Gaining a balanced picture of gospel counsel
Whether we engage in the private ministry of God’s Word as pastors, missionaries, counselors or just a concerned brother- or sister-in-Christ, it is important to answer the question, “What is thorough, biblical help?” Surely, the answer to this question must begin with a faithfulness and an accuracy as we study and apply the Scriptures for God’s glory. We must continually adjust the picture of our counsel to that of God’s.
The gospel of Jesus Christ
The gospel of Jesus Christ is at the heart of counseling. It is foundational. It is motivational. It must pervade every aspect of the counsel we give.
Though Christ and the gospel is the heart of what we do, if we take a step back in our view of God’s counsel, we can see at least three clear emphases: gospel truth applied (Titus 2:11-14); undivided heart worship (Matt 22:37-40); and active elements of change (Rom 12-16; Eph 4-6; Col 3-4).
No matter what issue brings people to counseling, if we as counselors do not affirm the importance of all three of these emphases, devote significant session time to them and assist those we help in ways to proliferate them, then our help will be biblically incomplete and less effective
The gospel in focus
The gospel is not just a collection of doctrinal truths or personal benefits. It is not a magical buzzword that one can drop incessantly into conversation and counseling. The gospel is all about the pre-imminent person of Jesus Christ, who makes a difference in our daily lives. When we take a good look at the gospel truths, we see, foremost, the God-man, Christ, and all that he is. We see the provision of forgiveness and salvation in him through faith. Then we see, all that he has gained for us and made us (our position or the indicatives), but also all that he deserves and to which he has called us (our practice or the imperatives).
There must be emphasis and balance in all aspects of our presentation of the gospel when it comes to applying it to people’s lives. Too little respective emphasis on Christ, our position or our practice gives one a skewed view of the gospel itself and the Christian life also. This skewed view will perpetuate some kind of focus on self, and in this self-focused perspective, we will not perpetuate the full intent of the gospel – that we live to the glory of God, glorying in him.
Don’t rock the boat
If in our counsel, we center mostly on our obligations (our practice) without our gaze upon the person of Christ and an appropriation of our position in him, the focus will be on us with either self-righteousness or self-loathing. It follows then that while attention to our practice or our sanctification may be present, it is also problematic as we miss the pleasures and the power and the imputed righteousness of Christ. This lack of emphasis on our position in Christ creates an overemphasis on our work (John 15:5). In this case, true heart worship falls short and or becomes non-existent. And finally, the worship of idolatrous lusts and the turning to false refuges is inevitable (Jer 2:13; Gal 5:16; 1 John 2:15-17).
A lack of emphasis on our position in Christ will not lead to the type of life that glorifies God and that Christ died to procure for those we seek to help. We certainly do not want to encourage anyone toward this Pharisaical and hopeless pursuit. This kind of imbalance fosters pride, a performance-driven life, legalism and moralism. With this imbalance, it is easy to carry on counseling without true salvation having taken place. We must continually spotlight all that Christ is and all that our position in him means (the gospel in a broad sense).
On the other hand, we also distort the gospel if we center primarily on our position in Christ and all that we have in him and do not emphasize our practice as well. Again, the focus is primarily on self, so true worship is affected and emphasis on the active elements of change and ones practice are lacking. Some of these elements are: spiritual disciplines, putting off/putting on righteous living, renewing the mind, serving the church, etc.
In this imbalance, we might perpetuate that undivided heart worship alone is all one needs to change. Or, we may see law (God’s moral law) as the enemy of the cross or grace, rather than understand that living under the law or for the law or through the law (seeking justification by it) are the real enemies of the cross (Gal 3:21-24). We may become all about grace, but this short-sighted “grace” does not really work to please Christ out of gratitude (Titus 2:11-14). While the gospel in a broad sense is indispensable to change, and even though it is our very motivation for gospel practice, this particular imbalance will not believe in real work that is dependent on God’s power (1 Tim 4:7-10; Phil 2:12-13; Col 1:28-29; John 15:5), and inevitably it will lead to stunted growth or even license (freshly living). Southern Seminary professor Thomas R. Schreiner, in his 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law, offers this important caution that may help us guard against reductionism of all types:
“We must remember that Paul’s theology is multifaceted,” Schreiner writes. “It is possible to diminish the centrality of justification, but it is also possible to exaggerate its importance so that other aspects of Pauline soteriology are shoved into the background.
“It is imperative to avoid reductionism, as if justification were the only part of Pauline theology.”
As we demonstrate a proper gospel balance, we are able to employ rightly the other crucial aspects of biblical counseling. This brings us back to the balanced, biblical picture with which we began. There are all kinds of distortions that can arise when any key element is misunderstood, minimized or missing. Even more basic is that these three clear emphases – gospel truth applied, undivided heart worship and active elements of change – must be carried out by the vehicle and exercise of faith in the triune God (Rom 3:22; Heb 11:6; Gal 2:20; Jas 2:26). And so, the character and deeds of God must permeate all emphases. And, faith becomes an integral part of the counselees’ apprehension of the biblical help we offer.
The bottom line
What is the very bottom line of this article? We dare not say (similar to some in the Corinthian church), “I am of ‘applying the gospel in counseling’” or “I am of ‘addressing practical change in counseling’,” or “I am of ‘addressing the heart and heart worship in counseling’” (e.g.,1 Cor 3:1-9). Instead, we must be able to say, “I am seeking to be, more and more, a counselor of God’s kind, emphasizing faith, emphasizing the application of all aspects of the gospel and what it means, emphasizing undivided heart worship and emphasizing all the active elements of change by Christ’s power and for his glory.” We must say, “I am one who will continue to learn, grow and adjust faithfully the emphases of my counsel to what God reveals in his Word.”
Stuart W. Scott is associate professor of biblical counseling at Southern Seminary and executive director of the National Center of Biblical Counseling. The entirety of the above article originally appeared as a blog post at www.biblicalcounselingcoalition.org. Scott is the author of The Exemplary Hustband: A Biblical Perspective, and co-author of The Faithful Parent: A Biblical Guide to Raising a Family.