JAKE SERVES ON THE COUNSELING MINISTRY. He meets weekly with a young man that has a porn problem. They read scripture and pray together. The counselee feels remorse and says he wants to change, but six months later, little or no progress has been made. Jake is discouraged.
Pastor Jim works hard on his sermons. He is a good preacher. His church is growing, but he is often frustrated by the many church members who come to church regularly, listen, then go home unchanged. Their marriages do not improve. Their parenting does not change. They don’t handle their money differently. He wonders if all the work is worth it.
Shelby and Martha have three children aged 17, 15, and 12. They are excellent parents. They never miss church. Shelby leads his family in devotions 3-4 times each week. Nevertheless, the 17-year-old confesses that he doesn’t believe. How have we failed? His parents wonder. They feel like giving up.
Responsibility Without Authority
All Christian work is about responsibility without authority. Therefore, it is easy to get discouraged. I say “without authority” in this sense—only God can produce the results we want. We want growing Christlikeness proceeding from heart transformation. And there is the rub. No one can change another person’s heart. Only God can do that, and sometimes he doesn’t do it when, or with whom, we want.
Whether counseling, preaching, witnessing or parenting, all Christian ministry is done in profound dependence on God. We desperately need supernatural power. Understanding this changes everything.
God is best glorified through the conversion and sanctification of needy sinners. Because every conversion is undeserved, it glorifies God’s grace, mercy, and love. In addition, our progressive sanctification glorifies God. As we change, he sees in us a growing snapshot of his moral beauty and is delighted (2 Corinthians 3:18).
This is the ultimate end of all Christian ministry—glory for God through a community of godly Believers. But because we are powerless to produce this change, it can also be our frustration. Only God’s power can deliver the change we want, and it is on a rheostat. He is sovereign over it. He turns it up and down at will.
Hearts of Stone
Christian work is “supernatural” (why is supernatural in quotes?) because everyone emerges from the womb totally dead to God. “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (Ephesians 2:1). “Dead” means no interest in God or love for God. We are born citizens of a fallen world, and that means we are by nature God-haters (John 15:18). Therefore, conversion is a miracle. It is like Christ’s resurrection. We pass from death to life. This change is not accomplished by “the will of the flesh nor of the will of man,” but by God (John 1:14). It requires supernatural power.
Think of the metaphors Paul uses to describe conversion. They all assume a supernatural cause. He likens conversion to a heart-circumcision—a cutting away of the heart’s hardness toward God. It is done by “the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:29). The Holy Spirit is the surgeon. Most importantly, God doesn’t circumcise our hearts because we have turned to him. He circumcises our hearts to enable us to turn to him.
“New creation” is another metaphor Paul uses. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). When God spoke, creation occurred. In the same way, when God speaks to a dead, hard, unregenerate heart, a new creation occurs. The eyes of the heart are opened, and they behold the moral beauty of Christ. God, not man, produces this miracle.
Although in conversion God is the only worker, sanctification presumes our cooperation with God. However, in both cases nothing happens until God opens the heart with supernatural power. Where does hunger for God come from? Why do some have more than others? Why do some Christians seem to be barely alive while others glow with unflagging zeal? The answer is the presence or absence of supernatural activity. God’s “activity” amplifies hunger for God, which in turn motivates the spiritual disciplines.
In other words, ultimately all spiritual progress is a byproduct of God speaking to the human heart. I don’t mean an audible voice. I mean spiritual illumination producing faith and conviction. Yes, we are responsible to seek God, but the more he speaks, the more we seek, and he is in total control of the speaking. We all know people filled with Bible knowledge that exhibit little or no spiritual fruit. Why? God has not spoken to them, and all of God’s power is in his word. Why do some get more than others? God is sovereign. There is no other explanation. It is also true that the more we seek him, the more he will be found. But why do some seek while others don’t? The presence or absence of spiritual hunger, and that hunger comes from God.
The conclusion is straight forward and immensely freeing. We are responsible to faithfully water God’s field, but only God “gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). He is totally sovereign over the process.
Prayer for Power
This is why Paul constantly prays for spiritual power. He knows his weakness, his dependence, and his need for divine activity. He also knows that God’s power is not guaranteed. He knows it is on a rheostat. So, he prays for the Ephesians to be strengthened with power through God’s Spirit in their inner being so that they may have power to comprehend the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge (Ephesians 3:16-19. Read similar prayers in Ephesians 1:15ff, Colossians 1:9ff , and Philippians 1:9-11).
Paul had no illusions. He would either have a supernatural ministry or go home. He was totally dependent. There were no other options.
Is this how you and I see Christian ministry?
First, if all ministry is supernatural, then I am totally dependent on God. God uses parenting, preaching, witnessing, and counseling, but more is always needed, and the supernatural Christian worker (is the Christian supernatural or is he dependent on the supernatural work of God? is always aware of this. He feels his immense poverty. He desperately cries out to God.
Second, if all ministry is supernatural, then I ultimately have only two tools to effect change—Prayer and God’s word. Everything else is secondary. Your prayer life is the measure of how deeply you grasp this reality. Needy Christians pray. They pray often. They pray with desperation. They pray with confidence. They pray with gratitude. Self-sufficient ministries give lip service to prayer.
Third, if every listener is dead in sin, and it requires a miracle to open their hearts, then I am free to discuss offensive subjects like hell, sin, the final judgment, and God’s wrath. In fact, God is most apt to send supernatural power if I frame the Good News in this context. This takes great faith, but this is precisely how Paul came to Corinth, and what happened? God’s power followed.
When I came to you…I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified…I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest on the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
Fourth, if all ministry is supernatural, then our response to children that don’t believe, counselees that don’t respond, and sermons that fall flat should be prayer for power mingled with thanksgiving and followed by rest. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18).
Brothers and sisters, all Christian ministry is supernatural ministry. That was Paul’s conviction. He makes it clear in his conclusion to his prayer for the Ephesians. “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen!” (Ephesians 3:20–21).