What Martin Luther taught me about counseling
If Luther was correct, then the Christian life is the repentant life. And repentance is essential for biblical counseling.
497 years ago Martin Luther nailed up his 95 Theses. We celebrate that day as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. I am thankful for all the ways that Luther impacted the church, for all the ways that Luther advanced the Kingdom of Christ, and for all the ways we will commemorate the good work he began.
In particular I am thankful for his influence when it comes to the kind of biblical counseling we stand for at the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. The very first item listed on the document nailed to the Wittenberg Gate said, “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent,” he called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” This has everything to do with biblical counseling.
Counseling and Repentance
If Luther was correct, then the Christian life is the repentant life. That is to say that believers in Jesus will go through their lives regularly seeing their need for repentance and turning to Jesus and away from themselves. Few things bear this reality out as clearly as counseling does. When people come for counseling help there is always—always—a need for repentance.
This does not mean that one’s own personal sin is the only issue on the table in counseling—people need counseling help for many more reasons than that. Personal sin, though, is at least one of the things on the table in counseling. And even when people are experiencing pain at the hands of someone else’s sin or because of the presence of sin in a fallen world they will always need to learn what it means to turn—to repent in the most general sense—to Jesus Christ and find his mercy, comfort, and power. If the entire life of believers is about repentance, and if counseling is about the issues of life, then Martin Luther reminds us that counseling is one of the most fundamental realities of counseling.
Repentance and the “Counseling Wars”
The necessity of repentance for counseling is a fundamental issue in the so-called counseling wars because biblical counseling is the only approach to counseling that implements repentance as a fundamental element of counseling. This is controversial. I know proponents of other counseling models who would respond to this and say, “Hey, I know integrationists and Christian Psychologists who call people to repentance.” I believe that is true, and am thrilled about it, but would say two things in response.
First, when proponents of other counseling models call people to repentance they are, in that moment, doing biblical counseling. They are employing a counseling tactic that they learned from Jesus, the Apostles, and those like Luther who follow them. They did not learn about repentance from any other model.
Second, when folks like integrationists and Christian Psychologists call people to repentance they are not doing something demanded by their model. They are employing an optional method. There will be some in the model who do it, but plenty of others who avoid it. This is also controversial, but there is tons of evidence that it is true. Consider just one exhibit. A recent book edited by Stephen Greggo and Timothy Sisemore examines five popular approaches that Christians take to the counseling task. The book is entitled Counseling and Christianity: Five Approaches, and examines how the counseling models of levels-of-explanation, integration, Christian psychology, transformational psychology, and biblical counseling all respond to a counseling case. The book is a fascinating exercise in pressing beyond theory to what counseling practitioners actually do in counseling.
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What you find when you read the book is that in interacting with the counselee, a deeply troubled man named Jake, only one approach actually calls the man to repentance. The other approaches choose not even to talk with him about Jesus. The authors of these other approaches were chosen because they are experienced and articulate leaders in their field. They are believed to be good representatives of their position, but never urge a desperate man to turn to Christ. That is a big problem.
The Sweetness of Repentance
It is controversial to talk about repentance these days. It has a reputation for being a negative word that conjures up unpleasant thoughts of sin and responsibility. In the Bible, however, it is a very sweet word. It is the mechanism by which we draw near to God to receive the forgiveness, comfort, and fellowship of Christ. It is the means God uses to make us more like Jesus. Why would any Christian—regardless of their counseling approach—want to withhold that from a counselee?
On this Reformation Day I am deeply thankful for the work of Martin Luther in reminding God’s people what the Christian life is all about. I am also thankful for the significant way in which he is a great-great-great-grandfather to all of us in the biblical counseling movement.