You and I are not God. Therefore when Jesus says that his disciples (and their successors in the pastoral office) will do greater works than he (John 14:12), he obviously doesn’t mean that they will do divine works under their own power. Rather, as fully authorized servants of Christ, his ministers are endowed and equipped with Christ’s own power and authority. And that’s exactly what Jesus did to equip the twelve for ministry. Having taught them carefully for three years, having finished his saving work of suffering, dying, and rising, Jesus authorized them to do his own work by bestowing on them his Spirit.
Presence and Power
So abjectly ruined is humankind since the fall into sin that people are unable to come to faith under their own volition. “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:1). Therefore in the work of evangelizing, preaching, teaching, catechizing, comforting, warning, consoling and equipping Christians for life “in the trenches,” the presence and power of the Holy Spirit is essential. While you can and should defend the foundation of faith in history and scriptural text using sound reason and argumentation, you can’t argue people into the faith, nor can you keep them spiritually strong and morally pure by influence of your personal charisma or charm. Only the Holy Spirit can accomplish the ministry, and he does exactly that through you.
That’s not quite correct. The Holy Spirit doesn’t work through you as a person, but through the tools you’ve been given by Jesus for the blessing of his church and for the benefit of all the world: the gospel and sacraments. Through these, God the Father sends his Spirit to work faith whenever and wherever it pleases him. The ministry of Christ’s gospel is always a ministry of the Spirit, for the Holy Spirit is at work in the gospel and is given through it (2 Cor 3:8).
By Jesus’ own express design he gives out the Spirit by his word. “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63).
I can guarantee you’ll be strung out, tapped out, and burned out in the ministry very quickly if you don’t grasp this one central truth: By your own power or strength you can do absolutely nothing as a servant of Christ and steward of his mysteries. I’ve seen it over and over again: A bright, gifted young pastor is driven to despair and the brink of emotional and spiritual collapse simply because he set out to do ministry relying on his own ingenuity and internal resources. Please get this straight: It’s not that you do part of the work and God does the rest; it’s not that you do a little bit and God does a whole lot. Rather, in Christ’s church the Holy Spirit does everything. Martin Luther put it this way in the Small Catechism (published in 1529), his little handbook on Christian faith and life:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church he daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day he will raise me and all the dead and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.
Notice that from beginning to end, the life of the Christian is a gift of God’s Spirit.
By our Lord’s own mandate, he has so arranged it in his church that we grow, are fed, nourished, guarded, and protected not out of the weakness and ineptitude of our ministers but rather by the tools Christ has entrusted into their hands. The gospel and the sacraments are not static entities—mere object lessons by which we advertise and promote the kingdom of God. Rather, the gospel and sacraments throb with vitality. They are filled to the brim with the energy and life of God’s own Spirit. The actual words that originated from the mouth of Jesus are the instruments and tools of the Holy Spirit to create and sustain faith. And just think: Jesus has given those very words to you. He has entrusted into your all too human and very flawed mouth and hands the gospel and the sacraments by which the Holy Spirit continues to call, gather, enlighten and sanctify his church on earth. You might fail; in fact, from my own bitter experience I have to say you most certainly will fail—repeatedly and spectacularly. But we believe in the forgiveness of sins also for pastors! So let me tell you this: Though you will falter and fail, God’s Spirit will not. The Lord God never slumbers nor sleeps, Scripture reminds us (Ps 121:4). His word never returns to him void, but always accomplishes the purposes for which he sends it (Isa 55:11). So also the Holy Spirit will never falter nor cease until he has gathered into one flock all Christ’s sheep under one shepherd (John 10:16).
This post is adapted from chapter 1 of The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart by Harold L. Senkbeil (Lexham Press, 2019).