Spurgeon goes on to identify four ways by which we may assess whether we are called to ministry. First is ‘an intense, all-absorbing desire for the work’. It is in this context that Spurgeon (followed by Lloyd-Jones in the next century) urged that you should not enter the ministry if you could be content doing anything else. This is a burden which cannot be escaped—not a mere passing feeling, but a thoughtful and enduring desire. Second is an ability to teach, and other aptitudes required in ministry. It is not to be expected that a man will preach well on his first attempt, but is there growing evidence of gifts and abilities which may be developed? Thirdly, Spurgeon asks is there any ‘conversion work’ in the ministry of this man? This test needs to be understood in the context of the extraordinary fruitful days of Spurgeon’s ministry, and it is interesting that this test is not mentioned by John Newton in the letter quoted in this lecture. Finally, if someone is called to ministry their preaching ‘should be acceptable to the people of God’.
The only qualification for entry to the London Seminary Pastoral Training course is a credible call to ministry. But what does that mean? There is a sense, of course, in which all believers are called to ministry as servants of the Lord and of one another. But the term is generally used of a particular call for evangelists, pastors and teachers.
External and Internal Call?
A call to ministry is understood in two parts: the external and internal call. The external call may include the encouragement of others to consider vocational Christian ministry. A local church may give opportunities for service, and encourage towards appropriate training. Ultimately an external call is a church calling someone to be their pastor; this may look slightly different in Baptist/ congregational and Presbyterian circles, but essentially it is the affirmation that a man is called to ministry.
The internal call is more controversial. In recent times the internal call has been downplayed or even disregarded. One pastor said to me: ‘The only call I received was a telephone call’ (from church leadership inviting him to take up the pastorate). While historically the internal call was treated seriously, now it is questioned. One turning point was the publication of a book on guidance: Decision Making and the Will of God. The author emphasised the importance of moving away from a mystical understanding of God’s will towards more rational decision making based on biblical principles. The book is very valuable, and helped many who were struggling to find God’s will for their lives based on feelings or circumstances. However, the pendulum then swung to the opposite extreme, and the idea of internal call tended to be discarded altogether.
We can all understand the challenges and problems associated with an ‘internal call’. We don’t want to be governed by our feelings or subjective impressions of what the Lord might or might not be directing us to do; our feelings are not a reliable guide. Sometimes we don’t make good judgements about our own gifts, and strengths and weaknesses. We might believe that we are great preachers, but we should heed godly believers in the congregation who tell us that our sermons are uninspiring or unhelpful. We might dream that we have leadership potential, but if we find that no-one is willing to follow us, we may be mistaken. Our own convictions have to be tempered by the counsel and advice of trusted brothers and sisters in the Lord, and especially by our church leaders.
On the other hand, we might be very reluctant to go forward into ministry and we need the encouragement and spur of others who recognise our gifts and calling and advise that we are allowing our natural reticence to quench the Lord’s call. Some of the great prophets of the Old Testament, including Moses and Jeremiah, were reluctant because of their own sense of inadequacy and unworthiness. An historical example is John Calvin who had no inclination to take up ministry in Geneva and had to be very severely rebuked by Guillaume Farel.