One of the key truths Dr. John Street made sure we students understood from early in our Pastoral Counseling class in seminary was this: all counseling is evangelism until that person comes to Christ.
While it may be easy to discern that someone is not a believer (i.e., if they don’t claim to be a Christian at all), many times it is not so clear-cut. In a situation where it is unclear, how is the counselor (or, for that matter, a pastor in a membership interview, or a church member in a conversation with a new visitor, etc.) to know whether the person they’re talking to really knows the Lord?
This is an aspect of ministry that requires care, patience, and discernment, as you seek a clearer understanding of where the person you’re ministering to stands with the Lord.
Start with the Right Heart
There can be no better example of the right heart for ministry than that of Jesus Himself.
On multiple occasions, we read that Jesus saw the crowds—He saw their diseases, their hunger, their lostness—and He was moved with compassion in His heart towards them (Matthew 14:14; 15:32; Mark 6:34).
Even in His exchange with the rich young ruler, who did not have the right heart toward Jesus, we read: “And looking at him, Jesus loved him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Mark 10:21).1Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations in this post are from the Legacy Standard Bible (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 2021).
This—the heart of Jesus—is the heart we must have toward all those to whom we minister: we must have a heart of compassion towards them. We must love them.
One of the key ways our love will work itself out in such a situation is: with patience. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Paul writes: “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” No matter what form of ministry a counselee will require, the one overriding requirement, according to the apostle Paul, is patience.
A Useful Question
Jesus used a number of different approaches to expose the hearts of those to whom He ministered. He often held the law up to them, in order to show them their need for righteousness (Matthew 19:17; Luke 10:25-28). On another occasion, He contrasted a man’s lack of evident love for Him with that of a sinner who knew the value of His forgiveness (Luke 7:40–50). In the example quoted above (Mark 10:21), He exposed the fact that the young man loved His possessions more than He loved God.
While any and all of these represent good (obviously biblical!) approaches, there is a question that has proven particularly useful in a context where cultural Christianity is persistent. This is the question, popularized by D. James Kennedy and Evangelism Explosion: “If you were to die today and stand before God, and He were to ask why He should let you into heaven, how would you answer?”
The usefulness of this question is connected with the approaches used by Jesus as described above: it can help expose whether a person’s hope of salvation is based on their own righteousness (or another qualification or source of life they think they have), or if it’s based on Jesus’ righteousness.
The ideal answer to this question would be something along these lines: on my own merit, I have no hope that God would let me in to heaven. However, because Jesus died the death I deserved, and—by faith in Him and His perfect, wrath-bearing sacrifice on my behalf—He has credited His righteousness to my account, I know that God would joyfully grant me entrance to His heaven.
All too often, however, we will receive an answer closer to this: “I’m not perfect, but I work hard and I try to be kind to everyone. I think God would see that my good outweighs my bad, and He would let me in.”
What to Do with the Answer
As I said, I have found this question to be very useful in a variety of ministry situations. However, I would urge caution and (again) patience in how you process and act on the answer you get.
First, for those who nail it with the perfect answer, I would caution you not to assume on that basis that they definitely know the Lord.
It is definitely a good sign (and it would be good to rejoice with them that they are able to articulate such beautiful gospel truth!), but it will likely take more probing (data gathering, instruction, etc.) to see whether they really have a heart of humility, contrition, and broken-heartedness before the Lord which He grants to those whom He has forgiven in Christ.2For more on the broken-heartedness that goes with saving faith, see the previous post “In Need of a Broken Heart” (https://thecbcd.org/resources/in-need-of-a-broken-heart).
On the other hand, for those who give a works-righteousness-type answer, I would caution you not to assume on that basis that they definitely don’t know the Lord.
The fact is, many people understand (and they’re not wrong!) that good works are evidence of salvation, and that a greater share of good (obedient) works can represent greater evidence of saving faith (cf. Matthew 7:21; Romans 2:13; Ephesians 2:10; Revelation 2:26). It is entirely possible that someone who thinks you’re asking for evidence of salvation would start listing off their good works, and it could be inaccurate in that case to assume that they see their works as the ground of their justification.
And even if they are trusting in their own righteousness to some degree, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not saved. The example of Job indicates that it is possible for a believer to have a response of self-righteousness, which the Lord wants to confront in order to humble them.3Although Job was a believer from Job 1:1, he sought to justify himself by his own righteousness, even if that meant accusing God of wrongdoing! (Job 9:13–24; 27:6; 32:1–2). Job is confronted by Elihu and then God (Job 33–41) until his humbled heart is finally evident (Job 42:6).
Now, I realize that it might seem like the answer can’t get you anywhere, but that’s not the case! It does give you the opportunity to discern whether your counselee understands the technical relationship between their justification and their good works, and from there you can offer doctrinal clarification as necessary.4For help here, refer to Keith Palmer’s lecture “Distinguish Justification and Sanctification” (https://thecbcd.org/resources/distinguish-justification-and-sanctification).
Continue with Patience and Love
In any case, once you’ve gotten the answer to the E.E. question, your work is not done!
Your job—as it always is in counseling—will be to bring the Word of God to bear on the issues in your counselee’s life.
Where you see a humble willingness to confess sin and obey God’s instructions even when obedience is painful, you can rejoice that there is evidence that God’s grace is at work in the heart, humbling them and causing them to trust in Him rather than in themselves and their own righteousness.5This might even include their willingness to be corrected about how they have thought of their works as contributing to their justification.
When you see persistent unwillingness to do what God says (even where they can answer the E.E. question well), there will be an opportunity to continue to press God’s way in opposition to the way they’re choosing. As with the rich young ruler, this may eventually result in showing that their original profession was an empty one (Mark 10:22).
And in some cases, you will find that your counselee evidences a divided heart. At times, there is an evident willingness to change, and other times you think you catch glimpses of hardened resistance. These may be the most challenging cases—where you (and they) can’t have full confidence that they know the Lord, but neither can you be sure that they don’t know Him. Even so, faithfulness will require that you continue with patient admonishment, encouragement, and help (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
The work of counseling (as with all Christian ministry) often requires evangelism, including in situations where a person’s standing with the Lord isn’t clear. Use available tools (like the E.E. question), and pursue discernment, patience, compassion, and persistence in your ministry. Be faithful to minister the Word, and trust that God will provide the outcome He intends (Isaiah 55:11; Mark 4:26–27; 1 Corinthians 3:7; 2 Corinthians 3:18).
This blog was originally posted at Center for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship. View the original post here.