By Ted Van Raalte
According to some old French sources, John Calvin once told the Reformed Church of La Rochelle in France, “Send us wood, and we will send you arrows.” The year was 1561 and the number of Reformed believers in La Rochelle was growing so quickly that the pastors were overwhelmed. One of the leading noblemen of the city was deputed to Geneva to ask for help. “We need more pastors!” was the plea. Calvin’s purported reply was, “Send us wood, and we will send you arrows.”
What did Calvin mean? The arrows were the pastors that the church wanted, and the wood was the raw material that Geneva needed. Calvin was saying something like, “Okay, fine, we’ll send you some pastors to help you out, but we need you to do something as well. Pastors don’t appear out of thin air. We need churches that nurture young men in their midst who will aspire to be pastors, for if you don’t send us wood, we can’t make arrows.”
Positively, needing pastors is a blessed and wonderful thing. The Lord keeps gathering his sheep and they want him to lead them by his Word and Spirit, through the ministry of faithful under-shepherds. Praise the Lord! Negatively, it is a sad thing when the churches have many positions which they cannot fill due to the unavailability of pastors. As far as I know, we as Canadian Reformed Churches have never – in almost seventy years – had a surplus of pastors.
Statistics, URNCA, CanRCs and FRCA
Currently the United Reformed Churches have eight vacancies in Canada and some in the USA. One of the CanRC ministers, who makes it a bit of a hobby to keep track of all the statistics, figured out that between the CanRCs and the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, if seminary student numbers, retirements, new openings, etc. continue to track as they have been for the last decade, these two federations will have fifty-five vacancies. He then added, and I quote,
In the last decade, 40 men graduated from CRTS with an M.Div., but only 28 are serving in our churches today (a 70% ordination to graduation trend has been pretty stable over the past 30 years). In the next decade, at that rate, we will need to graduate 80 men to fill all our pulpits! If CRTS were to graduate 60 men in the next decade (a 50 % increase!) these trends would say 42 would be ordained in our churches. That would be 108 pulpits / missionary placements / professors, with 13 vacancies by 2027, resulting in a 12% vacancy (today it’s 20%). But to graduate 60 men with an M.Div. in the next decade, we likely need to identify 75 or more men in seminary, or on track in pre-seminary education, already today! The harvest is plentiful. Pray the Lord of the harvest send out workers.
The faculty and board of CRTS, as well as many of the ministers in both federations, have prayed about this frequently. As I think about this, my mind is drawn back to the great needs of the Reformed churches in the past, and I wonder whether we can learn from them.
Martin Luther and sharp arrows
Let’s start with Luther, in a time when there was not yet any distinction between “Lutheran” and “Reformed.” In late 1523 the City of Miltenberg was forced by its civil rulers to return to Roman Catholicism. Some church leaders were imprisoned and died. Luther wrote a letter of consolation in February 1524, based on Psalm 120. First of all, we should meditate upon the Psalm (we’ll use the KJV), then notice how Luther uses it.
In my distress I cried unto the LORD, and he heard me. Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue. What shall be given unto thee? or what shall be done unto thee, thou false tongue? Sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of juniper. Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar! My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace. I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war.
Luther’s meditation emphasizes for the believers that the battle is spiritual, not physical. And, although the Psalm speaks of the lies and deceit of the oppressors being punished with sharp arrows and hot coals, Luther leads us in considering our own failures. The hot coals and sharp arrows are things we ought to pray for, he writes, but we don’t. They represent the Word of God doing its mighty work through the work of faithful pastors. Luther writes about how the gospel is not spreading fast enough:
I can blame [this] on nothing but our own indolence [laziness] in asking for sharp arrows and hot coals. God has asked us to pray for his kingdom to come and his name to be hallowed, that is, for his word to make more Christians and to help them grow strong. However, since we let matters rest as they are and fail to pray earnestly, the arrows are dull and weak, the coals are cold and ineffective. The devil is not very much afraid of us…. Let us now turn the tables on him, vex him, and avenge ourselves. That is to say, let us call upon God without ceasing until he sends us marksmen equipped with sharp arrows and coals.
We, God’s people, ought to forthrightly admit to the Lord that we are guilty of not having as fervent and zealous a desire for the progress of his gospel as we should. We let matters rest too easily; we are too easily satisfied with the status quo. We have our churches, our buildings, our programs, our Christian schools, and our Christian political activity. But do we prize the gospel like we should? Does it mean everything to us to see the gospel preached, to be a part of lives being transformed by that root transformation that only the Spirit does by the gospel? How many of our churches’ financial decisions are made purely with a view to getting the gospel preached and souls saved? Do we purposefully send away our best men to preach the gospel? Do you feel deep anguish at the lack of progress? Let us get on our knees! I have sin to confess in this regard. Do you?
Guillaume Farel inflamed with desire for the gospel
The same Psalm was taken up by Guillaume Farel in 1542, when the believers in Metz suffered an attack. Two hundred residents of Metz had left the city because they were not permitted to worship there and then had been intercepted by French soldiers under the Duke of Guise. An old man died defending his purse and two women died trying to escape across a river. The city of Neuchâtel, where Farel pastored for decades, gave up their pastor for about a year while he helped Metz. Before the attack occurred, Farel had already published a fifty-six-page prayer to help the believers in Metz. After the attack occurred, he comforted them with preaching, praying, and song. He called it “deeply devout prayer in which is made the confession of sins of the believers who cry after God,” and closed with a musical version of Psalm 120, the same Psalm Luther had used. Consider prayerfully his opening words:
O Lord God and Father, full of mercy, have pity on us and lend your ear to our cry. We are compelled to lift up [our cry] to you, our only refuge, help and consolation in this great distress. We are pressed by the dreadful famine of your word, lacking the lawful food for our poor souls, deprived of good and faithful pastors who carry out their office and duty just as you, O Lord, have commanded.
Notice that Farel does not blame the Lord, nor does he blame the enemies of the gospel. Rather, he includes the confession of the sin of believers in the prayer’s title. Elsewhere, in the first Reformed confession ever published (1534), he could not restrain his pen from crying out to heaven and earth about the horror of his days, when all kinds of disorderly songs, plays, and books were published, but God’s Word was prohibited. But he also took heart: “A messenger of God or a true evangelist will never be defeated. For God, as he has promised, gives to his own words of wisdom against which no one can resist.” Then he asks our Father, “May all know you by your Son, from the greatest to the least. Make the trumpet of your holy gospel heard from one end of the earth to the other. Give power to the true evangelists. Destroy all the sowers of error, so that the whole world might serve you, call upon you, worship you, and honour you.”
I’m sure you noticed Farel’s desire for the worldwide spread of the gospel. He lived and breathed that desire; he became inflamed with it ever after his conversion.
In 1545 Farel lengthened this prayer to 156 pages and republished it under a new title that emphasized the need for worldwide gospel preaching: “Form of prayer to ask God for the holy preaching of the gospel.” His whole life – especially the years 1524–1540 – were consumed with finding suitable men who could serve as preachers. That’s exactly why he detained John Calvin in Geneva in 1536. And God heard these prayers; the Reformation made great progress. When Geneva finally established the formal training of ministers in 1559, it was Calvin who seems to have recalled Luther’s and Farel’s use of Psalm 120, and who therefore told the church of La Rochelle, “Send us wood, and we will send you arrows.”
What might be the LORD’s purpose?
Perhaps the LORD has determined that his true church must always have some shortage of pastors so that his people will pray more fervently for this gift. Perhaps. However, I could point out that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has only 10,000 more members than the CanRCs and yet has an astonishing 540 ordained ministers. That’s a statistic worthy of exploration sometime. Why is our situation so different? Why is the LORD humbling us? To help us see our own shortcomings? To teach us that we are not prizing the preaching of his gospel like we should? To show us that we have not prized those sharp arrows enough to raise up the wood that God needs? We can’t force our young men to become pastors; rather, we have to live and breathe the gospel so deeply that the question and the desire to pursue the ministry simply cannot be avoided. It has to be organic, real. Maybe I shall try to write about that sometime, God helping me.
Clearly, our solution is not simply to make another “Prospective Students Day” at the seminary. We’ll do that too. In fact, we’re thinking about a week-long event. But first and foremost, let us humble ourselves before God and admit that we need to prize his holy gospel more than anything.
 “Envoyez-nous du bois et nous vous enverrons des flèches.” M. Arcere, ed., Histoire de la ville de La Rochelle (La Rochelle: Desbordes, 1757), vol. 2, p. 104.
 An email from Rev. John van Popta, dated 26 June 2017. Used with permission.
 Martin Luther, ‘A Christian Letter of Consolation to the People of Miltenberg’, Luther’s Works ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), vol. 43, pp. 111–12.
 Guillaume Farel, Oraison tresdevote en laquelle est faicte la confession des pechez, des fidelles qui ainsi crient après Dieu ([Strasbourg: J. Knobloch, 1542]), a2r (emphasis added).
 See Farel’s Summaire, ch. 35, as translated in Jason Zuidema and Theodore G. Van Raalte, Early French Reform: The Theology and Spirituality of Guillaume Farel (Surrey: Ashgate, 2011), pp. 160–62.
 Guillaume Farel, Forme d’oraison pour demander a Dieu la saincte predication de l’euangile (Geneva: Jehan Girard, 1545).