Counseling Under the Cross: Martin Luther the Pastor-Shepherd-Counselor

May 8, 2017

When we think of Martin Luther, our minds typically focus on him as a theologian-reformer. What we often fail to realize is that Luther, the pastor, shepherd, and counselor inspired Luther the Reformer.

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. The same day, Luther dispatched a cover letter to Cardinal Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz, outlining his soul care concern that motivated his Reformation ministry. Luther began his letter by expressing 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 addresses 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’s Pastoral Motivation

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]

But what does this pastoral-shepherding concern look like in Luther’s counseling ministry? Luther’s care for Lambert Thorn provides a telling example…

Christ’s Gospel Medicine for Suffering

In 1523, an Augustinian friar, Lambert Thorn, was arrested for adhering to his evangelical faith. Thorn spent five years in prison where he eventually died in 1528—without recanting. On January 19, 1524, early in Thorn’s imprisonment, Luther sent Thorn a letter of spiritual encouragement.

Luther leads with reminders of Thorn’s union with Christ and the strength this union provides. “Christ, who is in you, has given abundant testimony that you do not need my words, for he himself suffers in you and is glorified in you. He is taken captive in you and reigns in you. He is oppressed in you and triumphs in you.”[vi] Christ in us is not only the hope of glory; our union with him is also our sure hope this side of glory.

Luther continues by underscoring the relational nature of Thorn’s union with Christ and again links that union to courage during life’s storms. Lambert is to be “mindful that you are not suffering alone but that He is with you who says, ‘I will be with him in trouble; because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him. I will set him on high because he hath known my name… Be of good courage and he will strengthen your heart.”[vii]

Luther’s counsel is the counsel of the Word. “He has said: ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.’” Luther’s reasoning is faith-based. “Do not argue with Satan but fix your eyes on the Lord, relying in simple faith on Jesus Christ, and know that by his blood we are saved.”[viii]

Luther draws out the courage already resident within Thorn by applauding the impact Lambert’s testimony was having on Luther and the whole world. “He strengthens you inwardly by his Spirit in these outward tribulations and consoles you with the double example of John and Henry. Thus both they and you are to me a great consolation and strength, to the whole world a sweet savor, and to the gospel of Christ a special glory.” It is not going too far to say that Luther “brags on” Thorn. “I rejoice with you and congratulate you with my whole heart, giving thanks to the faithful Saviour who has given me to see in you the rich and splendid increase of his grace.”[ix]

Luther concludes with words of challenge and comfort. “You have become a member of him by the holy calling of our Father. May he perfect his calling in you to the glory of his name and of his Word. Amen. Farewell in Christ, my brother.”[x]

Luther’s Pastoral Care and Counsel: Speaking Gospel Healing

In a letter of approximately 600 words—less than a brief blog post by today’s standards—Luther illustrates three dynamic aspects of pastoral counsel. Luther speaks gospel healing: (a) to the soul, (b) to the mind, and (c) to the will.

Luther heals the soul through constant conversations about the Christian’s union with Christ. Satan seeks to misuse suffering to suggest a breach in our relationship with God. This sucker punch can stagger even the strongest Christian. Luther becomes the Spirit’s advocate by reintegrating God’s children with their heavenly Father through emphasis on their union with Christ.

Luther heals the mind through gospel conversations that urge Christians to fix their “eyes on the Lord, relying in simple faith on Jesus Christ, and know that by his blood we are saved.” Satan seeks to misinterpret suffering to insinuate that God is angry with us. This kidney punch can double-over even the most mature believer. Luther becomes the Spirit’s advocate by teaching Christians how to reinterpret their suffering through a gospel lens. The gospel is the divine smelling salt that jolts our minds back to the eternal reality that in suffering God is not getting back at us; he is getting us back to himself.

Luther heals the will through encouragement counseling. En-courage is to implant courage into our wills by enlightening our minds to the reality that Christ is implanted in and united with us. Satan seeks to dis-courage us—to suck the courage out of us by causing us to doubt God and ourselves. This one-two combination can knock even the greatest spiritual athlete to the canvas. Luther becomes the Spirit’s advocate by challenging Christians to reinvigorate their faith. “Be of good courage and he will strengthen your heart” (Psalm 31:24).

Question for Reflection

How can Martin Luther’s ministry as a pastor-shepherd-counselor impact our biblical counseling ministry today?

Note: Today’s blog post is excerpted by Bob Kellemen from Chapters 4 and 7 of his forthcoming book (August 2017, New Growth Press): Counseling Under the Cross: How Martin Luther Applied the Gospel to Daily Life

[i]Luther, LW, Vol. 48, p. 46.
[iii]McNeil, A History of the Cure of Souls, p. 163.
[iv]Sproul, The Legacy of Luther, p. 280.
[v]Tappert, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, p. 13, emphasis added.
[vi]Tappert, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, p. 198.
[vii]Ibid., p. 198.
[x]Ibid., p. 199.

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