A Half Century of Ministry: What I Do Not Regret

I began pastoring Unity Baptist Church of Kimberly, Alabama, in November of 1962 and was ordained the next December 2. So, we’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of this (ahem) significant milepost.

I expect the Today Show to call any day now.

The normal thing is for a minister to look back and tell of his regrets, what he wishes he had done, had done better, or wishes he had not done at all. And who doesn’t have some of those? I confess to wondering about people who say, “If I had it to do over, I’d live my life exactly the same way.” We would, of course, if we were as ignorant as we were the first time through. But you’d like to think you’ve learned something on the first loop that would restrain you from the foolishness that marked the earlier passage.

Therefore, I’d like to begin this series–which I expect to add to throughout the rest of 2012 as things occur–with Three Things I do not regret from a half-century of ministry.

1. I do not regret not preaching on hell more.

Pastor Jim Wilson wrote some years back of his conversation with Evangelist Billy Graham in which he asked if he had regrets concerning his preaching. Dr. Graham regretted not preaching on hell more duirng his long ministry.

I don’t.

I did preach on hell, don’t get me wrong. But I did not do as some preachers I know and go to seed on it. The gospel is not that people are going to hell. The gospel of Jesus Christ is that, thanks to His death, burial and resurrection, no one need ever go to hell.

The reality and doctrine of hell are effective motivators, I’m fully aware. When onetime atheist Danny French read Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth” some 30 years ago, he told me later it literally “scared the hell out of me.” As a result, Danny had become a believer and active church member. (Is he still active in church and still serving the Lord? It would be interesting to know. I expect the motivation of fear wears off pretty rapidly and other factors have to be present, otherwise the convert falls away.)

I believe in the reality of hell. I preach it. I’ve written on this website of its necessity. If there is no hell, there is no justice in the universe.

Hell is prominent in the teachings of Jesus, and we figure that if anyone knew, the Lord of Heaven and earth would be the One.

It is not, however, as prominent in the preachings of the disciples throughout the rest of the Bible. Admittedly, we do not have a complete record of what they preached, but based on Acts and the various epistles, a more balanced presentation of the gospel of Jesus made up their messages. (Why is that important? We look to the rest of the New Testament to guide us in assessing and interpreting the message of the four Gospels. We assume this to be the “norm” for the Church. It’s part of what we mean by being “New Testament Christians.”)

A church not far from where we lived in Mississippi seemed to have had a hell-focused ministry. One day their sign read “Repent or burn in hell forever.” The other side of the sign asked, “Parents, are you driving your children to hell?”

I grieved at that. While it may sometimes be true that “the fearsomeness of judgment produces repentance,” a better message–and the consistent word of the New Testament–is “the goodness of God leads to repentance” (Romans 2:4).

No one should interpret this as encouraging any preacher to shy away from declaring the reality of judgment and the certainty of hell for unbelievers and evildoers.

It’s just not our central message. That is my point.

2. I do not regret not preaching on prophecy more.

Not in the least.

A word of explanation. By “prophecy,” I do not mean the basic teachings concerning the return of Christ, the judgment of all mankind, and the rewards/punishment which follow. Rather, our use of the term here refers to the nitty gritty details involving antichrists, desolation of abominations, rapture, millennial reigns, marks of the beast, and so forth.

One of my part-time college jobs took place at a combination print shop/Christian bookstore/radio ministry. The pastor who co-owned this shop was a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and a truly fine man. He had a strong following in Birmingham during those years. One of my multiple assignments was typing notes for the handouts and mailouts in his radio ministry and home Bible classes. He was big into prophecy.

While I adored much about the man, even then–a full two years before God called me into the ministry–I recoiled at the specificity of his teachings on prophecy. He had it all worked out. If you disagreed with him, you were wrong.

I’ve never known a teacher on Bible prophecy who did not have it all worked out.

The fact that one expert’s teachings were completely at odds with most everyone else’s did not seem to matter. As a fellow said, “My pastor’s not always right, but he’s never in doubt.”

That’s my observation about prophecy teachers.

I told one lady in my last pastorate, responding to her continual badgering to allow her to teach Bible prophecy in the church, “We will give you a classroom and a time slot. We will announce your class and help you promote it. The one thing I ask from you in return is that at the end of each session, you speak these words: ‘I could be wrong. But that’s how it seems to me.'”

“Oh no,” she declared, almost offended by the suggestion. “I could never do that. I know these things.”

“Then, that’s the end of it,” I said. And while she was unhappy with me to the end of her days, I never once regretted it.

Did I ever preach on prophecy? Any preacher who declares the whole counsel of God cannot escape it. It’s in Matthew 24 and Mark 13 and I Thessalonians 4 and in Daniel and Ezekiel and Revelation. Of course, I did.

What I’m saying here is that I do not regret not having gone to seed on the subject the way a number of my colleagues did. Many a prophecy expert has doubtless come down to the end of his ministry and realized that so much of what he declared as God’s truth was merely his opinion elevated to divine certainty. He did not do so intentionally–certainly not–but by neglecting the weightier matters of the Word and majoring on a minor emphasis, He misled a great many people.

And that is eminently regrettable.

3. I do not regret all the times I preached on the cross of Jesus.

If I went to seed on anything, it was that.

Evidently, we were in good company. “We preach Christ crucified,” Paul said. “To the Jews a stumblingblock, and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (Romans 1:23-24). He said, “Had (the rulers of this age) known (the centrality of the cross in God’s plan), they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (Romans 2:8).

Some years back, when I was pastoring and had a budget for such, I accumulated a series of annual collections of sermons by well-known pastors around the country. Each message was followed by an analysis by another preacher. I still own the set and refer to them occasionally for ideas. However, I spotted a trend in the sermons that should not go unnoticed: Most of the pastors preferred to preach about Jesus’ life rather than His death.

And yet, His death–including all that it achieved and all that followed–was the whole point of His coming. “The Son of Man (came) to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). “For this cause I was born and for this cause I have come into the world,” Jesus said (John 18:37).

The cross of Jesus is taught and exemplified all through Scripture. The ram caught in the thickets took the place of Isaac, just as the Lord Jesus took ours (Genesis 22). The Passover lamb’s blood upon the doorpost (Exodus 12) demonstrates the power of the blood of Jesus which takes away all our sin (I John 1:7).

That was the point of John the Baptist calling out twice, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29,36) He was the Passover Lamb (I Corinthians 5:7).

And this one which has a special significance to me:

Exodus 20, the chapter that gives us the 10 Commandments the first time, also includes plans for an altar. I find that completely amazing and a rebuke to anyone thinking “all I need to do is keep the ten commandments.”

I suggest that when you hear someone say that, you reply: a) Tell me what they are; b) tell me where they are located; c) why have you not kept even the first one? and d) why, then, does the same chapter that lists these commandments provide for an altar?

An altar of earth you shall make for me…. And if you make an altar of stone, you shall not build on it of hewn stone; for if you use your tool on it, you have profaned it (Exodus 20:24-25).

Since the Old Testament altars prefigured (pointed toward) the cross of Jesus, we have here an eloquent statement from the Heavenly Father that:

a) Keeping these Ten Commandments would not be enough.

b) Keeping the commandments would be impossible.

c) Keeping the Commandments is not the point. They are to give us God’s standards in order to make us aware of our sin which in turn drives us to our knees in humility, repentance and faith. As Paul taught in Galatians 3:24, the Law is God’s schoolmaster (tutor) to bring us to Christ.

d) After failing to live up to God’s standards (the point of Romans 3:23), His people would be needing a way back into His presence. That would require an altar.

e) The altar must not be improved on by humans who want to pretty it up. The cross is a place of death, of blood and gore, of shame and misery. This is what our sins have caused; this is what God’s love has provided; this is what grace looks like.

When we try to improve on what God has done, we pollute it and nullify its effect.

f) God’s salvation from beginning to end is all about the cross.

For good reason, Revelation repeatedly refers to Jesus as “the Lamb who was slain.”

Anyone preaching on the cross of Jesus necessarily finds himself quoting the Apostle Paul, for he said so much first and said it best. “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

Maybe we’ll do an article on “Things About Which I Boast,” the cross of Jesus being first and foremost.

To be fair, the next in this series should focus on the actual regrets which I do have from a half-century shepherding the Lord’s people and pastoring His churches. That article may be the longest one in history.

3 thoughts on “A Half Century of Ministry: What I Do Not Regret

  1. Any servant of Christ who does not have regrets is more likely a victim of poor memory than of perfect service. Thanks for pointing out the altar and relationship to the Law, I’d never seen that particular connection before, but it’s likely my people will hear about it by Easter!

  2. Joe; Some years ago a Pastor was visitng and on one visit he was talking with a young lady who had had a heart transplant and was doing fine. In the conversation she said,”I do not know why God has been so good to me at this point in my life.” The Pastor related to her and read from the book of Romans 2:4. “Or despiseth thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” That day she accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior and was later baptized into the fellowship of the church where the Pastor was serving. Preaching on the goodness and longsuffering of God will bring men, women, boys, girls to repentance and faith in Christ.

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