Pastors are men atop a watchtower. They keep awake, while others sleep. The Holy Spirit has placed them there to oversee the church. They scan the darkness; they have a horn to alarm the people of noiseless foes and distant lanterns.
The good pastor descends from Ezekiel.
Son of man, I have made [you] a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. (Ezekiel 33:7–8)
He alarms the people against their dearest enemy: their own sin. He alerts them of more than heresy and wolves and Satan, but of God. The Holy One is coming; are they ready? If the pastors blow no trumpet, how will those unprepared not die unthoughtfully in their sins? They were elevated to see and to speak and to give the alarm. When pastors tell them about what they do not wish to hear, we do so to save their lives (Ezekiel 3:18).
God branded this image of the watchman upon the apostle’s soul. In his farewell speech to fellow pastors in Ephesus, Paul lifts up his hands: “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26–27). Paul did not shrink back from the hardest parts of Scripture. He stood up straight, and if anything would profit their souls, he taught it without apology (Acts 20:20). And as he did, he called his fellow pastors to the watchtower with him:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. (Acts 20:28)
Brothers in ministry, have we withheld some of God’s counsel to sinners and saints? I feel tempted to. How easy it is to downplay God’s holiness, evil’s contortedness, humanity’s sunkenness, sin’s deceitfulness. How subtle to laugh off death’s suddenness, hell’s foreverness, Christ’s exclusiveness, judgment’s nearness. How comfortable to never lay siege to flinty hearts; to leave the scalpel outside the operatory. Few will complain.
Though we desire to give hope, comfort, and satisfaction to our people, we must not do so unlawfully. We have different ministries, temperaments, and ways of saying things — but we preach the same Bible. The Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures is clearly not only a Comforter, but first a Discomforter. He convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and coming judgment when we faithfully preach his word (John 16:8–11) — his word that “is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). And he charges his messengers not to shrink back.
Our focus is Jesus Christ — “him we proclaim . . .” And how do we proclaim him? “. . . warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). Far from being irrelevant, warnings serve the church to present everyone mature in Christ. We want everlasting happiness and comfort and satisfaction in God for our people. And God has issued sacred cautions to help us all safely home.
The first way to deal falsely with souls, then, would be to withhold the warning to the wicked or the lapsing: “If you continue in this way, you shall surely die.” The second, more subtle way would be to yell indiscriminately from the tower, “You all shall surely live!” In other words, to hand out the conditional promises of God unconditionally. The first withholds rough words; the second hands out precious promises to anyone who happens to hear them.
Imagine you are assigned to preach the incomparable Romans 8:28: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” How would you preach this?
This preacher would spend all his time tasting the honey. “All things work together for good. All things. Who has thought too much about this promise or flew above its clouds? Only begin to wrap your heart around the good that God is sailing your all things toward, and it would burst for joy.” The problem is not what he teaches, but what he does not teach. If his set pattern is to overlook the conditions, we have found a mortal wiser than God. In reality, he takes a knife to the promises and hands out thornless roses. Two thorns lay on the ground: “For those who love God . . . for those who are called according to his purpose.”
What does it mean to love God? Do I love God? He will not think to ask or tell. What is this calling and this purpose? He does not say. He skips ahead to the promise; he wants good for them, and he will hop the fence to give it to them. To him, the text simply says, “God works all things for good.”
A Book of Conditions
Despite our mixed motives, it is never safe to abridge God’s word. Such consistent oversight in your preaching will ring hollow for all students of Scripture and allow the enemy to smirk past your tower in broad daylight. Consider how many promises of our great inheritance post conditions at their gates.
“God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. (Romans 4:5)
“You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:14)
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:13)
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked. (Psalm 1:1)
As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. (Psalm 103:13)
“To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” (Revelation 2:7)
[God will] present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel. (Colossians 1:22–23)
The promise that God uses all pains, groans, tears, setbacks, cancers, miscarriages, tragedies as winds to blow his people to the eternal harbor is not for mere sermon-hearers, nice neighbors, or religious hobbyists. It is offered to them through repentance of their sin and faith in Jesus Christ, but it is only possessed by those who love God and are called according to his purposes.
God Meets His Conditions
Does this make our salvation conditional? Some aspects of salvation are; some not. God elects unconditionally (Ephesians 1:4–5). He causes us to be born again unconditionally (John 3:7–8; Titus 3:5). Other conditions that we experience below — repentance, faith, love, holiness, and so on — God gives or empowers his people to meet.
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12–13)
And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:27)
An ocean exists between preaching a works-based religion (a false religion) and preaching God’s utter, sovereign grace in our salvation along with his warnings and conditions. We must preach the latter. Everyone is not a Christian who sits in a pew; everyone is not on a Christian journey; everyone is not a child of God; everyone is not a recipient of every kind word of Scripture because they chose to come to church that Sunday. We must not lie and flatter, casting gospel pearls indiscriminately before swine.
Charles Spurgeon once said from his own watchtower,
Our ministry ought always to be a killing as well as a healing one — a ministry which kills all false hopes, blights all wrong confidences, and weeds out all foolish trusts, while at the same time it trains up the feeblest shoot of real hope, and tends comfort and encouragement even to the weakest of the sincere followers of Christ. Do not, then, be needlessly alarmed about our ministry. Just give us plenty of elbow-room to strike right and left. . . . To our own Master we stand or fall, but to no one else in heaven or on earth. (The Weeding of the Garden)
Men of God, put forth the Lord Jesus Christ in all his beauty; lift their souls to the gates of glory. Be the man to tarry in God’s presence, a man who can train up the feeblest shoot of real hope, declaring, Behold your God! And love their souls enough, love Christ enough, love God’s word enough to wound proud unbelief, favorite sins, and respectable worldliness — to kill false hopes, blight all wrong confidences, and weed out foolish trusts.
You do not have to be your people’s best friend, but you need to be their pastor. You have a high and noble office. Do not shrink back because God’s remedies are sometimes rougher than you (and your people) would prefer. Handle the promises with care, speak plainly with them about sin as you point repeatedly to the all-sufficient Savior. And be free from assuming you’ve been arrogant because you find yourself asking Paul’s question, “Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Galatians 4:16).
We are watchmen of souls. At times, we will misjudge or overreact or raise the alarm at shadows we thought were soldiers — ask for forgiveness. As far as it goes with you, perform the watchman’s work with joy and sobriety as those who will soon come down from the tower to give an account for how you kept watch over souls. May we be able to truthfully say on that day, “I am innocent of the blood of all.”