What We Believe
i

John,[1] you have just been set apart by the church, under the lordship of its head, Jesus Christ, as a minster of the gospel, a ministry that is to be for the wellbeing of the church. As you have requested, I am privileged now to charge you on this important occasion from God’s Word, and I have decided to do that along these lines.

According to the Nicene Creed—true to Scripture—the church is one, holy, catholic (or universal), and apostolic. These four attributes, it is important to see, stand or fall together; each depends on and is qualified by the other three. From one angle, then, the church is and will remain one, holy, and universal, only as it is and remains truly apostolic.

It is the church—one, holy, and catholic—as apostolic that I want to reflect on with you now for a few minutes. While it is true that we have not ordained [or installed] you as an apostle (I am assuming that is clear to you!), nonetheless my charge to you is to aspire to a ministry that may be said to be apostolic, to a ministry that is in the interest of furthering the unity, holiness, and catholicity of the church, as it is a ministry intent on maintaining and preserving the apostolicity of the church.

How are you to do that? What would such an apostolic ministry look like? Well, many things could be said in this regard. For instance, I could remind you that the apostolicity of the church resides first and most deeply today, as it always has down through the centuries, in its apostolic foundation, in being founded on the witness of the apostles. I would remind you that the church is and remains apostolic only as it holds fast to that apostolic witness as the very words of the exalted Christ. I would also remind you that the Reformation’s Scriptura sola reflects its renewed appreciation of the church’s true apostolicity.

So, for all this, it would be appropriate this evening, in a time where so much is at stake for the church in its fidelity to Scripture and doctrinal soundness, where trends of unbelief and rejection of the gospel and Scripture are on the rise as never before in our culture—it would be appropriate for me to exhort you, for example, to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Or in the words of Paul—the apostle—to Timothy—among the first of his non-apostolic successors down through the centuries—I could charge you to “hold fast the pattern of sound words, … to guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:13‒14).

I could do that—I could do that most appropriately—but instead I want rather to challenge you by reflecting with you on what is fairly seen as another dimension of true apostolicity, an aspect that is as transferable as it is enduring. It surfaces, for instance, in a number of places and different ways throughout the letters of Paul. Here I focus on it as we find it in Philippians 2. There in the latter half of the chapter, in verse 17, he writes, “But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.”

First, we see here immediately that sacrificial language and images are plain and pronounced: Paul is being poured out like a drink offering, a sacrificial libation. No doubt the sacrificial system of the Old Testament is in the background—for instance, the burnt offerings with the accompanying drink offerings of wine offered every morning and evening at the entrance to the tabernacle to consecrate it as the place where God is present and meets with his people. With something like this background in mind Paul sees himself as a drink offering.

What specifically or concretely does he have in mind? Some maintain—he is in prison in Rome at this time—that he is thinking of what may be his impending martyrdom (“poured out” is seen as referring to his own bloodshed). But that view, I think, misses the point. In fact, it blunts Paul’s point.

Rather, here Paul is looking at the whole of his ministry and, we may fairly say, not only in its apostolic uniqueness but also in a way that is to be true of every minister of the new covenant. To be sure, that ministry may culminate in a martyr’s death, as it has for many and apparently did eventually for Paul. But here he has in view the present and the past as well as what may be the future of his ministry. Sometime later he will write to Timothy, using the same verb, “I am already being poured out as a drink offering” (2 Tim. 4:6). In view, then, is a mark of his ministry that is a constant mark.

So, when he says, “I am being poured out like a drink offering” (the present tense he uses has a progressive sense here), he is best seen as likely having in mind all the difficulties and suffering that have been true and continue to be true of his ministry, like the things he lists toward the close of 2 Corinthians 11, beginning in verse 23: frequent persecution and opposition, abuse, physical discomfort and danger, exhaustion, perplexities, misunderstanding, and disappointment.

But now note, second, that as Paul reflects on all this adversity, he says, “I am glad and rejoice,” and he wants the church in Philippi to “rejoice and be glad” with him (v. 18).

Why does he say this? How can this be? Is it because he is of a certain personality type that delights in the negative with an inverted love of misery—a prominent characteristic of Christian clergy, as an Atlantic Monthly survey some years ago concluded?

No, that is hardly the answer. The reason rather is because Paul knows the “secret” of a successful gospel ministry, a secret he shares throughout his letters, and I now remind you of. It is a secret among those “open secrets” that have been revealed in Christ, the secret that the glorified Lord Jesus revealed to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9).

Here is that “foolish” wisdom of God, that it is not the wise and powerful in the eyes of the world but those in themselves weak and insignificant whom God uses to advance his gospel. As Paul puts it elsewhere of his relationship to the church in Corinth, “So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:12)— this for the church, by the way, is a permanent “first principle” of successful evangelism and edification.

Paul had learned this secret—that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). And that is why he is so positive, so upbeat, so joyful in writing to the Philippians, why he says elsewhere that “he will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9).

John, let this, then, be your aspiration: to experience this blessing, this gospel-related power, of being “poured out like a drink offering” in serving Christ and his church.

But, third, there is still another point to consider. As you may have already noticed, Paul is not the only sacrifice in view in our verse. As he considers those he ministers to, he speaks of “the sacrificial offering of your faith,” or, as we may gloss, “the sacrificial service coming from your faith.”

It is worth noting that here, as so often in the New Testament, faith is in view in its activity and fruitfulness, what is done by faith, what Paul calls “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5 and 16:26) and is expressed in the first long, multifaceted sentence of Westminster Confession of Faith 14.2. Just because we are saved by faith—because we are justified solely by faith, by the sole instrumentality of faith and not by our own efforts—faith, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is (to be) the proximate source of ceaseless activity for God and the gospel. Just as faith is trust in Christ, as faith receives and continues to rest on him alone for salvation in all its aspects, its ongoing concern, as Paul exhorts the Philippians just a few verses earlier, is to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (v. 12).

Faith, as Luther is reported to have said, is “a busy little thing”! Faith, we may say, is a “restless resting”—a resting in Christ that is restless to do his will. Because we do nothing for our salvation, we are to be intent on doing everything for our Savior—despite the struggles and difficulties, small and great, and the opposition often encountered.

This, then, is “the sacrificial offering of your faith” to which the church—the whole church—is called.

But then, fourth, we must not miss either how Paul sees his sacrifice in relation to that of the congregation, how he relates his ministry to their sacrificial activity. Against the background of the Old Testament sacrificial system we have already noted, they, not he, are the main sacrifice. He is but the accompaniment, the accompanying drink offering poured out over their sacrifice.

Here in a quite striking and evocative way is the humility, the due deference, that is to characterize the minister of the gospel. The more important concern for Paul is not himself, his office and status, his prerogatives and privileges (although, when necessary, he was ready to assert them and knew how to defend them forcefully), but the church, the whole congregation, and what he can do to serve it and to facilitate its sacrificial service.

Here Paul shows that he has learned what Jesus meant in telling his disciples that in the kingdom of God, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). In the church “greatness” is in fact a four-letter word, spelled L-A-S-T.

Finally, back to the apostolicity of the church. Paul, in fact the entire New Testament, is clear: for the church to be apostolic, its ministers must be true to the apostles not only in their message but also in the manner they minister that message. Apostolic content and apostolic conduct are not the same, but they are to be inseparable.

Where all too often that is not the case, where our manner is less than apostolic, our conduct something unbecomingly other than apostolic, then inevitably the apostolic word will come across with a confusing edge of dissonance, and its clarity will be obscured.

This is the sobering reality to consider: where the apostolicity of the church is not what it ought to be—not just in its message but also in its manner of ministering that message—then we face the dark prospect of which the history of the church already provides all too much evidence. As its apostolicity is diminished not only by compromising the apostolic word but also by unapostolic conduct, its catholicity will be inhibited, its unity undermined, and its holiness tarnished.

We are confronted here, then, with a considerable challenge. Not only is the ministry of the gospel to be marked by sacrifice, but it is to be sacrifice that is in the interests of, even subservient to, the sacrifice of others.

So, the unavoidable question for you, John, is this: How will you be capable of such sacrifice? How will you be able to say to those you are called to minister to, “I am glad and rejoice with you all,” and mean it, say it with integrity. How will you find such joy and gladness, such apostolic joy and gladness? For this is so contrary to our persisting self-serving inclinations. Left to ourselves, such gladness, such joy is simply beyond us, beyond our capacities, beyond our best will and intentions.

But, of course, the good news is that you are not left to yourself and your own resources in this. You have the same promise that Paul had, the promise of our risen Lord Jesus: “my power is perfected in your weakness.”

John, cling to this promise and rely on it. And as you endeavor to do that—I will end with this—let me remind you of what may be obvious yet is so easily overlooked and neglected, and that is prayer, the importance of prayer.

In that regard listen to these words of Abraham Kuyper, words that I first read many years ago now and still continue to find searching and often unsettling, words that ministers of the gospel especially need to take to heart. They come at the conclusion of his discussion in a section on theology as “sacred,” holy:

… theology has flourished only at times when theologians have continued in prayer, and in prayer have sought the communion of the Holy Spirit, and … on the other hand it loses its leaf and begins its winter sleep when ambition for learning silences prayer in the breast of theologians.[2]

John, be ever on guard against that kind of silence and against falling into that “winter sleep.” May God, as ultimately only he can, keep you from that.

John, in the ministry you now begin—and in whatever other forms of ministry you may take up in years to come—may God grant that for and to those you are called to serve, you “may be poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of [their] faith,” and that in doing that, may you always be “glad and rejoice.”

Endnotes

[1] A charge, with slight variations, given on a number of occasions over the years in ordination and installation services, most often of a former student either as a pastor, a missionary evangelist, or a seminary teacher. “John” is no one in particular but stands for all those charged.

[2] Abraham Kuyper, Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898), 340.

Richard B. Gaffin Jr. is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and emeritus professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He lives in Springfield, Virginia and attends Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. Ordained Servant Online, October 2021.

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Ordained Servant: October 2021

Servant Ministry

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