Martin Luther: Reformer of Pastoral Counseling

The Reformation and Your Church 

9Marks just released the latest edition of their 9Marks Journal: The Reformation and Your Church. This edition includes 18 articles such as:

  • The Reformation and the Glory of God by John Piper
  • Is the Reformation Just a White Man’s Legacy: How the Reformation Addresses Social by Mika Edmonson
  • What Your Church Members Should Know about the Reformation by Shawn Wright

I was honored to be among those 18 authors. I wrote about Martin Luther: Reformer of Pastoral Counseling. I excerpted and developed the article from my book Counseling Under the Cross: How Martin Luther Applied the Gospel to Daily Life.

Take a look at how and why Martin Luther reformed pastoral counseling…

Luther’s Pastoral Motivation for the Reformation

Compelled by intense pastoral concern, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. That same day, Luther dispatched a cover letter to Cardinal Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz, outlining his pastoral care motivation for his reformation ministry. Luther began his letter by expressing his alarm for his flock—many of whom were journeying to the Dominican, John Tetzel, in an attempt to purchase their freedom from guilt.

“I bewail the gross misunderstanding among the people which comes from these preachers and which they spread everywhere among common men. Evidently the poor souls believe that when they have bought indulgence letters they are then assured of their salvation.”[I]

The Reformer then directly addressed the Cardinal.

“O great God! The souls committed to your care, excellent Father, are thus directed to death. For all these souls you have the heaviest and a constantly increasing responsibility. Therefore, I can no longer be silent on this subject.”[ii]

Luther the pastor and shepherd inspired Luther the reformer.

McNeil rightly observes that “in matters concerning the cure of souls the German Reformation had its inception.”[iii] Sproul concurs. “To be sure, the Ninety-Five Theses posted on the church door at Wittenberg were penned in Latin as a request for theological discussion among the faculty members of the university. But what provoked Luther to request such a discussion? Simply put, it was pastoral concern.”[iv] Tappert further explains:

“Martin Luther is usually thought of as a world-shaking figure who defied papacy and empire to introduce a reformation in the teaching, worship, organization, and life of the Church and to leave a lasting impression on Western civilization. It is sometimes forgotten that he was also—and above all else—a pastor and shepherd of souls. It is therefore well to remind ourselves that the Reformation began in Germany when Luther became concerned about his own parishioners who believed that if they had purchased letters of indulgence they were sure of their salvation.”[v]

Luther empathized deeply with his flock’s fears because long before he nailed his Theses, he had wrestled personally with the demons of doubt about the grace and forgiveness of God.

“Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that anything that I thought or did or prayed satisfied God.”[vi]

The thought of standing face to face with a holy God created in Luther a lifelong dread and constant apprehension that he would never find peace with God (his anfechtung). Luther’s agonizing personal search for a gracious God merged with his pastoral care for his confused flock.

“It is crucial to realize that Luther became a reformer who was widely heard and understood by transforming the abstract question of a just God into an existential quest that concerned the whole human being, encompassing thought and action, soul and body, love and suffering . . . . The upheavals in Luther’s soul, which he described as hellish torments, had far-reaching consequences. The Reformer went his own perilous way, not only as a biblical theologian but also as a psychologically experienced minister.”[vii]

Luther’s personal quest for God’s grace not only animated his personal religious experience, it also motivated his reformation agenda and his pastoral counseling work.

Luther the Pastor and the Personal Ministry of the Word 

While we often see Luther as a theologian-reformer, he envisioned himself as a pastor not only engaged in the pulpit ministry of the Word—preaching, but also in the personal ministry of the Word—counseling. Luther believed that every pastor should be a soul care giver.

In his lectures to his students on Galatians, Luther identified the pastor’s calling.

“If I am a minister of the Word, I preach, I comfort the brokenhearted, and I administer the sacraments.”[viii]

Luther never made a dichotomy between preaching and counseling—both were gospel-centered, Word-based ministries.

Luther had the same message in his letter to Lazarus Spengler, penned on August 15, 1528. Speaking of administering the sacraments, Luther then outlines the calling and role of God’s minister.

“This is the same as their obligation to preach, comfort, absolve, help the poor, and visit the sick, as often as these services are needed and demanded.”[ix]

Continue reading here: Martin Luther: Reformer of Pastoral Counseling.

Footnotes

[i]Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 48, “Letters I,” 46.

[ii]Ibid.

[iii]McNeil, A History of the Cure of Souls, 163.

[iv]Sproul, The Legacy of Luther, 280.

[v]Tappert, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, 13, emphasis added.

[vi]Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 34, “Career of the Reformer IV,” 336.

[vii]Oberman, Luther, 151, 179.

[viii]Luther, Commentary on Galatians, 21, emphasis added.

[ix]Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 49, “Letters II,” 207, emphasis added.

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