Martin Bucer: Carer of Souls (Part 2)

In the previous post in this series, we considered what Martin Bucer taught in his pastoral manual, Concerning the True Care of Soulsabout what it means to be true Seelsorgers–true carers of souls.  Among the variegated tasks of pastoral care, Bucer set out five as being primary. In that first post, we already considered the first two responsibilities of pastors: to seek and find the lost, as well as, bringing back the scattered sheep from our flocks. There are three more to which we must give ourselves as pastors. They are as follows:

Third: To assist in the true reformation of those who, while remaining in the Church of Christ, have grievously fallen and sinned.  In other words, shepherds are to heal the sin-wounded sheep among the flock. How do the sheep become wounded?  Simply stated, by the world, the flesh, and the devil–that unholy trinity that besets weak sheep like ourselves. Sometimes, I confess that I feel like the Apostle Paul has been reading my mail when he says, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Ro 8:19).  Sometimes, this sin-wounding comes because, as we all know, sheep have teeth!  They can bite each other.  Sometimes, they can even nip at us shepherds!  I can’t help but laugh at Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s famous quip that to be a pastor, one has to have the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the hide of a rhinoceros.  This is why I love Bucer’s advice to us:

A further consequence of this genuine love for Christ and his flock will be that carers of souls will show themselves to be not overbearing or unfriendly, but  entirely humble and like a mother, like a nurse caring for her little child; thus         they will conduct themselves in a proper and friendly way towards people, showing themselves in all their ministry to be cheerful and indefatigable, however badly their ministry may sometimes be received (191).

Whatever the situation, we need, as Bucer says, to apply the right medicine to bring about the healing of repentance, “…for this medicine is nothing else than getting the one who has sinned to recognize his sin sufficiently to cause and move him to a position of true acknowledgement, regret and sorrow for his sin; and in this way going on to comfort him again and strengthen his hope of grace, so that he may become enthusiastic and desirous of true reformation.”

Fourth: To re-establish in true Christian strength and health those who, while persevering in the fellowship of Christ and not doing anything particularly or grossly wrong, have become somewhat feeble and sick in the Christian life.  Simply stated, the sickly need to be strengthened. Bucer speaks of “counsel and help,” “proper binding up and healing.”  Similar to the third task, we see the need arising from the spreading effect of sin in a sheep. Sin weakens. Sin dulls our affections. We know this, not first by observing our sheep, but by observing ourselves! We stumble. We find ourselves sin-wounded. We need a shepherd’s healing touch. And, as pastors, we need to extend that healing touch. Trust me when I say that our sheep are often weary and weakened by the accusations of Satan, sin-sick, heart-sick, their eyes holding back a damn-burst of tears and they sometimes don’t even know why. I cannot but think of the woman with that interminable flow of blood (Mark 5:25-34), who desperately wanted simply to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. Could we not as pastors, as Seelsorgers, take our people by the hand and help them find that healing hem? 

Fifth: To protect from all offence and falling away and continually encourage in all good things those who stay with the flock and in Christ’s sheep-pen without grievously sinning or becoming weak and sick in their Christian walk.  Think of it this way: We need to protect the healthy sheep and put them out to pasture, keeping careful, prayerful watch-care over them.  Healthy sheep promote health among the sheep.  Thankfully, by the grace of God, there are healthy sheep within the flock.  Yes, the healthy sheep await the full experience of glorification.  As Thomas Boston observes, “What is grace but glory in the bud, and glory but grace brought to perfection?” Healthy sheep are in process. Bucer reminds us, “Although there is no-one free of all defects and weaknesses, those who live in the fear of God, remaining within the church of God, and showing themselves in it to be diligent and keen in the holy practices of the church and in all their Christian life, are described as healthy and strong sheep.” Thank God for this!

One of the primary ways we tend and keep healthy sheep healthy is by making sure that they are fed. We watch over them from the pulpit. This is the primary feeding trough of the sheep. Bucer declares, “The doctrine of the holy Gospel is the doctrine of eternal salvation, and on account of our corrupt nature there is nothing more difficult and troublesome for us to learn; that is why this doctrine requires the most faithful, earnest and persistent teaching, instruction and admonition that anyone could ever employ.”

However, he adds:

But everyone knows full well what other instruction and admonition people may be receiving in private.

This is why Christian doctrine and admonition must not be confined to the assembly and the pulpit; because there are very many people who will take what they are taught and admonished in the public gathering as being of only general application, and consider it to apply more to other than to themselves.  Therefore it is essential that people should also be instructed, taught and led on in Christ individually in their homes. That is why those churches have acted wisely which have retained the individual approach to teaching repentance and faith to each one who is in Christ the Lord.  And those who wish to hinder all ministers of Christ everywhere from dispensing and proclaiming Christ’s doctrine not only in public and general sermons but also from house to house, to each one individually, are opposing the Holy Spirit and fighting against the reformation of the church.

Whether in public or in private, we are Seelsorgers.  We are, as Gregory Nazianzen would say, “Physicians of the Soul.”  We are, as Sinclair Ferguson has so helpfully put it, “Pharmacists of the Conscience.” 

This is a daunting task. Dear pastor, you may think, “I don’t have what it takes.  I’m just an ordinary man.”  Well, you are right. In and of yourself, you don’t have what it takes. You have whom it takes–and your Savior is no ordinary man!  Bucer beckons!  Let us be concerned about the true care of souls. Let us labor in the Lord’s vineyard, pastor in his pasture with the words of Paul ever before us, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col 1:29).