We were watching a video by R.C. Sproul during a Sunday School class and something caught my eye. On the wall behind the podium was a picture. It was a painting of a man from biblical times scattering seed on a field.
I made a mental note to look online to see if I could find a copy. I found something similar, put it on my list, and my wife, Laura, got it for me for Christmas. Until my retirement it sat in a prominent place in my office, reminding me often that that’s what we do. If you’re a pastor reading this, it’s what you do, too.
You know the very familiar statement from 1 Corinthians 3. Speaking of his own ministry, Paul writes: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6, ESV).
There are two significant ideas in this passage. The first is that those who minister are involved in planting and watering. Sunday-by Sunday as you teach or preach (and counsel, and converse, and pray, and lead), you plant and water, plant and water. You sow the seed of God’s word in the lives of people, planting precious truths in their hearts, and you water by reviewing those truths and teaching supporting truths.
But that’s all you can do. Which leads to the second point of significance, Paul’s statement that God gives the growth.
To confuse our role with God’s is disastrous. No matter how we try, we cannot bring forth growth, because we can’t change the hearts of our people. That is a supernatural activity that we have no ability to perform. So pastors and teachers need to content themselves with doing what they can do and with leaving God’s work to God.
Understanding it is not up to us to produce growth is both frustrating and liberating. The frustration comes from a natural desire to see our ministry have an impact on the lives of our listeners. When growth is not visible, or when it seems that the ground is dry and hard, it can be discouraging. But it can also be a point of temptation.
I believe it was because Paul understood this very basic dynamic that he would later write: “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word . . . (2 Corinthians 4:1-2a, ESV).
We may tend to think of a slick TV evangelist when we read that, but it is an easy trap to fall into. If pastors don’t understand and accept the difference between what they do and what God does, some may try to manipulate their hearers through guilt or emotionalism in order to see visible results. It’s a mix of pragmatism and bad theology that is a dead end.
That’s why this truth as liberating. Knowing that the results are in God’s hands and not in your hands or my hands frees us from approaching preaching and teaching as if it all depends on us. That is good news for pastors.
Look, I had Sundays where preaching was frustrating. Sometimes I left my office on Saturday thinking I had a decent sermon, only to go over it on Sunday morning and think it was deficient. Sometimes I wasn’t happy with the way I delivered it. And I will admit there were times when I would have liked to have seen my people have a collective “AHA!” moment that inspired them to new levels of understanding and sanctification. Instead, they responded like they did every Sunday. They listened well, but no one stood up and said, “Please don’t stop preaching!” and no one got to their feet and said, “My life is now forever changed!” Whatever “growth” was accomplished was invisible to me. But my job was to plant, water, pull out some weeds. And trust that God would do his work.
And that’s why I wanted that picture. I wanted a constant reminder of the part I played in the spiritual work that would take place on Sunday mornings. And in doing so, I was reminded that my very ordinary sermons could be used by an extraordinary God to do something substantial in the lives of my people.