Theodore Pease was a powerful congregational preacher in the late 1800s. “It is quietly assumed in many quarters that the special charm of the Christian ministry is broken,” he declared in 1893. “That the distinctive attraction of this field of labor is in large measure irretrievably lost.”
It is a delight to report that Pease’s claim largely does not stick—even 130 years later. Churches are growing. The gospel is advancing. Many students enroll in seminary ready to learn pastoral theology with an earnestness about faithfulness to Jesus Christ in pastoral ministry.
Training in Pastoral Theology
The Lord Jesus assures us that the church will never fail (Matt 16:18). And so, we are confident that the ministry will not fall either.
In shaping future ministers for service in Christ’s church, we are laboring for a revival in pastoral theology. Renewal in this subject means training students in four key areas.
We need revival in our piety. Before we can build the preaching, we must build the preacher. Seminary students must be children of God before they can preach God’s Word (1 Tim 6:11; 2 Tim 3:17). They must be lovers of Christ before they can preach Christ’s love (2 Cor 5:14; Col 1:28). They must stroll with the Spirit before they can preach in the Spirit’s power (Gal 5:16, 25; 1 Cor 2:1–5).
One model for such a ministry is Robert Murray M’Cheyne. One of his more searching statements came in a letter to his friend, the Rev. Dan Edwards. He wrote in October of 1840, “Remember you are God’s sword—his instrument—I trust a chosen vessel unto him to bear his name. In great measure, according to the purity and perfections of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”
Personal piety is always the first lesson in pastoral theology.Personal piety is always the first lesson in pastoral theology. What Christ’s church needs most are pastors thriving in communion with the Triune God. “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching,” Paul commanded Timothy. “Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16). We insist on this priority because without personal piety no minister has a reason to expect God’s blessing on their ministry (2 Tim 2:21).
We need revival in our praying. “Of course the preacher is above all others distinguished as a man of prayer,” Charles Spurgeon lectured. “He prays as an ordinary Christian, else he were a hypocrite. He prays more than ordinary Christians, else he were disqualified for the office which he has undertaken.”
Revival comes through prayer. Study any period of awakening in church history, and you’ll discover the centrality of prayer—public and private. We need preachers who proclaim Jesus Christ with compassion and courage. We need men burning with the zeal that comes from an enflamed love of Christ. We long for men who expose the secret sins in the congregation and lead them to the balm of the gospel. We need angelic ministers who shine with the eternal weight of glory. If we do not ask, we will not have.
Before one can be a preacher of Jesus Christ, one must be a man of prayer. Prayer is one half of our ministry and gives the other half—preaching—its life and power. We recognize that men will never preach properly if they do not pray fervently.
We need revival in our preaching. We long for ministers who prize the treasure that is heralding Jesus Christ. What glory belongs to faithful preaching! Preaching is the ordinary means by which God awakens cold, crusty, and callous hearts to breathe in the grace of faith. Preaching is the chariot that carries Christ to sinners’ hearts. It is the spiritual sword God uses to assault hell’s gates and ruin Satan’s strongholds. The Sun of Righteousness (Mal 4:2) dawns upon the earth in his proclaimed Word to harden clay hearts and melt icy souls. Preaching convicts, illuminates, rebukes, encourages, and enlivens the soul.
We strive for students to learn what it means to herald the gospel with logic on fire and eloquent reason. Preachers are not merely to preach about Christ, they are to preach Christ. “We are to preach the Gospel, and not to preach about the Gospel. That is a very vital distinction, which one cannot put into words, but which is nevertheless really important. There are men who think that they are preaching the Gospel when actually in fact they are saying things about the Gospel,” Martyn Lloyd-Jones explained. We aim for students to know this vital distinction.
We need revival in our persevering. The first three traits of pastoral theology are essential and probably predictable. But we find this fourth and final characteristic is one often forgotten.
Ministry is a mantle that Christ places on the shoulders of his servants. The weight is heavy. Shepherding sheep is both exhausting and exhilarating. We pray for students to leave their studies not merely prepared in piety and prayer and equipped to preach, but also ready to persevere.
Charles Bridges calls ministers to remember that “our ‘heavenly pattern’ did indeed furnish a striking illustration of the true spirit of the Christian minister—‘doing so with our might.’” Our Savior’s ministry was one of unblushing activity as he never lost an opportunity to be useful to lost and weary souls. The Apostle Paul trod the same ministerial path. With undaunted perseverance, he was “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:8–9).
Instructing the next generation in pastoral theology means calling them to the Lord’s joy, which is their strength (Neh 8:10). Apart from Jesus Christ, the Lord’s servant can do nothing (John 15:5). We thus train students unto readiness in Christ, a readiness for giving their mental, emotional, spiritual lives in the church. The verse we long to place as frontlet between their eyes is, “So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Cor 4:12).
Pastoral Theology Unto Eternity
Richard Baxter once penned a poem titled “Love Breathing Thanks and Praise.” The verses contain his famous rhyme about ministering in light of eternity.
Still thinking I had little time to live,
My fervent heart to win men’s souls did strive.
I preached as never sure to preach again,
And as a dying man to dying men!
O how should preachers men’s repenting crave
Who see how near the Church is to the grave?
A minister’s task is to grow in piety, be faithful in praying and preaching, and persevere through trials, and so set Jesus Christ before souls, preparing God’s children to live well and die well.
That’s the kind of pastoral theology we want to have, whether in the classroom, in the pulpit, or at the bedside.
An adapted version of this article is available at The Gospel Coalition.