Put on the Shelf?
“But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified”, 1 Corinthians 9:27. (NKJV)
Throughout the years, I have heard various preachers’ state the possibility of someone disqualifying themselves for ministry and being "put on the shelf." The implication being if a child of God commits certain sins he would no longer be useful to God in any ministry. Even one of the commentaries to which I refer makes such a statement concerning our text verse. “Paul recognizes the awful possibility that, having preached to others, he himself might be put on the shelf by the Lord as no longer usable by Him.” This sounds so final. Is there no hope for the wayward soul? I do not recall anyone addressing the possibility of once “put on the shelf” if there was a way to get off the shelf and return to useful service to the Lord. Does not the teaching that our heavenly Father is a God of forgiveness and “second” chances apply here? It is not my desire to minimize sin or its effects and consequences in the life of the child of God. The desire is to offer biblical remedy and encouragement to those who have fallen prey to our adversary.
In the passage of Scripture found in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, the Holy Spirit directed Paul to use the analogy of an athletic competition of a race and boxing to impart truths concerning effectively and fruitfully engaging in ministry. Paul equates the competing athlete to the Christian serving the Lord. They both are to discipline themselves mentally and physically to enhance their performance in the most efficient manner. Truly, when an athlete refuses to train and condition his body correctly, then he will certainly not win the crown or trophy. Likewise, when the child of God refuses to engage in the Christian disciplines and mature in his walk with Christ, he will be unfruitful in ministry and fail to receive rewards when he stands before the Lord, according to 1 Corinthians 3:9-15. Now, these Scriptures do not refer to one’s salvation, but to one’s service after salvation.
Does God sideline His servants when they fail and succumb to temptation, never to use them again? Let us look at and learn from some biblical examples. Take for instance Moses. He seemed to understand he was chosen by the Lord to lead Israel to freedom from Egyptian slavery. Unfortunately, Moses went about it incorrectly which resulted in him murdering an Egyptian and attempting to cover it up. David was described as a “man after God’s heart”. Yet, the Lord revealed to us David’s lustful heart, his adulterous affair, and the murder of the woman’s husband. A look at Jonah revealed a prophet of God disobeying the call of the Lord and attempting to flee God’s presence. The fearless disciple, Peter, cowards in the face of persecution and denied he even knew Jesus Christ. John Mark deserted the missionary endeavors of Paul and Barnabas and returned home.
So, what are the disqualifying sins? In the lives of these men, it was murder, adultery, disobedience, denial, or desertion. During the seasons of sin in the lives of these men they were definitely out of God’s will and extremely hindered in carrying out the call of God on their lives. Most people would have written these men off as useless and unsalvageable for the work of God.
Can a person who has been "put on the shelf" ever get off the "shelf" and return to ministry? I believe the biblical answer is definitely yes! God never stopped dealing with these men. His Holy Spirit consistently convicted them of their sin, called them to repentance, and wooed them back to Himself and the ministry He called them to. Interestingly, God placed someone in each of these men’s lives to minister to and encourage them. Moses had Jethro, David had Nathan, Jonah had a great fish, Peter had Jesus, and John Mark had Barnabas.
What does it take to get “off the shelf”? Repentance! God lovingly calls the wayward back to Him through repentance. According to the Bible, when a wayward saint repents of his sin and in faith turns to the Lord Jesus he is forgiven of his sin. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”, 1 John 1:9. When God forgives, He also forgets the sin, Jeremiah 31:34. Our Father does not hold forgiven sin against us. Moses was forgiven! David was forgiven! Jonah was forgiven! Peter was forgiven! John Mark was forgiven!
To what capacity is that person allowed to engage in ministry? Can they be restored to their previous position or are they restricted in some way? Each man was also restored to ministry and the call of God. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and was used to write the first five books of the Bible. David has been revered as Israel’s greatest King and was used to write the Psalms. Jonah preached the gospel and all the inhabitants of Nineveh repented and turn to the Lord. Peter fearlessly proclaimed the gospel of Jesus the remainder of his life, wrote two books in the Bible, and died a martyr’s death. John Mark became a useful minister to Paul and was used of God to write the Gospel according to Mark.
Paul wrote in Romans 11:29, “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” Just as salvation is eternal, so are the gifts and calling of God. Truly, each of our biblical examples experienced the consequences of their sin. God did not eliminate the hardships and difficulties which resulted from their sins and mistakes. There still remains the law of cause and effect. We, too, must endure the effects of our sins and mistakes, but He will forgive! God forgives and forgets, but it is difficult for men to do either.
Another Bible teacher, Ron Smith, offered this observation: “there is no disqualifier in Scripture, only mans. We are not put on any shelf, except by man. We strive. We struggle. We fail. We pick ourselves up, ask forgiveness, accept our forgiveness, and strive again. Man’s institutional church shoots its wounded. However that is not God’s way; we are only defeated when we accept mans judgment, for in Christ there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1).”
Again, the purpose of this article is to offer encouragement and hope to the fallen. It is also intended to challenge each of us to be the initiators of encouragement to the fallen and to lovingly, biblically, help them back into the will and service of God, Galatians 6:1-3. Be a Barnabas to someone. The Christian ranks are full of wounded warriors that need help. If you have failed and succumbed to sin—Repent! Return to faithfully serving our Lord.
“For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things that are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence”, 1 Corinthians 1:26-29.
These are some thoughts to ponder.