Editor’s Note: This is part 5 of a 10 part series on Westminster Larger Catechism Question and Answers 154-160.
158. By whom is the word of God to be preached?
The word of God is to be preached only by such as are sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office.
The public preaching of the Word is a privilege, not a right. To be sure, Christians may and ought to “witness for Christ privately or publicly as opportunity is afforded” (cf. 1 Pet 3:15). But this task is different from the work of preaching. The Catechism, following the teaching of the New Testament, reminds us that only some men may labor as heralds and ambassadors of God, as stewards of the mysteries of God.
Which men may enter into the ministry? The Catechism tells us that it is not simply a matter of a man desiring to be a preacher. That desire must be there, but there must be more. There are, in fact, two realities that must be in place before a man may biblically step into the work of preaching.
The first is that the man must be gifted by the Holy Spirit. All Christians enjoy the blessing of the indwelling presence and ministry of the Holy Spirit. Every Christian enjoys, in some measure, the graces and gifts that Christ is pleased to give him by the Spirit. But while every Christian enjoys the graces of justification, adoption, and sanctification, no Christian has all the gifts (cf. 1 Cor 12:29-30). The Spirit gifts some but not all to preach. What does this gifting look like? First, there are intellectual gifts. The preacher must be “able to teach,” and “able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:9). Second, there are character gifts. The overwhelming proportion of biblical qualifications for the minister concerns his personal life and his relationships in the home, church, and world. When we look at these character gifts, we see that they are no different from what should be true of every Christian. What, then, makes these gifts particular to a preacher? It is that he so possesses and exercises them that he “set[s] the believers an example in speech in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim 4:12). His life commends and adorns his title, “man of God” (2 Tim 3:17). He is a man of deep and exemplary piety.
The second reality that must be in place before a man may undertake the work of preaching is that the man must be called by the church. It is not enough that a he possess the gifts of the Spirit for this work. The church must recognize these gifts after a period of observation and examination. And then the church must formally invite this man into the office of the minister.
What, then, should the church look for in a candidate for the ministry? The church should thoroughly examine its candidates for their knowledge of the Bible’s teachings. It should examine them in their ability to communicate and to apply biblical truth in a way that God’s people can understand. The church should be thoroughly acquainted with the candidate’s life and character. Is he mature and well-respected in the church? Is his speech edifying? Is he a man who has control over his finances and his appetites? Is he able to control his temper? Is he humble and gentle in demeanor? Does he have an exemplary work ethic? Is he leading his family well? Is he generous with his time and money? Is he hospitable? What do his unbelieving family members, friends, or coworkers think about him as a person? It should go without saying that, for the church to answer these questions satisfactorily, a man will need to submit himself to the observation of the church for an extended period of time (cf. 1 Tim 5:22).
These principles are biblical, and they are also beneficial. They help the church by promoting sound doctrine and godly living in the church. Even in the apostolic age, the false teaching and licentious living of some church leaders threatened to upset and to corrupt whole congregations. In fact, it is in the context of such church situations that Paul details for Timothy and Titus the doctrinal and character qualifications for ministers and elders. If the church does not make a commitment to find gifted and qualified ministers, she may find that error and ungodliness will spread unchecked. When she does commit to this work, however, she will ensure to herself a supply of that “healthy doctrine” that she needs to survive and thrive spiritually (1 Tim 1:10).
These principles also help young men who are considering the ministry. Every young man must look carefully at himself in order to discern whether he may be called to the ministry. But that is simply the first step. He may only step into this office when the church has had the opportunity to observe, examine, and approve him. The external call of the church must concur with the internal call of the Spirit. This process is purposefully protracted. It requires the patience and perseverance of the candidate. But it is for his good. It allows him to hone and to exercise his gifts. It offers objective confirmation whether he is in fact gifted for the ministry. When he is in the ministry and Satan tempts him to despair of his gifts and of his calling, he can think back to this process, remember the church’s confirmation of his gifts, and press on in the work to which God has called him.
As with so many things in this Christian life, these principles call for hard work. They require diligence and resilience of the candidate. They call for patience and sacrificial investment on the part of the church. But as with everything in the Christian life, these principles carry blessing in them. It is when we commit to doing God’s work in God’s way that we may look to him expectantly to prosper that work, in his time and to his glory.
Johannes G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 447.