Recent involvement with several wounded believers, grieved by the failure of prominent pastoral leadership in regard to the care of their souls, has underscored for me at a profound level the urgency of what I wrote in the last Update (Vol. 5, No.5, 1996) (reprinted in the January issue of The Outlook). I began a two-part article on the subject of pastoral labor and the essential requirements for fruitful and God-centered ministry. In this concluding portion of that article I will take up the apostle’s counsel that every pastor “watch his doctrine (teaching)….”
Paul counsels the pastor to literally “keep watch on your teaching and that of others as well.” As Weymouth says, “take pains…with your teaching.” True doctrine and sound teaching are the foundation for sound living, both spiritually and morally. Our ethical behavior will reveal our proper use of what we know, and our love of the truth.
Ours is an age of shallow thinking. What Harry Blamires referred to as “The Christian Mind” is virtually lost to us in the West. John MacArthur writes: “I am convinced that much of the scandal in media religion is an inevitable result of shallow theology. When people place emotion and experience ahead of biblical truth, they are destined to fail.”1
Paul counsels a leader of the church to “speak things which are fitting for sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). Apparently sound doctrine is the foundation for blameless living and godliness. People can’t live right when they do not understand and believe right. Paul’s letters reflect this pattern of thought consistently. Ephesians is three chapters of doctrine, followed by three chapters of very practical instruction on godly living. The same is true of Romans, where eleven chapters of doctrine, and some of it profound and difficult to grasp, are followed by the very practical ethical portions of Romans 12–16. This is the basis of Paul’s opening word in Romans 12:1 where he says, “I plead with you therefore…” (Weymouth). He does not plead, like so many today, on an emotionally-driven, non-doctrinal basis. He lays out line after line of doctrine and then he pleads for godliness and ethical consistency.
A.W. Tozer expressed this connection well when he wrote, “Moral power has always accompanied definitive beliefs. Great saints have always been dogmatic. We need right now a return to a gentle dogmatism that smiles while it stands stubborn and firm on the Word of God that liveth and abideth forever.”
The careful pastor will not labor to uncover new truths, but rather will study the old paths, seeking out ways to make the truths of Scripture known and loved by his flock. He will not be so concerned for what people think of his doctrine, but rather with the question: “Is it true?” And, further, “How can I glorify God in preaching this truth humbly and faithfully?”
His themes will be God, man, sin, Christ, faith, repentance, redemption, and the realities of heaven and hell. He will not strive for novelty. The studied concern for relevance, so pursued by the marketing strategist, will not be his concern if he is determined to “speak the truth in love.”
With the apostolic example before him he will seek to be always “serving the Lord with all humility and with tears…not shrink(ing) from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house” (Acts 20:19–20). He will experience the cleansing of his conscience as he is faithful to the truth in all things. With Paul he will be enabled to say, “I testify…that I am innocent of the blood of all men” (Acts 20:26) precisely because with Paul he can say, “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). In all of this he will commend his hearers to “God and to the word of his grace” (Acts 20:32).
Tozer was out of step with the spirit of the times when he wrote on another occasion, “When the deliverers come-reformers, revivalists, prophets-they will be men of God and men of courage. They will have God on their side because they will be careful to stay on God’s side. They will be co-workers with Christ and instruments in the hand of the Holy Ghost.” Why? Because they will speak the truth of the sacred Scripture. They will believe, like the reformers and awakeners of other eras, that Scripture is fully sufficient for all matters of faith and practice. They will not search for new and exciting discoveries to draw the thrill-seeking crowds. Rather they will patiently, prayerfully, painstakingly dig out the old mines of the pure Biblical gold found in the text of Scripture.
Men who watch their doctrine carefully will use the Scripture as their message book. But they will also believe that in this book there is an apostolic method as well. They do not believe that they are left to deliver a message as they please. They have seen that we have divine patterns for doing Christ’s work that we dare not ignore.
The modem church seems so assured of itself. We reason, quite reductionistically, that we have a simple gospel and how we communicate it is now up to us and our ideas. A study of I Corinthians 1–2 should destroy such a notion permanently if we would give ourselves to it.
How can a man who has preached for twenty, thirty, even forty years, be guilty of great sin after all that time in ministry? Or how can a pastor preach the Bible and, sometimes off and on for the whole course of his life, be in and out of adultery, stealing, power plays for control of the flock, or outright lying? The only answer is that his own grasp of the truth of the gospel is seriously defective and his life is in such a state of self-deception that he has long ago put his conscience to rest with a misuse of what truth he does know.
It must be remembered that doctrinal error is usually not apparent to the average listener. What is wrong is usually not easily discerned. It is often a matter of emphasis, or of misplaced zeal, for that which isn’t germane to the gospel. This is why Paul was determined to “know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). As one who travels about from place to place I continually listen for the gospel. I am increasingly surprised when I hear it plainly and powerfully preached in North America. We seem preoccupied with everything but the cross and the crucified One.
False teachers, as we have already noted, are those who “desire to make a good showing in the flesh” (Gal. 6:12). When we begin to sample the “wants” and “needs” of a target audience and then seek to preach to them what they seem interested in, are we not close to surrendering sound doctrine for appealing stories and anecdotes that keep human interest? If our message has lost its “offensive” edge has it not also lost its “power” according to I Corinthians 1:18?
This matter of life and godliness was reduced to a list of do’s and don’ts in an earlier era. This bred legalism, an external righteousness that did not flow from the heart. Because of this we developed a new generation that measures everything, including spirituality, by externals. We have no convenient way to measure true spirituality so we use the external standards of who you know, where you’ve been, how large your ministry is, and how many people you have reached. As long as you stay relatively clear of blatant moral scandal you are OK But in the process such produces shallow lives with no spiritual roots. The rampant moral breakdown in the ministry in our time merely exposes the root system of our generation of doctrinal shallowness. If we would see recovery from the contemporary moral scandal in the church we must see a corollary recovery of sound doctrine.
In conclusion let us observe that godly character and sound doctrine are absolutely essential if we would be personally kept from falling. Everything else is optional-proper degrees, adequate knowledge of contemporary trends, ability to market the message and build a large church, respect from our peers all are irrelevant in the face of this counsel.
Well does Charles Bridges write in his classic study, The Christian Minister:
Upon the whole, therefore, we observe the weighty influence of personal character upon our ministrations. “Simplicity and godly sincerity,” disinterestedness, humility, and.general integrity of profession—are an “epistle known and read of all men.” Indeed character is power. The lack of it must therefore blast our success, by bringing the genuineness of our own religion, and the practical efficacy of the Gospel, under suspicion. Apart also from the natural effect of our public consistency, there is also a secret but penetrating influence diffused by the natural exercise of our principles.Who will deny, that-had he been amore spiritual Christian—he would probably have been a more useful minister?2
THE GOAL OF PASTORAL MINISTRY
Paul states that the ultimate goal of pastoral ministry will bring about two results. First, the faithful pastor will “save (himself).” Second, he will “save (his) hearers.” These words are both troubling and important. If we would properly develop pastoral ministry that overcomes the modern epidemic of moral scandal we must seek to understand these two results. Paul uses these to motivate proper focus for the ministry. So must we.
First, says the apostle, by watching both life and doctrine, “Timothy (and thus the pastor by inference) will “save himself.” This language surprises us at first glance. We balk, as evangelicals, saying, “This sure seems like Paul is suggesting that a man contributes, through his own efforts, to his salvation.” We instinctively react against this, wishing to defend faith from any contribution of human works in making a person right before God. The reason we quickly react this way is because we have misunderstood and misused both the doctrine of grace and the doctrine of perseverance. Let me explain.
The issue in the text before us is not the security of the true believer. That is addressed in many portions of the New Testament: e.g., John 5:24; 6:35–40; 6:47; 10:27–30; 17:11–12, 15; Romans 8:1; 8:35–39; Jude 24–25. What is in view of this text is the absolute necessity for those who do believe to persevere in true faith. Simply put, all who profess the Christian faith are not the same as all those who savingly believe. Many who profess to believe will fall away. And many who appear to believe, and are themselves convinced that they do believe, will not be saved because their faith is not the faith of true believers.
It was with this in mind that John spoke in the Fourth Gospel, 2:23–25, of those who had believed in Jesus (the word used is the normal word for true faith in the Gospel) but Jesus did not believe in them. Why? John answers, “because he knew all men.”
What theologians have historically asserted is not that any faith saves, albeit passionate, emotionally earnest, faith. What saves, or unites us to Christ, is the gift of saving faith. Saving faith consists of several constituent elements which include information, intellectual assent and personal trust. This faith truly lays hold of Christ, both His person and His work. Those who are given this gift by the Holy Spirit are kept by God’s power through faith and nothing separates them from His love. “This doctrine does not ultimately rest on our innate ability to persevere, but rather upon God’s commitment to keep us. But He keeps us in faith, believing and cleaving to Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
Jesus says, “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine” (John 8:31). Paul says, “He has now reconciled you in his fleshly body through death, in order to present you before him holy and blameless and beyond reproach—if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard” (Col. 1:22–23). And the previously quoted text in Philippians contains the same idea: “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:12–13).
Nothing could be plainer in the New Testament than this—we do not save ourselves! Yet, there is an obvious sense in which every one genuinely saved has the Spirit working within, leading them to believe, repent and continually lay hold of Christ. If we would “save ourselves” in this sense we must continue in the faith. The if of these texts is a conditional statement. It must be taken seriously by the discerning reader. It is a way of saying, as the rules of grammar indicate, that if you do not continue you will not be saved.
Now consider what this theological excursus has to do with our present concern. Says respected New Testament scholar Donald Guthrie, “The danger of neglecting one’s own salvation is greater in the Christian minister than in others, and even the apostle Paul himself could fear lest he became a castaway after preaching to others (I Cor. 9:27). Calvin suggestively comments that although salvation is God’s gift alone, yet human ministry is needed, as is here implied (emphasis mine).”3
William Hendriksen states the point of this focus well when he adds:
To be sure, a man is saved by grace, through faith; not by works (Titus 3:4; d. Eph. 2:6–8); yet, since holy living and sound teaching are a fruit of faith, Paul is able to say that “by doing this” Timothy will save himself and his hearers. It is along the path of holy living and diligence in teaching and in watching over the life and teaching of others, that salvation (both present and future; see on 1 Tim. 1:15) is obtained. Besides, God promises a special reward to his faithful ministers, yes, to all his faithful witnesses (Dan. 12:3; Matt. 13:43; James 5:20); and threatens with severe punishment the unfaithful ones (Ezek. 33:7, 8).4
It is therefore, in this same sense, that the minister can be said, in the second place, to “save his hearers.” As long as we soften the thrust of a text like this, making it say something much less, I fear we will miss the vital element of what is put before the pastor.
“It is not that Timothy’s endurance would merit salvation but that a stamina that produced holiness and doctrinal orthodoxy gave incontrovertible evidence of heading for salvation” (emphasis mine) says one commentary. This obedient persevering faith and life of the faithful minister will be an important factor in the faithful and godly endurance of those who hear him. Simply put, “The preacher’s model of perseverance builds the same trait in his flock. The stumbles and fumbles of a wandering spiritual leader will infect a congregation with a variety of spiritual sicknesses.”
We should not, in reality, find this counsel surprising if we know the Pastoral Epistles. The work of saving the church is through the preaching of the gospel. The means of salvation are a necessary part of God’s process of securing by grace a people He will take home to heaven. The unfaithfulness and negligence of the pastor will be fatal to the flock. We know this is so. But what is also so, and needs desperately to be recovered in this day, is that the pastor’s faithfulness will have a corresponding contribution to the members’ salvation. I wonder how committees would go about pursuing a new pastor if they really believed this Biblical truth.
So we conclude, God alone saves and not the least particle of this saving grace is merited or can be shared by man the sinner—yet God has ordained the means of salvation as well as the end. He will save through the preaching of the gospel, and preachers who watch their lives and their doctrine closely will themselves be saved. They will also be the means of salvation for others. Believer, you must choose well in regard to those who will feed your soul. More is at stake than you can even imagine. How much does your eternal well-being really mean to you? Pastors, you must watch your life and doctrine closely or you will surely fall, and your fall may well destroy both you and many of your hearers. The stakes are that high!
1. John F. MacArthur, Jr., “Manured Shepherds and Clean Sheep.” Masterpiece, n.d., 3.
2. Charles Bridges, The Christian Minister (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 1976 reprint of 1830 edition), 164–65.
3. Donald Guthrie, Tyndale NTC: The Pastoral Epistles (Grand Rapids, Michigan:Eerdmans, 1957), 99.
4. William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: 1, 2 Timothy and Titus (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1957), 160.
5. Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin, The New American Commentary, 1, 2 Timothy and Titus (Nashville, Tennessee, 1992), 141.
Dr. Armstrong is the editor of Reformation and Revival. This two-part article is reprinted from the Update newsletter which will soon be broadly available upon request.