The young, zealous pastor of Dundee, Scotland, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, who flamed out for God at age 29 and gave himself to the work of God as perhaps no young pastor has so uniquely given himself to God’s work, said before he died, “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.” M’Cheyne understood that the effectiveness of his pastoral ministry, including his pulpit ministry, depended in large measure upon his personal godliness. M’Cheyne saw himself as a chosen instrument in the hand of a sovereign God, a minister who must be a pure instrument.
M’Cheyne said to other pastors in his day, “How diligently the Calgary officer keeps his saber clean and sharp. Every stain he rubs off with the greatest care. Remember, you are God’s sword, His instrument. In great measure, according to the purity and perfection of the instrument will be its success.” He then added, “It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.” M’Cheyne rightly saw that the power of his ministry depended upon the purity of his life. M’Cheyne prayed, “Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be.”
M’Cheyne asserted, “Your whole usefulness depends on this.” This must be our prayer and this must be our passion. Down through the centuries, those who have been the greatest preachers have understood that the power of their ministry has been largely measured by the purity of their lives.
The towering Puritan theologian, “England’s Calvin,” John Owen maintained: “A minister may fill his pews, his communion roll, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more.” That is, no preacher’s ministry can advance beyond his own personal devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Charles H. Spurgeon established this same priority in his Lectures to My Students:
It will be in vain for me to stock my library, or organize societies, or project schemes, if I neglect the culture of myself for books and agencies, and systems, are only remotely the instruments of my holy calling, my own spirit, soul, and body, are my nearest machinery for sacred service; my spiritual faculties and my inner life, are my battle axe and weapons of war.
Spurgeon says here that a loss of purity will guarantee a loss of power in your ministry. Your life is more important than your library, and your soul is more important than your shelves. This is precisely what the apostle Paul prioritized with Timothy, his young son in the faith, when he wrote, “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Tim 4:7).
Timothy was serving as pastor in the church at Ephesus, placed there by appointment of the apostle Paul himself. This young minister was surrounded by waves of problems within the church that were threatening to submerge him. He had unqualified elders and deacons. He had aggressive women who were overstepping their bounds in ministry in the church. He had neglect of the care of widows. There was a growing heresy called “Gnosticism” encroaching on the life of the church. Layer upon layer of carnality was threatening to suffocate Timothy as he found himself in this challenging ministry situation. In the midst of this turmoil, Paul says to Timothy, first and foremost, “address the spiritual condition of your soul.” External challenges in ministry must never cause this young minister to lose sight of what is most important: to keep his sword sharp and clean within his own heart and soul.
We who are ministers and shepherds in the Lord’s church must maintain this same priority at all times. We, too, must discipline ourselves for godliness. We must keep our minds pure and our hearts clean. We must keep our souls unstained and our lives holy. We must be, as M’Cheyne said, “A pure instrument in the hand of God.” We must be a battle axe that is sharp and fit for our Master’s use.
Steven J. Lawson is the President of OnePassion Ministries. Dr. Lawson is also the Professor of Preaching at The Master’s Seminary and Teaching Fellow with Ligonier Ministries. The author of numerous books and articles, the latest of which is The Daring Mission of William Tyndale.