The Care of Wounded Souls: The Pastoral Heart of the Reformation

Sean Michael Lucas
Chancellor's Professor of Church History
Reformed Theological Seminary

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]

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]

The Gospel for Wounded Souls

Luther translated his own experience of comfort from the Gospel of free justification to others through a robust pastoral theology. Central to Luther’s theological understanding for pastoral practice was the continuing effects of the fall in Adam’s children. Though human nature has an aspect of goodness as a creation of God, yet “from birth they are full of evil lust and inclination and cannot by nature possess true fear of God and true faith in God.” Indeed, human beings are bound by sin; they cannot choose the good, but only choose to satisfy themselves by having other goods before God.[6]

Human beings do not really understand themselves and do not recognize their lost condition and their bound wills apart from the preaching of the Law and Gospel. But as the Law of God comes to bear on the conscience, with its threatening and warnings, the conscience begins to know terror and agonizing struggle. For Luther, the conscience was an independent judging function within every human being: “its proper work…is to accuse or to excuse, to cause one to stand accused or absolved, terrified or secure. Its purpose is not to do, but to speak about what has been done and what should be done, and this judgment makes us stand accused or saved before God.” Left to itself, the conscience sought to excuse through self-motivated, self-created works that it might trophy before.[7]

Likewise, the conscience might be manipulated by other (false) standards, bringing terror not according to God’s Law, but through false teaching. According to Luther, this is what was happening during the Indulgence Controversy. In Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses (1517), he accused indulgence preachers, like Tetzel, of playing upon the “great fear” and “horror” that purgatory offered to the religious faithful (no. 14, 15). And yet, the indulgences themselves could not actually resolve the real problem of purgatory: namely, the holiness required to enter heaven. All the indulgences could do was take away temporal penalties; they could not increase holy love itself (no. 21, 22).[8]

Even more, indulgences did not supply anything to the Christian that genuine repentance itself did not give: “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters. Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters” (no., 36, 37).

Indulgences manipulated the weak consciences of the laity by playing on their fears and selling them something that they really did not need. What the wounded, fearful consciences of the people needed was the preaching of the Gospel (no. 53, 54). Only through God’s Word of Gospel would Christians “be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their head, through penalties, death, and hell; and thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations” (no. 94, 95). The terrified conscience of the Christian, stirred and fearful as a result of the preaching of the Law, needed Jesus gained through God’s Word and repentant faith.

This emphasis upon the pastoral needs of the wounded conscience, bound by sin and terrified by judgment, would be consistent for Luther. It was evident in his next set of theses, those that made up the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. The Law and human works cannot “advance man on his way to righteousness,” but even more, the conscience knows this to be the case. The Law drives the human to despair of his ability, for “it leads him into hell and makes a poor man and shows him that he is a sinner in all his works.” Such an individual, wracked in his or her own conscience, needs the comfort of the Gospel. Where will it be found? The theologian of glory points the individual to her own resources; the theologian of the cross points her to the suffering of Jesus on the cross. That is the place where the weak, wounded conscience goes: she “believes much in Christ.”[9]

Thus, faith alone in Christ alone is the only hope for a struggling soul. Luther’s teaching finds its place in the Augsburg Confession: while the unexperienced despise justification by faith alone, “devout and anxious consciences find by experience that it offers the greatest consolation.” Works cannot calm the conscience; “only by faith when they are certain that they have a God who has been reconciled on account of Christ. As Paul teaches in Romans 5[:1]: ‘Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God.’ This whole teaching must be referred to that struggle of the terrified conscience, and it cannot be understood apart from that struggle.” Faith in Christ soothes the wounded and terrified conscience.[10]

This faith in Christ is a repentant faith. In fact, the weakness, woundedness, or terror of the believing conscience, produced by the preaching of the Law, is contrition. Melanchthon observed that “contrition is the genuine terror of the conscience that feels God’s wrath against sin and grieves that it has sinned.” Contrition arises in response to the preached Word, especially as the Law shows individuals their sin and their just condemnation. But the preached Word also holds out the Gospel and faith in Christ is the appropriate response, “the second part of repentance.” Luther drove home the same points: in one sermon, he declared that “contrition, according to the Scriptures, is not partial…but it extends over the whole person with all its life and being, yes, over your whole nature, and shows that you are an object of God’s wrath and condemn to hell.” In such a condition, faith receives the forgiveness of sins and conscience is soothed and calmed.[11]

Indeed, because faith is passive, it rests itself in God’s righteousness as its own hope. As Luther argued in his “Lectures on Galatians,” “the righteous of faith which God imputes to us through Christ without works…is a merely passive righteousness…For here we work nothing, render nothing to God; we only receive and permit someone else to work in us, namely, God.” As the Gospel holds out the promise both of forgiveness and right standing before God, faith rests upon that promise. And the Word of promise to which faith clings effects a wonderful exchange: our sins become Christ’s; Christ’s righteousness becomes ours. Only in this way do “terrified consciences” find rest; in fact, the result is “joy of conscience.”[12]

But the struggle of the Christian life is the continuous agonizing struggle to rest in the Word of promise, which promises passive righteousness and which produces an active righteousness that loves the neighbor. Even Luther despaired of this at times: “There’s no man living one earth who knows how to distinguish between the law and the gospel. We may think we understand it when we are listening to a sermon, but we’re far from it. Only the Holy Spirit knows this…Because I’ve been writing so much and so long about it, you’d think I’d know the distinction, but when a crisis comes I recognize very well that I am far, far from understanding.” Christians had to come back to the Word of God, active in their baptisms, sermons, and the Supper, which would renew faith that rested in Christ. That was the only way the wounded conscience might progress in this Christian life with a measure of peace.[13]

The Wounded Healer

Because of Luther’s own experience of the Gospel bringing a measure of peace to his conscience and because of his pastorally shaped theological commitments, he was in regular demand as a spiritual counselor. In a real and regular way, Luther participated in the cure of souls as he sought to apply his reformational theology to the agonizing struggle of his parishioners.

As early as 1516, Luther was applying his reformational theology to wounded consciences of others. To George Spenlein, an Augustinian monk, Luther probed his condition by wondering, “I should like to know whether your soul, tired of its own righteousness, is learning to be revived by and to trust in the righteousness of Christ.” For the weak conscience, tired of trying to satisfy the law by works of obedience, Luther urged, “My dear brothers, learn Christ and him crucified. Learn to pray to him and, despairing of yourself, say: ‘Thou, Lord Jesus, art my righteousness, but I am thy sin. Thou hast taken upon thyself what is mine and has given to me what is thine. Thou hast taken upon thyself what thou wast not and hast given to me what I was not.’” Only by resting in faith upon Jesus in response to his promise could the wonderful exchange happen and someone “obtain a good conscience.” Indeed, “the greatest gift is to have a conscience pacified by the Word. For this did God permit his Son to die, that we might have a good conscience.”[14]

While the Gospel promised peace of conscience, that did not mean that life was free of agonizing struggle. As Luther observed at the table one day, “The Christian life is to be lived among sorrows, trials, afflictions, deaths.” But those sufferings, trials, and temptations were meant to drive them to faith in Christ: “If Christians did not suffer temptations, what would be the purpose of the promises and consolations of the gospel and the preaching of grace?” Another day at table, someone noted that the devil flogged us with our sins at just the point to cause us most agony. Luther agreed with this: “[The devil] can fashion the oddest syllogisms. For example, ‘You have sinned; God is wrathful toward sinners; therefore, despair.’ Here it is necessary that we proceed from the Law to the Gospel and lay hold of the article of the forgiveness of sins.” [15]

To another parishioner in 1532, who was struggling with “terror,” Luther urged prayer and the Word of God. “Although I do not know what attitude you take toward your terror, you should call upon God and pray, especially at the time when you become aware of the terror,” Luther counseled. However, “if you are unable to pray well, have something from the Psalms or the New Testament read to you in a clear voice, and listen attentively to the reading.” Through prayer and Scripture, the individual would be lead out of himself to rest his heart in Christ. Sometimes, though, when the devil attacked and terrorized the conscience, the Christian “must not believe your own thoughts, nor those of the devil. But believe what we preachers say, for God has commanded us to instruct and absolve souls, as Christ said, ‘Whosesoever sins yet remit, they are remitted.’ This you must believe.”[16]

In fact, a kind of “divine logic” might be used in prayer as Christians wrestle with their consciences. Believers must start with the confession that “Christ is other and greater than Moses, pope, or all the world—indeed, that he is other and greater than our own conscience.” If the conscience compels assent to Law or church, “how much more must we believe Christ, the Lord of all things, who says, ‘Believe.” As the individual used Word and prayer, there was a necessity to wrestle with one’s conscience in the light of the Gospel. For the Gospel grasped by faith is medicine for the struggling conscience.[17]

The Heart of the Reformation

Luther recognized how vital experience was in shaping Christians and especially pastors. But it was the experience of the Word of God, especially the promise of the Gospel, in the midst of one’s agonizing struggle that makes us theologians. Luther’s three rules for studying theology—prayer, meditation, and agonizing struggle—all point this direction. “As God’s Word takes root and grows in you, the devil will harry you, and will make a real doctor of you, and by his assaults [Anfechtungen] will teach you to seek and love God’s Word,” Luther observed. Indeed, such struggle “is the touchstone which teaches you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is, wisdom beyond all wisdom.” And by God’s Word, Luther especially means the promise of the Gospel, that faith alone in Christ alone gains forgiveness of sins and God’s righteousness.[18]

Because this is the case, I think we need to rethink what the heart of the Reformation really was; or perhaps to put it different, we need to recast our approach to the Reformation doctrines that we affirm. For example, it has been a truism that justification by faith alone is the article upon which the church stands or falls. But Luther did not mean this simply as a mere propositional statement—that if we get justification wrong, the church will fall. Of course, that is true also, but why? Why was it important to get justification right? So that we can pass ordination exams? So that we can duel with those who get it wrong? For Luther—and I’d suggest that this would be the case for the other reformers as well—it was because justification by faith alone was the means by which the agonized, wounded conscience might find rest and peace. In other words, there was a pastoral telos in view: if wounded consciences remained restless, then the devil would destroy them and the church would fall. The Reformation’s heart was to care for wounded souls.[19]

But if that was the ultimate end of the Reformation, then I wonder whether we have that same goal in mind as we study Bible, theology, history, and the rest. I fear that at times students and pastors enjoy the intellectual challenge of exegeting the biblical text or exploring theological dogmas without asking the question, “What is this all for?” If Luther (and by extension, the Reformers collectively) provide any example for us, it is that the Reformation’s heart was the cure of wounded souls. All of our biblical and theological study ultimately has this pastoral focus—the relief of those who agonize through the Christ who comes near through the Word of the Gospel.

In addition, for those who preparing for the ministry of the cure of souls, there is a profound need to understand how to use the Gospel with one’s own conscience. Luther admonished “those of you who are to become instructors of consciences…that you exercise yourselves by study, by reading, by meditation, and by prayer, so that in temptation you will be able to instruct consciences, both your own and others, console them, and take them from the Law to grace, from active righteousness to passive righteousness, in short, from Moses to Christ.” If ministerial candidates do not understand how to mine their own experience of the Gospel for others, they will do more harm than good in the parish. But even more, they will not be truly reformational, no matter how well they do in seminary or on their ordination exams.[20]

Having begun this talk with a fictionalized account, I want to end with one. In the third novella of Bo Giertz’s classic The Hammer of God, parish pastor Gosta Torvik had just picked up his pastoral colleague Olle Bengtsson from the train. Immediately, Bengtsson grilled the pastor on the failure of the revival that had occurred in the parish and traced it to a failure in knowing and applying the Gospel to oneself and one’s people. Torvik had simply left people with terrified consciences driven by the Law, which they were trying to meet by good behavior and failing miserably.

Bengtsson observed, “You must know that when God’s work gets started in a man, he will soon or later experience desperate need, the need that is created by God’s Word.”

Torvik responded, “But what, then, shall a man do?”

“And you ask that, you who are a pastor? What follows illumination by the law?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea.”

Bengtsson made a complete halt and pushed his hat back in a gesture of astonishment.

“I thought so. When will they learn at Upsala not to send out people to shepherd souls until they have learned the ABCs of Christianity.”

Bengtsoon went on to explain what we have already heard from Luther: how the Law terrifies the wounded conscience, but only the Gospel can deliver: “His eyes are turned from his own miserable condition and he catches sight of the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for just such black rascals as himself. And he hears that it is faith that makes righteous, and not works. That is the enlightenment through the gospel. Therefore, everything here in Odesjo depends on whether you can rightly preach the gospel and guide souls to the Redeemer. Answer me honestly: Are you not aware of this yourself? Yes or no?”[21]

That is the same question for us today as those engaged in the care of wounded souls and as those who are heirs of this Reformation heritage. Everything depends on this.

  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.
  6. Augsburg Confession, Article II, in Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 36.1-3 [hereafter, BC]; Formula of Concord, Article I, BC, 488.
  7. Notger Slenczka, “Luther’s Anthropology,” in Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology, 218; cf. Smalcald Articles, 3:1, BC, 311; LW, 44:298. See also Randall C. Zachman, The Assurance of Faith: Conscience in the Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 19-39.
  8. For this and the next paragraph, I am using the version of the Ninety-Five Theses found in LW, 31:25-33. Citations in the text are to the thesis number.
  9. LW, 31:42, 51-52, 55.
  10. Augsburg Confession, Article XX, in BC, 55:1-18.
  11. Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XIII, in BC, 191-92; Luther quoted in Zachman, Assurance of Faith, 43.
  12. LW, 26:4-5; LW, 31:189-91.
  13. LW, 54:127.
  14. Luther to George Spenlein, 8 April 1516, in Theodore G. Tappert, ed., Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1955), 110 [hereafter, LSC]; LW, 54:64.
  15. LSC, 100, 124.
  16. Luther to Valentine Hausmann, 24 June 1532, in LSC, 121; Luther to Mrs. M., 11 January 1543, in LSC, 103.
  17. LSC, 123.
  18. Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 37; LW, 34:286-27.
  19. Luther said this many times in different forms; for example, “If the doctrine of justification is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost” (LW, 26:9).
  20. LW, 26:10.
  21. Bo Giertz, The Hammer of God, revised edition (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2005), 247-50.