In 2013, I had a tie rod on my car go bad. By going bad, I mean it busted in a very ugly way. If you’re like me and clueless about tie rods – which, by the way, is the state of most folks until one breaks – the main thing to know is that when a tie rod dies you can sometimes die with it! That’s because one’s tire often declares independence from the car and strikes off in another direction. There are few experiences in life that rival the exhilaration of going 40 mph in your car, only to see your tire going 40mph away from your car. It would be entertaining if it were not so life-threatening.
Here’s the thing: I was going places in my car each day, unaware that my tie rod was decaying. Then it broke, the car collapsed, and my forward progress came to a screeching halt.
There are few things more dangerous to a church than a pastor who is extraordinarily endowed on the gifting side and extraordinarily deficient on the character side. That guy is a decaying tie rod waiting to break. The progress can be impressive until character collapses.
There is a reason Paul said, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). Pastors are called to be ‘watchers’; someone called by God to closely scrutinize himself and his doctrine. Why? Because God has ordained it as a means of delivering his people to heaven…and him too!
Have you ever read Joel Beeke’s chapter from Reforming Pastoral Ministry titled “The Utter Necessity Of A Godly Life”? It’s a great piece for anyone who wants to drill deeper into the connection between a pastor’s effectiveness and his character.
As Joel Beeke puts it:
The fruitfulness of a minister’s work is proportional to the sanctification of his heart toward God. We as ministers must therefore seek grace to build the house of God with the hand of sound preaching and doctrine as well as the hand of a sanctified life. Our doctrine must shape our life, and our life must adorn our doctrine. (Reforming Pastoral Ministry, pg. 61)
So where does a pastor begin this life-shaping and doctrine-adorning adventure? Beeke calls us to a deeper relationship with Jesus – he calls it a growing “acquaintance with God”. Beeke gives several helpful suggestions on where to start.
A large acquaintance with God: That’s Beeke-speak for a preacher growing in his knowledge and relationship with God. He says,
Spiritual life begins in the heart and, as a dynamic reality, is fueled by grace and knowledge. When our hearts as preachers are increasingly sanctified toward God, new hues and subtle nuances will be added to our preaching that will reflect our inner growth. We will be expressing the same eternal truths, but they will be enriched by various dimensions of our growing relationship with God… (pg. 61-62)
A Psalm-saturated acquaintance with God. A wise pastor understands that his journey with God takes him through many dangers, toils and snares. To equip him for the road ahead, Beeke recommends parking in the Psalms:
The Psalms eloquently testify that knowing God and walking with Him on earth is a varied experience. Some people view the Christian life as nothing but joy and victory. But such a view would eliminate nearly half of the Psalms, which describe pain, sorrow, frustration, and loneliness as authentic parts of a theology of Christian experience. We ought, therefore, to look to the Psalms for a more complete understanding of what we will encounter in our walk with God. As Luther says, ‘If you can’t find your life in the Psalms, you have never become a child of God.’ (pg. 62)
An original acquaintance with God. This is where Beeke calls for kind of authenticity that isn’t merely aping models, but flows from the pastor’s personal engagement with God. He says,
If our acquaintance with God is genuine, it will be original. We will not parrot the language or experience of another person, but we will confess with John ‘what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us’ (1 John 1:3). (pg. 64)
Pastoring starts not with a position, but a Person. Before we pursue ministry, we must pursue God himself. From that acquaintance comes a conformity – we become like him because we’ve been with him. Eventually every pastor must look into the mirror, knowing his effectiveness as a pastor is directly tied to his own personal holiness. Who could fault me for citing that exceptional quote by Robert Murray McCheyne, “The greatest need of my people is my own holiness.”
The people in our congregation need our ministry, but they need our holiness more.
Without personal holiness, a pastor is like a car with a corroding tie rod – shiny on the outside, but each mile brings him closer to a rogue ministry and a wrecked church. Keep watch over your acquaintance with God. It will save both yourself and your hearers.