More than Preachers: The Solas and Soul-Care of the Reformers (Part 2)

Soul-Care After the Reformation

In spite of the strong convictions of the pastoring reformers, soul-care did not receive the same notoriety as the sola doctrines and leadership reform after the Reformation. By the time of Luther’s death even the German Reformation proper had lost a significant portion of its earlier vitality. By the end of the sixteenth century, Lutheran churches had become more traditional and experienced a resurgence of clerical authority, a more stoic approach to doctrine, and a muddying of Luther’s clear gospel. While Luther’s dynamic understanding of forgiveness has continued to be a reforming power for the Christian church in the following centuries, the reformer’s clear focus on the importance of the pastor’s private ministry did not continue to proliferate in the same way.[1]

No doubt, as a result of waning soul-care, Pietism sprang up in Germany. When formalism and sterile doctrine arises, and soul-care wanes, it will spawn an increase in mysticism (separating “the Spirit’s” (pseudo) communication from His Word), as well as valuing experience over doctrine. Thus the Pietistic movement under the Lutheran theologian Philipp Spener in the late sixteen and early seventeen hundreds actually worked against an already declining private ministry of the Word. The Reformation historian, Dr. John Armstrong, outlines this problem following the Reformation:

It [Pietism] arose in a context where official religious faith dominated the day and very few took personal interest in developing the kind of faith and practical holiness that led to obedience to the law of Christ. Simply put, the strongly scholastic Lutheran dogma of the time, which separated justification too radically from sanctification, had produced a “dead orthodoxy.”[2] [examination mine]

            On the other hand, the effects of the Reformation, including a strengthening private pastoral ministry continued throughout the 1600’s in England. George Herbert’s (Anglican priest, 1593-1633) work, Country Parson, had an ongoing effect throughout the 17th century. He wrote,In a disordered world, the pastor’s place was every place within the parish.”[3] Church historians, Clebsch and Jaskle write, Pastoral care during this era therefore focuses on sustaining human souls through the perplexities, difficulties, and pitfalls of their earthly pilgrimage and, in a subordinate way, on guiding believers into paths of personal morality.”[4] The puritans of that time and place also had strong convictions on soul-care. A Puritan, Richard Baxter (1615-1691), mentions in his work, The Reformed Pastor, that he visited members of his church two days each week.[5] He also wrote, “…some who come constantly to private meetings are grossly ignorant; whereas, in one hour’s familiar instruction of them in private, they seem to understand more, and better entertain it than they did in all their lives before.”[6] Baxter also wrote, “I have found by experience, that some ignorant persons, who have been so long unprofitable hearers, have got more knowledge and remorse in half an hours’ close discourse, than they did from ten years’ public preaching.”[7]


Where We Are Today

Despite the past 40-year pushback against secular and secularly trained “soul-care” by proponents of the biblical counseling movement, there is still an acceptable trend of pastors who do not engage in the private ministry of the Word (counseling) with troubled souls. Churches tend to not demand more from seminary graduates than their MDiv degree. These graduates often have no intern experience, character assessment or ministry experience with people. Seminaries have rightly stressed the all-important doctrines, the critical preaching of the Word, evangelism, and missions. But only a few do enough to prepare the pastor for personal involvement and real soul-care using the Scriptures.[11] This is evidenced by the reality that only a token course or two are required in their curriculum on caring individually for the sheep, counseling, and the more pastoral duties of involved oversight. In the majority of seminaries, a psychologist or psychiatrist is brought in to teach the counseling course. They do not equip the pastor on how to privately minister the Word (God’s gospel, person, and truths for healing, renewal and change) for the glory of God. They are instructed to simply refer their sheep outside the church to those who have been trained under secular constructs and have engaged in very little or no formal theological studies. Unfortunately, seminary curriculums are not always guided by the priorities of the Scriptures, nor the needs of the Church. Dr. John Frame, well-known theologian and professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, has this to say about this problem:

The agenda of evangelical seminaries are set primarily by scholars. Professors decide how students will spend their time; they determine the students’ priorities; they set the pace. And guess what. Scholars’ agenda seldom match the needs of the church.[12]


Also giving evidence to the work that still must be done to change a singular pastoral perspective is the apparent disinterest in soul care on the part of church leadership. When preaching conferences are held, the attendance by pastors around the world can be staggering. When biblical counseling conferences are held to help equip shepherds and others within the church to counsel their flocks from the Scriptures, the attendance is drastically lower. The following do not serve to lessen the problem either:


  • Most non-organic problems are now called disorders and the church has bought into the enemy’s lie that God, His Word and the local church cannot help such issues.
  • Many pastors still believe there is a call to preach (as a pastor) but not to counsel (carry out intensive discipleship), wrongly assessing that there is a gift of counseling that they do not have.
  • Other pastors or aspiring pastors seem to simply translate (in their mind) the word ‘pastor’ to mean ‘preacher.’ At least this is how they functionally operate. It is almost as if they see only one imperative in the Scriptures for Pastors (to “preach the Word”), lacking attention to other clear imperatives for the Shepherd.
  • Churches sometimes actually discourage their pastors from the private ministry of the Word and individual involvement, preferring them to just study, preach, speak elsewhere and write rather than do counseling.[13]
  • Some pastors avoid getting involved with people and their problems because it is hard and messy work that could lead to legal problems (not knowing how to handle them or the safeguards). Indeed, counseling some individuals at times can be like trying to fold a fitted-sheet, without the desired “guiding four-corners.” These situations require extra preparation.
  • Some believe Ephesians 4:11-12 refers to two types of church leaders; the pastor and the teacher, rather than one pastor-teacher. The Granville-Sharp rule of hermeneutics eliminates this distinction, combining the two functions as one in the same.
  • Many pastors still believe that when they refer their members to a Christian counselor, the counselor is engaging the church member in biblical truth with specific application of the Word. In the overwhelming majority of cases, this is not so. In addition, they are likely being exposed and challenged with unbiblical interpretations, concepts and/or solutions.[14]


In Conclusion

Exploring the words and lives of the Reformers, it is clear we must guard against viewing the Protestant Reformation as merely a theological debate or an academic study. No doubt, to maintain biblical balance, seminaries must, first of all, continue to call and train pastors to handle and preach the Word faithfully (2 Timothy 2:15; 4:1-2). But, as we have seen, the Reformation flowed from a soul-care dearth produced by Roman Catholicism. And it reestablished Christlike care and protection to the body of Christ. It was accompanied by a passion to bring the Solas down to where the people lived and to care for souls. It was carried out by men who understood their roles as shepherd, and who did not forsake any of it, even in such times as the Reformation and the Bubonic Plague.

Now, we must ask ourselves if in the much-needed fight for the Gospel, the authority of Scripture, and faithful interpretation, have seminaries and pastors lost something else that is extremely important to God?—the care of His people through the private ministry of His Word. Have we, for the sake of the fight reduced the role of shepherd to preacher? If so, are we not in essence out on the proverbial limb sawing ourselves off from the heart of God’s plan for shepherds? Are some who cry, “Solas Scriptura” still in danger of creating their own standard of shepherding?

Both public and private ministry are mandated for the shepherd, and both mandates will bring upon them an awesome accounting by God, who says about Shepherds in Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account…” (italics mine). In 1 Peter 5:1-4, we read,

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the suffering of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed; shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

Regardless of how one views the adequacy of the biblical counseling movement initially, it can surely be said that what Martin Luther was to the Reformation (In the 1500’s), Jay Adams was to the church (in the latter 1900’s); calling it back to Christlike, biblical soul-care.” Kudos for men like him and those who, all along, have faithfully modeled Christ in their shepherding, with both public and private ministry to souls. As a result of God’s work through many faithful men, there does seem to be a shifting of the tide. And there is hope for the misguided preacher to become a complete pastor. Following Christ’s encouragement in Revelation 2 will revolutionize the ministry of the preaching only pastor. In verse two, Jesus says to the Church of Ephesus, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.” But for some there must be a new beginning rather than a return. Such was the case with Richard Baxter when he wrote,

I do now, in behalf of Christ, and for the sake of his Church, and the immortal souls of men, beseech all the faithful ministers of Christ, that they will presently and effectually fall upon this work. Combine for the unanimous performance of it, that it may more easily procure the submission of your people. I must confess, I find, by some experience, that this is the work that, through the grace of God, which worketh by means, must reform indeed; that must expel our common prevailing ignorance; that must bow the stubborn hearts of sinners; that must answer their vain objections, and take off their prejudices; that must reconcile their hearts to faithful ministers, and help on the success of our public preaching; and make true godliness a commoner thing than it has hitherto been. I find that we never took the best course for demolishing the kingdom of darkness, till now. I wonder at myself, how I was so long kept off from so clear and excellent a duty. But the case was with me, as I suppose it is with others. I was long convinced of it, but my apprehension of the duty too small, and so I was long hindered from the performance of it. I imagined the people would scorn it, and none but a few, who had least need, would submit to it, and I thought my strength would never go through with it, having so great burdens on me before; and thus I long delayed it, which I beseech the Lord of mercy to forgive. Whereas upon trial, I find the difficulties almost nothing (save only through my extraordinary bodily weakness) to that which I imagined; and I find the benefits and comforts of the work to be such, that I would not wish I had forborne it, for all the riches in the world…And I find more outward signs of success with most that do come, than from all my public preaching to them. If you say, It is not so in most places, I answer, I wish that the blame of this may not lie much with ourselves. If however, some refuse your help, that will not excuse you for not affording it to them that would accept of it. [15]

Perhaps a first step in applying Christ’s three-fold remedy in Revelation Chapter Two is to address one’s view of the sufficiency of the Scriptures for soul-care (the work of the Holy Spirit through the Truth concerning God, man, salvation, life, and change, within the context of the body of Christ). A second step might be to deal with where one is at in regard to loving God’s people like Christ. A pastor cannot really be loving Jesus (the Head of the Church) as he should without sacrificially loving and caring for the Church (the Body of Jesus) the way He did. A third step may be to gain the training you lack to sufficiently minister the Scriptures with wisdom to specific needs. Remember, there is no “call to preach,” but there is a call to the office of Pastor/teacher. And such are commanded to make disciples, teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded, and to equip others for the work of the ministry (Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 4:11-13). And the only way to grow one’s skill in the personal aspects of discipleship is to exercise it in ministry, John Frame warns,


If you try to minister to people without a solid knowledge of God’s Word and an ability to apply it to human needs, you are worse than a physician who treats people in medical ignorance; even worse for the consequences can be eternal.[16]


We are in great debt to the Reformation pastors for their example of holding to the teaching of the Scriptures. They encourage us to follow Christ in the major aspects of pastoring. One thing is sure. They were more than preachers. After reviewing of the great Reformation giants, whether one needs encouragement or a change of heart going forward, this final quote by Dr. Ray Van Neste can help any minister solidify a righteous and dependent determination regarding soul care.

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. Pastors and those who desire to be pastors, if your idea of pastoral ministry is limited to the pulpit, then you are no heir of the Reformation regardless of the length or theological weight of your sermons. The Reformers, mirroring Christ and the apostles, were deeply involved in the lives of their people, aware that they would be called to account for the oversight of their souls (Heb 13:17). A passion for souls requires the knowledge of specific souls and involvement in the messiness of their everyday lives.”[17]


[1] Herbert Mayer, Pastoral Care, 111

[2] John Armstrong, Reformation and Revival Journal, Vol 10, #1, Winter 2001, p15.

[3] Ray Van Neste, “The Care of Souls,” Themelios. 22.

[4] William Clebsch and Charles R. Jaekle, Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective, 28.

[5] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor. P. 43. Also, Paul Lim writes in Christianity Today, “As a pastor, Baxter believed that conversion could happen at any age, and that the most effective way of finding out whether a person needed to be converted was not by public preaching but by private conversation. He would spend an hour with each family, using the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments to instruct each person and gauge his or her spiritual condition. Every Monday and Thursday Baxter would start at one end of town, his assistant would start at the other, and together they managed to interview 15 or 16 families a week—a total of 800 families (the whole parish) each year.” (an article entitled, “A Pen in God’s Hand,” Christianity Today, July/August 2017.). It is helpful to know that Baxter entitled his book, The Reformed Pastor not due to reformed doctrine per se, but due to a revival (a personal reformation) needed for the Pastor and his duties.

[6] Ibid, 212.

[7] Ibid, 186.

[8] Michael J. McClymond, Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Johnathan Edwards,464.

[9] Ibid, 465

[10] Freud wrote, “I want to entrust [analysis] to a profession that doesn’t yet exist, a profession of secular ministers of souls, who don’t have to be physicians and must not be priests.” From Freud’s article, “The Question of ‘Lay’ Analysis.” (1926), and quoted in Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul, p.35.

[11] These seminaries tend to be church-based ones. Dr. John Frame writes about this in his book, The Academic Captivity of Theology.

[12] Dr. Richard Pratt writes this in the forward for John Frame’s book, The Academic Captivity of Theology. xi-xii.

[13] Even the well-known Charles Haddon Spurgeon, often referred to as ‘the last of the Puritans,’ set within his busy weekly schedule to counsel his people on Tuesday afternoons and visit with his people on Saturday afternoons. C.H. Spurgeon, The Full Harvest, Autobiography: Vol 2, p. 323. You can view his schedule at

[14] This is a common testimony we hear from those we counsel in The Association of Certified Counselors (ACBC). Counselees explain how the Christian counselor they previously counseled with did not pray, use Scripture, or talk about the Gospel or the importance of the Word of God and the local church. The pastor needs to realize that if the counselor is licensed by the State, they are not to engage in spiritual dialogue with the counselee due to accountability with the State. A helpful book showing the practical differences in how a hurting individual is helped from four different Christian approaches and one biblical counseling approach: Christianity and Counseling: Five Approaches, IVP. Another book revealing biblical ways to help deeply troubled individuals is, Counseling the Hard Cases.  

[15] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, 42-43. In the booklet, The Saints Everlasting Rest (edited version by Timothy K. Beougher), Beougher points out that Baxter was a near invalid, dealing with sickness most of his life. From the age of 21 on he was “seldom an hour free from pain.” p.9.

[16] John Frame, The Academic Captivity of Theology, p.93.

[17] Ray Van Neste, “The Care of Souls,” Themelios, p.63.


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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