On a Pastor’s Piety
1. Do you see the need in our day for a renewed emphasis upon the pastor’s personal piety and godliness? Is legalism or libertinism the main problem among ministers today?
Yes, in our day there is without a doubt the need for a renewed emphasis upon the pastor’s personal piety. While legalism, in all of its insidious forms, is a perennial threat to pastors and ordinands, it is a deficient view of personal godliness that plagues us today. I heartily agree with R.C. Sproul who recently commented that “we are living in a period of pervasive antinomianism in the church” (Everyone’s A Theologian, 251). Indeed, as I consider the myriad personal interactions that I’ve had with ministers, seminary students, and candidates for ministry over the past fifteen years, the main spiritual struggles have not been associated with hyper-introspection, strains of asceticism, overly-strict Lord’s Day observance, or rigid, performance-based devotion to the spiritual disciplines. In fact, the struggles have been of quite a different nature.
These days, ministers, ordinands, and students of divinity are more likely to struggle with worldliness, indolence, selfish-ambition, impurity, and a casual view of sin than with tendencies toward legalism. If there is a problem today, it is that the emphasis is placed upon style over substance; personality over piety; competence over character. Any view of the ministry that does not emphasize personal piety, however, is a highly deficient and unbiblical one. No pastor ever comes close to being perfect, but every pastor, by the grace of God, is called to pursue personal holiness.
2. Does the minister’s spiritual growth and piety play a significant role in the congregation’s spiritual growth and piety? How about the leadership?
Without question, the minister’s walk with God and spiritual growth play an important role in the congregation’s spiritual growth. This is also true as it concerns the entire session of elders. In a letter written to Charles Simeon (1759-1836) not long after he received his call to Trinity Church, Cambridge, he was exhorted to have “a watching eye over [himself], for generally speaking as is the minister so are the people. If the minister is enlightened, lively and vigorous, his word will come with power upon many and make them so; if he is formal the infection will spread among his hearers; if he is lifeless, spiritual death will be visible through the greatest part of the congregation; therefore, if you watch over your own soul, you may depend upon it [that] your people will keep pace with you generally, or at least that is the way to blessing” (Quoted in Charles Simeon, Handly Moule, 38).
Of course, the Lord is free to work whenever and through whomever he pleases (Phil. 1:15-18). However, it is no coincidence that, ordinarily, godly congregations are led by faithful and godly pastors and ruling elders. It is, in part, for the spiritual benefit of the congregation that God established high standards for church leadership–– calling them to “pay close attention to themselves” and be godly “examples to the flock” (I Tim. 3:1-7; Acts 20:28; I Pet. 5:3; II Tim. 2:22-26). It is entirely unbiblical for a minister to ever disregard or downplay his role as an “example” to the flock (I Pet. 5:3). Every minister should be able to humbly express to his congregation, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (I Cor. 11:1).
3. How do you cultivate and maintain personal holiness as a busy pastor?
This is an important question, and the answer is easier said than done. In relation to this question I often think about the fact that I am first and foremost a redeemed child of God, and then a pastor. I want my public ministry to flow from a sincere and growing walk with God. In other words, I want to minister out of a full and overflowing well, not an empty one. In order to foster a vibrant and growing walk with God, the means of grace cannot be pushed to the margins of my life and schedule. The Word, sacraments, and prayer must always be a priority in my life as a minister, and not just a part of my job.
Busyness can never be an excuse for neglecting communion with Christ, especially as a pastor. Shame on us if we ministers are ever too busy for God. Throughout the years mentors have reminded me of the importance of personal time with the Lord in Bible reading, meditation, and prayer. Like our Savior, we need time alone with our Heavenly Father in order to reflect upon his truth and wisdom–– to be still and know that he is God (Mk. 1:35; Ps. 46:10). While I’ve had different regimens over the years, I am currently doing a one-year Bible reading plan that takes me through different genres of the Bible every week. I am also reading a chapter of Proverbs every day for practical wisdom, as well as a new collection of short daily Puritan devotionals entitled “Voices from the Past.” I conclude my personal devotion with prayer. It is my habit to do this in the morning, as I’ve found that it helps to get my priorities straight and put on the spiritual armor. I need God’s grace, wisdom, and strength at the start of every day.
Every night after dinner my family gathers in the living room for a brief time family worship. We sing a hymn or psalm, cover a portion of a Reformed catechism (presently we are moving through the Westminster Larger Catechism), read Scripture, give brief instruction, pray, and finish by singing the doxology or the gloria patri. On average this takes us 15-25 minutes.
On the Lord’s Day, we worship morning and evening at Christ Church Presbyterian, with good fellowship in our home between services. This concentrated Day of discipleship is truly a market day of the soul. In addition to these things, I make it a priority to read good books that refresh and challenge my soul. It is through these routines of private, family, and public worship, rooted in God’s appointed means of grace, that I seek to abide in Christ and cultivate personal holiness. I am not strong enough to stay faithful in life and ministry without abiding in Christ through his ordained means of Word, sacraments, and prayer.
Finally, I am compelled to mention that twelve years ago my wife and I decided to cancel our cable television contract. Our decision, I believe, has served our family well, helping us to foster better reading habits, encourage more conversation, and spare us from gazillions of commercials, inappropriate images, and questionable programming. Sometimes fostering sanctification is a matter of cutting things out of our lives that we know will significantly hinder our growth over time. While cultivating personal holiness is always a big challenge and a daily struggle, we have the wonderful promise that God has richly “granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (II Pet. 1:3).
4. What are some clear and present dangers to a pastor’s sanctification and walk with God?
The first dangers that come to mind are pride and selfish ambition. We have all struggled with them in some measure. The ministry, if we are not careful, can easily turn into a platform for personal kingdom-building. Christ did not become a man of no reputation so that I could build mine. It is precisely when a minister starts down the road of self promotion and worldly ambition that his personal walk with God suffers. We must remember that downward is upward in the Christian life and ministry. Living and growing in Christ means dying to ourselves. The minister’s goal should not be notoriety and success, but humility and faithfulness. I want John the Baptist’s prayer to be the sincere cry of my heart: “He must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Another clear and present danger to a pastor’s sanctification is sexual impurity. We live in an unprecedented age of sexual sin. It is everywhere. Frequently exhausted and discouraged, pastors and ordinands sometimes seek gratification in the degenerate and shameful world of pornography. Pornography is a sin which has greatly plagued the church, and along with regular members it has infected ministers, ordinands, and seminary students. Having counseled numerous men on this issue, it has become evident that many have been deceived into thinking they can maintain a relatively healthy spiritual life, marriage, and ministry while harboring this secret life of sin. But one cannot have a healthy walk with God, a faithful marriage, and a sincere ministry when the cancer of pornography is eating away at the soul and searing the conscience. We must do whatever it takes to guard our eyes, hearts, and lives from this dangerous, destructive, and deadly sin. When it comes to sexual sin, we must follow Joseph’s example and flee from temptation (Gen. 39). “O what madness it is to prefer a lust before the love of Christ” (David Clarkson, Voices from the Past, 77).
The last danger to sanctification for the minister is cynicism. Let us be careful never to let the trials and thorniness of pastoral ministry blur our view of Christ or quench our love for his church. Cynicism is ruinous to sanctification.
5. In regard to personal holiness, what advice would you give to young ordinands training for the gospel ministry?
- Be a disciple before seeking to make disciples. Diligently tend your own spiritual garden before attempting to help others tend theirs. Always let your ministry flow from a life of genuine piety. Charm and personality are no substitutes for Christ-dependent, Spirit-enabled, Word-centered godliness, love, and integrity.
- Apply both negative and positive aspects of sanctification: Actively mortify indwelling sin and foster biblical godliness. Pull the weeds and nourish the plants. John Owen writes that “the life and vigor of our spiritual lives consists in the vigor and flourishing of the plants of grace in our hearts … [so] let the heart be cleansed by mortification, the weeds of lust constantly and daily rooted up … [and] let room be made for grace to thrive and flourish” (Owen, Works, VI; 23).
- Don’t trust yourself! Guard your heart. Don’t put yourself in compromising situations (c.f. Prov. 7). Abide in Christ through the means of grace, and put up hedges in your life to protect yourself from common temptations and sin.
- Finally, read good books … all the time! Those training for the ministry should definitely read “The Christian Ministry” by Charles Bridges; “Preaching and Preachers” by M. Lloyd-Jones; and “A Dangerous Calling” by Paul Tripp. In reference to the doctrine of sanctification, take time to read through Kevin DeYoung’s excellent little volume, “Hole In Our Holiness.” In addition, make Christian biography a regular part of your reading regimen. We have much to learn from those who have gone before us.