To the Unknown Pastor
Updated: Nov 22, 2022
There’s no substitute for being where God has called you to be doing what God has called you to do. You can plan and orchestrate your path but only God’s plans can never be thwarted. His, not our, wisdom is unsearchable and his ways are higher than our ways. He has you right where he desires you to be - to do all he desires you to do.
I started dwelling on this point as I was reading and listening to biographical sketches of the Puritans. It’s surprising how plain many of their conversions were and how unremarkable their ministries might seem to us, and at the same time, how impactful their ministries have been in the church ever since.
John Owen is one of the most famous of the English Puritans. He lived from 1616-1683, through the English Civil War, the Long Parliament, and the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. In various roles, he was Cromwell’s chaplain, a professor of theology, and the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford.
Before he was any of those things, he was searching for assurance of salvation. He knew the depth of his sin, but he was less sure of the power of God’s grace. Searching for some kind of encouragement and assurance, he went to St. Mary Aldermanbury in London to hear Edmund Calamy preach. After he arrived at the church, he noticed that Calamy was not there that day. He decided to stay for the service and a preacher, unknown to history, preached from Matthew 8:26, “And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’”
That sermon - and that verse - would characterize the rest of John Owen’s life. He went on to write several books that are still read today; The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, The Mortification of Sin, four volumes on the Holy Spirit, and a seven-volume commentary on the book of Hebrews. He’s known today for quotes like, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you” and “If we would talk less and pray more about them, things would be better than they are in the world: at least, we should be better enabled to bear them.”
(By the way, this church was destroyed in the great fire of 1666. It was rebuilt by none other than Sir Christopher Wren shortly after but destroyed again in the Blitz in 1940. Afterward, a group of people in Fulton, Missouri paid for the stones to be shipped to Westminster College where it was reassembled as a monument to Winston Churchill, who had given his “Iron Curtain” speech there twenty years before. You can visit the church today in Fulton.)
Charles Spurgeon - though not technically a puritan - might be my favorite example. Now, “plain” and “unremarkable” are not words anyone would use to describe the “Prince of Preachers.” He had the largest church in London, started dozens of charitable organizations, founded a pastor’s college, published books, and had his sermons published in the papers every week. Practically everything about him was remarkable! But it didn’t start out that way.
I remember reading the Banner of Truth edition of Spurgeon’s letters, and in his teens, he wondered if he would ever amount to anything. Having just become a Christian, he was spending his evenings handing out tracts and seeing few conversions. At one point he wrote to his mother and lamented, “I just wish I could do something for the Lord!” In God’s time, that prayer was answered.
Even his conversion followed this theme. One evening, as he was trying to escape a snowstorm, he wandered into a country church and sat down to hear the sermon. The minister happened to be preaching from Isaiah 45:22, “Look to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God and there is no other.” I love the way Michael Reeves opens his book, Spurgeon on the Christian Life, not with a description of this moment, but one that would come decades later; “Crowds lined the streets, hoping to catch a glimpse of the olivewood casket as it made its way through the streets of south London. On top was a large pulpit Bible opened at Isaiah 45:22: ‘Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.’ It was Thursday, February 11, 1892, and the body of Charles Haddon Spurgeon was being taken for burial.” The verse he heard preached that day became the theme of his life.
Sitting in that pew in 1859, as soon as he heard those words, his heart was pierced. But there’s another fascinating detail to this story. Because of the snowstorm, the minister couldn’t make it to church that evening. Spurgeon remembers that “A poor man, a shoemaker, a tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach.” He may not have been the regular preacher, but he was the one Spurgeon needed to hear that night. As he pressed the few people there to look to Christ, he suddenly focused on young Charles Spurgeon, craning over the pulpit and shouting right at him, “Young man, look to Jesus!” He did that night, and he never looked away. To this day, nobody knows the preacher’s name.
It doesn’t matter where you find yourself or what God calls you to do, all that matters is that you follow where he leads, say what he tells you to say, and give him the glory as you go. Think of the impact these two men made! They were not trained, they probably weren't as gifted as the men they were filling in for, but they were faithful and they preached God's Word when they felt the call. God's Word and God's plans never return void.
If you’re looking for further reading on Owen and Spurgeon, here are a few of my recommendations:
Morning and Evening
An All-Round Ministry
The Soul Winner
The Treasury of David
Michael Reeves, Spurgeon on the Christian Life, Crossway, 2018.
Overcoming Sin and Temptation: Three Classic Works by John Owen
Matthew Barrett and Michael Haykin, Owen on the Christian Life, Crossway, 2015.
Crawford Gribben, An Introduction to John Own: A Christian Vision for Every Stage of Life, Crossway, 2022.
Dr. Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak and the Senior Pastor of Carlton Landing Community Church in Oklahoma.