From time to time, I receive the following positive feedback from one person or other in our church: ‘It helps me to hear you, the pastor, admit that you too sometimes struggle to apply the things you are preaching.’ Those words are meant as a compliment, and I gladly take them that way! I am a sinner just like every other Christian … desperately in need of the merciful Jesus that I preach every week. I am glad that people realize that. And, to whatever extent my own transparency and admission of gospel need helps others to make the same confessions, I rejoice! I hope that I will always preach this way, and never come to a place in which I feel I have arrived. I hope I will always say with Paul: “It is a trustworthy statement … that Christ came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all” (1 Timothy 1.15).
And yet the very same Paul – who calls himself the chief of sinners – also lays down very specific guidelines for what elders and ministers must be and do if they are to be qualified to serve in Christ’s church (see Titus 1). So, though it sometimes helps his people to hear it, the pastor cannot always default to saying: ‘Well, I’m a sinner just like everyone else.’ He is emphatically not to simply be like everyone else! Chief of sinners though he may be, he must also be a chief example of godliness!
Do you hear the paradox? On the one hand, the pastor is a man who, if he knows his own heart, is all too aware of how often he struggles with his own sinful nature … and who sometimes actually preaches more effectively because his own struggles make him more in love with God’s good news for sinners! But, on the other hand, the pastor must be more godly, more self-controlled, more loving, and more faithful than just any old Christian … or be ineffective in his ministry. To put it more simply: The pastor is a man who knows, better than anyone, how often he fails to practice what he preaches. And yet he is also a man who must practice what he preaches!
It’s a kind of paradox, I say … and a fine line that a minister must walk – being transparent about his own sin nature without being comfortable with it; being willing to admit his own struggles without shirking the elder requirements laid down in Scripture. And, O, how my sin makes it a painful paradox … especially in my poorer moments.
In some ways, we all face this same paradox as we seek to proclaim Christ to our children, in our work places, in the neighborhood, and with our friends. On the one hand, our witness will be a mere clanging cymbal if we are not holy and loving – demonstrating the difference that Jesus makes. But, on the other hand, our transparency about the fact that we have not yet spiritually arrived can go a long way in helping our friends and family understand that heaven is granted by virtue of good news, not a good life.
So we all wrestle with the pastor’s paradox. But the necessary and difficult balance is even more front-burner, perhaps, for those of us who stand up every week to proclaim God's truth … and who, thus, have the greatest responsibility for practicing what we preach. Please do pray that I (and your pastor) will get the balance right – always being a man who is “above reproach,” and therefore fit for ministry; but never forgetting that I am, like Paul, the chief of sinners.