The gospel minister has a high and holy calling. He is called to preach “the un-searchable riches of Christ” (Eph.3:8); he is to “preach the word in season and out of season” (2Tim.4:2); he is to “preach Christ crucified” (1Cor.1:23); he is to “hold firm to the trustworthy word...so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Tit.1:9); and, no less, he is to “do the work of an evangelist”(2Tim.4:5). It is little wonder that Paul should cry out as he reflects on the momentous nature of the gospel ministry, “Who is sufficient for these things?” Who indeed! At our best we are all “jars of clay” (2Cor.4:7), frail, fragile, easily knocked and broken. But our very fragility and weakness is part of God’s ordained plan for the gospel minister; it is to “show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2Cor.4:7). Indeed, “our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant” (2Cor.3:6).
In all our thinking about the gospel ministry, it is surely vital, indeed essential, that we hold before us the example of the gospel minister, our Lord Jesus Christ. In every area of gospel ministry, our Lord Jesus has left us a perfect example. He is the patient teacher who faithfully instructs his dull-hearted disciples. He is the loving pastor who gently rebukes his wrong-headed disciples (Mk.10:35-45). He is the faithful Servant of God who boldly exposes the hypocrisy of the ungodly with the stinging strictures of God’s word (Matt.23). And, above all else, he is the passionate Evangelist who seeks unwearyingly the salvation of lost sinners. He told Zacchaeus that he had come “to seek and to save the lost” (Lk.19:10). He said to the Scribes and Pharisees that he had come “not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk.2:17). Perhaps no passage more exposes the evangelical heart of our Lord Jesus than Lk.15. The three parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost sons, lay bare, in a deeply moving way, the evangelistic pulsebeat that throbbed in the Saviour’s heart.
The context in which Jesus tells these parables is deeply instructive. The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling because “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (v2). They were scandalised by Jesus' social engagement with the disreputables of Jewish society. They would not have touched these “tax collectors and sinners” with the proverbial bargepole, but Jesus received them and ate with them. The Pharisees would not have been seen dead with them, but Jesus had come to die for them! In the parables, Jesus is contrasting the narrow-heartedness of the Jewish church’s leaders, with the large-heartedness of God. He is contrasting the passionate evangelistic heart of God, with the spiritual blindness and inertia of these would-be ministers. Perhaps more than anything else, Jesus is highlighting the astonishing truth that not only does God welcome sinners, he goes out seeking them and spares no effort to find them and bring them “home”. In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd searched “until” he found it (v4). In the parable of the lost coin, the woman searched carefully “until” she found it (v8). In the parable of the lost son, the father, “filled with compassion”, ran to embrace his returning son.
In these three parables, Jesus is making one great point - “Behold your God!” The Pharisees and their acolytes could not understand Jesus, because they did not know God. They were a diameter removed from the God who “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn.3:16). They could not make any sense of Jesus because they had become spiritually desiccated in covenantal presumption. This covenantal presumption had been a besetting sin of the Jews throughout their history. We see it in Jonah’s response to God’s call to go to godless Nineveh. Jonah was apparently content to minister God’s word to his wayward people, the Jews. But the call to go to Nineveh, godless, wicked Nineveh, so appalled him that he sought to flee from the Lord and his evangelistic call. Even when the Lord mercifully and graciously restores him, and wonderfully blesses Jonah’s preaching in Nineveh, Jonah continues to betray his cold-hearted indifference to the lost: “Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry....‘I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love’” (Jonah 4:2). Gospel privileges had remarkably produced calloused indifference in Jonah to the plight of the lost. Whereas God was large-hearted, Jonah was narrow-hearted. Jonah had been indifferent to the plight of Nineveh, but God said, “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:11).
So concerned was God for the great city of Nineveh, that he sent it an evangelist. God was not content for Jonah to minister to privileged Israel; the salvation of lost men and women outside the visible church, as well as inside the visible church, was his passion - "God so loved the world“! If God’s concern is as wide as the world, that concern ought to be mirrored in the life and ministry of his ministers. I have heard men say, ”Oh, I’m a teacher rather than an evangelist“, to excuse the absence of evangelistic preaching from their ministry. This is a false understanding of the gospel minister’s calling. Of course we are to teach the saints, but no less we are to ”preach the good news“, to seek out every opportunity to seek and save the lost. In doing this, please God, we will set our congregations an example of evangelistic concern and commitment. Others might say, ”My church is full of believers; it would be inappropriate for me to preach evangelistically to them". Surely not. For one thing, we do not know the hearts of men and women. In the best of congregations, unbelief can lurk beneath a façade of evangelical piety. But even more importantly, preaching the saving work of our Lord Jesus Christ, the vast blessings of his salvation, and the necessity of faith, repentance and true godliness, will surely help God’s people to glory the more in their Saviour and prize the great salvation he has won for them. Evangelistic preaching is not doctrinally deficient preaching. It is preaching that holds out the love and mercy of God in Jesus Christ to a lost world.
So concerned was God for this rebellious, judgement-deserving world, that he sent us The Evangelist, the Word made flesh. From the moment he began his public ministry, Jesus gave himself unwearyingly to seeking the lost. Why? One reason stands above all others, love. It was God’s love that gave him to be the Saviour of the world; it was the divine compassion that caused him to minister to the crowds, who were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt.9:36). And when the rich young ruler came to him asking, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”, Jesus looked at him and “loved him”. Jesus saw the crowds and was filled with compassion, we too often see the crowds and view them as an obstruction. As Sinclair Ferguson has so finely put it, “the pulse-beat of God’s heart has an evangelistic rhythm. He loves men and women and he will pursue them with his love in order to bring them to repentance and faith”.
Where does all this leave those of us called to preach the gospel of the grace of God? Does it not humble us? Does it not cause us to ask ourselves searching questions? Does the pulsebeat of my heart have an evangelistic rhythm? Do I know anything of the Saviour’s compassion for the lost? He laboured unwearyingly to seek and save the lost; are my ministerial labours soaked in self-denying weariness? No-one more exemplified the gospel minister than Richard Baxter. He wrote, “The work of conversion is the first and great thing we must drive at; after this we must labour with all our might. Alas! The misery of the unconverted is so great, that it calleth loudest for our compassion...I confess I am frequently forced to neglect that which should tend to the further increase of knowledge in the godly, because of the lamentable necessity of the unconverted. Who is able to talk of controversies, or of nice un-necessary points, or even truths of a lower degree of necessity, how excellent soever, while he seeth a company of ignorant, carnal, miserable sinners before his eyes, who must be changed or damned? Methinks I see them entering upon their final woe...”
Baxter’s words rebuke the coldness and felt indifference of our hearts. He not only was theologically persuaded of the lostness of unconverted sinners, in measure he felt the weight and the awfulness of their lost condition. He further wrote, “The whole of our ministry must be carried on in a tender love to our people....They should see that we care for no outward thing, neither wealth, nor liberty, nor honour, nor life, in comparison of their salvation”.
Can our congregations see the likeness of that model of a gospel minister in you? in me? We have a Royal summons to preach the word, in good times and in bad, the word that makes men and women “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2Tim.3:15). May our gracious God give to us something of our Saviour’s compassion. Nothing else will melt our cold hearts and cause us to give ourselves unwearyingly to preaching the saving good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.