While serving as the previous editor of Current, Rev. John Wagner escaped being interviewed for this series, but it is now his turn. As a husband, father of seven children and grandfather of five, church planter, pastor, and professor of Homiletics in our seminary, Mr. Wagner has a lot of experience to draw from. As you will learn from his answers to the following questions, he has sound advice for God’s people in the Christian life, for God’s servants in church ministry, and for young men who may be exercised about the call of God to preach the gospel. May his testimony of God’s goodness and faithfulness in even the darkest of times encourage your heart.
Please tell our readers where you’re from and when and how you came to Christ.
I come from a small town called Hebron on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I learned many years later that I lived not far from the birthplace of the first Presbyterian church in America. In 1683 Francis Makemie left the shores of Northern Ireland and came to the Eastern Shore as a Presbyterian missionary. That same year, he founded America’s first Presbyterian church in Snow Hill, Maryland, which has led to his being called the father of American Presbyterianism.
But I wasn’t always a Presbyterian! My mom and dad were saved in an independent Baptist church when I was an infant. Growing up in that church, I heard the gospel preached many times, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1968 that “the preaching of the cross” became for a twelve-year-old boy “the power of God unto salvation.” While that was over 45 years ago, I still remember the deep conviction of sin that I felt that Sunday morning as I heard the preacher close his message with a warning about hell. I stayed behind to speak to him about my soul and in that little room beside the pulpit, I asked the Lord to save me. I walked out of that church as if on air!
I wish I could say that I went on with God from that day until now, but around the age of eighteen I left home and spent three long years pursuing “the lust of the world.” The Lord finally brought me to the end of my backslidden state, oddly enough through an unsaved professor at the college I was attending at the time. There’s not enough space to tell that part of the story here, but it was a case of sin having abounded in my life, God stepped in and caused His grace to “much more abound.”
You have been involved in the FPC for many years now. Please tell us how you first came to be part of this denomination.
I first learned about the Free Church in the late 70s while attending Bob Jones University, where Dr. Ian Paisley was a regular speaker at the spring Bible Conference. It wasn’t until sometime in 1982, while living in New Jersey, that I learned that a Free Presbyterian church had been started in Greenville, South Carolina, and that a man from Northern Ireland by the name of Alan Cairns was its minister. A friend who had started to attend that church began to send me cassette tapes of Mr. Cairns’ messages. I must admit that I had never heard preaching like it. Such was the blessing that his ministry had on my life, that when I was told there was a minister from Northern Ireland being installed in a Free Presbyterian church not too far from where we lived, I knew I wanted to be at that meeting. So on a cold, rainy night in March of 1983, I made my way to Newtown Square FPC and attended the installation service of a young Ulster preacher named John Greer. When that night was over, I knew in my heart that this was the church where the Lord wanted my family and me to worship.
How were you called to the ministry? Can you share some highlights of your training in the Theological Hall?
Even while at BJU, I felt the Lord dealing with me about the preaching ministry. But after Kim and I got married in the spring of 1981, we both began to teach full time in a small Christian school in New Jersey. So for a season, the thought of preaching took a back seat in my life. That soon changed when we started attending the FP church in Newtown Square. As I sat under Mr. Greer’s ministry, the Lord began to deal with me again about the call to preach. But as I looked at the spiritual caliber of men like Alan Cairns and John Greer, I felt that I wasn’t fit material. However, through much prayer and searching the Scriptures, the Lord brought me one evening to those verses in Isaiah 41: “Thou whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called thee from the chief men thereof, and said unto thee, Thou art my servant; I have chosen thee, and not cast thee away. Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.” I knew then that however feeble and full of failure I was, God had chosen me to be one of His servants. He had not cast me away but promised that He would be with me and would be for me and do for me all that I would ever need. After more than 25 years of ministry, I can say with Solomon, “There hath not failed one word of all his good promise” to me.
As far as highlights during our time in the Theological Hall, that could fill an entire edition of Current! Here were five young men with vastly different backgrounds and personalities living with each other for six to eight hours a day, five days a week. That’s how long our classes were since we were condensing a two-year program into one! The “white knuckle” days came twice a week when every student had to preach to Dr. Cairns. You have no idea what sheer terror is like until you have had to do that! Aside from the camaraderie that we were able to enjoy as students that very long and intense year, the other great highlight was the exams that lasted for weeks. We began writing around 8 a.m. and often wrote until midnight, trying to put down everything we knew about those exam questions from Dr. Cairns that often began with the word “Discuss.” We did find some small satisfaction in knowing that he had to spend many hours reading our answers.
What are some of the memories of your first pastorate in Orlando, Florida?
You gather a lot of memories over a fourteen-year period, but some stand out. Like the time when four of the original five families left within the first six months of my arrival. It is an understatement to say that my call to Orlando was very quickly put to the test.
We lost our church pianist with one of those departing families, but God had already been preparing a replacement. I will never forget the first Sunday our decimated church was going to have to sing without any musical accompaniment. That morning a family was visiting for the first time. I announced the first hymn and said that we would have to sing a cappella since we had no pianist. One of those first-time visitors raised her hand and offered to play. I was overjoyed! That young lady was Miss Kathy Walker, who now serves as one of our missionaries in Kenya.
There was another time when I felt the work just could not go on. I had been called to Orlando through a sermon Dr. Cairns preached on 1 Samuel 17:27 : “Is there not a cause?” But after laboring for a number of years with just a handful of people and fearful that the work was about to become even smaller, I had long forgotten that verse. In deep discouragement I went to the Lord in prayer one morning and asked Him to confirm from my Scripture reading that day that my ministry was finished. You can imagine my shock and disbelief when I discovered that 1 Samuel 17 was part of my scheduled reading! I had come to the Word of God expecting the Lord to tell me that I was through. Instead He assured me that there was still a cause in Orlando and that I was still part of it. Times like that you never forget.
You have also pioneered your present congregation in Columbia, South Carolina. Please give our readers a sense of some of the challenges and rewards you have experienced in church planting work.
Every church has similar challenges, whether its ministry is carried on in a large, well-established congregation or in a small, newly planted work. There’s always the challenge of seeing church growth through conversions, of seeing people work and pray together in one accord, of seeing believers gripped with the vital importance of the prayer meeting, of finances, of people leaving—the list goes on. But the big difference you find when facing these challenges in pioneer work is that they are magnified because of the smallness. A family (or even an individual) being absent from church on a Sunday or from a mid-week prayer meeting will be noticed in a larger church, but it’s more keenly felt in a pioneer work when there are so few people to begin with. Take that thought and apply it to the challenges that come because of finances, or a lack of prayer, or people leaving, or whatever the case, and you will see these challenges are more daunting in church planting.
But church planting has its rewards as well. The challenges deepen your faith and teach you something about “earnest prayer” you wouldn’t have learned otherwise. There’s a closeness that is found among God’s people involved in pioneer work—a real sense of family—that is often missing in a larger church. It’s also a blessing to watch people become involved in a small pioneer work because there’s no way you can really “hide in the woodwork.” Perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of being in a church plant is to watch the Lord sustain and maintain His little flock during those times when it seems impossible to go forward.
What has been the hardest thing you have had to deal with in church work?
There’s probably nothing more difficult to go through than having people who have been with you for many years leave and go somewhere else for reasons that don’t seem to be justifiable. It is like a death in the family and it always hits the congregation (especially a small one) painfully hard. But the Lord has promised to take even the painful things in church work and make them work together for good.
Many readers will be aware that for a number of years your wife, Kim, has struggled with serious illness. How do you feel this has shaped you as a person and as a preacher of Christ?
Being someone who has a tendency on any given day to think more about his faults and failures than his successes, I am reticent to speak to this question. But I would also be dishonest if I denied that the Lord hasn’t used Kim’s illness to round off a number of my sharp edges. It’s very easy to take your spouse for granted. But when you face the very real prospect of losing her, you begin to realize how much your wife means to you.
The Lord has also shown me that the one truth you must fix your mind on when sadness and fear about the future fills your heart, is that God is always doing what is the best, the wisest, and the most loving thing that could be done for His people, even when it causes them deep sorrow. Every time the Lord has brought me to see that truth about Himself and His ways over these last nine years, great peace has always filled my heart.
As regards to any effect this has had on my preaching, I can only say that I feel I am able to enter into the sufferings and sorrows of others in a way that I never have before. I hope that has been reflected in my ministry to the Lord’s people both in and out of the pulpit.
As a preacher yourself and the professor of Homiletics in Geneva Reformed Seminary you have a special interest in the preaching ministry. Can you convey to readers some aspects of the importance of biblical preaching to the present and future life of the church?
This is another one of those it-would-take-an-article-all-by-itself answers. To put it simply I would say, “As goes the preaching, so goes the church.” God’s primary means of saving the lost and edifying the saints is through the “foolishness of preaching” (1 Corinthians 1:21). Passionate, Christ-centered, expository preaching has always been the God-appointed means of blessing His church.
That doesn’t mean that lean times never come to churches where such preaching is found. Paul told Timothy that there would be times when he would have to be ready to “preach the word … out of season” (1 Timothy 4:2). There have always been times in church history when the preaching of sound doctrine was not welcomed or appreciated by many in Christendom, and I believe we are in one of those seasons just now. But God’s instruction to His ministers is very clear and plain: “Preach the word.” What that actually looks like in practice would take more space than I’m allotted here.
When days have been their blackest and bleakest in the work of the ministry, what one thing has kept you laboring on?
For me it has always come back to the call of God being reaffirmed to me. When things seem like they can’t get any worse and it looks like it’s impossible to go on, the Lord has always brought me to some passage of Scripture that has been a gracious reminder that I am where I am at the call of God and therefore all is well. Regardless of what verse the Lord has used during those times, it has always been a gracious repetition of those verses in Isaiah 41 that He used to call me to the ministry in the first place.
If you were asked to list the three greatest needs of the church in North America just now, what would they be?
Heading the list of the needs of the church of Christ in North America would be the undeniable need for a personal revival of the prayer lives of Christ’s preachers. Any real spiritual power in the ministry comes from spending serious time with God in earnest prayer. I believe that church prayer meetings are dying because there is a dearth in the preacher’s prayer closet. I believe that we, as preachers, see so little accomplished because we pray so little. We seem to have time for everything else but prayer, which is the key that unlocks the windows of heaven. There are just too many promises in God’s Word with regards to humble, believing, persistent prayer that would allow me to conclude otherwise.
Related to this is a great need for a revival of passionate, Christ-filled, expository preaching in the Reformed tradition. This is God’s primary method of establishing His people in the gospel and of securing spiritual maturity. Milk is good and necessary for infants, but meat is what’s needed for solid and lasting growth. That will mean a lot of work for the preacher because there’s a lot more effort that goes into preparing a full-blown meal than there is in preparing a bottle of milk. But the rewards are well worth the effort. Christians who are well-grounded in the great doctrines of the faith make for a stable and steadfast church, no matter what the culture says or does.
Finally, I believe that there is a great need for a purifying work in the church. Things that were once looked upon as sinful in former days are now either tolerated, excused, or outright defended by God’s people. I’m not speaking now about areas where the Scripture allows the Christian liberty of conscience, but areas that are clearly either required or forbidden by God’s law. Again, a full account of what I mean is not possible here. But the answer to church growth, to keeping our young people from leaving our churches, to effective evangelism, and a whole lot of other blessings is not becoming like the world, but being unlike them through a holy walk with God.