“How do I know I’m called?” Spurgeon and the Call to Pastoral Ministry (2022)

“How do I know if I’ve been called to pastoral ministry?” This was a question that Spurgeon frequently encountered. As the president of the Pastors’ College, Spurgeon interviewed a lot of young men aspiring to pastoral ministry, and he had to turn many of them away. Some criticized Spurgeon for having such a strict view of the pastoral call. After all, in that day, as in our day, there was a great need for gospel ministers. But Spurgeon understood that pastoral ministry was not something to be entered into lightly.

When I think upon the all but infinite mischief which may result from a mistake as in our vocation for the Christian pastorate, I feel overwhelmed with fear lest any of us should be slack in examining our credentials; and I had rather that we stood too much in doubt, and examined too frequently, than that we should become cumberers of the ground.

In saying this, Spurgeon was careful to distinguish pastoral ministry from the evangelistic and discipling ministry that every Christian is to engage in. All of God’s people are called to represent Him in whatever context He places them. But the call to pastoral ministry is something more specific. Spurgeon explains it in this way:

I do not… allude to occasional preaching, or any other form of ministry common to all the saints, but to the work and office of the bishopric, in which is included both teaching and bearing rule in the Church, which requires the dedication of a man’s entire life to spiritual work, and separation from every secular calling, (2 Timothy 2:4); and entitles the man to cast himself for temporal supplies upon the church of God, since he gives up all his time, energies, and endeavors, for the good of those over whom he presides. (1 Corinthians 9:11); (1 Timothy 5:18.)

In other words, this is a call “to the work and office of the bishopric” or pastor or elder, terms Spurgeon (and the New Testament) used interchangeably. Here, he differentiates between lay elders and those who are separate “from every secular calling” and cast themselves “for temporal supplies upon the church of God.” Spurgeon prized the lay elders and deacons in his church and believed that the ministry of the church would be impossible with them. At the same time, he recognized a distinct role of the main preacher of God’s Word, the minister, or pastor of the church. It was a call to this kind of ministry that Spurgeon worked hard to examine.

So how does one know if he has been called to pastoral ministry? Spurgeon offers four things to look for in your life:

#1 – “An intense, all-absorbing desire for the work.”

In order to a true call to the ministry there must be an irresistible, overwhelming craving and raging thirst for telling others What God has done to our own souls… If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor, or a grocer, or a farmer or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a senator, or a king, in the name of heaven and earth let him go his way; he is not the man in whom dwells the Spirit of God in its fulness, for a man so filled with God would utterly weary of any pursuit but that for which his inmost soul pants. If on the other hand, you can say that for all the wealth of both the Indies you could not and dare not espouse any other calling so as to be put aside from preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, then, depend upon it, if other things be equally satisfactory, you have the signs of this apostleship.

Spurgeon is reflecting on Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 3: “This saying is trustworthy: ‘If anyone aspires to be an overseer, he desires a noble work.’” Notice, Paul is not saying you aspire to a position, or to a title, this is about desiring a noble work. So for those who aspire to being an overseer (or bishop), it’s important to examine that aspiration. Why do I have this desire? Is it because I want to be influential? Is it just because I’m tired of my current job? Is it because nothing else has worked out? Or is it because I am floored by what God has done for me in Jesus Christ and I want to give my life to telling others about it? There can be a hundred different reasons why people want to be a pastor… what is it that you want?

#2 – “There must be aptness to teach and some measure of the other qualities needful for the office of a public instructor.”

Out of all the qualifications of an elder in 1 Timothy 3, it’s notable that all the ones listed there are also qualities that are generally expected of all Christians. Certainly, elders are to be more mature in those qualities so that they can be examples to the flock. But there’s nothing unique about that list, except for one. Elders are to be “able to teach,” or “apt to teach.” Nowhere else do we see this as being expected of all Christians. But elders are to be able to teach God’s people. Spurgeon states,

Whatever you may know, you cannot be truly efficient ministers if you are not “apt to teach.”

Brethren, I long that we may all be “apt to teach.” The Church is never overdone with those whose “lips feed many.” It should be our ambition to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” We all know certain able ministers who are expositors of the Word, and instructors of believers. You always bring something away when you hear them. They trade in precious things; their merchandise is of the gold of Ophir. Certain passages of Scripture are quoted and set in a new light; and certain specialties of Christian experience are described and explained. We come away from such preaching feeling that we have been to a good school. Brethren, I desire that we may each one exercise such an edifying ministry!

At the same time, teaching is not the full extent of the pastor’s ministry. Other qualifications and abilities are needed also. Spurgeon reminded his students:

Mere ability to edify, and aptness to teach is not enough, there must be other talents to complete the pastoral character. Sound judgment and solid experience must instruct you; gentle manners and loving affections must sway you; firmness and courage must be manifest; and tenderness and sympathy must not be lacking. Gifts administrative in ruling well will be as requisite as gifts instructive in teaching well. You must be fitted to lead, prepared to endure, and able to persevere. In grace, you should be head and shoulders above the rest of the people, able to be their father and counselor. Read, carefully the qualifications of a bishop, given in 1 Timothy 3, and in Titus 1. If such gifts and graces be not in you and abound, it may be possible for you to succeed as an evangelist, but as a pastor you will be of no account.

So if you aspire to the work of ministry, cultivate and grow in the qualifications of an elder, particularly the ability to teach God’s Word.

#3 “one must see a measure of conversion-work going on under his efforts.”

As Paul writes in 1 Cor. 3 – “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” In other words, in all of our ministry, we are utterly dependent on God for any spiritual life, any spiritual growth. And we should hope to see God work through us before we are confirmed in our call to ministry. Spurgeon writes,

There must be some measure of conversion-work in your irregular labors before you can believe that preaching is to be your life-work… It is a marvel to me how men continue at ease in preaching year after year without conversions. Have they no bowels of compassion for others? No sense of responsibility upon themselves? Dare they, by a vain misrepresentation of divine sovereignty, cast the blame on their Master? Or is it their belief that Paul plants and Apollos waters, and that God gives no increase? Vain are their talents, their philosophy, their rhetoric, and even their orthodoxy, without the signs following. How are they sent of God who bring no men to God?

That’s not to say that we should ever presume on God’s work or try to manipulate people to respond to the gospel. At the same time, no preacher should be content with a ministry that never sees anybody converted or edified. Spurgeon writes,

I hope it will never get to be your notion that only a certain class of preachers can be soul-winners. Every preacher should labor to be the means of saving his hearers. The truest reward of our life work is to bring dead souls to life. I long to see souls brought to Jesus every time I preach. I should break my heart if I did not see it to be so. Men are passing into eternity so rapidly that we must have them saved at once… If our preaching never saves a soul, and is not likely to do so, should we not better glorify God as farmers, or as tradesmen?

Now here’s a little secret: Spurgeon didn’t see his first convert until after he became a pastor. It wasn’t until he had been pastoring at Waterbeach for many months, on his 100th preaching occasion, when Hannah Spalding was converted under his ministry.

So I don’t think Spurgeon is giving us a hard & fast rule. But there is something to be said if you are on staff at the church, and teaching & preaching, and after 2, 5, 8 years, you are not seeing any conversions or any fruit from your teaching… then perhaps the Lord never called you.

Here’s where ministry is different from any secular calling. In secular callings, you can work hard, learn skills, and accomplish great things in the world. But when it comes to the work of ministry, if your goal is to see sinners saved and see Christians edified and mature in Christ, then you are utterly dependent on God and the work of the Holy Spirit. You walk into that pulpit week after week utterly powerless to accomplish that task on your own. That’s what you’re signing up for!

#4 – “that your preaching should be acceptable to the people of God.”

In other words, a church needs to call you to be their pastor. Just as Paul called the churches in Galatia to examine their pastors and to kick out any pastor that was preaching a false gospel, so in our day, churches have the responsibility and authority, on Christ’s behalf, to evaluate teachers, and to call pastors for the work of the ministry. Speaking to a room full of eager young preachers, Spurgeon warns them to be patient.

God usually opens doors of utterance for those whom he calls to speak in his name. Impatience would push open or break down the door, but faith waits upon the Lord, and in due season her opportunity is awarded her. When the opportunity comes then comes our trial. Standing up to preach, our spirit will be judged of the assembly, and if it be condemned, or if, as a general rule, the church is not edified, the conclusion may not be disputed, that we are not sent of God. The signs and marks of a true bishop are laid down in the Word for the guidance of the church; and if in following such guidance the brethren see not in us the qualifications, and do not elect us to office, it is plain enough that however well we may evangelize, the office of the pastor is not for us.

Which means that the church is one of the best places for someone to test their call to ministry. Not the seminary. Not the campus ministry. Not the denominational office. But the church. Other venues can be useful. But ultimately, it’s the church that extends the pastoral call. So don’t make the mistake where the first time you serve the church is when they call you as the pastor. Rather, if you are a Christian, your life should be built around the ministry of the church in service to the church in whatever way is needed. And being called as a pastor is just the next step in that. Again, Spurgeon writes,

Young men who have never preached are set apart to the ministry, those who have never visited the sick, never instructed the ignorant, and are totally devoid of any knowledge of gospel experience except the little of their own, are supposed to be dedicated to the Christian ministry. I believe this to be a radical and a fatal error. Brethren, we have no right to thrust a brother into the ministry until he has first given evidence of his own conversion, and has also given proof not only of being a good average worker but something wore. If he cannot labor in the church before he pretends to be a minister, he is good for nothing. If he cannot whilst he is a private member of the church perform all the duties of that position with zeal and energy, and if he is not evidently a consecrated man whilst he is a private Christian, certainly you do not feel the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit to bid him enter the ministry.

Conclusion

These four qualifications serve as a kind of caution for those aspiring for pastoral ministry. Don’t rush in. Examine yourself and your ministry. Be patient. But what if all four of these characteristics are manifested in your life? Then they become a source of strong assurance. If you see these qualifications in your life, including having been called by a congregation to be their pastor, then all that’s left is for you to believe that God has commissioned you to preach the gospel and lead His people.

It is essential to a minister’s faith [to] believe in our own commission to preach the gospel. If any brother here is not assured of his call to the ministry, let him wait till he is sure of it. He who doubts as to whether he is sent of God goes hesitatingly, but he who is certain of his call from above demands and commands an audience; he does not apologize for his existence, or for his utterances, but he quits himself as a man, and speaks God’s truth in the name of the Lord.

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