Christ-Centered Pastoral Counseling


“It is even more difficult to properly distinguish Law and Gospel when a pastor is ministering to individuals privately. In the pulpit he may say various things, hoping they will strike home. But when people seek his pastoral counsel, he has to deal with a far greater difficulty.” (Walther’s Law and Gospel, Thesis III, p. 63 in the new 2010 CPH edition.)

Lutheran pastors and church leaders often realize how challenging it is to properly distinguish Law and Gospel when preaching and teaching, but Walther notes how it is even more difficult while providing pastoral care (Seelsorge, soul healing). “Is the person sitting in front of me already burdening themselves with the “Law”? What specific dose of the Gospel should I give them?” or “Are they trapped in a sin that needs a skillful scalpel of the Law to prepare them for Christ’s forgiveness?”

Pastors often find an even bigger challenge when their parishioners have counseling issues requiring them to refer out to a “Christian counselor” – since the vast majority of Christian counselors have not even heard of the distinction between Law and Gospel. That is how I would like to be of benefit. As both a pastor and Christian psychologist, I am working on a book project entitled Making Christian Counseling More Christ-Centered (goal for completion by July 2012).  I led a workshop presentation by this name at a World Conference of the American Association of Christian Counselors in late 2009, and about 260 evangelical counselors came to hear me.  I was shocked that so many were intrigued by the title and the Law/Gospel theology described in its summary.

The main focus of the book is how to bring the proper distinction between Law and Gospel into the counseling session. I hope the book will be beneficial for pastors and for Christian counselors. The first portion of the book will explain the Law/Gospel theology; the second portion will teach how to apply that theology in real life counseling situations.

The current plan for chapters looks like this:

1. Introduction

What does “Christ-centered” mean?

The Role of Christian counselors in the Body of Christ (fellow seelsorgers with pastors)

2. Understanding the Law/Gospel Distinction

Luther’s Genius

An American Luther (Walther of course)

Two Kinds of Righteousness

The Old Adam/New Adam struggle – simul justus et peccator

Natural Law

The Power of God’s Word

3. So How Does This Work in a Counseling Session?

The Gospel Empty Chair technique!!

Explicit Gospel

Gospel Law Metaphors – Guilt vs. Forgiveness (3 chapters based on Preus’ Just Words)

Gospel Law Metaphors – Despair/Anxiety vs. Hope

Gospel Law Metaphors – Loneliness vs. Grace/Love

Confession and Forgiveness (including marriage & family issues – 2 Samuel 12)

Law Gospel Thinking Cards (a cognitive behavioral approach to Law and Gospel)

Law Gospel issues with particular disorders (e.g., eating disorders, substance abuse)

Baptism and Lord’s Supper (the tangible means of grace for people searching for grace)

Mutual Encouragement of the Saints (how congregational relationships help counselees)

4. Conclusion


Over the coming months I look forward to questions and insights from blog readers, thoughts that I could respond to and could help make the book more edifying to the Body of Christ. What strategies have you used with parishioners or clients that worked (or didn’t) when you were striving to properly distinguish Law and Gospel in a counseling setting? If you do share specifics on this blog, do be sure that confidentiality is maintained. I plan to focus upcoming blogs on specific chapters.


Rick Marrs, M.Div., Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Practical Theology

Licensed Psychologist



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  2. Richard Goodwin July 16, 2011

    Can’t wait to read the book. Greatly impressed by article I read once. I (basically ‘Reformed’ and in UK) am currently writing a book on Christian Counselling and have wanted to hear more about the Lutheran position in day-to-day counselling.

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