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Essential Doctrines for Counseling 

There are many biblical truths we need to apply in our counseling. However, here are four doctrines that are essential.

Jun 13, 2024

Biblical counseling is often described as practical or applied theology. It’s also been said that biblical counseling is about helping people understand God more accurately, and their relationship to Him more accurately. With those two descriptions in mind, it’s apparent that one of the major tasks we have as biblical counselors is to ensure that the people we counsel understand true biblical theology. While there are many biblical truths we need to apply in our counseling, here are four doctrines that I believe are basic and essential for our counselees to understand accurately: 1) a biblical view of salvation, 2) a biblical view of sanctification, 3) a biblical view of suffering, and 4) a biblical view of future hope. 

  1. Salvation in terms of life-changing discipleship and not mere intellectual assent.  

In biblical counseling, we want to first ensure that we are working with a genuine believer, and if so, are they mature or immature believers (Hebrews 6:1)?   

Most people who come for counseling are professing believers, but especially those who were born and raised in the Bible Belt, I’m amazed at how few people actually understand what salvation is truly about. Areas for further examination: Do they understand the nature of justification (Romans 3:21-26)? Do they understand that salvation is not limited to justification (Titus 2:11-14)? 

As counselors, we need to ask for their testimony. Was there a change in their lives after their profession of faith (Ezekiel 36:26-27; 2 Corinthians 5:17)? Did they “ask Jesus in my heart” or did they understand their sin and need for a Savior to save them from God’s wrath (Romans 3:11-12; 10:9-10)? Do they desire and seek to live an obedient life (John 3:36; Matthew 7:21-23)? Do they love Christ and His commandments (John 14:21)? 

  1. How progressive sanctification works. 

Many believers don’t understand the doctrine of sanctification, so they expect that since they are new creatures in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), their sinful desires will simply “go away.” As a result, they’re confused and discouraged when they continue to struggle with sinful habits. Most of us use a Personal Data Inventory (PDI) Form and include a question like, “What have you done about this issue?” The answer is often along the lines of, “I prayed that God would take it away.”  

So, do they understand that struggles against sin continue throughout the Christian life (Romans 7:21-25; 1 John 1:8-9)? Do they understand that, as believers, God is lovingly, purposefully, and deliberately conforming us into the image of His Son? Do they realize everything that happens in our lives works toward that purpose (Romans 8:28-30)? 

Do they understand that sanctification is a certain work if we belong to God (Philippians 1:6; 2:13), but we are called to cooperate (Philippians 2:12)? 

When we counsel others, we want people to know that they will struggle with sin as they learn to put it off.  We don’t want them to get discouraged. Often, after hearing biblical truth and understanding how to apply it to their circumstances, they will be very determined when they leave the counseling room to “go and sin no more.”  Then they get discouraged when they repeat their sin in the next few days. So, people need to know that they will sin again, but can be encouraged as they now know to repent, ask forgiveness, change, and ask God for strength to glorify him the next time they are tempted to sin (1 John 1:8-10; Romans 8:11). They will change, grow, and become more holy, but it will not happen instantly. They will grow in holiness because it is God who is at work, but it will be a bumpy road because they still have a sinful nature to struggle against (Hebrews 12:3-11). 

  1. God’s purposes for suffering.   

Counselees are often surprised at suffering, but suffering is a normal part of life. Our counselees need to understand: 

  1. We live in a fallen world (Genesis 3; John 16:33; 1 Peter 4:12) James tells us to count it all joy when, not if, we meet various trials (James 1:2). 
  1. Suffering can be corrective, but it is more often simply a part of the way God is shaping us. Discipline can be training, not just corrective (Hebrews 12:3-11). 
  1. We rejoice, not because we enjoy the trial, but because God is at work in our lives to mature us (James 1:2-18; Romans 5:3-5; all of 1 Peter).  
  1. We need to cooperate with what God is doing – that’s the context of praying for wisdom in James 1:5.  
  1. We must not turn to idols if we want God’s strength to endure (1 Corinthians 10:13-14). Many of us use 1 Corinthians 10:13 frequently, but I think it’s good to include verse 14.  

We want them to understand that suffering is a normal part of human existence in this world and that God is deliberately, purposefully, and lovingly using suffering in our lives to deepen our relationship with Him (Romans 8:28-30). This is what He uses as a normal tool for our sanctification.  

  1. The future hope that God promises for those who are His. 

Some suffering will not end in this present life. We experience grief, physical disabilities, or pain. Some relationships may never become what we hope for. God does not promise that everything will be “fixed.” He promises that we’ll grow in holiness (Philippians 1:6). 

Paul paints an eternal perspective in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 and describes some of his “momentary, light afflictions” in 2 Corinthians 11:24-28. Those were some heavy afflictions, but Paul calls them transient and sets his spiritual sight on his future glory.  

Make sure your counselee isn’t expecting that if they obey God, He will mend all things – marriages, broken bodies, or any struggle with sin and suffering. Some circumstances will only change in eternity (Revelation 21:4). 

Our victory in Christ isn’t always that desires or circumstances change but that we respond in a way that glorifies Him. I think 1 Peter 4:13 is helpful, “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”  I love John Piper’s view on this verse: “If you stub your toe on the path of holiness, you’re sharing in Christ’s sufferings.”  

I certainly wouldn’t recommend teaching a theology class the first four times we meet with our counselees, and I don’t believe these are the only theological truths with which people need help. However, these four doctrines are important basics and commonly misunderstood, contributing to the person’s struggle with sin and suffering. A right understanding of who God is and what He has done will do wonders for the soul. 

Additional Resource: 

Stuart Scott’s article “Biblical Counseling: Gaining a Balanced Picture on God’s Counsel”