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The Greatness and Glory of the Office of the Gospel Ministry

2 Corinthians 3:4-11

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

C. F. W. Walther

(Translated by Rev. Donald E. Heck)

Grace be with you, mercy, and peace from God the Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love. Amen.

Dear friends in Christ Jesus.

The office of the ministry is not merely a worthwhile human ordinance; it is not an arrangement as that of the teacher in the schools and the instructor in the workshops, which has been hit upon because it was seen that it was necessary and profitable that people be instructed also in religion. No, the office of the ministry has a higher origin; this office is a holy, divine office. The Most High God himself has established and chosen it as the usual way by which he wants to lead men to salvation.

This even the Old Testament states in simple language. In Jeremiah, in chapter 3, we read not only God's promise: "I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding," (V 15), but also Psalm 68 expressly says of the time of the Old Covenant: "Thou, O God, hast prepared of thy goodness for the poor. The Lord gave the word; great was the company of those that published it." (Vv 10b, 11). And in Joel we read: "Be glad then, ye children of Zion, and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he hath given you the former rain moderately (Luther: who gives you teachers for righteousness)." (Joel 2:23)

The New Testament says the same thing. St. Paul writes: "God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers. (I Cor 12:28). And again he writes: "And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the Word of Reconciliation." (2 Cor 5:18,19). What in this passage is ascribed to God the Father, in another passage is attributed to God the Son. We read: "He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things. And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers." (Eph 4:10,11).

Yet we dare not suppose that this concerns only those who were directly called by God and Christ into the office of the ministry, or that the call of ministers, who are called by congregations into their office, is only a human work, a human contract. No, Christ gave his Church the Office of the Kingdom of Heaven, so that as mistress she may in his name administer the treasures entrusted to her and with his authority fill the office with qualified persons. That is why Christ also exhorts his Christians to pray the Lord of the harvest for faithful laborers in his harvest. Hence, those ministers who are called indirectly through the Church are called by God, by Christ, hold a divine office, are not servants of men but servants of Christ and ambassadors of the Most High God. Paul also says that the Holy Ghost himself made the elders of Ephesus who were called indirectly through their congregation bishops to pastor the congregation of God which he purchased with his own blood.

God has also declared beyond a shadow of doubt by his deeds that the office of the ministry is not man's changeable ordinance but his own holy institution; for despite the raging and storming of Satan and the world against this office, God has preserved it from the beginning of the world until this hour for almost 6,000 years. During the early periods the first-born of every family was also its priest; later God chose the tribe of Levi and especially the family of Aaron to be the exclusive possessors of all priestly offices and rights among the Children of Israel. In the New Testament period first the twelve apostles and the seventy disciples were the ones whom Christ sent into all the world as heralds of his Gospel; and they in turn caused other persons to be appointed bishops or elders in the congregations started by them; thus this office has remained until this day.

So, many arrangements were discarded soon after they had been made; however, the office of the holy ministry has never, not for one hour, ceased to exist, not even in the time of greatest decay; at the present time this office is continually transmitted to more than 100,000. Thus God has actually proven: The office of the ministry is his work; that is why he has protected it so mightily, so that it could disappear in the Church as little as could marriage in the family and the government in the state. For if a work be of God it must endure; if it is of men it will come to naught. (Acts 5:38,39).

How important this is for us, my friends! How comforting, first of all for us ministers! Though we ministers may always be despised by the world, though they may call us miserable clerics from whom all the unrest in the world comes, and though in this world we may be ever so defenseless against countless hostile foes, this is our comfort: Our office is an office instituted by God himself; hence we are in the service of the most high Lord; he stands at our side; our affairs are his affairs; how dare we despair?

And how important this is also for you, my dear hearers! Then as long as he preaches God's Word to you, you can and should consider our minsters God's messenger whom He has sent to each of you in particular; then you can and should also be certain: every time he speaks to you from God's Word, God himself speaks to you; what he says to you for the salvation of your souls is said to you from heaven at God's command; his exhortations are God's exhortations, his warning God's warning, his comfort God's comfort. What greater grace and blessing could you experience than the one that you not only have God's written Word which is directed to all men, but that God also speaks to you by word of mouth and individually! Oh blessed the house in which such Christians assemble! There one must cry out with Jacob: "How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." (Gen 28:17).

But my friends, the office of the Gospel ministry is to be praised not only for its divine origin; its purpose is also great and holy; glorious and divine power are the means which are given it to attain its purpose. Therefore, permit me today to praise once more the office which I hold among you. May it be done to the honor of him who has founded it, and to the profit and benefit of you and me. We, therefore, pray God in silent prayer for his grace to teach and hear.

Scripture text: 2 Corinthians 3:4-11. And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth. For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious. [Return to top]

As you have heard, the Apostle Paul in the Epistle just read praises the office of the Gospel ministry, which he holds, as an office of boundless glory. He does this not from a vain, inordinate desire for fame, but because many false teachers had come among the Corinthians who had tried to belittle his office, in order thus to prevent the blessing which it had already brought among the Corinthians. In our day also and especially here in America the office of the Gospel ministry is almost universally an object of contempt: thus the blessing of God's Word within and outside the Church is hindered inexpressibly more than is usually believed. Let me today imitate the Apostle and glorify my office in speaking to you on

THE GREATNESS AND GLORY OF THE OFFICE OF THE GOSPEL MINISTRY

mentioning

  1. The Great Purpose Which it Has, and
  2. The Glorious Means Which are Given it to Attain This Purpose.

Oh Lord God heavenly Father, you have established the office which preaches the reconciliation among us. Alas, very many of us still have not known the great, boundless grace you have thus shown us and not to millions of others; for up to now your Word has been preached to so many in vain. Oh, therefore, cause this hour to come today for them when they perceive your grace and open their heart to you. You have promised: "I am found of them that sought me not; I said, Behold me, behold me, unto a nation that was not called by my name." (Isaiah 65:1). Therefore, if they do not seek you, do seek them; if they do not seize you, do seize them; yes, do more than we are able to ask and understand. Hear us for the sake of your infinite love which is in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1. The Great Purpose Which it Has]

When the Apostle Paul wanted to praise his office, he makes the following introduction in our Epistle: "And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward; not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God, who also hath made us able ministers of the New Testament, not of the letter, but of the spirit." (Vv 4-6a). Since Paul who, as is well known, was a learned and well educated man, declared that of himself he was absolutely and completely unfit to hold the office of the New Testament of the Gospel ministry, this office must truly have a higher purpose and a higher goal; they must be great things which are to be carried out by this office.

And so it is. A minister is not there to teach a little religion to those entrusted to him and establish an external arrangement among them. If a minister has brought his hearers to the point where they have a good religious knowledge, walk honorably, where drunkards leave drink, the curser his cursing, the spendthrift his carousing, the thief his stealing, if he has established decency, order, peaceableness and the like among them, he has not in the least fulfilled the purpose of his ministry.

The purpose of the office of the Gospel ministry is infinitely greater. Through it works which far surpass all human power, wisdom, skill, and labor are to be achieved; yes, no angel in heaven can achieve them. Through it greater wonders should be done than were the healing of the lame, the blind, the deaf, and the lepers, and the awakening of the dead which Christ once did. Yes, even the creation of all visible things is a work of lesser significance than the work for which the minister of the Gospel is called.

For what is the purpose and goal of his office? Through it the harvest of the seed of his bloody suffering should be brought to Christ, that is, fallen mankind; a mankind dearly redeemed by Christ the Son of God should be brought to partake of this redemption, hence, should be delivered from all their sins and their spiritual and physical misery and be made eternally blessed. What a work, what an assignment this is! Bear in mind: By nature all men are found in the kingdom of darkness, sin, and death; they should not only be delivered from it through the office of the ministry but also be transplanted into the kingdom of light, righteousness, life, and salvation. Before God's Word works in them mankind resembles a primeval forest full of ravening animals, snakes, and beasts of prey, full of swamps and precipices, full of thorns, thistles, and prickly briers, whilst the thickly intertwined limbs of oaks 1,000 years old let not a ray of sunlight penetrate the dark damp ground; and this spiritual forest the minister is to cultivate and turn into a beautiful flowering garden of God, into a spiritual paradise.

Do not think that I exaggerate. God's Word itself describes the work of the minister of the Gospel in no other way. St. Paul writes that if Timothy carries out his duties correctly he would save himself and those who hear him. Christ said to Paul when he called him into this office: He sends him to men "to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me." (Acts 26:18). From this you clearly see: A minister has the assignment of battling against the devil and delivering and converting all whose pastor he is called to be from his power, to bring everyone to faith, and if he has come to faith to watch over him so that he does not fall away again, in good and evil days to be at his side upon the way to life with counsel, exhortation, warning, and comfort, and finally lead him through the last conflict into the heavenly kingdom. So what miracle is to take place in and to the souls of men through a minister? He is to make the spiritually dead alive, give the spiritually blind sight, make the spiritual lepers clean, cause the spiritually deaf to hear, make the spiritually dumb speak, cause the spiritually lame and halt to walk!

He is to awaken those from their spiritual sleep, who live on securely and unconcernedly and think they need concern themselves neither about heaven nor hell, so that they also finally become restless and worried about their soul's salvation, perceive the danger of being lost, and, therefore, earnestly ask: "What must we do to be saved?"

He is not only to teach those God's counsel to salvation who do not know the way to salvation but are possessed and blinded by a thousand prejudices; he is also to make such an impression that their understanding is enlightened by the light of Christian knowledge and their heart warmed by God. He is to free those who love sin and are bound by it with bonds which they themselves cannot tear, so that at last they detest even their pet sins, regret them, and breaking forth in tears says: "What have I done? Father I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son."

He is to bring those who seek their heaven on earth and place their happiness and blessedness in the things or joys or honor of this world to the point where they loathe the world and say: "Farewell, world! I am tired of you; I want to go to heaven. Oh glory of the world, I will have nothing to do with you."

He is to bring those who are self-righteous, consider themselves virtuous and worthy of eternal reward because they live blamelessly before the world to the point where they learn to become poor sinners, smite their breast, and say with the publican: "God be merciful to me a sinner!" He is to bring those to whom the Gospel is foolishness, who want to build on their reason and belong to the enlightened and wise of this world to the point where they cry out with Paul: "I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord." (Phil 3:8). He the Crucified is my wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. (I Cor 1:30).

If a minister has thus robbed hell of its booty, and brought these souls to Christ, and if they were all who were entrusted to him, he still has not completed the work he was charged with. He must also watch as a watchman on the battlement day and night, seeing whether the danger of being misled or the danger of apostasy might not threaten those rescued souls. As a spiritual father he must try to nourish, strengthen, and educate his spiritual children, so that they, as Paul writes, "all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive, but speaking the truth in love, may grow up unto him in all things, which is the head, even Christ." (Eph 4:13-15).

A minister must faithfully see to it that no one in his congregation wanders off in life or doctrine. If wolves in sheep's clothing draw near, that is, false teachers with a holy air, he must boldly warn against them, reveal and reprimand their false doctrine, and thus battle against them; on the other hand, he must earnestly defend the pure doctrine and not omit one iota, whether peace or discord is the result, whether he may be praised or reviled. If sins, offenses, dangerous customs, imitating the world, and the like force their way into the congregation, he must quickly oppose them, reprimand, threaten, exhort, and block them, whether it is the right time or not, whether his hearers like it or not, whether it makes friends or foes for him, whether it brings him honor or disgrace.

If he sees a weak lamb in his flock, he must strengthen it; if he sees one which is sick, he must wait upon and nurse it; if he sees one which is depressed and assailed, he must comfort it; if he sees one who has fallen, he must lift it up; if he sees one who is lost, he must go after it and search for it and not rest until he has found and can carry it home again on his shoulders to the faithful flock. He must place himself in the gap in the congregation and make up the hedge against corruption and against the punishment and judgment of God which descends. He must be a light which shines in all homes; he must be the salt of the earth which wards off the corruption of error and sin; he must be the physician who in all the sicknesses of the soul gives the correct medicine and properly binds wounds; he must be the intercessor who daily places himself before God; he must be a mother who with a mother's love bears all in his heart; he must in a word be the good shepherd who feeds and fights, teaches and defends, and in danger does not flee like the hireling but is ready to give his life for the sheep. Therefore he must be able to say some day to God: "Here I am and all the children whom you have given me; count them, Lord; see, I have lost none of them."

There you see, my friends, what an office the office of the ministry of the Gospel is! Which office is a higher, holier, and more blessed one than this one whereby the kingdom of darkness is destroyed and heaven is opened, whereby immortal souls dearly bought by God's blood are torn from the jaws of hell, rescued from eternal ruin, led back to God, and made eternally blessed? What is the office of an emperor or a king in comparison to such an office which rescues souls? What are all the other victories on the battlefields in comparison to the victory of such a spiritual soldier? As the soul is worth much more than the body, as heaven and eternity is much more important than the world and time, so much more precious are the works of the office of the ministry than any other office in the world. Oh, how every minister should consider all labor, toil, and worry, all disgrace and contempt, all persecution, yes, death and whatever he must bear and endure for the sake of his office as nothing in comparison to the honor of holding such a glorious office! Then though he may be pilloried his monuments are imperishable: they are immortal souls rescued through him.

However, we must not only exclaim in this connection: Who is worthy to hold this office? but also: Who is capable of holding it? If someone intends to take upon himself such an office must he not be frightened when he hears that the apostle not only says: "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves," but also adds: "As they that must give account"? (Heb 13:17). Must he not be frightened when he hears what the Lord himself says: "Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life, the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at thine hand." (Ezek 3:17,18).

This heavy responsibility for souls entrusted to him which God alone has placed upon his servants in carrying out the duties of their office would surely frighten everyone who is to assume it or has assumed it if God had not also given the means which they need to attain the high purpose of their ministry. The greatness and glory of the office of the Gospel ministry consists secondly in this: that God has given it such glorious, powerful means. Permit me to add a few words about this.

[2. The Glorious Means Which are Given it to Attain This Purpose]

After the apostle had said in our text that God has made him able to hold the office of the New Testament, he adds: "Not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel would not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance, which glory was to be done away, how shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory." (Vv. 6-9). In these words Paul compares his office, which he calls the ministration of the New Testament and the Spirit, with another office which he calls the ministration of the letter which is built of stone. What the apostle means by this is as plain as day; he means the ministration of the Old Testament, or the ministration of the Law, which as you know was once written on two tables of stone.

Why, my dear hearers, does the apostle exalt his office, the ministration of the New Testament, so much more and so much higher than the ministration of the Old Testament? Because this was the ministration of the letter or the Law; on the other hand, his office was the ministration of the spirit or the Gospel. Hence it was the Gospel which Paul was called to preach for which sake he ascribed to his ministration great glory, and it is that which makes the ministry of the Gospel so glorious even now.

It is true, my friends: Even a Gospel preacher must preach the Law. He must show his hearers what God demands of all and what he threatens the transgressors of the Law. His hearers must learn to know that they are sinners. They are to become frightened at themselves, despair of themselves, and become hungry and thirsty for God's grace in Christ.

If we preachers had no other teaching than the Law, then we would be in a sorry state; then we could never attain in one soul the high purpose of our office -- rescuing souls, leading them to God, and saving them. The Law indeed says what a person must do, but it does not show how it is possible for him to do it. The Law indeed says: Keep the Law perfectly and you will be saved; but it does not say how one keeps it; indeed, it shouts in all the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt, thou shalt!" but it gives no power to do what one must do. The Law indeed shows what man lacks, but it cannot give him what he lacks; it can indeed reveal the sickness of his soul, but it cannot heal; it reveals to man his sins but does not show how he can be rescued from sin; it announces to all man God's wrath and damnation because they are sinners, but how a sinner and transgressor of the Law can still receive grace and be saved the Law knows nothing.

Usually the Law is not understood correctly; most, therefore, think that they could stand before God as long as their lives are outwardly honorable; in this way the Law makes only hypocrites. But if the Law is understood correctly, if a person perceives that the Law is spiritual and must be fulfilled with one's whole heart, then the Law hurls one into despair, death, hell, and damnation. The apostle, therefore, says in our text: "The letter killeth," that is, the Law only hurls one to the ground.

Woe, therefore, to us ministers if we had nothing to preach except the Law! Our hearers would indeed become hungry but never satisfied; they would be frightened out of their security but they would never have peace; they would indeed learn to know their misery, but they would be without help and deliverance; the anxious question would be enticed from their lips: "What should we do to be saved?" but we would have no answer for them. And if we would proclaim God's Law until Judgment Day ever so earnestly, not one human heart would be made alive, not one person would be truly converted to God.

But happy may we be! A means has been given us which is so glorious, so precious, so mighty, so divinely powerful, that it does that miracle in all who are struck down and killed by the Law, who are given into the care of a minister of the Gospel; and this glorious, precious, mighty, powerful means from God is the Gospel, namely: The joyous news: "This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners," 1 Timothy 1:15; the joyous news: "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life," John 3:16; the joyous news: Jesus sinners doth receive; he is a Physician for the sick and the weak and not for the healthy and the strong. See, this message of the righteousness of grace turns the office of the Gospel ministry into an office of the spirit which makes alive; this gives him the greater glory with which it far surpasses the glory of the office of Moses, the office of the letter, the ministration of the Law.

Oh glorious office! if it weighs heavily on one's heart that he must keep God's commandments perfectly and yet cannot keep them, and he asks us: What must I do that I may be saved? we dare and should answer him: "Christ is the end of the Law;" believe in him and you will be saved. Oh glorious ministry! If a person has come to a living knowledge of sin and now he asks: What must I do to erase my infinite guilt and become clean? we dare and should answer: "The blood of Jesus Christ, God's Son, cleanseth us from all sin." (I John 1:7).

Oh glorious ministry! if a person perceives that without sanctification he cannot see the Lord, even if he is pardoned, and now asks: Whence do I receive power for a new life? we dare and should answer him: Simply enter in by faith in Jesus; for without Him you can do nothing, but through Him who strengthens you, you can do all things. Oh glorious ministry: if a person comes to us and says: Alas, once I was a Christian and was so blessed. But I have let sin deceive me; I have fallen, fallen deeply, very deep; is there still help for me? we dare and should reply: Yes, there is still help even for you; just do not try to help yourself; give yourself to Jesus, for he has ascended on high, and has led captivity captive, and has received gifts for men, yes, for the rebellious also!

Oh, glorious ministry! Though a person's soul may be ever so sick, we can heal him through the Gospel; though he may have sunk ever so deeply into the ruin of sin; through the Gospel we can tear him free; though he may be ever so depressed, frightened, and tempted, through the Gospel we can comfort him; yes, in whatever condition a person may be, and though he thinks that it is all over for him, he must be lost, then we can confidently greet him and say: No, as truly as God lives, he does not want the death of the sinner, not even your death; you need not be lost, you also should be saved; turn to Jesus; he can forever save all who come to God through him. And if not until death a sinner cries out: Oh God, what have I done? Woe is me! Now it is too late! I am lost! we can and should say to him: No, no, not too late! not lost! Commit your departing soul to Jesus and today you will also be with him in paradise.

Oh, glorious, high ministry, too high for angels! Oh, may we always treasure it highly, not look at the person who holds it and because he is weak and sinful despise it; let us rather look to the Founder of this ministry, really know and faithfully use his boundless goodness which he shows us through his glorious ministry. Then we will also experience the blessings of his ministry and through it be some day gathered as full ripe sheaves in the granary of heaven. Amen.



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