method, of the Christian ministry. The theme is God reconciling the world to himself; a subject compared with which the negotiations of hostile nations and the treaties which put an end to the horrors of war, and bind in concord the fiercest passions of humanity, are matters of only momentary and limited importance. The design of the ministry, which is strictly in harmony with its theme, is to bring sinful men into actual reconciliation with God, on the ground of that system of mediation through Christ which God himself has devised and proclaimed. And its method is the earnestness of persuasion addressed to the rebel heart of man, in order to induce him to lay aside his enmity against his offended Sovereign, and to accept this offer of a gracious amnesty.
The union and the harmony of these three views of the ministry are singularly impressive—he who leaves out the great scheme of Christian reconciliation from his habitual ministrations, omits the divinely appointed theme; he who does not supremely aim to bring sinners into a state of actual friendship with God, falls short of the design of the sacred office; and he who does not employ for the purpose all the arts and means of persuasion, mistakes or undervalues the divinely prescribed method of fulfilling its duties.
As the apostle is writing to a Christian church, it is perhaps a matter of surprise to some that he should entreat them to be reconciled to God, since by their very profession of religion they must have been supposed to be already in that state. Upon looking attentively at the passage as it stands in the Bible, the reader will perceive that the pronouns of the second person are in italics, intimating that they are not in the original Greek, but are supplied in our English translation to complete the sense; consequently any other word that would accomplish this better may be substituted for them. If therefore we put the substantive “men,” instead of the pronoun “you” in the first clause of the verse, and the pronoun of the third person “them” for the pronoun of the second person “you” in the latter clause, we shall avoid the improbability of the apostle calling upon professing Christians to come into a state to which they must be supposed to have already attained, and the text will then show what he intended to set forth, the usual manner in which he discharged the functions of his momentous office. With this alteration it would read thus, “As ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech ‘men’ by us, we implore ‘them’ in Christ’s stead to be reconciled to God.” It is as if he had said, “wherever we go, we find men in unprovoked hostility, inveterate enmity, and mad rebellion, against God’s holy nature, law, and government—we carry with us, as his ambassadors, the proclamation of mercy through the mediation of our Lord Jesus Christ—we tell them that we are appointed by God whom they have offended, and who could overwhelm them with the terrors of his justice, to call upon them to lay down their arms and accept the offer of eternal pardon and peace—but we find them every where so bent upon their sins, and the enjoyment of their worldly occupations and possessions, that we are compelled to use the language of the most vehement entreaty, and to beseech and implore them in God’s name, and in Christ’s stead, to come into a state of reconciliation.”
The apostle not only used the most intense earnestness of entreaty, as an expression of his own concern, but he told the objects of his imploring anxiety that his importunity for their welfare was but an imitation of, and a substitute for, that of God himself; that his beseeching solicitation to them, on behalf of their own salvation, was uttered in Christ’s stead. This is the most wonderful scene that the universe will ever witness; a beseeching God, an imploring Savior, standing at the door of the sinner’s heart with eternal salvation in his hand, knocking for entrance and begging to be let in; the insulted Omnipotent Creator of the universe, beseeching a worm, whom an exercise of his will could sink in a moment to perdition, and his justice be glorified in the act, to accept his pardoning mercy, and waiting year after year, in all patience, for the sinner’s reconsideration of his obstinate refusals. Be astonished, O heaven, at God’s unutterable mercy, and be horribly afraid, O earth, at man’s indescribable wickedness! Here is the climax of God’s divine love, and man’s desperate depravity. Divine benevolence did not reach its uttermost when Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross; that was reserved for the scene before us.
I might with ineffable delight expatiate at length on this scene of matchless mercy, but let me pass on to other applications of the passage appropriate to the subject before us. And what a view does it give us of the Christian ministry! It is an embassy from GOD to man, and therefore most dignified and honorable. I admit that it is only in a qualified sense that the title and office of an “ambassador” for Christ can be applied to the ordinary ministers of the gospel; but in a subordinate sense it may be applied to them, since they are ordained to do what he would do were he personally present; they are to propose the same blessings, to lay down the same terms of peace, as he would were he again on earth; and therefore are, so far, his ambassadors. And if the honor of an ambassador be in proportion to the power and glory of the sovereign who employs him, what is the dignity of him who is the ambassador of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords! And at the same time, what ought to be the sanctity of his conduct, and the elevation of his character? If nothing unworthy of the monarch who sends him, and the nation which he represents, should be done by him who is despatched on an embassy to a foreign court and people, how vigilant and solicitous to do nothing unworthy of God and his Christ, should he be whose business it is to negotiate with man, the weighty affairs of judgment and of mercy from heaven! If he bears the dignity of his office, let him associate with it a corresponding dignity of character. How natural, how just, how necessary, the reflection, “I am an ambassador for Christ; what kind of person ought I to be in all holy conversation and godliness; what should I be who represent, so far as my office is concerned, the majesty of heaven and earth!”
The ministry of the gospel is shown in this passage to be an embassy of PEACE—this is its very designation, “the ministry of reconciliation.” Never was a more beautiful idea expressed or conceived—nothing could be devised to throw over the ministry the charm of greater loveliness. If in one hand the preacher of the gospel carry the sword of the Spirit, it is only to slay the sin; while he holds forth the olive branch in the other, as the token of peace and life to the sinner. He enters the scene of strife and discord to harmonize the jarring elements, and goes to the field of conflict to reconcile the contending parties. It is his to proclaim the treaty of man’s peace with God, to explain its terms, to urge its acceptance, and to bring the sinner into friendship with his offended lawgiver; to carry peace into man’s troubled bosom, and reconcile him to his own conscience; to cast out the enmity and prejudices of his selfish and depraved heart, and to unite him by love to his fellows; to calm down the violence of his temper, and give him peace on earth, and at last to conduct him to the realms of undisturbed tranquility in the celestial world.
This is the minister’s business! Angels hover over him in his course, and chant over his labors their ancient song, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men;” redeemed men and women, saved by his instrumentality from the wrath of God, and the turbulence of passion, hail him in the language of the prophet, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that brings good tidings, that publishes peace;” while the Savior himself pronounces upon him the beatitude, “Blessed are the peace-makers, for they shall be called the children of God.” Honored and happy man, minister of reconciliation, friend and promoter of peace, the world knows you not, because it knew not Christ; nor, perhaps, does even the church duly appreciate, or adequately reward, your services; but even now your work is its own reward—peace attends upon your steps, and blessings spring up in your path.
But still it is an embassy of DIFFICULTY. It is to deal with those who are unwilling to be saved, and to persuade the sinful, proud, and stubborn hearts of men, to surrender to holiness and grace. The minister carries the offer of infinite and ineffable blessedness, but it is to men who have no taste for that species of felicity. His were an easy office did he find men every where predisposed to close with the proposals of infinite benevolence; but wherever he goes he meets with hearts not only indifferent, but hostile, to his message. The parable which represents the excuses made for not coming to the marriage feast, is still applicable to the children of men in reference to the invitations of the gospel—men are as they ever were, too busy, or too well satisfied with their enjoyments and possessions, to care about salvation. They are madly set upon the objects of the present world; they are asleep, and need to be roused; careless, and need to be interested; indolent, and need to be stimulated; and it is with the greatest difficulty we can engage their attention to the invisible realities of eternity. No one who leaves out of view the desperate wickedness of the human heart, can form a true estimate of the nature, design, and difficulties of the pastoral office—and the reason why there is so little of hard labor, and intense earnestness, and beseeching entreaty, in the ministers of the gospel, is, that there is the lack of a deep conviction, or proper consideration, of the resistance to their endeavors in the sinner’s heart, which is perpetually meeting them.
This brings me to the subject of the present discourse, and that is the NECESSITY of an earnest ministry. Nothing less than earnestness can succeed in any cases of great difficulty, and the earnestness must of course be in proportion to the difficulty to be surmounted. Great obstacles cannot be overcome without intense application of the mind. How then can the work of the ministry be accomplished? Every view we can take of it replies, “Only by earnestness.” Every syllable of the apostle’s language replies, “Only by earnestness.” Every survey we can take of human nature replies, “Only by earnestness.” Every recollection of our own experience, as well as every observation we can make of the experience of others, replies, “Only by earnestness.” This, this is what we need, and must have, if the ends of the gospel are ever to be extensively accomplished–an earnest ministry.
We have heard much of late about a learned ministry, and God forbid we should ever be afflicted by so great an evil as an unlearned one. We have been often reminded of the necessity of an educated ministry; and in this case, as in every other, men must be educated for their vocation; but then, that education must be strictly appropriate and specific. We are very properly told from many quarters, we can do nothing without a godly ministry. This is very true, nor can any truth bearing upon this subject be more momentous; for of all the curses which God ever pours from the vials of his wrath upon a nation which he intends to scourge, there is not one so fearful as giving them up to an unholy ministry. And I trust our churches will ever consider piety as the first and most essential qualification in their pastors, for which talents, genius, learning, and eloquence, would and could be no substitutes. It will be a dark and evil day when personal godliness shall be considered as secondary to any other quality in those who serve at the altar of God.
But still there is something else needed in addition to natural talent, to academic training, and even to the most fervent evangelical piety, and that is, intense devotedness. This is the one thing, more than any or all other things, that is lacking in the modern pulpit, and that has been lacking in most ages of the Christian church. The following sentence occurs in a valuable article in a late number of the British Quarterly Review—“No ministry will be really effective, whatever may be its education, which is not a ministry of strong faith, true spirituality, and deep earnestness.” I wish this golden sentence could be inscribed in characters of light over every professor’s chair, over every student’s desk, and over every preacher’s pulpit. Condensed into that one short paragraph is everything that needs be said on this subject. I feel that every syllable I have to write would be superfluous, if all our pastors, students, and tutors, would let that one sentence take full occupation of their hearts, possess their whole souls, and regulate their conduct. The most I can hope to accomplish is to expand and enforce it.