“The holiness, love, compassion, care, and authority of Christ towards His church” by John Owen

“The especial design of the rule of the church in its government is to represent the holiness of Christ, love of Christ, compassion of Christ, care of Christ, and authority of Christ towards His church.

This is the great end of rule in the church, and of all the discipline which is to be exercised by virtue thereof.

Whilst this is not attended unto, when the officers and rulers of the church do not endeavour, in all the actings of their power and office, to set forth these virtues of Christ, to exemplify that impression of them which He hath left in His laws and rule, with the divine testimonies which He gave of them in His own person, they utterly deviate from the principal end of all rule in the church.

For men to act herein in a way of domination, with a visible elation of mind and spirit above their brethren; with anger, wrath, and passion; by rules, order, and laws of their own devising, without the least consideration of what the Lord Christ requires, and what is the frame of His heart towards all His disciples,—is to reflect the highest dishonour imaginable upon Christ Himself.

He who comes into the courts of the king in Westminster Hall, when filled with judges, grave, learned, and righteous, must ordinarily be allowed to judge of the king himself, his wisdom, justice, moderation, and clemency, by the law which they proceed upon and their manner of the administration of it.

But God forbid that Christians should make a judgment concerning the holiness, wisdom, love, and compassion of Christ by the representation which, as is pretended, is made of Him and them in some courts wherein church rule and discipline is administered!

When any had offended of old, their censure by the church was called the bewailing of them, (2 Cor. 12:21); and that because of the sorrow, pity, and compassion whereby, in that censure, they evidenced the compassion of the Lord Christ towards the souls of sinners.

This is scarce answered by those pecuniary mulcts and other penalties, which, with indignation and contempt, are inflicted on such as are made offenders, whether they will or no.

Certainly, those who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity, and have a due honour for the gospel, will, at one time or another, begin to think meet that this stain of our religion should be washed away.

The rule and law of the exercise of power in the elders of the church is the holy Scripture only.

The Lord Christ is the only lawgiver of the church; all His laws unto this end are recorded in the Scripture; no other law is effectual, can oblige or operate upon the objects or unto the ends of church-rule.

If the church make a thousand rules, or canons, or laws for government, neither any of them, nor all of them in general, have any the least power to oblige men unto obedience or compliance with them, but only so far as virtually or materially they contain what is of the law of Christ, and derive force from thence: as the judges in our courts of justice are bound to judge and determine in all cases out of and according to the law of the land; and when they do not, their sentence is of no validity, but may and ought to be reversed.

But if, wilfully or of choice, they should introduce laws or rules not legally established in this nation, judging according unto them, it would render them highly criminal and punishable.

It is no otherwise in the kingdom of Christ and the rule thereof. It is by His law alone that rule is to be exercised in it. There is nothing left unto the elders of the church but the application of his laws and the general rules of them unto particular cases and occasions.

To make, to bring, to execute, any other rules, laws, or canons, in the government of his church, is to usurp on His kingly dominion.”

–John Owen, “The True Nature of a Gospel Church,” The Works of John Owen, Volume 16 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1689/1968), 16: 135-136.

“The first and principal duty of a pastor” by John Owen

The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the Word. It is a promise relating to the New Testament, that God would give unto His church ‘pastors according to His own heart, which should feed them with knowledge and understanding,’ (Jer. 3:15).

This is by teaching or preaching the Word, and no otherwise. This feeding is of the essence of the office of a pastor, as unto the exercise of it; so that he who doth not, or can not, or will not feed the flock is no pastor, whatever outward call or work he any have in the church.

The care of preaching the gospel was committed to Peter, and in him unto all true pastors of the church, under the name of ‘feeding,’ (John 21:15–17). According to the example of the apostles, they are to free themselves from all encumbrances, that they may give themselves wholly unto the word and prayer, (Acts 6:1–4).

Their work is ‘to labour in the word and doctrine,’ (1 Tim. 5:17); and thereby to ‘feed the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made them overseers,’ (Acts 20:28): and it is that which is everywhere given them in charge.

This work and duty, therefore, as was said, is essential unto the office of a pastor. A man is a pastor unto them whom he feeds by pastoral teaching, and to no more; and he that doth not so feed is no pastor.

Nor is it required only that he preach now and then at his leisure, but that he lay aside all other employments, though lawful, all other duties in the church, as unto such a constant attendance on them as would divert him from this work, that he give himself unto it,—that he be in these things labouring to the utmost of his ability.

Without this no man will be able to give a comfortable account of the pastoral office at the Last Day…

Sundry things are required unto this work and duty of pastoral preaching; as,—

(1.) Spiritual wisdom and understanding in the mysteries of the gospel, that they may declare unto the church “all the counsel of God” and “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” (See Acts 20:27; 1 Cor. 2:4–7; Eph. 3:8–11).

The generality of the church, especially those who are grown in knowledge and experience, have a spiritual insight into these things, and the Apostle prays that all believers may have so, (Eph. 1:15–19); and if those that instruct them, or should do so, have not some degree of eminency herein, they cannot be useful to lead them on to perfection.

And the little care hereof or concernment herein is that which in our days hath rendered the ministry of many fruitless and useless.

(2.) Experience of the power of the truth which they preach in and upon their own souls. Without this they will themselves be lifeless and heartless in their own work, and their labour for the most part will be unprofitable towards others.

It is, to such men, attended unto as a task for their advantage, or as that which carries some satisfaction in it from ostentation and supposed reputation wherewith it is accompanied.

But a man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul.

And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself.

If the Word does not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us. And no man lives in a more woful condition than those who really believe not themselves what they persuade others to believe continually.

The want of this experience of the power of gospel truth on their own souls is that which gives us so many lifeless, sapless orations, quaint in words and dead as to power, instead of preaching the Gospel in the demonstration of the Spirit.

And let any say what they please, it is evident that some men’s preaching, as well as others not-preaching, hath lost the credit of their ministry.

(3.) Skill to divide the word aright, (2 Tim. 2:15); and this consists in a practical wisdom, upon a diligent attendance unto the word of truth, to find out what is real, substantial, and meet food for the souls of the hearers,—to give unto all sorts of persons in the church that which is their proper portion.

And this requires, (4.) A prudent and diligent consideration of the state of the flock over which any man is set, as unto their strength or weakness, their growth or defect in knowledge (the measure of their attainments requiring either milk or strong meat), their temptations and duties, their spiritual decays or thrivings; and that not only in general, but, as near as may be, with respect unto all the individual members of the church.

Without a due regard unto these things, men preach at random, uncertainly fighting, like those that beat the air.

Preaching sermons not designed for the advantage of them to whom they are preached; insisting on general doctrines not levelled to the condition of the auditory; speaking what men can, without consideration of what they ought,—are things that will make men weary of preaching, when their minds are not influenced with outward advantages, as much as make others weary in hearing of them.

And, (5.) All these, in the whole discharge of their duty, are to be constantly accompanied with the evidence of zeal for the glory of God and compassion for the souls of men. Where these are not in vigorous exercise in the minds and souls of them that preach the Word, giving a demonstration of themselves unto the consciences of them that hear, the quickening form, the life and soul of preaching, is lost.

All these things seem common, obvious, and universally acknowledged; but the ruin of the ministry of the most for the want of them, or from notable defects in them, is or may be no less evidently known.

And the very naming of them (which is all at present which I design) is sufficient to evidence how great a necessity there is incumbent on all pastors of churches to give themselves unto the Word and prayer, to labour in the Word and doctrine, to be continually intent on this work, to engage all the faculties of their souls, to stir up all their graces and gifts, unto constant exercise in the discharge of their duty; for ‘who is sufficient for these things?’ (2 Cor. 2:16)”

–John Owen, “The True Nature of a Gospel Church,” The Works of John Owen, Volume 16 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1689/1968), 16: 74-77.

“He taught and exemplified for me the grace of God in the gospel of Christ” by Sinclair Ferguson

“’Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen in Israel this day?’ (2 Samuel 3:38)

David’s poignant words on the death of Abner will have come instinctively to the minds of many Christians throughout the world on hearing of the death, on 30 July 1997, of William Still, minister of Gilcomston South Church, Aberdeen.

Ill-health in the last two years had increasingly limited Mr. Still’s ministry to preaching on Sundays, and on 8 May 1997, the date of his eighty-sixth birthday, he demitted the pastoral church of the congregation he had served with unstinting devotion for fifty-two years.

The fruit of his ministry in the university city of Aberdeen has spread, both in personal influence and in prayer, to the ends of the earth in the multitude of spiritual sons and daughters who constitute his true children (he remained single throughout his life).

His example of biblical ministry has been a beacon to guide and encourage countless gospel ministers; his deep pastoral love for his own congregation, his commitment to shaping a truly Christian fellowship, his investment of profound personal care and prayer in the lives of countless people– students who sat under his ministry while at college, as well as many others– and, in addition, the penetrating insights of his writings– these constitute his spiritual legacy.

Mr. Still believed that, in some senses, his one lengthly ministry was really several ministries. Certainly it passed through various stages. In the post-war years there were bright and busy evangelistic meetings with large numbers of converts ‘falling into the Lord’s hands like plums,’ as he put it.

Then came the first revolution: he ‘stumbled’ on expository preaching as on successive Sundays he found himself, as if by accident, preaching consecutively through a portion of Romans. As he began to see the effect of such preaching he sensed that here was a wiser, richer, more fruitful and more lasting way in which true Christian character would be built; now he must go deeper.

The extravagances came to an end; extensive corporate prayer on Saturday nights became the order of the day– and would remain so throughout the years. The apostolic model: ‘prayer and the ministry of the word’ (Acts 6:4) became the staple diet of congregational life.

He continued to find the light of Scripture breaking into and reshaping his thinking– and as he did so, he drew the congregation through the experience with him!– until his theology became increasingly moulded by Scripture and distinctively Reformed in character.

He preached (and wrote) his way through the entire Bible several times. And it is doubtful if any living minister has so lovingly and enthusiastically read the chapters of the Westminster Assembly’s Confession of Faith to his congregation the way Mr. Still frequently did.

Certainly few others will have read with such enthusiasm so much of John Owen’s writings (as well as portions of John Murray’s commentary on Romans) to the teenagers and students who at various times and in different places sat under his ministry!

In this covenant theology Mr. Still found a doctrinal resting-place and focus for his growing convictions on the nature of the life of the church.

Those who knew Mr. Still well personally will recognize that these paragraphs do not begin adequately to express the many-sidedness of his life and work, or what it was like actually to sit under his ministry and to be cared for and pastored by him.

Perhaps, therefore, a few words of a more personal nature may be added without intruding into this brief tribute.

I first came to hear Mr. Still preach when I was seventeen. For three decades thereafter he taught and exemplified for me the grace of God in the gospel of Christ and, for all the age gap, made me his friend.

He invested loving care, prayer and time in my life in a manner and to a depth which would be impossible to describe. He was, at various times, counsellor, encourager, comforter and cautioner.

He cared for and loved my family; he sorrowed with us in our griefs and rejoiced in our joys; he seemed to take more delight than we ourselves did in any hint of fruitfulness, success or honour we experienced.

And he always sought to think the best of us.

Perhaps the most touching thing of all for me personally was to witness the way his being seemed to melt with a mixture of humble incredulity and thankful gratitude to the Lord whenever we tried to express to him what his life and ministry had meant to us.

What was especially remarkable about all this is how the same quality of love could have been showered on so many others.

Yet it was; we knew it, as did they. It would grieve him, I know, if I did not immediately add that this was all of grace. But it was also very evidently of grace.

He had clearly learned from the Lord Jesus how to love many with the same love which was simultaneously completely individualised.

Perhaps I can say nothing more telling about Mr. Still than that since his death every time I have thought of how he now contemplates the face of the Lord Jesus Christ a further thought has immediately and instinctively followed: How glorious that Saviour must be who can and does recreate His grace so lovingly in such frail humanity!

William Still was a burning and a shining light. Those who knew him best will inevitably feel that they will not see his like again, and sense an unrepayable debt for the privilege of receiving his ministry and the Christ-centred affection of his pastoral care.

He walked with God and has entered into his rest in the Saviour whom he trusted and loved; his works will follow him.

He was, indeed, a prince and a great man (2 Samuel 3:38).”

–Sinclair Ferguson, “William Still (1911-1997), Minister of Gilcomston South Church, Aberdeen, 1945-1997,” The Banner of Truth Magazine, No. 409 (Oct. 1997): 6-10.

“We set forth a most tender Father, a bleeding Saviour, and a faithful Comforter” by Charles Bridges

“Love is the grand distinctive mark of our office. It exhibits salvation flowing from the bosom of Divine mercy.

We set forth a most tender Father, a bleeding Saviour, and a faithful Comforter. The spirit of every discourse should be: ‘God is love.’ (1 John 4:8)

Therefore, we should so cast ourselves into the mould of our commission, that we may infuse its very life and character throughout our ministry.

‘Speaking the truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15) is perhaps, in a few words, the most complete description of our office. Love should pervade the whole tone of our Ministry.

Tender seriousness commends our office as Ambassadors of a God of love. A scolding Minister only proves he does not understand his errand. No man was ever yet scolded out of his sins.

The Apostles were used to address their people with language expressive of earnest endearment. The extant epistles of the primitive Fathers, the most earnest discourses of Cyprian and Augustine, and the homilies of Chrysostom, are strongly imbued with this character.

The amiable Fenelon observes: ‘I would have every Minister of the Gospel address his hearers with the zeal of a friend, with the generous energy of a father, and with the exuberant affection of a mother.’

This spirit of love must deeply imbue even the language of reproof. We must ‘exhort,’ but ‘with all long-suffering.’ (2 Tim. 4:2)

Meekness, gentleness, and patience must stamp our instruction of the opponents of the Gospel. (2 Tim. 2:24-25) We must wound their consciences as sinners, not their feelings as men.

Trembling, faltering, lips– the index of a heart touched with the melting sympathies of Christ– best become us, as guilty sinners speaking to our fellow-men, not more guilty than ourselves.

We are not arguing, however, for that sensitive delicacy, which refrains to wound, when the patient shrinks. The compulsion of love is the mighty lever of operation.

Love is the life, power, soul, and spirit of pulpit eloquence. Entreating rather than denouncing is the character of our office.

And it is the delivery of our Master’s message with the looks and language of His own manifested tenderness that attracts and triumphs over the hearts of a willing people.

We wonder not at the Apostle’s success, when we read, that at Ephesus he ‘ceased not for three years to warn everyone of them night and day with tears.’ (Acts 20:31)

The Christian pastor, of all men in the world, should have an affectionate heart.

When he preaches, it is the shepherd in search of the strayed sheep, and the father in pursuit of its lost child.

‘The love of Christ will constrain us’ (2 Cor. 5:14) all to some clear evidence of our tender love to His flock.

Love, continual, universal, ardent love is the soul of all the labour of a Minister.”

–Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry, with an Inquiry into the Causes of Its Inefficiency (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1830/2020), 356, 357, 358, 359-362.

“For eternity” by Sinclair Ferguson

“Like many others I owe an incalculable debt to William Still for the way in which he invested himself in me from my earliest encounter with him in my teenage years until his death in 1997. Particular conversations with him return to the front of my memory as I think of him now—and with respect to the work of the pastor none more clearly than the occasion on which he said to me, quietly:

‘I never preach now without believing that something will be done that will last for eternity.’

With some sense of the extent to which his ministry had that kind of effect on my own life, I recall thinking ‘That is the measure of faith I too need to have.’ The words have lingered with me now for four decades and been a constant reminder to me of Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s wise comment that it is not ‘many words’ but ‘words spoken in faith’ that God blesses.”

–Sinclair Ferguson, “Foreword,” in William Still, The Work of the Pastor (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, IV20 1TW, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 1984/2010), 9.

“Work hard at the passing on of the gospel” by D.A. Carson

“Work hard at the passing on of the gospel. As you know as well as I, there were no chapter breaks or verse breaks when these manuscripts were first written, so the end of chapter 1 runs smoothly into the beginning of chapter 2.

‘You, then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.’

In other words, in the light of the flow from the end of chapter 1, the way you preserve the pattern of sound teaching, the way you guard the gospel, the way you elevate the good news of Jesus Christ is not simply by going in an isolated fashion to a defensive posture but precisely by training a new generation.

In other words, one of the ways you preserve the gospel is precisely by finding another generation to tap them on the shoulder and becoming a mentor to them so they themselves learn the gospel well.

Otherwise, no matter how faithful you are, the most you have done is preserved it while you’re still alive. Which means your vision is small.

So one of the responsibilities, in other words, of any generation of Christian leader is precisely to preserve the pattern of sound teaching, to preserve the gospel, to glory in it, to teach it, to evangelize, to establish believers in it and be willing to suffer for it precisely by mentoring a whole new generation coming along behind who themselves prove to be reliable men who will be able and qualified to teach others.”

–D. A. Carson, “Motivation for Ministry,” in D. A. Carson Sermon Library (Bellingham, WA: Faithlife, 2016), 2 Ti 1:1–2:2.

“By God’s grace, I saved that man from suicide” by Charles Spurgeon

“Another form of strength comes of weakness, for by it our sympathy is educated. When you and I become weak, and are depressed in spirit, and our soul passes through the valley of the shadow of death, it is often on account of others.

One Sabbath morning, I preached from the text, ‘My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ and though I did not say so, yet I preached my own experience. I heard my own chains clank while I tried to preach to my fellow-prisoners in the dark.

But I could not tell why I was brought into such an awful horror of darkness, for which I condemned myself.

On the following Monday evening, a man came to see me who bore all the marks of despair upon his countenance. His hair seemed to stand upright, and his eyes were ready to start from their sockets.

He said to me, after a little parleying, ‘I never before, in my life, heard any man speak who seemed to know my heart. Mine is a terrible case; but on Sunday morning you painted me to the life, and preached as if you had been inside my soul.’

By God’s grace, I saved that man from suicide, and led him into gospel light and liberty; but I know I could not have done it if I had not myself been confined in the dungeon in which he lay.

I tell the story, brethren, because you sometimes may not understand your own experience, and the perfect people may condemn you for having it; but what know they of God’s servants?

You and I have to suffer much for the sake of the people of our charge. God’s sheep ramble very far, and we have to go after them; and sometimes the shepherds go where they themselves would never roam if they were not in pursuit of lost sheep.

You may be in Egyptian darkness, and you may wonder why such a horror chills your marrow; but you may be altogether in the pursuit of your calling, and be led of the Spirit to a position of sympathy with desponding minds.

Expect to grow weaker, brethren, that you may comfort the weak, and so may become masters in Israel in the judgment of others, while, in your own opinion, you are less than the least of all saints.”

–Charles H. Spurgeon, An All-Round Ministry: Addresses to Ministers and Students (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1960), 221–222.