For the average person, “pastoral care” and “Martin Luther” are probably strange bedfellows. If your Luther knowledge is limited to tales of bold opposition to the papacy or the painfully entertaining Luther Insult Generator, I wouldn’t blame you. After all, it’s his one-man-against-an-empire mystique that captures the imagination. But if we’re not careful, spending too much time looking at Luther as the great reformer can make miss out on Luther the pastoral counselor.
Bob Kellemen brings this side of Luther to light in Counseling Under the Cross: How Martin Luther Applied The Gospel to Daily Life. Kellemen—vice president for institutional advancement and chair of the biblical counseling department at Crossroads Bible College—explores the theology and methodology of Luther’s pastoral care ministry, demonstrating why we can, and should, look to Luther as a valuable source of wisdom as we help one another grow in Christ.
Hopeful Words for Comfort and Correction
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)
Theologically and methodologically, the gospel was everything in Luther’s counseling ministry.
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.
Without gospel hope, the best we can offer is a to-do list.
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.
Unexpected Counsel from Calvary
When I started reading Counseling Under the Cross, I was looking for practical insights and guidance to help me encourage fellow believers. I got that, but I also found myself on the receiving end of Luther’s counsel.
For more than a year, my wife and I have been wandering around in a fog of stress and anxiety after moving to the United States from Canada for a ministry opportunity. While we don’t regret the move, issue after issue has come up: new financial and legal obligations, navigating another culture, acclimating to a new job, finding a church, making an entirely new set of friends . . . there’s a lot going on.
So as I read of Luther’s struggles with what he called his anfechtungen—his “grinding sense of being utterly lost . . . of swarming attacks of doubt that could convince people that God’s love was not for them” (23)—this reminder of hope took on a great deal of significance for me.
While we intellectually affirm God’s love for us in Christ, we’ve had days where we’ve wondered if he really does care, if life will ever feel normal again, if the craziness will settle. Theologically, I know the answers to my questions. I know what I’m supposed to say. And I actually believe these things. But in the moment, when it’s all pressing down around me . . . anfechtungen.
It was, and is, tempting to believe the lie that because life isn’t good, God might not be as good as I believe he is. Kellemen’s observations gave me a moment to take my eyes off my concerns and fears, to see that what we’ve been experiencing has a purpose: that as we’ve been moved “to the verge of defenselessness” it may indeed be something God has designed to grow us in our faith (102), to help us to see that maybe, truly, Christ is enough for us. We shouldn’t brush off our concerns, but we don’t need to despair. Instead, we have an opportunity to see “what kind of God God is and how he reigns” (126).
And that’s something to look forward to.