Outside of assurance of personal conversion to Christ, no other spiritual conviction will help a pastor in his journey more than a firm conviction that God has called him to preach. The pastorate is not so much a profession as it is a calling. Young men often ask their pastors how they can know that God is calling them to preach and that they are not just following their own aspirations. The Bible has clear instructions on God's call and God's gifts that accompany this call.
The two primary passages that answer the question about one's call are Isaiah 6 and Jeremiah 1. Isaiah was an adult when God called him to be a prophet or spokesman for God. Jeremiah was a young man, probably a teenager. The entire Protestant approach to the ministry is built on the calls of Isaiah and Jeremiah.
We notice several things about the prophet Isaiah's call from the Lord.
Isaiah was a volunteer, but only in response to the call of God. His call is recorded in Isaiah 6. It is so definite that it is dated "in the year that King Uzziah died" (Isa. 6:1). We know this was about 740 BC. Uzziah was the only king of Judah Isaiah had ever known. He ruled the southern kingdom of Judah for fifty-two years. It was a marvelous time for the nation. Uzziah was a righteous king who sought the Lord from the time he mounted the throne at sixteen years of age until the last few years of his reign (see 2 Chron. 26).
Uzziah was a great builder. He built up the kingdom of Judah economically, militarily, and spiritually. He built and fortified entire new cities. He was a military inventor. He invented devices to shoot multiple arrows at the same time and catapults to launch large stones toward the enemy. He loved the soil. He was an innovative farmer. He was greatly beloved by his people, Isaiah included.
But when the king was at the height of his popularity and strength, "he grew arrogant and it led to his own destruction" (2 Chron. 26:16). He took it upon himself to violate God's clear division between prophet, priest, and king. He went into the temple to burn incense before God as if he were a priest. A priest named Azariah, along with eighty others, followed Uzziah into the temple and confronted him: "Uzziah, you have no right to offer incense to the Lord—only the consecrated priests, the descendants of Aaron, have the right to offer incense. Leave the sanctuary" (2 Chron. 26:18).
Uzziah became furious. In the midst of that fury God struck him with leprosy, which broke out on his face that was red with rage. The priests picked him up and rushed him out of the temple. And he was glad to go. Uzziah was a leper until the day of his death. He lived alone in a house outside the city of Jerusalem until he died.
What a tragedy! Sometimes it takes a national tragedy like this to get the attention of someone whom God is calling to serve Him. In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah had his great, initial experience with and call from the Lord.
The call to preach is first of all a call from and unto God. It is as real as one's initial experience of salvation. Isaiah "saw the Lord" (Isa. 6:1). There is a parallel between a man's conversion experience and his call to preach. Both are datable. Although much may happen leading up to the experiences, both are definite and datable experiences. You may not know the exact calendar date of either experience, but you should be able to describe approximately when, where, and under what circumstances both happened. If God has not called you to preach, you should have the integrity to leave the ministry. You can serve the Lord and even preach as a layperson, but you should not be a pastor unless you know for certain that God has called you to preach. This call will be tied to a great experience with God.
The description of Isaiah's experience with God is awesome. Isaiah described the throne room of God, the angels, the voices, the physical feelings, the sounds, the sights, and the smells. It was that moving and that real. From this passage the famous hymn, "Holy, Holy, Holy" was written. All Christians are commanded by God, "Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy" (Lev. 19:2). In being called to preach, a man is singled out from among all of God's people to have a higher calling, a greater vision, a deeper experience with God. The call to preach is not to be taken lightly or presumptuously.
You would think that the closer a man comes to God, the cleaner and holier he will feel. In fact, just the opposite is true. No serious preacher of the gospel feels worthy of the call to preach. If he does, he is headed for destruction and disillusionment. The call to preach does not make us feel any more holy than the call to salvation does. The closer you get to God, the brighter the light is and the more you see yourself as sinful. Isaiah was convicted of his sinfulness, and he cried out, "Woe is me, for I am ruined, because I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips, and because my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts" (Isa. 6:5).
When a man sees God as He really is, he sees himself as he is. No man should feel worthy of being called to preach. Pastors are sinful. But in the call of God, their sin can be forgiven and purged. In Isaiah's great vision of God, an angel took a red-hot coal from the altar of incense and cauterized Isaiah's lips. He was made clean before God. Now he was ready for the call!
There is almost humor in Isaiah's call. He never felt worthy, but he did feel cleansed. And he heard God calling. The conversation in Isaiah 6 is reminiscent of the divine conversation among the Trinity in Genesis 1 when God said, "Let Us make man in Our image" (Gen. 1:26). Isaiah heard the same Trinity of God asking, "Who should I send? Who will go for Us?" (Isa. 6:8). Immediately Isaiah volunteered. He was the only man there in the vision, yet he jumped up and down and waved his hands, volunteering for God's service as a messenger of God. A call from God should be answered.
Isaiah answered God's call, and his ministry spanned more than sixty years. God used him mightily with several of Judah's kings. It was Isaiah who announced that Hezekiah would survive a terminal disease and live another fifteen years. It was Isaiah who announced the divine destruction of the Assyrian army when 185,000 soldiers besieging Jerusalem were killed by an angel in one night. It was Isaiah who announced the coming virgin birth of Christ (see Isa. 7:14). The second half of Isaiah is a prophecy of great comfort detailing the coming messianic kingdom of Christ. What a wonderful assignment Isaiah had. He was the court prophet to several kings.
Jeremiah's call was quite different from Isaiah's. Isaiah was an adult; Jeremiah was a teenager. Isaiah was a volunteer prophet; Jeremiah was a reluctant prophet. Isaiah could hardly wait to get started preaching; Jeremiah did not want to preach. Yet Jeremiah's call teaches us that God plans before we are born what He wants us to do. God told Jeremiah, "I chose you before I formed you in the womb; I set you apart before you were born. I appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jer. 1:5).
Reminiscent of Moses in Exodus 3-4, Jeremiah offered reason after reason for not answering God's call to preach. The primary reasons Jeremiah gave were his youth, his poor speaking ability, and his fear of standing before people. God brushed all these reasons aside and personally touched Jeremiah's mouth while saying, "Look, I have filled your mouth with My words" (Jer. 1:9). Isaiah had wanted to be a prophet; Jeremiah could not keep from it.
Jeremiah could not keep from preaching even though he did not feel successful. After his first sermon the people wanted to kill him. It was the worst time possible to become a prophet. Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonians. Jeremiah was trapped inside the city. Food was running out. Time was running out. Feelings were running wild. Jeremiah was put in prison not only to keep him from preaching the truth but also to keep him from being murdered by the rebellious people. When he wrote the book of Jeremiah, the king of Judah found out about it and burned it page by page. God told him to write it again and this time to hide it. Because Jeremiah preached the truth he was threatened, opposed, and imprisoned.
There was a point at which the prophet said, "That's it! I'm not going to preach anymore!" Many pastors have felt that way. If you are thinking about leaving the ministry, you need to read about how Jeremiah almost did so. He said, "If I say: I won't mention Him or speak any longer in His name, His message becomes a fire burning in my heart, shut up in my bones. I become tired of holding it in, and I cannot prevail" (Jer. 20:9).
When young men ask you how they can know for certain that God is calling them to preach and how they can know this is not just their own desire, tell them to stay out of the ministry if they can. The ministry is hard and even disappointing at times. Stay out of it if you can. If you can't stay out of the ministry, that may be the surest sign God is calling you to preach.
The call to preach is not dependent on being able to secure and keep a church. A distinction must be made between the call of God to a man to preach the gospel and the call of a local church to a man to become their pastor. The New Testament emphasizes a plurality of elders in the various churches, though only one elder seems to have been in charge. A young man, called to preach, may begin his ministry in a church by being a youth pastor or another church staff member. He may even begin as a volunteer, unpaid staff member.
Pastors in small as well as large churches would be wise to involve the men who surrender to preach as soon as possible. One way is to enlist them as unpaid staff members. Send them to school and involve them in the leadership of the church while they study. After they finish school, they may be called as staff members or pastors of other churches.
There may come a time when God's assignment takes a pastor out of the pastorate. A church may call a man to be its pastor, but God calls a man to preach. Taking an assignment beyond the local church does not take a man out of the gospel ministry. He may leave the pastorate, but he must not leave the ministry. Even of Israel as a nation it is said, "God's gracious gifts and calling are irrevocable" (Rom. 11:29). How much more so the call of God to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ! It is a permanent calling.
If a paid position in a local church is not available, a God-called preacher can become a bivocational pastor, earning his living in the secular world and making himself available to preach in prison, in nursing homes, in home Bible studies, or even on the street. Moving from the pastorate into theological education or into denominational work does not relieve the God-called preacher of his calling. Preach the Word. Many retired pastors become great blessings to local churches simply as Sunday school teachers. A pastor may retire from the pastorate, but he must not retire from the ministry.
Now that we have discussed Isaiah's call and Jeremiah's call, let's focus on some questions about your own call.
Many young men, perhaps as teenagers, receive a call from God to preach, but they do not answer. They may or may not go to college. If they do go to college, they may just begin working when they finish their studies. They marry and have children. Then, at an unexpected time, God reminds them of His call and they must answer. Like Jeremiah, they cannot keep from it. It would have been better if they had answered when they were first called.
But God doesn't limit His call to teenagers. Many men are called out of business to full-time Christian service when they are young adults or even older adults. They may feel like they are playing catch-up the rest of their lives. Genesis 12:1 seems to indicate that Abraham had not fully answered God's call on his life immediately when it came. Yet there came a time when he did answer the call. God still wanted him. If God called you earlier in life to be a preacher and you did not answer, volunteer like Isaiah and see if God still wants you. He probably does.
Whether your call to preach comes to you as a young man, as Jeremiah's call did, or whether it comes to you as an adult, as Isaiah's did, you need to answer. It is almost as if God taps you on the shoulder and you must turn around to see who it is and what He wants. The call may come while listening to a sermon. It may come during an invitation. It may come while you are reading your Bible or praying. It may come as you serve as a layperson in your church and suddenly realize that God has gifted you to serve Him full-time.
However and whenever your call comes from God, you need to answer personally and publicly. It is important to tell your pastor what is happening. If you are married, your wife will need great understanding and compassion. After all, you were not a preacher nor did you intend to be one when she married you. The two of you in prayer must agree that you are willing to answer God's call, no matter where it leads. If you have children old enough to understand, they need to be brought into the circle of prayer. The agreement of a husband and wife and family in a decision to answer God's call is powerful. A pastor's greatest affirmation along the way as he struggles with entering the ministry will come from his wife and family. Make sure they are involved.
Ask your pastor if you can become his unpaid assistant so he can help train you and guide you as you enter the ministry. Adopt the attitude of Abraham. Be willing to leave your comfort zone. God told Abraham, "Go out from your land, your relatives, and your father's house to the land that I will show you" (Gen. 12:1). He did not tell Abraham where that commitment would lead. Hebrews 11:8 declares, "By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed and went out to a place he was going to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was going."
That is what it is like to answer God's call. It may take you far from home, away from your friends, to a strange place that you may or may not enjoy. You make the commitment. God will make a way.
As much as anything, answering God's call is a step of faith. It is like enlisting in the military. You put your life and your future in someone else's hands. Matthew 28:18-20, frequently referred to as the Great Commission, gives that future a worldwide framework. The call is to make disciples of all nations. That is scary. But the reward of such a faith commitment is glorious. Jesus said, "Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:20). It is better to walk in the darkness with your hand in His hand than to walk in the light all alone.
In the Old Testament and New Testament alike, God promises to be with His servants as they follow Him. To Joshua He said, "Haven't I commanded you: be strong and courageous? Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go" (Josh. 1:9). That is a good verse for every man who answers God's call to preach to claim as his own.
As a pastor you may not earn what you could if you were in business. But the Bible says to all believers, "Your life should be free from the love of money. Be satisfied with what you have, for He Himself has said, 'I will never leave you or forsake you.' Therefore, we may boldly say: 'The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?'" (Heb. 13:5-6). After all, God and one man are a majority! Take a step of faith and obedience. You will never be sorry that you did, but you may forever regret it if you don't.
Rick Stanley, the stepbrother of Elvis Presley, said that Elvis told him shortly before he died that he was called to preach when he was fourteen years old and that he regretted he did not answer the call. One cannot help but wonder how different the life of Elvis and of the world would have been if he had answered that call. Nobody can answer God's call on your life but you. Answer it!
Senior Vice President for Academic Administration and Dean of the School of Theology
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky
An unprepared preacher is more dangerous than an unprepared Air Force pilot and more deadly than an unprepared cardiac surgeon. The preacher needs to know the Bible from cover to cover. He needs to know at least the English text and be able to see the nuances of the original Greek and Hebrew texts. He needs to see how the Scripture fits together and how it applies to theological and ethical questions. He needs to become conversant with the false ideologies and winds of doctrine that will capture some of the people to whom he preaches. He needs to know how to channel his natural giftedness, how to ward off distracting aspects of his personality, and how to present the gospel in order to get a hearing from both believers and the lost.
Not every preacher can go to college or seminary. Even so, in these perilous times the most effective ministries seem to start with a time of intense preparation, in a community of men training to preach, under the mentorship of godly Christian scholar-preachers.
An education is only the beginning of a life immersed in the Word of God. But preparation is crucial because we know there's something wicked out there; there are lives at stake; and only one sword will do. The call to preach is a call to prepare!