Leading through Holiness

by Shawn McMullen 

Robert Murray M’Cheyne was a nineteenth-century Scottish minister, a powerful preacher and leader. He had a lasting impact on the church even though he died at the age of 29 during a typhus epidemic. After his death, his friend Andrew Bonar compiled M’Cheyne’s writings along with his biography under the title, The Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray M’Cheyne.

M’Cheyne was known for his devotion to Christ and his love for his congregation. Speaking about his ministry in the local church, M’Cheyne is reported to have said, “My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness.” M’Cheyne realized that if the Lord was going to bless his ministry and open even greater doors of opportunity, he needed to live a holy and blameless life to the glory of God.

But there’s more. M’Cheyne believed that personal holiness is more important to God’s work than any amount of skill and charisma. He is also credited with this observation: “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.”

It helps to be talented, of course, but that’s not what’s most important. What matters, as M’Cheyne suggested, is “great likeness to Jesus.” And how are we most like Jesus? When we imitate his holiness. Certainly Paul must have had this concept in mind when he wrote, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Can you imagine how society would be affected if every follower of Christ lived like this? Can you imagine how the lives of church members would be affected if every church leader lived out God’s call to holiness in their personal life and set that as the standard for conduct in the church?

Naturally, our first call is to imitate the Lord. But it’s also true that seeing holiness lived out in another Christian helps pave the way for our imitation of Christ. Let’s go back to something M’Cheyne said to see how it applies to leaders in the local church: “A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.” Every soldier who goes into battle wants the best weapons available in the best condition possible. Going into battle with inferior equipment, or even good equipment poorly maintained, can be the difference between victory and defeat, even life and death. To those who lead and serve in the local church, personal holiness is that weapon. It changes more lives than great preaching or great leading. It wields more influence than charisma or confidence. It produces more lasting benefits than great programming or great fundraising.

Think about the great revivals of earlier centuries. Or the exponential growth of the house church movement today in countries hostile to Christianity. Have these movements past and present hinged on impressive facilities, charismatic leadership, skillful communication, stellar programming, or great coffee? Not at all. Powerful movements within the church are led by the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of God works in and through God’s holy people. Paul pointed to personal holiness as a priority in his own ministry: “You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed” (1 Thessalonians 2:10).

Transformative ministry is rooted in personal holiness. If we’re living holy lives to the glory of God, we become “awful weapons” in God’s hand. If we are God’s weapon of choice in the battle against Satan and the forces of darkness, what kind of weapons should we be? What kind of weapons will we be?

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