Some words are dangerous cargo, to be handled with care. “Authority” is a good example. It is so easily read as authoritarianism or, more simply, bossiness, the aptitude some people have for throwing their weight around and ordering other people in a rough and unfeeling manner.

How can a minister whose very name means servant lay claim to authority? Obviously he cannot set out to boss his congregation and still be loyal to his calling as a servant of God; let him recall the apostolic warning, “not tyrannizing over those who are allotted to your care” (1 Pet. 5:3, NEB).

However, there is such a thing as the preacher’s authority. Paul uses the exact word in Second Corinthians 13:10. In the traditional Episcopal service for ordaining ministers, the charge is given to the candidate: “Take thou authority to preach the word of God.…” So we need to ask, What sort of authority belongs to the preaching office? Can it be ours today?

In one revealing snatch of autobiography, Paul opens a window on his inner life as a preacher of the Gospel. If we have questions to ask about authority, it is to this text, Ephesians 3:7 and 8, that we should address them:

The gospel of which I was made a minister, by God’s gift [grace], bestowed unmerited on me in the working of his power. To me, who am less than the least of all God’s people, he has granted of his grace the privilege of proclaiming to the Gentiles the good news of the unfathomable riches of Christ [NEB].

First, the preacher’s authority is possible only as a conferment of grace. Twice in this short passage Paul puts the spotlight on his favorite theological term. “Grace” is the indispensable word of his vocabulary, and here he uses it in an emphatic way. He draws attention to the debt he owes to God’s grace, which first claimed him and then commissioned him. “According to the gift of the grace of God given unto me” (KJV)—commentators suggest that Paul had in mind one specific occasion when he received God’s gift, and this must mean the day of his conversion. There on the roadside before the city gates of Damascus, his life was changed.

The Scriptures do not tell us exactly what that transforming experience meant to Paul, but he made at least two discoveries. One was that Christ was alive. That novelty burst upon the life of the persecuting Pharisee as a blinding flash of light; years later he was still talking about the spiritual illumination that came on the Damascus road (2 Cor. 4:4–6). The living Lord appeared to him, and convinced him in the most undeniable way—at the level of personal experience—that He was truly alive, and therefore Paul’s contemporary. Again, some years after this event, Paul could still recall the vividness and decisiveness of the encounter with the living Jesus (1 Cor. 9:1).

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We should not fail to grasp the significance of this revelation of Jesus’ aliveness. It meant the cross had new meaning as a piece of history that God had engineered; and when Jesus had died a sinner’s death on a tree, God owned and vindicated him as his Son by showing that he died not for his own sins but bearing the sins of the world. The cursed one was after all the blessed one, the Messiah, since God had cared for him beyond death and brought him through to life. That was new to Saul; that truth converted him, and turned him into Paul. It was doctrine as well as experience at work.

Am I not an apostle? asks Paul (1 Cor. 9:1). Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? The two questions go together, with a common answer, because God’s grace, which claimed and converted him, also sent him on a mission. “The grace of God [was] given me” was how he phrased it. This was his secondary discovery. It was the grace of apostleship (Rom. 1:5) that changed his life, redirected it into a channel of service, and led him to devote the rest of his days to the task that Christ had committed to him.

It is exactly here, in the recognition of all he owes to the grace of God, that the preacher’s ministry takes on its character. It is all of God, and it is all of grace. At the end of a lifetime of service, when he looks back his admission will be: Not I but the grace of God.

Second, the preacher’s authority submits to the control of his self-estimate. No human enterprise is so self-revealing as the ministry of preaching. Paul was aware of the great dangers of his calling, and at one point he explicitly denied that he had consciously put himself in the wrong place: “What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5). But at a deeper level he had discovered the antidote to pride, which is the preacher’s crippling drawback: it was a perpetual reminder of who he was and how dependent he felt on the support and help of God. This passage is eloquent in its witness to Paul’s humility. In fact, it is so painfully self-conscious that some commentators describe it as “theatrical.” But it is not that. Paul is being patently honest as he submits to self-exposure in the light of his intense desire to have a ministry beyond reproach.

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His true self-estimate shines out in his language. “Less than the least of all saints” is how he describes what he sees in the mirror. Imagine the most insignificant and untalented member of Christ’s body, he remarks; well, I am below that person. It is not that he disowns his gifts or has a false self-depreciation. Rather, he wants to see himself in a place where there is no room left for proud independence or vain self-assertiveness. It is the lowly place set by him who came not to be served but to serve, who took a towel to wash the disciples’ feet, who chose the form of a slave in his incarnate life, and volunteered to become poor as the price he paid in his life on earth. “I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29) was Jesus’s own self-witness. Paul would willingly take his place alongside his Lord.

The lesson for us today is evident. Nothing more defeats the minister’s set purpose of being an example than an overbearing, haughty, and domineering spirit. Richard Baxter has a timely word: “There are no virtues wherein your example will do more, at least to abate men’s prejudice, than humility, and meekness, and self-denial.… Speak not stoutly or disrespectfully to any one; but be courteous to the meanest, as to your equal in Christ” (The Reformed Pastor). More pointedly, D. L. Moody cautions us: “Be humble, or you’ll stumble.” The great pattern of Jesus, who confessed, “I am among you as he who serves,” should always be our inspiration and guide.

Third, the preacher’s authority is expressed and exercised in fulfillment of a God-appointed task. Happy is the man who has found work that brings satisfaction and reward, and who finds increasing joy in it. For Paul, proclaiming the good news was the joy of his life. It was a duty laid upon him, but more than that, it was an enterprise he undertook gladly, as a bird moves its wings to fly or a fish propels itself through water. Preaching was Paul’s native element, and he found his reward in the very fulfillment of what he believed God required of him (1 Cor. 9:15–18).

Many in our day are inclined to view preaching as a dispensable alternative to other more glamorous aspects of the Church’s work in the world, or, at worst, as even a waste of time. “The day of the sermon is over,” they say. (It is probably true that the day of some sermons is over—and should have been long ago!) When doubts like this settle upon us, perhaps Paul’s teaching will win us back to what he regards as the indispensable function of the minister: to proclaim the good news as a herald, since it is God’s unvarying good pleasure by the foolishness (so men count it) of preaching to save those who believe (1 Cor. 1:21). “How are they to hear without a preacher?” he asks (Rom. 10:14), beginning with the agreed proposition that no one ever comes to know God unless God takes the initiative and reveals himself. And that revelation means that God sends his messengers to tell the news. In a letter Rousseau asks, “Is it simple, is it natural, that God should have gone and found Moses in order to speak to Jean Jacques Rousseau?” Well, it is a roundabout way that scandalizes natural man; but it is God’s way in all times.

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So the preacher is summoned to proclaim, and this means his distinctive place is in the pulpit. There is a sacramental quality in preaching since it has to do with the great, fundamental sacrament, the Word. At the Table of the Lord we hear, “This is my body”; at the pulpit, “This is my word.” To be charged with a sacred, saving word is a high calling and a noble responsibility. Let no preacher despise it by neglect or indifference or a slipshod performance.

Fourth, the preacher’s authority lays claim to the greatness of the message entrusted to him. In a word that flashes like a many-faceted jewel, Paul describes the riches of Christ enshrined in the Gospel as “unfathomable.” The word means “beyond human exploration”; it carries an invitation to wealth that we can never exhaust and can never fully appreciate. “It suggests a treasure house of grace,” wrote F. C. Beare, “vast beyond all conceiving, so that no matter how far we penetrate there are rooms and corridors opening out in endless vistas, far beyond our capacity of apprehension or of vision” (Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 10, p. 669). Yet it is wealth related to a purpose. Our attempts to display human grandeur in art and architecture, in diamond and precious metal, are often shot through with motives of proud display.

The Gospel of Christ is rich in its relation to men’s needs today. Three auxiliary verses, drawn from Paul’s writings, show how the preacher is called to perform a threefold role, (a) “The riches of divine goodness and kindness” (Rom. 2:4) states the character of God, and invites the preacher to be an apologist for God. In a day when people are disturbed by the implications of modern science, assailed by the rationalization of modern psychology, and appalled by the threats of a modern theology that announced the death of God, it is the preacher’s task to make God real, in his attributes, his works, his ways and excellent worth, so that men will come to know him as revealed in Christ his Son. This is the preacher’s noble calling: to bring God to men, and make them aware of him.

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Then, (b) Ephesians 2:7 speaks of the “riches of his grace.” The preacher is called to the ministry of the evangelist, and the good news he proclaims centers in grace. God’s amazing condescension and love caused him to reach down in Christ to rescue and restore. “The smile of God” is how one commentator lights up the term “grace.” It is the great privilege of the preacher to show men and women before him in the pew and alongside him in the street and home the face of God, his desire to mend and remake broken lives and to set people on their feet again as forgiven and reconciled sinners. The song title “Amazing Grace” sings out a truth that will never fade. As long as men and women have needs, there will be available the word of grace to restore and to bring hope.

(c) “Riches of God’s glory” (Eph. 1:6, 18) is a phrase with a signpost to the future. Man is incurably curious in his desire to know what is going to happen. The average Englishman, said G. K. Chesterton, is fond of children and afraid to die. The riches of the Gospel provide also for this dimension, in the assurance of God’s care for his people in life and death. The preacher is also the comforter, extending a message of consolation and good hope to those about to enter the valley of the shadow and to those bereaved and bewildered over life’s tragedies.

“We have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7) brings us back to Paul’s own view of himself and his ministry. And that about sums it up. Here is a frail, finite, fallible man, yet he is aware of a vocation in life that is without rival. In himself he has no power to discharge his calling or do what he knows to be “his own thing.” Yet he has in his hand priceless treasure. Who is adequate for this? Paul answers his own query, “Our sufficiency is from God, who has qualified us to be ministers” (2 Cor. 3:6). And his answer is good enough for us today.

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

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