Gilbert Tennent on ‘The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry’

One of the greatest sermons in American history is Gilbert Tennent’s The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry. It bears re-reading consideration by seminary professors, denominational officials, pastoral leaders and church elders today, as well as congregations at large. I think that it would be a good suggestion for many denominations, seminaries and pastors to make for anyone considering pastoral ministry to read this sermon first.

There is much in the sermon also for anyone who is sure of his or her saving faith and salvation before God according to the scriptures (I John 5:11-13). The first point, on the conduct of the Pharisees toward Christ, would also be well worth consideration for anyone who takes lightly the reprehensible, unscriptural and sinful conduct that takes place under the name of ‘church politics’: “First, I am to inquire into the characters of the old Pharisee-teachers. No, I think the most notorious branches of their character were these: pride, policy, malice, ignorance, covetousness, and bigotry to human inventions in religious matters.” Even more, such passages as the following warn even a pastor who has been converted against seeing pastoral ministry as simply a job: “The old Pharisees, for all their long prayers and other pious pretenses, had their eyes, with Judas, fixed upon the bag. Why, they came into the priest’s office for a piece of bread. They took it up as a trade and, therefore, endeavored to make the best market of it they could. O shame!”

Do some come to seminary, even an evangelical seminary, to take up pastoral ministry who are not converted? Definitely! I know firsthand of some. It’s hard to say how they managed to get in when the application process generally asks for an account of personal conversion and experience in following Christ. It may be that they are admitted more because they have shown themselves capable of the academic work and of paying the tuition. Perhaps they plagiarized someone else’s experience for this part of the application. Certainly I would say that seminary and denominational officials do have a responsibility to have a serious conversation with prospective students who do not have a credible account of having come to Christ and walking with Christ afterwards. Just as well, there would also be a definite responsibility to have some conversations about walking with Christ with those who show deep problems with that during their time in seminary. Just as much, I think that the sermon speaks to those who who might be seeking pastoral ministry as a steady income and a prestigious job, and the effects of pastoral ministry where someone is ministering as a ‘natural man,’ in his own strength, and not in the power of the Holy Spirit.

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