I am a mere month away from entering my first post as a senior pastor. Last week, that reality felt months and months away. Now, it feels more imminent than ever. For a while now, my wife and I have tried to make sense of our feelings as we entertain this significant season of transition in our lives, explaining our emotions as some strange amalgamation of nervous excitement. The prospect of moving 1,200 miles north to enlist in the service of God’s kingdom is daunting, to say the least. Nevertheless, we are keen to undertake the mantle of the ministry and to work diligently for the glory of Christ’s sake, knowing that it isn’t really us who are doing the work, but the grace of God that’s working in and through us. (1 Cor 15:10–11)
I’ve recently come across the book, Pastoral Theology: A Treatise on the Office and Duties of the Christian Pastor by Patrick Fairbairn, which has greatly enriched and enhanced my outlook on the pastorate. My intrigue at the title was heightened when I learned that Fairbairn was one of the frontrunners of the Free Church of Scotland after the national evangelical schism known as the Disruption of 1843. (Other dissenters include Thomas Chalmers, Thomas Guthrie, Andrew Bonar, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, and perhaps my favorite historical churchman, Horatius Bonar.) He would eventually become the leading moderator for the Free Church’s General Assembly. Fairbairn spent the bulk of his ministerial efforts as the Professor of Church History and Exegesis at the Free Church College in Glasgow. He was an exemplary writer and orator, possessing an unparalleled earnestness for propagating the truth of God. Perhaps his most valuable work is his Typology of Scripture, in which he endeavors to preoccupy the reader with a comprehensive look at the divine types and symbols that are interwoven in the Mosaic books of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, Fairbairn’s Pastoral Theology has grabbed my attention, of late, and it was only a few days ago when I came across this line in the opening chapter:
[The pastoral] office has to do with the oversight and care of souls . . .1
For some reason, I can’t escape this quote. I can’t shirk the notion that unlike any other chief executive position, the pastorate is an entrusting of souls to my account. Each person stepping across the threshold of the church isn’t a number or a statistic or an opportunity for church growth. They aren’t visiting so I can benefit from an increased ROI. They are a soul whose end is either eternal life or eternal death. This divine assignment heightens the seriousness with which I engage the office of pastor. (Jas 3:1) Notwithstanding how daunting it is to know that souls have been given to my charge, that recognition encourages me to rely not on my ability, my eloquence, or my strength, but on God’s Word and Spirit alone.
Accordingly, as this realization has crystalized in my own thinking, my approach to sermon preparation and delivery has similarly been “sobered.” That is, while I would certainly concede that there is a time and place for humor and lightheartedness in the pulpit (depending on the audience and the venue), the seriousness and significance of the pastorate as an office with souls on the line affords little space for expository laxity and leniency. How can I allot time in my sermon to riff on the latest Star Wars trailer or Avengers: Endgame spoiler or any other pop-culture allusion when a soul’s eternal destiny weighs in the balance? How can I be so nonchalant with the time I’ve been afforded to proclaim God’s Word of truth and grace? The preacher who has abandoned “sound doctrine” to itch the ears of those who want “to hear what they want to hear” (2 Tm 4:3) has likewise abandoned what constitutes a successful ministry. Fairbairn similarly contends:
The service which [New Testament Scriptures] associates with the ministry of the gospel is one that employs itself not with presenting a sacrifice for men, but in persuading them to believe in a sacrifice already offered, and through that promoting in them a work of personal reconciliation with God, and growing meetness for His presence and glory. Hence the ministry of the gospel as set forth in Scripture has the revealed word of God in Christ for its great instrument of working; and according as this word is received in faith, and brings forth in the lives of men the fruits of holiness, the end of the ministry is accomplished.2
As a pastor, I am duly charged with presenting to the souls in my midst “a sacrifice already offered,” a price already paid for their sins, a blood atonement already accomplished on their behalf. (1 Pt 2:24; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10) And though that is a joyous message, one that imbues the hearer with the knowledge of God’s glad tidings for them, it is an earnest and urgent message that yields minimal comedic margin. With the awareness, then, that souls are on my account, I am resolving myself, by the Spirit’s grace, to be a diligent and devoted expositor of the Word, “correctly teaching the word of truth.” (2 Tm 2:15)
Patrick Fairbairn, Pastoral Theology: A Treatise on the Office and Duties of the Christian Pastor (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1875), 39.