This message has struck me personally, so I post it here for you too.
Reformed Theological Seminary Commencement Address
Rev. Alistair Begg (May 16, 2008)
“Steady As You Go” – 2 Timothy 4: 1-8
We hear the Word of God again; this time in Second Timothy and in chapter 4. “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” Amen.
I have been afforded a great privilege in being invited to participate in this event. First allow me to congratulate all of the graduates upon the successful completion of their studies, and also to offer my word of congratulations to the faculty for their selfless endeavor in preparing another graduating class for this day.
Someone has observed that on an occasion such as this, the key to a good address is to have a good beginning, and then a good end, and try and keep the two of them as close together as possible. In keeping with the standard homiletical practice in this institution, Dr. Jussely has given me twenty-five minutes, of which I have already used two and a half. I have for you one word of exhortation: “Steady as You Go”. You will see that this emerges from 2 Timothy 4:5. Paul exhorts Timothy to keep his head or to be steadfast. Paul issues a charge to his young lieutenant in the faith. He doesn’t present him with an idea, nor a proposition, nor a suggestion; but he issues a charge. He issues a solemn and significant directive. What he is about to say to him is a matter of absolute necessity; a matter of pressing urgency. He makes his appeal, not on the strength of his apostleship, nor on the length of his service, now coming to an end; nor on account of the fact that he was Timothy’s father in the faith. Instead he offers this charge in light of the fact of his passing. “I’m already be poured out like a drink offering and the time has come for my departure. The word Paul employs is the same as is used to describe oxen unyoked at the end of the day, like one who weighs anchor and heads for the final destination. Or an individual striking tent and heading home. In view of my passing, Timothy, I want you to do this.” In view also of God’s presence. It is in the presence of God that he issues this charge. And in view of Christ’s parousia, the appearing of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is in light of these that Paul charges his young friend. Here then is the apostolic pattern of ministry. In the great relay race of life, one generation must pass to another the baton of faith. It must ensure that the Gospel is transferred carefully into the hands of the next group. In different ways and places, this graduating class in the coming years will be doing the very same thing for others.
Let us ask five simple questions. The first question is: 1. What is God’s servant to do? What is it that he’s to do? He is to preach the Word. He is to proclaim the Gospel. That was the compulsion of Paul and that is the commission of Timothy. You remember Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel.” Now we may say to ourselves, well, we can move on very quickly from this, because after all we all know what the Gospel is. It’s the Euangelion. It’s the Good News. But not so quickly! To proclaim the Gospel means explaining what God has done in Christ on behalf of sinners. Making clear that Christ’s obedience is reckoned to the sinner on the ground that the penalty of the sinner’s disobedience has been borne in Christ – He died the Righteous for the unrighteous. It is only (as Goldsworthy reminds us) when we have made the Gospel plain that we can then go on to explain the benefits of receiving the Gospel and announce the perils of rejecting the Gospel. If you are to be Gospel men and women, whether in a pulpit or in a counseling context, it is the Gospel that we must affirm. Telling people about the sovereignty of God is not the Gospel. Pressing on people the nature of the new birth and the necessity of regeneration is not preaching the Gospel. Both of these things are related to it; both are involved in it, but they are not the essential message of salvation that needs to be believed. There is a great challenge in this in these days of which you must be aware as you prepare to go. Consider this quote from The Doctrine of the Atonement by Smeaton, (a good Scottish theologian of an earlier era). “To convert one sinner from his way is an event of greater importance than the deliverance of an entire kingdom from temporal evil.” Are you convinced of this?
2. When is it to happen? All the time. “Be prepared in season and out of season.” Those who have been involved in the military will know how important it is to be standing ready, so that at a moment’s notice the soldier may act in obedience to the commander. That is exactly what Paul urges upon Timothy. Prepared when it is opportune, prepared when it isn’t apparently opportune – in a fashion similar to the responsibility of parents in Deuteronomy 6. Parents must be continually involved in teaching these children. These things must be upon their hearts; when they walk along the road and when they lie down and when they get up. That’s what Gospel men and women do. From the pulpit, in the classroom, at the bedside of the sick – always, all the time, ready. My favorite soccer team, Glasgow Rangers, has had two words as its motto throughout its history. The two words are: “Aye ready!” Always ready. Last Wednesday evening Rangers played in Manchester against a team from Russia. They took the field, declaring on their shirts that they were ready. The trouble was…they weren’t! And they lost in the final of the European Cup. You can write it on your shirt, you can stamp it on your cap, but the real test of readiness is in the warp and woof of everyday existence.
3. How is this to be done? “With great patience and careful instruction.” This is a characteristic often lacking in youth. It involves knowing our congregations. We must learn to preach to the congregation we have, not to the congregation we wish we had. Emerging from the institution your head is full of rarified information. If not careful, you will find that those to whom you go will not have the capacity to follow your line of thought. Emerging from seminary is a bit like coming up from the ocean depths after diving. You must do so slowly until you finally arrive above the surface of the water and meet other people bobbing around beside you. It is to them that you must speak concerning the safety that is found in the Gospel. You are to correct and rebuke and encourage, and this will demand great patience.
We must strive to be clear. What good is it if people can’t understand us? The late professor William Barclay first served a church down the River Clyde in a lowly part of the city with a fairly “ordinary” congregation. He’d emerged from the University full of theological erudition, which he was bringing to bear upon his congregation. One day as he was walking on the High Street a female member of his church met him and said, “Dr. Barclay, we all really like you. But I have to tell you something. We can’t understand a word you’re saying.” That changed his manner of speech from the pulpit. Our clarity must be combined with candor. No concealment of the truth. Confidence – no fear of the consequences. Compassion – not forgetting who we are, only servants through whom some came to believe.
4. Why then is this so crucial? “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.” As generations come and go, you will find that when people turn from the truth, they don’t turn to nothing – they turn to everything and to anything. They will seek out what is pleasing and gratifying. They will look for someone who will deal gently with their vices and tolerate their foibles. The pressing issue of our time is surely “self-ism”. Those of you who are going into counseling, expect to be confronted by all the alienations, psychological and relational in the lives of your clients. If you’re going to be a “Gospel counselor”, you must always tell them that the source of all of their alienations is found in the fact of their great alienation. They are alienated from God on account of sin. This will be the distinguishing feature of a Gospel-oriented approach to peoples’ needs. David Wells, in his latest book, The Courage to Be Protestant, writes of what he refers to as “the spirituality from below”. A spirituality that comes from within by way of intuition, rather than that which comes from above, by way of revelation, where God comes and meets with us. He observes, “Today the evangelical church is in a life and death struggle with this spiritual alternative, even as the apostles in the New Testament period. Today this pagan spirituality comes in sophisticated psychological language. It sounds plausible, compelling, and even commendable. But let us make no mistake about it – it is lethal to biblical Christianity. That is why the biggest enigma we face today is the fact that its chief enablers are evangelical churches.”
One final question: “So what?” As preachers we must make sure that we keep this question before us because it will be in the minds of our listeners. When we’ve done the work of exegesis; when we’ve tried to unpack the Bible; when we’ve explained as articulately as we can, our people are still sitting there wanting to understand why it matters. Notice how clever and careful Paul is in answering the “so what?” He tells Timothy why this is so important. And then in light of that what he must do. It’s there in verse 5. First, “Keep your head.” Pastoral ministry has all the potential for spinning your head off your shoulders. Beware the danger of becoming a fat head; so fat that you can’t get in your bedroom door at night, because you’re taking yourself too seriously. And there’s not a pillow manufacturer to fit your head. Balloon heads are useless for the gospel. The devil’s strategy is either to give you a balloon head and inflate your ego, or to give you a pinhead by telling you that you’re absolutely useless and you’ll never do anything at all. “Let no one among you think of himself more highly than he ought. But each with sober judgment according to the grace that has been given to us.” Don’t become a bobble head. Many a fellow or girl has stepped out from here with their head clearly on their shoulders, with the Gospel firmly in their sights, determined to be steady. Sadly for some they became ineffectual because their head grew fat, or became a pin dot, or it just bobbled around intrigued by every idea and fad. They lost sight of the plumb line of the Gospel itself.
Secondly, “endure hardship.” Pastoral ministry is no place for the weak-kneed and the feeble-hearted. Loudoun Parish Church in Ayrshire Scotland has been the scene of many famous ministers. The last Gaelic speaking minister at Loudoun Parish Church was a fellow by the name of Macleod. I think he only wrote one hymn. The opening line from his hymn is, “Courage Brother, do not stumble.” He wrote it to his fellow pastors. And listen to what he said in verse 2. “Some will love thee, some will hate thee, some will praise thee, some will slight. Cease from man and look above thee, trust in God and do what’s right.”
Thirdly, “Do the work of an evangelist.” “The cross,” said Augustine, “is the pulpit of God’s love, drawing people again and again to the cross, keeping evangelism at the very heart of all we’re doing.” Finally, “Discharge all the duties of our ministry.” Those duties are many – counseling one couple that is about to marry, and then a couple on the brink of separation. Attending the bedside of a youngster with stage 4 cancer, sharing the joys of the successful in the world of business, teaching parents, loving teenagers and being tender and compassionate to children. Who is sufficient for all these things? We shrink from the task to which we aspire as others before us. Murray M’Cheyne, February 15, 1835, “Tomorrow I undergo my trials before the presbytery. May God give me courage in the hour of need. What should I fear? If God see fit to put me in the ministry, who shall keep me back? If I be not fit, why should I go forward? To your service I desire to dedicate myself over and over again.”
In conclusion, two personal observations and a quote. I am a week away from my 56th birthday and I wish I could start in pastoral ministry all over again. I am jealous for you, and in some measure, I am rightfully jealous of your opportunity. My fear for you all is not that you will fail, but that you may actually succeed at the wrong things. If you leave here a Gospel man and a Gospel woman, bind yourself to a cross-centred ministry.
A quote from A. W. Tozer:
“Though I am chosen by you,” Tozer prays, “and honored by a high and holy calling, let me never forget that I am but a man of dust and ashes, a man with all the natural faults and passions that plague the race of man, I pray you therefore, my Lord and my Redeemer, save me from myself and from all the injuries I may do myself while endeavoring to bless others. Fill me with Your power by the Holy Spirit and I will go in strength and tell of Your righteousness. I will spread abroad the message of redeeming love, while my earthly life shall last.”
And if that is your conviction, I say to you, … “Steady” … “Steady as you go.” “Go steady.”
Alistair Begg is the senior pastor of Parkside Church in suburban Cleveland, Ohio.