For most of my ministry the salvation of sinners and the building up of the body of Christ was my goal. This goal had within it an enormous assumption of which I have discovered is laced with error. My assumption was that my only role in saving people was to preach the gospel to the lost and pray for them. After their conversion and subsequent church membership, my role in their salvation was complete, and I would thereby serve them as an agent of God's in their edification and sanctification.
My assumption had error for this reason. I thought salvation depended on my preaching, and it does, but it also includes the salvation of the church.
I believe with The Puritans that without perseverance in the obedience of faith the result is eternal destruction, not lesser sanctification. Richard Sibbes admonished his congregants to "keep grace in exercise". Therefore, since preaching and the pastoral ministry in general are a great means to the saint's perseverance, the goal of a pastor is not merely to edify the saints but to save the saints. What is at stake on Sunday morning is not merely the building up of the church but its eternal salvation.This is why we have no time for games, jokes, or entertainment on Sunday's as our time is so serious.
A Passage that Provides Pastoral Perspective
Paul wrote to Timothy, "Take heed to yourself and to your teaching: hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers" (1 Tim. 4:16). The "hearers" Paul has in mind are not people outside the church (as verse 12 shows). My salvation and that of those who listen to me hangs on in large measure to my faithful attention to personal holiness and sound teaching. More is at stake in our work than greater or lesser progress in sanctification. The salvation of the "true Christians" is at stake.
In 2 Timothy 2:9-10 Paul recounts his suffering for the gospel and says, "I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which in Christ Jesus goes with eternal glory." When Paul says he suffers for the salvation of the elect, i.e. true believers, he does not mean merely people who are not yet converted. For he states in Colossians 1:24: "I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the church." Not only that, he says in the immediate context (2 Tim. 2:12): "If we endure, we shall also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us." The salvation of the true believers depends on their not denying Christ and on their enduring in faith and obedience.
Since Paul's pastoral labor is a means of helping the true believers endure, therefore he sees all his labor as instrumental in their salvation. Is it any wonder that Paul groaned under "the daily pressure" of his "anxiety for all the churches" (2 Cor. 11:28)?
In that beautiful passage of 2 Corinthians where Paul teaches that God comforts us in order that we may comfort others, he goes beyond comfort and says, "If we afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation" (2 Cor. 1:6). Again it is the salvation of church members for which Paul suffers and labors.
Paul's Pattern for His Pastoral Perspective
One example of how Paul's pastoral labor leads to the salvation of the true believers is found in 2 Corinthians 7. The Corinthian believers had fallen into sin. Paul wrote them a letter that grieved them deeply. But Paul rejoices because their grief produces a repentance: "For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret" (v. 10).
What then was Paul's goal in this tough pastoral letter? It was repentance unto salvation. Paul's admonitions had caused the wavering believers to sober up and to work out "their own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12). He had brought back a wandering sinner from the error of his ways and thus "saved his soul" (James 5:19-20). The eternal life of the true believers hangs on the effectiveness of pastoral labors. Oh, how earnest we should be in attending to ourselves and to sound doctrine!
It is my responsibility as a pastor to labor so that none of my brothers and sisters is destroyed. Paul's pastoral heart seemed to break as he saw the failure of love in the church at Rome (Rom. 14:15). The strong were flaunting their freedom to eat foods which for the weak would have been sin (v. 14). It is astonishing what Paul saw at stake here: "Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died" (v. 15)! Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God" (v. 20)!
The same admonition was given to the Corinthian believers who tended to flaunt their indifference to meat offered to idols. "Take care," Paul told them, "lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. . . . And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died" (1 Cor. 8:9-11).
Destruction: No Idle Threat but an Instructional Teaching
There is no way to weaken this word "destroy". Its opposite is salvation, and nothing less, as 1 Corinthians 1:18 and 2 Corinthians 2:15 make clear. If a brother is destroyed, he is lost. The reference is to destruction beyond death, because Paul uses the same word when he says, "If Christ has not been raised. . .then those also who have fallen asleep [died] in Christ have perished [been destroyed - in hell]" (1 Cor. 15:17-18).
What is at stake each week in my preaching and pastoral admonishment is not merely the church's progress in salvation but its salvation. This understanding steers me away from only preaching simple salvific messages week after week. This is most emphatically not the way to tend the flock over which "the Holy Spirit has made you guardians" (Acts 20:28).
When Peter said, "Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation" (1 Peter 2:2), he did not mean by "milk" what Hebrews 5:12 does in contrast to meat. All he meant was to hunger for the Word of God's grace (1:25) as much as a baby hungers for milk. For only by feeding on the Word can you grow, and only by growing can you attain final salvation. As a pastor I must see and work as a spiritual dietitian I must ever be mindful that sermons which do not help the saints grow out of infancy not only stunts their character but also jeopardizes their salvation.
Static Reveals the Stench of Spiritual Death
I must remember to always teach this truth: there is no standing still in the Christian life. Their is either advancement toward salvation or a drifting toward destruction. If I do not point my people to the inexhaustible riches of Christ by unfolding for them "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27), then I steer them onto the rocks where they can make shipwreck of their faith (1 Tim. 1:19).
This is what Hebrews 2:1-4 teaches. There are two possibilities: giving heed to the Word of the Lord (vs. 1, 3) or drifting away from it. There is no sitting still in the river of indifference. Its current runs to the falls. Therefore, verse 3 asks, "How shall we escape [God's just retribution] if we neglect such a great salvation?" Neglecting our great salvation means not giving heed to what has been revealed by the Son (1:2), not setting our attention on Jesus (3:1; 12:2).
The result will be drifting away from the Word and therefore away from salvation. "Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God" (3:12). "We share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end" (3:14). The Son "became the source of eternal salvation to all who [go on obeying Him - present tense, continuous action]" (5:9).
Fend and Feed but don't Fleece the Flock
Therefore the way to save myself and my hearers (1 Tim. 4:16) is not to hinder their growth by a meatless diet of "salvation messages." This had sent those in "Hebrews" straight backward toward destruction (5:11-14). The way to save saints is to feed them all the Scriptures, for it is the Scriptures "which are able to instruct you for salvation" (2 Tim. 3:15).
One final word on eternal security. It is a community project. And that is why my pastoral ministry is so utterly serious, and why my preaching must is not playful but earnest. I preach so that saints might persevere in faith to glory. I do not merely preach for their growth, but because if they don't grow they perish. As a pastor I rest in the sovereign word of Christ: "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give them eternal life, and they will never perish" (John 10:27-28).
True believers will love the Word of God, they will grow, they will repent, and they will must assuredly be saved (Rom. 8:29-30). However, they will not be saved apart from pastoral ministry. God has ordained that there be pastor-teachers not only for the purpose of edification but also for the purpose of salvation. Pray like never before that my preaching would be flavored with eternity for this is each week's lot.