”I’ve never been asked that question before”
We were enjoying our first neighborhood party in more than a year—the first real opportunity we’d had for personal conversation post-pandemic—when the conversation turned to religion. Our neighbors know I’m a pastor and that I teach at a theological school, and they’ll often make clear to me how philosophically opposite they are from what they’re sure I believe. As we sat among this circle of families from our block, my friend began to explain his disapproval of the institutional church and Christians. As he saw it, Christians are an “angry, hateful, and hurtful” group. But, despite this, he still believed that he should live by the ethic he learned as a boy in his mainline church. I prayed silently about how to use this smiling garden-party assault into a gospel opportunity. “Ok,” I said, “but what do you believe about the person of Jesus?” His response stuck with me. He said, “I’ve never been asked that question before.”
As my wife and I regrouped after the party we talked about the stories we’d heard catching up with our friends that evening. Then we prayed for the gospel to spread through our little mission village. As I went to sleep, the evening’s experience turned my mind once again to Jesus’ strategy for spreading his gospel amongst those who’ve never been asked that question—the sea of the lost and helpless for whom he had such compassion.
Matthew 9:35–38 reveals that the “tip of the spear” of Jesus’ compassionate strategy is the sending of laborers into the Lord’s harvest, laborers in His word who not only evangelize, edify, and equip the saints but who invest their lives in sending the next generation of laborers in His word. It’s easy to take this for granted, but it is for this strategy that he tells his disciples to earnestly pray. As Christ’s plan unfolds in the New Testament, we see that he answers his disciple’s prayer himself by sending His laborers to His field. In Ephesians 4:7–12 the exalted Christ gives gifts of laborers in His word to evangelize, edify, and equip the people he has purchased for himself (Eph. 2:11–22). And when Paul, the apostle whom Christ first gave to the nations, describes how these laborers in His word would be perpetuated beyond the period of the New Testament, he entrusted this very same strategy to his son in Christ’s service, Timothy. Second Timothy 2:2 discloses how Christ still sends laborers into his field from one generation to the next—faithful pastors investing biblical convictions (“what you have heard”), character (“faithful”), and competencies (“able to teach others”) in the next generation of pastors, and the next, until the end of the age.
Old Princeton and Westminster’s Strategy
It was this, Christ’s plan for generating generations of his laborers, that animated Westminster’s forefathers at Old Princeton. There, B.B. Warfield sought to inspire his pastoral students in the stewardship of their theological education by emphasizing the impact of their ministry (particularly preaching) on those still dead in their sin:
Old Cotton Mather wrote a great little book once, to serve as a guide to students for the ministry. . . by a stroke of genius he added a sub-title. . . The angels preparing to sound the trumpets. This what Cotton Mather calls you, students for the ministry: the angels, preparing to sound the trumpets! Take the name to yourselves and live up to it. Give your days and nights to living up to it! And then, perhaps, when you come to sound the trumpets, the note will be pure and clear and strong, and perchance may even pierce the grave and wake the dead.
In other words, what motivated the Lion of Princeton and his colleagues in their passing on of Old Princeton’s Calvinism was the promise of an army of preachers for the Church to send into the harvest field to fulfill Christ’s mission of compassion for the nations.
This commitment has animated pastoral training at Westminster Theological Seminary since its inception. There is no more poignant example than Professor John Murray’s “Welcome to incoming students,” delivered in the summer of 1944, just weeks after allied forces had paid incredible costs on the beaches of Normandy. Murray, himself a wounded veteran of WWI, took this opportunity, in that context, to orient the generation of seminarians before him to the high call and eternal consequences of the training they were about to receive:
In a very peculiar and pre-eminent sense you are here as good soldiers of Jesus Christ, and as such you are performing the highest service to God, and to Caesar. You are performing, even to your country, to the United Nations, yes, to the world, the highest ministry that can be rendered. For you are preparing yourselves in pursuance of a divine call for the ministry of the word without which the whole world perishes in sin, in misery and death. You are training for the most militant service in that kingdom which is an everlasting kingdom and in that dominion which shall not be destroyed. . .
The tradition of theological education in which Westminster stands has as its heart and as its goal the equipping of pastors to be sent to the multitudes in the name of Christ to proclaim the word of Christ. So, it must remain our conviction today if we share Christ’s heart for our neighbors, the nations, and the multitudes he has already gathered into His church. To that end we must surely embrace his strategy by investing our lives in the next generation of pastors who will proclaim His word publicly, privately, and personally as preachers, teachers, evangelists, counselors, and leaders in Christ’s great commission.
Westminster’s Pastoral Strategy for the Church Today
What this means for Westminster’s pastoral curriculum today is a deeper commitment to training the pastors the church needs. We’re doing this by implementing a new 3+1 Pastoral M.Div. program. This commitment takes shape in two ways. First, the three-year pastoral theology curriculum has been enhanced to provide twice as many preaching, leadership, and evangelism and missions courses than previously offered, and now requires three courses in pastoral care and counseling. Additionally, during those three years students will receive 400 hours of faculty- to-student group mentoring along with opportunities for supervised field experience in local churches, global missions, and urban ministry. This is in addition to opportunities for short-term international study trips in biblical studies and church history. Finally, each student’s preparation for ministry in the M.Div. pastoral program at Westminster will culminate in a yearlong church residency. Just as new physicians need supervision as they begin a practice, physicians of the soul need accountability and guidance as they set out in ministry.
This entire pastoral theology program has been prayerfully designed to equip men for the rigors of today’s pastorate. It calls for our students, the churches that send them, and the seminary that trains them to count the cost of preparation for the “highest ministry that can be rendered…without which the whole world perishes in sin, misery, and death.” But we believe, with those who have gone before us, that the cost and the commitment of sending Christ’s laborers into His harvest field is worth it.
Yet we are also deeply aware of our own inability to accomplish the training of pastors to the standard and scale today’s church needs without the Head of the Church leading and empowering all our efforts. The apostle was abundantly clear upon whom his dependence lay for the leadership and life of the mission he sought to steward. It was Christ himself working in him, in the church, and in the next generation to whom the ministry was entrusted. He was unashamedly aware of his need for the prayers and partnership of God’s people in order to be effective in the great calling that had been given to him. But he also firmly believed that Christ, by providing His life and power in the hearts of his people, through the means of grace He has provided, would do “abundantly more than all what we ask or think. . .,” all for his glory!
It’s that same desire for God’s glory and belief in the surpassing power of Christ that compels pastoral training at Westminster today. We are asking and trusting God to use us to provide the Church with a steady supply of men of God who have the character, conviction, and competencies to faithfully and effectively steward the word of God, not only in the pulpits of our lands but also in the difficult waters of neighborhood conversations; under the “preaching tree” on a mission field, or under the scrutiny of the security apparatus in a totalitarian regime; on the campus of a nation-shaping university, or in a conference room bible-study where the precepts of God’s Word meet the public sphere; at the bedside of a saint who is about to depart to glory, or in the living room where dreams of the ideal family have just been broken by sin and suffering. Our desire and design is to equip a generation of pastors whose lives and lips proclaim Christ from all of scripture to all people for all of life.
Like the apostle, we depend on vital partnerships with the local congregations we seek to supply with such pastors. As well as asking God’s people to, as they have for almost 100 years, pray for us and partner with us financially, we want your church to send us men called to be men of God—and then to receive those men of God as pastoral residents, providing students with the practical experience that can only happen in the field. We are imagining a pastorate where the Church and the seminary together ask the Lord of the harvest to send and work together with him to send laborers into his harvest. Under His blessing and by His grace, we may accomplish together far more than we could ever ask or imagine.
I conclude by expressing these kingdom aspirations through the words of another Old Princetonian, Samuel Miller:
our plans and efforts for promoting this object ought…to be large, liberal, and ever expanding…when we direct our attention to the spread of the Gospel, our views, our prayers, our efforts are all too stinted and narrow. We scarcely ever lift our eyes to the real grandeur and claims of the enterprise in which we profess to be engaged.
We are too apt to be satisfied with small and occasional contributions of service to this greatest of all causes instead of devoting to it hearts truly enlarged; instead of desiring great things; expecting great things; praying for great things; and nurturing in our spirits that holy elevation of sentiment and affection, which embraces in its desires and prayers the entire kingdom of God. . .