That was the question posed to me. I was asked to consider in the light of fifty years’ ministry in one small congregation in a bi-lingual town of 20,000 people in mid-Wales whether I had gained any understanding of the work of the ministry that might colour the choices I made all those years ago to give my life to being a preacher.
The first thing we have to acknowledge is that knowledge of the best does not necessarily result in accomplishing the best. Paul tells us that we can have all knowledge, no areas of deficiency at all, accurate, balanced understanding of what is right and true, and yet if I lack love I am nothing (1 Cor. 13:2). Any knowledge I might have gained in the past decades is still a poor grasp of the greatness of God and the glory of the gospel. Now I know in part. I am still anticipating a day soon to come in my life when I shall know even as I am fully known.
Consider the parallel journey of marriage. I have been married for 51 years. If I dared to think, ‘If I knew in Jerusalem, Blaenau Ffestiniog, where I made my marriage vows, in July 1964 what I know now about marriage then …’ How would you end that sentence? That you would not have got married at all? That you would not have married that particular girl? My own marriage has now reached the dementia of my beloved wife. If I had known that then would it have made any difference at all to my marrying Iola? None whatsoever. I have had a blissfully happy marriage and I am experiencing grace for this section of my pilgrimage just as I did for the years of sick babies, sleepless nights and adjusting to being a husband and father in the new journey of married life. I wish I had been exceedingly more patient and thoughtful and loving, of course, but fifty-one years of the delights and testings of marriage has not given me any radical rethinking of this creation ordinance. It would have been very bad for me to have been alone. Marriage to my wife has been a privilege, the greatest blessing after the grace of salvation that anyone could receive.
I entered marriage with a knowledge of what it was, from being part of a home for 26 years before I started my own home, and seeing how Mam and Dad coped with life in their wonderfully happy relationship. I saw other relatives, and friends of mine in whose homes I would sit and enviously hear their banter and the loving teasing, perceiving the warm affection and the delight of the infants God had given them. That is what I longed for more than anything else, to marry and live as they did. I knew what marriage was from close observation.
So it was with the work of the gospel ministry. I knew about it. It was not a mysterious life. My father’s twin brother was a preacher. Dad’s sister married a preacher, and his brother was a preacher. Three uncles were preachers and I was in their homes and knew the peculiar delights of cousins. Then I became a Christian in March 1954. And that reality of knowing Jesus Christ was the Creator of the universe, and the living God, and the giver of eternal life and forgiveness of sins to all who entrusted themselves to him became a mighty reality, the most important fact about life.
I met men of my age who were entering the ministry, like Andrew, Neville, Ioan, Pete, Hywel, Stuart, Walt and Owen, and they seemed to me to be the most likable, normal, manly men you could ever wish to have as your friends and role models. They were going to be preachers. They were not saying, ‘Unworthy! I couldn’t dream of it. I am not holy enough, and now knowledgeable enough.’ They were going to give their talents and personalities and weaknesses to God. I could do that.
I also began to move in the circle of men in their early years as preachers, men like Iain, John, Hugh, Gareth, Eifion, Vernon, Al and Elwyn. They were accessible, and wise and a lot of fun, and they were also inspirational. That life they lived is what being a minister was like. There were many others one met who were older, and they were examples of men who had stayed the course, Luther, Eric, Omri, I.B., Russell, Emlyn and Emrys. They were the most attractive father figures. Being preachers for many years had not warped them at all.
There were also more remote figures. Billy Graham. To hear him in 1955 in Wembley Stadium offering Christ as the way, the truth and the life to the whole world was a beautiful image always there at the back of my mind of crowds of people listening to a man offering Christ to them. Then there was the Doctor. To sit under his ministry for the first time in a crowded chapel in Cardiff in 1958 and experience the moving authority of his preaching set before me a standard for which one constantly blesses God. Think of it – I knew and often heard Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones. What a privilege! What a vocation it seemed to me to preach the word of God and be a blessing to people as such men of God were.
So I had that experiential knowledge of what being a preacher was, an immense combination of lessons that helped me to take the initial tentative steps to preach. My first sermon was at a godly woman’s invitation who was struggling to keep a little Presbyterian congregation surviving in Elizabeth Street, Dowlais in September 1959. In Wales we evangelicals all knew that Spirit-filled woman as ‘Auntie Bessie.’ With the bendith received I bought, for 18 shillings and 6 pence, Westcott’s Commentary on John.
And that was again part of understanding what a preacher was, reading the best books, gaining knowledge of preachers and missionaries and theologians. There were the continental reformers and particularly the martyred English reformers via J. C. Ryle, and reading of the Puritans of the next century especially Bunyan, and the leaders of the Evangelical Awakening in the following century like Whitefield, Edwards, and the Welshmen. And then the next century, Carey, Judson, Paton, M’Cheyne, Bonar and his Diary, Princeton, Spurgeon, and finally that 20th century where it all clicked into place where I took my first breath in 1938. By saving grace I had become part of living army of God’s servants, and preachers of the word. I went on to meet with them in ministers’ conferences and fraternals decade after decade, no happier, humbler, godlier group of men one would ever wish to meet.
So in these ways I did know very comprehensively and sweetly what I was going to be doing as a minister of the word and the ordinances, a pastor of the people of God, an example of Christ-like devotion, prayer and foot-washing service.
What I did not know was how powerful was the residue of remaining sin, how challenging would be preparing two or three sermons each week for the next fifty years, how hard the disciplines of personal devotions would be to maintain each day, how tough to deal with the disappointments, how great the follies and stumbling blocks that the independence of the ministry and the freedoms of the pastorate would provide. I have bored for Wales and wearied congregations, shame on me. I have misjudged men with dismissive superiority, shame on me. The work of grace is in fledgling form in the best of us.
What I did not know was how amazing would be the mercy of God in hiding so many of my falls from those who loved me most. Enough were made known to humble, but not too many to destroy. I have become conscious that I have been always dealt with by the wisest and most patient of heavenly Fathers who loves me as much as he loves the Son he has set at his right hand. I am safe with him alone. I wish I had known the great truths of the gospel more deeply, with more sanctifying energy fifty years ago. I wish I had preached the great texts of the gospel with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven, but that is still my wish today and there is still time and opportunity to do so. With all the privileges I had, and there are many more I might have mentioned, I should have had a far more helpful and awakening ministry than I have had, but if my ministry has been a means of saving others it has not saved me. I didn’t enter it in order to be redeemed. Because I’d been redeemed I entered it. The love of Christ constrained me, and his blood alone could do that. That is yet all my hope.