A Love for Souls

What is the work of a shepherd? This is.

Jonathan Edwards on the Ministry (15)

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. John 13.1

“Ministers should be animated in this work by a great love for the souls of men, and should be ready to spend and be spent for them; for Christ loved them, and gave himself for them: he loved them with a love stronger than death. They should have compassion on men under their spiritual miseries, as Christ had pity on them.”

  - Jonathan Edwards, Christ the Example to Ministers

Watching over souls

“Ministry would be great if it weren’t for the people.” 

I’ve heard variations of that sentiment on many occasions, and, while I know it’s always meant in jest, still, it contains a kernel of truth. Working with sinners and all their spiritual miseries is tough, especially since we’re miserable sinners ourselves. 

But when God puts it in our hearts to love those in our charge, every exertion on their behalf becomes a source of joy and satisfaction, for then we know we are loving with the love of Jesus, and not on our own strength. Jesus loved His disciples to the very end – the end of His patience, strength, and life. And He insisted that loving others like this – especially those who are our brethren in the Lord, and more especially those who are entrusted to our care – is the mark of genuine discipleship (Jn. 13.35).

The calling of shepherds is not to preach. It’s not to teach. It’s not to counsel, administer, organize, evangelize, lead worship, or have a personal parking space and your name on the sign out front. Most of these things are essential to fulfilling the calling to shepherd God’s flock, but none of them, nor all of them together, are the calling.

The calling of shepherds is to watch over the souls of God’s people, out of the love of Christ, by and in the love of Christ, and unto the love of Christ in their lives and ours. The shepherd is the soul’s physician, as Edwards elsewhere put it, and the health and vitality of the souls of God’s people is his overriding focus and concern. Edwards explained that love for the souls of those entrusted to our care must “animate” and give direction to everything we do in ministry, so that everything will contribute in some way to God’s people growing in the Lord, and nothing will cause them to stumble.

Jesus loved His sheep enough to die for them. We must love them enough to bend all our energies in ministry to building them up in mind, heart, and conscience – strengthening their souls as the dwelling place of the Spirit and Word of God.

Spend and be spent
We cannot care for the souls of people we do not know, or the condition of whose souls we merely suppose to be a certain way. Shepherds must be diligent to know that state of their sheep, and to attend to them according to their needs (Prov. 27.23). This is more than one shepherd can accomplish, and that is why the Scriptures always represent local churches as being watched over by a company of shepherds – pastors and teachers and elders. No church can be said to be in proper order which does not have shepherds in place, sufficient to account for all the sheep and to know the condition of the soul of each one of them (Tit. 1.5). The work of shepherding involves developing the kind of relationships, trust, friendship, example, and time with the sheep that will allow us to spend our energies fruitfully, in building the body of Christ, member by member, from the inside-out.

Caring for the souls of God’s people means making sure that all our efforts in ministry are properly designed and faithfully carried out. If all we’re doing, for example, is encouraging people to learn lots of Bible and theological information – urging them to take good notes, work through this material, get in a Bible discussion group, read our latest book, and so forth – then we’re merely feeding one aspect of the soul to the neglect of the others.

Similarly, if all we want is for them to have positive affections – comfort, peace, happiness, joy – so that they feel good about themselves, the Lord, and our church, then we may not challenge their minds much; instead, we will construct an environment and offer programs that tend to “lift” their hearts. But not everything that lifts a person’s self-image or sense of wellbeing is necessarily in line with the truth of God.

Or we may simply ply them with “oughts” and formulas for doing this or that, or with lists of priorities and values to which they should adhere, whether or not they fully understand them and embrace them gladly. So we give them strong consciences, but weak minds and fearful hearts.

Shepherds need to know how to direct their efforts to the whole soul of a saint – mind, heart, and conscience. To teach and preach to the soul, counsel the soul, and assess its nurture and development. And they also need to learn how to identify the workings of the souls – how the soul comes to expression in words and deeds – so that they can address matters of knowledge, affection, or values as is appropriate.

All the flock
Watching over the souls of God’s people means all the people who associate with our fellowship (Acts 20.28). People who unite with our church should know that being shepherded is not an option. It’s not like Sunday school, or Bible study group, or short-term mission trips. Members must be shepherded, in and unto the love of Jesus, for this is the Good Shepherd’s preferred means of making disciples, building His Church, and advancing His Kingdom.

The love pastors have for the people entrusted to their care, and for the congregation as a whole, will be most faithfully and perfectly reflected in the efforts they expend to shepherd the flock, all the flock, beginning in the care and nurture of their souls. The Lord preserves the souls of His people, in all their going out and coming in (Ps. 121.8), as shepherds spend and are spent, in the love of Jesus, to watch over their souls with all diligence.

The apostles had no fixed place assigned to them, but were charged to spread the gospel through the whole world; and for this reason, when they left one city or district to go to another, they were wont to place fit men as their substitutes, to complete the work which they had begun. Thus Paul affirms that he founded the church of the Corinthians, but that there were other workmen, who must build on his foundation, that is, carry forward the building.

  
- John Calvin, Commentary on Titus 1.5

Shepherding God’s Flock?

How is the work of shepherding the souls of God’s people going in your church? Need a refresher? Consider enrolling in our course, “Shepherding God’s Flock,”at The Ailbe Seminary. It’s free, and it can help you get your church into a framework in which watching over the souls of all the people in your care is a real possibility.

Refresh your own soul: Pray for Revival!
Men, if you would like to pray for revival with other men, join us each Tuesday at 10:00 am Eastern, as we gather online around a psalm to seek the Lord for revival. If you’re interested in joining us, send me an email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and I’ll make sure you receive an invitation.

Please prayerfully consider sharing with The Fellowship of Ailbe through your giving. You can contribute to The Fellowship by clicking the Contribute button at the website or by sending your gift to The Fellowship of Ailbe, 19 Tyler Drive, Essex Junction, VT 05452.

Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Quotations from Jonathan Edwards, “Christ the Example to Ministers,” are from Edward Hickman, ed.,The Works of Jonathan Edwards(Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1834, 1995). Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

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