About John van Eyk

John van Eyk is the pastor of Tain/Fearn Associated Presbyterian Church in Scotland (www.apchurches.org/info_tain.html). He is married to Lucy and has 6 children.

The Mic of our Master

The other day one of the fathers in my congregation told me a story about when his son was younger. If he would come to Church and fail to spot me he would query his father where the “sermon” was. He equated me with the sermon. That is a real dilemma, of course, because we are told that we ought not to preach ourselves. Had I followed his son’s reasoning I would have been speechless.

What prompted this father to recount this story was his little girl’s comment that Sunday morning when she came into the Church building. Looking for me and not seeing me, she asked her father where God was.

You might think the girl is on shakier ground than her brother in describing her pastor. But she might intuitively be grasping, and is unwittingly expressing something significant about the Christian ministry: when a minister preaches the Word of God, God himself is speaking. Remember how the first chapter of the Second Helvetic Confession (Of the Holy Scripture Being the True Word of God) states it:

THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.

The basis for this audacious claim is the Word of God itself. I’m referring to a number of passages sprinkled throughout the New Testament that speak of the Lord Jesus Christ preaching long after his glorious ascent to his Father’s right hand. For example, in Ephesians 2:17 the Apostle Paul speaks of how the Lord Jesus came to the Ephesians and preached peace to them so that Jews and Gentiles might be reconciled to one another and both to God. We know Christ’s body is not ubiquitous so how did he come and preach to those Gentiles? He preached by his Holy Spirit through his apostles.

Paul expressed the point even more explicitly in Romans 10. There he addresses the need for the preaching of the gospel so people might call on the name of the Lord and be saved. The ESV renders Romans 10:14 this way: “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” The ASV (1901) leaves out the preposition of resulting in this translation: “. . . and how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard?” Many commentators favour translating the relative pronoun as denoting the person who is heard rather than the message that is heard (Stott, Hendriksen, Dunn, Murray, Morris). The one people are to believe in is the one preaching to them. Leon Morris, in his commentary on Romans, explains the sentence like this: “The point is that Christ is present in the preachers; to hear them is to hear him (cf. Luke 10:16), and people ought to believe when they hear him.”

The apostles learned this from Christ. In John 10:16 he spoke about the other sheep who must be brought into the sheepfold of his grace. How will these elect sheep come in? By hearing Christ’s voice. How will they hear Christ’s voice? When those he sends preach the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit (John 20:21-22). In fact, Jesus identifies himself so closely with those he sends he can say, “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (John 20:23). Through his appointed and Spirit anointed ambassadors Christ declares God’s name to his brothers (Hebrews 2:12).

Admittedly, Christian ministers today aren’t apostles. Indeed not. But nor has Christ been muzzled for almost 2000 years because of the passing of the apostles. Christ still speaks today. When ministers proclaim the Scriptures they are carrying out an apostolic ministry and Christ preaches through them. When ministers preach the word of God, Christ preaches.

 A Colossal Consideration

This is weighty. It’s weighty for those who listen to the preaching of the Word. They have a holy obligation to receive the word preached, not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

It is also weighty for ministers of the gospel. We speak for the exalted Christ so that people hear him and believe in him. This consideration addresses the content of our preaching. We must preach the Scriptures, inspired by the Spirit of Christ. The pulpit is no place for human opinions or flights of fancy. We must be able to say about our preaching, “This is what Christ is preaching to you today.”

But the thought that we speak for the exalted Christ also bears upon the communication of our content. We shudder to think that we might distract people from hearing Christ. We want them to forget about us. We really want them to see no-one but the Lord Jesus and to be amazed at the gracious words that come from his lips. We who are ministers are Christ’s mouthpiece, the mic of our Master, so that through us his people hear him. We are the microphone. He is the voice. They see us. They hear him.

Had the Lord Jesus not promised us his presence and purchased for us his Spirit who would dare to preach again?

You or We?

There are two kinds of preachers; those who predominantly use the second person pronoun in their preaching and those who usually use the first person plural pronoun. There are those who say, “You need to trust God in the difficulties of life,” and there are others who say, “We need to trust God in the difficulties of life.” Okay, I admit, there are some who say, “You and I need to trust God in the difficulties of life.” (Actually, there are too many who say, “You and me need to trust God in the difficulties of life”!)

So which is it? When speaking personally, should we use 2nd person pronouns or 1st person pronouns? Is it “you” or “we”?

I Get the You

I understand why some argue that preaching should be predominantly in the second person pronoun. They emphasise that preaching comes from another world. It is the voice of heaven penetrating earth. The minister is not sharing; he is declaring. He is an ambassador, a herald, speaking on behalf of Christ. In fact, when the minister preaches the Word of God, Christ himself preaches.

That being the case, in a sense, the Christian minister is not part of the congregation as a minister though he is part of the congregation as a Christian. The minister wears two sets of clothes; he is a minister who is speaking on behalf of Christ and he is a Christian who is being addressed by Christ through his own preaching. I think the minister of my youth believed this. At least that would explain why he would occasionally interject his sermons with, “And remember, Minister, you are also preaching to yourself.”

This means that when he is calling the congregation to holy living, echoing the Apostle Paul, he declares “You must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language from your lips” (Colossians 3:7-8a). Mind you, while he does that, he must remember that he is one of the “you” God is addressing.

Second person pronoun preaching has a lot going for it. It follows the predominant pattern of New Testament epistles and it highlights the authoritative nature of Christian preaching.

 I Get the We

I don’t think we should use second person pronouns exclusively. Or should I say, “You shouldn’t use second person pronouns exclusively”?

The main reason I say this is because the New Testament epistles don’t. In Ephesians 2:3 Paul says we were by nature children of wrath. In Titus 2:12 he mentions that the grace of God trains us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age. And the writer to the Hebrews, in his brief exhortation, swings between the second and third person pronouns, sometimes in successive verses (Hebrews 3:12-14).

First person plural usage helps the congregation to remember that the minister is himself subject to weakness (Hebrews 5:2). And because of that, though the minister comes with the authority of the Word of God, as an ambassador of Christ, he himself is under that authority. The Word read and preached addresses and challenges him too. He is not a guru who has mastered Christian living and has risen above the struggles and temptations of his followers; he is a fellow sinner privileged to strengthen his brothers and sisters through the ministry of God’s Word. The congregation doesn’t sit at the feet of the minister; the minister and congregation sit at the feet of Christ the Prophet who ministers to them by his Word and Spirit.

Personally Speaking, Use Both

I wouldn’t want to quantify the amount one should use the first or second personal pronouns. It seems to me that the preacher will find the balance as he is conscious of two things: he himself is a sinner desperately needing the grace of God in Christ and to be strengthened through the Word preached, and, that he speaks as the mouth of God, as one of his ambassadors.

I just finished Herman Selderhuis’ book, John Calvin: a pilgrim’s life, and was struck by how this dual emphasis shaped Calvin the preacher. Selderhuis writes: “Calvin thought that when he spoke as a preacher, it was God himself who spoke”. He supports his assertion with Calvin’s comment, “For of myself I have nothing to say, but I speak as if the mouth of the Teacher.” On the other hand, Selderhuis gleans that Calvin had enough self-knowledge to realize that he himself had to be subject to the Word as well from these words from Calvin: “When I climb into the pulpit, it is not simply to instruct others. I do not exclude myself, since I myself must remain a student as well, and the words that come from my mouth are to serve me as much as others. If not, woe to me!”

In boldly declaring God’s Word may we who are ministers be acutely aware of the need for that Word ourselves.


Should I Stay or Should I Go?

All gospel ministers have had or will have to make a decision about where they will serve the Lord and his Church. They all face it at the beginning of their ministry when they take up their first charge and, while serving in one congregation, may have to consider invitations from another. How does one decide where to go or, if serving a congregation, whether one should stay or go?

Having recently read Allan Harman’s tantalising biography of Matthew Henry (here) I thought Matthew Henry’s experience might be helpful to some who are wrestling with these decisions. Matthew Henry served a congregation in the country, Chester, for 25 years before taking up a charge in northeast London, in Hackney. Our situations will not correspond precisely with his yet reading about some of the thoughts and actions that led to his decision to leave Chester might well help our decision making process.

  • Leaving one congregation for another is permissible. Occasionally when a minister is inducted into a congregation the new relationship is compared to a marriage. Coupling that with the knowledge that God hates divorce would seriously discourage any conscientious minister from considering another charge. Though using marriage language Henry saw it differently. “Though I think ministers married to their ministry, yet I cannot see any scripture ground to think they are married to their people.”
  • Ministers have no direct knowledge of God’s plan. Though some ministers are convinced that God specifically tells them where they should serve, Henry thought he had no direct insight into God’s plans. He prayed “that God would guide me with his eye, and lead me in a plain path”, even offering up “many prayers to God for direction”. On the morning of his decision he confessed to, “[h]aving this morning, (as often, very often before) begged of God to give me wisdom, sincerity, and humility, and to direct my thoughts and counsels. . .”. Despite wrestling with God he writes, “Had we an oracle to consult I could refer to the divine determination with so great an indifferency, that if it were referred to me, I would refer it back to God again.”
  • Affections should yield to judgement. Matthew Henry’s love for the congregation in Chester was evident. Before his actual change to Hackney he had received numerous invitations to minister elsewhere. He systematically rejected these solicitations “because he loved the people of Chester too well to leave them”. After an attempt by a congregation in Manchester to have him as their minister he wrote, “I cannot think of leaving Chester till Chester leaves me”. Even after he decided to move he writes: “and as to my affections, though they are very strong towards Chester, yet I think they ought to be overruled by my judgement”. Matthew Henry shows that it is possible to leave a congregation while still loving it deeply.
  • Write it down. Thirteen years before he went to Hackney he had declined their invitation to come and in the ensuing years had likewise refused requests to go elsewhere. When he finally acquiesced, he put down on paper his reasons for accepting the invite and mentions that earlier he had written down his reasons for continuing at Chester. He did this for his own benefit so that in the future he could review his grounds for leaving and assure himself that he had not made a rash decision. The discipline of putting pen to paper can help crystallise our thinking about such an important decision.
  • Watch providence. Though our reading of God’s ways cannot be infallible, Matthew Henry acknowledges that it figured in his decision. He mentions the many calls he had to leave Chester and, particularly, the many he had to Hackney though he had never, directly or indirectly, sought them. In fact, he writes that he discouraged Churches from calling him. He also cites that in the postal delivery the day he was intending to send his final refusal of the call, “Providence so ordered it” that he received a letter signed by many London ministers urging him to accept the call. This letter softened his resistance and led him to offer to serve the Hackney church for a six month trial. Though he assumed they would not agree to such a suspenseful suggestion, in the surprising providence of the Lord, they actually did. Hackney’s unanimous and “very pressing and importunate” invitation to Matthew Henry along with the fact that they were willing to wait so long for his decision was taken as an indication that he should accept their call. Providence, though not determinative, is helpful.
  • Consult widely. Matthew Henry received much unsolicited counsel but he also asked for the advice of many ministers. He presented the situation and they considered it and gave their advice. He mentions that none advised him to stay in Chester and many encouraged him to move to London. He indicates that his congregation at Chester, while obviously not expected to consent to his going, were pleased to leave the decision up to him, to follow his own conscience and affection. However, one of his biographers (J. B. Williams, The Lives of Philip and Matthew Henry, Banner of Truth, 1974), remarks that after he intimated his decision to leave, Henry had to endure the anger and incivility of some. Other Christians gave their input and he suggests that his wife also urged him to go. There is wisdom in appealing for the counsel of others who might be able to survey the situation more objectively.
  • Evaluate usefulness. It is clear that Matthew Henry’s concern was to be as useful to the cause of Christ as he could be. This required both an evaluation of his present usefulness in Chester and an attempt to gauge future usefulness in Hackney. Regarding his work in Chester he came to the tentative conclusion that his work had been in a great measure completed. He determined this because of some of the discouragements he had there in the ministry, including many long-time members having left the Church and very few being added to it. Matthew Henry thought that his ministry to his people in Chester might have lost its edge because they had heard him so long and so often. He assessed that his first seven years of ministry there had been the most effective and hoped that another minister, fresh to the people, might do even more good. He also admitted that though he had often preached in the country in places outwith Chester, his weakened health, exacerbated by riding long journeys, would confine his sphere of labour to his own congregation. On the other hand, he was assured that there would be increasing opportunity for usefulness in London. Though the congregation at Hackney was smaller than at Chester, in the metropolis there were more places to preach in and more hearers. He admits that this was “the main inducement” to move to London. What’s more, he was hopeful that because he was a fresh voice to the people in London, his “ministry may, by the blessing of God, be more useful now to those to whom they are new, than to those who have been long used to them, and so constantly.” It is should be mentioned that when he reflected on his usefulness he thought beyond his pulpit ministry. Being closer to the press would benefit his writing ministry, including his Expositions on the Bible. He was persuaded that the increased opportunity for further study and conversation with other learned men that London offered would improve his ministry. It is worth nothing that while Matthew Henry was not adverse to admitting his ministry might be useful, and though he was evidently sought after, he clearly considered himself inadequate and unable to meet people’s expectations.
  • Pray against pride. When he received a call to one congregation he writes, “I begged of God to keep me from being lifted up with pride by it.” It is a temptation to think more highly of ourselves than we ought when others are clamouring for our ministry, particularly when the appreciation of those you are currently ministering to is not as vocal. He wisely notes that pride can equally arise from refusing invitations to move since “[I]t has been looked on as the honour of ministers to continue in the same place, nothwithstanding temptations to remove”.

Discerning whether he should stay or go was an unpleasant and continually perplexing experience for Matthew Henry. In addition to the distractions of well-meaning invitations (J B Williams even questions whether calling a settled pastor, living happily among his own people, and not known even to be thinking of moving, can be reconciled to the command to love one’s neighbour) he also endured harsh criticism, including one anonymous enemy who did not wish him to “go to London, for he would do there more mischief than at Chester”. At one point he acknowledged that he brought some of this upon himself by visiting with the Church in London and “then I laid myself open to the temptation by increasing my acquaintance in the city”. Nor does it seem that making the decision to go to Hackney relieved his mental distress. Though he was prayerful and, as far as he knew himself, willing to go wherever the Lord would have him, and though he trusted he had a clear conscience, he writes: “Wherein I have done amiss, the Lord forgive me for Jesus’ sake, and make this change concerning the congregation to work for good to it”.

As it turned out, Matthew Henry did not have a long ministry in Hackney, dying 2 years later. When he accepted the call to Hackney he promised the congregation in Chester that he would return annually to preach to them. His last Lord’s day was spent in his former congregation in Chester. On his way back to London he took ill and died.

A Sunday Morning Prayer for an Ashamed Workman

Gracious God and Heavenly Father, I bow before you wishing that in this past week I had done my best to present myself before you as an unashamed workman. I wish I could confess that I have spared no effort in my calling as a Minister of the Gospel, charged with correctly handling and proclaiming the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).

But I can’t because I haven’t.

I have not been sufficiently impressed with the enormous responsibility of standing before God’s people to say, “This is what the Lord’s says” (2 Timothy 4:1-2).

On the one hand, I have relied on my own skills to understand your word, not seeking the Spirit’s enlightening to learn and express the thoughts of God (1 Corinthians 2:10). On the other hand, I have not used all my gifts, having been lazy in the study of the Scriptures, unwilling to dig a little deeper into the text to bring out new treasures as well as old (Matthew 13:52).

In my preparation my ear was more attuned to the accolades of man than the praise that comes from the only God (John 5:44).

I have allowed many things, including legitimate pursuits, to distract me from the needed study so that I might preach Christ from all the Scriptures (Luke 24:44).

I have studied to preach, rather than studied to know you and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3).

I have been mechanical and professional in my preparation, withholding my affection from (2 Corinthians 6:12) God’s dear lambs and sheep (John 21:15-17).

It’s not just that I’ve been a hearer of your word and failed to do what it says (James 1:22); I’ve studied your word and will be teaching your word and all the while I have not given determined effort to put it into practice (Matthew 23:3).

I confess to my horrible shame that, even now, I am more bothered that my inadequate preparation will reflect poorly on myself than that it will distract from your glory and the blessing of your people (Acts 12:23).

And so, gracious God, as I prepare to go into the pulpit, what shall I say?

I pray that you would forgive me for my pastoral sins through the blood (Galatians 2:20) and righteousness (Philippians 3:9) of the Lord Jesus Christ who sent me to proclaim his Word (Ephesians 4:11).

I crave renovating grace as well as forgiving grace. I ask that you would grant me your Spirit so I may not be an ashamed workman in this coming week, that I, resisting the devil and fighting the flesh, may give myself wholly to the matters of the ministry so that everyone may see my progress (1 Timothy 4:15).

Repenting of my sins and thankful for your mercy,

I plead that you would receive glory as I present my faltering efforts to you (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Enable me to preach in weakness and fear, and with much trembling (1 Corinthians 2:3).

Exalt your own name in the preaching of your word (Psalm 138:3).

Give me clarity of thought and expression (Colossians 4:4).

May I preach with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power (1 Corinthians 2:4) so my hearers may receive it as the word of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

Enable me to proclaim Christ (Colossians 1:28) so that he may have the pre-eminence in all things (Colossians 1:18).

With the Lord Jesus I cry out, “Father, glorify your name!” (John 12:28)

And I pray for your precious flock, whom you love (Revelation 20:9).

Bless them with the richness of your grace far beyond my preparations.

“I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done?” (2 Samuel 24:17) Why should they suffer for my failings

As the Lord Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish and the people ate and were satisfied (John 6:11), so may Christ multiply my offering so that his people may be fed with the bread of God (John 6:33) and be satisfied.

I pray this in the name of the Lord Jesus who, having made peace through the cross, now preaches peace. Amen.