Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
I would sum up the impact of this verse as "the extraordinary seriousness of the pastoral ministry." I hope that one effect of this message will be to make you earnest and diligent in your prayers for all the vocational ministers of the church. And I hope that another effect will be to make David Livingston and Brad Nelson and the rest of the pastoral staff passionate and persevering and utterly devoted in the fulfillment of their ministry.
Three Commands and Two Promises
This verse contains three commands and two promises for the young pastor. The first command is that he take heed to himself. The second command is that he take heed to his teaching. The third command is that he hold on to those two duties; in other words, that he keep on taking heed to himself and keep on taking heed to his teaching, and never think that the days for personal vigilance are over or that the days for doctrinal growth are past.
The first promise is that in doing this he will save himself. And the second promise is that in doing this he will save his hearers.
Salvation is at Stake
How then can we state the teaching of this verse in a sentence? I would put it like this:
A pastor's unflagging moral vigilance over his life and his unwavering theological vigilance over his doctrine are the means of grace appointed by God for his own salvation and the salvation of his people.
You can see why I said that the theme of this verse is "the extraordinary seriousness of the pastoral ministry." The eternal salvation of a pastor and his people is at stake in the holiness of his life and the truthfulness of his teaching. If a pastor grows lax in his attention to personal holiness or careless in his teaching the whole counsel of God he will very likely pay with his life and take many of his people with him to hell.
This is no contradiction of the great truth of salvation by grace through faith taught in Ephesians 2:8-9, "By grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast." We have been saved and we will be saved in the last day by grace through faith, and it will be the gift of God free and undeserved from beginning to end.
1 Timothy 4:16 is not a contradiction of that. Rather it is a confirmation of the next verse in Ephesians (2:10): "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."
When a pastor takes heed to himself and his teaching and thus walks in the good works prepared for him by God, he proves himself to be the workmanship of God and a new creature in Christ. But when a pastor grows lax in his personal holiness and forsakes the apostolic doctrine he shows that he is not the workmanship of God, he is not a new creature in Christ, and his faith was vain like that of Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Timothy 1:20) and Demas (2 Timothy 4:10) and Simon the Magician (Acts 8:21) and all the wolves in pastor's clothing that Paul and Jesus warn about in Acts 20:30 and Matthew 7:15.
1 Timothy 4:16 does not teach salvation by works. There is no thought here of earning anything from God. What the verse teaches is that pastors who are saved by grace through faith must give evidence of that divine work in their lives by tireless attention to personal holiness and doctrinal fidelity. It teaches that the pastoral ministry is the proving ground for eternity. Will we be found faithful when the master comes? Or will we, as Jesus says in Luke 12:46, be cut to pieces and put with the faithless?
Does this mean then that a pastor must live in constant uncertainty about the outcome of his eternal destiny? Most emphatically not. But why not, if the outcome is really conditional on the faithfulness of his ministry?
The answer is given by Paul himself in 2 Timothy 1:12. "I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded (I am sure!) that he is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day." Paul's assurance is not based on taking faithfulness away as a condition of salvation, so that personal holiness and doctrinal fidelity don't matter. Rather, his assurance is based on the power and grace of God to keep him faithful to the end. "He is able to guard the trust he has given me!"
Now let's take the two halves of this text one at a time and focus on some specific examples. The first half is to take heed to yourself—to be unflagging in moral vigilance over your own personal life. The second half is to take heed to your teaching—to be unwavering in theological vigilance over your doctrine.
Take Heed of Yourself
Under the first heading we could focus on many things—our prayer life, our professional aspirations, our attitudes, our fears, our emotional stability, and so on.
But instead I focus briefly on the threats to your holiness and to your ministry that come from your own body. You know the general teaching from Hebrews 12:14 that we are to pursue a holiness without which we will not see the Lord. But what is the form of that holiness as it relates to the body?
They body has three very strong appetites: the appetite for food and drink, the appetite for sleep, and the appetite for sex. Each of these is the creation of God and is good in its proper proportion. But sin has entered the world and in large measure has made the body its base of operations so that the appetites of the body are now fickle. They are friends because they give us pleasure and urge us to meet some basic needs. But they are also enemies trying again and again to enslave us and lure us into sinful excesses.
In general Paul said in Romans 8:13, "If you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live." In other words, if you take heed to yourself you will save yourself, as Paul says in our text. (See Galatians 6:8; Colossians 3:5)
Concerning Food and Drink
Specifically, concerning food and drink Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:12-13, "All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything." And the context of the next verse shows that food is in view.
Let us take heed to ourselves, for gluttony is a great enemy of the Christian ministry. Listen to the prophet Amos preaching against the gluttonous indifference of his day (6:4-6), "Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the midst of the stall ... but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph." A gluttonous pastor is a glaring inconsistency to his people. The ruin of Joseph cries out for fasting and tears, and the pastor eats his double portions as though life were a party.
Let us take heed to ourselves and to our appetite for food.
Next, let us take heed to our appetite for sleep. Proverbs makes the connection here for us between food and sleep: "The drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe a man with rags" (Proverbs 23:21). "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like an armed man" (Proverbs 6:10-11).
Sleep is good and absolutely needful. But let us find the amount we need to function fully for God and take no more. Why? Because Paul said in Ephesians 5:15f, "Look carefully then how you walk, no as unwise men but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil." Time is precious because the stakes are so high in an evil age. Let us beware of frittering away precious hours in fruitless dawdling and excessive sleep.
I remember the story of a German New Testament professor who was asked why he rose so early and worked so hard. He answered: "Ich spare den Schlaf fuer die ewige Ruhe!" ("I am saving sleep for the eternal rest.") Of course this can be abused so that you kill yourself with heart failure or turn yourself into a first class grouch. But perhaps the time has come to sound Paul's trumpet again from 2 Corinthians 11:27, "... in toil and hardship, in hunger and thirst, through many a sleepless night..."
Let us take heed to ourselves and to our appetite for sleep, redeeming the time for the days are evil.
Next, let us take heed to our appetite for sex. This has been a great destroyer of ministry in 1987, has it not? O, the vigilance we have need of over this appetite. Paul has explicit sanction from the Lord Jesus when he says that failure here can send you to hell.
Listen to the words of Jesus: "I say to you, everyone who looks on a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell."
So you see what is at stake in the controlling of this appetite—hell is at stake. That is why Paul said, Take heed to yourself, for in so doing you will save yourself.
I wrote to one of my most respected counselors recently and asked him what he would say if someone came into his office and admitted living in ongoing sexual sin and when confronted with the evil simply said, "I just can't walk out on it tonight."
He wrote back and said this, "Why not try saying, 'How long will it take you to decide that you do not want to live in front of the blow-torch of God's almighty wrath for eternity (no coffee breaks, no let up, no change whatsoever, complete loneliness, total agony, no hope for ever and ever and ever)?'" That is the exact strategy of Jesus in Matthew 5:27-30.
You can see why Paul said of his own ministry in 1 Corinthians 9:26-27, "I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified."
So let us take heed to ourselves in the ministry—and in particular let us give unflagging moral vigilance over the appetites of our bodies, for in so doing we will save ourselves.
Take Heed of Your Teaching
Finally, we look briefly at the second half of the text, that we are to take heed to our teaching.
Very simply I think this command sends us to our desks and to the hard work of study—primarily the study of Scripture as we call upon the Spirit to open our eyes.
When Jonathan Edwards was just 19 he made the following resolution that I think every pastor should make: "Resolved, To study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, so that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same." This is but the pastoral resolve to obey 2 Peter 3:18, "Grow in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."
And alongside Scripture I recommend that you study the history of doctrine and its effects on the life of the church. The issue is how can we protect ourselves from leading our people astray and having their blood on our hands, as Paul says in Acts 20. The Bible is the plumbline for all our doctrinal edifices, and the history of the church is the best check on a mishandling of the plumbline itself.
I hope this is enough to make us all feel something of the extraordinary seriousness of the pastoral ministry. I hope that it will move us as pastors to unflagging moral and theological vigilance, and will move all of us to pray for God to raise up at Bethlehem an able and faithful ministry, for in so doing both pastors and people will be saved.