There are various resources which can be used by those who are wondering whether they have a call to preach. Perhaps less is available for those who are discerning that they do not have a call to the gospel ministry. It can sometimes seem as though, if a young man has a pressing desire to serve the Lord, the only way to do this is to preach. However we still need to recognise the validity and the value of secular callings and the work that can be done for the Lord outside of the gospel ministry.
Someone who initially struggled to recognise their calling was Archibald Johnston of Wariston. A gifted young lawyer who desperately longed to devote his whole life (and death) to the Lord’s service, he wrestled earnestly with the problem of whether he was being called to the gospel ministry or to continue in the legal field. He kept a detailed diary of his spiritual and psychological turmoils, including how he came to the clear view that his calling was not the gospel ministry. The various aspects of his decision-making process are still appropriate today, as can be seen from the following updated extracts from his diary for August 1633. Setting aside time for prayer and fasting, he coordinated the advice of wise friends, helpful contemporary writers, and the teaching of Scripture in his analysis of his own inclinations and gifts and the requirements of a gospel minister. Wariston went on to have a stellar career in law and politics, making huge contributions to the good of the Scottish church. In the end he was executed by hanging for remaining true to his principles.
My brother-in-law exhorted me to settle my resolutions concerning my calling, and gave me reasons to continue in what I had begun, letting me see my impatience for catechising on the one part, and on the other part the possiblity of serving God and doing good as an advocate.
On Monday, after praising and praying, I resolved to keep a private fast to God all this week for my deliverance from my troubles, fears and perplexities, and for God assisting me against temptation and directing me in my confusions, chiefly concerning my calling. In this I prayed the Lord of heaven that He would direct me in choosing my calling, and bless me in what He made me to choose, and enable me in and by it to glorify Him, edify His servants and my friends, and the poor people, and to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling. (Lord, hear and direct for Christ’s sake!) I remembered how last Saturday night the Psalm which happened to be read was Psalm 127, “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it,” and I applied this to my calling.
On Thursday I heard Rev Henry Rollock preach on Genesis 2:2, where he argued that we should imitate God’s example and rest on the Sabbath day, “but,” he said, “it is most commendable to labour in our particular calling all the week.”
After the sermon I looked at William Perkins’s treatise on Callings (having first prayed to God to direct me and settle me in my calling, and reiterating all my vows to Him) [Perkins, A Treatise of the Vocations or Callings of Men (1603)]. When I read Perkins, and finding my mind much settled by it, I resolved to follow his rules of choosing a calling, and to examine myself by his signs. Perkins directs us to examine what calling God calls us to, 1st, by our affection and inclination, and 2nd, by our gifts.
Then I spent all afternoon testing by both tests whether I should apply myself to the ministry or to law.
First, I found that I truly respected and honoured more in my mind the ministry than law, but that my affection and resolution constantly carried me to the law. This was partly because I saw that my mind could not be bent to religious exercises constantly, but fainted if it was not sometimes diverted to secular things, and partly also because I did not dare to take on the burden of more souls than my own – for I found it genuinely difficult for my own soul alone to work out its salvation in fear and trembling. So I found that my inclination was always to serve God in this, fearing lest I would be diverted from it to something else.
Secondly, I found my gifts not so fitted for the ministry as for law. My gift is dialectic rather than didactic – fitter for disputing pro and contra than for teaching solid grounds. Also neither my invention, judgment nor memory was in favour of handling such deep mysteries. Again, in the judgment of all, I have no gift for speaking, and would have no utterance at all in preaching. I was never a good linguist, either in Scots, French or Latin. However, the main point of the calling to the ministry lies in catechising, and this I am utterly incapable of, due to my natural hastiness, crossness and impatience.
As for law. My affection. My continual resolution since my childhood. My plying of my studies to that end. The manifold opportunities of making progress in it. My gifts being disputative, and therefore naturally fitting me for it. Also, chiefly, the warrant of the apostle, commanding me to remain in the calling in which I was called (1 Corinthians 7:20); the commentators Bolton, Pareus, and Perkins on that text all advise against an unnecessary or rash change of calling.
All of this greatly settled my mind, and made me resolve that, having craved God’s direction in my choice and then His blessing on my choice, I would fall to my book next week.
My resolution was confirmed by reading Genesis 3:19 (“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread …”) and Matthew 25 (about the servants who received the talents). Also Mark 6:3, “Is not this the carpenter?” from which Perkins says that Christ used carpentry as His particular calling, and Exodus 20, “Six days shalt thou labour,” which according to Perkins is a command. Also 1 Corinthians 12:28, “God hath set some in the church, first apostles, gifts of healings, helps of governments.” Ephesians 4:28, “Let him that stole steal no more, but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.” Colossians 3:22, “Servants, obey in all things your masters, and, whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not unto men, knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance, for ye serve the Lord Christ.” 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “This we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. Now them that work not at all, but are busybodies, we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work and eat their own bread.”
My mind was strongly prompted by these passages to be settled in a calling, and was then confirmed in my first resolution by Perkins’ rules of examination, but especially by 1 Corinthians 7:20, and I blessed God heartily for settling my mind so well.
I remembered how I had presented to God as my greatest request that He would be well-pleased to settle me in a particular calling, in which I could glorify Him, edify His servants, and work out my own salvation with fear and trembling. This made me confident of the general principle that assuredly God would bless me in my calling. I also remembered how, having craved God’s direction concerning my choice of a calling, I got the same passage, 1 Corinthians 7:20, brought to my memory in my prayer as an answer.
Also, God answered all the objections that I could bring against my calling to law. The first objection was that God seemed to thwart me in the study of this calling. Answer: It was because I had not till now sought God’s direction and blessing so urgently. Now, after being so urgent with God, I can say with David, “The Lord hath delivered me out of the paw of the lion and out of the jaws of the bear, he will deliver me also out of the hand of this Philistine.” So the Lord who protected me in my travels [to France] and directed me in my marriage, will bless me also in my choosing and in my calling. All the more so, since on the one hand what I am praying for now tends more to His glory and the good of His servants and my salvation, and on the other hand the manner of my praying is [by His help] more humble, more frequent, and more fervent than before.
My second objection was that I would shame myself by something I said. Answer: That would be to distrust God’s assistance, which He will not refuse to any who truly desires it, not only in divine discourses, but also secular discourses tending to His glory and the good of the commonwealth.
Thirdly, I had a doubt about the distractions associated with law. Answer: My devotion, not being continually bent [towards spiritual things] would be the benter when it was [from time to time] employed in God’s service.
Fourthly, I had a doubt about the temptations associated with law. Answer: Those temptations are less dangerous than either medicine or theology, for there they endangered either the soul or the body, but with law they only endanger the purse. Also, those temptations would be like so many pricks in my side to keep me awake all the time, and to hold God’s graces in exercise, and to maintain my tenderness of conscience (which, if never stirred, would grow obdurate).
Then, for my greater confidence of a blessing, I remembered how all my prayers run on this line, that God would glorify Himself both in my life and in my death, and that He would send either life or death as He thought fittest to His glory, the best interests of church and commonwealth, and my own salvation. So that, seeing God now sends life, I may be confident that He has some work to do with me yet for His glory, the wellbeing of His servants, and my own good.
Thereafter I spent that night in confessing, praying, and praising for all His mercies, and in particular for settling my mind so well that day in my particular calling. Blessed by His name for it, for now and for evermore!
Archibald Johnston of Wariston kept a diary for many years. Extracts have recently been republished in a book titled, ‘For Christ and Covenant: The Spirituality of Archibald Johnston of Wariston,’ edited by Ruth E Alcalay.
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