Review of Bob Kellemen’s Counseling Under the Cross: How Martin Luther Applied the Gospel to Daily Life

September 29, 2017

2017 marks the 500th celebration of the Protestant Reformation. Consequently, there is currently a flurry of book releases and conferences that seek to revisit and highlight key emphases of the Reformation. One of the books that has come out recently is Bob Kellemen’s portrait of Martin Luther’s pastoral counseling, Counseling Under the Cross: How Martin Luther Applied the Gospel to Daily Life. 

Summary of the Book

Section one sketches Martin Luther’s spiritual trials, and here we see how Luther moved from being terrified of God, the angry judge, to being at peace with God, the gracious Father. This transformation happened because Luther received clarity on the gospel and wanted to share that gospel message with others. These initial chapters help the reader see how Luther’s personal spiritual experiences shaped the essence of his counseling ministry. He gave out of what he had received.

Section two seeks to highlight the shape of Luther’s pastoral counseling, and chapters 3-11 really form the heart of the book. In these chapters, Kellemen first makes an argument for why he uses the historic spiritual care framework (sustaining, healing, reconciling, and guiding). He then shows us how Luther applied the gospel to these areas (which of course apply to areas of both suffering and sin). In other words, Kellemen uses the historic spiritual care framework (two themes and four tasks) as a guide to the theology and practice of Luther the counselor. The result? Pastoral golden nuggets! Far too many to mention in a short review. So in the limited space that I have, I will share one particular insight that really struck me and then one question I was left with afterwards.

A Key Insight: Theology Informs Counseling Praxis

An insight that came across clearly was how much Luther’s theology shaped his praxis of soul care. Kellemen quotes G.T. Tappert, who said, “an examination of the collected works of Luther makes it clear that his spiritual counsel was not simply the applications of external techniques. It was part and parcel of his theology.”[1] Luther’s spiritual counsel flowed from his theological understanding of the gospel. This is an extremely important insight for those of us who provide pastoral care in the 21st century. More than ever, there are myriad techniques available when it comes to helping others experience personal change. And while we are able to learn from some of these, we must still seek to ensure that all of our counseling flows out of a theological worldview informed by the Bible and the grace of Christ. Luther obviously wasn’t faced with a variety of psychotherapeutic modalities, but he was faced with the alternative methodologies of medieval scholasticism. The medieval mystics insisted that God and His will could be known by means of self-mortification and ecstasy, whereas Luther insisted that the Bible (through which we come to know the gospel) occupy a central place in pastoral care.

Let me share one example of how this worked out in Luther’s life and ministry: the practice of confession. In his earlier life, Luther would confess sin for hours and still worry that he had forgotten something. In this erroneous practice, his emphasis was on the depth of confession, on remembering and confessing every sin that had been committed. Years later, after having understood the gospel, Luther’s emphasis moved from depth of confession to depth of forgiveness. The grace of Christ cleansed the believer deeply. Kellemen summarizes: “He taught that it was enough for the person to be contrite. The attitude of heart mattered, not the remembrance of every sin.”[2] This, of course, opened up the way for lay confession as believers were encouraged to mutually confess sins and care for one another with the gospel.

Important, Timely, and Profound

This book is important, timely, and profound. Important, because the precious gospel can be so easily assumed in our counseling. Kellemen helps us see how powerful and valuable the gospel was to Luther and—by implication—how the same precious gospel should inform our pastoral counseling. The fact that counseling should be centered on Christ is not trivial, and this book reinforces the importance of gospel-centered counseling. Secondly, this book is timely; partly because 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but also because we live in a time where Protestants are unclear on the role of the gospel in counseling. By looking afresh to Luther, Protestants will gain a deeper appreciation for why the Scriptures and the grace of Christ should be the hallmarks of authentically Christian counseling. If more Protestants could gain clarity on that this year, it would be a wonderful way to celebrate the Reformation. For this reason, I think this is a great book not just for biblical counselors but also for Christian psychologists and other Christians involved in counseling. Finally, this book is profound: Luther shows us how to apply rich theology to real, messy, life. From grief, to greed, to anxiety, to illness, to spiritual warfare, in this excellent book we see how Luther applied his theology to the complex troubles people faced. We see that Luther did not lightly treat the wounds of people; his pastoral care was not shallow. Rather, informed by the Scriptures, Luther gave help that was theologically profound and tailored to the needs of his hearers.

A Question

I absolutely loved this book. But I was left with a question: if Kellemen had not used the historic spiritual care framework (sustaining, healing, reconciling, and guiding), what emphases of Luther’s pastoral counseling would have emerged? And how would those emphases have been shaped by Luther’s context or personality? Of course, we have much to learn from Luther! But we also know that he was an imperfect man, and susceptible to certain experiences of sin and suffering. So what were they? And how might seeing those flaws in Luther and his counseling alert us to flaws we have in our own lives and ministries today?

A Warm Recommendation

This book is important, timely, and profound. I found myself not just reading, but highlighting it, quoting it to friends and family, and using its insights in my counseling sessions. I warmly recommend this book to anyone involved in pastoral care and counseling.

Kyle Johnston is a pastor and counselor at Jubilee Community Church in Cape Town, South Africa. Kyle provides leadership and oversight to the counseling ministry and serves on the preaching team at Jubilee.

[1] G.T. Tappert, ed. Luther’s Letters of Spiritual Counsel, Vol. XVIII in The Library of Christian Classics, ed. J. Baillie, J.T. McNeil and H.P. Van Dusen (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955).

[2] Bob Kellemen, Counseling Under the Cross: How Martin Luther Applied the Gospel to Daily Life (Greensboro, N.C.: New Growth Press, 2017).

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