During the 24 years I served in pastoral ministry, I saw a continual stream of advertisements about how to grow a bigger church. In nearly 50 years of preaching and teaching, I have heard dozens of messages on evangelism, missions, and church growth. And yet I could probably count on one hand the number of times one of these ads or messages mentioned the only verse in the Bible that essentially says, “Do this, and you will see people saved.”
The message of this verse was so important to the apostle Paul that when he specifically addresses elders in the New Testament, he communicates its essence. This is also the only verse in the Bible (that I can recall) that gives the same exhortation three times. Think it’s important?
What is the verse? First Timothy 4:16,
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
For 28 years, I have turned to this text every semester on the last day of class. In the compact space of two short sentences are three imperatives and two promises. We’ll begin with the imperatives before turning to the promises.
1. ‘Keep a close watch on yourself.’
How does a minister “keep a close watch” on himself? By cultivating faithfulness to and avoiding the erosion of his devotion to Christ. How does he do this? By obedience to a command earlier in this chapter: “Train yourself for godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7). And how does he do this? By consistently and wholeheartedly practicing the biblical spiritual disciplines, especially the disciplines related to the word of God and prayer, for these are the God-given means of godliness.
Godliness — a Bible word essentially synonymous with Christlikeness, holiness, and sanctification — is cultivated by the personal and interpersonal spiritual disciplines, both positively (vivification) and negatively (mortification). In other words, these biblical habits are the means through which the Holy Spirit works to help us experience God and grow in grace as well as to defeat sin.
Remember that this command was first given to a minister (Timothy) and then by extension to all Christians. So, do not think, pastor, that while your people will become more godly by practicing the spiritual disciplines, you will become more Christlike simply by being in the ministry. The temptations and pressures of the ministry will conspire to make you more ungodly if you do not train yourself for godliness. Mentally remove everything in your life that’s related to ministry. With what is left, could it be said that you are growing more Christlike?
I strongly urge you to read Richard Baxter’s treatment of 1 Timothy 4:16 — especially his eight reasons why you need to keep a close watch on yourself — in his pastoral classic, The Reformed Pastor. Particularly note his third reason: you are exposed to greater temptations than others. Satan is not stupid. He knows that if he can make you fall, it will have a more damaging effect on the church than if he fells the guy who comes once a month and sits in the back row.
Unless a pastor — new or old — devotes himself to the scriptural means of godliness, he will cease to be a godly man. And what healthy church wants a pastor who isn’t godly?
2. ‘Keep a close watch on the teaching.’
In this pastoral imperative, “the teaching” refers to doctrine — to “the teaching” found in “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Put another way, “Study theology, pastor!”
Even to the end of his life, Paul was an example of diligent study. Despite his thorough knowledge of the Scriptures and all he had seen and experienced as an apostle, he pled with Timothy in the final chapter of his last inspired letter, “When you come, bring . . . the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13). If there were one person who did not need to study theology any further, wouldn’t you think it was Paul? And if there was one time he didn’t need to keep a close watch on his teaching, wouldn’t you think it would be just before he died? But he knew that as long as his mind was working, there was nothing better to put into it than the truth of God’s word.
It has been my observation over decades that few ministers persist in studying theology. Many stop reading books, listening to podcasts, or attending conferences designed to sharpen their theological thinking and deepen their doctrinal understanding. What has resulted from this? The words of David Wells in his 1994 book No Place for Truth are even more true today: “We now have less biblical fidelity, less interest in truth, less seriousness, less depth, and less capacity to speak the Word of God to our own generation in a way that offers an alternative to what it already thinks” (12). In times that are much more complex than 30 years ago, the church and its leaders need more theology, not less.
Churches do not rise in godliness and biblical maturity above the level of their pastor’s piety and theology.
3. ‘Persist in this.’
In other words, “persist in keeping a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.” Pastor, persevere to the end of your days in keeping a close watch on both your piety and your theology. You will never reach a level of maturity or a time in your life when you no longer need this vigilance.
Again, when Paul writes or speaks specifically to ministers, he basically repeats what he says here to Timothy. To the elders of the Ephesian church, he says, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock” (Acts 20:28). When he says, “and to all the flock,” we know Paul is urging them to “Keep a close watch on . . . the teaching,” because in the very next verses he warns the elders that false teachers will soon come, “not sparing the flock” — men who will “draw away the disciples after them” (verses 29–30).
To Titus, the other recipient of a Pastoral Epistle, Paul reiterates, “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works [that is, piety], and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame” (Titus 2:7–8). His primary concern for pastors remains the same: “yourself and the teaching.” Life and doctrine. Heart and head. Fire and light. Spirit and truth. Piety and theology.
Most of us tend to lean toward one or the other, toward piety or theology. What is your own tendency? Be aware of that, and take pains to “watch” that your pursuit of one does not allow the other to wither.
And beware of the temptation to believe that after enough ministerial experience you will outgrow your need for watchfulness. I’ve been in the ministry for nearly half a century, and I need to persist in watching now as much as ever.
Promises God Makes to Pastors
First, “you will save yourself.” It’s safe to assume that Paul believed Timothy was saved, so it’s likely the apostle is reminding Timothy that a truly Christian pastor must “keep a close watch on [himself] and on the teaching” if he hopes for assurance of his final salvation. But in pursuing that assurance, pastor, remember that neither a consistent devotional life nor orthodox theology will save you. The Pharisees were pretty good at both. Not even a lifetime of faithful service in pastoral ministry will save you. Even pastors are saved by the work of Christ alone.
And just like any other Christian, pastors also need to heed the command of 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.” But also like any other Christian, any pastor who spends his entire life sincerely pursuing Christ through the biblical disciplines and the truth of God in Scripture exhibits solid indications that he is saved.
Second, “you will save your hearers.” Alongside the Spirit-empowered aspect of salvation, this promise is also very reasonable. For example, who is more likely to make converts to the way of life and teaching of Gandhi? Of course, it will be someone who lives like Gandhi and teaches what Gandhi taught. In the same way, who is more likely to see people become disciples of Jesus than a man who lives like Jesus and teaches what Jesus taught?
Notice, he doesn’t promise you will see as many saved as you want, nor even that you will always know when people are saved, but he does say your ministry will result in true conversions. And I’d rather see ten people truly converted than a hundred who say they are but are not. Wouldn’t you?
Your First Calling
The “methods” of 1 Timothy 4:16 were the heart of Paul’s evangelistic, missionary, and church-growth strategies. To be a godly man — living and acting like Jesus — is essential to leading people to Jesus. Knowing and proclaiming the doctrines of Christ and salvation — that is, the gospel — is the means by which God saves people (Romans 1:16). And he promises in this verse that if you persist in doing these things, you will see people come to Christ.
Pastor, you are called first and foremost to be a man of God. Therefore, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this.”