Why It Matters that the Reformers Were Pastors

Many of the Reformers were pastors; the Reformation was aimed at reviving dormant local churches.

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.


The Reformation and its leading figures often conjur images of ivory tower scholarship. 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.

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. 3:23–2411:6;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.

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