Ryan M. McGraw
Pastoral Theology: The Man of God, His Calling and Godly Life, vol. 1, Albert N. Martin. Montville, NJ: Trinity Pulpit Press, 2018, lvi + 456 pages, $42.95.
Commending Al Martin’s work on pastoral theology is like commending Richard Muller’s work in historical theology. In either case, readers find themselves sitting at the feet of a master in his field whose work is its own best commendation. This set of books promises to be one of the most extensive, and likely most useful, pastoral theologies written to date. This material represents twenty years of teaching future ministers about this topic for two hours a week on a four-year cycle. What would the Spirit do in the church if more ministers had this kind of training?
Reviewing a volume like this one is difficult because all of the material is pure gold. While it aims primarily at ministers and men preparing for ministry, the content can benefit the church more broadly as it seeks to be faithful in calling ministers, in pursuing godliness, and in establishing realistic expectations for who ministers are and what God calls them to do. After summarizing the content of the book, I will highlight a few of its outstanding features.
The epigraph heading the opening pages of this book summarizes its content well: “The life of the minister is the life of his ministry.” The book’s subtitle indicates its two large-scale divisions. In the first section, Martin takes his readers from the nature of a pastoral call, through qualifications of gifts and character related to the ministry, to the process by which the church recognizes these things in a man. The second section shifts from calling to living by treating the man’s spiritual and intellectual relation to God, his physical and emotional relation to God, how he relates to God’s people, and how he manages himself, including his time and his family. The last four of these areas are likely as important as they are neglected in considering the call to the ministry today. Physical and emotional balance, coupled with time management and household management, speak volumes about a man’s character. In a day when Reformed ministry can tend to exalt, as well as attract, men with an intellectual bent and love for doctrine alone, Martin reminds us that we really need more men who use their doctrine as a means of showing their love for Christ. He rightly places the graces of the Spirit above the gifts of the Spirit without neglecting either one. We need men who are godly rather than great and we need seminaries that are just as concerned with the character of the men whom they are training as they are with cultivating their minds and their gifts.
Four examples illustrate amply how this book addresses the needs of our times. First, as Martin writes, “Pastoral theology should be taught by pastors. The exclusive pursuit of academic theological degrees, while a good thing in itself, is not sufficient for understanding or teaching on this subject” (10). I cannot echo this point strongly enough, adding that this counsel should apply to more than the pastoral theology departments of our seminaries. If pastoral theology is an entry-level teaching position in a seminary rather than a vital part of the curriculum, and if every area of the curriculum is not ordinarily taught by men with pastoral experience, then we run the risk of becoming theological degree mills rather than seminaries training future pastors. Far too many men desire to teach men to be pastors but have no desire to serve as pastors themselves. I have often been the first one to discourage such a course in the lives of many young men. If we applied this practice to the medical profession, then the results would be disastrous. It is past time that we realize pastors should train future pastors just like doctors should train future doctors.
Second, evangelistic zeal needs to characterize ministry in Reformed churches once again. Martin observes,
I find it disturbing, when attending evangelical and even Reformed churches where there is a robust commitment to confessional and biblical orthodoxy and expository preaching, and yet preachers find no avenue out of the text or subject to address the unconverted passionately and plead with them to be reconciled to God. . . . One has to question why men like that are in the ministry. Did they ever have a desire to be used in calling out God’s elect? (61)
It is all too common in Reformed churches to treat the means of grace as machines through which the Holy Spirit effectually calls sinners to Christ as long as the right elect materials go into the machine. Faithful exegesis is enough to help us explain words and grammar, but it is ordinarily insufficient to be the Spirit’s instrument to win souls to Christ. This usually comes through the Spirit working in the affections of the preacher as well as in the affections of those who hear him preach. We need to hear Martin on this point as we seek the sovereign Spirit’s anointing on our ministries.
Third, ministers must preach Christ. Yet preaching Christ cannot be a technique; it must flow from devotion to Christ. Martin notes,
If Christ does not fill our hearts in our times alone with Him, in our walking with Him, so that for us to live is Christ, speaking about Him with glowing hearts will not be natural for us. We dare not attempt to artificially and insincerely insert Him into our sermons in an effort to hide our loveless hearts. (100)
Have our approaches to preaching become too technique driven? Is that one of the reasons why modern debates over preaching often oscillate between exegetical precision with application or retelling redemptive history while trying to steer clear of moralism? Whether expounding Scripture, unfolding the historical development of the gospel, applying biblical principles, or exhorting people to worship, preachers should preach Christ inescapably because they love Christ pervasively. A minister should not need to be told to extol the virtues of his Savior any more than an engaged couple should need to be told to look forward to their wedding day. This characterized Paul and the other apostles, as well as virtually every manual of pastoral theology that has stood the test of time in the history of the Christian church.
Fourth, ministers must prioritize their families above their ministries if they hope not to be disqualified from their ministries. The following citation illustrates his counsel on this important theme:
When an ordinary Christian chooses between an evening with his family and an evening at the local pub, the issues are quite clear, and his conscience should scream at him if he chooses the pub. On the other hand, when a servant of Christ makes the choice between an evening of fun and games with his children or visiting a distressed saint, the issue is blurred. He can very easily justify neglecting the promised evening with the children because “the work of the ministry demands that I minister to this distressed sheep.” In this scenario, domestic competence is often sacrificed upon the altar of official ministerial duties. “I sacrificed that time with my family for the sake of the gospel ministry.” No, you did not. You set one duty against another, and you caused a ministerial duty to kill a domestic duty. God is not in the business of killing duty with duty. (424)
The church is still reeling from the fruits of nineteenth-century calls to abandon wives and children in the name of foreign and domestic missions. Martin’s exhortations can go a long way to setting ministers back on the right path with regard to making their families their first ministries.
I am a Presbyterian, while Martin is a Baptist. This means that Presbyterians will expect me to say that I do not agree with everything in this book. While this is true, especially in relation to some aspects of church polity, his book strikes a nerve with me. Martin teaches rightly that men called to the ministry need both to wade through their sense of calling and to cultivate personal godliness with zeal and vigor. Ultimately, the man of God’s character is not special but common. God requires men holding office to show ordinary Christians what ordinary Christian living looks like in an office that not all ordinary Christians hold. Yet it is ultimately love for Christ, experiental piety, and spiritual balance that must envelop, and even consume, every true gospel minister. This is because this is the copy of Christ’s character that the Spirit is painting in the lives of God’s people through the Christian ministry. This means that we need to be as interested in Martin’s pastoral theology as many of us are in Muller’s historical theology, and likely even more so.
Ryan M. McGraw is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as a professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina.