When the Westminster Assembly gathered they put together a number of documents. The most well-known and enduring are the Westminster Confession of Faith together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. In addition to these, however, they also wrote The Form of Presbyterial Church Government, where they outlined Presbyterian polity. While it’s not a document that is commonly adopted in Presbyterian churches today — like the confession and catechisms — it nevertheless is a helpful summary of the Christian ministry. In outlining the duties that belong to the office of pastor in his ministry of the Word, the Westminster Divines noted that they’re charged “To bless the people from God.”
This is, of course, a specific reference to what is often called the benediction. William Plumer defined the benediction as “the ministerial and authoritative pronunciation of a blessing upon the people in the name of the Lord.” God has covenanted with his people promising: “I will surely bless you” (Genesis 22:17). Far from mere sentimentality these blessings, as John Owen noted: “[A]re instituted means of the conveyance and communication of good unto others” (Hebrews, 5:317). In other words, the very act of blessing communicates the blessing. And, as Thomas Manton wrote: “God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost will employ all his wisdom, power, and goodness […] to bring them to eternal blessedness” (Works, 19:156).
The blessings of God are spiritual in nature. For instance, one of the most cited benedictions, the Aaronic blessing, in Numbers 6:24-26 says: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” When pronounced this blessing conveys blessing, grace, and peace. The Trinitiarian formula of 2 Corinthians 13:14 is to the end of grace, love, and communion. Additionally, many of the letters of the New Testament open and close with the blessings of grace, mercy, and peace — a necessary reminder that God’s first and last word to his people is one of blessing (see e.g. Romans 1:7, 1 Peter 1:2, 2 John 1:3, and Jude 1:2). These are the blessings God works in the lives of his people.
We can see this, for instance, in the ministry of Jesus. William Bridge wrote: “Yes, he is very willing: this blessing to the people, it is a work whereunto he is much inclined, and wherein he is most delighted.” He continued by writing: “Ye shall observe therefore, what abundance of blessings Christ scattered among the people when he was here upon the earth. Ye do not read that ever he cursed any man, formally cursed him […] But take your Bibles and turn over from leaf to leaf, and see how frequent he was in blessing; and consider whether you do read in all the Bible of any preacher or prophet that ever in the way of their preaching pronounced so many blessings as Christ did?” (Works, 73). That’s because blessing is at the very heart of the gospel. God has, as the Apostle wrote, “[B]lessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3). Again, as Bridge said, blessing is “the stream of the gospel, it runs this way.”
While God is the fountain of every blessing he has instituted that pastors — ministerially and authoritatively — communicate that blessing on his behalf. George Gillespie wrote: “[For] God has commanded his ministers to bless his people (Num. 6:22-27), which by just analogy belongs to the ministers of the gospel” (Works, 1:73). Additionally, Westminster Divine Samuel Gibson, drawing from Christ’s commission of those first evangelists, wrote: “[It] belongs to the public ministers of the Word, by a peculiar prerogative, to bless the people in the name of the Lord; and there is special power and virtue in the prayers and benediction which proceed out of their mouths” (A Sermon on Ecclesiastical Benediction, 12). And, for good measure, William Binnie noted: “Benedictions not differing in substance from the Aaronic one are used constantly by the apostles in blessing the Churches.” It is one of the high points of the ministry of the Word to not only preach Jesus Christ and him crucified, but to be the voice that pronounces the blessing of the Triune God.
Although the benediction usually comes at the end of a worship service it seems to me that this blessedness should accompany the whole of a man’s ministry. The blessing shouldn’t be left in the pulpit! Nathaniel Lardner* emphasized this when he concluded that the benediction should instruct us “that they ought to bear good will to each other, and sincerely to desire each other’s welfare. So much certainly is implied in him, who offers these prayers” (Works, 424). A pastor who stands in the pulpit to declare the blessing of God must also labor to that end in his daily toils. It’s a tragedy in the making when a pastor will pronounce the benediction in worship but fail to minister in the same spirit throughout the week. After all, James warned us concerning the use of the tongue: “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things should not be so” (James 3:9-10). If it’s completely inconsistent for the mouth to bless and curse, is too much to suggest that it’s equally inconsistent for a pastor to bless but also curse the people of God?
Rather, a man’s ministry should be marked by the same blessing he pronounces at the conclusion of each service. Since God has willed and even delights in giving his people blessing this must characterize a pastor’s ministry. Paul Baynes’s words could well be applied when he said a pastor should “testify and put seal to that form of doctrine into which people have been delivered” (Ephesians, 348). Likewise, William Chappell warned against the danger of a pastor who, even when correcting error in his people, could “fill them with malice and bitterness” and that by his example he could “teach how to cause religion to be from one end to the other evil spoken of, and hated by the brethren” (The Preacher: Or the Art and Method of Preaching, 152).
This is why, for instance, Joseph Glanvill† observed: “Divisions and mutual animosities have produced many fatal, and deplorable effects. Peace and love, should be some of the objects of our chief care, study, and endeavors, knowing that no religion can thrive without them; we should seek the peaceable principles, and walk in the charitable ways; teaching and pressing both upon our people, in the full latitude and extent of them” (An Essay Concerning Preaching, 33-34). In other words, it’s not only the pastor’s ministry to declare grace, peace, mercy, and love, but to actively work to realize these things in the whole of his ministry. To put it simply: the mouthpiece of blessing should also be a minister of blessing.
Blessing. That’s the aim of a pastor’s labor among the sheep of Jesus Christ. A pastor must not only declare the grace of God but have a gracious ministry. A pastor shouldn’t simply declare the peace of God but he must have a peaceable ministry. A pastor cannot only declare the mercy of God but he must have a merciful ministry. A pastor ought not simply declare the love of God but he must have a loving ministry. In that way the words of Richard Baxter are proved true: “Able and faithful ministers are therefore very great blessings” (The Reformed Pastor, 218).
*† I am aware of the serious problems of both of these men. Quoting them should not be seen as an endorsement of their systems.