Called to Ministry?

The only qualification for entry to the London Seminary Pastoral Training course is a credible call to ministry. But what does that mean? There is a sense, of course, in which all believers are called to ministry as servants of the Lord and of one another. But the term is generally used of a particular call for evangelists, pastors and teachers.

External and Internal Call?

A call to ministry is understood in two parts: the external and internal call. The external call may include the encouragement of others to consider vocational Christian ministry. A local church may give opportunities for service, and encourage towards appropriate training. Ultimately an external call is a church calling someone to be their pastor; this may look slightly different in Baptist/ congregational and Presbyterian circles, but essentially it is the affirmation that a man is called to ministry.

The internal call is more controversial. In recent times the internal call has been downplayed or even disregarded. One pastor said to me: ‘The only call I received was a telephone call’ (from church leadership inviting him to take up the pastorate). While historically the internal call was treated seriously, now it is questioned. One turning point was the publication of a book on guidance: Decision Making and the Will of God.[1] The author emphasised the importance of moving away from a mystical understanding of God’s will towards more rational decision making based on biblical principles. The book is very valuable, and helped many who were struggling to find God’s will for their lives based on feelings or circumstances. However, the pendulum then swung to the opposite extreme, and the idea of internal call tended to be discarded altogether.

We can all understand the challenges and problems associated with an ‘internal call’. We don’t want to be governed by our feelings or subjective impressions of what the Lord might or might not be directing us to do; our feelings are not a reliable guide. Sometimes we don’t make good judgements about our own gifts, and strengths and weaknesses. We might believe that we are great preachers, but we should heed godly believers in the congregation who tell us that our sermons are uninspiring or unhelpful. We might dream that we have leadership potential, but if we find that no-one is willing to follow us, we may be mistaken. Our own convictions have to be tempered by the counsel and advice of trusted brothers and sisters in the Lord, and especially by our church leaders. 

On the other hand, we might be very reluctant to go forward into ministry and we need the encouragement and spur of others who recognise our gifts and calling and advise that we are allowing our natural reticence to quench the Lord’s call. Some of the great prophets of the Old Testament, including Moses and Jeremiah, were reluctant because of their own sense of inadequacy and unworthiness. An historical example is John Calvin who had no inclination to take up ministry in Geneva and had to be very severely rebuked by Guillaume Farel.

The Internal Call

However, for all these qualifications, we must acknowledge that historically many have believed in the importance of an internal call to ministry. C H Spurgeon, for example, devoted a whole lecture to this theme in Lectures to my Students.[2]Part of the lecture quotes a letter from John Newton which is very much in agreement with Spurgeon’s view. Spurgeon insisted that every Christian believer is obligated to serve the Lord in various capacities, and even to preach if he is able. But vocational Christian ministry requires a special call:

I do not … in this lecture allude to occasional preaching, or any other form of ministry common to all the saints, but to the work and office of the bishopric, in which is included both teaching and bearing rule in the church, which requires the dedication of a man’s entire life to spiritual work, and separation from every secular calling, 2 Tim. ii. 4; and entitles the man to cast himself for temporal supplies upon the church of God, since he gives up all his time, energies, and endeavours, for the good of those over whom he presides. 1 Cor. ix. 11; 1 Tim. v. 18.

Spurgeon makes reference to the calling of Old Testament prophets. While there is a sense in which these are unique, yet preaching and pastoral ministry are linked to the prophetic tradition. In Ephesians 4, Paul speaks of special gifts being given to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Eph.4:11). Paul addresses pastor Timothy as a ‘man of God’, a phrase which designated a prophet in the Old Testament. In other words, the pastors and teachers of this present age stand on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and take up the baton to declare the words of God today. The gifts of preaching and teaching are identified as being distinctive and of special importance, because it is through the exercise of these gifts that all the members are equipped for service, and the body built up into maturity in Christ (Eph.4:12ff).

Discerning an Internal Call

Spurgeon goes on to identify four ways by which we may assess whether we are called to ministry. First is ‘an intense, all-absorbing desire for the work’. It is in this context that Spurgeon (followed by Lloyd-Jones in the next century) urged that you should not enter the ministry if you could be content doing anything else. This is a burden which cannot be escaped—not a mere passing feeling, but a thoughtful and enduring desire. Second is an ability to teach, and other aptitudes required in ministry. It is not to be expected that a man will preach well on his first attempt, but is there growing evidence of gifts and abilities which may be developed? Thirdly, Spurgeon asks is there any ‘conversion work’ in the ministry of this man? This test needs to be understood in the context of the extraordinary fruitful days of Spurgeon’s ministry, and it is interesting that this test is not mentioned by John Newton in the letter quoted in this lecture. Finally, if someone is called to ministry their preaching ‘should be acceptable to the people of God’.

Advantages of Recognising the Internal Call

This clear view of a call to ministry has a number of advantages. First, it is very clear that ‘we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against … the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’ (Eph 6:12). If we are to see the cause of Christ advanced, this is not simply a matter of human skill, intelligence, eloquence, or ability. We need evangelists, pastors and preachers who are called and appointed by the Lord, filled with the Spirit, instruments in the Lord’s hands. 

Secondly, if ministers are to persevere in the midst of the battle, including the many discouragements and struggles of ministry, there needs to be a conviction that this work was not merely a ‘career choice’ or a personal preference taken on a whim. The ministry is not a ‘job’ like any other. Being called by the Lord we have confidence that he will give grace for every challenge and strength in all adversity.

Finally, if men need to be called by God to enter ministry, then when we see a great lack of pastors and preachers, and a great need both in the churches and a lost world, the remedy is simply to pray to the Lord of the harvest that he would raise up labourers for his harvest field. We trust that he will hear and answer, and raise up a multitude of godly, faithful and fruitful ministers in our time.

[1] Garry Friesen, Decision Making and the Will of God (Multnomah, 1980).

[2] Available in numerous editions, and online at