The Scottish evangelist and pastor Robert Murray M'Cheyne is noted for his passion for Christ, for the conversion of the lost, and especially for holiness. In an ordination sermon, he reminded a fellow minister that holiness was key to a God-honoring ministry: “Study universal holiness of life! Your whole usefulness depends on this. Your sermon on Sabbath lasts but an hour or two, -- your life preaches all week. Remember, ministers are standard bearers. Satan aims his fiery darts at them. If he can only make you a covetous minister, or a lover of pleasure, or a lover of praise, or a lover of good eating, then he has ruined your ministry forever. Ah! Let him preach on fifty years, he will never do me any harm. Dear brother, cast yourself at the feet of Christ, implore his Spirit to make you a holy man.”
Holiness has never been cherished by this world, and today is no different. But what seems strange to me is that the whole concept of holiness seems to have fallen on hard times in the church. Today, being “authentic” is seen to be more important than being holy, and if a man has a thousand moral blemishes, it's okay as long as he's willing to own up to them – even if he doesn't seem to be making much progress in sanctification. Or the language of tolerance has replaced in the church the vocabulary of holiness. What's worse is that not only has the place of holiness been diminished by the new virtues of authenticity and tolerance, it has been branded as legalism so that any emphasis on sanctification is likely to have one marked out an unchristian moralist.
Today, among evangelicals there has been a renewed interest in being “gospel-centered.” This is, of course, a very good and very Biblical emphasis. All our hope is in Christ. We are saved by the grace of God, not by the grade on our lives. However, though I hope I'm wrong, it does seem to me that some in this camp are so focused on telling the good news that all our righteousness is in Christ that they are giving the impression (whether intentionally or not) that holiness really doesn't matter that much. For example, recently a leading evangelical leader wrote a piece on the parable of the Good Samaritan, claiming that the true point of the story is that Jesus is the only Good Samaritan – clearly implying that any sermon encouraging people to “go and do likewise” not only misses the point of the parable but is in fact legalistic. I agree with one response to this article: that Jesus is not just interested in us getting the first use of the law (to show us our sins), but also with its use in showing us the way to be more like Christ. After all, Christ came “that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:3), not merely by imputation but by sanctification as well.
You cannot read either the Old or New Testament rightly without being properly impressed with the necessity of holiness. What did John the Baptist preach but that men should repent (Matthew 3:2)? And did not Jesus himself say that he had not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32)? And when Jesus sent the apostles out, did he not send them out to preach repentance (Mk 6:12; Luke 24:47)? Did not Paul himself say that he taught all both repentance toward God and faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21)? And what is repentance but turning from sin and turning to God? In other words, you do not rightly invite people to hope in the gospel without simultaneously calling them to forsake their sins. To do so is not to become legalistic, and to fail to do so is to compromise the gospel itself.
Or consider the words of the author of Hebrews: “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Thus, not only is holiness to be pressed upon those desiring to enter the kingdom of God, it is the requisite mark of all who would claim to be in it. Holiness is not meant to categorize a subset of the family of God on earth; it is the mark of all who claim the name of Christ. The apostle John tells us, “No one who abides in him [Christ] keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 5:6-9, ESV). Holiness is not just for the “super-saints” – it’s for every one who professes the name of Christ.
Holiness in the Ministry
But if holiness is so important for the church, it must be very important for those who are placed in positions of leadership in the church. Thus, in 1 Timothy 5:17-25, where Paul is instructing Timothy in some very important matters relating to elders in the church, it is not surprising that the majority of his instruction is either directly or indirectly related to safeguarding holiness in the ministry.
First, we see it in Timothy’s charge to safeguard the reputations of faithful pastors and to rebuke those who sin. Paul writes, “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear” (verses 19-20). As regards elders in the church, Timothy must turn a deaf ear to baseless gossip but not a blind eye to open sin.
As regards the first, Paul evidently knew how damaging gossip could be, and how easily such lies could tarnish the reputation of the church. Throughout this epistle, we have noted how sensitive Paul was to behavior that could be misconstrued by the world and used to damage the name of Christ. Paul certainly would have put slander in this category. Nothing has the potential to kill a ministry faster than a damaged reputation. And nothing can kill a reputation faster than slander. Holiness in a spiritual leader carries a good reputation with it, and which ought to be cherished by the church. A good reputation can be undone, however, not only by sin in the man but also by slander in the church. And so Paul is eager to stop all such groundless defamations at all costs.
How do you put a stop to lies like this? You simply don’t listen to them. So Paul tells Timothy not even to receive an accusation unless it is before two or three witnesses. This is based on the principle given in the Law of Moses: “One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established” (Deut. 19:15). If someone comes to you with a salacious detail about a minster (or any believer, for that matter) and you have no way of verifying that it is true or not, you should gently but firmly put a stop to the conversation and make it clear that you have no interest in listening to such things. And certainly, we should not have any part in spreading such accusations. It is simply not Christian. We are to “speak evil of no man,” as Paul put it to Titus (Tit. 3:2).
On the other hand, Paul does not want Timothy to circle the wagons around a fellow minister if he is caught red-handed. If an elder has fallen into disgraceful sin, he should be dealt with. The Greek verb used for “them that sin” indicates that what is to be rebuked is ongoing sin. In other words, Paul is not saying that every time an elder does something wrong he is to be hauled before the church and publicly rebuked. Rather, what Paul seems to be saying is that if an elder keeps on sinning, despite past warnings, he should be rebuked before the church.
There is some question as to who Paul is referring to by the phrases “before all” and “others.” Do they refer just to the other elders or to the church as a whole? I think “before all” refers to the entire local church because Paul puts no limitation on “all” in the context. Sinning elders are to be publicly rebuked before the entire church. It is not that elders are to be held to a higher standard; this, after all, is exactly what our Lord said should be done when he addressed a similar circumstance in Matthew 18:15-20. Toward the end of the disciplinary process, our Lord commands that a non-repentant brother is to be brought before the church: “And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” (verse 17). That is what Paul is saying should be done here. On the other hand, I think by “others” Paul is probably referring to the other elders, for “others” seems to be distinguished from the “all” before whom the sinning elder is to be rebuked. Paul wants the other elders to take note, and to fear – of course, the entire church will hopefully get the message as well!
This is absolutely essential, because “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6). This is especially true if the leaven in the lump is a leader in the church. Thus, Paul wants Timothy to create a culture in the church in which sin is lovingly but firmly confronted and dealt with, and especially among its leadership.
Second, we also see Paul’s emphasis on holiness in the ministry by Timothy’s context in the presence of God. Paul goes on to write: “I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality” (verse 21). The solemnity of Paul’s charge to Timothy in the previous two verses is highlighted by the context in which Timothy is to carry out his responsibility. Timothy is doing all this in the presence of God. In other words, God cares very deeply about these things.
It seems that by placing Timothy in the context of God, Christ, and the elect angels, that Paul is carrying Timothy to the judgment seat of Christ, and reminding him that he is to judge as God does – justly and impartially. For it is God the Father and Son who carry out the final judgment by the instrumentality of angels (just read the Book of Revelation; see also Matthew 13:41; 25:31,34). In doing so, Timothy will defend the sanctity of the ministry.
And this defense is to trump every other relationship. Timothy is not to allow his closeness to any believer blind him to their sin. He is not to confuse his loyalty to a friend with his allegiance to Christ. Timothy is to free himself from all fear of man or any loyalty to man that would trump his loyalty to God. The only way to find such freedom is to live in the presence of God, to see things from his perspective, and to be so claimed by his glory and majesty that you cannot be bought by any man.
Like Timothy, we need to see that God cares about holiness in the ministry. If we do not guard the reputations of holy men, God will hold us accountable. If we do not rebuke those who have soiled their reputations by sin, God will hold us accountable. And if we do not do these things in a way that is consonant with God’s own holiness, God will hold us accountable.
Third, we see the emphasis on holiness in the ministry by Timothy’s care in selecting future elders: “Lay hands suddenly on no man, neither be partaker of other men’s sins: keep thyself pure. . . . Some men’s sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment; and some men they follow after. Likewise also the good works of some are manifest beforehand; and they that are otherwise cannot be hid” (verses 22, 24-25). The language of laying on of hands is uniformly used by Paul to denote the formal commissioning of a man into the service of Christ (cf. 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6). So here, Paul is referring to Timothy’s involvement in the ordination of elders.
In particular, Paul warns Timothy against being too hasty in ordaining any man to the ministry, and he gives three reasons for this. First, he should use caution because Timothy himself is implicated in the sins of those who have been ordained too hurriedly. I think this is what is meant in the phrase, “neither be partaker of other men’s sins: keep thyself pure.” For example, if a man is ordained too early, he might be “lifted up with pride and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6). And Timothy, as the one responsible for overseeing the ordination process, would be partly to blame for it.
The second reason that Paul gives is that not all sin is evident immediately (verse 24). Sin is adept at hiding, and sinners are often gifted at deceiving even those closest to them. Not all sin announces itself ahead of time with drums and fife. However, sooner or later the truth will out. Whether sin is conspicuous and obvious apart from any judgment on the part of God, or whether it hides and is not obvious – eventually sin will appear and become plain to all. Thus, Timothy is encouraged to exercise caution and to proceed slowly with commissioning men into the ministry. If he does not, he might ordain someone whose sin has not yet become apparent and end up doing irrevocable damage to the church.
The third reason Paul gives is the converse of what he says in verse 24: just as sin is not always obvious, in the same way the good deeds of some are not always obvious either. A failure to use caution and discernment might not only lead to the ordination of unworthy men, it might also lead to the passing over of worthy believers who really are called and gifted for ministry (verse 25).
This advice was particularly relevant for Timothy, because one of the main problems at the church of Ephesus was elders that had gone sour. Men who wanted to be teachers of the law, but who used it wrongly. Men who taught contrary to the gospel of Christ. These guys were constantly giving Timothy a headache – or should I say, a stomach-ache! It’s possible that the problems surrounding Timothy’s confrontations with the apostate elders were in large part responsible for his stomach problems and his “often infirmities” (verse 23). Thus, Paul admonishes his son in the faith to “drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” (It should be noted that this verse is no justification for social drinking; its use here is purely medicinal. Also, note that Paul encourages the use of a little wine!)
Any church that fails to recognize the importance of holiness in the ministry will not fail to be plagued with problems, both moral and theological. As M’Cheyne put it, holiness and usefulness under God go together. As I end, I want to leave you with three final reflections on why holiness is so necessary for the church in general and for the ministry in particular.
Why the Necessity?
First, we are taught in Scripture that you can’t love and serve others if you are not holy. Despite the fact that people often pit holiness against love, the Bible does not. You don’t love people by sympathizing with them in their sin, or by turning a blind eye to it. We must never forget that love is a definite thing in Scripture and must not be confused with our culture’s ambiguous feeling-based definition of it. In particular, Paul gives a functional definition of it in terms of what it does, and this is what he says:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor. 13:4-7, ESV)
That’s not Hollywood love. That’s holy, self-sacrificing love. Or consider how Paul put it to the Romans: “Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good” (Rom. 12:9). There, side by side with the exhortation to love is the command to hate evil and do what is good. In other words, unless you hate sin and love righteousness, you are not truly a loving person. And therefore, you are not really able to love and serve others in a way that brings honor to Christ and ultimate good to those you serve.
The Underground Railroad was an escape network prior to the American Civil War that enabled slaves to escape to freedom. But this network was not operated by slaves; it was operated by free men, black and white, who helped those who had no freedom to get it. In the same way, if you want to help those who are enslaved to sin, you cannot yourself be enslaved; you must be free. Only those who know freedom can help those who have none. And only those over whom “sin shall not have dominion” (Rom. 6:14) can help those who are groaning under its bondage.
Second, you can’t model gospel behavior without holiness. Christ came to free us from our sins. Certainly, forgiveness and justification before God are part of this, but freedom from sin is more than just freedom from the penalty of sin. It is also freedom from the power of sin. The church is not meant to display to the world the message that God forgives sin but can’t do anything about it. After all, a person who is genuinely burdened over her sin, who sees her need of forgiveness, is also going to want to be freed from its tentacles in her heart and affections and will. Though the last thing such a person needs to see is self-righteousness, the very best thing such a person can see is a humble, happy, holy Christian who loves Jesus and is striving to be more like him every day. Such a person is doing Matthew 5:16: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
Finally, you cannot expect to be used by God without holiness. It is true that God uses broken instruments, but it is also true that these broken vessels are holy vessels nonetheless. As Paul would later put it to Timothy, “But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honor, and some to dishonor. If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honor, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work” (2 Tim. 2:20-21). I began with a quote from M’Cheyne; I think it is worthwhile to end with one: “Do not forget the culture of the inner man– I mean of the heart. How diligently the cavalry officer keeps his sabre clean and sharp; every stain he rubs off with the greatest care. Remember you are God’s sword, his instrument– I trust, a chosen vessel unto Him to bear His name. In great measure, according to the purity and perfection of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”