A great temptation in pastoral life is for the pastor to substitute themselves for God’s gracious Gospel power.
At the Gospel Coalition, Paul Tripp writes about the fallacy of a practice of pastoral care which is at odds with pulpit ministry; one in which we functionally end up telling people what to do (problem solver in chief) rather than telling them about what Jesus has done for them (repenter in chief).
I did it for years. I was good at it, but I didn’t know it. It shaped how I preached and how I sought to pastor people. If you would have questioned my theology, I would have been offended. I was an ardent defender of the “doctrines of grace.” I knew them well and could articulate them clearly, but at ground level something else was going on. In the duties, processes, and relationships of pastoral ministry I actively devalued the same grace I theologically defended. My ministry lacked rest in grace. It lacked the fruit of grace: confidence and security. So I attempted to do in people what only God can do, and I consistently asked the law to do what only divine grace will ever accomplish.
How does this happen? The heart of every believer, still being delivered from sin, is tugged away from rest in the nowism of grace to some form of legalism. Even after we’ve been saved by grace, we tend to think, I am righteous and don’t need a Savior. Thinking ourselves to be keeping the law, we bring the law to law breakers, hoping they will see the error of their ways and buck up.
No one preaches the law more than one who thinks he’s keeping it. And no one gives grace more tenderly than one who knows he desperately needs it. The temptation to revert to legalism greets us all.
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But there are two specific places where a pastor is tempted to devalue grace. First, there is a temptation to devalue the grace of the indwelling, illumining, convicting, guiding, and enabling presence of the Holy Spirit. (See Romans 8:1-11.) God knew that our struggle with sin was so profound that it was not enough to forgive us. No, along with forgiveness he unzipped us and got inside of us by his Spirit. In his presence we have the resources we need to be what we’re supposed to be and do what we’re called to do.
When you devalue this grace, you think it is your job as a pastor to manage people’s lives. You simply become too present in their lives and too controlling of their thinking and decisions. Your ministry begins to migrate from being focused on telling people what God has done for them to being dominated by telling people what to do.
Maturity in the body of Christ is never the fruit of such pastoring. No, the fruit is behavioral and cultural uniformity masquerading as maturity. Only when a pastor rests in the grace of the indwelling Holy Spirit is he freed from managing people’s lives, sensitive about when to speak and when to be silent, when to be active and when to withdraw, and when to counsel and when to trust God to guide.
The goal is not a congregation uniformly conformed to the lifestyle of the pastor, but one that is progressively conformed to the likeness of Jesus. This means a congregation growing in Christ even though members of that congregation are making different decisions at ground level.
Rest in Grace
There is a second grace pastors are tempted to devalue. It is the grace of the priesthood of all believers. This grace not only welcomes every believer into God’s holy place by the blood of Jesus, but also calls every believer to be a minister of that grace in the lives of others. (See Colossians 3:12-17.) When you devalue this grace, ministry become dominated and controlled by the paid staff, elders, and deacons. You don’t preach the truth of the essential sanctifying ministry of the body of Christ, you don’t give people ministry vision, you don’t call them to lifestyle-shaping ministry commitment, and you don’t train them for service. You emphasize formal programmatic ministry while neglecting the call to informal member-to-member ministry.
The fruit of this is a passive congregation, who thinks ministry is never official unless a pastor is there, who thinks of ministry as a weekly schedule of meetings led by the pastoral staff, and who have become more consumers than participants. The “joints and ligaments” are not esteemed and trusted to do their part; as a result, the body is weakened.
When a pastor holds a theology of grace but functionally devalues God’s grace in life of the believer, he will be too present and controlling in ministry, and the fruit of his ministry will be uniformity and passivity in the body of Christ. How different from the true maturity produced by a ministry that rests in God’s grace.
Rest in grace for a pastor is a war. Again and again our self-righteous hearts migrate toward ministry legalism and control. It is humbling yet important to confess that we desperately need grace to be able to rest in grace. Isn’t it comforting to know that we have been given the grace we need in ministry so that we will not devalue the grace that we preach?