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The Pastor's Calling

Travailing in Birth for Souls

John Newton

What contradictions meet

In minister’s employ!

It is a bitter sweet,

A sorrow full of joy.

No other post affords a place

For equal honour or disgrace!

Who can describe the pain

Which faithful preachers feel,

Constrained to speak in vain,

To hearts as hard as steel!

Or who can tell the pleasures felt,

When stubborn hearts begin to melt![1]

The call to ministry has been described as one of the most enriching, yet difficult, vocations that one can enter. John Newton acknowledged that paradoxical reality in his Olney hymn—Travailing in Birth For Souls. This hymn portrays the minister as moving back and forth from the depths of pastoral discouragement to the heights of pastoral joy. The pastor-poet’s insights corroborate the testimony of the Apostle Paul who once wrote of the paradoxical bent of Christian ministry in 2 Corinthians 6:3-10:

We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed. But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.[2]

Yet, it is in the midst of these contradictory realities that ministers fulfill their calling. The immediate context of this passage is 2 Corinthians 4-7 where the apostle explores the supernatural, yet perilous, features of ministry. In 2 Corinthians 6:1-10, Paul affirms the dignity and glory of a blameless ministry which honors the Lord under three aspects: in (6:3-7a), by (6:7b-8), and as (6:9-10).[3] Generally speaking, these controlling aspects describe the circumstances, resources, and resolve of gospel ministry. Every minister will encounter hardship, mistreatment, and difficulties. Every minister will need the Word of Truth, the power of God, and the armor of righteousness. Every minister will have to press on through anonymity, sorrow, and loss. The paradoxical qualities of ministry are enumerated: unknown/well known, dying/living, sorrowful/rejoicing, poverty/riches.[4]

What pastor cannot identify with these varying and vying experiences in ministry? It is like the minister who journeys to the neo-natal ward of the hospital to rejoice with the parents of a newborn daughter, only to take the elevator down to the emergency room to comfort a distraught new widow who has just lost her husband of over 50 years. Such disparities in ministry can be very draining, if not temporarily numbing. In the words of Newton: “What contradictions meet, in minister’s employ.”

John Newton serves as a stellar example of faithful ministry with all of its contradictions. The previously cited hymn resonates with credibility because it expresses the varied experiences of pastoral ministry with clarity and realism. How would an eighteenth century, uneducated, former slave-ship-captain-turned-pastor know about these things? Newton himself answers our question since he continues to speak through his lasting literary legacy. Pastor Tim Keller acknowledges the continuing influence of Newton:

John Newton was not known for his stirring preaching. His sermons are actually fairly stodgy and pedestrian. However, his letters, in which he dealt with a wide variety of pastoral issues, are pure gold. Newton was able to take the great theological doctrines of the faith and apply them to the needs of friends, parishioners, even strangers who wrote for advice. In his letters he often blunt, yet always tender. He is remarkably humble and open about his own flaws, but never in a cloying or self-absorbed manner. He is therefore able to point others to the grace of Christ on which he himself clearly depends.[5]

In a manner of speaking, Newton capitalized on the “social” media of his day with his excellent letter-writing skills. Postal service was emerging as a viable means of communication in Britain, meaning that letter-writing was coming into vogue. He extended his influence beyond his locale and his own era through his letters and hymns.

Ministry on My Mind

One particular work of Newton, written while he labored as a Tide Surveyor in Liverpool, captured the essence of his heart as he pondered a call to ministry. They were later published in his book—Ministry on My Mind.[6] A call to ministry, according to Newton, should be authenticated by certain marks or proofs. What are they?

The minister must have a real desire to promote the glory of God and the salvation of souls.[7]

The glory of God and the salvation of souls are the chief ends of pastoral ministry. If they are absent in the life of a minister, then Newton would question the call to ministry:

However, furnished in other respects, if destitute of [these], he will be like a clock without a weight, incapable of motion. Something of this indeed is the temper of everyone who has tasted that the Lord is gracious, but in a minister it must be peculiarly lively and pressing, so as to take the place of every other design and concern in which he is engaged.[8]

The end-game for a God-called pastor should be to glorify God in ministry and evangelism. A close contemporary of Newton, George Whitefield, once lamented how the souls of his listeners weighed upon him, “Alas, my heart almost bleeds! What a multitude of precious souls are now before me! And yet, O cutting thought! were God now to require all your souls, how few, comparatively speaking, could really say, ‘The Lord our righteousness!’”[9] Surely such a statement captures the essence of Newton’s proof.

There must be a serious sense of the greatness of the work, its dignity and difficulty.[10]

A sense of the grandeur of ministry for Newton is healthy sign for one’s call. How dangerous it is if one lapses into a “check the box” kind of mentality in ministry. To treat the things of the Lord as common or ordinary should give one pause to reflect on this lack of reverence:

The want of this has caused so many (and some no doubt well-meaning) persons, to run unsent, and therefore unsuccessful. However desirous the person called of God may be to enter upon his office, he will still have very serious impressions of mind, when he considers, what the message is, whose it is, and that it will be the savour of life, or of death to all that shall hear it.[11]

The greatness of the work will not deter opposition. Paul informed the Corinthians that many adversaries awaited him in the same place that great opportunities presented themselves (1 Corinthians 16:9). The God-called minister will persevere through the tough times.

There must be a measure of gifts bestowed suitable to the work, if the call is from above.[12]

In this proof of ministry, it seems that Newton uses imperative language with an indicative meaning. In other words, his proofs point to realities which will find expression in the life of a God-called minister. In a manner of speaking, they are descriptive not prescriptive; they cannot be repressed. He speaks of the spiritual gifts which should attend every God-called minister. Surely, one cannot obtain gifts subsequent to the call. The call comes because the gifts are already present. Paul commanded Timothy to “Stir up the gift of God which is in you” (2 Timothy 1:6). Timothy’s spiritual gifts were already present (though neglected); Paul counseled him to put them to use in ministry. Newton knew that the will of God would never take us where the power of God could not keep us and the gifts of God could not be used in service: “I can easily believe that if the Lord should give me a lawful opportunity of speaking to a thousand people, He would enable me to acquit myself agreeably to his will and intention, because He has promised that as my day is, my strength shall be.”[13]


John Newton remains an enduring example of pastoral fidelity and inspiration. His perilous past as a slave-ship captain, from which he repented, vehemently asking the Lord to forgive, provided the grist out of which the Lord would fashion a minister who would never lose sight of his need for divine grace:

I am, by grace, kept from such sins as would dishonor my calling openly, and stumble my brethren; but the wickedness of my heart is amazing. My best service defective, my all is defiled, my heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, my every power is disordered and depraved, so that my services and duties, my preaching and my prayers are sufficient to ruin me, if the Lord should enter into judgment.[14]

Some might think Newton was morbid about his ministry. But his admission of need for God’s grace in ministry was real because he knew of something of the seductive, prideful power of sin in his own heart. This should serve as a warning for ministers today.

On a personal note, this writer has committed himself to read and engage the works of John Newton and George Whitefield on a daily basis. The letters, hymns, and sermons of Newton nourish his heart on pastoral ministry. The letters and sermons of Whitefield nourish his heart on preaching. The works of these men are commended to you for your spiritual growth and edification. Even though Newton has long since joined the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), he still speaks to us today of the joys and difficulties of pastoral ministry. Will we listen?


[1] John Newton, “Travailing in Birth For Souls,” in The Works of John Newton, vol. 2 (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2015), 677-78.

[2] All Scripture is taken from the New King James Version (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1985).

[3] Archibald Thomas Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. IV (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931), 234.

[4] Earlier in his letter, Paul lamented, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16). In the next chapter, the apostle answers his own question: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the New Covenant” (2 Cor. 3:5-6a).

[5] Quoted in Reinke, Newton on the Christian Life, 24.

[6] John Newton, Ministry on My Mind: John Newton on Entering Pastoral Ministry (London: John Newton Project, 2010).

[7] Ibid., 12.

[8] Ibid.

[9] J.C. Ryle, Select Sermons of George Whitefield, ed. J.C. Ryle (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1958), 134.

[10] Newton, Ministry on My Mind, 12.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 13.

[13] Ibid., 14.

[14] Tony Reinke, Newton on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 232-33.

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