“Vigilance” has to be the war-cry of every pastor. “The true Christian is called to be a soldier,” wrote J. C. Ryle, “and must behave as such from the day of his conversion to the day of his death.” [1] Pastors face a myriad of temptations. All are common—idleness, lust, and anger. Some are made sharper by the unique nature of a pastor’s work—pride, discontentment, and impatience stand out.

This article is a charge for every pastor to soldier on. Why should a pastor care about his personal holiness? Here are three straightforward answers.

1. Because every pastor is a Christian.

The battle against sin is lost when the pastor thinks he is in a separate class, impervious from the spiritual warfare faced by all believers. First and foremost, he must see himself as a Christian who must endure to the end.

Scripture is clear. Each believer is a new creation and must live a new and holy life (2 Cor. 5:17). Like a tree, the true believer will bear spiritual fruit (Rom. 7:4). The real Christian is dead to his sin and cannot live in it (Rom. 6:2). After all, the unrighteous won’t inherit God’s kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9). The Christian’s righteousness is the eternal plan of God who ordained holiness for each of his elect (Eph. 1:4).

Pastor, you know better than anyone the temptation to merely appear godly (2 Tim. 3:3). You stand up every week before a congregation who expects you to exemplify Christian virtue. Don’t excuse yourself from the fight, not for a second. Holiness is not a mask we wear; it’s the path we walk. This is true for the pastor because it is true for every Christian.

2. Because every pastor is an example.

Though every pastor is first and foremost a Christian, there is no doubt the pastor is a leading Christian. He is to lead out in holiness, modeling for the church what a disciple of Jesus Christ looks like. The pastor must be more vigilant against sin, more aware of his temptation, and more committed to personal holiness.

The church fundamentally depends on Christ and his atoning work. This is the primary truth. Nonetheless, to a lesser but still very real degree, the church leans into the faithfulness of the pastor.

We find, for example, special requirements in Scripture for pastors to be godly. Paul commanded the Ephesian elders and, by extension, all elders to “pay careful attention” to their lives (Acts 20:28). Paul called the minister’s life holy, righteous, and blameless (1 Thess. 2:10). He urged Timothy to have a “good conscience” (1 Tim. 1:5, 19) and warned this young pastor against participating in the sins of others (1 Tim. 5:22). Paul summed up his counsel by asserting the pastor must flee sin and “pursue righteousness” (1 Tim. 6:11).

Christians don’t learn how to be holy simply by reading the Bible. They are to look at the example set by their pastors. Paul told the Corinthians, Philippians, and Thessalonians to imitate him (1 Cor. 4:16–17; 11:1; Phil. 4:9; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Thess. 3:7–9). He told Timothy to set an example for the Ephesians “in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). He instructed Titus to be “a model of good works” (Titus 2:7). He made special lists of elder qualifications that start with the call to be “above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:6–9). In fact, the New Testament expectation is that the elders will be so known for their holiness that it would be ridiculous to accept an allegation against them unless there are multiple accusers (1 Tim. 5:19).

Simply put, the call to pastoral ministry is a call to holiness. If you doubt this for a moment, consider 1 Timothy 4:16: “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.” We are right to attribute salvation to Christ alone, but if we neglect to factor in the role of the pastor we have diminished the office we are privileged to hold. John Calvin addressed this unusual reality:

“A pastor will become even more zealous when he is told that both his salvation and that of the people who listen to him depend on his devotion to his office. . . . God alone saves, and no part of his glory can be transferred to men. But God’s glory is not at all diminished when he employs men’s efforts to bestow salvation. . . . God alone is the author of salvation. But this does not exclude the ministry of men, for the well-being of the church depends on that ministry.” [2]

Brothers, heed Paul’s charge: “Keep a close watch on yourself.” Don’t let a day go by without pleading with God to fill you to overflowing with the fruit of his Holy Spirit. This holiness is required not only for your sake, but for the sake of the church God has given you to lead.

3. Because every pastor is an intercessor.

After calling on the sick to ask the elders to pray over them, James said holiness is the fuel of an effective prayer: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16). This is why Peter charged his readers to “be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Pet. 4:7).

For the sake of your prayers.

Read through the New Testament and you’ll quickly discover God uses the prayers of Christian leaders to grow his churches. Paul prayed the congregation in Philippi would have a love that abounds “more and more, with knowledge and with all discernment” (Phil. 1:9). He prayed the Ephesians would be “strengthened with power” and “grounded in love” and “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:14–19). He prayed the Colossians would be “filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will (Col. 1:9) and that the Thessalonians would “walk in a manner worthy of God” (1 Thess. 2:12).

Nearly twenty years ago, D. A. Carson listed several urgent needs faced by the church. At the top of the list he put our inattention to God: “We are not captured by his holiness and love; his thoughts and words capture too little of our imagination, too little of our discourse, too few of our priorities.” Knowing God, Carson insisted, was our biggest challenge. He argued the chief way to address this problem is “spiritual, persistent, biblically minded prayer.”[3]

I couldn’t agree more, but I would make one additional recommendation. We need holy pastors leading the way in prayer.

I don’t have all the answers to today’s serious problems, but I’m convinced part of the solution is pastors on their knees. Yes, the church needs men of God preaching the gospel. We need pastor-theologians grappling with arguments belittling penal substitutionary atonement. We need to work through implications of the gospel as they relate to issues of racism. But God will only bless this work if there are pastors so changed by the gospel they are “self-controlled and sober-minded” for the sake of their prayers and the salvation of their churches.

Brother pastor, do you care about holiness? My guess is you do, otherwise you wouldn’t have reached the end of this article! Please don’t give up caring. Be vigilant. Soldier on against your sin from this day to the day of your death.

Editors’ note: This article was originally published at 9Marks.
[1] J. C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots (Chicago: Moody, 2010), 111.

[2]John Calvin, 1 & 2 Timothy in The Crossway Classic Commentaries, ed. Alister McGrath and J. I. Packer (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1998), 78.

[3]D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1992), 15–16.