John Newton, the converted slave trader who penned the hymn "Amazing Grace," served for sixteen years as pastor of a small congregation in Olney, Great Britain. While there, a young man wrote for his counsel on discerning God's call to the pastorate. This was Newton's reply (published in 1787):
I was long distressed, as you are, about what was or was not a proper call to the ministry. It now seems to me an easy point to solve, but perhaps will not be so to you till the Lord shall make it clear to you in your own case. In brief, I think [a true call] principally includes three things.
1. A warm and earnest desire to be employed in this service. I apprehend [that] the man who is once moved by the Spirit of God to this work will prefer it, if attainable, to hoards of gold and silver, so that, though at times intimidated by a sense of its importance and difficulty compared with his own great insufficiency, yet he cannot give it up.
I hold it a good rule to inquire whether the desire to preach is most fervent in our most lively and spiritual moments and [also] when we are most laid in the dust before the Lord. If so, it is a good sign. But if, as is sometimes the case, a person is earnest to be a preacher to others when he finds but little hungerings and thirstings after grace in his own soul, it is then to be feared his zeal springs rather from a selfish principle than from the Spirit of God.
2. Besides this desire, there must in due season appear some competent sufficiency, gifts, knowledge, and utterance. Surely, if the Lord sends a man to teach others, he will furnish him with the means.
Many have intended well in setting up to be preachers yet went beyond or before their call in so doing. The main difference between a minister and a private Christian seems to consist in these ministerial gifts which are imparted to him, not for his own sake, but for the edification of others. But then I say, these are to appear in due season; they are not to be expected instantaneously, but gradually. They are necessary for the discharge of the ministry, but not necessary as a prerequisite to legitimize our desire after it.
In your case, you are young and have time before you. Therefore I think you need not as yet perplex yourself with inquiring if you have these gifts already. It is sufficient if your desire is fixed, and you are willing in the way of prayer and diligence to wait upon the Lord for them. As yet you need them not.
3. That which finally evidences a proper call is a correspondent opening in providence by a gradual train of circumstances pointing out the means, the times, and the place of actually entering upon the work.
Till this coincidence arrives, you must not expect to be always clear from hesitation in your own mind. The principal caution is not to be too hasty in catching at first appearances. If it be the Lord's will to bring you into his ministry, he has already appointed your place and service; and though you know it not at present, you shall at a proper time. If you had the talents of an angel, you could do no good with them till his hour is come and till he leads you to the people whom he has determined to bless by your means.
It is difficult to restrain ourselves within the bounds of prudence here, when our zeal is warm, a sense of the love of Christ upon our hearts, and a tender compassion for poor sinners is ready to prompt us to break out too soon. But he that believeth shall not make haste.
I was about five years under this constraint: sometimes I thought I must preach, though it was in the streets. I listened to everything that seemed plausible, and to many things that were not so. But the Lord graciously-as if oblivious [to my own wishes]-hedged up my way with thorns. Otherwise, if I had been left to my own spirit, I would have put it quite out of my power to have been brought into such a sphere of usefulness as he in his good time has been pleased to lead me.
I can now see clearly that at the time I would first have gone out, though my intention was good in the main, yet I overrated myself and had not that spiritual judgment and experience which are requisite for so great a service.
I wish you therefore to take time; and if you have a desire to enter into the Established Church, endeavor to keep your zeal within moderate bounds. I would not have you hide your profession or to be backward to speak for God-but avoid what looks like "preaching" and be content with being a learner in the school of Christ for some years. The delay will not be lost time; you will be so much the more acquainted with the gospel, with your own heart, and with human nature. This last is a necessary branch of a minister's knowledge, and can only be acquired by comparing what passes within us and around us with what we read in the Word of God.
Copyright © 1990 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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