Grace-Driven Change in Biblical Counseling

If the apostle Paul was clear on just one thing in all of his New Testament writing, it would have to include that the Christian life, from first to last, is by grace alone (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16).

This post, I must admit, is woefully insufficient to address one of the most complex, hotly debated, yet theologically critical issues of the Christian life in the church today (or for all of church history for that matter).

I don't intend in any way to pretend that it's even scarcely adequate for exhaustive understanding, but want only to call attention to the issue, and perhaps posit a few relevant thoughts for the task of biblical counseling and discipleship.

The topic? 

Sanctification by grace alone.

In the age of "radical Christianity," I consider the misunderstanding of this doctrine to be one of the greatest threats to true biblical counseling and discipleship today. Whether it's misunderstood by intention or ignorance, it's too important to be ignored.

Fruit and Consequences

The threat we're facing can be summed in this way: 

That the insertion of a requirement for good works into the process of sanctification as a condition for, rather than the proper fruit or consequence of ongoing sanctification obscures the gospel message, namely, that we are saved, from first to last, by grace alone.

Theologians call this threat, neonomianism (new law). A simple way to understand this significant doctrinal error is to say that while we may enter the kingdom of God by grace alone, we stay in the kingdom of God by grace and works.

My concern is not so much to thoroughly define the problem, which is extensive and multifaceted (impossible, even, for a mere blog post), but to call to our attention the possibility that this error has infiltrated parts of biblical counseling precisely because it has penetrated parts modern evangelicalism.

Principally, then, the wise biblical counselor is always examining their counsel to make certain that it remains in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5).

Biblical counselors must be certain that as they call counselees to repentance, faith, and the proper manifestation of the fruit of faith in their lives, that they do not commit the neonomian error of mixing law and gospel.

Dr. John Fonville, writing in Modern Reformation, observed that, "Whenever the law is confused with the gospel, the remedy is always wrong." Biblical counselors must always be concerned with Gospel remedies to sin and suffering.

Before you allow your eyes to roll into the back of your head, assuming that this topic is for theologians only, let me remind you, whether you're a counselor or counselee, that you are, in fact, a theologian. The only question is, are you a good one or a bad one?

Further, allow me to submit that you already carry an opinion on this topic, whether you know it or not. The only question is, is it a right one or a wrong one?

Finally, allow me to suggest that doctrinal error concerning this topic isn't rightly handled by a shrug of the shoulders, but a pouring over Scripture, and even the great creeds and confessions, so that we might rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). 

Sola Gratia: By Grace Alone

Sanctification, for the Christian, is the lifelong process that, according to a Reformed understanding of the Ordo Salutis, follows justification. By it, they are progressively fashioned into the likeness of Christ by the work of God, the result of which is works.

The authors of the Westminster Shorter Catechism help us understand:

Q.35: What is sanctification?
Sanctification is the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Likewise, the authors of the 1689 London Baptist Confession, influenced greatly by Westminster, wrote in their Chapter 13 on Sanctification:

They who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, are also farther sanctified, really and personally, through the same virtue, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them.

What Scripture makes unmistakably plain, and the great Protestant creeds and confessions make clear, is that sanctification, like justification, is by grace alone.

We are not sanctified in any way by our works, rather, our good deeds provide testimony for and evidence of the work of God in us. They glorify God's name and produce joy in our hearts, but they are not ever the basis of our salvation, to which the work of sanctification belongs.

The concern then is that it's a significant and increasingly common error to insert, whether intentionally or by ignorance, the necessity of works into sanctification, even as we hold to justification by grace and faith alone. 

Some potential aftershocks of this neonomian error are:

1) The immediate erosion of the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone,

2) Doubt concerning whether the amount of good works produced warrant any assurance of salvation whatsoever, and

3) Doubt concerning how our good deeds could ever be the basis for salvation, even if surreptitiously inserted into sanctification, when even as believers our best works are left wanting by the remaining stain of sin (Isaiah 64:6).

For the biblical counselor or anyone involved in discipleship, the neonomian error threatens to derail the work of the Gospel by turning the glorious truths of the cross into a new law, a new duty that must be performed by the believer, rather than in the believer.

Rest for the Weary

Even if inadvertent, there is great risk for biblical counselors that we not turn the heart of the counselee away from trust in the active obedience of Christ, and toward any reliance on the production of works in sanctification.

As Dr. R. Scott Clark wrote at The Heidelblog, "The law says 'do and live' (Luke 10:28) but grace says: Christ has fulfilled the law for you, as your substitute. Believe and be saved. The moralist cannot have such a clear distinction. He quickly reaches for a handful of mud to obscure the distinction and to make the one look like the other."

For those involved in biblical counseling, the answer to a counselee whose life fails to evidence the fruit of salvation is not "try harder," but, "Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28).

(There are many other related issues concerning this topic and biblical counseling. This is an introductory discussion that may be followed by other posts.)


Stuck in a Rut: Responding to Emotional and Spiritual Inflexibility

By the time couples, individuals, and parents make their way to the counseling table, they often consider themselves to be stuck in patterns of thinking and doing that seem unalterable. 

For the biblical counselor, identifying not only the symptoms (presenting issues) but also the underlying (heart and/or bodily) issues are keys to establishing an action plan that will promote true and lasting biblical change. 

Theoretically, the process of gathering data and problem solving according to Scripture should be fairly straightforward, but as one pastor recently said, “We’re dealing not with algebra problems, but with human beings.” 

Deeply Embedded Problems

The problems people face are often deeply embedded in the heart, and are not easily extracted. This requires gentleness, patience, wisdom, and discernment on the part of the counselor in identifying the emotional and spiritual ruts in which counselees find themselves immovably stuck.

For counselees, a willingness to accept the reality of the conditions they face (i.e. sin or suffering) and the necessity of committing to an action plan that will promote their sanctification (i.e. repentance or forgiveness) are keys to progress in counseling.

This discussion is at least partly influenced by my research of a secular counseling model known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This research was done as part of my Doctor of Ministry (Biblical Counseling) program at SEBTS.

ACT is founded on the premise that people tend to get bogged down mentally, what ACT calls "psychological inflexibility," as they try only to avoid the source of their pain. This first problem is then compounded by the eventual loss of that which they value. The result is a cycle of negative or aversive "mental experiencing."

What follows here is not so much an attempt to merely "Christianize" a secular counseling theory. To be sure, ACT was not developed with the Gospel in mind, and therefore it does not have as its ultimate goal the glory of God and the sanctification of the counselee. In fact, my proposed work leaves little of ACT theory in place.

Still, as Dr. Heath Lambert, Executive Director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors has written (here), biblical counseling does not reject everything that secular counseling has to say. Secular counseling does assert true and helpful things that biblical counselors can learn from, even as they cling to the sufficiency of Scripture.

I agree with Dr. Lambert, and in this specific case, have found the discussion that ACT enters into to be insightful and engaging, even if biblically problematic in many ways. It's been said that if you ask the wrong questions, you're likely to arrive at wrong conclusions. 

But, what if you change the essence of the questions you're asking and the nature of the change you're seeking (i.e. man-centered v. God-centered)?

Asking Biblical Questions

In my work as a biblical counselor, I have frequently encountered scenarios where the counselee is seemingly  "stuck" and in need of help to both think and do differently, according to God's word. My study of ACT has provoked me to think with, I hope, greater biblical precision concerning the spiritual ruts that counselees often find themselves in.

Dr. Kevin Polk is an ACT practitioner who has written a book called "The ACT Matrix." In it, he provides a diagram that he designed for his fellow ACT clinicians to use in session with counselees. The idea is to provide a useful visual aid so that counseling discussions become "stickier" for the counselee (I happen to love visual aids for this very reason).

Polk took six principles from ACT theory and modified them to assist in the development of his matrix. While this post doesn't provide the space to adequately explain those principles, I share them below, along with what I hope are correlating yet thoroughly biblical categories that form the basis for a type of biblical counseling matrix. 

By "matrix," I only mean to suggest a visual aid to assist in biblical counseling discussions, and nothing more. Polk's ACT categories and my proposed biblical counseling categories are as follows:

1) Five Senses vs. Mental Experiencing --> Hearing the Word Only vs. Doing the Word (James 1:22).

2) Toward and Away Moves --> Toward Christ’s Righteousness and Away from Christ’s Righteousness (Romans 6:16). 

3) Noticing the Differences --> Noticing the Differences Between Doing the Word vs. Hearing the Word Only (James 2:26).

4) Stretching Toward Psychological Flexibility --> Pressing On Toward the Goal in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14).

5) Who or What is Important --> Loving God and Loving Neighbor (Mark 12:29-31). 

6) How We Get Stuck --> The Renewing of the Mind (Romans 12:2).

Seeking Biblical Answers

My biblical counseling categories (those listed after the arrows) provide a basis then for introducing counselees to a biblical counseling matrix. You can view a hand drawn version here

This matrix is, of course, quite flexible itself. It can be easily learned and drawn by hand in a restaurant over a meal, or formally adapted to an official document for use in-session. Likewise, the Scripture references I include can be swapped out for others at the counselor's discretion. Lastly, it can be applied by anyone, from trained biblical counselors to discipleship partners in an accountability role (Rom. 15:14).

Be reminded that this biblical counseling matrix is nothing more than a tool to assist in a discussion by way of a visual aid. It will not apply to every counseling scenario, it is not exhaustive of all that encompasses biblical counseling, and it will not prove useful to every counselee. The counselor must provide the necessary nuance for the specifics of the scenario they're working.

I'm happy to report that I have used this "matrix" on a number of occasions with real success. It has helped me move counseling discussions forward from positions of apparent immobility to constructive dialogue. It has also served as a helpful homework assignment, as the counselee works on proposed action steps, and further evaluates their thinking and doing in between sessions.

Finally, we all do well to remind ourselves that our ultimate hope for success in counseling is not in any tool, but in the word of God working in us as the Spirit of God moves through us by "prayer and supplication" (Phil. 4:6).

Join the Discussion

1) How might this biblical counseling matrix assist you in counseling and/or discipleship?

2) Are there any errors that you would seek to avoid in applying this visual aid?

~ JW

Baylight Counseling is Turning Three!

"Christian Counseling must be missionary by its very nature, or it denies its raison d’ĂȘtre." Dr. Sam Williams, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

In May of 2013, a months long discussion about the need for truly Gospel-centered biblical counseling within the local church community in Tampa Bay gave way to a vision for what became Baylight Counseling, Inc. 

Three years later, having started with nothing more than a vision for a hope-giving ministry that would be accessible to all, we're celebrating and giving thanks to God for all that He has done.

Not by our might or by our strength, but by God's Spirit moving in hearts through the power of the Gospel, couples, families, and individuals have been redeemed and restored from various stages of despair and hopelessness.

In these cases, the fruit of our labor, we rejoice, give thanks, and pray that God would continue to send the rain (Zech. 10:1).

Accesible, Affordable, Christ-Centered Care

Many of you who watched from the start are aware that the mission of Baylight Counseling has always been to provide a place for clinically-informed, biblical soul care for couples, individuals, and families facing a life-dominating circumstance. 

Further, we desired that Baylight be established as a donor supported non-profit organization so that our counseling fees, currently set at $65.00 per session, would remain lower than market averages (commonly $75.00-$90.00). 

In recent weeks, we've heard from counselees whose insurance copays were higher than our fee, and still others whose insurance plans provided no mental health benefits whatsoever. In another case, one counselee had been paying $175.00 per session for secular mental health care.

With suicide rates in the U.S. increasing 24% over 15 years, a growing heroin epidemic in our communities, and pornography addiction destroying lives and families, the Christian community, entrusted with the life transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ, must "seek the welfare of the city" (Jer. 29:7).

We believe that counseling is not only a great need in the church, but that it also presents the body of Christ with a tremendous opportunity to speak the Gospel into the lives of hurting people outside its walls.

The Next Three Years

With the help and support of our ministry partners, our mission and effectiveness will continue to grow and expand. To this day, we regularly provide pro bono counseling to those in need and have never turned anyone away for an inability to pay. 

In the near future, we hope to be involved in the equipping of local church members for the work of biblical shepherding (Gal. 6:2). We exist to serve the church, not replace it!

In the meantime, everyone who comes to Baylight for help will not only hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but they will be led in an ongoing conversation about how that same Gospel message applies to their circumstances and offers real hope for lasting change.

But, we cannot serve others in this way absent the very deliberate and intentional support of ministry partners just like you. 

Prayer support coupled with financial giving serve as catalysts for our work. Both are essential and we're asking you to get involved with Baylight Counseling today. Your support has a ripple effect that makes its way all the way to the counseling table where our work happens.

Friends, we have a tremendous need at this time to raise our monthly giving amount (not connected to counseling fees or periodic one-time gifts) by an average of no less than $1,000.00 per month. That's just 50 ministry partners at $20.00 per month!

We say no less than because not only are these ministry funds needed for counseling services and other administrative concerns (eg. liability insurance, computer equipment, training, etc.), but as a non-profit organization, the IRS requires that we raise a significant amount of donor support (approx. 1/3 of total income). 

If we fail to do this, we risk losing our non-profit status. This would have a negative economic impact on the future of Baylight Counseling.

How You Can Help

If you or someone you know has been effected by mental and emotional health issues, or if perhaps you or someone you know has been helped by this ministry, would you prayerfully consider becoming a monthly supporter of our work?

No gift is too small and many hands make light work. Monthly gifts in the $20.00, $50.00, $75.00, and $100.00 range are not uncommon for ministries of our size. We're asking for your help in this way today.

Joining us is in the work of soul care is easy. All you have to do is click on this link, and follow the giving instructions. Some partners give by check and others prefer online giving for convenience (via PayPal). 

Either way, your dollars will be tax-deductible, but more importantly, they will have direct, local impact in the lives of real people, marriages, and families!

We Exist to Serve

We understand that you may have questions after having read this post. If you'd like to learn more about us or if you have other thoughts, comments, or questions, please don't hesitate to contact us. It would be our pleasure to speak with you by phone, or perhaps to schedule an office visit.

Lastly, to the many of you who helped make our first three years of counseling ministry possible, we say thank you!

"I thank my God in all my remembrance of you." Phil. 1:3

Counseling is a Theological Discipline

"Teach what accords with sound doctrine." Titus 2:1

In recent days, a popular Christian pastor published video on social media of a controversial sermon he preached in his large Southern Baptist church (I don't publish his name here because his personality isn't the subject of this post).

The sermon raised eyebrows because of a critically important theological point that he made by way of metaphor. A metaphor which was woefully inadequate at best, and blasphemous at worst: God broke the law for love.

After watching the video, I commented publicly (and harshly, I will admit) on my own social media channels concerning the troubling implications of what this pastor preached with passion and authority to literally thousands of people--even people I know, care for, and counsel. I will not address here the specific difficulties of what was said because others have already done so here and here.

While I received positive feedback on my short reply, it has come to mind that some may not have understood why issues like this (matters that accord with sound doctrine) are of any particular concern to me as a biblical counselor

Someone who watched the video and/or read my comments may have wondered, "He's a counselor, not a theologian. Shouldn't he (or any biblical counselor) concern themselves only with issues pertaining to depression, anxiety, OCD, and the like?"

This isn't an inconsequential matter. The question, if anyone asked, is legitimate, and so I think it's one that deserves at least some attention. 

The benefit I hope for in writing this post is the clarification of why theological issues are of central concern to the biblical counselor and why any such counselor would comment on related matters.

It is my contention that the biblical counselor's role begins in Scripture and therefore requires that he or she take seriously their own responsibility of  "rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). To borrow from John Piper, I could say, "Brothers, we are theologians."

Theology Matters

In his latest book, "A Theology of Biblical Counseling," Dr. Heath Lambert, Executive Director at the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors and associate professor of biblical counseling at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, made the point which is the title of this post: Counseling is a theological discipline (p.11).

Lambert devotes the entirety of the book's first chapter to a discussion about why and how this proposition is true. In fact, he wrote that, "You are simply not ready to think about counseling--let alone practice it--until you have thought long and hard about theology" (emphasis mine; p.32). 

With the apparent support of Lambert and other leaders in the greater biblical counseling movement, it may be rightly said that because counseling is theological, its success or failure, as judged by Scripture, rests upon the presence of sound doctrine which is the foundation, instrument, and fuel for Christian faith (justification) and change (sanctification).

Our Lord Jesus Christ himself prayed to the Father, "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth" (emphasis mine; John 17:17).

A Troubling Trend

It has been my experience that the findings of the recent report on the state of theology in the American church, as issued by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research is unfortunately quite accurate. 

It is not uncommon for professing believers to come into counseling without even the ability to accurately and with confidence state what they believe and why they believe it. Other times, there is a clear influence of prosperity or other types of shallow or false gospel teaching.

There are of course many reasons for this sad state of affairs, but for the biblical counselor, it means that often times counseling issues can not only be tied to theological concerns (i.e. sin issues), but progress is then hampered by a lack of theological familiarity on the part of the counselee. 

In these cases, the initial thrust of counseling may very well begin with a lengthy discussion and introduction to the basics of the Christian message (i.e. justification by faith alone).  

While any good biblical counselor welcomes these opportunities to help form a person's faith (or lead them to the Lord, even), it is a discipleship issue for the church at large and underscores the importance of theology to the counseling task.

Lingering Effects

The church at large, I believe, is still hampered by that former doctrinal commitment of the postmodern movement which declared, contra the explicit teaching and nature of Scripture, that doctrine doesn't matter. 

In the judgment of many, what matters is niceness and sincerity, yet we know that hell will be teeming with the souls of those who rejected sound doctrine, that is, truth, and yet were some of the nicest folks anyone could meet on this side of glory.

The biblical counselor cares deeply about theology because they are disturbed by the words of Christ, "I never knew you; depart from me" (Matt. 7:23).

In this we see why theology is of great concern to the biblical counselor. Their task is not to merely help the counselee relieve troubling symptoms or behaviors (even though we pray for that). Their mission is to avail themselves of God as instruments in the Redeemer's hands for the sake of Gospel-driven, Christ-saturated life transformation.

And that life-transformation comes uniquely through the written word of God which leads all who believe into a saving relationship with the living Word of God, Jesus Christ.

Join the Conversation

1. If counseling is a theological task, what are the implications for the church (i.e. who should be involved in counseling)?

2. What effects of the well-documented theological downgrade in the church have you witnessed in counseling?

3. How can the biblical counseling movement promote theological wellness in the church?