Today I lost a father.
Not my biological father. A father in the faith.
A man who shaped the faith of my maternal grandparents.
A man who shaped the congregation in which I was nurtured in the early days of my walk with Christ.
A man who shaped the congregation in which I now minister.
I well remember the first time I sat under the ministry of Dr. Alan Cairns. It was June 25, 2002. A Tuesday evening. The Lord had saved me just five weeks prior and I couldn’t get enough of the Word of God. As such, when I heard there was a conference nearby in Ballymena Free Presbyterian Church, I went along.
I had already heard of Dr. Cairns. He had ministered in the church I attended for about 15 years and was good friends with my maternal grandparents. My grandparents would have the Cairns’ in their home regularly, and showed the young couple much kindness during his time in North Antrim, creating a bond that was evident many decades later. Because of this friendship, Dr. Cairns had already heard the reports that God had been working in ‘the Owens family’ under the ministry of Rev. David Park, and that among them was a grandson of Tommy and Maria Owens.
I sat that Tuesday evening, listening to this pastor-theologian with a tender and newly circumcised heart, as Dr. Cairns dealt with Christ’s temptations in the wilderness. I was as an infant being served the finest filet mignon in the world. In one sense the content was beyond me. But it didn’t feel that way. It seemed as if the Holy Spirit cut that steak into fine pieces so that this toothless infant could chew and digest it with lasting benefit to the soul. Today I listened to a couple of the sermons from that conference, and it feels as if much of the content was fused into my DNA.
Shortly after that time I bought my first MP3 player. It was expensive for what it was, but it allowed me to put about a dozen sermons on it at a time, and along with Ian Paisley, Leonard Ravenhill, A. W. Tozer, and others, I listened to Dr. Cairns with regularity. It wasn’t intentional, but I was being shaped by a man ministering thousands of miles away.
I well remember trying to continue my work through a flood of tears as I listened to a Reformation Month message from 2003, titled Wanted: Preachers With Passion and Power. The sermon epitomizes the burden Dr. Cairns had to see young men give their lives to preach Christ. He took for his text Joshua 1:2, “Moses my servant is dead; now therefore arise” and with oratorical ability few possess, he intertwined and applied the history of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, William Farel, John Calvin, Patrick Hamilton, George Wishart, John Knox, Hugh Latimer, George Whitefield, John Wesley, etc, etc. The message is a clarion call for men of ability, diligence, conviction, and prayer to inhabit the pulpit, and I still recommend it to young men thinking about the ministry.
Exactly two years after my first experience of Dr. Cairns’ ministry, once again he was in Ballymena for their annual conference. By this time I was preparing to go to Bible College. I had applied and been accepted to begin the two-year course in September, and had absolutely no intention of pastoral ministry. As I told Dr. Cairns of my plans, I can still hear him say to me, “I strongly urge you to reconsider.” He appealed to me to do the ministerial course, arguing that the extra two years would prepare me for whatever the Lord would have for me in the future. I thank God for the grace given to submit to this counsel. It was the first step in overcoming my fear of the Christian ministry, but almost 11 years would pass from the time of that conversation until my ordination.
He expressed his joy in the call I received to minister in North America, and when he visited us in Calgary in October 2017 to mark the 500 years since the Protestant Reformation, I believe it encouraged him to see what God was doing in the congregation. Nothing gave him greater joy than to see the kingdom of Christ advance.
Now I stand in the pulpit from which he preached sermons that have blessed untold thousands of souls. Although I labor in the congregation to which he committed almost 30 years of his life, I am well aware that I am no Dr. Cairns. He was, without question in my mind, one of the greatest preachers of his generation in the English-speaking world. As so often is the case, I believe future generations will appreciate his body of work far more than the current generation. Yet, like many of those to whom I minister, the influence of this mighty preacher is upon us.
I last spoke to Dr. Cairns at the beginning of the year—a two-hour conversation via FaceTime. He assured me he was praying for me every day. He always believed that the best is yet to be, and while his voice no longer pierces heaven for the Lord’s work, I trust his prayers will yet be answered, and that Greenville will see the revival for which he earnestly prayed.
I count it an extraordinary kindness from the Lord that I get to minister to many people that understand why I loved Dr. Cairns so much. Under his ministry, they, like me, learned to love him like no other people on earth. We treasure his memory together, and carry the legacy of preaching to the world salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in the merits of Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.
“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Psalms 116:15).