Preparing the Preacher
It was the famed preacher of Westminster Chapel, London, Martyn Lloyd-Jones-arguably the foremost expositor of the twentieth century-who said in his work Preaching and Preachers: "The preacher's first, and the most important task is to prepare himself, not his sermon." In other words, preparing the man takes precedence over preparing the message. The Doctor explains, "At first one tends to think that the great thing is to prepare the sermon-and the sermon . . . does need most careful preparation. But altogether more important is the preparation of the preacher himself." This is a true assessment of the critical need for the preacher to be prepared before he prepares the sermon.
God is more concerned with our character than our careers, with who we are than with what we do. More important to God than where we preach is how we live. Our maturity is more important to Him than our ministry. God is more focused upon the depth of our hearts than the breadth of our outreach. God is more concerned with our godliness than with our giftedness. He is more interested in our piety than in our productivity. God is first concerned with what He is doing in us, and only then with what He is doing through us. He prioritizes our spirituality over our success.
Given God's priorities for his preparation, the preacher must be, as Lloyd-Jones stressed, "a man of one thing." The one great passion of his life must be the dominating reality of God in his soul. He must be consumed with glorifying God and following the Lord Jesus Christ. His innermost being must be driven to knowGod and to become like Christ through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. Upon this, one's entire pulpit ministry rests. No preacher can advance in his pulpit ministry beyond his own personal devotion to Jesus Christ. No matter how brilliant his intellect, how well he studies, or how expertly he speaks, the message will only flow out of a man who is a pure vessel. As a result, every expositor must cultivate his own heart for God.
The Priority of Personal Holiness
As the apostle Peter writes his initial letter to the first early, persecuted believers, he begins by calling them to pursue personal holiness in their daily lives. He addresses their godliness first, immediately after the opening salutation and benediction, because this subject is of first importance. Peter writes:
Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, "You shall be holy, for I am holy" (1 Peter 1:13-16).
What the apostle writes to the scattered believers in these verses underscores the importance of personal holiness for all Christians. At the same time, it applies to every preacher who stands in a pulpit. This is a matter of first priority for every expositor. The standard is the same for the pulpit and pew alike. Nevertheless, the accountability to God is stricter for the one who expounds the Scripture. It is critical that we see the close connection between how we live and what we preach. It is crucial that we understand how our personal life affects our pulpit ministry. Let us review these verses in the opening section of 1 Peter, and consider what they require from us.
A Strict Mind
Peter begins by addressing the mind of the believer. The apostle first says, "Prepare your minds for action" (13). Literally, "prepare" (anazōnnumi) means "to gird up." In common usage, the term referred to gathering up one's long, flowing robe in order to be unimpeded in movement before taking action. If someone wanted to move quickly, he would pull up the corners of his garment so that there would be nothing dangling upon which to trip his feet. He would tuck all the loose ends into the leather belt. Metaphorically, this pictured the call to the Christian to be prepared for action in his spiritual life. Peter is saying: "Pull in all your loose thinking. Discipline your thoughts. Do not be tripped up with wrong beliefs. Do not allow any loose thinking not tied down with sound doctrine. All your thinking must be tucked in and tied down."
Paul uses this same imagery of preparing the mind when he addresses spiritual warfare and putting on the full armor of God. He begins by making the same emphasis: "stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth" (Eph 6:14). In this analogy, the first thing a Roman soldier did before heading into battle was to tuck his loose, flowing robe into his belt so that he would not trip on it as he entered into battle. When he girded up his robe, he indicated that he was serious about entering into the conflict. Without doing so, he was easily defeated. To gird up with truth is to prepare the mind with the Word of God. It is to have no loose thoughts that are not tied to the Scripture.
The battle for personal holiness begins with the battle for the Christian mind. Everything in Christian living begins with the mind. Solomon writes, "For as [a man] thinks within himself, so he is" (Prov 23:7). In other words, what a person thinks is, in reality, the fountain of what he is. The Bible places the first priority for godly living with the mind. Sanctification advances by being "transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Rom12:2). We are charged, "Be renewed in the spirit of your mind" (Eph 4:23). Doctrine always precedes duty. All growth in grace begins with having a mind that is saturated with the Word of God.
Saturated with the Scripture
If any man is to preach with spiritual power, his very thoughts must be tied down by Scripture. This begins with right thinking shaping his own spiritual life before it comes through his preaching. Personal purity is the prerequisite for pulpit power. There can be no loose thinking if he is to be properly prepared in his inner life. This means he must be absorbed with the Word of God.
In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther, a great German preacher, became an ardent student of the Word of God. This began in the preparation of his own soul in order to preach and write. Luther wrote, "For a number of years I have now annually read through the Bible twice. If the Bible was a large, mighty tree and all its words were little branches, I have tapped at all the branches, eager to know what was there and what it had to offer." Such hunger for the Word must mark every expositor.
Charles H. Spurgeon expressed the same: "It is blessed to eat into the very soul of the Bible until, at last, you come to talk in Scriptural language, and your very style is fashioned upon Scripture models, and what is better still, your spirit is flavored with the words of the Lord." This is to say, every expositor must be saturated with biblical truth drawn from the whole of the Bible until it flavors the whole of his being.
John Stott likewise prioritized the importance of the preacher's mind being saturated with the Word: "Because the Christian pastor is primarily called to the ministry of the Word, the study of Scripture is one of his foremost responsibilities." His knowledge of God's Word must be comprehensive. Affirming that the preacher must possess a command of the Scripture, Stott stated:
The systematic preaching of the Word is impossible without the systematic study of it. It will not be enough to skim through a few verses in daily Bible reading, nor to study a passage only when we have to preach from it. No. We must daily soak ourselves in the Scriptures. We must not just study, as through a microscope, the linguistic minutiae of few verses, but take our telescope and scan the wide expanses of God's Word, assimilating its grand theme of divine sovereignty in the redemption of mankind.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones further notes that there must be the regular, devotional reading of Scripture from cover to cover:
Read your Bibles systematically . . . . I cannot emphasize too strongly the vital importance of reading the whole Bible . . . . Then, having done that, you can decide to work your way through one particular book, with commentaries or any aids that you may choose to employ . . . . Do not read the Bible to find texts for sermons, read it because it is the food that God has provided for your soul, because it is the Word of God, because it is the means whereby you can get to know God. Read it because it is the bread of life, the manna provided for your soul's nourishment and well-being.
This is where sermon preparation begins. It starts with the mind of the preacher being prepared for action in the pursuit of personal holiness. This necessitates a man keeping his mind pure, free from the contaminations of this polluted world. It requires that selfish thoughts and erroneous beliefs must be tucked in and tied down to the belt of truth. An eternal perspective must be maintained at all times. A Christian worldview must be the lens through which life is seen and lived. Sound doctrine must frame how you picture and pursue everything.
As any preacher sits down to prepare his sermon, he must gird up the loins of his mind. There can be no unbiblical thinking. Nor can there be loose thoughts. Neither can there be worldly beliefs. He must know the truth of Scripture and be sure there are no impure thoughts, worldly compromise, or lowered standards.
A Sober Spirit
Second, the pursuit of holiness requires a sober spirit. Peter continues, "keep sober in spirit" (13). The word sober (nēpho) literally means "to be free from the influence of wine, to not become intoxicated." Figuratively, the idea is not to come under the seductive sway of the world, the flesh, and the devil. In other words, believers are not to come under the heady wine of whatever would dull their senses. They must not allow anything to cause them to lose their spiritual balance as they walk in a manner worthy of their calling. They must never become mentally inebriated or emotionally unstable and lose control of their thinking. Those who follow Christ must remain calm and collected in spirit. They must remain temperate and discreet in their judgment.
Peter is saying, "Do not lose the sharp clarity of your thinking. Do not allow the seductions and allurements of the world to cause you to become inebriated, spiritually speaking, and lose your spiritual equilibrium. Do not let the allurement of this world cause you to lose your ability to distinguish between right and wrong." In other words, we must stay sober in mind and heart.
As expositors, it is important that we be sober in spirit in our personal lives. We must be serious-minded as we walk before the Lord. Our minds must be riveted upon the glory of God and the preeminence of the Lord Jesus Christ. We should feel the eternal weight of glory resting squarely upon us. This is a noble calling with which we have been called. Then, as we open the Scripture, the weightiness of the assignment should grip our souls. We should perceive that we are standing on holy ground and remove our sandals. The fear of God should reign supreme within us.
We can know that we are no longer sober in spirit if we find the allurements of this world more tantalizing than the treasures of heaven. Likewise, if we find friendship with the world more enjoyable than fellowship with Christ or if we find the lifestyle of the world more desirable than the prescribed lifestyle in Scripture, then we know we are no longer following Scripture's command.
A Steadfast Hope
In order to fulfill our duty, we must fix our hope upon the certainty of the return of Christ. Peter states, "fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (13). The verb fix (elpizō) means having a settled confidence about the future. The idea behind hope is not wishful thinking about the future, but a fixed certainty. Hope is looking to something that is sure to occur in the future. It is being future-focused in a positive way. This hope is to remain firm to the end (teleiōs). In other words, Peter is saying, "fix your hope," and keep it there.
The apostle states this with an imperative verb, indicating this is a command with binding authority. Like a military officer gives orders to a foot soldier, so the apostle addresses all believers in all places. This is an authoritative apostolic charge:we must fix our hope on the return of Christ. This hope is to be fixed "completely," meaning entirely or fully. There should be no half-hearted hope that is easily blown about in the wind.
This future hope, Peter writes, is to be "on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ." This future grace will be ushered in at the return of Christ. It involves all that is included in the final state of our salvation, namely, glorification. This will be the final realization and full consummation of saving grace in our lives. When Peter writes this transforming grace will "be brought to you," the idea is that it will come to each believer in an intensely personal manner. It is as though Christ will come directly to us. There is a face-to-face reality about this approaching grace that is individual and intimate.
The future grace of glorification involves many spiritual realities. Included in this grace is the fact that we will be made like Christ. This means there will be the complete removal of our sinful body of flesh with all its sensual lusts and illegitimate desires. There will be no more sinful thoughts or conflict with the flesh. It involves being given a glorified spirit and glorified body. It means seeing Jesus as He now is, not as He once was. It includes being confirmed in perfect holiness and entering into perfect joy. All this and more is included in this grace to be brought to us.
This occurs at the return of Christ, which is described here as "the revelation of Jesus Christ." The word revelation (apokalupsis) means a disclosure or manifestation. It can also mean a laying bare or making naked. It communicates the unveiling of what was previously hidden in order to be seen. At His return, Jesus Christ, who is presently invisible to us, will be made fully visible. With glorified eyes, we will see Him. We shall behold Him face to face.
As preachers, we must live with our hope riveted upon the return of Christ. Too often, we are preoccupied with a myriad of deflating concerns. It may be a conflict in the church. It may be a financial shortage in the ministry budget. It may be a family that has left the church or a faction that is threatening to follow them. It may be the pressing demands of mounting deadlines. These troubles can breed discouragement in our hearts. None of us is immune to becoming weighed down with the concerns of our pastoral charge. At such times, we live with a heavy burden upon our weak shoulders. It is in those moments that we must be reminded to fix our hope upon the return of Christ. No matter how bleak the outlook, the uplook has never been brighter.
This should be the fixed hope of every expositor. As we sit down to prepare our sermon, it should be with the anticipation that the Lord is coming and ready to burst onto the scene at any moment. The fact is, time is short. We do not know how many more sermons we have to prepare. Each time we sit down at our desk, we must capture the moment, because it may be our last. We must do today, not tomorrow, what must be done today. There is no time to waste. As our eyes are on the biblical text, we must be listening with our ears for the trumpet to sound.
A Submissive Will
The apostle Peter further stresses the necessity of a submissive, obedient will. He writes, "As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance" (14). Peter begins this verse by addressing his readers as "obedient children," or it could be rendered as "children of obedience." The assumption is, if you are a child of God, you are marked by obedience. The distinguishing feature is the obedient will of the believer. "Obedient" (hupakoē) means "to listen under." The idea to carefully listen as one who is under a higher authority. It means to give an attentive ear while in a humble posture of submission. Such ready compliance marks every true child of God. This verse presumes that what separates a genuine Christian from a non-Christian is obedience. It reminds us that obedience is not optional, but obligatory. God has given believers a new heart of flesh which is eager to obey God.
Peter adds that we must "not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance" (14). This points back to their pre-conversion state in sin. These "former lusts" are to their sinful desires, evil thoughts, and sensual appetites. At that time, they lived in "ignorance," a reference to being without the knowledge of God or of holiness. Now, they must not allow themselves to be squeezed back into the mold of their former lusts. Their new life of obedience has changed their desires and their actions.
Each step in the pursuit of holiness involves obedience to the Word of God. If there is no obedience, there is no growth in holiness. Disobedience causes a setback to any spiritual advancement, a stagnation in personal godliness. When there is disobedience, it necessitates our confession of sin and repentance. Obedience from the heart, motivated by grace, is the path that we travel in advancing in holiness. Every step on the narrow path of Christian living is a step of obedience.
In The Reformed Pastor, Richard Baxter addressed every preacher's need for godliness. The noted Puritan writes that no pastor should be content to simply be "in a state of grace." Rather, every preacher should be "careful that your graces are kept in vigorous and lively exercise, and that you preach to yourselves the sermons which you study, before you preach them to others." He then pleads:
O brethren, watch therefore over your own hearts: keep out lusts and passions, and worldly inclinations; keep up the life of faith, and love, and zeal: be much at home, and be much with God. If it be not your daily business to study your own hearts, and to subdue corruption, and to walk with God-if you make not this a work to which you constantly attend, all will go wrong, and you will starve your hearers.
As preachers, we must obey the very Scriptures we preach. If anyone in the church obeys the Word, it must begin with us. We must practice what we preach. Otherwise, we discredit our own ministry. The old adage is true: "The way you are living speaks so loudly, I cannot hear a word you are saying." Our congregations will live as we live before they do what we say. This necessitates a consistency between our preaching and our living. Would anyone go to a dentist who has rotting teeth? Would anyone eat at a restaurant where the cook is bulimic? Of course not. Would anyone listen to a preacher who fails to obey his message? The answer should be, no. Thus, it is critical that we keep the Word we preach.
All expositors are like the herald at the ancient athletic games, who announced the rules to the runners. Then, by this analogy, he himself enters the same race in order to run it. God forbid that after making known the rules to others, he would fail to compete by them. This is what Paul meant when he wrote, "Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim . . . . but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified" (1 Cor 9:26a, 27). Likewise, Paul writes, "But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry" (2 Tim 2:5). Keeping the rules-the Word of God-begins with the preacher who proclaims them.
A Separated Life
The summation of this opening section is found in verses 15-16, with the explicit call for personal holiness. He writes, "But like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior" (15). In this plea, the apostle appeals to the holiness of God, the primary attribute of His nature. Holiness is the only attribute repeated in heaven three times. The seraphim around the throne of God are crying out "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts" (Isa 6:3). The same is found in Revelation 4:8. This divine attribute is affirmed three consecutive times, meaning it is His holiness raised to the superlative level. In other words, the angels are declaring God is not merely holy, but "Holy, Holier, Holiest."
The primary meaning of holiness is "separate" or "set apart." The word conveys the idea that God is high and lifted up above His creation. He is exalted, lofty, transcendent, and majestic. The secondary meaning indicates that God is set apart from sin, that is, He is morally perfect, blameless, perfect in His character, and perfect in His ways. This Holy One of heaven and earth has called us to Himself. He has sovereignly "called you"-all believers-into a personal relationship with Him. This refers to the effectual summons of God issued to all His elect. It is, in reality, a divine subpoena that apprehends the one called and irresistibly brings that person to appear before Him. It is by this call that we enter into a saving relationship with God. This holy God now commands our holiness.
Peter issues this command, that all believers are to be holy "in all your behavior" (15). This high calling demands a lowly walk in holiness. This stresses that the entire life of the believer must be lived in separation from sin. Charles Spurgeon said, "There should be as much difference between the worldling and the Christian as between hell and heaven." Simply put, we are to be in the world, but not of the world. We are not to be isolated from the world but insulated from it.
Peter explains why the divine call to holiness is binding upon all believers. He writes, "because it is written, 'YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY'" (16). By quoting Leviticus 11:44, 19:2, and 20:7, the apostle shows that this call for holiness is not a new way to live. Rather, it is rooted and grounded in the Old Testament law, and its moral demand is still in effect today. Here is the timeless charge to live in the pursuit of progressive sanctification. As God remains the same today, unchanging in His holiness, so are His requirements for living the same. We must be holy because He is holy.
All who preach the Word must live a separated life. There are no exceptions to this. Tragically though, we live in a day in which many who preach are trying to be as much like the world as they can be. Their desire seems to be to court the world. Thus, many have adopted the edgy lifestyles of the pagan world in an attempt to build bridges to them. Some even mimic their salty language and offer crude jesting in the pulpit. They try to sound more like a "shock jock" than a holy man, despite the fact that God says there must be no "filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting" (Eph 5:4). Some ministers are involved in marital separation or inappropriate relationships, and others an unbiblical divorce, as though this has no effect upon their preaching. But nothing could be further from the truth. The Word of God remains clear. As preachers, we must pursue holiness in order to be qualified for spiritual leadership in the church.
Live Near to Christ
One of the godliest preachers who ever lived was the noted English evangelist George Whitefield. His piety was observed by all who knew him. Whitefield's desire to know Christ more closely was the driving force in his life. He stated, "We can preach the Gospel of Christ no further than we have experienced the power of it in our own hearts." This famed evangelist knew he must have a strong devotion to Christ in order to effectively proclaim Him.
Whitefield believed a preacher will proclaim Christ in direct proportion to the level with which he is personally acquainted with Him. Consequently, this Grand Itinerant wanted to "live near to Christ," and to experience "a felt Christ." This consuming passion for the knowledge of Christ produced in him about an abhorrence for whatever was not like Him and a love for whatever was like Him. Whitefield declared:
Abhor thy old sinful course of life, and serve God in holiness and righteousness all the remaining part of life. If you lament and bewail past sins, and do not forsake them, your repentance is in vain, you are mocking of God, and deceiving your own soul; you must put off the old man with his deeds, before you can put on the new man, Christ Jesus.
Whitefield's own repentance repeatedly transformed his heart from being lukewarm to being vibrant and fervent for God. If we are to preach with power, we, too, know such integrity and purity must be present within us. Let us remember the words of Robert Murray M'Cheyne: "There is no argument like a holy life." May this be the strongest argument for our life and ministry to a watching world.
This article originally appeared in Expositor Magazine, No. 7, Sep/Oct 2015.