Westminster alumnus Rev. Rob Edwards (M.Div. '99), pastor of Mercy Presbyterian Church in Forest, VA, recently came on campus to deliver the Spring Semester convocation message. He also sat down with us for a video interview afterwards to answer some questions about his time at Westminster, as an RUF campus minister, and as a pastor.
His convocation message was entitled "Participants in What We Proclaim" and can be downloaded in Westminster's Audio archives here. See below for a video of his convocation message, as well as for two videos of an interview we did with Rev. Edwards.
Also, see below for a transcript of his convocation message.
Interview, Part 1
Interview, Part 2
Transcript of Rev. Edwards' Convocation Message:
One of my final memories comes from graduation, and Dr. Harvie Conn was giving the final charge to those of us graduating students. This is what he said, “there is an alumni directory, and you will all soon be a part of it. In that alumni directory, it includes adulterers, alcoholics, divorcees, pastoral burnouts, men and women who have taken the wrong vocational path, and even people, sad to say, who have abandoned the Christian faith.” I don’t remember anything else that was a part of that charge, but I remember those words very powerfully and in my years of ministry (though they’re not very many compared to some). I’ve seen that proven true all too often—men who have abandoned the call that they have once received.
You may be aware in the past decade or so this has been the focus of quite a bit of research, focused on the stress of pastoral ministry and pastoral burnout, examining the causes, seeking to understand it in order to bring remedy. It’s even been the focus of a British sitcom, Rev., some of you may have seen. You have this vicar and you hear in his prayers as he is sitting in his empty sanctuary about his beliefs about Jesus and his kingdom, and yet how it stands in contrast with what he experiences day to day in his ministry. There was an article not too long ago in the New York Times describing this, and it says, “members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension, and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”
Yet here you are, preparing for this great work. Many of the studies on pastoral burnout provide good descriptions and statistics on these things, but what is often lacking, and what we hear in Paul’s words, are the deep, biblical and theological reasoning that we need to grasp a hold of if we are to understand these things that are marks of our experience in ministry. That’s what I would like us to consider as we listen and reflect on these verses from 2 Corinthians 4.
I spent many years in campus ministry, and now I’m a church planter outside of Lynchburg, VA. Prior to that I served for 11 years with Reformed University Fellowship at the University of Georgia. One of the things you get to do as a campus minister is many weddings—I think I did between 30 and 40 in my 11 years as a campus minister. Of course, working up to that I would always sit down for a number of weeks with these couples who were anticipating marriage, and we would do pastoral counseling. One of the things I told them up front was “there’s only so much we can do here. You’re coming with your excitement and your anticipation. We can talk about the biblical framework for marriage, we can talk about how sin and grace will work in your marriage, we can talk about the larger picture of Christ’s relationship with his church, and how your marriage is to emulate that, but you’re just going to have to get married. Then you will learn, then you will know that you will need more help, and you will return to seek more counseling.” What happens is that the particulars of our own experience expose our hearts, and that is when we are much more ready to listen.
I think the same is true when it comes to talking about pastoral ministry. Some of you have already been engaged in pastoral ministry, but the particulars of your experience is what will expose your heart, and I remember experiencing that very powerfully in my years in ministry after leaving Westminster. I remember turning to the pastoral epistles. I remember turning to 2 Corinthians and reading words as though I had never read them before. Things that the apostle Paul was describing that were true of his ministry, that were being reflected in mine, things that, as if I had never seen these words before, came alive because it was now a part of my experience and I needed to hear those things.
I wonder what that looked like for the Apostle Paul himself if he could remember. Of course his own conversion is described in Acts 9, and he’s led into Damascus and Jesus sends Ananias to him. If you remember, Jesus tells Ananias “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” It’s not clear if that was told to Paul at this point, however—but why was it that Paul would have to suffer so much for Jesus’ name? It may sound a bit vindictive, it may sound as if it’s a response to Paul’s persecution of the church, but as you read through Paul’s letters, you see that that’s not how he understood his suffering. He saw the suffering in his ministry as that which the Lord Jesus was using to conform Paul more and more into his image. He saw it as what the Lord Jesus was using to draw him more and more to himself, the one who had died and was risen for him. He saw it as that the Lord Jesus risen on high was exhibiting his power in the midst of Paul’s own weakness, and that is how we are to envision those things in our ministry, these marks of pastoral ministry. We are participants in what we proclaim.
That’s the first point I want us to consider as we look more closely at what Paul tells us here. In 1 Corinthians 15, of course a passage that we’re all familiar with if you spend any time at Westminster, Paul lays out what he calls the matters of first importance that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures and that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. These are the matters of first importance, his death and his resurrection. And as you read through, in particular, 2 Corinthians, you see this in his other letters as well, you see how this always remained the matter of first importance throughout Paul’s ministry, and how he envisioned his own role in ministry. You see, this matter of first importance that we proclaim in the gospel, the substance of the gospel in Christ’s death and resurrection, is not just some isolated incident in history, it is what has ushered in a new age that is shaped throughout by Jesus’ death and resurrection. We can expect, therefore, death and resurrection to be a prominent feature in our own ministry. In other words, it’s more than proclamation, it’s a pattern, and you, through the Lord Jesus, become a participant in that.
We’ll examine this more starting in 2 Corinthians 4:16, Paul describes a wasting away that is always accompanied by renewal. He describes a momentary affliction that is accompanied by an eternal weight of glory. It’s death, it’s resurrection—he describes what is seen as transient, yet alongside of it what is unseen is eternal. It’s death, it’s resurrection, it’s a picture of one age passing away, yet a new age that is already come because Jesus is risen from the dead.
This is why Paul can say in our passage, “We do not lose heart.” It’s because he sees his ministry and every hardship in it is a part of this larger story, this redemptive history that not only he proclaims, but he has been made a part of in the Lord Jesus. So, as you see how Paul is reflecting on his ministry, it’s never the story of Paul and his ministry, it’s always the story of how Jesus and his death and resurrection is manifested in Paul’s ministry. Therefore, the same will be true for us and this is what we must always keep in mind. It’s never the story of you and your ministry, it will always be the story of the Lord Jesus’ death and resurrection and how that is manifested in your ministry. I am a participant in what I proclaim.
To take the title of a wonderful sermon by Geerhardus Vos, “This is the More Excellent Ministry.” If you haven’t happened upon that yet, it’s in his collection Grace and Glory and you should read it repeatedly, I do as an encouragement in my own ministry. He’s reflecting there on the chapter just before we’re looking at, 2 Corinthians 3.
But this is the question: What is excellence in ministry? Again, in much of the research focusing on pastoral burnout, and stress in ministry, this has been one of the questions that is asked. How do we sustain pastoral excellence? Again, those studies have many things to offer and helpful insights, but the first thing to remember is that you and I will not bring excellence to our ministry. You and I do not contribute to the excellence of our ministry. Training and education, hard work, gifts, call, care, accountability, all those things are important. But what makes ministry excellent is not those things. What gives ministry its excellence is the age that it is a part of. Ministry’s excellence is derived from the age of which it is a part.
Many of you came to Westminster with some sense of its history, its faculty, its reputation. These are the things that drew you here, it was the excellence of Westminster. And if this generation is anything like my own, as you become a student here you may feel the temptation to prove that you belong. You want to demonstrate your own excellence that you belong here. Maybe even that you have some excellence to contribute. Any maybe you will, but it will be much better for you and everyone else if you simply learn and allow the excellence that Westminster has to offer to accrue to you. In other words, you get to participate in it, even though you may not bring excellence to it. We are participants in what we proclaim.
Of course, it’s not Westminster either that will bring excellence to your ministry as much as it will help unfold Scripture before you in such a way that you understand the full work of the Lord Jesus and his death and resurrection, the new age of salvation that it brings in your own call to be a servant to him in it. Ministry’s excellence is derived from the age to which it belongs.
Maybe some of you will be graduating soon and you’re anticipating calls to ministry. I find this true in my own experience after years of being in ministry the temptation to look to those places that we think will be excellent and exciting. Maybe excellent and exciting places to do ministry, maybe excellent and exciting people to do ministry with. But again, those people and those places are not what will make your ministry excellent. The Lord Jesus, wherever he calls you, in this new age that he has brought through his death and resurrection, he will be with you wherever you are and wherever he calls you to serve him, and that is what brings excellence to your ministry. We are participants in what we proclaim.
Another mark of ministry that we must embrace that Paul describes here, this is the second point, that our lives will put what we proclaim on display. You probably remember the days of show-and-tell in school, maybe in Kindergarten, where you take something from home, it’s your day, and you have to stand before the class and talk about it. Well, our youngest son is in fourth grade now, but I remember these days how difficult it was for us to get him to take something—we never figured out why, I think he just didn’t want to be bothered by it—but we would often have to put something in his hand as he was walking out the door, and we’d tell him “you’re not going to have much to say unless you have something to show.”
As I was reading what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 4, I was reminded of this in verse 9 where he describes being exhibited by men sentenced to death, a spectacle to the world. Paul is saying, and I think this applies to us in ministry as well, that we are the show that goes with the tell of Christ’s death and resurrection. We will show with our lives what we are called to tell with our words. And that’s what Paul says here, beginning with the first verse that we read in verse 7, he says “but we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that the all-surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” And then in the verses following, he describes the show of death and resurrection as he describes “being afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed by not driven to despair, struck down but not destroyed”—death, but all the while, resurrection.
Dr. Gaffin has pointed this out in a number of places, you can find it in his article “The Usefulness of the Cross:” Paul is not describing two separate experience here, these aren’t sequential experiences of death and resurrection. As he describes ministry, Paul is saying that it is within what seems to be, what appears to be, feels as though it is true and certain death, it is in those experiences that you will also experience the power of Christ’s resurrection most powerfully. It’s not one and then the other, it is both at the same time. And you see this again, if you look at the verses following, verses 10 and 11, where Paul says this, “Always carrying around in the body the death of Jesus” maybe better translated presently, the “dying of Jesus.” “Always carrying the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” You see, it is not death and then resurrection, it is always death and also resurrection.
So, in your ministry, when you feel what appears to be and feels as though it is certain death, do you believe that those are the moments in which you will also experience the resurrection power of Jesus sustaining you through it? That is how Paul understood his ministry. My problem, that I’ve found, is that I so often fail to tie my experience in ministry with the death and resurrection of Jesus as Paul does. There’s no larger story. When all I see is the hardship, it’s about me, it’s about what’s going on with me in the moment, and surely this is one of the deeper reasons behind pastoral burnout, there’s no sense of this mark of ministry that we bear in our bodies the dying of Jesus that his power might be displayed through us.
It’s wonderful, actually, as you begin Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he lays out this theme in the opening verse as he talks personally about his own struggle, and there he says in verse 8 that “we were so utterly burdened beyond ourselves that we despaired of life itself.” But he goes on to say, “that was to make us rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead.” The same is true for us, the risen Lord intends your life to show the Gospel that you tell.
James Denney, who was a 19th century Scottish pastor and theologian, wrote a commentary on 2 Corinthians and he says this: “to wear out life in service of Jesus is to open it up to the entrance of Jesus’ life.” The temptation, of course, is to always put on a different show in our ministry. As you read through 2 Corinthians and Paul’s other letters as well, you see this common theme in his critique of those others who would refer to themselves as ministers of Jesus. He describes them as those who put confidence in the flesh, in their mortal bodies as Paul describes it here in 2 Corinthians 4. There are those who want to make their ministry a good show in this age, who are focused more on the things that are seen than the things that are unseen, and Paul later calls them false apostles. Paul boasts in his sufferings, but they boast in their flesh. Though they may speak the name of Jesus, rather than truly proclaiming him as Lord in subtle ways they are actually proclaiming themselves.
You see this elsewhere in Paul, in Philippians chapter 3 he describes those who have confidence in the flesh, their mind is on earthly things. And he’s speaking of ministers! Same thing throughout Galatians, it’s about more than justification. The reason people are so focused on the issue of circumcision, he says, is because they’ve missed the significance of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus! They’re focused on what’s passing away, they’re focused on this age, rather than the new creation that has come in the Lord Jesus. Paul says he “boasts in the cross of Christ by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
We have to ask ourselves the same question. How are we tempted to create a ministry that makes a good show in this present age. The ways I’m concerned about the way others perceive me, and how they’re benefitting from me and my gifts and responding to me as a church planter. It’s amazing the difference 20 people can make on a Sunday morning, whether they’re there or not. Often I realize in my heart, I want to boast in my flesh that they were there. It’s about me, it’s about my ministry, it’s about the things that are seen rather than the things that are unseen and eternal. It’s about my success or my failure, but either way it’s about my flesh. But trusting in the flesh that is passing away will always wear you out, because there’s no strength in it, but only in the Lord Jesus who is risen from the dead. Again, I think this is a reason behind so many reasons people leave ministry, there’s no sense of the purpose; of being utterly burdened beyond our strength that we would rely on God who raises the dead. So we’re worn out, we’re weary, and we’re tempted to leave. No sense that Jesus intended my ministry to manifest, as Paul says, the very things that I proclaim.
This leads to one final point that I want us to see as we consider these verses, that we need constant reminders of the resurrection if we’re to remain faithful in our ministry. If we forget the resurrection, we will look for what we can get out of this present age to bring us comfort. For me, one of the most frightening characters in the Scriptures is Demas. I think every ordination exam should ask this, “who was Demas?” You find Paul referring to Demas in two places, in Colossians 4 and at the end of Philemon, where he’s mentioned approvingly. As a fellow worker, he’s commended as one who labored alongside of Paul. But then you get to 2 Timothy chapter 4:10, Paul says this: “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me.” Some of you may know that that word translated “world” is not actually the word “cosmos”, it’s the word “aeon”, it’s the word for “age”. “Demas in love with this present age has deserted me.” If you’ve been at Westminster for any period of time, you know that that word has significance. What is Paul saying? Demas had his heart set on this present age that is passing away and coming to naught, rather than the age to come that has been brought about by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection that has already begun because of Jesus Christ.
The reason that has always struck some fear in me is because I know that Demas did not join in with Paul in ministry intending to fall away like this. He did not become a fellow working alongside of Paul intending to abandon Paul, and to desert him because of his love for the present age, and then become the example in Scripture to us all. It’s a difficult thing to be a fellow worker with an apostle.
I think this temptation is something we always face in our ministry as we carry in our bodies the dying of Jesus. To grow weary, to lose heart, to begin to look for life elsewhere, finding what comfort we can in this present age, and losing sight of the resurrection and the new age that has dawned.
I wonder if Paul had a similar concern for Timothy to whom he’s writing. I think, if you read in between the lines, it seems as though he did. In the verses prior, he did not know Demas had left him—will Timothy remain faithful? If you remember in the verses prior to 2 Timothy 4, Paul writes to him reminding him how he “had followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings. These too, you have followed.” And then, if you remember, he tells him “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed. We cannot love this age that is passing away and remain faithful in ministry. We need constant reminders of the resurrection, otherwise like Demas, we too will abandon the ministry. Or maybe, rather than outright abandoning it, you will accommodate your ministry in ways to serve yourself, rather than those whom God has put you there to display his death and resurrection to. Which is actually the same thing as abandoning your ministry, isn’t it?
In the sermon I mentioned earlier by Vos, “The More Excellent Ministry”, he describes how in the preaching of the Gospel there is an invisible background, and he says this, “In our ministry, our ministry is accompanied by a ministry from heaven conducted by the Christ of glory.” Your ministry is accompanied by a ministry from the Christ of Glory who is in heaven. Paul says in verse 13, “I believed, and so I spoke.” Is this what you believe, and therefore speak? Knowing, as he says, “that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.”
As you read through this passage, one of the things you see several times, four different times, are these clauses that begin with the Greek word “hina”, the word that means “so that” or “in order that”, they are purpose clauses. What he’s saying is that there is nothing that you will ever face in ministry that does not have this purpose: “so that the power of the risen Lord Jesus will be displayed in your weakness in order that grace would extend more and more to the glory of God.” When I don’t feel appreciated, when I give counsel that is not well-received, or when those I’ve sought to help for many hours end up turning on me, the temptation is to become bitter, and to blame them for the death that they bring into my life. That’s something we can do, and that’s something I have done. Or, we can look to the Lord Jesus, the Christ of glory, who brings life into death, and we can rejoice because he has made us participants in the age to come, which he continues to bring about, more and more, manifest in this world more and more, even through the labors of our ministry.
David Hansen, in his book The Art of Pastoring which has recently been reprinted says this: “too often theology’s venerable ‘already, not-yet’ has become ‘what needs to be done today and what can be left until tomorrow.’” That is strikingly true. What he’s saying there is that what is central in our theology can become so easily forgotten in the midst of pastoral ministry, but is the very thing that you need to remember, that Christ through his death and resurrection has ushered in a new age, and he’s made you a part of it, and he’s called you to serve him in the furtherance of his work in this world. We need constant reminders that the resurrected and exalted Lord has included us in this and called us into a service that his grace might extend to his own glory.
There is no more excellent ministry. May God give us the grace to embrace this call.