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Godliness vital to preaching, Don Whitney tells conference

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–A desk heaving beneath the weight of dog-eared biblical commentaries, highlighted notes and a thoroughly memorized sermon manuscript does not necessarily mean that a preacher is prepared to step into the pulpit, Don Whitney told the 16th annual Southern Baptist Founders Conference July 21-24 on the campus of Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.
Whitney, assistant professor of spiritual formation at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Mo., opened his lecture by noting he had once compiled a list of everything it would take to be fully prepared to preach. Looking back on a list which included exhaustive exegetical work, a fully internalized and practiced sermon, a fresh night of sleep and an “intoxicating time of the worship of God,” Whitney concluded “by this standard I had never been fully prepared to preach in my life.”
In light of the conference’s theme on the “Foolishness of Preaching,” Whitney asked the assembled ministers how any of them could hope to be prepared to preach when “people, without consulting our schedules, inconveniently decide to die on Friday.”
Whitney is author of “Spiritual Disciplines in the Christian Life,” “Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church” and “How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian?” and a widely-recognized authority on spirituality among conservative evangelicals.
Pointing to the Apostle Paul’s admonition to his young protege Timothy to “watch your life and doctrine” in 1 Timothy 4, Whitney told ministers “the first priority of a man of God is to be a godly man.” The goal of prayer, devotional study, fasting, keeping a prayer journal and all other spiritual disciplines, Whitney explained, is to be conformed to the image of Christ.
“We don’t memorize Scripture to put notches on our Bible,” he said. “But to be more like Jesus.”
Remembering former Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary New Testament professor Curtis Vaughan’s warning that the daily routine of the ministry could callous ministers to the things of God, Whitney counseled pastors they must be diligent to give attention to the same spiritual disciplines that help mature all other Christians.
“The ministry does not make you more godly,” he said. “The ministry in fact can be the means of making you more unlike Christ. It can foster political maneuvering and infighting. It can foster greed. It can foster power plays. It can foster so much that is antithetical to Christlikeness. And the only way we will keep that from happening is to do what this passage says and watch our lives.”
Quoting from Puritan Richard Baxter’s “The Reformed Pastor,” Whitney reminded pastors they should give careful attention to the spiritual disciplines since they too have an eternity to face and because they have the same depraved nature as the men and women to whom they preach.
Titles such as “Reverend” and “minister” cannot kill sinful inclinations, he said. Instead, ministers face an even greater onslaught of temptations than do other Christians.
“How many men once preached and warned people of hell who are now experiencing it?” Whitney asked. “If you believe in election, then do as 2 Peter says, make your calling and election sure.”
Referring to the “many eyes” which are upon the minister, Whitney noted the single most-watched episode of the ABC’s “Nightline” remains the 1987 program featuring disgraced television evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. The world may forget fallen political figures such as presidential adviser Dick Morris and others, but late-night comedians still laugh about Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, he said. The same is true on a local level, Whitney contended, when the children of the church, ministerial colleagues and unbelieving neighbors will always remember the name of the fallen pastor.
“Can you imagine anything worse than unbelievers talking about your sins and laughing about the gospel because of what you’ve done?” he asked. “Imagine walking in the mall and parents pointing you out to their children, saying, ‘Do you see that man? There’s nothing to Christianity!’ I hope that makes you shudder and I pray that God would kill me before he would allow me to be a cause of something like that.”
Paul also commanded Timothy to pay attention to his teaching, Whitney said, asserting that most contemporary ministers are more interested in psychology and methods than in doctrinal truth. Those who see doctrine as dull or irrelevant to their ministries are in violation of a biblical command, he noted, and do not understand that doxology is ignited by theology.
“Burning hearts are not nourished by empty heads,” he said. “Doctrine is the fuel for the fire in the heart. That is what keeps that passion burning.”
Whitney pointed out Paul’s imperative that Timothy not only guard his life and doctrine, but to persevere in them. Since no one recognizes himself to have impure doctrine, Whitney called on pastors to continue to study throughout their ministries in order to constantly check themselves for error regarding “those things which God revealed from heaven.” It is possible, Whitney said, to have a warmhearted, pious presentation of doctrinal error.
“Do you realize the great damage that can be done by a man perceived as very pious and very godly” who nonetheless teaches doctrinal untruth, he asked. “People want to follow the example of such a godly man that they believe everything that he says.”
These imperatives are not isolated, Whitney said, but are accompanied by the promises that in doing so the preacher will ensure the salvation both of himself and of his hearers.
“It is the only verse in the Bible that says, You do this and you will see people saved,” Whitney said, speaking of 1 Timothy 4:16.
Whitney challenged preachers, as they grow in godliness and doctrinal understanding, to ask themselves whether they truly believe that God knows the best way to win souls. He implored them to think of themselves not as ranchers or CEOs, but as shepherds and prophets.
“Don’t devote yourself primarily to demographics and data,” he said. “Devote yourself to disciplines and doctrine.”
“You do not have the choice of being interested in and studying doctrine,” he continued. “And if you have no taste for it, no heart for it, then you have misinterpreted your call.”
Whitney asked pastors to question whether they are growing in godliness or whether they are “letting the ministry keep you from becoming more like Jesus.” This godliness is not the same as developing ministry skills, he argued, but entails the same evidences of sanctification which are called for in all Christians.
Calling the pulpit “the bulwark against the eroding tide in your church,” Whitney noted dying liberal churches have the same types of choirs, singles ministries, Vacation Bible Schools and other programs as conservative churches.
“The difference is not organization, but proclamation,” he said. “The answer is godly men teaching the truth of God.”

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  • Russell D. Moore