E.M. Bounds

The Pastor’s Closet Life

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Never before has it been more important for the preacher to be the same man in public as he is in private. A triplex of words come to mind that should mark every pastor’s ministry: integrity, consistency, and transparency. While God calls pastors to live above board in all respects (1 Tim 3:1-7), they understand that it doesn’t happen automatically. There is no autopilot feature on the steering wheel of the Christian life and ministry.

The pastor must give himself to prayer, which ought to add a fourth word to the above-mentioned triplex. And that word is privacy. Yes, as out of place as it may sound, the pastor’s ministry is forged in privacy. It is the closet of prayer, where he is shut up to God, dealt with by God, and is in the realm of no one but God–alone. It is there that the pastor is made, and made in the hands of his living Lord.

The pastor builds below the waterline, as God builds him. Such a pastor is hard at work in the labor that no one else sees. It is a work that is as secret as it is private. The pastor is one who is busy with his Father’s business, alone to him. Jesus said, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:6).

The Power of Prayer

Perhaps no one in recent history brings a more clarion call for praying pastors as Edward McKendree Bounds (1835-1913). He was one of the fiercest prayer warriors in America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His eight volumes on prayer have earned him a place of notoriety among those who study the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life.

Power Through Prayer, originally published as Preacher and Prayer in 1907, is perhaps his most well-known work of the collection. It’s filled with one-liners and quotes that have likely found their way into our sermons and perhaps the flyleaf of our Bibles. For example, Bounds reminds us that, “Prayer is one of the eminent forces of strong spiritual leadership. Men of mighty prayer are men of might, and mold things. Their power with God has the conquering tread.” It is no small thing to give oneself to the exercise of faithful, regular prayer. As James wrote, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).

But Bounds has more to say on prayer than simply generic encouragements for Christians. Throughout his writings, he seeks to make the critical connection between prayer and effective preaching. Much of Bounds’ corpus is aimed at the local church preacher, the pastor-theologian, who weeks to engage in a spiritual enterprise Christian proclamation while fighting battles of the supernatural kind. Therefore, Bounds rightly asserts, “A prayerful ministry is the only ministry qualified for the high offices and responsibilities of the preacher.”

Spirit-Empowered Preaching

When one reads Bounds, they will learn this much: The preacher must be a man of prayer. Prayer means power, and the success of any preacher’s ministry is contingent upon the attendance of an otherworldly power upon his preaching that is procured through sacrificial prayer. The preacher gives himself to the task of preaching in the study, but at the same time he must give himself to much praying in the closet. It is this prayer life that undergirds a man’s ministry, thus preparing him for Sunday’s assignment but more so equipping him for the long work and war of faithful ministry. Bounds writes,

How can a man preach who does not get his message fresh from God in the closet? How can he preach without having his faith quickened, his vision cleared, and his heart warmed by his closeting with God? Alas, for the pulpit lips which are untouched by this closet flame. Dry and unctionless they will ever be, and truths divine will never come with power from such lips. As far as the real interests of religion are concerned, a pulpit without a closet will always be a barren thing.

Preacher, do you have such a closet life?

Your preaching will tell on you. Our people will recognize whether or not we have “been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). Who we are as preachers and pastors in public will ultimately show what kind of men we are in private. Bounds makes a rightfully and most helpful connection between preaching and praying. We would do well to heed his instruction. But praying isn’t only about effective preaching, per se. It is also about the forging of a holy preacher. Prayer has a way of burning away the dross in a man’s life. Prayer has a way of keeping us from some things, and pulling us into others.

As a local church pastor, I am thankful for men like Bounds who remind me of the source of my strength (cf. Psalm 121). Pastors, may Bounds spur us on today. May you give yourself to the ministry of the word and prayer (Acts 6:4). It is in the closet where the preacher is made, and the sermon finds its frame. As Bounds wrote years ago, “Prayer and preaching: preaching and prayer! They cannot be separated. The ancient cry was : “To your tents, O Israel!” The modern cry should be: “To your knees, O preachers, to your knees!”

  • E.M. Bounds
  • Neal Thornton
  • Pastoral Ministry
  • Prayer
  • Preaching
Neal Thornton

Neal Thornton (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is pastor of Coats Baptist Church in Coats, North Carolina.

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