There is an essential duty that every minister of the gospel is called to do: Preach the gospel. Of course, in a broad sense, every believer is called to proclaim the gospel, defend the gospel, and answer questions about the gospel. As Peter orders Christians in 1 Peter 3:15, “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,” so all Christians today are to be always ready to proclaim this same gospel to others.
Pastors are not exempt from these things. In fact, it is arguable that a pastor is called to do all these things to an even greater degree than other Christians. But the pastor is called to do one thing with the gospel that other Christians are not called to do: He’s called to preach. This is not something that he ought to boast in himself for doing, nor should he seek the praise of men for it. He must do it, however, diligently and faithfully, for failure is not an option in this calling. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:16, “For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”
At first glance, this verse may seem strange. Is it a joy to preach the gospel or a burden? A privilege or an imprisonment? How should Paul’s use of the word “necessity” be understood when it comes to preaching the gospel? And, in light of this, what are the traps that pastors may fall into if they boast in themselves for doing what was laid upon them as a necessity? Or, what is the danger for the pastor who fails to do what was a necessity?
The Joy of the Necessity Laid upon the Pastor
To understand what Paul meant when he wrote that a necessity to preach the gospel had been laid upon him, we must first understand that he was in the middle of defending himself against those who were attempting to examine him (1 Cor 9:3). As Paul encountered more than once, there were false prophets—only wolves in sheep’s clothing—whose entire existence was wrapped up in trying to devour the people of God.
By the very nature of Paul’s missionary journeys, he would found churches, install elders, and then move on to the next location. This opened the churches he had founded to the attack of these false prophets in his absence. After all, one of the surest ways to attack the church is to sow discord amongst the flock, especially by casting doubt upon the gospel that Christians have heard preached and which they have received with gladness. But, to cast doubt upon the message, these false prophets knew it was essential they first cast doubt upon the messenger.
So, when he begins to make his defense before his examiners, Paul immediately appeals to his dutiful joy in preaching the gospel itself. At first glance though, the argument he makes seems almost entirely to have to do with receiving compensation for preaching; evidently, when it came to the Corinthians, Paul had never taken any financial remuneration for preaching. This, he says, is evidence of his apostleship and love for the saints there. It’s not that pastors and ministers don’t have the right to receive compensation for their preaching; on the contrary, it is a God-ordained right for the pastor to be compensated, and one which churches ought to seek to uphold for the men who care for them as elders and overseers of the flock. Indeed, “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor 9:14). Despite what many even today try to suggest, the clear teaching of Scripture is that churches ought to support their pastors financially, as co-laborers in the gospel (1 Cor 3:9).
But Paul did not make use of this right with the Corinthians. Why? Because, he says, “We endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor 9:12). Paul saw something in Corinth that made it clear that his accepting remuneration for the gospel would actually hinder the growth of the church there. So, from the Corinthians he accepted nothing, though he did at times receive from other churches. For example, to the Philippians he wrote, “I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Phil 4:18).
But, to the Corinthians, he wrote, “What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel” (1 Cor 9:18). And, again, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor 9:22–23). We see here, then, what is at the heart of the necessity laid upon pastors. Paul’s great source of joy came through preaching the gospel to others, and so too must pastors find joy in this duty. Jesus said in John 4:34, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work,” and Paul, along with every true minister of the gospel, would wholeheartedly agree.
Again, Paul found joy in preaching the gospel—even when no financial compensation was made—and so too must pastors today. This is a task that is to be entered into most joyfully; most happily; most contentedly; and, yet, most reverently as well. Preaching the gospel is not something that a man of God should feel he has ever perfected; sure, he ought to know the fundamentals of the message and be able to preach it “as never sure to preach again, as dying man to dying men,” as Richard Baxter once said, but he should never feel like his learning has ended.
On the contrary, our diligent study of the Scriptures is the only sure way to effectively produce faithful expositions of Scripture for the spiritual upbuilding and practical benefit of our congregations, week after week. As Paul commanded Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Tim 4:13–15). It is the pastor’s essential and necessary duty to be devoted to the public reading, exhortation, and teaching of the Scriptures. This, effectively, is what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 9:16 by “the necessity” of “preaching the gospel.”
The minister of God’s Word is commanded to immerse himself in these things. The most important thing here is to, again, read, study, memorize, and meditate upon the Scriptures themselves. But, at the same time, no man is an island. Thus, the minister ought to study good theology books and commentaries. Likewise, because rhetoric is an artform and craft much neglected these days in the age of soundbites, he ought to study the artform of preaching itself. He should not only read books on homiletics but listen to other pastors to learn how to effectively communicate the truth himself. As Paul told Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16).
This is the necessity that has been laid upon pastors. And, within this work, the pastor finds a supreme and everlasting joy that simply cannot be replicated anywhere else.
The Danger of Boasting in Oneself
The necessity of preaching is not without its dangers. Between the world, the flesh, and the devil, the good gifts of God can be twisted for evil purposes.
One of the perennial dangers that every Christian pastor faces is the temptation to seek the applause of man. Often, pastors are influenced by numbers: The number of visitors each week, the number of people joining the church each month, and the number of Christians being baptized each year. Comparisons with other pastors and their churches can either leave us boasting of our own successes or lamenting our shortcomings and failures. Though Teddy Roosevelt once wrote to a friend that, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” Mark Twain may have gotten closer to the truth when he wrote, “Comparison is the death of joy.”
Constantly comparing ourselves to others, or our churches to other churches, or our experiences to the experience of others, will not merely rob us of joy, as though we possessed joy for a moment, but comparison then stole it away; rather, comparisons with others will destroy the possibility of contentment and joy because the very act of comparison leaves no room for the enjoyment of what we experience. Either we will think of ourselves more highly than we ought to when we see that we are “doing better” than our neighbor, or we will fall to pieces when we can’t seem to measure up to how others are succeeding.
Paul explains that the very reason we cannot boast in our gospel “successes” is because, “For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship” (1 Cor 9:17). In other words, the stewardship that the Lord has entrusted to us in our calling is one of necessity, and not one of personal volition. No genuine pastor ever chose to be a pastor. We were summoned by the King of the Cosmos and ordained as pastors and preachers by him and in his presence. There is no escaping this calling.
Then, we were filled with the Holy Spirit so that we would be equipped for this calling. While this never removes our need for careful study, the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and ministries does mean that whatever tangible bits of “success” we encounter, or don’t encounter, all come from the hands of God. How can we boast in ourselves for a “finely crafted sermon,” “very well received exposition,” or, “wonderfully preached message,” when it is God who is at work in us, both to will and to do of his own good pleasure? Or, how can we lament our failures when God himself “has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them” (John 12:40; Isa 6:10).
Now, if the minister feels he must boast, then it is only right that with the Apostle he would agree and say, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14). If others insist on praising us, then we ought to insist to them, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Lk 17:10). This is not a false humility, but a realistic view of God’s work being accomplished through our preaching.
The Woeful State of the Pastor Who Fails to Preach
Paul wrote, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” but this statement can easily be applied to all ministers who have been called to preach the gospel. Woe to us if we do not preach the gospel!
In the first place, the pastor who fails to do what he has been called to do by God will never find happiness, joy, or contentment. He will always feel unfulfilled. The gospel he fails to preach will, like so much dynamite in the heart, eventually explode forth from him. As Jeremiah found out, “If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jer 20:9).
If the pastor tries to run from his calling, then he is liable to the discipline of God. When Jonah tried to flee from God’s calling to preach in Nineveh, God had him thrown over the side of a boat, swallowed by a great fish, and eventually vomited back on dry land. What happened at the end of the account? Jonah preached in Nineveh.
Any pastor who has been called to preach, but subsequently tried to run from the calling, can attest that God always gets his man. One way or another, those called to preach will preach the Word of God. But remember: the omnipotent God of the universe is not in the business of debating his creation or permitting his creation to disobey him. He will use disciplinary measures to get you where you ought to be.
When necessity is laid upon a man to preach the gospel, the best thing for him to do is to pray to the Lord for continued grace, study the Scriptures for continued knowledge, and depend on the Holy Spirit for continued power. Then, when he enters the pulpit with faithfully studied sermons in hand and heart, his sole task becomes this: To joyfully fulfill the necessity of preaching the gospel!