Preaching & Piety: Are we Donatists?
September 2, 2014
What does the holiness of the minister have to do with the efficacy of the preached Word? Are we falling into a Donatist error (from Donatus who re-baptized clergy who had lapsed in the Great Persecution, A.D. 303-305) by insisting that the holiness of the minister has some sort of causal relationship to the power of the preached Word?
Years ago, I remember a popular Christian radio show taking issue with the idea that a minister's personal holiness had anything to do with the efficacy of the preached Word. They said it was a Donatist error. But I'm not so sure it's that simple.
In T. David Gordon's book, Why Johnny Can't Preach, he provides some valuable insight into why so much preaching today is poor. But, if I am not mistaken, he did not make a big deal of the fact that "Johnny is not godly." This was a serious omission, I believe.
Few, if any, would deny that God's Word is bound by the holiness (or lack thereof) of the minister, as if conversion or the sanctification of his flock depended entirely upon his personal piety. Christ may be preached by those who are outside of Christ (Matt. 7:21-23; Phil. 1:17-18) - and to positive effect upon the listeners.
I am of the view that powerful preaching, by a minister who labours week-in, week-out, with his flock has a strong correlation to his own godliness. I think Robert Murray M'Cheyne was right to say, "a holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God." A man who has been broken - who really does preach with "fear and trembling" (1 Cor. 2:3) - is a man people will listen to week-in, week-out. There's a reason God "breaks" his servants: he wants them to preach as broken men, not as those who strut around like peacocks. There's a reason old, seasoned ministers have a massive advantage over young ministers. And it's a good reason - they speak with a type of wisdom that comes from many years of ministry. Personally, I rarely listen to preachers under the age of 45 - with apologies to my friends who are ministers under 45 (you know who you are).
In 1 Timothy 4:16 Paul writes the following to Timothy: "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."
A plain reading of the text leaves us with little doubt that personal holiness and perseverance in holiness are means (along with teaching true doctrine) that God uses in the salvation and sanctification of Christ's bride. What a thought, for ministers, that watching ourselves and our teaching has eternal consequences for us and our people. That's why, if you desire to be a minister, you're either called or mad, though hopefully not both!
Calvin made this point: "It is not enough if he frame his life to all that is good and commendable, and guard against giving a bad example, if he do not likewise add to a holy life continual diligence in teaching; and, on the other hand, doctrine will be of little avail, if there be not a corresponding goodness and holiness of life."
Paul's own ministry would have been severely compromised if he were not a godly man. Frequently, Paul says: "follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1; see also Phil. 3:17; 4:9; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Thess. 3:9). How could Paul have made such admonitions in his ministry if he was ungodly or did not provide a good example to follow? If I'm not mistaken, Paul commands believers to imitate himself more than he commands them to imitate God.
And when you read the Pastoral Epistles, isn't it interesting that 90% of the qualifications for the ministry focus on godliness? Why is that? Why does a minister need to have his family in order, and why do his children need to be faithful?
I've learned in the ministry - sometimes the painful way - that the power of the preached Word is not unrelated to the piety of the minister. I wish some of the reasons for my ineffective preaching had nothing to do with my personal piety, but I just don't think the Scriptures allow for such a view: "because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake" (1 Thess. 1:5).
Nonetheless, I'm thankful that God has seemed to bless my ministry when I've been far from the man I want to be; but I don't think he would have blessed my ministry as he has if I was still the man I once used to be!
Maybe, just maybe, M'Cheyne was on to something when he said: "The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness."
Pastor Mark Jones needs to pray more for his congregation.