“Your temper is uneven; you lack love for your neighbors. You grow angry too easily; your tongue is too sharp—thus the people will not hear you.” John Wesley wrote these words to a struggling preacher. In them, we are reminded that the impact of our preaching isn’t ultimately determined by our mastery of homiletic technique or our clever use of illustration. The preaching that transforms lives is rooted as deeply in how we live as in what we say. In other words, preaching to change lives requires us to preach with integrity. Integrity is “the state of being whole or undivided.” As preachers, we demonstrate integrity when unity exists between the truth we proclaim to our congregations and the lives we live before them. Simply put, integrity exists when we “practice what we preach.”
The call to preach requires more of us than verbal proclamation of truth. We must not only speak God’s Word so it can be heard; we must live God’s Word so it can be seen. To know this, we need look no further than the ministry of Christ. Jesus is our model for ministry. Jesus is God’s perfect preacher. John 1:14 tells us that, in Jesus, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen His glory.” Jesus did more than speak truth. He lived as truth incarnate. Consider Jesus’ sermon on servanthood in John 13. His words (13:13-17) are empowered by his life (13:1-5). What Jesus says and what Jesus is are one and the same! This is our model for preaching.
Paul, too, understood that the call to preach is a call to both speak and live the truth. Paul committed himself to a life of integrity that both validated and empowered his preaching. He lived carefully so as to put “no stumbling block in anyone’s path.” More surprising—and certainly more challenging—was Paul’s habit of calling attention to his own conduct. Twice he pleads with the Corinthians to “Imitate me!” To the Philippians he says, “Join with others in following my example.” According to Hebrews 13:7, we should be able to make this same plea. As preachers, we, too, are called to live a life worthy of imitation.
But what does that mean? How “good” do we have to be to be “good enough” to preach? What’s a life of integrity look like? One thing’s for sure—it’s not about perfection. Paul makes that clear in Philippians 3:12. He speaks of his own life and writes, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ has taken hold of me.”
Paul admits it—he wasn’t perfect. But he was striving. He was growing. He was making progress in his Christian life. From his example, we understand that the integrity that empowers our preaching isn’t a standard to be met—although standards are involved. Rather, integrity is a process—a daily process of “pressing on” with Christ. Choosing to actively engage in this process is a big part of what it means to live a life worthy of imitation. When we, as preachers, are careful to “press on” in our own spiritual lives, we serve as visual aids for younger believers trying to grasp what it means to follow Christ, we learn to respond to life’s circumstances in God’s way, and we help those we preach to do the same. When we sin, we can show them what it means to seek forgiveness. When sinned against, we can model what it means to forgive. When we grieve, we can demonstrate how to grieve with hope.
In the end, of course, we have to admit that our lives will never perfectly reflect the truth we preach. Even so, by God’s grace, we can be the kind of messengers others can point to and say, “There! That’s what following Jesus looks like.” And showing people what following Jesus looks like is the integrity that makes our hearers sit up and listen. It’s the integrity God uses to change lives when we preach.