A pastor must be a jack-of-all-trades—spiritual leader, preacher, counselor, evangelist, Bible scholar, theologian, cultural critic, CEO, social worker, family man, and all-round good guy. No wonder we can feel overwhelmed with advice thrust at us from all sides designed to help us perform those many roles more skillfully. But what is that one thing that you must be good at if you are to be a good pastor? What is most worth your time in developing? What is the core from which everything else flows?
I have concluded that when it comes right down to it, there is really only one thing I as a pastor have to offer my congregation—and only one thing that the church has to offer the world. In my role as a pastor people come to me with all sorts of problems, but I confess: I am a physician with but one medicine to prescribe, and that is the gospel of Christ. It may need to be applied in various ways, various aspects of it may need to receive the right emphasis, and it may need to be administered in the right form. But only the gospel of Jesus Christ can heal the deepest wounds of the human heart and enable us to prosper according to God’s design, bringing glory to our Lord.
The Gospel in Every Instance
The centrality of the gospel for the church is illustrated most clearly in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. This was a church with a host of problems, and in every instance Paul’s responded by expounding the gospel.
Addressing their divisions and in-fighting caused by their pride in wisdom and knowledge, Paul pointed to the foolishness of the cross of Christ (1 Cor. 1:17-18). Regarding his style of ministry—lest anyone be tempted to put their faith in human wisdom—he rejected eloquence in favor of a direct proclamation of Christ crucified (2:1-5).
Regarding the sexual immorality rampant among them, Paul urged them to get rid of the old leaven of sin from their midst, for Christ the Passover Lamb has been sacrificed (5:7). Through the gospel we are joined to Christ. How, then, can we be joined to prostitutes? “You were bought with a price,” Paul said, “now honor God with your body” (6:20).
On the issue of marriage, the gospel means you can serve God in whatever circumstance you are in—whether married or single, whether slave or free. You can live out the gospel wherever God has put you, so don’t be overly concerned about whether or not you are married (7:17-24). And as to eating food sacrificed in the pagan temples, the gospel prohibits us from participating in idol worship, for through the gospel we participate in Christ (10:14-17). Yet the gospel also sets us free from laws about what we eat and what we drink (8:1-8).
This pattern continues to the end of the letter. Time after time, Paul’s response to the problems of this church centers on the gospel and what it ought to mean in our lives.
Thinking, Living, Pastoring
For this reason, I believe the most important thing for a pastor to be good at is deepening his grasp of God’s gospel and its implications for every area of life. That is, we are to be gospel-centered in our thinking, in our living, and in our pastoring.
That may seem too obvious to be worth saying, but there is nothing impressive about this gospel message. It has nothing to do with human achievement and everything to do with God’s grace. The gospel is not about the high and mighty but the weak and lowly. It’s not about self-promotion but self-abasement. It’s about serving others rather than being served. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, and those who know they are sick. It’s about a road to glory paved by the stones of suffering, following a Savior who calls us to come and die to ourselves. Putting the gospel at the center does not come naturally, nor is it encouraged by our culture (nor, sadly, by our churches).
The challenge for us all is not to drift away from this God-glorifying, self-abasing gospel. We must not assume it and then go on to other things—even good things. For these things will eventually displace the gospel as the center of our ministry. For that reason you must “keep watch,” as Paul urged Timothy, over your life and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16).
Who We Are, Not What We Do
What does this look like for a pastor? First, we must let the gospel shape our own lives before we minister to others. We must remember that pastoring is, first of all, not about our “ministry skills” but who we are as men “in Christ,” called as God’s servants to shepherd his flock. This means growing in our reverence for God’s holiness, which the cross of Christ so clearly reveals. God hates sin, and so must we. This means humbly acknowledging the need of our own hearts to be cleansed by Christ’s precious blood and then seeking the sanctifying power of the Spirit. It means engaging in those “means of grace” that keep pointing us to God’s gracious gospel and spur us on to love and good deeds. It means reading the Word with a view to a change in our own hearts—relying on the Spirit to give life through it. It means forgiving as the Lord has forgiven us. It means praying as a way of abiding in Christ, for only then can we bear real fruit.
Our love for Christ needs the reinforcement of others who also share that love. That’s why we need “spiritual friendships” with like-minded brothers who can provide encouragement and accountability. In guarding our lives, we need to say no to the first sign of temptation, whether it be to click on an inappropriate website and indulge in lust or to reflect on the success (or failure) of another’s ministry and indulge in envy, pride, or self-pity. We must strive to share the heart of our Savior in his love and in his humility—seeking to develop a soft heart and a thick skin in all our relationships with people.
We are to be models of Christian living, not just Christian working, for the gospel calls us to make Christ Lord of all. So how the gospel affects our marriages and family life is just as much a part of our ministry as our public preaching. The gospel is lived out at home through the self-giving love for our wives and raising our children with grace and truth. All this is included in a gospel-centered life.
We are to watch our lives, and we are to watch our teaching—making sure the gospel informs all that we say. We must keep taking our hearers to the cross, for that’s where the Bible points us, whatever the text of our sermon. We must beware of moralism and continue preaching grace. That grace becomes all the more amazing as we expound the majesty and holiness of God from the whole of Scripture!
Evangelize, Read, Make Friends
So how do we keep deepening our understanding of the gospel? One way is to find opportunities to engage in evangelism. Sharing the gospel with unbelievers sharpens our own appreciation of its goodness, truth, and beauty.
And without question, we must be readers. But make sure that the first book you read, over and over again, is the Bible. Let its words soak into your soul. Enter into the world it displays—a world in which God acts in creation, judgment, redemption, and consummation to fulfill his gracious purpose in the gospel. Then read devotional literature by writers who feed your soul as well as your mind. Then read theological and biblical works that sharpen your understanding. Then read other books—good fiction, science, sociology, history, politics—all of which can broader our understanding of the world into which the gospel is preached as the ultimate answer to all life’s questions.
Yes, it is beneficial to find ways to sharpen your pastoral skills—in leadership, preaching, counseling, and administration. But most importantly, keep the main thing the main thing. We are ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that gospel must shape our lives and inform every aspect of our ministry.