What a piece of work is a man

Book 4 Chapter 3 Section 1-16

“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—
nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so”
Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2

So muses Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as he confesses his depressive spirit to them. What an amazing creature man is, but at the same time what weakness he has. In this chapter of the Institutes we turn to the election and office of teachers and ministers in the church. What an honour for man that God should bestow the priviledge of being his representatives on earth. And yet no other aspect of Christian life better illustrates Shakespeare’s reflections on man than this one. History shows what great heights pastors and teachers have attained over the years in their faithful ministry of the gospel. But along the way there have been many notable and costly failures. As Franklin Roosevelt reminded us “with great power comes great responsibility.”

First of all Calvin recognises that God could have acted on his own, or use angels, but that there are several reasons why he chooses to use  men and women. He states that in this way God further condescends to our level, “he shows us by experience that it is not to no purpose that he calls us his temples”. In addition this method provides “a most excellent and useful training to humility when he accustoms us to obey his word though preached by men like ourselves, or, it may be, our inferiors in worth.” Calvin argues that if God spoke to us directly it would not be suprising if we obeyed his commands, but “when a feeble man, sprung from the dust, speaks in the name of God, we give best proof of our piety and obedience, by listening with docility to his servant.” Thirdly, using men for the ministry binds us together through our common need, each serving the other in a mutual bond of unity. We cannot say we do not need each other when it is by the ministry of our fellow man that God has appointed our instruction and edification.

Calvin then moves on to consider the honour and importance placed upon the office. He argues that “neither are the heat and light of the sun, nor meat and drink, so necessary to sustain and cherish the present life, as is the apostolical and pastoral office to preserve a church in the earth.” This is no optional extra that can be dispensed with at a whim, says Calvin. No, it is vital for sustaining the church in each generation. Calvin refers to Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, where Paul states that “there is nothing in the church more noble and glorious than the ministry of the gospel, seeing it is the administration of the Spirit of righteousness and eternal life.”

Next Calvin looks at the various types of offices within the church – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. And concludes that only the latter two have a continual place in the church, the former three being raised up when “the necessity of the times requires”. Calvin describes the difference between pastors and teachers as being “teachers preside not over discipline , or the administration of the sacraments, or admonitions, or exhortations, but the interpretation of scripture only.” Whereas all these aspects are contained in the pastoral office.

Calvin then turns to the call of the ministry. He asks “who are to be appointed ministers, in what way, by whom and with what rite or initiatory ceremony”. Here he is only dealing with that external confirmatory call of the church towards an individual who has already received the secret call of God. Who? Only those who are of a sound doctrine and holy life, with a good testimony within the church and without. They should be men who are “not unfit for or unequal to the burden imposed upon them” for they should be “provided with the means which will be necessary to fulfill their office.” How? With great seriousness in those appointing them, in earnest prayer for the mind of Christ. By whom? While the apostles were called “at the sole command of God and Christ”, in our day it is by affirming response of the elders in the presence of the people. The form of ordination? The laying on of hands of the elders. That he who is ordained may know that “he is no longer his own, but is bound in service to God and the church.”


Calvin’s chapter on the ministry is a timely reminder of the honour and priviledge that has been bestowed on the office by God. To be God’s representative to his people in his church is surely the greatest of all callings and the highest of all honour. And yet if this is so, it makes me wonder why our colleges struggle to fill places and churches struggle to fill vacancies? Why is it that so few men come forward for the ministry? Has God stopped calling his ministers to this blessed vocation? Or are we failing to find, inspire, train, equip, empower, resource and commission these men?

I must confess that I do not believe God has stopped his calling work in the lives of young men. I believe he is still prompting, challenging and calling men to consecrate their lives to him. But when their are so many distractions and competing voices I believe that still small voice needs fanning into flame. I can think of a number of friends who have the gifting to be great pastors, but in the absence of opportunities and mentoring the call gets stifled. What opportunities are there for aspiring pastors and teachers at your church to gain experience in the ministry of the word? Are we willing to share the limelight to enable those less gifted and less mature to test their gifting? Is our church set up to regularly give opportunities and training to the next generation of leaders? If not then where are they to go to get this experience?

In the sovereignty of God he is able to overcome these problems and raise up his people. But must we make it so hard for his purposes to be accomplished? In an age when millions and millions of pounds are poured into finding the next singing sensation who will be unknown in five years time, can we not invest our time, energy and money in finding and training the next generation of leaders for the greatest of all callings, whose results will remain for eternity?

“For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men…To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless.” 1 Corinthians 4.9+11

Oh that you would raise up an army from your people to live and die for the cause of Christ in Scotland and beyond. That there would not be enough churches to hold all those responding to your call. That your Spirit would move in power to take our eyes off this world and onto the eternal issues of heaven and hell. Father that you would prepare their hearts for the battle ahead and the sacrifice demanded. That they would ask for nothing but souls, expect nothing but a cross and see nothing but Christ crucified. Amen.

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