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Called by God

February 20, 2013 4 Comments

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by Ed Kettner

What does it mean to say that we have been “called by God”? God has sent his Word into the world, and by it people are called to repentance and faith. We learn in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism that “the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel.” Whenever the Good News—the message that Christ died for us and paid the penalty for our sins—is preached, taught, and confessed, the Holy Spirit is at work earnestly seeking the conversion of the hearer. All Christians are therefore “called saints” or “called to be saints” (Romans 1:8; 1 Corinthians 1:2)—meaning that God has declared them to be righteous for the sake of His Son.

This call from God is not simply an inner feeling, or an emotional experience. It does not take place by some mystical encounter with God. It takes place according to His promise through the Word of God itself as it is preached and taught. That is where God promises He will come to us. Whether you were baptized as an infant, when God placed His name on you, or whether you were brought to faith later in life, you were called by the Gospel. And Christians are “called” to confess their faith before the world, and—according to their priestly calling—to give a reason for the hope that is in them (1 Peter 3:15). Confession of their faith is a privilege, a joy, and a responsibility given to all Christians as they carry out their daily duties.

Called to ministry

As important as the daily confession of the faith by all Christians is, God has also created the office of the public ministry to preserve His Church and bring others into the Church and so be saved. Christ did not consider His church simply to be a bunch of individuals worshiping Him in their own way and in their own time, but saw it as an assembly. The Church is the body of Christ, and He feeds His body as it gathers together publicly to hear those whom He has called, as they preach the Gospel and give them His body and blood to sustain them in their faith.

We refer to such men as “pastors” or “ministers.” In the church, we use the word “call” to refer to the selection, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, of men to be pastors of Christ’s church. We also use it for men and women “called” to other offices the church has created to assist the pastor in carrying out his duties—people we in Lutheran Church–Canada refer to as “deacons.” St. Paul opened all of his letters by pointing out that he was “called” to be an apostle by Christ Himself. The church has seen it as a good term for designating those whom God brings into the ministry, since it recognizes that the office of ministry and other offices the church has created are filled by God through the church.

In both the Old and New Testament we see God at work choosing people to serve Him by publicly proclaiming his message. We see examples of God’s call when He calls Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3) and the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 6). Others mention that they have been called by God from out of the world for the work of prophesying to His people. In the New Testament we see Jesus also calling disciples, especially the apostles, directly. He even called Saul of Tarsus by dramatic act on the road to Damascus.

Through St. Paul, God has told us He gives as His gifts to the church some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers. He has given these public offices (all really one office, the office of preaching) for the purpose of creating a community of saints, which is that work of service that builds up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12). Where God in the Old Testament called prophets directly, and where Christ called and designated His apostles directly, He now calls His servants through the church.

God called the prophets in the Old Testament to speak His Word to people who were prone to wander from Him, to call them back to Himself. Christ called His apostles to be eyewitnesses to His ministry, His death, and His resurrection, so that they could proclaim that Gospel to the world.  In the generations since then God continues to call men into the Holy Ministry and men and women into assisting offices. He does this for the sake of God’s people and for their continued feeding and strengthening so that they can carry out their daily work, growing in knowledge and faith so that they may confess Christ before the world.  He does this for the sake of good order and because this work must be done—or else the church, deprived of the Word, will die. While apostles and prophets were called directly, now He calls through His church, as the church names qualified people to carry out this work.

Does God want you to serve Him in this way? Every Christian should seriously consider whether they have the qualifications for the office of pastor or one of the auxiliary offices.

Does God want you to serve Him in this way? I think every Christian should seriously consider whether they have the qualifications for the office of pastor or one of the auxiliary offices. St. Paul outlines the necessary qualifications, both in terms of character and skills, which should belong to those who seek the office. But God also uses others in the church, who may see certain gifts in you, to ask you to consider such service. Your pastor may call you aside and tell you that he believes you have the necessary qualities for the office. With encouragement from others, you may find that a desire to serve God through one of the church’s offices has been kindled in you.

Sometimes we hear people talk of an “inner call” to ministry. The Scriptures do not use that term. In fact, quite often those who were called by God were reluctant to go. Moses, Jeremiah, and others gave reasons why they should not be chosen. Yet God stood firm in His call, and used them even with their limitations. In the New Testament, those called by Jesus simply left their livelihoods behind, be they fishing or tax collecting, and followed his call. St. Paul, a persecutor of the church of God, was called by Christ in a most dramatic fashion. Without consulting him at all, Christ tells Saul of Tarsus what he has in store for him.

At the same time, while the Gospel spread and a new generation of servants needed to be prepared, the Scriptures begin to talk about “aspiring” to hold the office of “bishop” or “elder”—terms that refer to what we today call pastoral ministry or the public ministry, as well as deacons, those ministers called to specialized service (1 Timothy 3:1). St. Paul in two different places (1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9) outlines the qualifications for those who would hold the office.

Those who aspire for the office need to have this desire affirmed by the church. Through its colleges and seminaries, the church prepares and examines people who desire to serve, to assist the church in calling individuals who meet the expectations put forth by St. Paul. One of the problems with the term “inner call” is that it can put the individual’s desires and expectations above the church’s needs. At the time of the Reformation churches were plagued by people going from place to place, foisting themselves on congregations as preachers and leaders without any preparation and examination. In fact the churches of the Lutheran Reformation were accused of doing just that. That is why the Augsburg Confession states that in our churches no one is permitted to publicly preach or teach without a “regular call,” that is, a call from a congregation that is affirmed by the wider church.

This is to ensure that the person is qualified to be a preacher. In Lutheran Church–Canada, this takes place by the prospective pastor attending one of our seminaries and being declared suitable by the faculty, and then being affirmed for placement and placed into a congregation by our Council of Presidents. That placement constitutes the call of the church. After being placed, a pastor may, after a time, move to another place, if led by the Holy Spirit to accept the call of another congregation. In all of this we trust that God is working, keeping His promise in Holy Scripture to call people to serve the Church.

The work of ministry is not easy. Nor is it meant to be a place of prestige. In fact, those who hold the office are not as widely respected in society as they once might have been. It does not pay as much as many other careers might. Yet, the rewards are great, as you will be designated by God to be a steward of His mysteries. You will watch, under God’s grace, the Spirit lead people to faith and sustain them in that faith. Later, you may be with them and pray with them as they make a final confession of their faith and leave this world, assured by the word you proclaim that they will be received by Christ into the heavenly mansions. In that you can rejoice!

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Rev. Dr. Ed Kettner is Professor of Systematic Theology at Concordia Lutheran Seminary (Edmonton).

For more information on pursuing pastoral studies, visit the websites of Lutheran Church–Canada’s two seminaries: Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary (St. Catharines, Ontario) and Concordia Lutheran Seminary (Edmonton). For more information on serving the church in other roles, visit the website of Concordia University College of Alberta.