Martin Luther: Reformer of Pastoral Counseling


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 motivation for this reformation ministry. Luther began the 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. He wrote, “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]

Clearly, Luther the pastor and shepherd inspired Luther the reformer.

Luther’s Pastoral Motivation for the Reformation

Historian John T. McNeil rightly observes that “in matters concerning the cure of souls the German Reformation had its inception.”[iii] R. C. 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] Historian Theodore G. 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 not too long before he nailed his Theses, he had wrestled personally with demons of doubt about the grace and forgiveness of God. In his own words: “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 (often referred to as his anfechtung). Luther’s agonizing personal search for a gracious God merged with pastoral care for his confused flock. His biographer Heiko Oberman put it this way:

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 pulpit ministry of the Word—preaching—but also in the personal ministry of the Word—counseling. Luther believed every pastor should be a soul care giver.

In his lectures to his students on Galatians, he 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. After speaking of administering the sacraments, Luther 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]

Luther the Pastor and the Sufficiency of Scripture

For Luther, the sufficiency of Scripture equals the sufficiency of Christ’s gospel victory narrative. He looked at Scripture and counseling through the lens of the cross. In his Freedom of the Christian—Luther’s most focused writing on the application of the gospel to daily life—Luther offers a summary of how to apply the gospel:

You may ask, however, “Which is the word that gives such abundant grace, and how shall I use it?” The answer: “It is nothing but the preaching of Christ in accordance with the gospel, spoken in such a way that you heard your God speaking to you. It shows how your whole life and work are nothing before God but must eternally perish with everything that is in you. When you truly believe that you are guilty, then you must despair of yourself and confess that the verse in Hosea is true, ‘O Israel, in yourself you have nothing but your destruction; it is in me alone that you have your help.’ So that you can come out of yourself and away from yourself, that is, out of your perishing, God places the dear Son, Jesus Christ, before you and allows you to be addressed by this living and comforting word.”[x]

How does the Christian grow in grace? Through applying the Word—Christ’s victory narrative—to our lives. Luther again: “Thus it is appropriate for all Christians to let their only work and exercise be forming the Word and Christ in themselves, constantly practicing and strengthening such faith, because no other work can make a Christian.[xi]

After Luther’s work on Psalms, Romans, and Galatians, and after his posting of the Ninety-Five Thesis, the core of his theological development was complete. Another Luther biographer, James M. Kittelson, summarizes it this way:

What remained was to spell out its impact on the daily conduct of the Christian life. In this regard the first and highest task was to ease the consciences of the faithful. His own conscience had been tortured by the religious world in which he became an adult, and now he sought to warn others away from this agony. He started on the path to reform when Tetzel’s indulgence sale contradicted his teachings as a professor and threatened his concerns as a pastor. Now these same concerns thrust him back into the fray, even if from afar. By explaining the practical consequences of his theology, he took responsibility for all he had earlier said and done.[xii]

In his public writings and in his private letters of spiritual counsel, “Luther was once again reducing everything in the life of the Christian to the promises of God that called forth trust in his goodwill.”[xiii] That promise was made visible in the Christ of the cross who forever answers the question, “Does God have a good heart?” All of Luther’s life, ministry, and letters of spiritual counsel sought to apply to the lives of faithful Christians the truths of justification and reconciliation by faith alone through grace alone.

In 1955, prior to our modern debates about whether counselors should integrate divine revelation and human reason, Tappert edited and translated Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Tappert maintains that “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.”[xiv] He explains that in Luther’s day people espoused several routes to wisdom for daily life. Luther rejected the assumption of the medieval scholastics that wisdom for living in a broken world could be known by means of reason or logic. He also disavowed the theory of the medieval mystics that God and his will can be known by means of self-mortification or ecstasy.

What then is the sufficient source for scriptural care? Tappert answers the question: “In Luther’s eyes, therefore, spiritual counsel is always concerned above all else with faith—nurturing, strengthening, establishing, practicing faith—and because ‘faith cometh by hearing,’ the Word of God (or the gospel) occupies a central place in it.”

Put simply, Luther grounded his theology of counseling on the sufficiency of Christ’s gospel of grace. The aim of Luther’s counseling “is not to get people to do certain things—fasting, going on a pilgrimage, becoming a monk, doing ‘good works,’ even receiving the Sacrament—so much as it is to get people to have faith and to exercise the love which comes from faith.” Tappert captures it succinctly: “The ministry to troubled souls is a ministry of the gospel.”[xv]

The Gospel Victory Narrative Is Sufficient for Life in Our Broken World

None of this was theoretical for Luther. He lived and breathed Scripture for his life. This was Luther’s testimony: “No other study pleased me like that of the Holy Scripture. I read in it diligently and imprinted it upon my memory. Often a single passage of weighty import occupied my thoughts the whole day.”[xvi] And elsehere: “For some years now I have read through the Bible twice every year. If you picture the Bible to be a mighty tree and every word a little branch, I have shaken every one of these branches because I wanted to know what it was and what it meant.”[xvii]

What was true for Luther’s life was also true for his counseling ministry. In a letter to Henning Teppen, Luther recommends the Holy Scriptures as the only true comfort in distress. Applauding Teppen’s “great knowledge of Scripture,” Luther directs him to Paul: “You have the Apostle who shows to you a garden, or paradise, which is full of comfort, when he says: ‘Whatever was written, was written for our instruction, so that through patience and the consolation of the Scriptures we might have hope.’ Here he attributes to Holy Scripture the function of comforting. Who may dare to seek or ask for comfort anywhere else?”[xviii]

Is there any clearer statement of the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling?

Luther also saw Scripture as sufficient for fighting temptation: “Nothing helps more powerfully against the devil, the world, the flesh, and all evil thoughts than occupying oneself with God’s Word, having conversations about it, and contemplating it.” He continues, “Notice how the first psalm even praises that one as blessed who ‘mediates on the law day and night.’ Without a doubt, you will not be able to burn a stronger incense or fragrance against the devil than involving yourself in God’s commandments and words and speaking, singing, or thinking about them.”

The same Scripture is also sufficient for spiritual doubts and for self-counsel. Luther writes, “Let us learn, therefore, in great and horrible terrors, when our conscience feels nothing but sin and judges that God is angry with us, and that Christ has turned His face from us, not to follow the sense and feeling of our own heart, but to stick to the Word of God.” That same Word is useful for counseling others: “So we also labor by the Word of God that we may set at liberty those that are entangled, and bring them to the pure doctrine of faith, and hold them there.”[xix]


The church has always been about the business of helping hurting and hardened people. Luther didn’t invent pastoral counseling; he reformed it. He applied the gospel to the daily hurts and the spiritual struggles of his flock, and in so doing reformed both theology and pastoral counseling—all of it under the cross.

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


[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.

[x]Luther, The Freedom of the Christian, in Krey, Luther’s Spirituality, 72.

[xi]Ibid., 73.

[xii]Kittleson, Luther the Reformer, 168-169.

[xiii]Ibid., 149.

[xiv]Tappert, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, 14.

[xv]Ibid., 15, emphasis added.

[xvi]Ibid., 18.

[xvii]Luther, LW, Vol. 54, “Table Talks,” 165.

[xviii]Luther, LW, Vol. 49, “Letters II,” 161, emphasis added.

[xix]Luther, Commentary on Galatians, 333, 126.

Bob Kellemen

Bob Kellemen is the Founder and CEO of RPM Ministries through which he speaks, writes, and consults on biblical counseling and Christian living. Dr. Kellemen also served as the founding Executive Director of the Biblical Counseling Coalition. He is the author of fourteen books including Counseling Under the Cross.

9Marks articles are made possible by readers like you. Donate Today.