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A Pastor's Top Priority: Learning from the Apostle Paul and Richard Baxter
Few passages could better summarize the priorities of a pastor than Acts 20:28. Giving his farewell address to the elders of the church of Ephesus, Paul exhorts: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the flock of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28, KJV).
The first priority of the elder or pastor is to “take heed” to himself. Paul’s counsel to Timothy agrees: “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (1 Tim. 4:16).
How does a pastor “take heed” to himself? Richard Baxter’s classic The Reformed Pastor gives helpful instruction in five exhortations.
1. Be sure you are genuinely saved. In Baxter’s words, “See that the work of saving grace be thoroughly wrought in your own souls.” This is the first duty of the pastor, for “it is the common danger and calamity of the Church, to have unregenerate and inexperienced pastors, and to have men become preachers before they are Christians.”
Baxter sees the lack of conversion as the primary explanation for the lack of fervor in men’s preaching: “He is like to be but a heartless preacher, that hath not the Christ and grace that he preacheth, in his heart.”
2. Maintain a heart aflame with love for God. “Content not yourselves with being in a state of grace, but be also careful that your graces are kept in vigorous and lively exercise, and that you preach to yourselves the sermons which you study, before you preach them to others.” This is the reason why the pastor must have so much time in his study: “be much at home, and be much with God,” says Baxter, for if a pastor’s heart “is cold, how is he likely to warm the hearts of his hearers?”
How does a pastor keep his heart warm? Baxter’s prescription: “Read some rousing, awakening book, or meditate on the weight of the subject of which you are to speak, and on the great necessity of your people’s souls, that you may go in the zeal of the Lord into his house.”
3. Walk your talk. “Take heed to yourselves, lest your example contradict your doctrine, and lest you lay such stumbling-blocks before the blind, as may be the occasion of their ruin; lest you unsay with your lives, what you say with your tongues; and be the greatest hinderers of the success of your own labours.”
4. Kill sin. “Take heed to yourselves, lest you live in those sins which you preach against in others, and lest you be guilty of that which you daily condemn.” Holiness is therefore the chief priority of the pastor in his personal life. To quote another Puritan (John Owen): “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”
5. Sharpen your saw. “Lastly, take heed to yourselves, that you want not the qualifications necessary for your work.” By this, Baxter meant the skills which are necessary to accurately handle the text of God’s Word. Just a saw must be regularly sharpened in order to maintain a cutting edge, pastors must keep their minds and skills sharp if they are to “cut straight the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, author’s translation).
Baxter sets a high standard here: “What skill doth every part of our work require! – and of how much moment is every part! To preach a sermon, I think, is not the hardest part; and yet what skill is necessary to make the truth plain; to convince the hearers, to let irresistible light into their consciences, and to keep it there, and drive all home; to screw the truth into their minds, and work Christ into their affections; to meet every objection, and clearly to resolve it; to drive sinners to a stand, and make them see there is no hope, but that they must unavoidably either be converted or condemned – and to do all this, as regards language and manner, as beseems our work, and yet as is most suitable to the capacities of our hearers. . . . O, therefore, brethren, lose no time! Study, and pray, and confer, and practice; for in these four ways your abilities must be increased.”
Brothers, we must take heed to ourselves: our conversions, our hearts, our examples, our holiness, and our skills. This is our top priority as pastors.
Making It Personal
*Study your own life and heart in light of Scripture (e.g. 1 John). Do you bear the marks of true conversion?
*How is your devotional life? Is your heart more like a burning hearth or a deepfreeze?
*What part of your teaching have you not yet practiced? Where do your walk and talk not match?
*Are you putting sin to death (Romans 8:12)?
*Are you regularly sharpening your skills for rightly handling God’s Word?
 Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, reprint)
 John Owen, The Mortification of Sin: Abridged and Made Easy to Read by Richard Rushing (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, reprint), 5.
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