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Home Visitation: A Pastor’s Duty

I want my ministry students at RTS Jackson to become skilled in pastoral visitation, which includes visiting people in their homes.

In the late 19th century, Bishop J.C. Ryle was troubled by “a growing disposition throughout the land, among the clergy, to devote an exaggerated amount of attention to what I must call the public work of ministry, and to give comparatively too little attention to pastoral visitation and personal dealing with individual souls.”

In his excellent biography of Ryle, Iain Murray comments:

“However eloquent or apparently knowledgeable a preacher may be, there will be something seriously  lacking in the man who is not to be found in the homes of his people. Sermons which come only from the study are not likely to be messages which bind speaker and hearers together in a common bond of affection and sympathy. A preacher must be a visitor and be ready to preach everywhere. Few circumstances can justify the omission. If the excuse be offered that there is too much public work to do, to give time to the private, then the priorities are wrong.”

Facebook, blogs, and other public forums, because of the number of people supposedly reached, may tempt a minister to abandon more traditional, boots-on-the-ground ministry. This is wrong. Social media may assist a minister in his work, but it is no substitute for the work of gathering with people in their homes to pray, instruct, counsel, evangelize, and encourage.

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Source: Iain H. Murray, J.C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2016), 141.

 

The Blessings of Peace

Commenting on Psalm 128:1-3, William Plumer writes:
“No man over-estimates the blessings of peace and concord in all the relations of life . . . Nor until he sacrifices truth, honor, righteousness or a good conscience does he ever pay too much for them.”
William S. Plumer, Psalms: A Critical and Expository Commentary with Doctrinal and Practical Remarks. 1867 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1990), 1139.

Thirty Years in Ministry

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Thirty years ago today I was ordained to the gospel ministry at Faith Presbyterian Church in Morganton, North Carolina. You only get one first church, and this one couldn’t have been better. Loving and caring and encouraging, its members will forever hold a special place in my heart.

Apart from my sons’ and grandchildren’s birthdays and the anniversary of my marriage to Lynne, my ordination day is the most memorable and important date in my life. Lynne makes the day special – a card, gift, and dinner – just one example of the many ways she stands beside me in my work.

My interest in the ministry began long before I ever preached. Since I was a teenager, I wanted to to be a pastor. My Dad influenced the direction my life would take. His care for congregations inspired me, and as I watched him go about his work, I sensed that pastoral ministry was the life God wanted for me. Dad’s moving prayer at my ordination service meant the world to me.

Certainly, ministry is full of joy, as well as challenges, setbacks, and disappointments. It deals with matters of eternal consequence. “Who is sufficient for these things?” Scottish Presbyterian minister James S. Stewart was right: “the first duty of a minister is to be a real man of prayer. Nothing one can do for God or man is so important as that. To maintain the spirit of prayer is just about the greatest thing a Christian (or anyone in the ministry very specially) can do for the world.”

For three decades God has given me the privilege of serving a succession of godly people in Christ-centered churches. So, it doesn’t surprise me one bit that Paul calls the Philippian believers  his “joy and crown” (Philippians 4:1). That’s how pastors feel and think about their congregations, and that’s how I do.

For the beloved people I’ve served I thank God today.

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Testimonies of Faith and Fortitude

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1843 was a momentous year in Presbyterian history. The founders of the Free Church of Scotland abandoned homes, incomes, and church buildings to uphold the spiritual independence of Christ’s church. Their courage captured the attention of the evangelical world, and bequeathed stirring testimonies of faith and fortitude to subsequent generations of Bible-believing Presbyterians.

Author Sandy Finlayson skillfully sketches the lives of ten of these leaders in Unity & Diversity: The Founders of the Free Church of Scotland. Bound together by love of the gospel, a high view of the authority of God’s word, confessional fidelity, and missionary outreach, these men nevertheless held a variety of opinions on controversial issues of the day: church union with other Presbyterian denominations, Roman Catholic emancipation, the evangelistic campaigns of Dwight L. Moody, and educational and social reforms in Scotland.

Conservative American Presbyterians should note the vigor with which several leader tackled widespread poverty, lack of educational opportunity, alcoholism, and other salient social ills. Their lives were spent among the people and for the people.

The author also recounts the personal foibles, bouts of pride, conflicts, and strained friendships – all helpful in reminding readers that there are no golden ages in church history when men were untouched by the frailties common to all. Until our Lord returns, learning to get along will prove hard work.

I enthusiastically recommend Unity and Diversity.

Visiting the Sick

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When ministers visit the flock, they bring the ministry of the word to homes, hospitals, prisons, and any other place where God’s people find themselves in need of a pastor’s care.  Ministers should give special attention to the sick, for they often struggle with discouragement and doubt. They need reassurance of God’s love for them in Christ Jesus our Lord. The Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order helpfully reminds ministers that they “should visit the the people at their homes, and especially the sick” (8-3).

Learning to visit and care for the sick skillfully requires a thorough knowledge of God’s word, sympathy for the afflicted, lots of experience, and the personal example and wise counsel of seasoned pastors, which is why I found encouragement in Brian Croft’s Visit the Sick: Ministering God’s Grace in Times of Illness. The author is senior pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, a congregation he has served since 2003.

Wisely – and before turning to nuts and bolts issues of pastoral visitation – the author offers a biblical theology of God’s care for the sick, observing that “the progression of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation contains an unfolding storyline that reveals two key themes: God is sovereign over sickness and healing, and God calls his people to care for the needy and afflicted.” (16)  The history of the early church testifies to his “using sickness, pain, disease and suffering as a way of sanctifying his kingdom people and magnifying the worth of Christ.” (25) If our doctrine is not right, our attempts at pastoral care will harm.

Visit the Sick answers a number of practical questions: How do I prepare myself to visit the sick? What should I say? How do I ask leading questions that guide the conversation from immediate concerns to matters of eternal consequence? How do I share the gospel with  patients and families who are not Christians? How long should I stay? What passages of scripture should I read? How will faithfully visiting the sick change me?

And when you are with the sick, the author cautions, don’t forget about eye contact, appropriate touch, facial expressions, posture and tone of voice – things easily forgotten but vital to meaningful care.

A new pastor will not be on the job long before he realizes he needs help. Thankfully, the final chapter outlines a strategy for equipping the church to care for the sick through preaching, prayer, personal example, and communicating to the congregation about the condition and needs of the suffering.

Visit the Sick is full of pastoral wisdom, and is a book that I hope all my seminary students will read, for  “in caring for the sick, we enjoy the gift of exercising our faith in Christ.” (45)

 

Cremation or Burial: Does It Matter?

More and more Christians choose cremation instead of burial. The reasons vary. For some it is a matter of hygiene, for others it is the only option available; still others choose cremation for financial reasons. Many Christians believe the Bible is silent on the matter.

Since I am frequently asked whether cremation is a viable Christian alternative to burial, let me share with you some thoughts on both cremation and burial. I believe the Bible has more to say about the matter than many suppose.[1]

At the outset let me make clear that while I believe a good scriptural case can be made for traditional Christian burial, I do not intend for a moment to cast doubt upon the faith of believers who have chosen cremation. I do, however, believe that the issue is of enough importance to share these thoughts.

First, a historical note. For 1900 years burial was the exclusive means of disposal for the remains of Christians. Certainly, other means were well known. Cremation was common in both ancient Greece and Rome. Many believed that the destruction of the body contributed to the happiness of the departed spirit whose ties to the world were now severed, and to the living who were subject to potential torment by the departed spirit. As the gospel made inroads into Europe, the practice of cremation gradually subsided. The doctrine of bodily resurrection and the nearly uniform practice of burial in the Old Testament scriptures provided a strong incentive for burial. Even if persecutors burned the bodies of martyrs and scattered their ashes or bones, Christians sought to gather and bury them.

Next we turn to the scriptures. Certainly, there is ample biblical precedent for Christian burial. Burial of the body was the practice of the Jews[2]. To leave a corpse unburied or to exhume a body after burial so that the remains were exposed as food for beasts was a gross indignity – or even worse, a sign of judgment.[3] Even criminals were allowed burial.[4] Of significance is the fact that the burning of the body was often an act of divine judgment.[5]

New Testament teaching further promoted the practice of burial:

  • That Christ was buried is a fundamental element of the gospel message.[6] When buried Christians follow the path of humiliation taken by their Lord, Houghton observes “the grave’s dishonor is removed by the burial of Christ, even as death’s sting is removed by His death and its power is snatched from it by His resurrection.”
  • The word “cemetery” means “a place of sleeping.” The body, being united to Christ, sleeps in the grave; the soul departs to be with the Lord. Both Jesus and the apostles referred to deceased believers as being “asleep.” It seems strange to incinerate a body that is referred to as being “asleep.”
  • Christians referred to the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit. Recognition that our bodies belong to the Lord is a powerful incentive to holy behavior. Service to God in our physical bodies is a central reality of the Christian life – both in this life and the life to come.
  • In the seed imagery of 1 Corinthians 15:44, the body is sown, not burned.
  • Believers are asleep not only in the grave but in Jesus.
  • The doctrine of the bodily resurrection points to the significance of the human body after death. There is continuity between the body that is laid in the grave, and the resurrection body to come. J. B. Payne notes “the biblical insistence upon proper burial, as well as its general opposition to cremation bears inherent testimony to the continuing significance of the human body after death. This significance derives ultimately from the doctrine of the bodily resurrection ‘of those who sleep in the dust of the earth.”[7]

In summary, we may note that the manner of death and the disposition of the corpse do not affect the resurrection, for the resurrection of the body is a display of God’s sovereign power. However, because redemption is of both soul and body, great care and thought should be given to the treatment of the human body immediately after death. I am convinced that the whole biblical doctrine of redemption is best represented in a traditional Christian burial. The souls of believers, united to Christ, are gone to be with the Lord. Yet, the body, too, is united to Christ and rests in the grave, awaiting its glorious resurrection. On that great Resurrection Day the bodies and souls of believers will be reunited, and they will enter into the new heaven and new earth to serve and worship their God.

As Christians we gather around the grave, giving testimony to this resurrection hope. All our longings will at last be fulfilled when Christ returns in glory. Completely renewed in body and in soul, we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Let’s keep and cherish the rich tradition of Christian burial.

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[1] For a more extended discussion, see the article by S.M. Houghton in the Banner of Truth, issue no. 70, pp. 37-46. I am indebted to him for many of the insights below and highly recommend a careful reading of his article.

[2] John 19:40

[3] 1 Kings 14:11; 16:4, 2 Kings 9:37, Psalm 79:3; Jeremiah 7:33; 8:1; 16:4,6; 22:19: Ezekiel 29:5; Revelation 11:9

[4] Deuteronomy 21:22ff

[5] Numbers 11:3; 16:35; Leviticus 20:14; 21:9; Joshua 7:25,26; 2Kings 1:10-12

[6] 1 Corinthians 15:3-4

[7] In Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979, 1915), 1:556-561. See Daniel 12:2; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:52; Revelation 20:13

What Pastoral Ministry Is All About

I know of no more beautiful declaration of a pastor’s love for his people than Paul’s words to the struggling young church at Thessalonica: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8).

Isn’t that what ministry all about? Share the gospel . . . share your life . . . regard people with tender affection.

Share the gospel – for without it, there is no salvation (Romans 1:16).

Share your life – for without giving yourself to people, there is no mutual bearing of  burdens that fulfills the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).

Regard people with tender affection – for without it, ministry is loveless toil that amounts to nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

“We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” –  just the words we expect from an undershepherd of the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his beloved sheep (John 10:11).