Updated: Feb 21, 2020
The Christian Ministry
by Charles Bridges
Banner of Truth (2006, first published 1830)
This book is a must-read for ministers. While Bridges was an Anglican minister, Reformed pastors will find the theological perspective he displays in this work amiable. In Reformed circles Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor is widely considered a definitive work on Pastoral Theology. While I do not begrudge the well-deserved reputation it receives (indeed Bridges quotes Baxter liberally in this book), in my opinion Charles’ Bridges fine work, The Christian Ministry exceeds Baxter’s classic.
For one thing, Bridges’ adopts an endearingly humble, sympathetic tone in his writing. He cultivates within the reader a congenial desire to learn from him. He manages to uphold the high calling of the minister with all its sobering responsibilities without leaving the reader to conclude that none but the Lord Himself ought to ever undertake it. Further, Bridges sets forth a magnificently biblical conception of the minister’s work. He sees the work of the minister as consisting of two distinct but related avenues of service: preaching and pastoring. If the minister neglects either, he neglects his calling. Preaching and pastoring wonderfully combine to form the completeness of the sacred office.
In addition, Bridges skillfully grounds the work of the minister in the fertile soil of the good news of Jesus Christ. He constantly reminds the pastor that his motivation must be drawn from the grace found in Jesus Christ. His fruitfulness depends relatively little upon his innate skill, no matter how great his native talents. Rather it grows especially out of the promises of God and powerful ministration of the Holy Spirit. Since the minister’s task is spiritual, it requires the working of the Holy Spirit to be effective.
I could cite numerous other attractive features of this work. Bridges has a beautifully Trinitarian understanding of ministry. For example he directs the minister’s work to all three persons of the Godhead, writing, “The three adorable persons are severally and distinctly glorified. The ministry has an equal concern and dependence upon each, and owes equal honour and service to each.” Similarly, he offers a number of practically helpful suggestions for pastoral study and sermon preparation that remain relevant after 180 years.
A final reason I believe this work exceeds even Baxter’s is that he conceives of the Christian life in thoroughly biblical terms. The minister is called to serve in such a way as to help the people of God arrive at maturity. Bridges has a lucid understanding of what constitutes Christian maturity biblically. On the one hand he refuses to allow any place for the sort of moralistic self-righteous religion that is so easily mistaken for biblical maturity. But on the other hand, he leaves no place for the passive pseudo-Christianity in which adherents are in no way conformed to the image of Christ.
I found a great deal of personally helpful advice in this volume. Bridges reminds me of the biblical confidence of the work of ministry. It rests not upon any efforts of human wisdom or persuasion, but upon the “word forever settled in heaven.” At the same time the visible indication of success is various. He reminds, “Apparent must not be the measure of the real result.” Likewise I was convicted by his insistence that while various objects of study are valuable, the minister must make Scripture the chief object.
I also found instructive his discussion of the proper place for law and gospel in the ministry. He reminds the reader that these two are not opposed to one another in Christ. They work together. Indeed Christ fulfills the law as a covenant for us, and in doing so he brings us under its rule. He wins for us the ability to exercise that love which is the fulfillment of the law. As to the proper treatment of law and gospel by the minister, he writes:
We must therefore maintain the spiritual inefficacy of mere lectures on morality, irrespective of the Gospel. If they convert the brute into the man, they will never accomplish that higher and indispensable change, of converting the man into the saint.
To limit the gospel merely to justification and forgiveness of sins is to offer the part for the whole. But at the same time he does not fall into advocating a gospel bereft of justification and forgiveness in Christ:
We are not to commence with the outskirts of the Gospel, and so reason on step by step till we come to Christ–thus keeping the sinner waiting in the dark. He wants to see the king. There needs no long ceremonial approach from a distance. Let the great object be placed in immediate view….Let Christ be the diamond to shine in the bosom of all your sermons.
Indeed, much enrichment is offered as concerns preaching. And preachers need to carefully digest what Bridges has to say. Perhaps his most salient point is that biblical preachers should not aim for any person’s admiration, whether his congregants or other ministers. Rather the most effective preaching is that which the hearers have neither stopped to criticize nor to admire because, “…Each carried away the arrow fastened in his heart, considering himself to be the person addressed, and having neither time, thought, nor inclination to apply it to others.”
I was further struck by Bridges understanding of the place of what he calls pastoral ministry (which he distinguishes from preaching). He observes:
A pulpit Ministration may command attention and respect; but except the preacher convert himself into a Pastor, descending from the pulpit into the cottage, and in Christian simplicity ‘becoming all things to all men;’ there will be nothing that fastens on the affections–no ‘bands of love.’ The people cannot love and unknown and untried friend, and confidence without love is an anomaly.
Speaking from personal experience as well as observation, there is great temptation for ministers to pursue due diligence in preaching, and be satisfied with that. But Bridges insists that even the minister’s work as a preacher cannot be truly effective unless he also pursues with equal diligence his pastoral duties. My experience seems to confirm that he is exactly correct in this regard.