It doesn’t happen often, but there are times when I am out to dinner with my wife, and I am absolutely blown away by the meal we are eating. The dish is masterfully composed and beautifully presented. The textures are varied, and the flavors are distinct yet combined to provide a complex, satisfying mouthfeel.
With each bite, I try to taste every flavor individually and in combination, trying to reverse-engineer the dish. In my mind, the process is similar to Russell Crowe’s character cracking codes in “A Beautiful Mind.” It’s probably not that impressive, but, in the moment, I am trying to take a broad field of potential data and determine how a dish came together so that I can replicate it in my own kitchen.
I love to cook, and this reverse engineering process allows me to test the limits of my skill and knowledge in the kitchen. Sometimes I can talk to the chef and get an idea about some of their process. Other times, I just try to recreate that dish through trial and error. What was added? What was left out? How long and with what method was it cooked in order for these simple ingredients to meld into such majestic, complex flavors?
Ultimately the question I am seeking to answer is: Can I, based on the ingredients that I know are present and the ones that I taste (or think I taste), reproduce this dish in my own home?
I do that same work of reverse engineering when I consider the lives of men who are fathers in the faith, men who have finished the race well. Their lives stand out against the backdrop of stories of Christians who had the appearance of faithful, effective gospel witness but instead crash-landed in scandal. I look at those examples of faithfulness with the same sorts of questions that I have when I encounter a masterfully composed meal.
How did they minister with such enduring faithfulness? How did they preach and write with such a timely and timeless voice? What pursuits and practices did they have that grounded them in a life of faithfulness to Jesus?
A few years ago, I was at a gathering of church planters and aspiring church planters. As I observed the conversations and listened to the presentations, there was something that stood out to me about the way we talk about church planting.
We spend a lot of time talking about starting and what ingredients need to be present to start well. However, we don’t spend as much time talking about what it will take to finish well. We spend a lot of time weighing out how to expand our platform and increase our fame, but not as much about what it will take to have a long life of faithfulness as a minister.
Our problem is that too often, we assume that anything worthwhile can and must be acquired or achieved quickly and, more often than not, in our own strength. But the Christian life looks more like what Eugene Peterson called “a long obedience in the same direction.” We think fast and famous, but the way of kingdom discipleship is long obedience and a desire to be a faithful finisher.
The Ingredients of a Faithful Finisher
A few years ago, I was scheduled to preach Paul’s testimony in 2 Timothy 4.
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time for my departure is close. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. There is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me, but to all those who have loved his appearing (2 Tim. 4:6–8, CSB).
When I read the text, I was a little overwhelmed by trying to preach it as a young man. Those are finishing words. I was very early in my pastoral work, just a few steps into my long obedience. But then it dawned on me that I needed to apply the same kind of reverse-engineering process that I do over a delicious meal and ask, “What ingredients went into a life and ministry that ended in a faithful finish when so many shipwreck their own faith and the faith of others through failure?”
Fortunately, as you examine Paul’s writings and life, you can observe some of the ingredients that led to that incredible testimony.
Paul Never Got Over the Gospel
For Paul, his course was set on the day he encountered Jesus on that road to Damascus. In a flash, he went from “alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds” (Col. 1:21) to “chosen instrument” of Christ, called to carry his name “before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15).
That moment of transformation was so decisive for him that later in his life, he recounts to Timothy,
I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an arrogant man. But I received mercy because I acted out of ignorance in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them. But I received mercy for this reason, so that in me, the worst of them, Christ Jesus might demonstrate his extraordinary patience as an example to those who would believe in him for eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Tim. 1:13–17, CSB)
Throughout his letters, Paul gives us beautiful gospel vistas meant to awaken that kind of gratitude and worship in our souls. This gospel wasn’t just the content of theological reflection or communication for him. The gospel was what fueled his worship and grounded all his ministry.
When you are consistently reflecting on God’s grace toward you, there is no room for arrogance and pride. When you are consistently reflecting on the grace of God toward you, you can pastor even in the toughest of times with a sense that the grace of God can powerfully transform even this hard situation or hardened person. When you are consistently reflecting on this gospel, you feel the freedom to admit weakness and confess sin because you know the depths of the riches of God’s mercy. When you are consistently reflecting on the grace of God toward you, you can walk with patience, gentleness, and humility with other sinners around you because you are always aware of God’s “extraordinary patience” and mercy toward you at your worst.
Pastor, when was the last time you looked over your life and reflected on where God met you and from where and from what he rescued you? When was the last time you rejoiced over how he snatched you up out of the miry clay and set your feet on the solid rock? When was the last time you reflected on how God made you alive to himself with Christ when you were dead in your sins? When was the last time you meditated on the reality that all you brought to your salvation was your sin and need but that God supplied you with enough riches of his grace in kindness toward you that eternity won’t be enough time to tell it all?
That kind of reflection and remembering will keep your heart alive in worship, burdened for the lost, patient with the sinner, and steady in hardship.
Paul Lived with Discipline
When we watch a great athlete perform at the highest levels, we often say something like, “He’s just built different.” Often it is the case, at least in part, that they have impressive natural gifts that surpass a large majority of humanity. But what we often miss is that the greatness and longevity of their careers is built on the foundation of discipline—discipline about what they do with their time, how much they rest, what they put into their bodies, how they train, how they recover. Most often, it’s not just that they are built “different,” but because they were built through discipline.
They live with that kind of discipline because they have a singular focus in their life to be the best. How much more do we, as ministers of the gospel, have reason to live with a singular focus?
Paul told the Philippian church that the singular focus of his life was to know Christ. In fact, he goes so far as to say, “I consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8). When he found Jesus, Paul burned his resume and deemed every other pursuit “dung” because having Christ was all he wanted to give his energy to.
“We can finish faithfully because the one waiting for us at the finish will be faithful to his Word, faithful to his promises, and faithful to us.”—Brian Key
That personal discipline gave shape to his ministry. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:26–27).
Paul lived a life of discipline and self-control because the fulfillment of his apostolic calling and the goal of advancing the gospel was at the forefront of his mind. Like an athlete, that meant he had to make decisions that kept him focused on and working toward his end goal.
For us as pastors, that will mean that we need to be constantly taking into consideration what we are doing with our time, what we are feeding our bodies and souls with, how well we are resting and recovering, how we are training our souls toward godliness and our hands toward a pastoral ministry shaped more by the ways of Jesus than the leadership principles of the world around us.
Paul Embraced His Weakness
Gallons of ink have been spilled, and reams of paper have been printed arguing about the nature of the thorn in Paul’s flesh in 2 Corinthians 12:7. Whatever it was, he reports that it kept him from being conceited about the great revelations that he had seen, and constantly aware of his weakness and insufficiency to fulfill his calling on his own. In his agony over this thorn and the weakness it produced, the Lord promised Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Paul’s response is that if embracing the way of weakness gets him more of Jesus, he would gladly boast about his weakness. Jesus promised that he would display his power through Paul’s weakness and suffering, and Paul embraced that promise because what he cared about most was the exaltation of the resurrected Christ who had saved him. Embracing weakness emptied him of pride and self-sufficiency, creating space for the power of Christ to reside in him and work itself out through him.
One of the great challenges of pastoral ministry is the sense of arrogance and pride that can seep into our souls as we stand up to declare the beauty of the gospel every week. People look to us as men who have special knowledge and access to God, and if we are not careful, we can start to believe our own press clippings. God uses weakness and suffering to protect us from that drift and remind us of our great need for him.
That neediness is the posture of someone who takes Jesus at his words in John 15:5, that apart from him, we can do nothing. We are too weak, too sinful, and too wayward to accomplish anything in our strength. The way of the world and the “super-apostle” is to boast in our own strength, the reach of our platforms, or the size of our following. But the way of the cross is the way of weakness and suffering.
Embracing weakness is critical for our longevity in ministry because God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. For those who are weak and sinful—and willing to admit it—he always has more grace. Embracing weakness leaves no glory on the table for us to take ownership of and leaves the results of our ministry pointing to where it should all along: the immeasurable power, grace, mercy, and glory of God alone.
Paul Kept the End in View
At the end of that powerful testimony in 2 Timothy 4:8, Paul concludes the thought by saying, “There is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me, but to all those who have loved his appearing.”
I am not much of a runner. For me, running long distances if not a pleasurable activity for fitness. The only reason that you might ever catch me running long distances is that I am fleeing something that hasn’t stopped chasing me yet. However, on the rare occasion that I have decided to put myself through the pain of a longer run, the only way that I am able to find the endurance to finish is to have a clear end in view. The finish line keeps me focused and encouraged, even as pain overtakes my body and everything inside of me wants to quit.
For Paul, the end motivated faithfulness because he knew that he was going to give an account and receive commendation for faithfulness “on that day.” We see in other places that the end, specifically our resurrection hope, kept him from being distracted from worldly pursuits (Phil. 3:20), and from being discouraged when he was enduring deep suffering in ministry (2 Cor. 4:16–18).
In the long obedience of pastoral ministry, we must minister with the end in view. All battles against sin—in ourselves and among our people—have an end date. All the wounds of persecution, abandonment, slander, and hardship have an end date. All the relational suffering and harm that we bear witness to and counsel people through have an end date. All the suffering and death that we pastor people through have an end date.
It is critical as we seek to endure in ministry that we keep the righteous Judge, the merciful redeemer, and our resurrection hope in view. He promises that he will wipe away all tears and make all things new (Rev. 21:4). That includes all the hardship we have endured, mourning we have done, and tears we have cried in pastoral ministry.
We can finish faithfully because the one waiting for us at the finish will be faithful to his Word, faithful to his promises, and faithful to us.
Seasoned pastor, watch your doctrine and life, and work hard to be a faithful finisher who also teaches younger pastors how to be faithful finishers. Younger pastor, watch your doctrine and life. Focus on what it will take to be faithful ministers with character and who finish well because you purpose to be faithful rather than fast and famous.
Several years ago, I was introduced to the ministry of the man whom our seminary is named after–Dr. Francis J. Grimké. I was blown away by his example of faithfulness, a man who remained at the same church for much of his five decades of ministry. Fifty years—all in one place. That kind of longevity and faithfulness is virtually unheard of these days. Francis Grimké is a powerful example of a faithful finisher.
In a world where the sinful, scandalous abuse of power threatens to cloud out the authority and beauty of the gospel we preach, we need faithful preachers like Grimké, who called the pulpit toward holiness. In a world where many ministers are moving fast and pursuing fame in ministry, we need men who, like Grimké, are faithful and finish well.
May God raise up a new generation of faithful finishers in our day.