The secret of Martin Luther’s counseling ministry

Luther Statue

Many of us are familiar with Martin Luther, the accidental revolutionary. The man who, by posting his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, found himself at the center of what became known as the Protestant Reformation. But fewer of us are familiar with Martin Luther, the pastor. The man who, through dinner conversations and letters, helped encourage struggling believers with the gospel and nurtured the faith of many. I had the opportunity to explore this side of Luther in my review of Bob Kellemen’s newest book, Counseling Under the Cross for The Gospel Coalition:

Theologically and methodologically, the gospel was everything in Luther’s counseling ministry. According to Kellemen:

“Luther turned the counseling of his day back to the Christ of the cross. Satan insists that we cannot trust God’s heart. The Christ of the cross is the one image, the one reality, the one truth that conquers the condemning lie of Satan.” (40)

Whether comforting the suffering (the work of sustaining and healing) or confronting the sinner (the work of reconciling and guiding), Luther sought to apply the gospel to the hearts of those in his care because the gospel was, and is, their only hope.

And hope really is the operative word here. The suffering need to know that it’s normal to hurt, but that in and through Christ it’s possible to hope. Christ defeats the lie that whispers “Life is bad; God is sovereign; God must be bad, too” (82), because in the gospel we have a Father who dearly loves us. Likewise, hope presents us with our soul’s fundamental need:

“Gospel counsel helps people to grasp together with all the saints a personal knowledge of Christ as merciful Friend. This is the most basic knowledge that the soul needs–the knowledge that the soul can trust Christ as best Friend.”(159)

Whether we’re vocational counselors or laypeople doing the work of encouraging (1 Thess. 5:11), all of us should strive for this kind of emphasis. We’re living in a time when it’s shockingly easy to feel hopeless, regardless of whether we’re followers of Christ.

How do you counsel the Christian struggling with anxiety over tomorrow if not by slowly helping her see the goodness of God in Christ? How do you guide the sinner weary from the pursuit of sin if not by pointing him to the One who satisfies his greatest needs?

Without gospel hope, the best we can offer is a to-do list: follow these seven steps, try a little harder, and drop a line after you’ve pulled yourself up by your bootstraps.

Without hope, our advice only feeds the cycle of despair. But Kellemen reminds us that because we have the greatest hope, we really do have something better.

Keep reading at The Gospel Coalition.

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books for adults and children, as well as multiple documentaries and Bible studies. His latest book, I'm a Christian—Now What?: A Guide to Your New Life with Christ is available now.