“Watch yourself and your teaching. Persevere in these things, for if you do this, you will save both yourself and those who hear you” (1 Tim. 4:16).
On Good Friday 1777, the minister of the English parish of Stoke Goldington and West Underwood climbed into his pulpit to preach on Christ’s death from Isaiah 53:6, a perfectly normal text for that day. Yet little can have prepared the congregation for the confession that he was soon to make, for in the middle of his sermon he told his congregation that all his previous teaching on the subject amounted to “erroneous and grievous perversions of Scripture.” The vicar now believed and preached that “Christ indeed bore the sins of all who should ever truly believe, in all their guilt, condemnation, and deserved punishment, in his own body on the tree.”(1) To the astonishment of the congregation, it was apparent that their minister had been converted!
The Church of England in the late 18th century continued to manifest the fruits of the 1740s Evangelical Revival. The Church was divided between moderates, who merely encouraged people to be moral, and evangelicals, who told people that they were condemned sinners who could be saved only by trusting in the shed blood of Christ.
At the time of his ordination in 1772, Thomas Scott was firmly in the moderate camp. He had failed in his attempt at a career in medicine and, as a consequence, he spent nine long years working as a shepherd. He longed “a less laborious and more comfortable way of procuring a livelihood”(2) and coveted a reputation for scholarship. For a man with such lofty aspirations, the obvious path was ordination in the Church.
Scott delighted in his new life, devoting as little time as possible to his ministerial duties, spending the balance of his days with his beloved books. However, his tranquility was disturbed when he heard that John Newton, in a neighboring parish, had walked many miles to visit sick and dying parishioners, whom Scott had neglected. So began Scott’s pilgrimage to Christ.
Newton corresponded with him over a period of many months, but, as Scott later admitted, he replied only for the pleasure of arguing with an evangelical. He began to read books written by the early Reformers as he searched for answers. Yet he later testified that the change which occurred in his life resulted primarily from his detailed and diligent study of Scripture. Here he learned he must repent.
All pastors have blind spots, areas of ignorance, which must be corrected. Scott’s misunderstandings were fundamental, and his repentance marked the beginning of a true Christian walk. While most pastors do not need to be converted, repentance should be a part of their lives as God reveals areas of spiritual neglect. Ministers must keep short accounts of known sin, clearing them promptly through heartfelt prayers of confession. Only then are they fresh for the strategic work God sets before them.
(1) Thomas Scott, The Force of Truth (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1857), 16.
(2) Ibid., 61.