The Call

The Preacher, by George Harvey, 1840

“When I was 15 I received a ‘call to the ministry.'” So begins chapter 1 -appropriately titled “The Call” – of Dan Barker’s book godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. After detailing his Christian “credentials” for the rest of the chapter he ends with “If I was not a true Christian, then nobody is.” Whether he was or was not, God knows. Analyzing his deconversion story may be a subject for another day, but what caught my eye for this week was his observation (in hindsight) that, “I could only stick it out in each church for about 18 months before feeling the ‘call’ to move on,” and “It’s always interesting how God always seemed to call me exactly where I wanted to go”[1]. Interesting indeed. What should we think about being “called”? Let’s work through that today.

First off , what is a call to ministry? Charles Spurgeon defined it as “the dedication of a man’s entire life to spiritual work, and separation from every secular calling.” [2] Is it something a person chooses to do on their own, or must it come from God? Martyn Lloyd-Jones distinguished a call to ministry from any other profession or vocation, saying, “Preachers are born, not made. This is an absolute. You will never teach a man to be a preacher if he is not already one.”[3] This echoes the words of John Newton, who said, “None but He who made the world can make a Minister of the Gospel.”[4] Paul also wrote that his call as an apostle was from God, and that he was set apart from his mother’s womb [Rom 1:1, 1Co 1:1, 2Co 1:1, Ga 1:15].

Secondly, how is this call recognized? That is really the crux of the issue for Barker, isn’t it? He was sure he had received a call, but now understands that he didn’t (although he mistakenly assumes it was because there was no God to call him). Spurgeon laments, “That hundreds have missed their way & stumbled against a pulpit is sorrowfully evident from the fruitless ministries & decaying churches which surround us. It is a fearful calamity to a man to miss his calling, and to the church upon which he imposes himself, his mistake involves an affliction of the most grievous kind.” He continues, “It is imperative upon him not to enter the ministry until he has made solemn quest & trial of himself as to this point.”[5] Barker doesn’t really give any indication of such “solemn quest” of self-examination, just a certainty that God was calling him to the ministry after a very emotional Charismatic revival service when he was a teenager. But was that night’s perception a bad thing? The call must be received (and recognized) at some moment in time, right? True, but Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers”, has a warning about that: “This desire must be a thoughtful one. It should not be a sudden impulse unattended by anxious consideration. I earnest caution all young men not to mistake whim for inspiration, and a childish preference for a call of the Holy Spirit.”[6] John Newton, reformed slave trader turned preacher, and author of “Amazing Grace”, gave similar caution from his own experience. “I can now see clearly, that at the time I would first have gone out, though my intention was, I hope, good in the main, yet I overrated myself, and had not that spiritual judgment and experience which are requisite for so great a service.”[6] I can’t say whether it was or was not a whim or sudden impulse for Barker, but based on how he described it himself, I would lean that way.

Part of that self-examination must be directed at our motives. Says Spurgeon, “If a man can detect, after the most earnest self-examination, any other motive than the glory of God and the good of souls in seeking the bishopric, he had better turn aside from it at once”.[7] Of course, “The pulpit is never to be the ladder by which ambition is to climb.”[8] Barker says, even now as an atheist, that his motivations at the time were out of deep concern for the lost, and I’ll grant him that. God knows our motivations even better than we do; but for me, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here, and assume he had the purest of motives. Pure motives are necessary, but not sufficient, as anybody who’s ever been hurt by a friend’s good intentions can attest.

What else can help us to correctly recognize a potential call? It shouldn’t be based on our own opinion only. Spurgeon again warns, “We must, however, do much more than put it to our own conscience and judgment, for we are poor judges. … There is not much dependence to be placed upon our own opinion, but much may be learned from judicious, spiritual-minded persons.”[9] He goes on to note that mature brothers and sisters in Christ are not infallible, and can mistakenly promote or discourage someone, but that will tend to be the exception with wise believers. Again, there isn’t any real description in his book of Barker seeking out any such confirmation.

Just as the apostle Paul warned against overseers (i.e. elders) being recent converts [1Ti 3:6 NIV], Spurgeon offered this warning about sound doctrine: “Men are not called to the ministry who have no knowledge and no definite belief. When young fellows say that they have not made up their minds upon theology, they ought to go back to Sunday school until they have.”[10] Are there different interpretations of Scriptures? Of course. Do mature Christians still disagree on certain points? Certainly. But what Spurgeon is getting at here is that the new believer (or the old believer who has never matured) should be especially wary of thinking they have been called to ministry, lest they lead people astray in their pride and ignorance. Martyn Lloyd Jones expands on this issue, opining, “It is surely clear that if he is a man who is always struggling with problems and difficulties and perplexities himself, and trying to discover truth, or if he is so uncertain that he is always influenced by the last book he reads, and is ‘carried about by every wind of doctrine’ and every new theological fashion, it is clear that he is ipso facto a man who is not called to the ministry.”[11] And James wisely warns that not many should desire to be teachers, for they will be judged more strictly [Jam 3:1]. The new convert (like young Barker) may very well be called, but that doesn’t mean they’re at the preaching stage of that journey. God may have a long road of preparation ahead of them first. Let us not be running ahead of God.

The mature Christian recognizes our unworthiness to play any part in God’s plan of salvation, and so the called minister will be humble. As Jones notes, “The man who is called by God is a man who realizes what he is called to do, and he so realizes the awefulness [i.e. solemnity] of the task that he shrinks from it. Nothing but this overwhelming sense of being called, and of compulsion, should ever lead anyone to preach.”[12]

Perhaps the most significant strike against Barker is his eventual apostasy. “This desire should be one which continues with us, a passion which bears the test of trial, a longing from which it is quite impossible for us to escape, though we may have tried to do so.”[13]  In fact, Spurgeon would go so far as to say, “Don’t be a minister if you can help it, because, if the man can help it, God never called him! But if he cannot help it, and he must preach or die, then he is the man!”[14] Indeed, it’s reminiscent of Paul’s description of his compulsion to preach [1 Cor 9:16] or the prophet Jeremiah’s “fire in his bones” that he could not hold in [Jer 20:9]. One thing Barker points to in his book is his winning converts; he had “results” to confirm his calling to ministry. And that’s a fair point. Spurgeon and Jones both point to that as corroborating evidence (not sufficient in itself, but definitely expected in a potential minister). But it’s good to remember that God can use all kinds of people, even unbelievers, to advance different phases of His plans, but the called will persevere to the end. It’s also good to remember that Jesus commanded us to make “disciples”, not converts. Dan’s descriptions of this kind of drive-by, hit-and-run evangelism doesn’t really hold a lot of hope, in my mind, that he had quite as much in the way of results as he thought, but if people he led to Christ remained Christians after he fell away, then I’ll still rejoice for them that God brought them to faith, even using Dan Barker.

Dan Barker is a sad case of one who seems to have mistaken an emotional experience as a call, and participation in dubious faith-healing “ministries” and the like as reason to reject God, instead of rejecting the distorted, ungrounded Christianity he had been a part of. What’s especially sad is that he has used this rejection of emotional rhetoric and fake miracles to persuade others to join him in rejecting God. I hate to see him go astray, but leading others to the cliff’s edge with him is that much worse. If you feel like you may be called by God, don’t make the same mistakes Dan Barker did. Wise men like Charles Spurgeon and so many others have written guidance on this over the centuries. Take the time to learn from them. Study God’s Word; His call in your heart will never contradict His written Word. Seek the guidance of multiple mature Christians. Don’t buck the accountability of a church home and try to be a lone ranger like Barker describes. Remember that there are many important ways to serve God, and be content with those roles if that’s where He’s placed you, for as Martyn Lloyd Jones reminds us, “Every Christian should be able to give an account of why he is a Christian; but that does not mean that every Christian is meant to preach.”[15]

[1] Dan Barker, godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2008), p. 22-23.
[2] Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to my Students, (Peabody, MA:Hendrickson Publishers, 2014), p. 23.
[3] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), Kindle Edition, p. 129.
[4] John Newton, quoted  by Al Mohler in his blog post “Are You Called?” at accessed 2018-09-25.
[5] Spurgeon, p. 26-27.
[6] ibid., p. 28-29.
[7] ibid., p. 29.
[8] ibid., p. 37.
[9] ibid., p. 30.
[10] ibid., p. 40-41.
[11] Jones, p. 121.
[12] ibid., p. 119.
[13] Spurgeon, p.29.
[14] Spurgeon, “Harvest Men Needed”, sermon delivered 8/17/1873.
[15] Jones, p.115.

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