Review of Counseling Under the Cross: How Martin Luther Applied the Gospel to Daily Life

During the early years of Bob Kellemen’s pastoral ministry, his understanding of the gospel was that Jesus took our just punishment from a harsh God and clothed us with his righteousness. After reading about Luther’s pastoral ministry, Kellemen came to a much richer and deeper understanding of the gospel and what it means for our daily lives. This book shows us how Luther applied the gospel to the sufferings and situations of daily life by pointing to the counsel of the cross and the sufficiency of Christ’s grace. Kellemen hopes that we, like himself, will come to a deeper and life-changing understanding of the gospel of Christ.

Kellemen begins by describing Luther’s life before his conversion. Luther lived in fear of a righteous and holy God, fully aware that it was impossible to please him and was terrified of being eternally separated from him. Through reading scripture, he came to know a God who justifies guilty sinners and who welcomes sinners freely because of Christ.

The personal ministry of the Word became essential to Luther’s ministry. He counseled from belief in the sufficiency of scripture for comfort and for fighting temptation and taught that a Christ-focused counsel sustains, heals, reconciles, and guides believers.

Sustaining

Luther painted five pastoral care portraits when he applied the gospel to suffering people. First, regarding the trial of faith, he believed that there are two levels of suffering. The first is the external suffering because of living in a fallen world, such as illness and rejection. The second is the suffering that comes from the temptation to doubt God when suffering.

Second, is corem deo faith. Luther believed that all meaning finds its existence in God. Christ experienced suffering and is suffering with humans. Third, the perspective of faith. Faith is the divine perspective on life from which people can respond to suffering by seeing it through Christ’s victory.

Fourth, the scriptural content of faith. The Bible provides story and explanation for the human experience.

And fifth, the gospel content of faith. Christ crucified is the gospel content for renewing the faith perspective.

Luther entered the sufferer’s situation, story, and soul by making every effort to understand the person’s personality, disposition toward God, and other issues. He pressed about the need for care of the physical body. Those mourning were encouraged to grieve and find comfort in Christ. To be sustained in suffering, Luther encouraged believers to meet as the body of Christ and encourage each other in him.

During suffering, he helped believers to have hope in God while becoming more like Christ. The three areas he emphasized were external suffering through persecution, physical sickness, and spiritual depression.

Healing

When providing gospel healing, Luther focused on three aspects. First, regarding healing of the soul, he emphasized the believer’s union with Christ. Luther also emphasized relationships with other believers to bring integration to their personality. Second, regarding healing of the mind, believers are to live by faith, depend on God, and interpret their suffering through scripture, knowing that God has a purpose in it. Third, regarding healing of the will, Christians are to re-engage the world by functioning purposefully in it.

Luther’s remedy for doubting eternal salvation was to preach the gospel to yourself every day. He counseled people to apply the gospel of grace to our conscience because we have peace with God through Christ. People need to come back to the forgiving Father and live out the truths of being justified, reconciled, regenerated, and redeemed.

Reconciliation

His ministry of reconciliation revolved around grace. He taught those reconciled to God, that he loves them and that they can live out that love. We can experience this through mutual conversation and consolation with fellow believers.

Luther discerned the different ways that sin worked in people. Then he applied the gospel to the individual conscience and showed that believers’ identity is in Christ, based upon their union with him.

Guiding

Luther reflected on progressive sanctification with an emphasis on the state of mind of the person being guided, focusing on a renewed understanding of our relationship to God in Christ. He spoke of who God is in Christ, what God has done in Christ, and who we are in Christ. He defined progressive sanctification as freely and joyfully living out justification, reconciliation, regeneration, and redemption through faith in active love.

Christians are guided by the Word of God. When there are issues in life that are not specifically addressed in the Bible, Luther gave three guideposts of faith, love, and conscience. He asked: what response evidences faith in and reliance upon Christ; what response evidences Christlike love for others; and is participation in this contrary to my conscience? These three guideposts are to be applied to the four points of vocational responsibility: home, work, community, and church.

Thoughts

Before reading Counseling Under the Cross, I was unaware of Luther’s pastoral heart. Reading about his compassion and care deepened my understanding of who he was. In this book, I was presented with a counseling approach that is all about Christ. Luther’s approach was not a system, nor built on human works; it was deeper and richer. It was all about helping people to live in Christ and to understand who he is.

The approach is comprehensive. It understands that wisdom is needed to know how to care for people in different situations and stages in life. This is seen in his approach of sustaining, healing, reconciling, and guiding.

In addition, throughout the book, Kellemen gives examples of how Luther counseled people. This means that the book is highly practical because we are shown how to come alongside people in different situations of life and how to help them know Christ in that situation.

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