An extract from The Art of Prophesying by William Perkins
THE SCARCITY OF TRUE MINISTERS
An extract from, ‘The Art of Prophesying’ by William Perkins,1558-1602*
Job 33:23 describes a messenger as ‘one of a thousand’. Here, the emphasis is placed on the scarcity or rarity of good ministers. This is underlined by a very unusual phrase. A true minister, one who is a genuine angel and a true interpreter is no common or ordinary man. Such men are thin on the ground, one of many – indeed, ‘one of a thousand’.
This can be taken either literally or figuratively. In the figurative sense, it is true of ministers in and of themselves; in the strict, literal sense, the comparison is with all men. According to the figurative, hyperbolical sense: among all ministers, not one of many is a right angel and a true interpreter. According to the plain and literal sense: arnong the men of this world, there is not one in a thousand who proves to be a true minister.
We should note three things in connection with this statement: the truth of it, the reasons for it, and the application of it.
The truth of it is self-evident from the experience of all ages. It is strange, but true, that few men of any sort, especially men of quality, seek the calling of a minister. What is even stranger is how few of those who have the title ‘minister’ deserve the honourable names of an angel and an interpreter. The truth is too obvious in ordinary experience to need spelling out. Instead, let us see the reasons for this situation. They are principally as follows:
First, the contempt with which the calling is treated. It is always hated by wicked and irreverent men because it reveals their filthiness and unmasks their hypocrisy. The teaching of ministers is frequently a fretting corrosive on their conscience, preventing them from weltering and wallowing quietly and secretly in their sins – as they would be able to do under other circumstances. This is why they spurn both the calling of ministers and ministers themselves. They watch them carefully to catch onto their smallest failures, hoping to disgrace them. They imagine that by casting contempt on the calling of the preacher they can remove the shame from their own degraded ways. It is inevitable that they should hate those who are called to the
ministry, since they harbour a deadly hatred both for the law and for the gospel message which they bring, and for the God whose representatives they are. It was experiencing this hatred and disgrace in a wicked world that caused Jeremiah to cry, ‘Woe is me,’ and made him, from his own human perspective, ‘curse the time that ever he was a prophet’. He says, ‘I am a man of contention’ (Jer. 15:10). It seemed that every man was in conflict and at enmity with him.
The second reason is the difficulty of discharging the duties of a minister’s calling. To stand in God’s presence, to enter into the holy of holies, to go between God and His people, to be God’s mouth to His people, and the people’s to God; to be the interpreter of the eternal law of the Old Testament and the everlasting gospel of the New; to stand in the place and even bear the office of Christ Himself, to take the care and charge of souls – these considerations overwhelm the consciences of men who approach the sacred seat of the preacher with reverence and not with rashness.
It was this that made the apostle Paul cry out, ‘Who is sufficient for these things?’ (2 Cor. 2:16). And if Paul said, ‘Who is sufficient?’ it is no surprise that many others say, ‘I am not sufficient,’ and therefore remove their necks from this yoke and their hands from this plough, until either God himself, or his church, presses them into it.
The third and last reason is especially relevant to ministry in the New Testament era, namely the inadequacy of the financial recompense and status given to those who enter this calling.
All men are flesh and blood. In that respect they must be allured and won to embrace this vocation by the kind of arguments which may well persuade flesh and blood. The world has had a careless attitude about this in every age. Consequently in the law. God gave careful instructions for the maintenance of the Levites (Num. 18:26). But especially now, under the gospel, the ministerial calling is poorly provided for, even although it deserves to be rewarded most of all. Certainly it would be an honourable Christian policy to make at least good provision for this calling, so that men of the worthiest gifts might be won for it.
The lack of such provision is the reason why so many young men with unusual ability and great prospects turn to other vocations, especially law. That is where most of the sharpest minds in our nation are employed. Why? Because in legal practice they have all the means for their advance, whereas the ministry, generally speaking, yields nothing but a clear road to poverty.
This is a great blemish on our church. I wish it were not true that the Roman Catholics, those children of this world, are wiser (in this particular area), than the church of God. Reformation here is a work worth the labour of both prince and people.
Unless special attention is given to this matter, it will be left unreformed. No doubt, in the Old Testament period, if God Himself had not given direct orders for the material support of the Levites, they would have suffered the same privation as the ministry does today. These considerations, taken together, produce an infallible argument. For who will accept such vile contempt and such a weighty responsibility for no reward? But where there is so much contempt and such a heavy burden, yet such a poor reward, is it any wonder that a good minister is ‘one in a thousand”?
Now we must apply this teaching. In fact it leads to manifold applications and provides directions for a variety of people:
First, rulers and magistrates are taught here that if good ministers are so scarce, in order to maintain and increase them, they must do all they can for the ‘schools of the prophets’, those universities, colleges and schools providing true learning which are the seminaries for the ministry.
Samuel’s example is worthy of imitation. The schools of the prophets flourished in his day. Saul did much damage in Israel, but when he came to the schools of the prophets, even his hard heart relented. He could do them no harm, indeed, he put off his robes and prophesied amongst them (1 Sam. 19:20-24). In the same way all Christian rulers and magistrates should promote the cause of their schools, and see that they are both well maintained and well provided for. This is an obvious and a weighty conclusion.
Good ministers are ‘one in a thousand.’ If therefore their number is to be increased, training institutions must be well maintained. In order to uphold the kingdom of Satan, Antichrist is careful to erect colleges and endow them with financial backing, to be seminaries for this synagogue (Rome, Rheims, Douai and so on).’ He employs strenuous means to sow his tares in the hearts of young men, so that they may in turn sow them in the hearts of people abroad. Should not Christian rulers be just as careful, indeed, even more zealous, to increase the number of godly ministers? Shall Baal have his 400 prophets, and God have only His Elijah (1 Kings 18:22)? Shame on Ahab, or on any king, whose kingdom is in that state.
The Jesuits’ diligence is such in teaching, and the readiness of some of their novices such in learning (the devil himself doubtless providing help), that in three years (as some of them say of themselves) they make considerable advance in human learning, and in the fourth, in theology. If this is so, then it may be a good lesson for our own schools of learning, and an inducement to persuade those who govern them to labour to encourage learning by every appropriate means, and to speed its advance. This would put to shame some who spend many years in the universities but, despite that, never prove to be ‘one of a thousand’.
By God’s mercy, in our schools many young trees have been planted by the riverside of this godly orchard. By careful tending and dressing they may prove to be good trees in the temple of God and strong pillars in the church. But they are like tender plants, and must be cherished. Rulers and men of standing, by providing for maintenance, and the governors of our schools by establishing good order and being concerned about their task, must see that these plants have sufficient moisture to grow speedily to full maturity. Then they must see to it that at the right time they are transplanted into the church and commonwealth.
These are the trees spoken of in Ezekiel 47:7 which grow by the sides of the river which flowed out of the sanctuary. Water from the sanctuary must nourish them, so that they grow up to their full height. But take away these waters, take away the liberality of rulers, and good discipline from the universities, and these trees will inevitably decay and wither. If they do, then the small number of good ministers will be even smaller, and from being ‘one of a thousand’, there will not even be one in two thousand.
Secondly, ministers themselves are taught these lessons:
1. If good ministers are so scarce, we must take great care not to decrease their number. Every man must therefore labour first for the ability, and then for the conscientiousness to discharge his duty; namely to be an angel, to deliver faithfully God’s message, and to be a true interpreter standing between God and His people. If you do, even although the number of good ministers is small, you will not make it any smaller.
2. If ministers are few in number, then do all you can to increase their number. The greater the number, the lighter the burden lying on each individual man. So, let every minister both in his teaching and his conversation work in such a way that he honours his calling, so that he may attract others to share his love for it.
3. Are good ministers too thinly sown on the ground? Are there all too few of them? Then let all good and godly ministers give the right hand of fellowship to each other (Gal. 2:9) and unite together in love. In this way they will arm themselves against the scorn and contempt of the world.
Those who belong to a family, or a brotherhood, or any kind of society, know that the fewer they are in number, the more closely they will combine resources and the more firmly they will unite against a foreign force. God’s ministers ought to do the same, because they are so small in numbers. If they were numerous, there would be less danger in their division. But since they are so few, it is all the more important for them to avoid divisions, and all occasions of debate, and to join hands against common adversaries.
In the third place, young students are here taught – since a true minister is but ‘one of a thousand’ – to direct both their studies and their thoughts to the ministry. Remember the old proverb: ‘The best things are hard to come by.’
It is undoubtedly true that there are so few good ministers because the holy ministry is such a high and excellent calling. But while it is disgraceful that there are so few good ministers, it is also a commendation of the calling. Such is its honour and excellency that, since scarcely one in a thousand attains to it, only men of the most outstanding gifts are here invited to dedicate themselves to this most excellent vocation. Yes, reason itself would urge a man to be ‘one of a thousand’!
Furthermore, as students aspire to this rare and excellent calling, they must learn to equip themselves with the best helps and means they can, in order to become true ministers and able interpreters. They must not delay too long in those studies which keep a man from the practice of this high office. For the calling is not to live in the university or in the college and to study, however eager an individual is to devour learning. It is, rather, to be a good minister. That is what makes a man ‘one of a thousand’.
Fourthly, those who listen to the preaching of their ministers are also taught what their duty is. It is, first of all, to respect them and respectfully to receive the message of every true messenger, because it is such a rare thing to find a true minister. Nothing is worse or more despicable than evil and immoral ministers. Christ Himself compares them to salt which has lost its savour – good for nothing but to be thrown out, and trampled down by men (Matt. 5:13). In the same way, no-one is worthy of more love and reverence than a holy minister. As Isaiah says, even the feet of those who bring glad tidings are beautiful (Isa. 52:7). We should kiss the feet of those who bring news of peace. Christians should, therefore, receive and treat a good minister as Paul says the Galatians formerly treated him: ‘as an .angel of God’ (Gal. 4:14).
Do you have a godly pastor? Confer with him. Go to him for comfort and counsel; profit from his company, sit under his ministry frequently;
count him worthy of ‘double honour’ (I Tim. 5:17). Never imagine that it is a small or commonplace blessing to have ‘one of a thousand’. Thank God for giving this mercy to you, which he has denied to so many others. For some have no minister while others have a minister, who, alas, is not ‘one of a thousand’.
Furthermore, those who are fathers should learn to consecrate their children to God for the work of the ministry, since it is such an uncommon and glorious thing to be a good minister. Any man can count himself happy and honoured by God if he is the father of a son who proves to be ‘one of a thousand’.
To conclude this point briefly, since good ministers are so scarce, we must all learn ‘to pray the Lord of the harvest, to send out labourers into his harvest’ (Matt. 9:38). We must pray too for those who are already called, that God would make them faithful in their high office. Let us pray as Elisha did when he asked Elijah that the good spirit would be doubled on him (2 Kings 2:9), so that the number may be increased. For a good minister is ‘one of a thousand’.