Review of Making Christian Counseling More Christ Centered by Rick W. Marrs

June 15, 2021

Marrs, Rick W. Making Christian Counseling More Christ Centered. Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press, 2019, pp.260, $19.95, softcover.


“Believe more.” “Pray more.” “Do more.” Law-centered counseling can accidentally burden the counselee with more guilt, shame, and depression. Christ-centered counseling, on the other hand, mitigates tribulation and motivates sanctification by centering the counselee in the forgiveness, love, and grace of Jesus Christ. By presenting a primer in the Christ-centered theology of Martin Luther and suggesting soul-care strategies that flow from that theology, Rick Marrs, Christian counselor, licensed psychologist, and professor at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, aims to make Christian counseling more Christ-centered.

Luther’s Christ-centered theology comes packed in orthodox paradox. In Marrs’s manual, three of Luther’s paradoxes are especially unpacked and employed to help make Christian counseling more Christ-centered: (1) the bane and blessing of Anfechtung, (2) the distinction of Law and Gospel, and (3) the saint and sinner-hood of the Christian.

First, Marrs shines a needed light on Anfechtung, the lost locus of Luther. Whether we like it or not, human beings are creatures afflicted with Anfechtung, Luther’s favorite German word for temptation, trial and tribulation, guilt and shame, suffering and sorrow. Against a theology of glory or prosperity gospel, the devil, the world, and our sinful nature are constantly assaulting not only non-Christians but also Christians in both body and soul, consuming us in fear for both our lives and salvation (p. 26). Anfechtung is a bane. And yet Anfechtung is a blessing. Anfechtung not only drives human creatures to look for answers, meaning, and purpose (p. 27), but God also uses Anfechtung to drive us to Christ’s cross of forgiveness, life, and salvation (p. 58). One of the strategies Marrs recommends for counseling someone well-struggling with Anfechtung is well-chosen bibliotherapy. Marrs’s favorite is Luther’s Letters of Spiritual Counsel, edited by Theodore Tappert (1960). Luther himself, “arguably Christianity’s most famous depressive,” suffered life-long with melancholia, and Marrs reports about some counselees: “They found Luther’s descriptions of his own suffering, weaknesses, and struggles were similar to theirs, and they found his spiritual insights of the depressive struggle very edifying. They sometimes reported that Luther’s letters were more helpful than talking to their counselor” (p. 117). Anfechtung, with which all of us are infected, can paradoxically be both bane and blessing.

Second, Marrs remarks that many Christians are confused about Law and Gospel. The Gospel, we misjudge, is a given, “something we needed to know only when we first became Christian” (p. 65). Once the Gospel has converted us, now the Law is lord of us: “Yes, you’ve accepted Jesus as your Savior, but is He now Lord of your life?” (p. 76). Now that the Gospel has done its job, now it’s your job to keep the Law to be good enough for God. Dominated by the Law, Christian life runs the hamster wheel of legalism and rides the roller coaster of perfectionism, weighted and frustrated with never being good enough for God (p. 77). Yes, Luther concedes, the primary purpose of the Law is to show us our sins, but the primary purpose of the Gospel, Luther decrees, is to show us our Savior, not just at the beginning of Christian life but every day of Christian life. Not just at altar calls and Good Friday sermons, Anfechtung-infected Christians require “constant exposure to God’s healing message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. 46). Marrs asks Christian counselors to ask themselves, “What verses do I most commonly use with my counselees? Are they verses that directly (or subtly) point them to themselves, their own abilities, their own faith, their own inner strength?” (p. 128). One of the strategies Marrs recommends for counseling someone confused about Law and Gospel is to point him or her to explicit Gospel in the Bible and to even insert the person’s name into the verse: Ephesians 2:8–9: “For by grace (Steve has) been saved through faith. And this is not (Steve’s) own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of (Steve’s) works, so that (Steve) may (not) boast” (p. 129). The Gospel does not nullify the Law; instead, fully forgiven in the name of Him who fulfilled the Law in our place, the Gospel fulfills the Law. Yes, Christians should keep the Law, but keeping the Law to be good enough for God is keeping the Law with the wrong motivation. Christ not only fulfills the Law for Christians but also gives Christians the gumption to keep the Law with the right motivation: Ephesians 2:10: “For (Steve is) God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that (Steve) should walk in them” (p. 130). The Law does not fulfill the Gospel; the Gospel fulfills the Law.

Third, the saint and sinner-hood of the Christian piggybacks on the distinction of Law and Gospel. Christians wish they were always and only motivated by the Gospel, but Luther reminds us that we are with St. Paul “Romans 7 Sinners with a Romans 8 God,” simultaneously holy saints but nevertheless still sinners—“simul iustus et peccator,” as Luther liked to say in Latin (p. 85). Marrs finds that “too many pastors teach their people, either implicitly or explicitly, that they can become perfect in this world, free from all outward sin. … This false teaching leads many Christians into a dark level of guilt because they realize their own inability to achieve that perfection” (p. 89). But Luther counsels, “We will never rid ourselves of our sinfulness until death (or Christ’s return); nevertheless, God the Father does not look upon our sinfulness because we have been united with Christ in His cross, death, and resurrection” (p. 48). One of the strategies Marrs recommends for counseling someone worried with the Anfechtung that they do not have enough faith or are not good enough for God is the “Gospel Empty Chair Technique” (p. 122). The counselor/soul-care giver points the counselee to an empty chair: “Do you think that chair is strong enough to hold you up?” After a little conversation the counselor directs, “Now, I’d like you to get up and sit in that chair.” After sitting in the chair, the counselor asks, “Which was more important, the strength of your faith in the chair or the strength of the chair itself?” Then the counselor asks, “Which is more important, the strength of your faith in Jesus Christ or the strength of Jesus Christ Himself?” Christ-centered counseling centers the saint-and-sinner counselee not in her fragility or futility but in the stability and security of Jesus Christ.

More than just the three above, in this humble primer and manual Marrs imparts many more insights into Luther’s theology and strategies for its soul-care application. Not only will Lutheran seminarians, pastors, and counselors benefit but also non-Lutheran seminarians, pastors, and counselors who are looking to make Christ’s grace more explicit in their counseling sessions. Even non-Christian counselors may learn more about the faith of their Christian counselees and ask, “I thought the Christian faith was more about Jesus forgiving you,” or “I thought that Christians believed God loves them more than God expects them to be perfect” (p. 3). The only imperfection I find with the text is that it sometimes reads, like Luther, a little haphazardly, rather than systematically. This miniscule imperfection nowhere near overshadows the perfection of Marrs’s mighty subject, Jesus Christ and the application of His forgiveness, love, and grace. Pick up a copy and get ready to make your Christian counseling and, God-willing, your counselees more Christ-centered.

David Coe

Concordia University, Nebraska


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