For fifty years I’ve ministered in one small congregation in a bilingual town of 20,000 people in Mid Wales. I have been asked to consider whether I have gained any understanding of the work of the ministry that might colour the choices I made all those years ago to give my life to being a preacher.
We have to acknowledge that Paul tells us that we can have all knowledge, and yet if we lack love we are nothing (1 Cor. 13:2). And any knowledge I might have gained in the past decades is still a poor grasp of the greatness of God and the glory of the gospel. Now I know in part. I am still anticipating a day soon to come in my life when I shall know even as I am fully known.
Consider the parallel journey of marriage. I have been married for 51 years. We were married in Jerusalem, Blaenau Ffestiniog in July 1964. If I dared to think, ‘If I knew then what I know about marriage now…’. How would I end that sentence? That I would not have got married at all? That I would not have married that particular girl? My marriage has now reached the dementia of my beloved wife. If I had known that then, would it have made any difference at all to my marrying Iola? None whatsoever. I have had a blissfully happy marriage and I am experiencing grace for this section of my pilgrimage just as I did for the years of sick babies, sleepless nights and adjusting to being a husband and father. I wish I had been exceedingly more patient and thoughtful and loving of course, but 51 years of the delights and testings of marriage has not given me any radical rethinking of this creation ordinance. It would have been very bad for me to have been alone. Marriage to my wife has been a privilege, the greatest blessing after the grace of salvation that anyone could receive.
I entered marriage with a knowledge of what it was, from being part of a home for 26 years before I started my own home. I saw how Mam and Dad coped with life in their wonderfully happy relationship. I saw other relatives, and friends of mine in whose homes I would sit and enviously hear their banter and the loving teasing, perceiving the warm affection and the delight of the infants God had given them. That is what I longed for more than anything else, to marry and live as they did. I knew what marriage was from close observation.
So it was with the work of the gospel ministry. I knew about it. It was not a mysterious life. My father’s twin brother was a preacher. Dad’s sister married a preacher, and his brother was a preacher. So three uncles were preachers and I was in their homes. Then I became a Christian in March 1954. And that reality of knowing Jesus Christ was the Creator of the universe, and the living God, and the giver of eternal life and forgiveness of sins to all who entrusted themselves to him became a mighty reality, the most important fact about life.
I met young men who were entering the ministry, like Andrew, Neville, Ioan, Pete, Hywel, Stuart, Walt and Owen, and they seemed to me to be the most likable, normal, manly men you could ever wish to have as your friends and role models. They were going to be preachers. They were not saying, ‘Unworthy! I couldn’t dream of it. I am not holy enough, and not knowledgeable enough.’ They were going to give their talents and personalities and weaknesses to God. I could do that.
I also began to move in the circle of men in their early years as preachers, men like Iain, John, Hugh, Gareth, Eifion, Vernon, Al and Elwyn. They were accessible, wise and a lot of fun. They were also inspirational. There were many others who were older, and they were examples of men who had stayed the course, Luther, Eric, Omri, I.B., Russell, Emlyn and Emrys. They were the most attractive father figures. Being preachers for many years had not warped them at all.
There were also more remote figures. To hear Billy Graham in 1955 in Wembley Stadium offering Christ as the way, the truth and the life to the whole world was beautiful, and that image is always there at the back of my mind. Then there was the Doctor. To sit under his ministry for the first time in a crowded chapel in Cardiff in 1958 and experience the moving authority of his preaching set before me a standard for which I constantly bless God. Think of it — I knew and often heard Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. What a privilege! What a vocation it seemed to me to preach the word of God and be a blessing to people as such men of God as that.
Standing on giants’ shoulders
So I had that experiential knowledge of what being a preacher was, an immense combination of lessons that helped me to take the initial tentative steps to preach. My first sermon was at Aunty Bessie’s invitation in Elizabeth Street, Dowlais in September 1959 and with the bendith received I bought, for 18 shillings and 6 pence, Westcott’s commentary on John.
And that was again part of understanding what a preacher was, reading the best books, gaining knowledge of preachers and missionaries and theologians. There were the continental reformers and particularly the martyred English reformers via J.C. Ryle. I read the Puritans of the next century (especially Bunyan), and the leaders of the Evangelical Awakening in the following century like Whitefield, Edwards and the Welshmen. Then the next century: Carey, Judson, Paton, M’Cheyne, Bonar and his Diary, the men from Princeton, and Spurgeon. Finally the 20th century where it all clicked into place and where I took my first breath in 1938. By saving grace I had become part of living army of God’s servants, and preachers of the word. I went on to meet with them in ministers’ conferences and fraternals decade after decade. There was no happier, humbler, godlier group of men that one would ever wish to meet.
So in these ways I knew very comprehensively and sweetly what I was going to be doing as a minister of the word and the ordinances, a pastor of the people of God, an example of Christ-like devotion, prayer and foot-washing service.
What I did not know
What I did not know was how powerful would be the residue of remaining sin, how challenging it would be to prepare two or three sermons each week for the next 50 years, how hard it would be to maintain the disciplines of personal devotions each day, how tough it would be to deal with the disappointments, how great the follies and stumbling blocks that the independence of the ministry and the freedoms of the pastorate would provide. I have bored for Wales and wearied congregations, shame on me. I have misjudged men with dismissive superiority, shame on me. The work of grace is in fledgling form in the best of us.
But what I also did not know was how amazing would be the mercy of God in hiding so many of my falls from those who loved me most. Enough were made known to humble, but not too many to destroy. I have become conscious that I have been always dealt with by the wisest and most patient of heavenly Fathers who loves me as much as he loves the Son he has set at his right hand. I am safe with him alone. I wish I had known the great truths of the gospel more deeply, with more sanctifying energy fifty years ago. I wish I had preached the great texts of the gospel with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven, but that is still my wish today and there is still time and opportunity to do so. With all the privileges I had, and there are many more I might have mentioned, I should have had a far more helpful and awakening ministry than I have had, but if my ministry has been a means of saving others it has not saved me. I didn’t enter it in order to be redeemed. Because I’d been redeemed I entered it. The love of Christ constrained me, and his blood alone could do that. That is all my hope.