Martin Luther, Pastoral Counseling, Sola Scriptura, and the Sufficiency of Scripture

In Biblical Preaching and Biblical Counseling: What Makes Them Biblical?, I dialogue with my friend, David Murray. My focus in that post is on how biblical counselors use God’s Word to build the foundation for our counseling model—our biblical counseling worldview, our theology and theory of people, problems, and solutions. It is from God’s Word that we find foundational wisdom for life for building our way of thinking about helping hurting people in their daily lives.

Talking with a Counselee 

But what about the practice of pastoral counseling? When I’m sitting across from a hurting person who is struggling either with an issue of suffering in a fallen world, or with an issue of sin and sanctification, what is the relative role of Scripture in our conversation? Does Scripture only control my thinking about understanding the person, diagnosing the problem, and interacting about wisdom-based solutions?

Or, can and should God’s Word play a central role in our actual conversation? Am I confident as a pastoral counselor in the power of God’s Word in the counseling conversation? Am I competent as a pastoral counselor in using God’s Word to comfort and encourage the hurting and to reconcile and guide the person struggling against sin?

In light of this practical issue, I thought it might be instructive to consider Martin Luther’s practice of pastoral counseling. What did sola Scriptura—Scripture alone—look like as Martin Luther interacted with parishioners?

Luther and The 14 Consolations 

One of Luther’s benefactors and protectors, the Elector Frederick the Wise, was seriously ill. Frederick’s chaplain asked Luther to write Frederick some words of consolation. They have come down to us as The 14 Consolations. In the superstition of the day, a shepherd had claimed to see a vision of 14 saints. As a result, sick Christians began praying to these 14 saints.

Luther took the motif of the number 14, and moved it from superstition and saints to Scripture and the Savior. He presented the Elector Frederick the Wise with 14 scriptural images—7 images of Christ crucified and 7 images of Christ resurrected.

Luther kept Jesus on every page of his counseling.

The English version of The 14 Consolations is 45-pages long. In those 45 pages, Luther quotes 169 passages. The average small book today is about 5 times that size. So, had Luther written Frederick a small counseling manual today, he would have quoted, developed, and discussed nearly 850 passages!

This is not to say that Luther’s focus on Scripture means he would have ignored science—see below on that. It is simply to say that sola Scriptura and sufficiency of Scripture played a central role in Luther’s actual practice of pastoral counseling.

Luther’s words of pastoral counsel were Word-saturated.

Luther was confident in the power of God’s Word. Luther always pointed people to the Word of God as their ultimate hope and primary help in suffering, sin, and sanctification. The Scriptures, for Luther, were sufficient to comfort the hurting, confront the sinning, and cheer the saint.

Luther and the Sufficiency of Scripture for Comforting the Suffering 

Consider just a few examples from Luther’s various writings, where he highlights the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling the hurting.

“You have the Apostle Paul who shows to you a garden, or paradise, which is full of comfort, when he says: ‘Whatever was written, was written for our instruction, so that through patience and the consolation of the Scriptures we might have hope’ (Romans 15:4). Here he attributes to Holy Scripture the function of comfortingWho may dare to seek or ask for comfort anywhere else?[I]

“Comfort yourself with the Word of God, the pre-eminent consolation.”[ii]

“It is thus very true that we shall find consolation only through the Scriptures, which in the days of evil call us to the contemplation of our blessings, either present or to come.”[iii]

“I have learned by experience how one should act under temptation, namely, when any one is afflicted with sadness…. Let him first lay hold of the comfort of the divine Word.”[iv]

“Christ heals people by means of his precious Word, as he also declares in the 50th chapter of Isaiah (verse 4): ‘The Lord hath given me a learned tongue, that I should know how to speak a word in season to the weary.’ St. Paul also teaches likewise, in Romans xv 14, that we should obtain and strengthen hope from the comfort of the Holy Scriptures, which the devil endeavors to tear out of people’s hearts in times of temptations. Accordingly, as there is no better nor more powerful remedy in temptations than to diligently read and heed the Word of God.”[v]

“Those who are tempted by doubt and despair I should console in this fashion. First, by warning them to beware of solitude and to converse constantly with others about the Psalms and Scriptures.”[vi] 

Luther and the Sufficiency of Scripture for Overcoming Sin and Temptation 

Consider just a few examples from Luther’s various writings, where he highlights the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling people dealing with sin and temptation. 

Nothing helps more powerfully against the devil, the world, the flesh, and all evil thoughts than occupying oneself with God’s Word, having conversations about it, and contemplating it.”[vii]

“Therefore, whenever any one is assailed by temptation of any sort whatever, the very best that he can do in the case is either to read something in the Holy Scriptures, or think about the Word of God, and apply it to his heart.”[viii]

“If you now attempt, in this spiritual conflict, to protect yourself by the help of man without the Word of God, you simply enter upon the conflict with that mighty spirit, the devil, naked and unprotected.” Such an endeavor would be worse than David against Goliath—without God’s supernatural power helping David. You may, therefore, if you so please, oppose your power to the might of the devil. It will then be very easily seen what an utterly unequal conflict it is, if one does not have at hand in the beginning the Word of God.”[ix]

“Let us learn, therefore, in great and horrible terrors, when our conscience feels nothing but sin and judges that God is angry with us, and that Christ has turned His face from us, not to follow the sense and feeling of our own heart, but to stick to the Word of God.”[x] 

“No man should be alone when he opposes Satan. The church and the ministry of the Word were instituted for this purpose, that hands may be joined together and one may help another. If the prayer of one doesn’t help, the prayer of another will.”[xi]

“For one has to instruct consciences that the comfort of the gospel is directed to each individual particularly; therefore, as you people who understand these matters know, the gospel has to be applied through the Word to each individual particularly, so that each individual in his conscience is tossed about by the questions whether this great grace, which Christ offers to all men, belongs to him too.”[xii]

“So we also labor by the Word of God that we may set at liberty those that are entangled, and bring them to the pure doctrine of faith, and hold them there.”[xiii] 

Scripture for the Soul, Medicine for the Body 

Luther’s doctrine of sufficiency was robust enough to make room for the appropriate use of medication.

“Accordingly a physician is our Lord God’s mender of the body, as we theologians are his healers of the spirit; we are to restore what the devil has damaged. So a physician administers theriaca (an antidote for poison) when Satan gives poison. Healing comes from the application of nature to the creature . . . . It’s our Lord God who created all things, and they are good. Wherefore it’s permissible to use medicine, for it is a creature of God. Thus I replied to Hohndorf, who inquired of me when he heard from Karlstadt that it’s not permissible to make use of medicine. I said to him, ‘Do you eat when you’re hungry?’”[xiv]

On the other hand, when convinced that an issue was spiritual in nature, Luther did not hesitate to call for spiritual, rather than medicinal cures. Scripture is God’s prescription, God’s choice medicine, for soul sickness. Luther writes to his friend John Agricola concerning John’s wife:

“Her illness is, as you see, rather of the mind than of the body. I am comforting her as much as I can, with my knowledge. In a word, her disease is not for the apothecaries (as they call them), nor is it to be treated with the salves of Hippocrates, but by constantly applying plasters of Scripture and the Word of God. For what has conscience to do with Hippocrates? Therefore, I would dissuade you from the use of medicine and advise the power of God’s Word.”[xv]

Note: The preceding quotes from Luther came from my recently-released book,Counseling Under the Cross: How Martin Luther Applied the Gospel to Daily Life.

[i]Luther, LW, Vol. 49, p. 16.

[ii]Tappert, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, p. 63, emphasis added.

[iii]Luther, LW, Vol. 42, p. 124.

[iv]Nebe, Luther As Spiritual Adviser, pp. 175-176.

[v]Nebe, Luther As Spiritual Adviser, p. 179.

[vi]Tappert, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, p. 117.

[vii]Luther, The Large Catechism, p. 187, in Krey, Luther’s Spirituality.

[viii]Nebe, Luther As Spiritual Adviser, p. 178.

[ix]Luther, Commentary on Romans, pp. 179-180.

[x]Luther, Commentary on Galatians, pp. 333, 126.

[xi] Luther, LW, Vol. 54, p. 78.

[xii]Luther, LW, Vol. 50, p. 77.

[xiii]Luther, Commentary on Galatians, pp. 333, 126.

[xiv]Luther, LW, Vol. 54, pp. 53-54.

[xv]Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther, p. 402.

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