Updated: Feb 21, 2020
Foxcroft was pastor of First Congregational Church in Boston from 1717 until his death in 1769. His Calvinist and puritan sensibilities (in the best sense) are evident throughout this work. Though penned nearly 60 years before the United States would become an independent nation, his treatment of the pastoral ministry remains poignantly relevant given its grounding in the Biblical text. Ministers who undertake to strengthen their own understanding of the gospel ministry through this little book will find ample reward for their study.
Though this book is relatively brief (87 pages), Foxcroft provides a comprehensive overview of the minister’s calling. He begins with the minister as preacher, proceeds to the relationship of the minister to his flock, and continues with a discussion of the manner in which the minister should discharge his calling. He ends the body of his sermon with a discussion of the source of strength for the work of ministry. Before leaving his subject, he provides a very brief exhortation for how congregations should treat their pastors.
Given contemporary conceptions of pastoral ministry, it is noteworthy that Foxcroft begins his treatise with the minister as preacher. How many “successful” pastors of our own time would give preaching such a prominent place? It is also noteworthy that he did not consider preaching anymore popular during his own time than it is considered in ours. He writes, “However ignoble, trivial, and minute the work may appear to some, however contemptible this foolishness of preaching may be, yet the great doctor of the Gentiles, a star of the first magnitude, the very chief of the apostles…did not think that he was stooping when he gave himself to the ministry of the Word.”
Reading Foxcraft dispels the prevalent notion that preaching was done in the past because it was popular or readily received by listeners. It was as contemptibly foolish during his day as it is during ours. Therefore, we should resist the temptation to discard preaching in the hope of finding something that will be more palatable and thus more effective. Now, as then, the preaching of the word requires the work of the Holy Spirit for its effectiveness. We should undertake the ministry of preaching not because we expect it to be readily received, but because we expect the Holy Spirit to make God’s word effectual according to His promise.
What should the minister preach? Foxcroft says that Christ is the grand subject, “…which minister of the gospel should mainly insist upon in their preaching.” He goes on to say, “He must be the substance and bottom of every sermon. ” While it may surprise us that he sees no shortage of people who would preach anything but Christ, it should not. Apparently the ministers of his day were as tempted as we are to find a more relevant subject for their sermons than Christ. Acutely aware of this temptation he commends Christ as the main subject and object of preaching. Nothing less than the bread of life will satisfy the hunger of God’s people. Ministers should offer only the best for the nourishment of the children of the King.
While preaching is a great and noble duty of the pastoral ministry, it is not the only one. Pastors must counsel, correct, comfort and care for the people of God, always through and with the word of God. They must be fishers of men as well. Foxcroft spends less time outlining the specific duties of a pastor than he does exploring the manner in which they should be undertaken. Ministers must discharge all of their duties with a thorough and intimate knowledge of those to whom they are called to minister. In all of these duties they must be wise and prudent. He goes on to provide particulars in which ministerial wisdom must be evident.
This treatment of ministerial wisdom is a particularly helpful section of the book as far as I am concerned. Foxcroft says several things that are grounded in the Scriptures which we might be given to easily dismiss. For example, he robustly emphasizes the duty of pastors to order their private conduct in a manner that will add authority to their public ministry. He says, “The want of this unhinges the door and opens the gate to floods of contempt; it unpins the whole frame of their ministry, makes the very pillars shake and totter, puts the foundations out of course, and threatens all with shipwreck and dissolution.”
I suspect that most of us are painfully aware of public and not so public examples of the truth of that statement. It is just possible that I am too quick to remind myself that, “pastors are sinners too.” In doing so I may too easily relieve myself of the sober responsibility to flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace (2 Timothy 2:22). Foxcraft commends pastors to diligently seek the grace of God in sanctification, and to quickly repent from their sins. Surely, this is an exhortation that I need to hear as a pastor.
Any temptation to dismiss Foxcroft as outdated and insufficient to the challenges of pastoral ministry in the 21st century should be adamantly resisted. Actually the very fact that he writes in a period historically removed from our time makes him all the more worthwhile to read. But he is vitally relevant in particular because he is thoroughly biblical in his treatment of his subject. I would heartily commend The Gospel Ministry as a challenging, biblical, and enrichening treatment of the ministerial calling.