Christ Centered Counseling … and Justification

Editor’s note: this is the latest in Rick Marrs’ “Next Steps” blog series on Christ-centered pastoral care and counseling.

Since the publication of my book Making Christian Counseling More Christ Centered, I have invited many friends and colleagues to give me feedback about how I might have phrased things better, or clarified theological or counseling issues more adeptly. One good friend and seminary classmate, Dr. David Loy, took me up on that invitation. David is Professor of Philosophy, Theology & Ethics at Concordia University, Irvine, CA, where he also serves as the Associate Dean of Christ College.

David Loy: On p. 69 of your book, last full paragraph, you rightly emphasize the judicial, objective nature of the distinction between law and gospel as Luther understood it. Your goal is to help counselors look beyond the subjective, relational categories that are so prevalent in our day and age. I’m with you there. (You do the same again on p. 74, and maybe also a bit earlier on p. 72.)

Rick Marrs: You are correct. From pages 68-75 I’m wanting readers (especially non-Lutheran Christian counselors) who have been steeped in the subjective “relational” metaphors of the counseling field to be able understand the objective nature of justification as understood by Dr. Luther. I tried to mitigate that emphasis on pages 204-206, noting how the relational metaphors can be used rightly in soul care. Might I have overstated my case in the earlier pages?

Loy: Well, I think the objective nature of justification is still rooted in a relationship—namely, that of God to us (note the direction). God has promised to forgive us for Christ’s sake, and he is faithful in that relationship. So maybe the distinction here is not between relational (subjective) and objective language, but between an understanding of the relationship that focuses on me and my actions/feelings vs. an understanding of the relationship that focuses on God and his actions/attitude toward us in Christ.

Marrs: Excellent points! In my experience (15+ years as a Christian counselor and 20+ years now as a pastor), so many people who are struggling with some Anfechtung (spiritual tribulation), as well as their soul care givers, too often focus on the subjective human action in the relationship. They sense their failures in that relationship and assume God will respond to them as many other sin-filled humans have responded to them, with rejection or disdain. But Christ is not like that. He responds to our Anfechtung with consistent, persistent compassion.

Loy: The upshot here is that we can and should talk about the relationship we have with God, but properly distinguishing law and gospel moves the basis for the relationship from my subjective feelings/actions to God’s faithfulness. And since he is faithful, there is an inescapable objectivity to justification. It’s true regardless of what I believe (although my appropriation of it is a different story).

Marrs: So true! I am hoping that readers of my book will catch the emphasis I had on God’s objective promises he makes to us (e.g., pp. 72-73 and 95 and 102). I used the word “promise” 59 times in the book (but forgot to put “promise” in the Index. Aaarrrggghh! Next edition). I do hope that future soul care givers will use and emphasize God’s promises to their counselees more than I did when I was a younger soul care giver. We do appropriate the Gospel when we believe God’s gracious promises for us in Christ.

Loy: Good points. Those are helpful emphases. On a different topic, on p. 70, I wonder whether a brief discussion of the two kingdoms would be helpful. Therapists typically focus on behaviors that relate to a client’s ability to function in what we would call the left-hand kingdom. God’s gift of forgiveness in Christ establishes and strengthens faith under God’s right-hand kingdom reign, which in turn can help certain clients resolve issues that obstruct their functioning in the left-hand kingdom. Maybe I’m off here, but it’s just a thought.

Marrs: You are definitely NOT off here! I think that’s an excellent and important insight.  I tend to use the creedal language of First Article and Second/Third Article differences; professional Christian counselors do tend to focus on First Article or left-hand kingdom behaviors, whereas pastors tend to focus on Second/Third Article or right-hand kingdom struggles of their people. Part of the reason I am so grateful to our Lord for the ascendance of the Christian counseling world (AACC has 50,000 members) is that we, the Church, are better equipped to address the left-hand kingdom struggles of our counselees than we were 50 years ago. My prayer is that my book will help those Christian counselors to work more skillfully in both the left-hand and right-hand kingdom issues that their counselees bring to their offices. I am still praying that many Lutheran readers of my book will lend it to their non-Lutheran Christian counselor acquaintances, and then have clarifying conversations a few weeks later. I have heard some great stories, like the one pastor friend who was reading my book on an airplane. The psychologist next to him asked about it, they discussed counseling and theological issues, and the pastor ended up giving the psychologist his copy. I sent that pastor another copy!

Loy: Well, thank you, Rick, for listening and responding to my feedback.

Marrs: Thank you, David, for taking the time to give the feedback. It was very helpful. And thank you for helping turn the feedback into this blog, which I hope encourages other people to send me feedback and enter into this conversation (and possibly future blogs like this) about the care of souls.

I am also pleased to announce that my book is being translated into Spanish. That translation process is just getting started, so it will probably be a year or so before it’s ready, but I’m so encouraged to think that Spanish-speaking readers may be edified by it in the foreseeable future. More on publication of it in Spanish when the translation is nearly complete.

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