May 31, 2014
Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary
St. Catharines, Ontario
“This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.” 1 Timothy 3:1
Dear friends in Christ, especially you dear brothers in Christ who are now becoming brothers in the ministry of the word and sacraments, Grace be unto you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
You entered into this seminary four years ago because you desired a good work. You wanted to be pastors. And now the time has arrived. The inner call of the Holy Spirit led you to this place. That call now gives way to the external call of the church. Christian congregations, to whom Christ has entrusted the keys of his kingdom, have extended calls to you men to serve as their pastors. The call of the church is the call of God. Your desire to be a pastor does not give you the right to serve as a pastor. God bestows that authority only through his church. But unless God had given you the desire, you would not have come here, you would not have received the instruction you have received, you would not have been found fit to serve, and you would not have received the calls you are receiving today. You want to be pastors and that is a precious desire, a holy desire, a God-given desire.
Not everyone is suited for the ministry of the word and sacrament. St. Paul’s instructions to Timothy exclude many people from it. A man is excluded from the office if he is a recent convert, if he has earned a bad reputation, if he is not able to teach God’s word, if he cannot handle liquor, or if he cannot manage his own family. Most men are excluded from this office. All women are excluded. Most Christians are not suited for the position of bishop.
But the apostle calls it a good work. It is a good work, but it’s not for everyone. As St. James wrote, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” (James 3:1) Who can even imagine how much spiritual harm, confusion, and misery has resulted from sincere but incompetent men securing the teaching office. The work of a pastor is a good work, but it’s not for everyone.
Seminaries are neither commanded nor forbidden in the Holy Scriptures, but the work done here in this place is most certainly commanded by God. St. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 2:2, “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach other also.” We believe in apostolic succession. We do not tie it to an unbroken chain of ordinations by bishops who can trace it back to the apostles. We have something better than that! You men have been indoctrinated in nothing less than the teaching the apostles received from their Lord Jesus. Jesus taught the apostles. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to confirm his doctrine to them and to lead them into all truth. The apostolic Scriptures and the apostolic ministry go together. They are both gifts of the Lord Jesus through his Spirit.
We Lutherans are too sophisticated to refer to the schools that train men to be our pastors as Bible colleges. No, they are theological seminaries! But it is the Bible that your teachers have taught you to prepare you to assume the duties of the office. If it is a good work to be a bishop, it is a good work to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Holy Scriptures. The Bible is your book. It belongs to the church and you are a minister of the church. It belongs to the people who hear you preach. How the disciple’s heart burned within them when, on their way to Emmaus, Jesus talked with them and opened the Scriptures to them. If the Word made flesh, who is the divine truth incarnate, relied on the written word to teach the gospel to his disciples, so must all of his ministers. When you are ordained, you will be asked: “Do you believe and confess the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments to be the inspired Word of God and the only infallible rule of faith and practice?” You will confess that they are. Furthermore, you will bind yourself to the ecumenical creeds and the Lutheran Confessions because these are drawn from the Holy Scriptures and agree with what the Bible teaches. Our confessional subscription is not offered in addition to our confession of the Holy Scriptures; it is our confession of the Holy Scriptures. God isn’t sending you out to provide your own spin on divine truth or your own insight into what the Holy Scriptures teach. You are to do the good work that God gives you to do by teaching the people entrusted to your care the Holy Scriptures that you have learned here at this seminary.
“This is a faithful saying.” That’s how St. Paul introduces his assertion that a man who desires the office of bishop desires a good work. This is the second of five instances in the Pastoral Epistles where Paul introduces an important point by saying, “This is a faithful saying.” The first instance is where he says, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners.” The reason the work of the pastor is a good work is because nothing is greater than the work of Jesus to save sinners. We Lutherans teach that the very heart of the truth of our Christian religion is that God forgives us undeserving sinners of all our sin by his grace alone, solely on account of the obedience and suffering of Jesus who has rendered to God satisfaction for us all, and that this forgiveness is ours through faith in the gospel. This is the gospel you men are called to preach. This gospel is the reason you are being called into the office of bishop. A pastor who doesn’t preach the gospel of justification faithfully, thoroughly, persistently, and clearly is of no benefit to anyone. Folks don’t need your sympathetic hug, your winsome pastoral presence, or your clever insight. They need the forgiveness of their sins and God gives it to them through the words you speak.
You’re going to think that what you say does no good. You’re going to see sin that you never thought you would see among Christians. You will wonder if preaching the gospel works. You’ll be tempted to rely on something else to get people to behave as they ought. You’ll want to see what God doesn’t give you to see. And when you wonder if preaching the blood and righteousness of Jesus really does save souls, change lives, and direct people on their way to heaven – because it appears that it doesn’t – Jesus will remind you of what he said to Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
God keeps you blind because he wants stubborn men to serve as his ministers. You know how they define crazy, don’t you? He’s the guy who keeps on doing the same thing over and over again, thinking each time he’ll get different results. Pastors are crazier than that! We believe that what we see is not what’s happening and that what we cannot see is happening. We believe in the righteousness of him who has gone to the Father that we can see no more. We fly blind. We preach the law that exposes us, first of all, as guilty sinners. We don’t know what it will do and we cannot control it. We preach Christ crucified. We preach his fulfillment of the law. We preach God forgiving guilty and undeserving sinners fully and freely on account of Christ’s redemption. We preach freedom from guilt. We preach a conscience liberated from condemnation. We preach a new life in which the Holy Spirit gives us new desires. We preach Christ.
Every time you get up in the pulpit remember why you are there. You are there that sinners may obtain the faith that believes that God forgives them all their sins and receives them into his favor for Christ’s sake who by his death has made satisfaction for their sins. That’s not just what we confess in the Augsburg confession. That’s what we believe. That’s why you wanted to be a pastor in the first place. You wanted to be the voice of God as God justifies sinners through faith, where and when he pleases, in those who hear the gospel. It is where and when he pleases. He pleases. Don’t forget that! He wants to save sinners through his world more than you have ever wanted to preach it. But he isn’t going to confide in you what he’s doing in anybody’s heart. That’s why we must be stubborn and keep on keeping on with the task regardless of whether we see success or failure.
It is a wonderful work! When you get hammered because of your foolish mistakes, or because you took a biblical stand, or because somebody doesn’t like the way you look – consider it pure joy. Consider it a joy because God could not possibly honor you more highly in this life than he honors you by entrusting to you the words of eternal life. That the church should be gathered together to listen to you! Don’t forget – not for one sermon – that they aren’t gathered together to listen to you. They are gathered together to hear the voice of their Shepherd, Jesus. His words give them eternal life. Those are the words you are to preach and to teach. Those words are the reason you are entering into the office of bishop.
The work you will shortly begin is the greatest work done in this world. This is why Walther told pastors to regard their parish as their little Eden. Heaven came to earth on Christmas Day over two thousand years ago, when the Creator of all, to serve his own creation, partook of flesh and blood. Heaven comes to earth when you preach the gospel and administer the sacraments of Christ. The Son of man demonstrated his power on earth to forgive sins. He earned it by his bitter suffering and death. He raised himself from the dead and gave to his church the authority to forgive and retain sins. The authority to forgive sins is the power to open heaven. Underneath the often frustrating work of writing sermons, preparing Bible classes, visiting the sick, the shut-in, prospective members, and other people in need of the words you are called to say – God is bringing heaven to earth. To watch over the sheep and lambs and to feed them with the words of their Good Pastor and Bishop of their soul, Jesus, is a good work. What you desired and what you now receive is good. That is good for you to know.
Rolf D. Preus