The Costly Discipline of a Godly Pastor

The young, zealous pastor of Dundee, Scotland, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, who flamed out for God at age 29 and gave himself to the work of God as perhaps no young pastor has so uniquely given himself to God’s work, said before he died, “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.” M’Cheyne understood that the effectiveness of his pastoral ministry, including his pulpit ministry, depended in large measure upon his personal godliness. M’Cheyne saw himself as a chosen instrument in the hand of a sovereign God, a minister who must be a pure instrument. 

M’Cheyne said to other pastors in his day, “How diligently the Calgary officer keeps his saber clean and sharp. Every stain he rubs off with the greatest care. Remember, you are God’s sword, His instrument. In great measure, according to the purity and perfection of the instrument will be its success.” He then added, “It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.” M’Cheyne rightly saw that the power of his ministry depended upon the purity of his life. M’Cheyne prayed, “Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be.” 

M’Cheyne asserted, “Your whole usefulness depends on this.” This must be our prayer and this must be our passion. Down through the centuries, those who have been the greatest preachers have understood that the power of their ministry has been largely measured by the purity of their lives.

The towering Puritan theologian, “England’s Calvin,” John Owen maintained: “A minister may fill his pews, his communion roll, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more.”  That is, no preacher’s ministry can advance beyond his own personal devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Charles H. Spurgeon established this same priority in his Lectures to My Students:

It will be in vain for me to stock my library, or organize societies, or project schemes, if I neglect the culture of myself for books and agencies, and systems, are only remotely the instruments of my holy calling, my own spirit, soul, and body, are my nearest machinery for sacred service; my spiritual faculties and my inner life, are my battle axe and weapons of war.

Spurgeon says here that a loss of purity will guarantee a loss of power in your ministry. Your life is more important than your library, and your soul is more important than your shelves. This is precisely what the apostle Paul prioritized with Timothy, his young son in the faith, when he wrote, “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Tim 4:7).

Timothy was serving as pastor in the church at Ephesus, placed there by appointment of the apostle Paul himself. This young minister was surrounded by waves of problems within the church that were threatening to submerge him. He had unqualified elders and deacons. He had aggressive women who were overstepping their bounds in ministry in the church. He had neglect of thecare of widows. There was a growing heresy called “Gnosticism” encroaching on the life of the church. Layer upon layer of carnality was threatening to suffocate Timothy as he found himself in this challenging ministry situation. In the midst of this turmoil, Paul says to Timothy, first and foremost, “address the spiritual condition of your soul.” External challenges in ministry must never cause this young minister to lose sight of what is most important: to keep his sword sharp and clean within his own heart and soul.

We who are ministers and shepherds in the Lord’s church must maintain this same priority at all times. We, too, must discipline ourselves for godliness. We must keep our minds pure and our hearts clean. We must keep our souls unstained and our lives holy. We must be, as M’Cheyne said, “A pure instrument in the hand of God.” We must be a battle axe that is sharp and fit for our Master’s use.

The Command Issued

Paul begins this ministerial charge to young Timothy by calling him to discipline himself in his inner spiritual life. Paul pointedly writes, “discipline yourself.” Advancement in the Christian life requires self-discipline. Nowhere is this more important than in the life of a pastor. In fact, all successful ministry starts with the spiritual life of the pastor. There can be no spiritual discipline in the pew until there is spiritual discipline in the pulpit. Like priest, like people. A disciple, after he has been fully trained, will be exactly like his teacher. 

The verb translated “discipline yourself” is drawn from an athletic background and drips with athletic imagery. The Greek term (gymnaso) comes into our English language as gymnasium and means to exercise or to train. Literally, the word conveys the idea of being naked, because an athlete would go into a gymnasium and strip down. He would remove anything that would restrict the full movement of his body, so that he could expend himself in training and build himself up. Paul is saying to Timothy, “You need to look at the athlete, and learn from him. You need to be just like the athlete in your spiritual discipline.”

As men in the ministry, whatever our age, we must be like athletes who are disciplining ourselves for the purpose of godliness. Just as any athlete who is serious about getting in shape must go to the gymnasium, strip down, and go through the workouts, Timothy, and all pastors, must do the same spiritually. As a man of God, Timothy must get his heart and life in shape. Paul charges him to lay aside every personal encumbrance and the sin that would entangle him. He must deny himself many Christian liberties. He must remove all excess baggage and whatever would hold him back from being in prime shape. Timothy must get into God’s gym and work out in the Word. He must pump iron in prayer. He must exercise his muscles in faith and obedience. He must shed the baby fat of self-centeredness and get in shape if he is to be a lean, muscular preacher. Timothy cannot be passive about this. He must take charge of his spiritual life.

It is absolutely necessary for every man of God to discipline himself spiritually. We must get in shape for the pursuit of holiness. We must work up a spiritual sweat. We must lose excess weight. We must tone our spiritual muscles. We must monitor our heart rate for God. We must do the heavy lifting of confessing our sins. We must beat down our fleshly desires. We must restrict our spiritual liberties to only that which is expedient. We must build up our endurance. No matter if you have been called into the ministry long ago or if you are new in God’s service, whether you are a pastor, a teacher, a seminary professor, a seminary student, a lay elder, you must get in shape.

The Character Required

There is a great and glorious goal for this self-discipline. The chief aim of our discipline, Paul says, is to discipline ourselves “for the purpose of godliness” The word “godliness” (eusebia) comes from a Greek root word that indicates reverence and awe. It refers to the inner condition of the heart, the inner attitude of the soul, the inner life of the human spirit. The heart of the minister must be gripped with a proper fear of God. Such a pastor is a God-fearing man. Philippians 2:12 tells us that we are to work out our salvation in “fear and trembling.” Progress in sanctification is never realized casually or flippantly. God has worked it in. We must work it out with great fear.

This pursuit of godliness means that the soul is dominated by a supreme devotion to God. Godliness involves cultivating an inner life that is God-centered, God-focused, and God-honoring. It is the antithesis of being casual toward God. It is the opposite of being kicked back and laid back toward God. Godliness, is a central theme in 1 Timothy, woven like a thread through the fabric of this book. 

In 1 Timothy 2:1–2 Paul says, “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” Godliness and dignity go hand-in-hand. Godliness is a feature of the inner life, and dignity is the outer expression of inner godliness. Godliness entails conducting oneself with dignity as a representative of the King of kings and the Lord of lords. It means walking in a manner worthy of the high call upon one’s life. A person is godly on the inside when he takes God very seriously. Godliness means giving God the highest respect and properreverence.

Paul is saying to young Timothy, and to every spiritual leader today, what we are is more important than what we do. Our godliness is more important than our giftedness. What we are before God takes precedence over what we do before men. Our private life takes priority over our public life. How we live is more important than where we labor. Our walk with God is more important than our work for God. The size of our hearts is more important than the size of our church. Our maturity is more important than our platform. Our purity is more important than our programs. Our integrity is more important than our ministry. Our soul is more important than our success. 

This is the character required. Every man who preaches the gospel must discipline himself for the purpose of godliness. If not, our knowledge and our books and our theology is worth little to nothing.

The Comparison Made

Paul is a master teacher, and he now gives an illustration of what he has been saying in 1 Timothy 4:8. A picture is worth a thousand words, and Paul wants Timothy to see clearly what he is saying. So, Paul paints a picture in Timothy’s mind that is vivid. He gives the illustration of bodily discipline, and then he applies it to spiritual discipline. He says in verse 8, “For bodily discipline is only of little profit.” The athletic imagery is based upon what he has already articulated. 

In the first century, athletes were placed on a pedestal, just as they are in our society today. There were statues chiseled out of Italian marble that would line the streets leading into the major cities where the Olympic Games, the Isthmian Games, and other noted competitions were being held. The gyms were everywhere and well attended. Young men aspired to become iconic athletic figures in the Greek culture of the Roman Empire. They were all working out in the hopes that they would attain to the victor’s crown to be awarded to the winner of the games. Such champions would be granted tax-exempt status. They would be given free extended education. There would be laurels tossed at their feet. They were highly motivated not to be halfhearted in their training, but to pour themselves into the discipline required to be a world-class athlete. 

In the midst of this body-glorifying culture, Paul says, “For bodily discipline is of little profit.” To be sure, there is physical gain in working out, but it is only little profit. He admits such profit is one-dimensional, because it is only for the body and not for the soul. It is only for time and not for eternity. 

Paul adds, “But godliness is profitable for all things.” When he says “godliness,” implied is the spiritual discipline required to achieve it. If there is little discipline in spiritual matters, there is little godliness. Stagnant discipline produces stagnant godliness. There is no easy path for any minister to model the message that he preaches. Bodily discipline was of little profit, but spiritual training is exceedingly profitable. 

The apostle states, “For all things,” meaning it is profitable not only for the body, but also for the soul. Spiritual discipline yields gain not only for time, but for eternity. What a high-octane motivation this ought to be for us to roll up our sleeves, get into God’s gymnasium, and be in the Word of God and prayer. We should be inspired to meditate and fast, to resist temptation, and to buffet our body. We must do all of the things necessary to be spiritually in top shape.

It is truly worth it to be disciplined spiritually. For the present life, it brings joy, happiness, spiritual power, and blessing. Paul adds, “And also for the life to come.” Think about that moment, when, after having run the race that He has set before us, we stand at the judgment seat of Christ. If we have paid the price to give ourselves to spiritual disciplines, it will lead on that last day to an exponential increase of joy. To the degree one advances in godliness, to that same degree there will be greater enjoyment of God and a fuller manifestation of His glory in us.

The Confirmation Stated

Paul underscores the absolute certainty of what he has just stated. There must be no doubt in Timothy’s mind regarding the truthfulness of what he has asserted. To drive this home to his young son in the faith—and to every one of us today—Paul writes what he does in verse 9. His aim is to drive the stake down and to punctuate what he has just said. Verse 9 states, “It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance.” This is the same as Jesus saying, “Truly, truly, I say unto you.” Certainly, everything that Jesus said was inerrant and infallible. But some words He spoke rise to a higher level of importance. So it is with Paul here. This is an affirming statement that the apostle uses throughout his three pastoral epistles to highlight what is extremely important. “A trustworthy statement” means it is both important and certain. The statement that follows can be counted upon. It must be accepted and received.

At the end of the verse, Paul adds, “deserving full acceptance.” Timothy must do more than merely agree with it mentally. He must embrace it. Sometimes in the pastoral epistles, the “trustworthy statement” to be received follows the statement. At other times, it precedes the statement. In this case, the faithful words are found in the previous verse, a reference to “bodily discipline is only a little profit, but godliness is profitable in all things.” The reliable saying also includes what is at the end of verse 7, “discipline yourself for godliness.” This is the trustworthy statement. 

If young Timothy is to progress in his sanctification, if he is to further develop into the image of God, if he is to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, if he is to increasingly put to death the deeds of the flesh and advance in holiness, then he must be like a world-class athlete entering into strict training. In his spiritual life, Timothy must be buffeting his body and pushing himself under strict regimentation as though in training. He must do everything he can do, by the grace of God, for the purpose of godliness.

The Confidence Fixed

Paul is so convinced of the need for spiritual discipline unto godliness that he charges Timothy in verse 10: “It is for this we labor and strive.” When Paul writes we “labor,” what is the “this” to which he refers? “This refers to the previous command, “discipline yourself for godliness.” This word for “labor” means to work hard, to toil, to labor to the point of exhaustion. It requires that one expend himself such that he is so wearied he has nothing left to give. He exerts himself in resisting sin and obeying the Word of God to such an extent that he is spiritually exhausted. To pursue holiness is the very antithesis of “Let go and let God.” To the contrary, he must strive to incorporate the truth into his life, by the enablement of God, with every nerve fiber in his spiritual being.

Paul further implores Timothy to “strive.” This is the Greek word agonizomai. It describes the athlete in the wrestling match and the runner in the marathon. It is used of the soldier fighting in war against a formidable foe. Timothy must agonize in his pursuit of godliness. He must push himself to the point of painful agony—no pain, no gain. These two verbs—“labor and strive”—are in the present tense. Timothy must be always laboring and be continually striving, because the flesh within him is always ready to raise its ugly head. The devil is always prowling around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Timothy cannot let his guard down. He cannot take time off from his pursuit of spiritual discipline.

In order to maintain this, Timothy must have “fixed [his] hope on the living God.” It is this hope—a steadfast, unwavering certainty—that allows him to look to the future with confidence in God. In this hope, he looks beyond the present to the future when every person will stand before God and He will complete every believer in the image of Christ. This hope in God is what is motivating him and empowering him to labor and to strive.

This future hope should likewise widen our stride and generate spiritual energy within us. At the end of life’s race, every believer will find his place before the judgment seat of Christ, where the Judge will be seated upon His throne. No matter where any minister finished in the race, whether last or first, he will come and take his stand before the Judge’s seat. Those who have trained and built up their muscles and expanded their lungs for greater endurance ministry and who have competed according to the rules will be recognized by the Judge. He will call out their individual names and put the crown upon their heads. Every preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ must push themselves, knowing that one day they will stand before the Lord Jesus Christ, and that He will reward those who have faithfully pursued godliness.

“I Have Been Before God”

One noted minister who sought to discipline himself for the purpose of godliness was the renowned Colonial Puritan of the eighteenth century, the venerable Jonathan Edwards. At the young ages of eighteen and nineteen, Edwards wrote seventy resolutions that would serve as a moral compass for his spiritual life. He would read these statements of intent as a means of staying on track in his pursuit of Christ-likeness. He purposed that he would live every day as though it were the last day of his life. In this effort, he was determined to discipline himself in the use of his time, tongue, and talents. 

On January 14, 1723, young Jonathan Edwards, age nineteen, wrote Resolution number 63: “On the supposition that there never was to be but one individual in the world at any one time who was properly a complete Christian.” He reasoned there must be one man at any one moment in time who is regarded by God to be the greatest Christian alive. This one most embodies the virtues of the Lord Jesus Christ. With this goal fixed squarely in his gaze, Edwards writes, “Resolved: I will act just as I would do if I strove with all of my might to be that one who should live in my time.” It was by no accident that this nineteen-year-old young man, serving as an intern pastor on Wall Street in downtown New York, would become America’s greatest pastor, preacher, philosopher, theologian, and author. Edwards set a course for his life, when a teenage boy, that he would glorify God by striving to be the most complete Christian in his generation. 

On January 12, 1723, Jonathan Edwards wrote this in his Diary

I have been before God, and have given myself, all that I am and have, to God; so that I am not, in any respect, my own. I can challenge no right [to] this understanding, this will, these affections, which are in me. Neither have I any right to this body, or any of its members—no right to this tongue, these hands, these feet; no right to these senses, these eyes, these ears, this smell, or this taste. I have given myself clear away, and have not retained any thing as my own. I have been this morning to Him, and told Him, that I gave myself wholly to Him. I have this morning told Him that I did take Him for my whole portion, looking on nothing else as any part of my happiness, nor acting as if it were; and His law, for the constant rule of my obedience; and would fight with all my might against the world, the flesh, and the devil, to the end of my life; and that I did believe in Jesus Christ, and did receive Him as a Prince and Saviour; and that I would adhere to the faith and obedience of the gospel, however hazardous and difficult the confession and practice of it may be. Now, henceforth, I am not to act, in any respect as my own.

As Paul challenged Timothy and as Edwards charged himself, I call you to discipline yourself for godliness. I call you to labor and strive. I call you work out your salvation in fear and trembling. I call you to resist temptation and to put to death the deeds of the flesh. I call you to pursue holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. I call you compete according the rules. I call you to forget what lies behind and to press forward to what lies ahead. I call you to fight the good fight, which is for your godliness and purity. I call you to fight the devil and to resist the world. I call you to be like a world-class athlete and bring your whole life under the control and the mastery of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

I call you to battle against anything that would undermine your godliness. This is the costly discipline of a godly pastor.


Steven J. Lawson is the President of OnePassion Ministries. Dr. Lawson is also the Professor of Preaching at The Master’s Seminary and Teaching Fellow with Ligonier Ministries. The author of numerous books and articles, the latest of which is The Passionate Preaching of Martyn Lloyd-Jones