Another well-known preacher is overcome by moral failure and, as a result, some media pundits imply that all preachers are somehow muddied up and suspect. It’s a funny thing but when a President fell morally a few years ago, there was no suggestion that all presidents were somehow untrustworthy, but there it is.
Like it or not, the world has a different standard for us preachers. While our fallen brother wakes up to the numbing consequences of his immoral lifestyle, which will include among other things the loss of his position, reputation, political influence, perks, privileges, and the simple but powerful honor of being trusted by a lot of people, what can the rest of us do to prevent a recurrence?
The awful truth is that we can do nothing. What’s more, we have no idea who may be next, but someone will be. Augustine said, “Nothing whatever in the way of goodness pertaining to godliness and real holiness can be accomplished without grace.” He was right, of course. In truth, we cannot save our own soul. We can, however, do some things that will help us avoid moral failure: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Speak to the entire assembly of
I never read those words without going back in memory’s eye to where I first met them. It was on a framed embroidery that hung on my grandmother’s kitchen wall. Speaking of holiness, C.S. Lewis in his Letters to An American Lady, writes, “How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing, it is irresistible.”
“I am holy” God says to Moses, and that is why my people are to be holy. Ever since the Fall, there is a vast difference between God’s holiness and ours. The idea of God’s holiness in the Old Testament has two distinct marks to it. The first is absoluteness and majesty. When Hannah speaks of His holiness, “There is none as holy as the LORD” (1 Sam. 2:2), she refers not so much to God’s ethics as to His supreme divinity.
The second mark of God’s holiness is His ethical character. He never fails morally or ethically. Try as we might, we cannot equal this attribute. We can, however, strive to reflect something of God’s character, which Isaiah spotted right away in the temple: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:3).
We cannot be unceasingly holy like God but we can strive to be better reflections of Him. “Who may stand in the LORD’s holy place?” David asks, then answers, “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false” (Psalm 24:3,4).
In those northern European forests near where I grew up, the ermine is noted for its snow-white winter fur. That little animal will do whatever it deems necessary to protect its pure white coat. Fur hunters, having learned how to take advantage of this unusual sense of animal pride, do not set traps to catch ermine. Instead, they smear the entrance to an ermine’s rocky crevice home with grime and dirt then set their dogs loose to sniff out and chase the little creatures. When the dogs come near, the startled ermine scurries toward its home for protection. Spotting the grime on its doorstep, however, the ermine refuses to cross it and risk getting dirty. Rather than soil that white coat, the ermine allows itself to be captured in an effort to save its purity. For the ermine, purity is of more value than life itself.
How do we achieve personal purity? Through disciplined and intensive prayer, time in God’s word, and determined examination of the motivation of all our actions. Only when we value holiness the way the ermine values outward purity – and daily strive in the power of God’s Spirit to maintain it – can we dare to live in the hope that we will not be the next preacher caught up in some scandal. Meanwhile, we will do well to remember the sage words of 10th century Abbot Moses, “They who are conscious of their own sins have no eyes for the sins of their neighbors.” Another preacher has fallen – let the rest of us be not quick to cast our stones.
Those of us whose senses have been aroused to know the difference between good and evil grieve the pain that we all feel when one of us falls. Let us also resolve that with God’s help we will each day do all we can to stay away from borderline sin and moral carelessness. “Be holy” is not just embroidery framed for hanging on a wall. It is a serious commandment to a lifestyle choice that comes with our calling to preach.
Robert Leslie Holmes is Senior Pastor of Saxe Gotha Presbyterian Church in