Ray Ortlund

The Awakening We Need: Why the Reformed Pray for Revival

The word revival speaks of life renewed. It’s about depletion lifted to restoration, refreshing reinvigoration. It’s about weary you and me reenergized with new sparkle in our eyes, new spring in our steps, new steel in our spines. And isn’t that very renewal our constant need?

God did not create us as perpetual motion machines, grinding life out by our own energies. He created us to need him, and to have him, in his fullness of “grace upon grace” (John 1:16). His endless grace meeting our endless need is why the gospel speaks of “newness of life” (Romans 6:4) as normative Christianity — not only at conversion, but constantly thereafter, even moment by moment.

How could it be otherwise? The Bible summarizes our earthly journey like this: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Romans 8:26). It doesn’t speak of our “weaknesses” (plural) but of our “weakness” (singular). Why? Because it’s not as though we have a weakness in this area of life over here and another weakness in that area of life over there. The truth is, weakness pervades the whole of our existence. Weakness is not one more experience we have alongside other experiences. Rather, weakness is the platform on which we have all our experiences. We have never yet known a single moment of non-weakness. But the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. And revival is a mighty surge of Spirit-given help for weak Christians like all of us.

What Is Revival?

What then is revival? Revival is ordinary Christians experiencing extraordinary power from on high, so that the gospel gets traction in us and through us with astonishing impact. It cannot be scheduled — not by us, anyway. It is of God.

My dad and mom were speaking at a Christian college in the early 1970s. The Holy Spirit was moving with reviving power. With happy wonder, the students kept saying, “Can you believe this is happening to us?” That is not the kind of comment we tend to make when we execute our own ministry plan really well. The divine and miraculous nature of authentic revival is why we make no allowance here for false, worked-up “revivals” of our own making.

We disagree with Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875), who famously said, “A revival of religion is not a miracle” (Lectures on Revivals of Religion, 10). Finney influenced later generations to believe that a revival is the result of “the right use of the constituted means.” I disagree. I see revival as a glorious mega-miracle.

The Bible encourages us to pursue this kind of revival with this wonderful prayer: “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” (Psalm 85:6). Let’s think that simple prayer through, asking three questions.

1. Who Does the Reviving?

God does: “Will you not revive us again?” In fact, the word you is emphatic in the Hebrew text. Revival is a work of God. That’s why we pray for revival.

Do we also labor toward revival? Yes. We always want to serve in such a way as to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3–5). Like Elijah, we build the altar. But it is God, and God alone, who sends down the sacred fire (1 Kings 18:30–39).

If our churches become swept up into any movement, any dynamic, generated by our own brilliance or cool, why should anyone even care? Why should we care? If our churches grow by socially acceptable forms of shrewd marketing and trendy programs, then we’re left with a tragedy: churches that are total failures brilliantly disguised as massive successes. We are to be living proof that the risen Jesus is actually moving in this world — and nothing less. That is success (if such a word even applies).

When our Lord above pours out his Spirit upon us (Acts 2:33), he lifts us into new experiences of his wonder-working grace, with surprising conversions, hidden sins openly confessed, broken relationships tenderly restored, timid Christians publicly emboldened, and so forth. That miracle is revival. To quote the title of a J.I. Packer book, it is “God in our midst.” When this happens, a merely routinized Christianity crumbles, yielding to the powers of revived Christianity.

Jonathan Edwards certainly understood revival this way — as an intervention by God. It’s why, in his writings about the First Great Awakening, he had to use words like surprising, remarkable, extraordinary, and wonderful to describe what he saw happening. Far from threatening Reformed theology, the God-centeredness of revival validates Reformed theology.

And the great thing about the miracle of revival is that we, even we, can receive it. We can be as unimpressive as we truly are, but with the gospel and the Holy Spirit, we simple, plodding, and sometimes exhausted Christians are equipped in every essential to receive afresh the felt presence of the risen Christ with powerful effect.

2. Who Needs Revival?

We do. The people of God need revival: “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” Does the world need revival too? Of course. In fact, the old prophecy declares that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). And our Lord won’t stop until the very “trees of the forest sing for joy” (Psalm 96:12)! But revival starts among us, his own people.

“Revival is a work of God. That’s why we pray for revival.”

Can we deny that we need revival? Over the last decade or so, we Bible-believing Christians in America have suffered significant losses. We were surging forward. Personally, looking around at the gospel-driven movements among us, I was thinking, “If we stay low before the Lord and steward this blessing wisely, this could accelerate into historic awakening over the next ten or twenty years.”

But we’ve faltered. Our moral failures, our doctrinal betrayals, our relational fractures — we have taken many hits. From my vantage point, we are not in the position of strength we were just a few years ago.

If we think we don’t need revival, how much further must we fall before our hearts break and we humble ourselves? I believe that we orthodox, serious-minded, gospel-loving Christians need revival — now. Let’s seek the Lord for it.

3. What Difference Does Revival Make?

A wonderful difference! “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” Revival gushes with overflowing joy in Christ. It is so cheering to get right with God and with one another, to get free from past regrets, to stop hanging back in timidity and face the future with new confidence in the One who holds “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18).

I remember a turning point in my own life during the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s. It was my junior year in college. I was tied up in knots with doubts about Christ. My deepest foundations were being shaken by some bad teaching. Then God mercifully moved in on me, when some friends invited me to a Christian rock concert on New Year’s Eve 1969.

When I walked in that evening, my heart was heavy with doubt. Three hours later, I floated out with a joy I had never known before. What made the difference? Not a brilliant argument (though I certainly respect brilliant arguments). No, God gave me something deeper, and even primal. He gave me happy certainty. He gave me joy from above, as a first-order, self-authenticating, direct and immediate experience of Reality — his very presence.

That night, I was sitting in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium with my friends, minding my own business. The curtains parted. There stood a rock band of “Jesus freaks” with their long hair and electric guitars. They began to play. Imagine a mash-up of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. I loved it.

But what got me was their simple message. The song that absolutely wrecked me riffed on this call-and-response lyric: “Jesus loves me; I love Jesus.” (Needless to say, this was not the traditional children’s song “Jesus Loves Me”!) These direct, honest, uncomplicated gospel words landed on me as an astonishingly bright and luminous new thought.

Prayers We Won’t Regret

By God’s reviving power, on that night in Pasadena, his message was experientialized to my heart as real — more real than anything else in all this world. It entered my being at a level down beneath my doubts. Those words exploded in my experience with a joy I could not deny — and I didn’t want to. Naturally, I still had many questions, and even more questions. But now I was free to think it all through with a joyous confidence that Jesus offered everything I was seeking. And I’ve never been the same since.

What if we examine ourselves for every trace of improperly limited Christian experience? What if we dare to ask the Lord to lead us into fresh green pastures and beside new still waters, so that we rejoice in him as never before? What if we let him decide whether our Christianity today is all that he can give us? What if all we offer him is our humble openness — our open Bibles with our open hearts? Do we really fear that we would ultimately regret going that low before our gracious Lord and Savior?

“Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” May Psalm 85:6 grab our hearts and never let us go!

The Wholehearted Pastor: Why Men of God Pursue Purity

Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in . . . purity. (1 Timothy 4:12)

Pastoral ministry is not something low we pastors settle for. It’s something lofty we keep reaching for — by faith in God’s grace, in repentance for our sins, and with courage always to believe God for his reviving power.

The high calling God has given us as pastors is obvious in the final word of our agenda-setting verse, 1 Timothy 4:12. That word is purity. It’s a sure way any young pastor can gain the respect of people of all ages in his congregation.

Purity Demanded and Created

Purity is a bold word, isn’t it? It’s blunt and strong, leaving no room for compromise. That’s why the word is in this verse for us pastors. We need this splash of cold water in our faces. The morally corrosive ethos of our times (so contrary to purity) is well stated by Marilynne Robinson in her insightful book The Death of Adam:

When a good man or woman stumbles, we say, “I knew it all along,” and when a bad one has a gracious moment, we sneer at the hypocrisy. It is as if there is nothing to mourn or admire, only a hidden narrative now and then apparent through the false, surface narrative. And the hidden narrative, because it is ugly and sinister, is therefore true. (The Death of Adam, 78)

That fashionable outlook is deeply corrupt. There is a difference between sin and corruption. For all his serious errors, Pope Francis helped me articulate the critical difference between the two. He argued that corruption is sin repeated and repeated until it deepens to such a point that sin doesn’t feel sinful anymore (“The Limits of Dialogue”). Corruption makes sin feel normal. As a result, the corrupted sinner is no longer open to grace. And how can that end well? Whole denominations can be thrust into anguish over corruption in their midst.

Brothers, we must never allow the darkness of our times to start feeling normal. Men of God know that purity is not a throwback to a bygone era. It is not an embarrassment. It is the beautiful image of Christ himself marking us and honoring us, so that every one of us can be “a vessel for honorable use” in the hands of the Lord (2 Timothy 2:20–21). Is that not what you and I earnestly desire — purity within us and among us?

So, let’s be decisive. Let’s emphatically reject all cynicism that scoffs at purity as if it were somehow posing. Let’s humble ourselves, swallow God’s word whole, and by God’s grace keep walking the path of authentic Christianity that all generations of faithful pastors before us have walked. That path includes purity. It demands purity. It creates purity.

The Many Facets of Purity

What then is pastoral purity? Obviously, it cannot be sinless perfection. The man who wrote this called himself, earlier in this same letter, “the foremost” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). There is, however, a real purity that everyone in our churches can rightly expect from us flawed but faithful pastors. The apostle considered purity essential to gospel ministry (2 Corinthians 6:6). Jesus considered purity of heart essential to kingdom identity (Matthew 5:8). Whatever purity is — it includes sexual integrity, but it is far more — we must deeply accept its all-encompassing authority over us.

Imagine with me that we could pick up this word translated purity like a beautiful gem, hold it up in the sunlight, and turn it over and over in our hands, looking at it from different angles, being dazzled by the splendors on its various facets. What would we see there? We would see the gem of purity sparkling with holiness, reverence, integrity, innocence, honesty, and sincerity — for starters.

Purity is wholeheartedness, dignifying every area of a pastor’s life. The Bible says, “Purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8). It’s why Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” It is possible to minister the gospel with a divided heart (Philippians 1:17). It is possible to preach the truth, but not “in truth” (Philippians 1:18). You and I turn away from such a sight with grief and abhorrence. We turn back to Christ himself both as our message and as our motive.

Purity in the Wild

Sadly, our world today is no friend of a pastor’s purity. Anything like purity just isn’t cool. To this tragic world, the very word purity can sound quaint, phony, even offensive. But God delights in our purity. To him, all aspects of the purity he sees in us are beautiful, and beautiful with something of his own beauty.

What does a pastor of exemplary purity look like? He has no hidden agendas. He can be taken at face value. He proves true time after time. He can be safely trusted. He follows through and keeps his promises. He doesn’t use people, but actually loves people. He doesn’t assess others with a selfish cost-benefit analysis but gives his heart away and remains a steadfast friend over the long haul.

When he accepted the call from his church to minister the gospel there, he meant it, and he means it — even when he is tested by hardship. His congregation never has to wonder what he really wants or what he really cares about. They know that their pastor is “the real deal.” That’s what a man set apart by exemplary purity looks like. What a glorious privilege for every pastor!

Men Who Stand Out

So then, my brother pastor, here is what you must accept. In some circles, if you commit to purity, you won’t fit in. The Septuagint uses this word translated purity in Numbers 6:2–3. It says there, of the person who takes a Nazarite vow, “When either a man or a woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself to the Lord, he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink . . .” And your purity will set you apart in our day.

I don’t mean you will stand aloof from people. I hope you won’t! But if you devote yourself to purity before the Lord and your church, you might not be perceived as “just one of the guys.” Instead of fitting in, you will stand out. And some people might not know how to respond. A few might even despise you. But more and more, over time, fair-minded people will see you as you truly are: a remarkable example of Christian authenticity.

By God’s grace alone, for his glory alone, you can fulfill the exemplary calling of 1 Timothy 4:12. You will be respected. Your people will be blessed. And the watching world will know that a man of God has walked among them.

Men of Exemplary Faith: How Pastors Lead a Church Well

Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in . . . faith. (1 Timothy 4:12)

The great thing about setting an example is that you don’t need anyone’s permission. You have God’s command. You don’t have to budget for this. Money has nothing to do with it. And you don’t have to wait. You can start right now, while you’re still young in ministry, before you feel seasoned and venerable and worthy.

Pastor, here is a powerfully inspiring gift you can give to your church: set an example in your faith. And that faith includes both your doctrinal orthodoxy and your personal reality.

Orthodoxy Soaked in Vitality

It is downright exciting to attend a church where the pastor reveres the age-old truths of the gospel. All week long, this world belittles us with its demoralizing insinuations that we never measure up and we never fully belong and we’re always second-rate, because we don’t wear the latest fashions or have beautiful bodies or whatever. But then we stumble into church on Sunday morning, feeling low, and the songs and the Scripture and the sermon and the sacraments breathe fresh life into us. We float out of church, feeling alive again, confident again. We want to go live for Christ that week!

This renewal flows into us not because the pastor has followed faddishly popular ideas but because his preparation dug deep into the Bible, and he found there, once again, the grace and glory of Jesus for the undeserving. A pastor’s orthodox faith sets an example for how all of us can be refreshed in Christ again and again — with our Bibles, and our hearts, wide open.

It gets even better. In addition to his theological faith, a pastor’s personal felt reality with the living God — his inner awareness that God is very present, very involved — that visceral faith is a life-giving example to a whole church, setting a tone of eager anticipation Sunday after Sunday. Pastor, if your faith is orthodox but hypothetical, your church will spiral down into either tragic lethargy or rigid pride. And it will be your fault, on your watch.

But if your faith is both orthodox and vital, if the biblical Christ of our historic creeds is also an existential reality to you, your church will awaken. Your congregation will grow in sensitivity and alertness and sitting-on-the-edge-of-their-seats expectancy. What greater gift could you give them?

Leading in Vulnerability

But it’s a costly gift. A pastor’s personal faith is honest — to the point of vulnerability. Any pastor with a devoutly felt faith will find himself free to admit shortcomings and weaknesses, because he knows and feels the all-sufficiency of Jesus. And his transparency will send a signal to everyone in the church, “We can get real here. We can put our problems out on the table here. This is a safe place for people with failures and fears. The Lord is here, and he is enough for every one of us.”

Some people might feel threatened by such unusual openness. But most people will feel relieved, and they will happily jump in. The pastor’s personal faith sets an example that frees sinners to come out of hiding and find healing in Jesus, through and according to the gospel. They even experience this renewal together, as friends, which is the best way. It’s how church services stop feeling routinized, and they start feeling revived.

Theological orthodoxy soaked in personal vitality — this is the faith with which a young pastor can set an inspiring example for his congregation.

Three Qualities of Exemplary Faith

Now let’s take another step and run this exemplary faith through Titus 2:2, which describes a mature saint as “sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled.” Those words describe what every young pastor aspires to become — especially in his faith.


A young pastor’s sober-minded faith puts first things first, is allergic to faddish crazes, and abhors fanaticism. Sadly, we live in an age of extremism, even among Christians. But the Bible calls us in the opposite direction: “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone” (Philippians 4:5).

Some people need crazy extremism. They sense that their pet doctrine lacks solid biblical evidence. So they get pushy and political to offset their weak arguments. And by its nature, fanaticism is never satisfied; it never quits. It is too self-righteous, and too insecure, to moderate its claims. But sober-minded faith has the maturity to know where each doctrine fits within the total structure of orthodox belief. Exemplary faith cultivates a sense of theological proportion. And a young pastor can excel in this very way. (My son Gavin explains this wisdom in his excellent book Finding the Right Hills to Die On.)


Pastoral ministry is reserved for grown-ups. It is for father figures who can lead the church family well. And a young pastor can shine with the exemplary dignity of his faith. This word dignified in Titus 2:2 refers to the gravitas of a serious adult, one who truly deserves to be listened to. As the apostle wrote, “When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11). He embraced dignity.

Pastor, you are not in the entertainment business. You’re called to be a serious man of God. Not pompous and stiff, of course! As Spurgeon wisely pointed out,

A man who is to do much with men must love them and feel at home with them. An individual who has no geniality about him had better be an undertaker and bury the dead, for he will never succeed in influencing the living. (Lectures to My Students, “The Minister’s Ordinary Conversation,” 169)

Should you exude gentle warmth toward your people? Yes! But all behavior that is nonsensical, vulgar, or simply “cute” is immature, self-indulgent, unworthy of a pastor. You are there among the people not ultimately as their servant but ultimately as the Lord’s servant in their midst. Your theological faith and the glory of the gospel, along with your personal faith and sense of God’s presence, will grace you with the dignity of the Lord’s mature servant.


This word in the original text is hard to pin down. The great thinkers of ancient Greece located it around the ideas of moderation, balance, good judgment (F.E. Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms, 179–80). The New Testament narrows the sense to personal modesty, careful behavior (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8; 2:5).

What a fascinating lens, then, to put on a pastor’s faith. What insight do we gain here? This kind of faith, both theological and personal, is not impulsive or reckless. It doesn’t leap to conclusions or strain the evidence or jump on bandwagons. This kind of faith weighs the alternatives thoroughly, shows good judgment, and discerns the best path forward. It satisfies the congregation’s questions and concerns. Its maturity is obviously credible.

A young pastor who thinks well stands a good chance of leading his congregation well, because he has already led himself along the path of strict discipline and careful consideration. He doesn’t have to stoop to arm-twisting. His exemplary faith is persuasive.

Need for Inspiring Faith

Pastor, this world of tragic unbelief needs your exemplary faith. And we disheartened Christians need your exemplary faith. Please, please startle us awake with your theologically robust and personally captivating faith in the Lord Jesus Christ!

Let me conclude by stating it as bluntly as I can. We need you, because we need him. Thank you for leading us by inspiring us.

Preach Christ, Embody Christ: How to Set an Example in Love

Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in . . . love. (1 Timothy 4:12)

Setting an example is a powerful and essential part of pastoral leadership. A strong line of reasoning in preaching, even a soundly biblical argument, might fail to persuade. But a personal example of Christlikeness, especially what Francis Schaeffer called “the beauty of human relationships,” is unanswerable (Two Contents, Two Realities, 141). Beauty can be martyred, but it cannot be denied, and it will rise again.

A young pastor can and must deeply resolve to love everyone in his church and outside his church with Christlike love. He can and must set the believers an example by his gracious, patient, gentle, forgiving, pain-tolerant love. But without the beauty of love, any pastor, however orthodox, becomes a living denial of Christ. To quote Schaeffer again, “There is nothing more ugly than an orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion” (The God Who Is There, 34). Schaeffer was even more blunt: “I’ll tell you something else, orthodoxy without compassion stinks to God” (Death in the City, 1968, 123).

Pastoral ministry is not a career track, not a job, not a gig. It is a sacred calling from above. And the pastoral calling is basically twofold: to preach Christ and to embody Christ. The former is a matter of declaring the truth, the latter of demonstrating the truth. And how can we truly declare the truth without also demonstrating it? If we pastors do not set an example in love, we unsay by our lives what we say by our doctrine. Such an anti-example betrays the gospel. And that horrible betrayal is not a remotely hypothetical possibility. That betrayal of the gospel is common.

We pastors need not be perfect. All of us have many shortcomings. But still, following God’s call, we pastors must accept, deeply accept, that we have signed up for sacrifice. It’s how we set an example of love.

Our Sacred Calling

The apostle John says, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9). Jesus died that we would live. That is how love thinks, how love behaves — paying a price, that others might enter into the life that is truly life. So, Bonhoeffer was right: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship, 89).

Recently I was in conversation with a friend who serves in a church-planting network. He told me that one of the questions he hears, as men consider that call, is whether they might have to exceed a forty-hour workweek. I was astounded, as was my friend. Limit ourselves to a forty-hour week? Love doesn’t think that way. Love does whatever it takes for others to live. Should a pastor attend to his family at home too? Of course. But a self-protective minimalism is not love.

“Pastoral ministry is not a career track, not a job, not a gig. It is a sacred calling from above.”

When the apostle Paul was describing the great heart of God for us, he had to strain at the leash of language to say it. He speaks, for example, of “the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us” (Ephesians 1:7–8). If God loves us richly and lavishly, then his pastors cannot love with a guarded heart that holds back. We pastors have the privilege of hurling ourselves, by faith in God, into the depths of his love for people. Then we find out along the way what it will cost us. And we’re fine with that, because we will also see how wonderfully people will come alive — even through us, flawed as we are.

Beauty Through Sacrifice

I remember my final Sunday as pastor at Immanuel Church Nashville in 2019. Jani and I were sitting in the front row, waiting for the service to begin. The band was playing a pre-service number. I forget what it was, but it was a bluesy, rocky something, to the glory of Christ, and utterly delightful. Then my peripheral vision noticed movement off to my left. I looked. And there, about fifty feet away, was a young mom in the church, no longer sitting but standing and moving and even dancing. She wasn’t making a spectacle of herself. There was no hint of self-display. She was just too happy to sit still. And Jani and I knew that dear lady. We knew she didn’t live a charmed life. But there she was, her heart moved by the music and lifted up to the Lord, dancing.

The sight of her joy was so beautiful, I choked up. And in that moment, I knew and felt that all the pain and heartache and sheer hard work we went through to establish Immanuel Church as a gift to our city — it was all worth it. Why? Because it funneled down to one final moment in 2019 when a young mom was enjoying the felt presence of the living Christ so wonderfully she had to get up and dance. In that sacred moment, our sacrifices no longer felt sacrificial. We were too happy to care about all that.

Love and Its Opposite

I wish I could say I always feel that way. But I don’t. Many times, I have to grab myself by the scruff of the neck and say, “Ray Ortlund, you’re going to go do the right thing, and you’re going to like it!” I expect you understand. And here is a line of thought I use as a diagnostic, a way of helping myself realign with Jesus, even in the moment. It’s these two opposites: what a loving pastor is not, and what a loving pastor is.

What a loving pastor is not: He is not out for himself. He does not perceive other people through a lens of cost-benefit calculation. He does not treat others as props on the stage of his grandiose drama. He does not make people into stepping stones on his upward path to ministerial stardom, a big platform, epic book sales, and invitations to speak at big-deal events. He does not curve reality back in on himself, his own advantage, his own importance. He is not self-referential in how he navigates reality. In fact, a selfish mentality is repugnant to a loving pastor.

“If we pastors do not set an example in love, we unsay by our lives what we say by our doctrine.”

What a loving pastor is: He is a man for others. He sets a cheerful “for you” tone as the culture of his church. He feels a gentle fierceness that people will not walk out of church on a Sunday without feeling seen, understood, valued. He is willing to lose, but he is determined to protect others. He will explain himself, but he will not fight for himself. He gives his all, and he enjoys doing so, because the people he serves matter that much to him. If he feels successful, it’s because more and more people are coming alive to Jesus. And he marvels that the Lord has given him such a glorious privilege.

Love Has a Future

As you set the believers an example in love, sadly, some might not see the beauty of it. They might even dislike you for it. Your selfless love might stand as a living reproach to their own selfishness and worldliness. In their eyes, your love might be made into your crime. They might even throw you out. But it is better to fail by doing what is right than to succeed by doing what is wrong, better to fail in the Spirit than to succeed in the flesh. Such a failure still contributes to the great battle being fought in the heavenlies in your generation.

But most people who claim Christ are reasonable. They will rejoice to receive your ministry, and they will join you in your spirit of Christlike love. Even if it does end badly, “they will know that a prophet has been among them” (Ezekiel 33:33). And the resurrection of Jesus proves this promise: “There is a future for the man of peace” (Psalm 37:37).

Pastoring with Your Life: Exemplary Conduct in Little Moments

Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in . . . conduct. (1 Timothy 4:12)

My brother pastor, this tragic world has no idea how much you’re worth. But in the eyes of the risen Christ, you so matter. You carry weight with him, and you can carry weight with the people in your church. And this gravitas has nothing to do with your age.

If the ministry makes you feel inadequate, welcome to the ministry! Even the prophet Jeremiah felt that way. But the Lord told Jeremiah to stop his defeatist thoughts: “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak” (Jeremiah 1:7). And then God reached out and put his own words in Jeremiah’s mouth (Jeremiah 1:9). Why? Because what matters more than your mouth is whose words are in your mouth.

And, remember, your calling is to pastor, not only to preach. These two primary tasks are inseparable but distinguishable. Preaching declares gospel doctrine, and pastoring nurtures gospel culture. When the pastor’s message is good news, and his manner is gentle warmth, “church” can start feeling like an experience of Jesus himself. And it’s exemplary pastoral conduct, surrounding both preaching and pastoring, that leads people into those green pastures and beside those still waters.

You don’t have to be brilliant, but you must be exemplary. First Timothy 4:12 says so. And how could it be otherwise? We can think of gifted ministers whose shameful conduct has discredited them and grieved us all. The whole world, along with the entire Christian church, has every right to expect us to be surprisingly exemplary in this age of corruption. Brother, let’s stand tall with Christlike integrity, as true-hearted men of God. If we corrupt ourselves, we, like King David, will give “great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme” (2 Samuel 12:14 NKJV). So much is at stake right here: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in . . . conduct.”

Pastoring in ‘Little’ Moments

Conduct, in the original text, suggests your multifaceted lifestyle, your many moments on many fronts, your total way of life in all its variety. This word covers all your interactions with people, all aspects of your job performance, all occasions of family life and leisure. George Abbot-Smith’s Manual Greek Lexicon catches the sense with “a wheeling about” — that is, a turning from one moment to the next as each day unfolds.

The whole-life-ness of conduct reminds me of one way I’ve changed over the years. Back in college, all my friends were reading The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. So I took it up too. But I couldn’t stick with it. The story unfolded so slowly, with one subplot after another slowing the onward movement of the drama. I started thinking, “Get to the point!” In my impatience, I gave up. That was in the 1970s.

Then the summer before the first LOTR movie came out in 2001, I tried again. I wanted my own imagination to paint the pictures. And this time, I couldn’t put the books down. Why? Tolkien hadn’t changed. I had changed. I had come to realize, by my fifties, that my real life is just like Tolkien’s portrayal — one tiny subplot after another, but each one meaningful within the larger story. I now understand that all my tiny moments are building toward the final denouement promised by God. So, I get it. Many small moments are how our lives actually work. They are where our conduct is formed and displayed. They matter.

The Book of Common Prayer gets us praying that “among the swift and varied changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found.” Exactly. That’s the realism, and the hope, empowering exemplary pastoral conduct.

Your Life Can Persuade

Let’s admit it. In lots of moments, ministry can feel insignificant. But your little moments are not little. Each one fits meaningfully into your story, as told by the Lord Jesus. Every meeting, every conversation, every quiet minute of study — all of it constitutes your conduct, declares your character, and can inspire your congregation. So, think long-term, and be patient. If God isn’t rushing around in a hurry, why should you? Over time, your exemplary conduct, growing into a magnificent totality, is convincing. You will win the respect of good people.

“Over time, your exemplary conduct, growing into a magnificent totality, is convincing.”

Yes, sadly, some church people will never respect you. But most others will be reasonable and will admire your example. They will feel proud that you are their pastor. You will prove the wisdom of saintly old J.C. Ryle: “Your life is an argument that none can escape.”

Now let’s get practical. As in my last article on exemplary speech, let’s see how Titus 2:2 can help us: “Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled.” The “older men” are the grown-ups in the room. Your conduct can make you one of those heroes right now. Whatever your age, you can help set the tone for everyone else.


The exemplary pastor’s conduct is calm. He strides forward with gentle confidence. It isn’t bravado. It is sober realism. You are, in fact, serving the One who has all authority in heaven and on earth. You have no right to be inflated with pride or crippled with fear. The Lord of the universe called you into the ministry. He has been preparing you all your life for the duties and challenges of this very day. You’re more ready than you feel. Dare to believe it. And go do the next right thing.

“The exemplary pastor’s conduct is calm. He strides forward with gentle confidence.”

You can be a mature father-figure in your church. And good fathers know what to do, what to say, as the occasion requires. Then the other family members feel reassured, safe, grateful. What a wonderful calling your Lord has given you! You don’t have to deserve it, but you do have to receive it. Your exemplary conduct proves to your people that “Papa’s home.”


The exemplary pastor’s conduct is noble. The longer I live, the more I desire this in my own life. That title “Reverend” before your name calls for this very quality of dignity, nobility, honor. I have no respect for pompous grandiosity in a minister. But gravitas — I revere it, and I expect it.

Is there laughter in the ministry? Oh, yes! How lovely a sound is the hearty laughter of the saints! But infantile silliness, common in our declining culture, deserves no place among the blood-bought people of God. We worship here below in harmony with “angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven,” as the Book of Common Prayer reminds us. Please, brother, show your church, by your exemplary conduct, what that dignity can look like — even this Sunday.


The exemplary pastor’s conduct is steady. Maybe at times you notice some unruly emotions inside you, as I do inside me. That bad neighborhood between our two ears can be a crazy place to dwell in. Our dark thoughts and feelings can dominate us, even defeat us. But godly men fight back. They dare to live in Spirit-given self-control.

Why not go to a trusted friend at church to talk and pray through together what most unsettles you? No one grows in isolation, not even pastors. But all of us can walk in newness of life by going to a wise friend with this humble request: “Help me see myself.” Who wouldn’t benefit from that? Your vulnerability itself will be exemplary conduct. And you will grow in the steady self-mastery that adorns the gospel you preach.

Exemplary or Cool?

The great thing about being 73 and half-dead is that I’m not cool anymore. It’s freeing. I don’t have to project an idealized false Ray. I can get over myself and love others. And here is my plea to you, my brother pastor: Why not enter that freedom right now, at your younger age? You can be exemplary in your conduct, by God’s grace, at a level that surprises even you.

Rolling Stone magazine interviewed Billy Joel back in 1990. Here’s a snippet of what he said:

I need substance in my life. And the world needs substance. The world doesn’t need any more hip. Hip is dead. The world doesn’t need more cool, more clever. The world needs substantial things.

The world needs substantial pastors too. That’s what I believe. It’s what you believe. Okay then: set the believers an example in your conduct.

Exemplary Speech: How Good Pastors Wield Words

Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech. (1 Timothy 4:12)

My brother pastor, you don’t have to wait until your latter years to have the gravitas of a saint. Your personal moral authority can exceed your years. Right now, in the church where you are serving, you can cut a wide swathe of deserved, unforced influence — not by your position, or your charisma, or your cool, but by your exemplary conduct.

The power of personal example is what gives any pastor true stature in the people’s eyes. And you can be that inspiration even at your present age. No one can keep you from it. Indeed, the more some people might disparage you, the greater your opportunity for Christlike magnificence. Paul’s charge in 1 Timothy 4:12 opens that door to every young pastor.

The power of setting a mature example in your church has long-term inevitability built into it. People who ignore what you say might well be won by who you are. Your calm courage, your gentle restraint, your steady faithfulness, your cheerful resilience, your selfless love, and so forth — it becomes harder and harder to resist pastoral beauty, especially over time. In the movie The Intern, Jules, the boss, says to Ben, the intern, “How is it you always manage to say the right thing, do the right thing, be the right thing? It’s uncanny.” And when the younger man is that grownup in the room, it’s especially uncanny — and convincing. Yes, your preaching matters. And when the people listening to your sermon admire your life beyond the pulpit, your preaching will matter even more. Far more.

Set an Example in Speech

Let’s think through together the first mark of exemplary pastoral conduct in 1 Timothy 4:12. What does it look like to “set the believers an example in speech”?

For that matter, what does any seasoned, profound Christian man look and sound like? The Bible paints the picture: “Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled” (Titus 2:2). So let’s connect Titus 2:2 with 1 Timothy 4:12 and see what happens. An exemplary pastor’s speech will sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled.

Sober-Minded Speech

Sober-minded describes a mentality, a mindset — literally, sober as opposed to drunk. There is a real difference. In our times of crazy extremism, with even pastors building their “platforms” by making outlandish claims or enlarging their following through grandiose denunciations, the exemplary pastor soberly refuses. He has no stomach for the intoxicating euphoria of being oh-so-right on all the issues.

“When this pastor speaks, it can feel like Jesus is in the room.”

The mature pastor, however young, is distinguished by moderation. He is calmly restrained in his speech. He builds unity because he isn’t drawing people’s attention to his “brand”; he is honestly serving the Lord, gathering people to the only Savior (Luke 11:23). He is not self-referential. He does not vent. He avoids words with sharp edges, words that cut and injure. He has the self-awareness to pray before he opens his mouth, “Lord, may my every word, without a single exception, be of you.” And it shows. When this pastor speaks, it can feel like Jesus is in the room.

The mature pastor’s sober-minded speech isn’t about this or that particular issue. His whole mentality sets him apart as Christlike. Sadly, in some churches, that will be the pastor’s crime. Some churches do not want Jesus, his ways, his humility. Until our Lord returns, there will be church people who dig in against the presence of Christlikeness. Despite, or even because of, the exemplary conduct of the pastor, a church might reject him, casting him out. But they will know — eventually, they will surely know — that a man of God was in their midst.

God will vindicate his true-hearted servant, who speaks with the mind of Christ. And the younger that pastor is, the more years he will have to enjoy the smile of God upon his ministry. Our Lord is faithful to his pastors who, setting their whole souls on following him, keep their speech exemplary.

Dignified Speech

I love this word dignified. It describes the kind of man I want to be. The word is talking about gravitas. It suggests nobility and honor, like a chivalrous knight of old.

Dignified speech is the opposite of glib, shallow, and silly. Are there humorous moments in a healthy church? Yes. The Lord himself makes sure that our ridiculousness shows through now and then. Truly hilarious things can happen, and the saints throw their heads back and roar with the most wonderful laughter. Such grace!

“Dignified speech is the opposite of glib, shallow, and silly.”

And of course, an exemplary pastor will never be pompous or tedious, dragging people down with fakey seriousness. He is too human and too real for that. But he understands what Neil Postman explained in Amusing Ourselves to Death: “Americans no longer talk to each other; they entertain each other” (92). And a pastor truly called by God knows he is not in the entertainment business. So his words carry weight. His dignified words stand out with especially sacred gravitas at Holy Communion, at weddings and funerals, at prayer meetings, and when he counsels brokenhearted people.

How precious, in this world of giggly cuteness saturating the media 24/7, are profound pastoral words gently offered to sinners and sufferers! When a young man shows that he is sensitive to the dignity the moment calls for, his people will revere him as exemplary.

Self-Controlled Speech

With the word self-control, we’re thinking of the qualities of reason, judgment, taste — just plain old solid thinking and good sense. Not impulsive or erratic, but careful and judicious. Not barfing out whatever comes to mind at the moment, but pausing and thinking and showing discernment.

For example, in a difficult congregational meeting, an exemplary pastor guards himself from speaking out of his own frustration and calls silently upon the Lord for the grace to speak out of the fullness of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit of God is not raw energy. He is “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel . . . the Spirit of knowledge” (Isaiah 11:2). An inspiring pastor knows to slow down, inhale, and think — until he has something to say that can make the moment better for everyone. That pastor, even if young, will be taken seriously by church members of all ages.

God-Given Words

Here is a wonderful promise from God for every pastor who longs to grow as an example to his people of speech that is sober-minded, dignified, and self-controlled:

If you call out for insight,     and raise your voice for understanding,if you seek for it like silver     and search for it as for hidden treasures . . .wisdom will come into your heart,     and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul. (Proverbs 2:3–4, 10)

The wisdom all of us pastors need is not a script we can follow. It is deeper. It is a God-given intuition, a new instinct that comes into our hearts by his grace. And it sure comes in handy when we’re deciding on the fly what to say and how to say it. Why not ask God for it? He loves to give us his best.

Finally, if you want to follow up with a next step, here are two resources of rich historical depth. One is The Westminster Larger Catechism on the ninth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). Questions 143–145 of the Catechism explain that commandment with amazing insight, helping us use our words not to injure but to bless one another. The other resource is “A Sermon against Contention and Brawling” in The First Book of Homilies, the old treasure chest of sermons from Reformation England.

In our age of words doing great harm, both on social media and face to face, this old Presbyterian wisdom in the Catechism, with this old Anglican wisdom in the Homily, can equip and strengthen all of us today. Maybe your church’s leadership team would benefit from reading and discussing these wonderful resources. I promise you will enjoy them.

Resilient Together: Recovering What the Gospel Creates

“What is wrong with the American Christian Church, and how can its life and ministry be renewed?” That question, recently asked by Dr. Tim Keller, is bold. Something indeed seems wrong in many churches. We do need renewal. But our Lord has not forsaken us. If we will stay open, he will help us.

But we sure won’t make progress merely by doubling down on doctrinal orthodoxy, as if our only problem were theological erosion. That problem is real. My hunch, however, is that if you’re visiting this website, you already care about solid theology. So do I. And I sure hope we never stab our Lord in the back by betraying the truth of his gospel. But we need more than glorious concepts. Even if every Christian from sea to shining sea suddenly had accurate doctrine, there could still be something wrong with us, and we might still need renewal.

We Christians in America today are walking through pressures, temptations, strife, and exhaustion — for starters — such as I have never seen before. We have only one way forward. Our Lord above is calling us to a deeper place with himself and with one another. Our times demand shared resilience — steadfastness and solidarity together. The worst thing to do right now is drift apart. The best thing to do is strengthen our relationships, for Jesus’s sake. Then, together, we’ll be able to face any future, by God’s grace.

Beauty Amid Brutality

Here’s a good objection to what I’m proposing: we’re lousy at staying friends. Our love just doesn’t last. We fragment too easily, walk away too quickly, stand aloof too stubbornly. And how can we face the opposition of an adversarial world when we can’t even get along together as Christians? It’s time to turn a corner and love one another more deeply than we ever have before, more deeply than we ever dreamed we could.

The early church did not go viral in the Roman Empire by winning arguments. Make no mistake, they were serious thinkers. But they captivated people’s hearts by the beauty of their character and their relationships — especially their relationships. The truth of the gospel became visible in the profound community the Christians experienced in their churches.

Tertullian famously quoted the amazement of that cynical world: “Look how those Christians love one another (for they themselves hate one another), and how they are ready to die for each other (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).” In a world of brutality, it was the Christians who created a new world of beauty. The gospel always creates beauty, whenever we yield to its obvious implications. For example, if nothing will ever separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:31–39), why do too many of us Christians separate from one another? How crazy is that? And how does that weakness prepare us for the trials of tomorrow?

Doctrine Creates Culture

This article is a protest, a confession, a lament, and a plea — all rolled into one. And here’s the point. Our broken relationships really are saying something. They reveal that we do not believe the gospel as deeply as we need to. And our only remedy is to flat out believe it — for all that it’s worth.

“Our broken relationships reveal that we do not believe the gospel as deeply as we need to.”

Take Romans 15:7 as one illustration of what I mean: “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Embedded in that magnificent verse is this simple insight: gospel doctrine creates gospel culture. You can see it in the text: “Welcome one another [gospel culture] as Christ has welcomed you [gospel doctrine], for the glory of God.” That is the cheering truth and the beautiful community that can prevail over all this world.

Let’s think it through, starting with the phrase “for the glory of God.” Nothing less than the display of God’s glory in the world today is at stake here. And where can his glory be seen? The Grand Canyon, the Swiss Alps, the beaches of Hawaii, for sure. But an easier way to see his glory is to drive down to a healthy church on Sunday morning, walk in, take a look around, and notice how the people welcome one another with the welcome of Christ himself. That church is translating its doctrine into its culture, and the glory of God is so obvious you might be moved to tears.

Christ Has Welcomed You

But what if a church’s gospel doctrine does not set the tone of its culture? If perceptive people come in and experience a theologically strong but relationally weak church, and then reverse engineer the situation, surmising from the relationships what the theology must be, what might they think?

They might assume that our Bible says, “Say hi to one another, as Christ has said hi to you.” But no! The actual message declares, “Christ has welcomed you.” He has moved toward us all and reached out and said, “I want you in my reality. I welcome you. I will never stop welcoming you.” Those four words, “Christ has welcomed you,” bring to a practical focal point all of Paul’s doctrine in Romans thus far. Those four words flow out of profound theology. And they have the power to transform our churches into cultures of welcome, where friends can stick together long term, the way Christ sticks with us.

“Something greater than human niceness is energizing a truly orthodox church.”

Something greater than human niceness is energizing a truly orthodox church. Christ is there, setting a new tone through his gospel. How dare we who agree on the biblical gospel settle for less than his wholehearted welcome as the felt relational culture of our churches?

Way Out of the Swamp

So many of us have been recovering gospel doctrine wonderfully over the past twenty years or so. Now it’s time for us to allow our doctrine to exert its full and intended authority — through the beauty of our relationships. We’ll get nowhere by watering the gospel down! But I believe we will gain great strength for the future if we will follow our Lord into regions of glory we have not yet deeply visited. Why not admit our failures and fall into each other’s arms with tears and apologies and new beginnings? Our new solidarity will strengthen us for any future!

I believe we have come to a fork in the road. We must choose which way we will go. In his Lectures on Romans, Martin Luther showed us the alternatives:

Who then can pride himself over against someone else and claim to be better than he? Especially in view of the fact that he is always capable of doing exactly the same as the other does and, indeed, that he does secretly in his heart before God what the other does openly before men. And so we must never despise anyone who sins but must generously bear with him as a companion in a common misery. We must help one another, just as two people caught in the same swamp assist each other. . . . But if we despise the other, we shall both perish in the same swamp. (115)

We will either believe the gospel as never before and come together, or we will die in this wretched swamp we’re all slogging through. I don’t see a third option. Do you?

Let No One Despise You: Wisdom for Young Pastors

As a 73-year old man, it’s okay for me to admit this. We older guys can be a real pain in the neck. For example, when a senior church member looks down on you, a young pastor, with a condescending eye. When your sermon, or your comment in a meeting, or whatever your contribution, doesn’t count for much. And why does this happen? You aren’t being unfaithful to Scripture. You aren’t lapsing into fallacious reasoning. In the moment, there seems to be only one reason why you don’t carry the weight you deserve: your youth. And there is nothing you can do about the sheer fact of your age.

But maybe there is. Paul, the older pastor, advises Timothy, the younger pastor, about this very problem: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).

Let’s think our way through this insightful verse, phrase by phrase. It’s in the Bible to help young pastors today.

Let No One Despise You for Your Youth

It’s not that the despisers consciously intend to diminish you. But still, they sometimes do. I respect Paul’s frankness in putting this problem right out on the table in plain view of his young friend: “Sadly, there are some people who will just plain despise you. I understand this insult. You do too.”

Any of us can cheapen, scorn, marginalize, roll our eyes at — these are the ideas behind the word despise — another person within the thoughts of our minds. The other person might have no awareness of what we’ve done. But still, in our mental categories, we relocate that person from serious to frivolous. Then we don’t have to deal with him anymore. This cruelty of heart is a knife-thrust into the body of Christ.

Paul fully expects Timothy, as a young pastor, to be on the receiving end of this foolishness. For example, the despisers might say things like, “Son, when you grow up, you’ll see things my way.” Or, “Son, I was a member of this church before you were born. What do you know?” It can take many forms.

“Don’t let your despisers live rent-free in your head.”

But the apostle, himself an older man, respects his young friend, puts his arm around Timothy’s shoulder, as it were, looks deeply into his eyes, and says quietly, “Don’t let your despisers live rent-free in your head. They have no idea who you are, what you offer, how much your ministry is worth. The Ancient of Days sure never speaks to you the way they do.”

Younger pastors — and older pastors! — should never allow uncomprehending people to define for them their identity and worth. Only God has the right to speak to us at that deep level. Here’s what he says: “You are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you” (Isaiah 43:4). Stabilized by the good news of our worth in the eyes of our Lord, any pastor can stand tall with dignity and keep going.

How then can younger pastors best respond to the inevitable slights?

Set the Believers an Example

“But set the believers an example,” Paul says. In other words, “Timothy, you can’t stop the unfairness. But you can still defeat it — and without becoming a jerk along the way. You can win by the undeniable reality of your consistent, publicly obvious example. Your despisers can count your years, but they cannot discount your maturity. Every church needs a grown-up in the room — always. You be the grown-up. It has nothing to do with age. It has everything to do with character.”

Pastor, your best answer to an insult — maybe not your only answer, but your best answer — is to embody the personal magnificence everyone in your church respects. Not that it’s easy. It is so tempting to mouth off at people who mouth off. We feel that itch inside for a quick remedy. But we all know Matthew Henry is right when he comments, “Those who teach by their doctrine must teach by their life, else they pull down with one hand what they build up with the other.”

God offers us deep wisdom in the biblical call to “the patient endurance that [is] in Jesus” (Revelation 1:9). Here is the insight: God uses time. God created time as his servant. And because you are God’s child, time is your servant also. In fact, “all things are yours” (1 Corinthians 3:21). So, the passage of time is working for you. While you keep going with patient endurance, plodding along in the power of the Spirit, not lashing back but doing the next right thing, your servant Mr. Time is quietly and successfully doing his behind-the-scenes job, moving events toward your vindication. You don’t have to make a satisfying outcome happen. God will make it happen, using his servant and your servant — time. Your exemplary character over time is a powerful answer to your detractors.

Yes, I know. We all hate patient waiting. Amazon Prime built its business on our impatience! But whenever we force a hurried victory, it always backfires on us. Humble waiting, filling in the interval with sustained integrity, creates no regrets, leaves no bitter aftertaste.

Here are the actionable areas of growth that can make you admired more and more in the eyes of older Christians:

Speech, Conduct, Love, Faith, Purity

“In speech,” because our words shape the culture of our church, moment by moment. And when the pastor’s words make the moment better, and the people in the room become more hopeful and settled and confident and united, that pastor, however young, will be admired. “The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life” (Proverbs 10:11).

“In conduct,” because our magnanimous interactions with people in the church and in the community argue forcefully for our nobility of stature. In every conversation, whatever the topic, what’s really happening in that moment is the display of personal character. And no one can keep you from the conduct that even a cynic is compelled to respect.

“In love,” because the tender selflessness of love feels like the presence of the risen Christ. You might or might not be a great preacher of sermons, but every pastor can be a great lover of souls. When exhausted people drag themselves into church on a Sunday, as they do every Sunday, you be their gentle shepherd leading them to their ultimate Shepherd. They will thank you. And the tone of the whole church will change.

“Nothing is so breathtaking as a pastor who believes in God and walks with God.”

“In faith,” because nothing is so breathtaking as a pastor who believes in God and walks with God. I remember my dad quoting Ralph Cushman: “There is something magnificent about these prophet-dreamers who are so sure of God.” That’s you. Go ahead and show it. Your people will be inspired.

“In purity,” because in a predatory world, a man who isn’t out for himself, a man with whom vulnerable people are safe — that man will be sought after. And the younger he is, the more striking his purity will be. A young man with a fatherly heart for people? Anyone who disparages such a pastor will end up only embarrassing himself.

Setting an example in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity — you don’t need money in the budget for that. You don’t need anyone’s permission to start. You are right now fully equipped in every essential to set an uplifting example for everyone in your church, for God’s glory.

It almost makes me feel sorry for your haughty critics. The future will be hard on them. But your future ministry will be more and more fruitful, because patient, gentle, exemplary saintliness is the greatest power in all the world. God is faithful to make it so — and to keep it so.

Friend, You Can Be Ready to Die: Two Ways to Prepare Now

Years ago I read somewhere that, during the Victorian era, people talked often about death, and sex was the taboo subject. By now we have flipped it. We talk freely about sex, and death is the taboo subject. To me, what’s odd is this: even Christians shy away from talking about death. For crying out loud, we’re going to heaven! Why should we fear anything? Our Lord died and rose again — for us.

Yes, the blunt truth can seem intimidating. Here it is: We don’t need to go looking for it. Sooner or later, something bad will come find us and take us out. But why not accept that, and prepare for it, and rejoice our way through it? Thanks to the risen Jesus, death is no longer a crisis. It is now our release. So, Death, you sorry loser, we will outlive you by an eternity. We will even dance on your grave, when “death shall be no more” (Revelation 21:4).

But for now, among the many ways to prepare for death — like buying life insurance, making a proper will, and so forth — here are two truths that can help you prevail when your moment comes. Both insights come from an obscure passage near the end of Deuteronomy.

Your Final Obedience

First, your death will be your final act of obedience in this world below. Near the end of his earthly life, Moses received a surprising command from God:

Go up this mountain . . . and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. And die on the mountain which you go up . . . (Deuteronomy 32:49–50)

Moses obeyed the command, by God’s grace. His death, therefore, was not his pathetic, crushing defeat; it was his final, climactic act of obedience. As you can see in the verse, it was even what we call a mountaintop experience.

“Your death will be your final act of obedience in this world below.”

Sadly, our deaths are usually painful and humiliating. But that’s obvious. Down beneath the surface appearances, the profound reality is this: your death too will be an act of obedience, for you too are God’s servant, like Moses. The Bible says about us all, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). He will not throw you away like a crumpled-up piece of trash. He will receive you as his treasured friend. Your death might be messy here on earth, but it will not be disgusting to God above. It will be, to him, “precious” — that is, valued and honored. It will be you obeying the One who said, “Follow me” (Matthew 4:19). You followed him with a first step, and you will follow him with a last step. And when you’re thinking about it, don’t worry about failing him at that final moment. He who commands you will also carry you.

Given the grandeur of a Christian’s death, I have to admit that I have never seen a Christian funeral do justice to the magnitude of the moment. We try, but our services fall short. Only by faith, looking beyond our poor efforts at doing honor, can we truly savor the wonder of a Christian’s crowning glory. Even still, let’s make every Christian funeral as meaningful as it can be by believing and declaring the truth. A blood-bought sinner has just stepped on Satan’s neck and leapt up into eternal happiness, by God’s grace and for his glory. The day of your funeral, this uncomprehending world will stumble along in its oblivious way. But your believing family and friends will understand what’s really going on. And they will rejoice.

This being so, why not look forward to dying? Paul was so eager for his day of release, he honestly couldn’t decide whether he’d rather keep serving Jesus here or die and go be with Jesus there: “What shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two” (Philippians 1:22–23 NIV). When our work here is finally complete, why stay one moment longer? Of course, just as God decides our birthday (which we do know), so God also decides our deathday (which we do not know). Let’s bow to his schedule. But right now, by faith, let’s also start sitting on the edge of our seats in eager anticipation. And when he does give the command, “Die,” we then can say, “Yes, Lord! At long last!” And we will die. He will help us obey him even then — especially then.

Your Happy Meeting

Second, your death will be your happy meeting with the saints in that world above. Not only did God command Moses to die, but he also deepened and enriched Moses’s expectations of his death:

Die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died in Mount Hor and was gathered to his people. (Deuteronomy 32:50)

To be with our Lord in heaven above is the ultimate human experience. But he himself includes in that sacred privilege “the communion of saints,” to quote the Apostles’ Creed. When you die, like Moses, you will be gathered to your people — all the believers in Jesus who have gone before you into the presence of God.

Heaven will not be solitary you with Jesus alone. It will be you with countless others, surrounding his throne of grace, all of you glorifying and enjoying him together with explosive enthusiasm (Revelation 7:9–10). Right now, in this world, we are “the church militant,” to use the traditional wording. But even now, we are one with “the church triumphant” above. And when we die, we finally enter into the full experience of the blood-bought communion of saints.

Think about it. No church splits, no broken relationships, not even chilly aloofness. We all will be united before Christ in a celebration of his salvation too joyous for any petty smallness to sneak into our hearts. You will like everyone there, and everyone there will like you too. You will be included. You will be understood. You will be safe. No one will kick you out, no one will bully you, no one will slander you — not in the presence of the King. And you will never again, even once, even a little, disappoint anyone else or hurt their feelings or let them down. You will be magnificent, like everyone around you, for Jesus will put his glory upon us all.

Facing Death with Calm Confidence

Even now, by God’s grace, we have come to

the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant. (Hebrews 12:22–24)

“Why should we, citizens of the heavenly city, ever fear anything about earthly death?”

They all are there, right at this very moment, in the invisible realm. It’s only an inch away. And the instant after your last breath in this dark world, you will awaken to that bright world above, where you will be welcomed in and rejoiced over. Saint Augustine might smile and nod with deep dignity. Martin Luther might give you a warm bear hug. Elisabeth Elliot might gently shake your hand. And maybe for the first time ever, you’ll discover how good it feels to really belong.

Here’s my point. Why should we, citizens of the heavenly city, ever fear anything about earthly death? By faith in God’s promises in the gospel, let’s get ready now so that we face it then with calm confidence — and even with bold defiance.

That They May All Be One? Why Unity Is Still Worth Pursuing

On the night our Lord was betrayed, he prayed “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). As his cross loomed before him, our unity was on his heart. And the unity he was praying for must be visible: “. . . so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Something glorious is at stake in our public unity as Christians: our witness to Jesus as the One sent by God.

Our diversity as Christians is also glorious. We rally around Christ our Lord as Anglicans and Baptists and Presbyterians and many others, with our wide-ranging musical styles and liturgical practices and missional emphases, with fascinating splashes of human color and variety, each enriching the whole body of Christ (Revelation 7:9–10).

“Something glorious is at stake in our public unity as Christians: our witness to Jesus as the One sent by God.”

Nearly fifty years ago, in 1974, I remember seeing the worldwide church on display at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Switzerland. Christians from all over the world came together, as they were, true to themselves and true to Christ. It was a foretaste of heaven. And whoever you are, I hope you feel fully authorized in Christ to be yourself, in your culture, standing tall in Christ by his grace. If you love him, you belong. Amazingly, so do I.

But it is our unity — our surprising solidarity, our heartfelt oneness, our tenacious stick-together-ness, our shared beauty together — that makes it easier for others to believe in Jesus as sent from God. And I don’t think many of us prize our unity as much as we should.

Unity Is A Doctrine

Is our unity as Christians a hill we’ll die on? I look at us on social media, in our churches and denominations, in our marriages and families and friendships, and I have to wonder, Do we revere our unity — or do we vaporize our unity as a creedal abstraction? In practical reality, are we “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3)? Sometimes it appears we might even be suspicious that “unity” is theological compromise sneaking in to ruin us.

“The unity of the church does not threaten doctrine; the unity of the church is a doctrine.”

Let’s settle one thing right now. The unity of the church does not threaten doctrine; the unity of the church is a doctrine. The Bible teaches, clearly and emphatically, “There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4–6). Our unity bears witness to the gospel, because our unity is part of the gospel. Are we as doctrinally pure as we claim to be?

Isn’t Unity Essential?

What else does the Bible say? Notice how the little word all is sprinkled through the New Testament, nudging us toward a shared mentality:

May the God of peace be with you all. Amen. (Romans 15:33)

To those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. (1 Corinthians 1:2)

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:14)

Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible. (Ephesians 6:24)

Think too of the New Testament’s explicit appeals that we come together, strongly and decidedly, in unified resolve:

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10)

Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. (2 Corinthians 13:11)

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind, striving side by side for the faith of the gospel. (Philippians 1:27)

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. (Philippians 2:2)

Isn’t our unity, therefore, essential to biblical Christianity?

Warnings Against Divisiveness

Let’s not overlook the biblical warnings against division and faction and aloofness:

If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23–24)

(Maybe the most disobeyed verses in all the Bible every Sunday!)

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. (Romans 16:17)

As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. (Titus 3:10–11)

And from the Old Testament, the wise old voice of Proverbs alerts us to the sickened revulsion God feels about our violations of unity:

There are six things that the Lord hates,     seven that are an abomination to him:haughty eyes, a lying tongue,     and hands that shed innocent blood,a heart that devises wicked plans,     feet that make haste to run to evil,a false witness who breathes out lies,     and one who sows discord among brothers. (Proverbs 6:16–19)

When the Old Testament uses this literary pattern, X // X + 1, “six // seven,” it is the last item added at the end of the list that explains the others. So, what the Lord detests about haughty eyes, and all the rest, is how they sow discord. Our Lord above hates it when we so betray trust that we destroy friendships, often permanently. He abominates such destructive evils among us. How could it be otherwise? If Jesus died to bring us together in harmony, then our sowing discord says to him, “You don’t matter. What matters here is my grievance. Get out of my way, Jesus, while I make these wretched Christians feel the pain they deserve!”

Disagreeing for God’s Sake

Naturally, you might already be objecting, “But Ray, what about the biblical calls, like 1 Timothy 4:2, to rebuke people as part of legitimate gospel ministry?” Good point. (Indeed, this article is something of a rebuke!) Here are three ways I would respond.

One, if a Christian is guilty of serious evil, and his or her guilt is a properly established fact, then a heartbroken and even angry public rebuke, to preserve Christian integrity, might be right and re-unifying. We are morally serious people, following a morally serious Jesus.

If a powerful Christian is found to have abused someone, for example, it is right for abuses of power to be called out. Silence could add a layer of hypocritical complicity on top of the already heinous sin. I don’t see enough of this kind of careful, solemn rebuke. But just blurting out grievances, especially online — we do too much of that. We would be more compelling as a Christian community if the mature among us would stick their necks out and bravely guard our integrity with appropriate rebukes. To those of you who do so, thank you.

Two, before we vent our personal frustrations, let’s be humble enough to stop and ask, “Who is even asking for my opinion? Is this urge to speak up just me being pushy?” Arrogance doesn’t ask, “Why does my pronouncement even need to be heard?” On the other hand, I am sure that the body of Christ in our generation is far less injured and divided than it could be, because so many humble Christians really are being modest, self-aware, restrained.

Three, I am myself rebuked and helped by this wise caution from Francis Schaeffer:

We should never come to [differences] with true Christians without regret and without tears. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Believe me, evangelicals often have not shown it. We rush in, being very, very pleased, it would seem at times, to find other men’s mistakes. We build ourselves up by tearing other men down. This can never show a real oneness among Christians.

There is only one kind of man who can fight the Lord’s battles in anywhere near a proper way, and that is the man who by nature is unbelligerent. A belligerent man tends to do it because he is belligerent; at least it looks that way.

The world must observe that, when we must differ with each other as true Christians, we do it not because we love the smell of blood, the smell of the arena, the smell of the bullfight, but because we must for God’s sake. If there are tears when we must speak, then something beautiful can be observed. (The Mark of the Christian, 26–27)

Do We Really Want Unity?

Whatever the controversy of the moment might be, do we express our differences with such care that a reasonable unbeliever could say, “There is no bloodlust here. This is different. There is sincerity of heart here, even beauty”?

But if we are so angry and so sure of ourselves that we don’t even want to be the answer to our Lord’s prayer for unity, then let’s admit it. And let’s have the honesty to stop attaching ourselves to the name of Jesus. We don’t love him.

But if we do love him, then let’s join him in his heartfelt prayer for unity. And let’s go do something about it — starting with that one Christian we have been avoiding.

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