For Spurgeon, the Pastors’ College, out of all the many institutions of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, was the one that was “dearest to his heart.” Every Friday afternoon, after a long week of study, one of the favorite times of the students was when Spurgeon would lecture on a variety of topics related to pastoral ministry. And out of the many topics that he preached on, the one that he emphasized the most was the importance of the pastor’s “eminent piety,” that is his character.
We live in a day when so many gifted pastors and church leaders with large public ministries go astray in their private lives, in their character. And as a result, all that public ministry comes crashing down. This was no different in the 19th century. Spurgeon understood this well and he placed “eminent piety” as his first qualification for his students who were aspiring to be teachers. All who find themselves in the position of being a teacher of God’s Word should follow Paul’s admonition to Timothy: “Pay close attention to your life and your teaching.” This is what Spurgeon called “the minister’s self-watch.”
But why does a pastor’s character matter?
We Are Our Own Tools
Spurgeon puts it this way:
We are, in a certain sense, our own tools, and therefore must keep ourselves in order. If I want to preach the gospel, I can only use my own voice; therefore I must train my vocal powers. I can only think with my own brains, and feel with my own heart, and therefore I must educate my intellectual and emotional faculties. I can only weep and agonize for souls in my own renewed nature, therefore must I watchfully maintain the tenderness which was in Christ Jesus. It will be in vain for me to stock my library, or organize societies, or project schemes, if I neglect the culture of myself; for books, and agencies, and systems, are only remotely the instruments of my holy calling; my own spirit, soul, and body, are my nearest machinery for sacred service; my spiritual faculties, and my inner life, are my battle ax and weapons of war.
When it comes to the ministry of the Word, we are the tool, the instrument for conveying the gospel. That’s not to say that we ourselves are the Good News. No, we are jars of clay, bearing the treasure of the gospel. But at the same time, it matters how we conduct our lives. I think of Paul’s words to Timothy
2Tim. 2:20 In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble. 21 If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.
It is interesting to think about all the other things we think make for an effective minister: the latest laptop, a massive pastoral library, a powerful Bible study software tool, resources to help with sermon illustrations, on and on it goes. There is no shortage of pastoral tools and resources that Lifeway, Crossway, Logos, and everybody else wants to sell you. And in one sense, all those things are fine. But at the end of the day, as a minister of God’s Word, those things are not what carry the gospel. You are the vessel, the instrument of the gospel. As a pastor who owned thousands of books, Spurgeon reminds us that in the end, it’s character and life that matter.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne writing to a minister friend who had gone to study German theology put it like this,
I know you will apply hard to German, but do not forget the culture of the inner man — I mean of the heart. How diligently the cavalry officer keeps his saber 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.
We all want to be life-long students of theology and Bible and history. We strive to give ourselves to reading, to study, to writing… but as you do all this, “do not forget the culture of the inner man.” Take care of yourself, of your heart, of your soul, of your own nearness to Christ, the way a cavalry officer takes care of his saber.
The Effect of Character on the Ministry
It’s no surprise then that the minister’s character will have an effect on his ministry. Spurgeon writes this,
You all know the injurious effects frequently produced upon water through flowing along leaden pipes; even so the gospel itself, in flowing through men who are spiritually unhealthy, may be debased until it grows injurious to their hearers. It is to be feared that Calvinistic doctrine becomes most evil teaching when it is set forth by men of ungodly lives and exhibited as if it were a cloak for licentiousness…
Like water flowing through lead pipes, a preacher with a bad character will actually bring harm to the message that he preaches. It won’t just nullify his message. It will actually work against it. This is part of Satan’s strategy: not only to send false teachers, but to raise up orthodoxy, but worldly preachers. To raise up those within the church who will preach the gospel faithfully, even powerfully, but then live lives that are immoral; as Paul says, “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.”
Spurgeon also warns his students against being “clockwork ministers.” Only serving Christ, only being Christians, when they are on the clock.
Here I would not alone warn you of sins of commission, but of sins of omission. Too many preachers forget to serve God when they are out of the pulpit, their lives are negatively inconsistent. Abhor, dear brethren, the thought of being clockwork ministers who are not alive by abiding grace within, but are wound up by temporary influences; men who are only ministers for the time being, under the stress of the hour of ministering, but cease to be ministers when they descend the pulpit stairs. True ministers are always ministers…
“Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work for parenting and it doesn’t work for the pastor either. So you can preach a powerful and compelling sermon on the importance of showing hospitality to strangers, but if your people don’t see you modeling that in your life, they won’t take you seriously. You can preach a powerful sermon on the sinfulness of sin and the sweetness of God’s grace, but if they don’t see those truths impacting your life, your life will actually undermine that preaching. Spurgeon again,
As actions speak louder than words, so an ill life will effectually drown the voice of the most eloquent ministry… Our truest building must be performed with our hands; our characters must be more persuasive than our speech
There’s a principle here: a church generally will follow the example of its pastor. Through their teaching, through their example, pastors play a huge role in setting the culture of the church. Whatever the pastor is passionate about, that will come through, and the congregation usually will follow. As a general rule, the pastor will generally be the most spiritually-minded person in the congregation, because they’re the ones giving themselves to studying and preaching God’s Word. Which means how we live really matters. We want pastors to be men of “eminent piety.”
I think we see this in Spurgeon’s own ministry. One theme that you see again and again in his preaching is his devotion to serving Christ. From the day he was baptized, Spurgeon committed himself to speak for Christ and spending himself for the cause of Christ. Not because he was trying to earn God’s favor, but because he never got over God’s grace to him Christ. And as a preacher, he called his people to give themselves to serving Christ their captain.
And yet the congregation not only heard this message but they saw it lived out in the life of their pastor. They watched as he preached as many as 14 times in a week, and then came back to lead the prayer meeting and the multiple congregational meetings, and then met with membership applicants, and then raised funds for building the Metropolitan Tabernacle, and then prepared his sermons for publication, and then wrote more books and articles for the magazine, and then visited his orphans. And they watched him doing it all while struggling with gout and discouragement and all kinds of other ailments.
When you see your pastor pouring himself out like that for the cause of Christ, that stirs something within you. I think more than all the sermons he preached, the striking and powerful example of their pastor pouring out his life in ministry week after week, fired up his people to follow his example. And so out of the Tabernacle, 66 charitable gospel ministries were started, most of them by the initiative of members of the church, who simply wanted to do their part to serve Jesus.
So watch your life and doctrine. Yes, the Word is powerful and it is the Word that does the work. But when God calls a preacher, He uses the whole person to minister the Word, to communicate the Word, and that includes not only the doctrine you speak but the life you live.