Theology for Ministry: How Doctrine Affects Pastoral Life and Practice

Theology for Ministry: How Doctrine Affects Pastoral Life and Practice, edited by William R. Edwards, John C.A. Ferguson, and Chad Van Dixhoorn. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2022. xxvii + 644 pages, $26.99, cloth.

I love practical ministry books, but there can be a downside: detached from scriptural theology, they become manipulative, promoting worldly methodologies to achieve ends that are at odds with the holiness of life that God seeks for his church. Ultimately, the minister and his work must be shaped by the character of God, who has revealed himself in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. True, a minister must understand the needs of his church and community as he pursues his work. But every plan must also be brought to the touchstone of Scripture and tested for its biblical fidelity. To that end, pastors will find Theology for Ministry a most helpful book.

Theology for Ministry is both the book’s title and the burden of the volume’s articles. Twenty-six contributors – all of whom have pastoral experience – insist that shepherding practice must rest securely on a theological foundation derived from the doctrines of God’s word. How fitting that their work honors pastor-theologian Sinclair Ferguson. For more than five decades, Ferguson’s books, lectures, and sermons have mined the scriptures, demonstrating how sound doctrine shapes pastoral life and practice. Each contributor comments briefly on the influence Ferguson has had on his life and/or ministry.

While the book is not a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith, the doctrines covered do come, for the most part, in the order they appear in the confession (Scripture, Trinity, the decrees of God, creation, providence, etc.). This arrangement proves beneficial for professors like me, who are persuaded that the Westminster Confession of Faith (along with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms) is among the most valuable instruments in the pastor’s toolbox.  Throughout, contributors interact with the Westminster Standards.

Theology for Ministry is now a required text in my introductory pastoral ministry class. Following are several areas that I look forward to discussing with my students.

In the first chapter, Carlton Wynne contends that scripture is foundational to the pastor’s life and ministry. After all, the word of God is indispensable to the salvation and sanctification of God’s people, sustaining them until they reach their heavenly home (14).  He quotes J. Gresham Machen, who wrote that “whatever else the preacher need not know, he must know the Bible; he must know it at first hand, and be able to interpret and defend it” (5). Wynne declares: “Show me a pastor for whom the Bible is the song of his heart and the source of his deepest convictions, and I will show you a pastor who speaks with the power of heaven behind his words, yet who walks in a spirit of humility and in utter dependence on God” (9).

Tragically, many Christians go their entire lives without hearing a single sermon on the Trinity. In chapter two, Robert Letham makes a spirited case for teaching the doctrine of the Trinity and the eternal generation of the Son that “undergirds” it (30).  Soon, my congregation will sing:

God of God, Light of light,
Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb:
Very God, begotten, not created.

How will they sing intelligently, Letham asks, if they go uninstructed in the Son’s eternal generation (27)? The church’s hymnody contains an abundance of doctrinal treasures. What a shame it is when they are sung without understanding, especially when they proclaim cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith.

A clear understanding of creation, argues Ian Hamilton, is vital to pastoral ministry. The one true and living God’s essential plurality, revealed in the opening chapter of Genesis (1:26), is foundational to understanding God’s purpose in creation. All things are created through the Son and for the Son, a truth that has enormous implications for suffering Christians who must learn to set their personal trials within the framework of God’s comprehensive goal for his creation (52-53).

As beings created in God’s image, men and women must not deny or minimize the importance of their physical bodies. “Sanctification is radically physical. The devotion that God seeks from his children is not theoretical; it is psychosomatic. Our devotion to God is to be expressed in and through what we do with our bodies. It matters what we look at with our eyes, what we do with our hands, where we go with our feet, what we think with our minds. Sanctification is not a theory; it is a lifestyle of concrete, embodied, loving obedience to God” (60).

Getting the basics of covenant theology is indispensable for the Reformed pastor. Therefore, I appreciated David McWilliams’s concise and clear presentation of the broad outlines of the covenant found in the Westminster Standards. He concludes by reflecting on the way that covenant theology shapes pastoral piety. Because theology’s goal is covenant fellowship, the pastor should “radiate experiential piety” in his life and preaching, even in such routine acts of worship as the benediction, which “is a pronouncement of the covenant bond of God with his people, a bond of fellowship with the members of the Trinity.” Just as congregations can sing hymns mindlessly, so pastors can go through the acts of worship mechanically, detached from the wonder of God and without affection for his people. So, in connection with the benediction, McWilliams asks, “Have you seen God’s face in Christ? Then show the fatherly character of God and the tender mercies of is people.” (126)

In his chapter on the work of Christ, David Gibson argues “that the doctrine of the work of Christ shows that what God wants for his people, what he desires and loves, is the fellowship of perfection” (150). His exposition of Hebrews 10:1-18 is the basis of his argument. The minister declares the blessed truth that God forgives believers’ sins, a forgiveness that comes from the sacrifice of Christ and results in a life of joyful obedience to God. “Forgiveness is great, yes, but better by far than tearful apologies is actually living as we ought in selfless delight, enchanted with God and loving our neighbor as ourselves” (163). The minister’s eyes must always be fixed on Christ, who gave to God the “devoted, delighted obedience” that every man owes him. Christ was able to offer himself up as an acceptable sacrifice for sin only because he was first “a guilt-free and wholly obedient man, and so worthy of taking the place of guilt-laden, disobedient sinners” (164).

As the minister moves among his flock (their lives – like his – broken by sin, who both yearn to be forgiven and be forgiving), he proclaims that God in Christ remembers their sin no more. He offers Jesus who “can forgive and makes righteous. He has completed Adam’s work, fulfilled his mandate, restored what was lost, paid what was due, borne the curse, and so creation and creatures will again one day enter our perfect Sabbath rest.” (168)

Union with Christ is a doctrine cherished by every true minister. Phillip Ryken reminds readers they are united to Christ in his crucifixion and resurrection, his humiliation and exaltation, a union that has profound implications for Christian ministry (175-176). Commenting on Roman 8:17, he writes, “Pastoral ministry is not a matter of life and death, but a matter of death, then life” (177). One of the reasons young ministers leave the ministry is a result of unrealistic expectations. They are surprised, shocked, and overwhelmed by the conflict they experience in church. Conflict is just one of many forms that suffering takes in the life of the minister, a reality that the doctrine of union with Christ prepares a minister for. “Pastoral ministry could not be in union with Christ unless it entailed difficulty, discouragement, and sometimes death” (180).

Chapters 12-17 cover the doctrines of justification, adoption, sanctification, faith and repentance, perseverance, and assurance of faith. Each contributor upholds a strong commitment to biblical and confessional theology.

Those whom God justifies he adopts into his family. Men preparing for Reformed ministry should be most grateful for their Westminster heritage. In its confession and catechisms, unlike earlier confessional documents, the doctrine of adoption is given its own chapter and questions. As Ligon Duncan observes, “it is one of the joys of the minister of the gospel to proclaim, explain, and apply the Bible’s teaching about the freedoms and privileges of believers by virtue of their adoption” (245). Believers are assured that their all-sovereign Lord and loving heavenly Father will never cast his children off, making clear “the connection of adoption to the doctrines of perseverance and assurance” (251-252). Later, in his fine article on “Assurance of Faith,” Joel Beeke offers reasons from scripture why many true Christians lack assurance, and how faithful biblical preaching can lead to their experiencing that assurance, an assurance “that produces holy living marked by spiritual peace, joyful love, humble gratitude, cheerful obedience, and heartfelt mortification of sin.” (323-324,339)

Philip Ross’s “The Law of God” takes Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 19, with its categories of moral, ceremonial, and judicial laws, and works out its implications in the areas of head covering, tithing, and preaching.

It is the third area – preaching the moral law – that I will draw my students’ attention to. The pastor must be in the right frame of mind as he preaches the law. Angry demands do not make obedient Christians (358). The moral law must not be preached “with severity that empties it of all sweetness” (359). He must keep in mind that “the best example of what free and cheerful obedience to the Decalogue will look like in a preacher filled with the Spirit of Christ must be Christ Jesus.” His obedient life “was not the mere absence of transgression, but many acts of consecration flowing from a pure and undivided heart” (361).

Chad Van Dixhoorn’s chapter, “The Sacraments,” offers valuable counsel on matters pertaining to the frequency of observing the Lord’s Supper, as well as what needs to be said prior to the distribution of the elements. Professors and pastors must teach “young ministers to identify what must always be said, and then help them create lists of what can eventually be said, one or two points at a time, as the weeks and months roll on in a man’s ministry” (460).

In the final chapter, Van Dixhoorn provides a biographical sketch and reflects on Ferguson as a teacher, pastor, preacher, and author. William Edgar’s afterward reflects on his relationship with Ferguson and the nature of true friendship. Readers will find a list of key terms at the end of each chapter (defined in a glossary), recommendations for further reading, and discussion questions.

I enthusiastically recommend this book. At a time when many seminaries are reducing the number of hours required for a Master of Divinity degree, Reformed Theological Seminary steadfastly holds to a rigorous and thorough course of studies. We live in an age of doctrinal declension and moral upheaval. As our chancellor puts it, “today’s pastors need to know more, not less.” I am grateful to place this book into the hands of my students as they study the scriptures and explore the doctrines that must shape them if they are to have God-honoring lives and ministries. Inasmuch as it also directs them to the writings of Sinclair Ferguson, it is a book that will serve ministers well for years to come.

Charles Malcolm Wingard
Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson