The Care of Souls: The Heart of the Reformation

“The Reformation … was a pastoral care movement growing directly out of care for the salvation of the soul” (Ronald Wallace)

Too easily people conceive of the Reformation as an academic discussion, debates about the finer points of theology, high falutin ideas of interest to some people but disconnected from real life, struggles, heart ache, “the things I deal with.” It is important for us to be rescued from such notions lest this important event in our history become yet one more dusty item on the shelf, pulled out for special chapels and certain classes but otherwise forgotten.

The Reformation was a diverse movement with various pieces including excesses and unfortunate incidences. But at its center was a pulsing, yearning concern for the well-being of souls.  Its leaders were pastors at pains to lead their flock- and others from around the world- to forgiveness before God and the living hope which comes from that, the knowledge of God’s care and presence in the real hardships of this world and the certain hope of resurrection.

Take, for example, the event pointed to as the launching pad of the Reformation, Luther’s posting of his 95 theses. What provoked this? Not academic subtleties or political aspiration. No! Instead it was a moment of pastoral, “Oh, no you don’t!” The issue was that Johann Tetzel (a forerunner of Benny Hinn and Oral Roberts, and other hucksters try to use God to make money) arrived telling Luther’s people they could buy God’s grace and forgiveness without any concern for faith or repentance. Tetzel was toying with the fears of the people and manipulating their emotions- “Are you so tight-fisted not to pay now so that dear grandma can escape the torments of purgatory? As soon as a coin in the coffer rings a soul from purgatory springs!”

Luther had not yet even worked out his theology of justification but he recognized this treachery and the damning effects it would have on unsuspecting souls who were duped by it. The event springs from an earnest desire to shepherd souls and guide them safely to heaven.

Care for the Church/ Pastoral Care

Luther elsewhere said of pastors:

Men who hold the office of the ministry should have the heart of a mother toward the church; for if they have no such heart, they soon become lazy and disgusted, and suffering, in particular, will find them unwilling…  Unless your heart toward the sheep is like that of a mother toward her children- a mother, who walks through fire to save her children- you will not be fit to be a preacher. Labor, work, unthankfulness, hatred, envy, and all kinds of sufferings will meet you in this office. If, then, the mother heart, the great love, is not there to drive the preachers, the sheep will be poorly served.[1]

It is this love for people which drove Luther’s ministry as he not only wrote theological treatises, took on the powers of the world of his day, and endured death threats but also counseled hundreds personally & in his letters and attended to countless aspects of daily ministry including wrote a guide to teaching children. Once his barber told him he struggled with prayer so Luther went home and wrote a brief treatise on prayer for his barber! Luther opens with: “Dear Master Peter: I will tell you as best I can what I do personally when I pray. May our dear Lord grant to you and to everybody to do it better than I!” Luther directs him to the Psalms and other parts of Scripture to use in shaping his prayers.

This was the concern of the Reformers, helping their people learn how to live and relate to God. They knew they had rediscovered the life giving gospel and that they were surrounded by people in desperate need of this gospel.

Then we can turn to Calvin.

In 1538 the people of Geneva ran Calvin off, kicked him out. The next year the city received a letter from a Catholic archbishop urging them to return to Rome. Unable to respond, they sought out Calvin, the pastor they had rejected just the previous year. We might understand if, in such a situation, a pastor said, “Forget it! I’m not bothering with you. You didn’t want me, remember?” But that was not Calvin’s response. Instead he wrote a careful, pointed response, protecting Geneva and giving them ground to stand on. In his response, Calvin wrote;

For though I am for the present relieved of the charge of the Church of Geneva, that circumstance ought not to prevent me from embracing it with paternal affection — God, when he gave it to me in charge, having bound me to be faithful to it forever. Now, then, when I see the worst snares laid for that Church, whose safety it has pleased the Lord to make my highest care, and grievous peril impending if not obviated, who will advise me to await the issue silent and unconcerned? How heartless, I ask, would it be to wink in idleness, and, as it were, vacillating at the destruction of one whose life you are bound vigilantly to guard and preserve? ..

assuredly I cannot cut off that charge any more than that of my own soul…

my ministry (which, knowing it to be from Christ, I am bound, if need be, to maintain with my blood)

Elsewhere, Calvin made this comment on pastoral care:

we who have charge to teach the people must not only see what is profitable for them all in general, but we must also deal with everyone according to his age.

But we must mark also, that it is not enough for a man who is a shepherd in the Church of God, to preach, and cast abroad the word into the air, we must have private admonitions also. And this is a point that many deceive themselves in. For they think that the order of the Church was made for no other end and purpose but that they should come to Church one hour in the week, or certain days, and there hear a man speak, and when he has come out of the pulpit, he should hold his peace. Those who think so, show themselves sufficiently, that they never knew, either what Christianity, or God’s order, meant.

For as we see in this passage, … when he who has preached the word has taught the people, he must have an eye to those who have need to be warned of their faults privately…. And therefore, if we want to do our duty toward God, and to those who are committed to our charge, it is not enough for us to offer them the doctrine generally, but when we see any of them go astray, we must labor to bring him to the right way. When we see another in grief and sorrow, we must go about to comfort him. When we see anyone who is dull of the spirit, we must prick him and spur him, as his nature will bear.

Calvin, and the other Reformers like him, were not aloof preachers simply dispensing information. They were shepherds involved in the everyday life of their people, seeing it as their task to help the people know God, pray, worship God, persevere and one day die well with the hope of the resurrection.

Examples of this abound, but one clear place this is seen is when the plague hit. People died at an alarming rate and the showing of symptoms was regarded as a sign of death. Many fled the cities. But these men stayed at their posts.

Zwingli- 25% of the people in his town, his people, died of the plague and Zwingli was there ministering to them. He came down with the plague and almost died but survived.

Calvin- when the plague came through and many fled, the pastors of Geneva met to ask who would visit the infected and care for them. Calvin volunteered but the other ministers said they could not afford to lose him and held him back.

This pastoral care can also be seen in their counseling which we have recorded in their voluminous correspondence.

One of Calvin’s colleagues in Geneva wrote this of Calvin’s pastoral ministry:

“No words of mine can declare the fidelity and prudence with which he gave counsel. The kindness with which he received all who came to him, the clearness and promptitude with which he replied to those who asked his opinion on the most important questions, and the ability with which he disentangled the difficulties and problems which were laid before him. Nor can I express the gentleness with which he could comfort the afflicted and raise the fallen and distressed.”[2]

Calvin’s correspondence is itself a primary evidence of his pastoral heart, both in how many letters he took time to write and in how we wrote. Many of these letters had to do with diplomatic issues involving nations and the church at large. But as R Wallace notes, “even the diplomatic gives way entirely to an evangelistic motive and we find that his first concern is with his correspondent as a person. Is he or she keeping close to God, listening to his word continually, and likely to continue to resist the temptations of Satan in order to keep running well in the Christian race- in other words, how is it with your soul?”[3]

In one letter, Calvin wrote to comfort a father who was grieving the death of his son, a student whom Calvin had known well. His letter opens with these words:

When I first received intelligence of the death … of your son Louis, I was so utterly overpowered that for many days I was fit for nothing but to grieve; and albeit I was somehow upheld before the Lord by those aids wherewith he sustains our souls in affliction, among men, however, I was almost a nonentity.[4]

This is no fatalistic, unemotional response. Neither is it an lame, impotent response of an ivory tower academician. Calvin, as a faithful pastor, begins with joining his friend’s grief and then moved to sharing with this father the truths of God’s care and providence which bolstered his own soul. Calvin points to the son’s faith in the gospel and the way it obviously impacted his life, so that the father can hope of reunion in heaven.

After reminding the father of these grounds of comfort, Calvin returns to the reality of grief.

Neither do I insist upon your laying aside all grief. Nor, in the school of Christ, do we learn any such philosophy as requires us to put off that common humanity with which God has endowed us, that, being men, we should be turned to stones.

Another example is Martin Bucer, who was a mentor to Calvin.

Bucer wrote Concerning the True Care for Souls, a significant treatise on pastoral ministry, and his typical phrase for pastors was “carers for Souls”

“Where are the innocent servants of Christ who bring Christ’s sheep nothing but the Lord’s voice and word, who are zealous to seek all the Lord’s lost sheep, to bring back those which have gone astray, to heal the injured, to strengthen the weak, to guard the strong and see them aright [Ezek. 34:16]?” (xxxii)

“…those ministers of Christ who abandon the baptized … will find it difficult to give account for them to God and Christ our Lord… [T]he Lord will accuse these unreliable and unfaithful shepherds with great dismay: You have not searched for the lost [Ezek. 34:4] (89)

[Concerning straying members, the pastor] leave no stone unturned until we have carried them too on our shoulders back to be with Christ’s sheep and in the whole communion of Christ. (93)

The good of souls/evangelism-


“My office and that of every preacher and minister, does not consist in any sort of lordship but in serving all of you, so that you learn to know God, become baptized, and finally are saved.” (“Ministers Are Servants,” What Luther Says, 923-924)


The Register of the Company of Pastors in Geneva records numerous people who were sent out from Geneva in this time to “evangelize foreign parts.” The records are incomplete and eventually it became too dangerous to record the names of men being sent out, but more than 100 were sent out in one year alone.

Philip Hughes notes that Geneva became a “school of missions” which had as one of its purposes:

“to send out witnesses who would spread the teaching of the Reformation far and wide . . . . It [Geneva] was a dynamic centre of missionary concern and activity, an axis from which the light of the Good News radiated forth through the testimony of those who, after thorough preparation in this school, were sent forth in the service of Jesus Christ.”[5]

Then in 1556 Calvin and his fellow ministers helped to support the first mission endeavor to target the New World, with a group sent to Brazil.

When you consider the lack of resources, the resistance, the persecution (each man sent out knew he was likely to be arrested, tortured and killed), this mission work will stand well against anything we have to offer today.

Quotes from Calvin’s Sermons on 1 Timothy:

“seeing that God has made you a Minister to save souls, you must employ yourself all the more mightily, and with greater zeal and earnestness.”

we should take good hearts when we see the thanklessness of men and when we see that we cannot bring them to salvation, as it were to be wished, yet must we not neglect to devote ourselves and take pains therein. Therefore, if we see men go on to cast themselves away and refuse the grace that is offered them by our means, let us still go on … the ministers of the word of God must direct themselves to all, both small and great. They must have this desire to edify all the world. But if there are deaf men that cannot hear them, if there are wicked men that refuse to hear them, if there are scoffers that bring all to confusion, what must they do? Let them go on still, and call as many to God as they can, … Therefore, we must take pains to draw all the world to salvation.

“the glory of God is precious to us, and the salvation of our neighbors dear to us”

‘let them especially that have charge to preach the word of God, have this zeal and take heed to themselves, and say thus within themselves, “Why has God placed me here?” To the end that church should increase more and more, and the salvation of men be always sought for.’

“If all we do is go up into the pulpit to preach, though we had the best grace that a man could wish for, it is nothing. It is no better than the sound of a brass pan. .. Such shall we be, if we have good doctrine in our mouths, and our lives are wicked. …. Our life must speak as well as our tongues, and we must endeavor to walk uprightly, to the end that others may follow us. It is said of all believers that they must draw their neighbors to God in such a way that they must go with them.”

As Calvin expounds Paul’s call to pray “for all men” (1 Timothy 2) he applies this to our missionary responsibility to the world. Here are some excerpts:

“in addition to praying for the faithful, we should also have pity and compassion on the poor unbelievers, asking God to draw them unto us so that all of us may be of one accord.

“Saint Paul’s meaning in this place is to show us what the children of God ought to employ themselves in doing, and it is this, that we should not travail unprofitably, but instead call upon God and ask him to work toward the salvation of the whole world, and that we give ourselves to this work both night and day.”

“he wanted to show that we must not only pray for the faithful, who are our brothers already, but for those who are very far off, those poor unbelievers.  Even though there seems to be a great distance and a thick wall between both, nevertheless we must have pity for their coming destruction, to the end that me may pray to God that he would draw them unto him.”

“the greatest pleasure we can do to men is to pray to God for them, and call upon him for their salvation.”

“And .. let us have pity on the poor wandering sheep who go on to destruction, … even though they are enemies to the Church, and scatter themselves far from us.”

“The Holy Ghost … called them also Bishops, that is to say, watchmen over the flock, to show that it is not an honor of idleness to be called to this state, and therefore that he must not be idle, but know that he is sent to go about the saving of souls, and therefore must give himself to it and be watchful therein, and take pains about it.”


Bucer’s book, Concerning the True Care of Souls, which I mentioned previously, is filled with evangelistic pathos and exhortation. He even rebukes the church for failing to mount a more serious missionary endeavor to the “Jews & Turks” and says the current threat from the Turks is God’s judgment for their failure! (cf. p.87)

The first point, that true carers of souls and faithful ministers of Christ are not to miss anyone anywhere out with the word of salvation, but diligently to endeavor to seek out all those to whom they may have access in order to lead them to Christ our Lord, is the testimony and teaching not only of the above texts, but also of all the prophecies and sermons concerning the kingdom of Christ which we have in the whole of Scripture. (76)

But it is not the Lord’s will to reveal to us the secrets of his election; rather he commands us to go out into all the world and preach his gospel to every creature… The fact that all people have been made by God and are God’s creatures should therefore be reason enough for us to go to them, seeking with the utmost faithfulness to bring them to eternal life. (77)

But the faithful members of Christ are not to give up lightly on anyone, as long as people are still people and God’s creatures and have not shown themselves to be dogs by raging all the more against those who call them to the kingdom of heaven, the more faithfully such people want to assist them to find salvation… (78)

He desires that they should be sought wherever they are scattered, and sought with such seriousness and diligence that one should be ready to be all things to all men, as dear Paul was [1 Cor. 9:22], and even to hazard one’s own life, as the Lord himself did, so that the lost lambs might be found and won. (78)

one should be so persistent with people that to the evil flesh it seems to be a compulsion and urgent pressing, because the Spirit in this way works against the flesh in order to lead people to Christ. (78)

…we are to be, become and do everything for these stray sheep, and bear, avoid or suffer everything from them and for their sakes, until we have placed them back again in the true and complete communion of the church, to be pastured and sheltered by Christ in the church. (94)

…those who are ordained to the pastoral office in the church are to be the principal physicians of souls and guardians… (121)

“May the Lord Jesus, our chief Shepherd and Bishop, grant us such elders and carers of souls as will seek his lambs which are still lost, bring back those which have wandered, heal those which are wounded, strengthen those which are sickly, and guard and feed in the right way those which are healthy…” (193)

Finally, remember, that this urgent, passionate call for evangelistic and missionary activity arises from a setting in which many of the men sent out as missionaries are killed.

In one letter Calvin addresses men who had been captured and imprisoned in Lyons for preaching the gospel. He had previously written and worked for their release. But once it was clear that all efforts had failed and their execution seemed imminent, Calvin wrote to encourage them to stand fast. Here is an excerpt from that letter:

Now, at this present hour, necessity itself exhorts you more than ever to turn your whole mind heavenward. As yet, we know not what will be the event. But since it appears as though God would use your blood to sign His truth, there is nothing better than for you to prepare yourselves to that end, beseeching Him so to subdue you to His good pleasure, that nothing may hinder you from following whithersoever he shall call. …You know, however, in what strength you have to fight—a strength on which all those who trust, shall never be daunted, much less confounded. Even so, my brothers, be confident that you shall be strengthened, according to your need, by the Spirit of our Lord Jesus, so that you shall not faint under the load of temptations, however heavy it be, any more than he did who won so glorious a victory, that in the midst of our miseries it is an unfailing pledge of our triumph. Since it pleases Him to employ you to the death in maintaining His quarrel, He will strengthen your hands in the fight, and will not suffer a single drop of your blood to be spent in vain. And though the fruit may not all at once appear, yet in time it shall spring up more abundantly than we can express. But as He hath vouchsafed you this privilege, that your bonds have been renowned, and that the noise of them has been everywhere spread abroad, it must needs be, in despite of Satan, that your death should resound far more powerfully, so that the name of our Lord be magnified thereby. For my part, I have no doubt, if it please this kind Father to take you unto Himself, that he has preserved you hitherto, in order that your long-continued imprisonments might serve as a preparation for the better awakening of those whom He has determined to edify by your end. For let enemies do their utmost, they never shall be able to bury out of sight that light which God has made to shine in you, in order to be contemplated from afar.

This spirit of abandon for the sake of the gospel and the souls of men is the heritage of the Reformation and we must maintain it. Far from being unconcerned about gospel proclamation, the example of these men is a strong challenge- even a rebuke- to us in our comfortable setting.

So, Christian, does the gospel animate your life making you a person deeply concerned for and carefully aware of those around you? This example of our forebears calls us to this sort of faithfulness.

Young theologs, if your main activity is discussing theology, but it does not result in a deep love and concern for people, you are no heir of the Reformation, regardless of your theological positions.

Then, some others of you may have come here with nothing more on your mind that Halloween. But, how is it between you and God? Death and the realm of darkness are real. And sin weighs us down, separating us from God, dragging us down to hell, a reality beyond anything played with on this day. There is a real enemy of your soul who seeks to destroy you. But there is an even greater Champion, Jesus, who has defeated sin, death, hell and the devil and He will rescue you, adopt you as His own if you will simply turn from your sin and trust in Him. The gospel we’ve been celebrating is no relic of history. It is the power of god unto salvation, salvation for you today if you will believe.

[1] Martin Luther, “Ministers” in What Luther Says: A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active Christian, ed. Ewald M. Plass (1959; repr., Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1994), 932.

[2]Des Gallars. Cited in “The Pastoral Emphasis of Calvin’s Ministry,” The Counsel of Chalcedon (March/April, 1997), 12.

[3] Cited in “The Pastoral Emphasis of Calvin’s Ministry,” 15.

[4] Cited in the helpful essay by Robert Godfrey, “The Counselor to the Afflicted,” in John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine and Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons (Reformation Trust, 2008), 88.

[5] Philip Hughes, ed. and trans., The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1966), 25.

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