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Why It Matters that the Reformers Were Pastors

Written by Jeff Robinson on . Posted in The Gospel Coalition Blog

Article by: Jeff Robinson

The Reformation and its leading figures often conjur images of scholarly . It’s easy to forget that many of the Reformers were pastors, and that the Reformation was aimed at reviving dormant local churches.

Scott Manetsch has reminded students and laypersons alike that the Reformation was as much about shepherds and sheep as it was about theology and theologians. Manetsch is a keynote speaker at TGC’s joint regional conference in Chicago next Monday and Tuesday, October 17 to 18, which will examine the five solas of the Reformation.

I asked Manetsch, professor of church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School since 2000, how the Reformation revived pastoral ministry, the impact the reformers’ theology is exerting five centuries later, and more. 

At next week’s TGC regional event in Chicago, you are speaking on sola gratia. Why is it so important to assert and reassert this great truth in each generation?

When we speak about God’s grace, we are addressing the very heart of the Christian message: God has chosen to show favor to undeserving sinners through the death and resurrection of his Son. Grace is a gift that’s unearned and unmerited; it’s what makes the gospel good news. The doctrine of grace is a dominant theme in all of Scripture, but finds its clearest and most beautiful articulation throughout Paul’s epistles (e.g. Rom. 3:23–24; 11:6; Eph. 2:4–10). Martin Luther was certainly correct to call the doctrine of grace the “hinge on which all turns.” 

During the Middle Ages, Catholic theologians acknowledged the importance of divine grace, but many insisted such grace was powerless for salvation unless accompanied by human works. In response, Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and others emphasized the doctrine of sola gratia—that our right standing with God is due to his grace alone. In making this distinction, the reformers were simply protecting the biblical teaching that divine grace is always a gift and can never be earned or purchased. The Protestant doctrine of “grace alone,” therefore, puts to death all notions of works-righteousness; it recognizes the depth of human sin and the vastness of God’s mercy; it celebrates God as the author of our salvation from beginning to end. This is a glorious message that the church of every generation must announce with clarity, conviction, and gratitude.

You’ve written one of my favorite books over the past few years, Calvin’s Company of Pastors. What does Calvin have to say to pastors today in their calling as preachers and shepherds?

Given our historical and cultural distance from Calvin’s Geneva, it would be unwise (and impossible!) for us to replicate Calvin’s model of ministry en toto in our contemporary setting. Still, I do think Calvin’s pastoral theology and ministry practice provide a number of vital insights for those serving the church today. Ten come to mind: 

  1. The pastoral vocation is fraught with challenges and difficulties, but it is also a high and holy calling.
  2. Pastoral ministry must always be Word-centered. The vocation of pastor is to proclaim the whole counsel of God, as found in Scripture, to the people of God.
  3. Christian preaching involves exposition and application of the biblical text for the edification of the congregation.
  4. Christian preachers must be teachable, and should seek out opportunities to improve their skills as interpreters and expositors of God’s Word.
  5. Pastors proclaim God’s Word not only when they preach, but also when they celebrate the sacraments, lead the liturgy, teach the catechism, and provide personal care.
  6. Pastors must know the people in their congregations. Christian ministry requires intense, life-on-life relationships.
  7. Instruction of children through catechesis is essential for the preservation of the church.
  8. Church discipline in its various forms (i.e. pastoral advice, correction, rebuke, suspension from the Lord’s Supper) can be extremely difficult, but is a vital form of pastoral care.
  9. Well-conceived church institutions can serve as God-given instruments for protecting sound doctrine and preserving biblical truths.
  10. In their teaching and behavior, Christian ministers are always under the authority of Christ and his church. Hence pastors are never independent agents, but must be accountable to other Christians.

To your mind, which reformer best exemplifies the “pastor-theologian” label? Why?

A sizeable number of the early Protestant reformers were pastor-theologians—that is, they had pastoral responsibility for a local parish while at the same time providing theological leadership for the broader church through writing and teaching. Notable among this group were reformers Johannes Bugenhagen of Wittenberg; Wolfgang Capito and Martin Bucer of Strasbourg; Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger of Zurich; and Calvin and Theodore Beza of Geneva. Although I would be hard pressed to identify one who “best” modeled the role of pastor-theologian, certainly Theodore Beza is exemplary. As a minister in Geneva for nearly 40 years, Beza was a conscientious and hard-working pastor who displayed a keen ability to explain and apply God’s Word to his congregation through his sermons, pastoral work (including church discipline), and private correspondence. Beza’s published sermons are full of sound pastoral counsel.  For example, in one sermon he compared pastors to physicians, responsible “not only to discern the illness, but also the situation and disposition of the patient, looking for the best medicine to prescribe, preaching the law to the hardened, and the gospel of grace to those despairing. In brief, let us always condemn the sin, but try to save the sinner.” That’s not bad pastoral advice.

At the same time, Beza was also a first-rate biblical scholar and poet. As a theologian, he engaged in the crucial debates of his day on such issues as justification, the Lord’s Supper, Christology, polygamy and divorce, and church discipline. His Annotations on the New Testament, which he revised throughout his adult life, became the gold standard of Reformed exegesis and biblical interpretation in the 16th century. As a poet, Beza was responsible for nearly two-thirds of the famous Genevan Psalter, which became one of the 16th century’s bestselling books. In his writing as well as his pastoring, I find Beza to be an insightful, effective, sensitive, and courageous leader. 

There’s a tendency to think of the reformers as academic theologians instead of men doing theology as local church pastors. Is this correct?

No. It’s easy for many in our churches to think of the “giants” of the Reformation—men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, or John Knox—as theological and academic brains-on-a-stick rather than as (first and foremost) preachers and pastors. And that’s unfortunate, for at its inception the Protestant Reformation was a renewal movement of Christian ministers and laypersons committed to revitalizing their churches according to God’s Word. Evangelicals reading the reformers for the first time might be surprised at how much is directly applicable to the theological and spiritual health of their own congregations today. 

If we were to recover teaching, preaching, and living in light of the five solas, what might be the effect on the church?

I would anticipate that modern evangelicals who recognize and celebrate their theological heritage in the Protestant Reformation with its five solas will be affected in a variety of important ways:

  • They will resolve to honor and obey God’s Word above the siren calls of our neo-pagan culture.
  • They will experience profound gratitude for God’s glorious grace—freely bestowed on them through Christ. 
  • They will be reminded that their identity and hope rests in none other than Christ and his cross.
  • They will renounce the idolatries of celebrity, power, and wealth that afflict our churches, and once again profess “Christ is Lord!”
  • They will be captivated with the glory and beauty of the triune God, committed to praising his name alone in public worship. 

As a starting point to studying the Reformation, what five books would you recommend? How might we benefit from them? 

It goes without saying that literature on the history and theology of the Protestant Reformation is extensive. However, here are five of my personal favorites that should be of interest to most Evangelicals:

So, what benefits can evangelicals expect to gain as they (re)discover the history and theology of the 16th-century Reformation? I’ve already mentioned several, but let me add this: The Reformation at its heart was a spiritual renewal movement, in which European churches and believers were revitalized through the recovery of the Scripture and the proclamation of the gospel. Evangelicals who care about the gospel, who are committed to the authority of the Bible, and who long for the renewal of the church will glean encouragement, learn lessons, and find their faith enriched by exploring the fascinating (and imperfect) lives and ministries of the reformers.

Editors’ note: Come celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with us at our 2017 National Conference, April 3 to 5 in Indianapolis, where Scott Manetsch will be speaking. The theme is No Other Gospel: Reformation 500 and Beyond. Space is filling up fast, so register now. Prices increase after Reformation Day (October 31). 

Jeff Robinson (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a senior editor for The Gospel Coalition. A native of Blairsville, Georgia, he also pastors a church plant in Louisville, Kentucky, and serves as senior research and teaching associate for the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies and adjunct professor of church history at Southern Seminary. Prior to entering ministry, he spent nearly 20 years as a newspaper journalist in Georgia, North Carolina, and Kentucky, writing about various subjects from politics to Major League Baseball and SEC football. He is co-author with Michael Haykin of the book To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Mission Vision and Legacy. Jeff and his wife, Lisa, have four children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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