We are 499 years away from the anniversary of Martin Luther posting The 95 Theses on October 31, 1517. When we think of Luther and “Reformation Day” or “Reformation Sunday,” we often picture Luther the theologian/reformer. Less often, we think of Luther the biblical counselor. Yet, Luther wrote hundreds of letters of spiritual counsel. In fact, Luther’s motive for posting The 95 Thesis was pastoral—shepherding his flock to experience the peace of God the Father through the grace of God the Son.
Luther’s letters were his personal efforts to underscore the daily significance of the gospel. Robert Kolb describes Luther’s ministry as “the ‘how to’ of taking care of our people’s relationship with their God” by “applying the living voice of the gospel to people’s lives.”[i]
Luther saw salvation as a joyous exchange. A transaction has taken place in which our sinfulness has been transferred to Christ and where Christ’s righteousness has been transferred to us. So, the essence of Luther’s reconciliation ministry involves teaching those already reconciled to God that they are loved by God and can live out that love. Experiencing the gospel is central to victory over temptation and victory over a sense of condemnation when we succumb to temptation. As Kolb summarizes, “The combating of evil with the gospel stood at the heart of his pastoral care.”[ii]
Calming the Conscience with Grace
Luther taught that despairing of grace was the greatest conflict, for sin can be forgiven, but believing that sin cannot be forgiven leaves the soul in hopeless despair.
The temptation of faith is the very greatest and most severe, for it is the province of faith to overcome all other temptations. … By the temptation of faith is meant that the evil conscience drives out of a person his confidence in the pardoning grace of God.[iii]
The most dangerous battle of all occurs when we allow sin to overwhelm the conscience. When we exaggerate sin beyond the grace of Christ, we minimize the work of Christ and magnify our sin as greater than Christ’s forgiving grace. Hear Luther’s biblical counsel in this setting: “Consequently one ought to be disposed to say, ‘It is true. I have sinned. But I will not despair on this account.’”[iv]
Luther noticed that little counsel could be received when the conscience was in intense turmoil. Therefore, he sought to calm the conscience by comforting it with grace. But how is this done in the midst of Satan’s condemnation? Satan preaches law to the believer—“You are condemned for not doing this good work and for doing this bad work.” Christ preaches gospel to the believer. As Luther communicates in one of his table talks:
Once I debate about what I have done and left undone, I am finished. But if I reply on the basis of the gospel, “The forgiveness of sins covers it all,” I have won. On the other hand, if the devil gets me involved in what I have done and left undone, he has won, unless God helps and says, “Indeed! Even if you had not done anything, you would still be saved by forgiveness.”[v]
The gospel for daily living reminds us that Christianity is not about what I have done, but what Christ did once for all.
In the same table talk, Luther passionately describes how we must preach the gospel to ourselves—and to the devil!
It’s the supreme art of the devil that he can make the law out of the gospel. If I can hold on to the distinction between law and gospel, I can say to him any and every time that he should kiss my backside. Even if I sinned, I would say, “Should I deny the gospel on this account?”[vi]
We calm and comfort the conscience by distinguishing between law (works, doing) and gospel (faith in what Christ has already done).
Enlightening the Conscience
Luther’s biblical counseling emphasizes the need to enlighten Christians to their identity in Christ based upon their union with Christ. Luther found that illustrations and images from human relationships often provided powerful illumination and enlightenment about God’s unfailing love. In a table talk on how hard it is to believe in the forgiveness of sin, Luther shares this powerful parental imagery:
You say that the sins which we commit every day offend God, and therefore we are not saints. To this I reply: Mother love is stronger than the filth and scabbiness on a child, and so the love of God toward us is stronger than the dirt that clings to us. Accordingly, although we are sinners, we do not lose our filial relation on account of our filthiness, nor do we fall from grace on account of our sin.[vii]
Luther makes this potent image of a mother’s love even more staggering by personalizing it further as he relates the love of his wife Katy for their son Martin to the love of God for his children.
God must be much friendlier to me and speak to me in friendlier fashion than my Katy to little Martin. Neither Katy nor I could intentionally gouge out the eye or tear off the head of our child. Nor could God. God must have patience with us. He has given evidence of it, and therefore he sent his Son into our flesh in order that we may look to him for the best … When I reflect on the magnitude of God’s mercy and majesty, I am myself horrified at how far God has humbled himself.[viii]
When Satan holds before our eyes images of our sinfulness, the gospel provides laser surgery that enlightens our vision to see the unfailing parental love of God.
For who is able to express what a thing it is, when a man is assured in his heart that God neither is nor will be angry with him, but will be forever a merciful and loving Father to him for Christ’s sake? This is indeed a marvelous and incomprehensible liberty, to have the most high and sovereign Majesty so favorable to us. Wherefore, this is an inestimable liberty, that we are made free from the wrath of God forever; and is greater than heaven and earth and all other creatures.[ix]
As we near Reformation Sunday, let’s be sure to apply gospel truths to our daily lives. This is the essence of biblical counseling—applying the living voice of the gospel to people’s lives.
[i]Kolb, “Luther as Seelsorger,” 2.
[iii]Nebe, Luther As Spiritual Advisor, 189.
[iv]Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 54, 37.