More than Preachers: The Solas and Soul-Care of the Reformers (Part 1)

In the 1500’s and 1600’s, the Solas that emerged from the Reformation were paramount to the proclamation of the true Christ of Scripture and biblical faith, to Europe and even the Americas.[1] They also were critical to lodging a public and much-needed blow to the abuses and totalitarian control of the Catholic Church leadership. But ultimately, they were orchestrated by God most basically for the glory of God and the salvation of man, and more immediately for shepherding of God’s people.

When we think of the protestant reformers, we often think of them as studious scholars and bold preachers heralding the truths of what became known later as the five Solas: “Sola Scriptura,” (Scripture Alone) “Sola Gratia,” (Salvation by Grace Alone), “Sola Fide,” (by faith alone), “Solus Christus,” (in Christ Alone), and “Soli Deo Gloria” (for the Glory of God Alone). And, praise to our God, they were! But the reformer’s ministry was more than just a public message of setting straight the doctrine of salvation and church leaders. It was vitally connected to the shepherding of their own people.  They were more than preachers and so should every pastor today be.


The Reformer’s Context

Prior to the reformation, leaders in the Catholic Church were more concerned with power and money than with the care of souls and applying doctrine of the Scriptures where the people lived.[2] This was the context of changing and confusing times, and difficulty on many fronts. Europe was in the throes of religious, political, intellectual, moral, and economic upheaval, while also dealing with the massive death toll of the Bubonic Plague. All these issues precipitated great necessity for the personal and private soul-care of God’s people, towards the glory of God in their living.

This much-needed soul-care was of great concern to the reformers. This is true, because they were much more than the theologians, the speakers, and the writers we often view them as today. They were Pastors—true shepherds to the sheep under their care.


A Passion to Pastor

Dr. Ray Van Neste, Professor at Union University, wrote in his article, The Care of Souls: The Heart of the Reformation:

Too often people think of the Reformation in terms of an abstract theological debate. While intensely theological, the Reformation was not merely about ideas; it was about correctly understanding the gospel for the good of the people and the salvation of souls. … The Reformation was a diverse movement, 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…[3]

Though we have this great quote, the fact that Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingil, Heinrich Bullinger, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and Martin Bucer were all first and foremost pastors is rarely written and spoken of formally today. Neither is the fact they were very involved in the care of souls through the private ministry of the Word to the lives of their people. These oversights, unfortunately, have not benefitted our view of the nature and function of the pastor’s role today.

The truth is, the reformers clearly followed in the footsteps of Jesus, the apostles, and the early church leaders in regard to soul-care. Jesus is called the wonderful counselor, and refers to himself as the good shepherd of the sheep (Jn 10:14; 1 Pt. 5:4). He is one who sympathizes with our weaknesses, and in Him we can find grace to help in time of need (Heb 4:16). Jesus modeled care for the souls of people as the Father’s much-needed public preacher, but also engaged in private ministry to individuals (i.e., Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the rich young ruler, Mary Magdalene, Peter, etc.).[4] He walked with his disciples in a personal, life-mentoring way and commissioned them to do the same (Matt. 28:18-20). He came to us saying, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). This is a description of Jesus’ very personal, two-fold ministry—both public and private.

The Apostles practiced the same type of ministry as their Lord. Paul preached publicly, and also ministered house-to-house (Acts 20:19). He exhorted the Ephesian Elders to pay careful attention to themselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers (Acts 20:28). He reminded them, “for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.” (Acts 20:31). He rehearsed with the Thessalonians,

We [Paul, Silvanus and Timothy] were gentle among you, like a nursing  mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8

Peter, commissioned as a shepherd of the sheep by Christ himself, warns those pastoring the exiles of the dispersion to be true and humble shepherds of God’s people (1 Peter 1: 1; 5:1-3). But this mindset did not end with the apostles. In the journal article, An Ancient Pastoral Theology, Garrick Bailey writes, “From the earliest writings of the Apostolic Fathers to John Chrysostom (aka, “Golden Mouth”), to Augustine of Hippo, ministers will find endless instruction and encouragement for the individual caring of souls—what the Cappadocian Father, Gregory of Nazianzus, called the “art of arts and science of sciences.”[5]


The Soul-Care of the Reformers

Clearly the passion of the reformers to truly pastor God’s people grew out of their knowledge of the ministry of Christ and His shepherds that had gone before them. Let us look at some of the reformers we have mentioned and their documented commitment to soul-care.


Martin Luther


Obviously, Luther’s was a faithful student and bold preacher of the Word. But, Luther was not inclined to sterile study, nor the preaching of the fine points of Theology, apart from the care of souls.

Herbert Mayer, professor of Biblical and Historical Theology wrote,

Luther believed impersonal preaching did little good. … At one point in his life, Luther went so far as to suggest that sincere Christians should meet together in homes … His theology of the Word led him to be a forerunner of the present-day small group movements within the church.[6]

Luther, then, firmly advocated for both the public and private ministry of the word by pastors. Henrik Ivarsson, in his article, Principles of Pastoral Care according to Luther, quotes the reformer on the roles of the pastor:

…he baptizes, preaches the Gospel, administers Communion, comforts and strengthens weak and afflicted consciences, rebukes the evildoers with excommunication, practices works of love and mercy and bears the cross.[7]

Ivarsson further explains by revealing the terminology that Luther used when speaking of the private care of the soul: “die Seelen weiden,” meaning “to tend souls.” Luther described this tending of the soul as “advising the conscience with Christian conversation and mutual comforting by the pastor.”[8]

The reformer consistently coupled the idea of “seelsorge” (the care of souls) with other essential duties of a pastor. This is further evidenced in his ministry, in that he spoke on various struggles that his members dealt with, wrote a guide for teaching children, counseled hundreds in his letters and instituted table talks (originally for his own family but later ministered to many others); all while receiving personal death threats (for his beliefs).[9]

Luther also 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.[10]

Luther’s ministry was very similar to that of Huldrych Zwingli.



Huldrych (Ulrich) Zwingli


God in His good providence, raised up other godly pastors who were part of the reformation and while caring for souls. Huldrych (Ulrich) Zwingli was one of them. Zwingli was born in Zurich, Switzerland and was a parish priest at Great Minster Church in Zurich, beginning in 1519. He was also a patriot who served as a chaplain for Zurich troops. Eventually, Zwingli died in battle.

We see in his life not only a high commitment to the Scriptures, but also to the members of the body of Christ. In a letter, he wrote in 1516 he said, “led by the Word and Spirit of God, I saw the need to set aside all these [human teachings] and to learn the doctrine of God direct from his own Word.”[11] But also, as a pastor, he preached in the language of the people. He wanted his people to know what the Scriptures taught. Zwingli eventually only practiced ecclesiastically what was evidenced in the Scriptures. Under his ministry, the Mass was completely gone in his church by 1525. All his parishioners partook of communion; not only the Priest. Images and the veneration of Mary also were totally eliminated from his church. All of these changes signified Zwingli’s commitment to the Scriptures, and its application to life and ministry for God’s glory and the good of His people.

Zwingli evidenced his Scriptural care for his flock in that he loved them to point of personal risk. He was bold, speaking directly against the use of mercenaries, the abuses of the church and the sale of indulgences. He went so far as to expose himself to the Bubonic Plague.  Putting himself in danger, he remained with the sick in order to minister to them. Over 2,000 died in Zurich (which only had a population of 7,000), so there were many he pastored who were affected by it. Zwingli himself contracted the plague and almost died. Following the example of Christ, he was willing to give up his life for the well-being of the sheep.[12]

In summation, Zwingly embodied a pastor who was committed to the Scriptures, committed to the church, and committed to the care of souls. He, like Luther, believed in the authority of Scripture for faith and practice, which in turn fueled his personal care of the flock.


Heinrich Bullinger


Heinrich Bullinger was a pastor and reformer who followed Zwingli in Zurich.[13] Bullinger was a prolific writer, and preached over 7,750 messages while in Zurich. But he also was a pastor, fully committed to the care of souls.

Bullinger was known for being hospitable; opening his house to widows, orphans, and other persecuted brothers and sisters. He contributed much of what he had to help those in need; whether it be food, money or possessions. Bullinger’s care and ministry to specific needs was further evidenced in that his first book was written on the subject of comforting the sick and dying—no doubt a result of the plague and his own experience with it.[14] Unfortunately, Bullinger also became very ill during the plague, and his wife and several daughters died with it. Bullinger was another reformer and a pastor who embodied the seelsorge Luther spoke of.


Martin Bucer


The Reformer, Martin Bucer, also regularly engaged in the care of souls. He heralded the truths of the reformation in Strasbourg, Germany. He had a strong pastoral influence on the more well-known reformer John Calvin; having spent 3 years with him in Strasbourg. In 1538, Martin Bucer wrote the book, Concerning the True Care of Souls, on how hurting and wounded Christians are to be helped.[15] He used four texts, Matthew 18:15-17, 2 Corinthians 2:6-8; 12:20-21 and Galatians 6:1-2. In writing about what we can draw from these passages he stated, “The first is that the wounded sheep are to be given treatment by all Christians, but particularly by the carers [pastors] of souls ….”[16]

In his works, Bucer stressed the need for pastors to return to the early church’s care for its people.[17] One example is the title, “How the Healthy and Strong Sheep are to be Guarded and Fed.”[18] Furthermore, Bucer wrote, “The doctrine of Christ must be proclaimed not only in the pulpit, but also in the home and to each one individually.”[19] He expounds on this in detail with this paragraph:

This is why Christian doctrine and admonition must not be confined to the assembly and the pulpit; because there are very many people who will take what they are taught and admonished in the public gathering as being of only general application, and consider it to apply more to others than to themselves. Therefore, it is essential that people should also be instructed, taught and led on in Christ individually in their homes. And those who wish to hinder all ministers of Christ everywhere from dispensing and proclaiming Christ’s doctrine not only in public and general sermons but also from house to house, to each one individually, are opposing the Holy Spirit and fighting against the reformation of the church.[20]


John Calvin


John Calvin, in Geneva, was quite in step with the other reforming pastors. His ministry to God’s people was passionate, public, and private. He seemed to prefer the term “shepherd” for the office of pastor. It has been said of him, “Though he may be first thought of as a theologian, he was even more a pastor of souls.”[21] Timothy George, a dean and professor of church history and doctrine at Beeson Divinity School has written, “Calvin preached justification by faith, as all the reformers did. More than some, perhaps, he preached sanctification by faith. The lives of those who believed the Word of God would be transformed by that Word. Holiness was the fruit of faith. To believe the Word was to live by the Word…”[22] This conviction would necessitate Calvin’s involvement in the lives of his parishioners. Though Calvin is well known for his firm beliefs on the doctrine of Scripture, few people are aware of his extensive private ministry of the Word.

Calvin practiced particular (private) instruction as well as the public proclamation we know him for. He was in the habit of praying for, offering spiritual counsel, and also consolation and correction to the flock through home visitation.[23] He made regular visits to prepare certain members for the taking of communion. He wrote letters of comfort when there was a death in the family. He, like Zwingli, did not fail to visit those infected with the Plague. In addition to these forms of private ministry, he would address sensitive issues that arose in the church, like when some of the refugee families were causing trouble in the congregation or when he wrote an extensive letter to a father who was overcome with grief over the death of the man’s son.[24]

Calvin was intentional and careful in his private ministry of the Word. One of Calvin’s friends said of him,

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.”[25]

Calvin also preached in his Sermon #37 on 1 Timothy,

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 …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.[26]

Calvin’s life and words call us to sincere soul-care in and out of the pulpit. As we have seen, he is far from alone in that call.


Theodore Beza


Theodore Beza followed John Calvin in Geneva. Beza said regarding pastoral ministry:

It is not only necessary that (a Pastor) have general knowledge of his flock, but he must also know and call each of his sheep by name, both in public and in their homes, both night and day. Pastors must run after lost sheep, bandaging up the one with a broken leg, strengthening the one that is sick…. In sum, the pastor must consider his sheep more dear to him than his own life, following the example of the Good Shepherd.[27]

Throughout the Reformation, there developed in Geneva, an ongoing practice of the care of souls. The ordinances of the Church prescribed that each minister accompanied by an elder should regularly call in the homes of his parish. In 1550, an order was issued that the ministers should visit each home, routinely, at least once a year. Beza commented on the effect of the order by saying, “It is hard to believe how fruitful it proved to be.”[28] There were also regular visitations in the hospitals and prisons, and to the sick or dying at home.[29]

Clearly, the pastors of the Reformation provided soul-care for their flocks. This means that when individuals were experiencing trouble or sin in their lives, they were counseled by their shepherd. Parishioners were experiencing the ministry of the Word to their lives in a way that the Roman Catholic Church had failed. But unfortunately, for many, seelsorge (the care of souls) waned post the reformation.


Continue reading part 2


[1] Adapted from a seminar given at The Reformation Conference in Wittenberg, Germany (May 2017) for the European Bible Training Center (EBTC).

[2] From The Story of Christianity Vol. 2, by Justo L. Gonzales, we learn on pages 7-8: As the fifteenth century came to a close, it was clear that the church was in need of profound reformation, and that many longed for it. The decline and corruption of the papacy was well known …conciliarism had failed miserably the task of bringing about the needed reform. One of the reasons for such failure was that several of the bishops sitting in the councils were themselves among those who profited from the existing corruption. Thus, while the hopeful conciliarist reformers issued anathemas and decrees against absenteeism, pluralism, simony—the practice of buying and selling ecclesiastical positions—many who sat on the councils were guilty of such practices and were not ready to give them up. Such corrupt leadership set the tone for most of the lesser clergy and the monastics. Gonzales’ book also provides for this written on November 20 1500 by Isabella, Queen of Castile: The dissolution is such, that the souls entrusted to the clergy receive great damage, for we are told that the majority of the clergy are living in open concubinage…they despise our justice and arm themselves against it (Harper Collins Publishers, 10 east 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022)

[3] Ray Van Neste, “The Care of Souls,” Themelios 39.1 (2014):53-63.

[4] Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-21), the woman at the well (Jn 4:1-42), the rich young ruler (Mt 19:16-22) Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:11-18), Peter (Mt 16:13-20; Jn 21:15-23).

[5] Gregory of Nazianzus, In Defense of His Flight to Pontus, 2.16.

[6] Herbert Mayer, Pastoral Care: Its Roots and Renewal, 107.

[7] Henrik Ivarsson, “The Principles of Pastoral Care According to Martin Luther,” Pastoral Psychology, p.19.

[8] Ibid. p.19.

[9] Cf. Theodore Tappert’s Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1960). At the Gospel Coalition website (

One can find that he wrote lengthy letters to help people through various circumstances. He wrote one letter to his barber—“Peter”—who had mentioned to Luther that he was struggling in his prayers.

[10] Edwald Plass (ed). What Luther Says: A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active Christian. 932.

[11] Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, 117.

[12] Christian Catherwood, Five Leading Reformers, 74. Timothy George also discusses this in his book, Theology of the Reformers, 118-123.

[13] (blogs by Steve Lawson).

[14] The Decades of Henry Bullinger (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1852).

[15] Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, xxxii. He writes, “those who are ordained to the pastoral office in the church are to be the principal physicians of souls and guardians…” p.121

[16] Ibid, 98

[17] Ibid, xix.

[18] Ibid, 173-182.

[19] Ibid, 181.

[20] Ibid., 181-82.

[21] J.D. Benoit, John Calvin, Contemporary Prophet, 51.

[22] Timothy George, Reading the Scripture with the Reformers, 244.

[23] Cited in an essay by J.D. Benoit, “Pastoral Care of the Prophet.” Concerning Calvin, he writes, “there was within him a humanity, a strength of sympathy, a warmth of soul, a paroral concern which opened hearts to him.” P.67

[24] Timothy George, Reading the Scripture with the Reformers, 245.Cited in the essay by Robert Godfrey, “The Counselor to the Afflicted,” in John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine and Doxology, 88. Calvin writes, “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.”

[25] Ray Van Neste, “The Care of Souls,” Themelios, 180-81.

[26] John Calvin, Sermon series on 1 Timothy (Ray Van Neste and Brian Denker edited and updated the 1579 English edition of Calvin’s Sermons on 1 Timothy. Michael Duduit and Brian Denker made these messages available on Amazon, New Edition of Calvin’s Sermons on 1 Timothy, on Kindle).

[27] Theodore Beza, The Life of John Calvin, 35.

[28] Beza, 136.

[29] Wilhelm Pauck, The Ministry in the Time of the Continental Reformation, 136.


Stuart Scott

Stuart Scott is professor of biblical counseling at The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, CA.

This essay is originally from The Journal of Biblical Soul Care (JBSC), a new journal produced by Master’s University.

Stuart Scott
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