The Care of Wounded Souls: The Pastoral Heart of the Reformation
By Sean Michael Lucas

There is an important bit in the 2003 film, Luther, starring Joseph Finnes. Johann Tetzel has come to Juterbog, preaching his revival message of hell-fire and brimstone for those who remain in purgatory. However, Tetzel noted, there is a way out for German loved ones: purchase an indulgence, which will set them free. Tetzel applies his sermon to a German woman named Hanna, who has her handicapped daughter on her back. “Gentle mother,” Tetzel says, “will your daughter run to Jesus on her dying day?” The implication is that if Hanna buys the indulgence, her daughter will skip purgatory and go straight to Jesus’s presence.

The next day, Hanna takes the indulgence to Luther. She is thrilled that she has done something for her daughter, until she sees Luther’s face cloud over. “This is just a piece of paper,” he grimaces. He takes two coins out of his pocket and says to her, “Take this money and use it for Greta.” As she turns away, Luther crumbles the paper with a furious look; the next scene is Luther nailing the ninety-five theses to the Wittenberg church door.

Of course, the scene is fictionalized but it represents an important truth that far too many Protestant historians, theologians, pastors, and lay leaders have missed in thinking about the Reformation: the doctrinal, ecclesiastical, and ritual reforms that made up the Reformation ultimately had a pastoral goal. What drove Luther—and each of the reformers after him—was the care of wounded and terrified souls whom he saw as bound and manipulated by the Roman Catholic penitential system. Any account of the Reformation that neglects this overarching pastoral focus and goal will ultimately produce a lopsided historical understanding with an equally unbalanced contemporary application.[1]

Pastor Martin Luther

Historian Timothy Wengert had to emphasize this point twice in his introduction to his edited book, The Pastoral Luther: “Again: Martin Luther was, more than anything else, pastor and preacher for his Wittenberg flock. This simple, almost innocuous commonplace holds one of the most important, yet virtually unexplored, keys to understanding Luther’s impact on the history of the Christian church.” This oversight does not extend to Luther alone, of course; there have been relatively few studies of John Calvin or Jonathan Edwards as pastors. Still, the oversight for Luther is especially significant because it causes a distorted understanding of his own theological contribution as well as the Reformation that developed from his ministry.[2]

Of course, Luther’s concern to minister the gospel to wounded souls arose out of his own experience. In his Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses, he reflected on his own spiritual struggle:

I myself “knew a man” who claimed that he had often suffered these punishments, in fact over a very brief period of time. Yet they were so great and so much like hell that no tongue could adequately express them, no pen could describe them, and one who had not himself experienced them could not believe them. And so great were they that, if they had been sustained or hand lasted for half an hour, even for one tenth of an hour, he would have perished completely and all his bones would have been reduced to ashes. At such a time, God seems terribly angry, and with him the whole creation. At such a time there is no flight, no comfort, within or without, but all things accuse…All that remains is the stark-naked desire for help and a terrible groaning, but it does not know where to turn for help. In this instance, the person is stretched out with Christ so that all his bones may be counted, and every corner of the soul is filled with the greatest bitterness, dread, trembling, and sorrow in such a manner that all these last forever.[3]

The doctrinal, ecclesiastical, and ritual reforms that made up the Reformation ultimately had a pastoral goal.

This was Luther’s Anfechtung, a word that often defies English translation, but stands for “all the doubt, turmoil, pain, tremor, panic, despair, desolation, and desperation which invade the spirit of man.” And while Luther experienced this sense of woundedness or agonizing struggle in degrees that seemed unusually intense, he also believed that his experience was common to being human. That meant, then, that the wounded conscience was the human condition to which the gospel spoke, both at the initial moment of faith, but also the whole life long.[4]

Toward the end of Luther’s life, he still remembered his conscience’s agony in those early days. “Though I lived as a monk without reproach,” he observed, “I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction.” He “raged with a fierce and troubled conscience” at this “righteous God who punishes sinners.” It was not until he fully understood the gospel from Romans 1:17 that Luther’s conscience was quieted. “There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith,” he wrote. “And this it he meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith…Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” The great master narrative for Luther himself was an agonizing struggle with the Law but relief and comfort through the gospel.[5]

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  1. While Ronald Rittgers observes that “it is a commonplace in contemporary Reformation research that Luther’s efforts to reform the church began with an attempt to reform the care of souls,” that commonplace hasn’t trickled down to mainstream Protestantism: Ronald K. Rittgers, “How Luther’s Engagement in Pastoral Care Shaped His Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology, ed. Robert Kolb et al (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 462.
  2. Timothy J. Wengert, “Introducing the Pastoral Luther,” in The Pastoral Luther, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 2.
  3. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works. American edition. 55 vols. Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehman (Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and Fortress, and St. Louis: Concordia, 1955-86), 31:129 (hereafter, LW).
  4. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978), 26.
  5. LW, 34:336-337.

Sean Michael Lucas is the senior pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee, and the Chancellor’s Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary.
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