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Eminent Holiness Essential to an Efficient Ministry

Category Articles
Date April 26, 2019

This article is part of an address delivered at the opening session of Stepney College, London and later elaborated into a small book published under the above title in 1843.

* * *

The necessity of eminent holiness in the ministerial character may be admitted, and yet its importance not duly felt. In theory it may receive the instantaneous assent of the judgment but the actual cultivation of holiness, the aiming after such an elevated standard of personal sanctification in connexion with the work of the ministry, may be the distinguishing trait of but few of the ‘ministers of our God’.

In the light of this it is obvious that we cannot too often stress the importance of the fact that the piety of a minister of the Lord Jesus should be of a different order, that it should be cast into a stronger mould, and bear a character and impress more marked, decided, and elevated than that of ordinary Christians. It is not enough that a minister be a converted man — he must be more. In the degree of his divine illumination, in the extent of his acquaintance with divine truth, in the depths of his Christian experience, in a practical embodiment of the spirit of the Gospel, in the simplicity of an unreserved surrender of himself to God, he must be far in the ascendant of the ordinary Christian. If not, how can he be an efficient teacher and a safe guide of the flock? How can he elevate the character of his people’s piety to a high standard, if his own standard is but a low one? With what honesty can he press the necessity of eminent personal sanctity, and a growing heavenly-mindedness, while his own droops and languishes? With what sincerity of heart, and power of appeal, and cogency of argument, and hope of success, can he urge upon the church entrusted to his teaching a greater degree of spiritual fruitfulness, while his own soul presents but the aspect of a blighted tree, whose hidden root is decayed, and whose sapless branches are hung with nought but the seared and withered leaf? Thus, that he should be a decidedly renewed man, is essential to his ministerial character; but that he should be a pre-eminently holy man, is essential to his ministerial success. This will appear more obvious by the following considerations.

In the first place, a high order of personal holiness and devotedness in the Christian ministry will exert a powerful influence upon the spirituality of the Christian Church, greatly strengthening and elevating its tone. The relation may, perhaps, be found closer than would at first sight appear. Instances may have existed, in which the spirit of true piety in a Christian body, or in individual members of the body, has been more fervent and elevated than that which emanated from the pulpit. But it is not often that, in the intensity of benevolent action, or in the vigour and purity of Christian holiness, a church is in the ascendent of the pastor it venerates and loves. His standard is rarely exceeded by theirs. They may strive to reach it, and may, indeed, closely approximate to it, but the thought of being more holy, of reaching to higher attainments in spirituality of mind, in personal consecration to Christ than the pastor would seem to their minds to border on presumption. From such a proposition they instinctively recoil. It follows, then, that it is in the power of the Christian ministry to fix the standard of the church’s spirituality, and to bring up the church to that standard. For especially within the church he serves, does the power of the minister’s influence receive its most beautiful and impressive illustration. It is here the pastoral office appears invested with such peculiar and solemn responsibilities. God has entrusted to him the work of moulding and fitting a people for heaven. He is, in a degree, responsible for the character they sustain as a holy, spiritual, and devoted flock. The formation of that character is committed to him. They will be, under God, just what he makes them, yea, just what he himself is. On him their eye will rest, as on a finished portrait; they will study him as a model; they will imitate him as an example; and thus each one will bear a stronger or a fainter resemblance to his moral, and even to his intellectual image. Especially if begotten by him in the Gospel, they will receive the influences of his spirit, imbibe his views, and sit at his feet as their teacher and their pattern. Woe to that pastor whose preaching, whose spirit, and whose example, a cold, formal, and worldly flock may quote in support of their low standard of personal holiness! Blessed is that pastor, the transcript of whose preaching, and the complexion of whose elevated spirituality and single devotedness to the Lord are seen and reflected in the spirit, conversation, and life, of each member of his church!

Secondly, our success in the ministry will be proportioned to our personal sanctity and devotedness. It has been truly remarked that the minister who has not learned that, as his spirituality waned, his real usefulness (not his popularity, for this may long survive the wreck of his useful­ness) has declined, has not even begun to learn wherein his strength lies. Who will prove the most successful preacher of the truth? Not the man of giant intellect, of brilliant talent, of profound erudition, of popular gifts; these, unassociated with other and higher attainments, will prove but as the armour of Saul to the son of Jesse in the day of battle, cumbrous and useless. But if these intellectual qualifications are combined (though God, in summoning men to his work, often dispenses with them) with the profound teaching of the Spirit, with a spirituality whose attributes are lowliness, prayerfulness, humbleness of mind, vigorous faith, simplicity of purpose, singleness of aim, constraining love, inward unction, persevering’ industry, and entire devotedness, in such a man we shall find the most successful preacher of the gospel. He shall ‘turn many to righteousness’ here, and, in a brighter and holier world, shall ‘Shine as the stars for ever and ever.’

But powerful as is the motive of success, the glory which eminent ministerial piety brings to God is a motive more powerful still. We are in the church and in the world the messengers of Christ, the witnesses of God. With no office is his glory so intimately connected as with that which we fill, and by no work is it so widely diffused as by that which we discharge. The Christian ministry, as it is the holiest, the most divine and influential institution, so it is that with which the highest honour of the divine character and the most exalted dignity of the divine government are most closely allied. It is meet, then, yea it is imperious, that he who stands forth bearing its commission, clothed with its authority, sustaining its responsibilities, and fulfilling its functions, should maintain a character for heavenly-mindedness, growing sanctity and devotedness of the purest and most exalted excellence. O, to have the thought deeply engraved upon the memory and ever present to the mind in letters of living light! — ‘I hold in my hands the glory of God in a world that is at enmity against him; and no angel or archangel has such solemn interests entrusted to his keeping, or trembles beneath such fearful responsibility as I!’ What a persuasive motive to ministerial holiness! The glory of God! Did ever holier, higher, sublimer end absorb the energies or fix the purposes of a created mind? Let it be ours, my brethren, our one, sole, undeviating aim. Let us sacrifice every thing that would divert us from it — fame, applause, reputation, popularity, worldly comfort, and the dearest interest of self. If these come in competition with the honour of divine truth and the glory of God, let them go! The wise of this world may esteem us fools, the great may look down upon us with scorn, the formalist may brand us enthusiasts, yet, strong in the strength of our God, let this be our firm resolve, and this our un-deviating practice, ‘Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death’. Then when the labours of the vineyard are ended, and we ascend to receive our crown, we shall be enabled to say with the Master whom we have served, though in a sense infinitely beneath Him, ‘I have glorified thee in the earth: I have finished the work that thou gavest me to do’.

A ministry formed upon this model would go far to prove the fallacy of an opinion which many godly minds entertained, viz. that a high order of mental culture is inimical to the existence and growth of eminent and exalted piety. We cherish a close and tender sympathy with the feelings of that portion of the Christian church who watch with a kind and vigilant eye the piety of her pastors; and who, with a becoming jealousy, closely investigates the character of every auxiliary brought to strengthen its hands and increase its power. Unsanctified learning in the ministry has ever proved a bane to the church and a curse to the world. And that will be a dark and lowering day to both, when the door of the Christian ministry expands to admit the scholar in precedent of the saint; when a higher value shall be placed upon the acquisitions of human learning than upon the possession of deep piety; and when brilliant talents and splendid eloquence shall possess stronger power of attraction than brilliant spirituality and splendid holiness. Who, with the slightest degree of enlightened discernment, would hesitate to choose as his model of ministerial excellence, between an Edwards and a Parr, a Leighton and a Swift? Or who, as he traces the history of each, eventful, instructive, and brilliant as each was, can fail to distinguish the vast difference between splendid gifts and deep learning, degraded by sin and wasted by indulgence, and the same faculties and acquisitions elevated, illuminated, and sanctified by divine grace, and allied to the sublimest embassy that ever was entrusted to created intelligence?

Yet although we insist upon an eminent degree of enlightened spirituality of mind as an essential attribute in the efficient discharge of ministerial duties, let us not be understood as pleading for eminent holiness as the only requisite of a powerful and useful ministry. As the basis of a well-formed ministerial character, we cannot insist too strongly upon its indispensable necessity; but to constitute a ministry of strength, of power, and of corresponding success, deep piety must be combined with other qualifications, also important and essential to the completeness of the perfect minister. The man who combines intellectual gifts, properly and thoroughly trained, a mind ample in its intellectual resources, and capable of combating with error and of elucidating truth, with a soul deeply baptized in the Spirit of holiness, and a heart enveloped in one heaven-ascending flame of love to Christ and men, will be the best expounder of the truth, and the most successful in winning souls to Christ. Although there are doubtless many mournful examples in the history of the Christian pulpit, of unrenewed mind and unsanctified learning intruding itself within its hallowed precincts, yet this supplies no valid argument against the cultivation and improvement of those intellectual faculties bestowed by God, and their holy and entire consecration to his service and glory in the work of the ministry!1

But surely one of the most affecting and persuasive motives to an elevated piety is the high and solemn responsibility of the ministerial office. We must form a distinct conception of, and be thoroughly imbued with, the spirit of our office, if we would attain to an eminent degree of ministerial holiness and efficiency. The office of the Christian ministry, as we have endeavoured to show, is pre-eminently spiritual in its character. It is not a mere moral, literary, or scientific office. A minister of Christ may possess these qualifications; and, if sanctified, and held subordinate to higher attainments, they may increase his usefulness by enlarging the sphere of his influence; but he must possess infinitely more. He is to consider himself as filling an office, and as discharging a work transcendantly superior to the mere scholar, the intellectual or moral philosopher, the political disputant, the zealous partisan, or the accomplished man of letters. He is the sworn servant of the King of kings; the accredited ambassador of Christ; the steward of the mysteries of God; the scribe of the kingdom; the subordinate shepherd and overseer of the flock. But what, my brethren, is a lofty conception of the dignity of our office, without a corresponding exemplification of its spirit? We must, in all the circles where we move, and in all the engagements in which we are occupied, exhibit and illustrate the hallowed spirit and commanding influence of our office.

Not only must our pulpit ministrations, in the matter and manner of their performance, carry conviction to the minds of our hearers that we firmly believe the solemn truths which we preach, but when descending from the pulpit and mingling among our people, the deepest caution is needed, lest our spirit, our conversation, or our demeanour, should weaken the conviction and lessen the impression, which the pulpit has produced. Such should be the sobriety, solemnity, meekness, heavenly­mindedness, lowliness, and sincerity, marking and pervading our entire conduct and conversation, so fragrant upon us should be the anointing oil, and such a ‘savour of Christ’ should we be in every place that, wherever we moved, we should be centres of holy light, thought, feeling, and action; everywhere witnessing for God, exalting Jesus, and saving souls.

Where there has existed a want of identity between the minister in the pulpit, and the minister out of it; in other words, where the habitual deportment and spirit of a minister has not been in perfect harmony with the holy and lofty character he has sustained in the sacred desk, there has fallen a blight upon his ministry, most painful and disastrous in its effects. The sweetness that once blended with it is gone; the unction that accompanied it is evaporated; the power that clothed it is weakened; the dignity that invested it is impaired; the authority that sustained it is lowered; and he no longer continues to be the honoured and successful servant of Christ. Men come to consider him as the mere official of Christianity, and the glorious Gospel he propounds as a tale that is twice told. His veracity they impeach, his sincerity they doubt, his motives they malign, his office they decry, his message they scorn, his Master they blaspheme!

My brethren, is it, or is it not, thus with us? Are we deeply imbued with the hallowed spirit of our office? Do we in our lives present an impersonation of the truths we preach; and are we making ‘full proof of our ministry’? What is our posture? Are we coming up from the wilderness, preaching, as we ascend, the glad tidings of the kingdom, and leaning on Jesus, our Beloved, for wisdom, for guidance, and for strength? Do we exalt him, as being the only object worthy of exaltation? and while preaching him to others, do we ourselves sit beneath his shadow, and find his fruit sweet to our taste? Are we living like men whose home is on the sunny side of eternity, whose one work is to bring men to Christ, and who expect soon to stand before the Judge, to give an account of their stewardship? And do we carry the remembrance and the consciousness into every circle, and with it do we hallow every word and word — ‘I am a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ, set for the fall and the rising of many’?

In view of the truths brought before us, and the motives pressed for our consideration, permit me to inquire, in closing. Why should we not aspire to the model of a perfect minister of Jesus Christ? Why may we not aim for a higher order of ministerial holiness and excellence? The means of its attainment are within our reach, yea, they are in our hands. The gospel which we preach is ours, with all its holy doctrines, its guiding precepts, its persuasive motives, its precious promises, its rich encouragements, its strong consolations, its animating hopes. The Saviour whom we preach is ours, with all his infinite fulness of sanctifying grace, supporting strength, tender love, and unchangeable faithfulness. The throne of grace is ours, with all its costly privileges, its secret attractions, its soothing, hallowing influence. Then let us, forgetting the things that are behind, press forward and upward to a more elevated standard of personal holiness and ministerial efficiency. Let us, while with all devotedness we address ourselves to our great work, not forget the careful, vigilant keeping of our own vineyard. And let us often recur to, and lay solemnly to heart, the exhortation addressed by the aged apostle, on the eve of his departure, to the young Timothy — ‘Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee.’ 1 Tim. 4.16.


  1. ‘It might be instructive to inquire why it is that wherever godliness is healthy and progressive, we almost invariably find learning in the Church of Christ attendant on it: while on the other hand, neglect of study is attended sooner or later by decay of vital godliness. Not that all are learned in such times; but there is always an element of the kind in the circle of those whom the Lord is using. The energy called forth by the knowledge of God in the soul leads on to the study of whatever is likely to be useful in the defence or propagation of the truth; whereas, on the other hand, when decay is at work and lifelessness prevailing, sloth and ease creep in, and theological learning is slighted as uninteresting and dry.’ Andrew Bonar in Letters of Samuel Rutherford, p. 12.

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