View Cart

Prioritizing the Vertical

A Paradigm of Biblical Counseling from Exodus 20

A believer's walk with God is first and foremost vertical in nature with horizontal implications.

Jan 14, 2022

Biblical counseling is a theocentric practice. There is simply no room for injecting human wisdom or shepherding individuals according to worldly principles. Instead, biblical counselors rightly understand that their effectiveness rests solely on their ability to faithfully minister the Word of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). In turn, counselees are to follow instruction insofar as it aligns with Scripture (1 Thessalonians 5:21; Acts 17:11). Having said that, biblical counselors would do well to organize their counsel according to the theocentric pattern that is portrayed in Scripture. The Bible itself reveals its vertical priority through a framework that consists of (1) God’s identity; (2) God’s activity; and (3) man’s required response. Although there are many passages worth considering, our time will focus exclusively on Exodus 20:1-17. 

Setting the Stage 

In order to understand Exodus 20, we must remember the context found earlier in the book. Following 430 years of enslavement, God elected Moses to be the vessel by which He would release His people from their state of bondage. Through a series of miraculous events, God ensured Israel’s safe departure by supernatural protection and provision. This event marked Israel’s transition from a people group to a national entity, which was a vital step toward fulfilling the Abrahamic Covenant. 

With that brief background in mind, it is time to turn our attention to the primary text at hand and its relevance for biblical counseling. We are going to analyze how God presented Himself and His counsel according to the following pattern: 

  1. This is who I am (God’s identity). 
  1. This is what I have done (God’s activity). 
  1. Therefore, this is what you must do (man’s required response). 

God’s Identity (Exodus 20:2a) 

“I am the Lord your God” 

Having been redeemed from the hardships in Egypt and on their way to the promised land, the Israelites would soon receive divine instruction that was crucial to the remainder of their walk with God. Despite His miraculous interactions with Israel prior to/during the Exodus, the Lord revealed that His identity required continual reflection. Hence, God’s first declaration was, “I am the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:2a).  

It is important to note that this statement establishes the foundation for all other counsel. God’s identity becomes the reference point for every moral imperative that He expresses to humanity. In other words, the very nature of God is sufficient for determining that which is right and that which is wrong. In turn, this has tremendous implications for biblical counseling. Before a biblical counselor speaks on what someone must do, they must first declare who God is. Apart from that starting point, there is no hope of lasting or authentic change.  

Furthermore, the best way to address sinful tendencies is by revealing the character of God. In fact, the solution to external sinfulness always begins with an internal recognition of who God is.  By elevating the sovereign identity of God, the need for obedient living becomes intensified. Biblical counselors should mirror this divine introduction as God did to the Israelites in Exodus 20. 

God’s Activity (Exodus 20:2b) 

“Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” 

With a firm grasp on who God is, Israel was perfectly positioned to act according to the statutes that the Lord was about to deliver. Yet, before God outlined His Ten Commandments, He deemed it necessary to communicate His righteous activity. Not only is He the sovereign Lord who entered into a covenant relationship with Israel, but He is also the One who has showcased His divine power and provision by bringing them “out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2b). God was commanding that the Israelites recall His faithful character and His faithful conduct.  

In the same way, biblical counselors can look to the past workings of God as a foundation for present obedience and trust. In fact, meditating on God’s faithful character and righteous activity is the best motivator in biblical counseling. Who God is and what He has done works to eliminate uncertainty and stimulate faith. Regardless of the situation at hand, the God who does not change is working all things together for our good and for His glory (Romans 8:28). His flawless character and His perfect track record should show us that His ways are always right and always best. 

Man’s Required Response (Exodus 20:3-17) 

“You shall…” 

Once Israel possessed a proper understanding of God’s identity and activity, it was time for them to be given the Ten Commandments, which each begin with the phrase “you shall” (Exodus 20:3-17). This section is strategically placed after Israel’s intellectual assent of who God is and what He has done. In a similar manner, biblical counselors should present their practical applications as the product of their objective conclusions about God. If a counselee walks away with a list of things to do without understanding how carrying out those things relate to God, failure is likely. What’s worse is that such supposed counsel ceases to be theocentric and is, therefore, stripped of its power. That is why it was essential for Israel to obey the Ten Commandments in light of Exodus 20:2. Unfortunately, their failure to acknowledge who God is and what He had done for them is what ultimately led to their fall. Moses was wise to command the Israelites to “take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and out of the house of slavery” (Deuteronomy 6:12).   

Additionally, it is noteworthy to consider how the structure of the Ten Commandments relays these same principles. Broadly speaking, the first four commandments (vv. 3-11) are organized according to a vertical outlook whereby the identity and activity of God are emphasized. Subsequently, the final six commandments (vv. 12-17) capture the horizontal dimension and stress the need to live rightly before others. This arrangement reveals that loving one’s neighbor is dependent upon loving God (Matthew 22:36-40). Therefore, biblical counselors should point out that a believer’s walk with God is first and foremost vertical in nature with horizontal implications. In the end, both the counselor and the counselee are tasked with understanding God in order to understand one another.  

Additional Application of Exodus 20 

It is important that biblical counselors also use the vertical priority of Scripture to protect against legalistic tendencies. Lest anyone slip into thinking that man’s obedience is what determines God’s approval of us, note that God’s commands in Exodus 20 came after He redeemed Israel from their enslavement. Therefore, keeping God’s law was never intended to be the basis of Israel’s salvation; rather, keeping God’s law was to be the natural outworking of their redemption that had already occurred (Deuteronomy 7:6-11).  

In the same way, believers today are to walk obediently before God out of gratitude for their deliverance, not as a form of payment or an effort to earn their salvation. Obedience is thereby the evidence of salvation, not its cause (1 John 2:29). The mind that continually elevates God is a mind that never has room to elevate oneself. For this reason, Scripture is replete with organized counsel that centers on God and then moves to outline man’s necessary response. Peter captured this well when he stated, “As He who called you [God’s activity] is holy [God’s identity], you also be holy in all your conduct [man’s required response]” (1 Peter. 1:15).   


It is appropriate, then, that biblical counselors discuss who the eternal God is and what He has done before moving on to what a counselee must do. Furthermore, counselors should emphasize the ongoing relevance of God’s identity and activity since His faithfulness in the past is identical to His faithfulness in the present. The God who saves is also the God who sanctifies. And the God who began a good work will surely bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6).