Biblical Counseling and Penance: Insights from Martin Bucer on the True Care of Souls

Concerning the True Care of SoulsThe Biblical Counseling movement started through Jay Adams’ discontentment with the influence of secular psychology on seminary curriculum for pastors. While Biblical Counseling as a movement is relatively young, Christian pastoral care has existed since the days of the early church. In the spirit of historical questions such as “where was justification by faith before Luther?”, biblical counselors ought to ask similar questions such as “where was Biblical Counseling before Jay Adams?”.

One example from church history of a faithful pastor unfolding his methodology of pastoral counseling is found in the work of Martin Bucer’s “Concerning the True Care of Souls.” Martin Bucer (1491-1551) was one of the main leaders of Reformation in the sixteenth-century whose influence was felt throughout Europe and even to us today through his works on pastoral care and ministry. His greatest legacy is most likely his influence left upon John Calvin, who sought refuge with Bucer in Strasbourg during his exile from Geneva from 1538 to 1541. One ought to mention also his influence on the early editions of the Book of Common Prayer.

In this work Martin Bucer bases his care of souls upon the language of Ezekiel 34:16:

I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.

He then analyzes the various conditions in which shepherds might find their sheep and offers wisdom for ministering to the needs of parishioners.

In this chapter titled “How the Hurt and Wounded Sheep are to be Healed,” he explores the role of repentance or “penance” in the life of the church as a cure for sheep who are wounded. He describes the hurt and wounded sheep with the following definition: “they are those who remain in the church and communion of Christ, but fall into open and notorious sins and abuses.” (98-99) For those who are wounded or hurt, Christ desires to bind up and heal their wounds. The means of binding and healing hurt sheep are found in the following description:

This medicine is nothing less than getting the one who has sinned to recognize his sin sufficiently to cause and move him to a position of true acknowledgment, regret and sorrow for his sin; and in this way going on to comfort him again and strengthen his hope of grace, so that he may become enthusiastic and desirous of true reformation. (101)

This is nothing less than the goal of those who desire to lead others through biblical counseling. Consider the definition of counseling given by Heath Lambert, “Counseling is a conversation where one party with questions, problems, and trouble seek assistance from someone they believe has answers, solutions, and help.” 1 Jeremy Lelek defines biblical counseling as, “a model of care that brings Scripture to bear on the multitude of struggles that plague the human soul, while simultaneously offering scriptural, gospel-saturated insight on how human beings can flourish.” 2 The modern definitions of Lambert and Lelek overlap with Bucer with the idea of counseling for the soul which aims for true spiritual reformation as marked by (1) an awareness of sin, (2) genuine repentance, (3) comfort and hope in grace, and (4) desire for change. 3

Martin Bucer argues that one of the main mechanics in the church which drives the body to strive towards this reformation is the ordinance of penance. Protestant ears might perk up at this point but Bucer ascribes to the word penance what many Christians describe as church discipline. Bucer links penance as an ordinance with the process seen in 1 Corinthians 5 where Paul calls the church to grieve over the sin committed within their midst while calling offender to repent. (108) In penance, the church calls individuals in sin towards repentance and exercises the keys of the kingdom in church discipline in instances where the individual is now showing signs of repentance from their actions (Matt 18:15-20).

If “the purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out”, (Prov 20:5) a counselor will draw out sin in the human heart. Most situations in which someone might seek counseling will involve the dynamics and effects of sin because of the depravity of the human heart. Biblical counselors recognize that every human being lives their life before the eyes of God and is responsible to him for their actions. Many steps in counseling will involve exposing habits and patterns of sin in the heart of the counselee and connecting these areas of sin with their damaging fruit. As the counselor seeks to bring awareness to the habits of sin in the human heart he is also calling for the counselee to have an accurate view of their sin and its effects in his or her life.

He argues that penance or discipline for the church is “the best discipline and government…in order that people might be drawn, led and encouraged from all that is wicked to all that is good.” (117)

Here is an extended quote which captures the essence of his perspective on penance:

So we can simply say that when people have fallen into the more serious and gross errors and sins and have come through to a true acknowledgement of their sins, and have a right spirit as children of God, there will always be this lamenting, weeping, praying, pleading, confessing, and repenting; and this is indeed a powerful medicine which will totally purge, cauterize and burn out all desires to sin and evil incilinations to offend, both in those who have thus grievously sinned, and also in the others who through this penance are moved to recognize clearly the horror and harm of sin, to consider and to recoil from sins all the more earnestly. (119-120)

Here are five visible connections from this work between Martin Bucer’s pastoral theology and Biblical Counseling:

1. Penance and Biblical Counseling are both done within the context of the local church.

Martin Bucer ties the practice of penance with the role of the church exercising the keys of the kingdom. The jurisdiction of the local church includes the responsibility in binding and loosing (Matt 16:18-20, 18:15-20). The church exercises the authority of Christ in admitting members into its fellowship through the ordinance of Baptism as a public sign of their entrance into the kingdom of God based upon a profession of faith and evidence of conversion. For those who are in the church, the church maintains its health and unity in the Gospel through binding and loosing those to their sins. The church binds through holding sinners to their sin and pressing upon them the seriousness of their offense before God as well as loosing them from their sins in the witness of in the demonstration of sufficient evidence of their repentance. (117-8)

While secular counseling seeks to better all individuals under the umbrella of humanity, Christians understand that God is calling all people everywhere to turn to him (Acts 17:30). True transformation is found in repenting of sins and entering into the kingdom of God through the new birth (John 3:3). In the local church through the regular ministry of the Word Christians are spurred on towards holiness. Biblical Counseling properly done serves the congregation in ministering the gospel within the context of the local church.

This protects counseling from being a mere transaction of goods between two independent agents but places interpersonal ministry within the life of the local church. It also supports genuine change with the boundaries of a healthy local church regenerate membership where individuals understand that unrepentant sin is a spiritual danger to themselves. In the local church, an individual cannot just cancel the next appointment if the psychiatrist says something the counselee finds uncomfortable. Under the shepherding of pastors, individuals seek personal reformation through the interpersonal ministry of the word with the keys of the kingdom present to help personal reformation.

2. Penance and Biblical Counseling must be done by all members of the church.

All church members participate in this act of penance personally on a regular basis for smaller sins and in occasionally before the whole body for corporate health. Corporate penance helps the sinner to see the seriousness of their sin as well as to maintain the church’s witness to their profession as a Christian. Penance serves as a perpetual reminder of the seriousness of sin as well as the seriousness of the call towards holiness.  He even discusses the witness of Scripture that Christians ought to be penitent and mournful over the sins of others, as well see in Paul’s response to the news of sin in the congregation at Corinth. (119)

With the proper exercise of penance goes the spiritual seriousness of a congregation. He laments, “and who can deny that it is because there is no correction, punishment or penance in the church for sins, however horrible they may be, that the young people and people, in general, have become so much more easy going in their attitude to all offences?” (120)

Biblical counselors have recognized that the ministry of the word equips Christians to minister to one another (Eph 4:11-12). Even the first instance of church discipline in Matthew 18 starts with two members of the congregation discussing an issue of sin with one another (Matt 18:15). How blessed is a church in which issues of smaller sins are consistently nipped in the bud through loving redemptive conversations with one another before the seeds start to grow! It is through equipping congregants to minister the word to one another that can help spur one another on towards holiness and make penance part of the ethos of a local church.

In describing the benefits of penance for a congregation he says, “those who had sinned and the whole church were helped thereby to become more hostile towards sin, more free from sinful lusts and desires, and more zealous in all godliness.” (126)

3. Penance and Biblical Counseling focus on the condition of the heart, not on external action.

Many Protestants connect penance with the Roman Catholic sacrament which Luther railed against in the early years of the Reformation. Yet Bucer gets to the heart of where penance went wrong in the Roman Catholic Church:

There was little emphasis on true and faithful repentance, as was sadly evidence in both father confessors and penitents. This reversal and complete abolition of the beneficial practice of penance all started with the carers of souls place more emphasis and insistence on the outward activities than on true faith and heartfelt repentance. (126)

Bucer earlier details how the Roman Catholic Church transitioned from considering the specifics of particular sins and moving towards grading each manifestation of sin with an associate “price” to pay in penance. Sins such as killing or divorce would get greater penance while lesser sins such as lying or gossiping would be assigned a lesser degree of penance. While this simplifies the process of discipline into spiritual “whack-a-mole”, it overlooks the dynamics at play in the human heart to which sin is only the fruit (Matt 7:16). He argues that all calls for repentance must be made towards the conscience and not solely human behavior. (124)

To use contemporary terminology, it leads to “moralism” for “these outward activities, however seriously they are taken, can be undertaken by anybody, whereas true repentance and amendment of life can only be undertaken by those who are in true faith commit themselves entirely to Christ our Lord.” (126)

One of the main values of Biblical Counseling is a focus on heart transformation as the key to true life-change. 3 It attempts to focus on the unconscious desires, beliefs, and commitment of the heart in order to diagnose their connection to a particular sin present in the life of a counselee. All spiritual transformation is based upon the fruit of Christ’s death and resurrection (John 12:24). Behaviors might modify through classical conditioning but hearts will not change unless they are united by faith to Christ. Then spiritual life will begin to transform the person’s heart. In the Reformation Bucer was making these same arguments against the Roman Catholic system of penance as well as pointed back to the ancient fathers who followed this same practice of considering the heart of an individual in the particular prescriptions of pastoral care. (126)

4. Penance and Biblical Counseling must be specific to each individual person.

Bucer brings up the objection that penance that many contemporary critics will propose that calling people to repentance drive individuals out of the church over personal grief for sin. He shows his pastoral heart in the following comment:

Great diligence and true spiritual wisdom and astuteness are necessary in order to impose and moderate penance in such a way that people are caused, moved, and brought and encouraged to excerise genuine, childlike faith and amendment of life in accordance with true faith. (128)

He says that (1) situation, (2) life circumstances, (3) strength of Christian life, and (4) circumstances of the church life must all be taken into account when prescribing actions for to display genuine repentance for sin. (126)

Bucer clearly states his goal: “the penance is always to be moderated so that it is a true and beneficial medicine against the sin, and does not make the injury worse.” (123)

At this point, Bucer moves his conversation to discuss the role of the pastor in walking someone through what God-honoring repentance looks like when confronting a particular sin. The shepherd applies the medicine of the word and prescribes its dosage in prayer, confession, and mortification of the flesh. All of these actions require for a pastor to show what Bucer said earlier: “Great diligence and true spiritual wisdom and astuteness.”

As biblical counselors seek to draw out the heart they understand that every counseling situation will be different. If you have ten people who are struggling with sinful lust you will have ten different situations with different dynamics to their struggles. I see both Bucer and biblical counselors gently guiding their counselees into self-understanding and prescribing biblical actions towards personal holiness and renewal.

5. Penance and Biblical Counseling is seen as preventative medicine for future sins.

While penance expresses sorrow for past sin, it is itself not a form of personal punishment for sin. God is not asking from sinners a mere display that they are sorry for what they have done wrong. Rightly understood penance helps sinners begin the process of personal reformation.

Penance is not a satisfaction for past sins, but a medicine against present and future sins, because it is intended to purge and purify the remaining lusts and sinful desires and thus to protect against future transgressions. This is how the ancient describes penance and satisfaction: satisfaction is rooting out the causes of sin and closing the door to incentives to sin.

At this point, the connections between penance and Biblical Counseling become most clear. While the Roman Catholic church added many negative connotations to the practice of penance and even the word sounds archaic to our modern ears, what Martin Bucer describes as penance is what all Christians would see as the central mechanism of sanctification in which sinners strive to put to death sin and pursue holiness. Penance is a particularly useful tool in the counseling toolbox in how sober reflection upon sin is a meant “to subdue and cast down the impudence of the flesh and make sad and bitter all pleasures apart from God.” (127) Hoping to bring individuals towards godliness cannot happen without a sober reflection upon the presence and effects of sin in our lives.

To use Martin Bucer’s language, biblical counselors seek to apply “medicine against present and future sins.” They also seek to equip counselees with resources to “protect against future transgressions” and close “the door to incentives to sin.” This is how marriages are rebuilt, relationships are restored, and lives brought back to flourishing. One of these prescriptions is the practice of penance within the local church. As counselors strive to help others learn what it means to follow Jesus in challenging circumstances or in the face of sin, it will involve leading counselees to loosen their grip on this world and on sin while pressing onward towards their eternal reward.

The rest of Martin Bucer’s work reflects carefully upon the role of the shepherd in the local church. While there are many things that pastors can take away from this work, biblical counselors who care for “the True Care of Souls” have an ally from the past in Martin Bucer.


Jared Poulton (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Pastor of Children and Families at First Baptist Church Dublin, in Dublin, GA, and a current PhD student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Biblical Counseling. He is married to Kerry Poulton and they have two children, Riley and Oliver. Jared and Kerry are originally from South Carolina. You can follow Jared Poulton on twitter at @Jared_Poulton, or see his personal blog at @jspoulton.wordpress.com.

1. Heath Lambert, A Theology of Biblical Counseling: The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 13.

2. Jeremy Lelek, Biblical Counseling Basics: Roots, Beliefs, & Future, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 13.

3. See Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp, How People Change (2nd Ed. Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2008) and Jeremy Pierre, The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2016).

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