Faithfully protestant: Biblical Counseling and the Reformation. This is the title assigned to me a year ago. My thesis is pretty straightforward. It is that the themes of the Protestant Reformation are most fully exemplified in biblical counseling. They are more fully exemplified in biblical counseling than any other approach to counseling, and this is an urgent matter we have to be honest about.
Five hundred years ago, the Protestant Reformation began with a set of ideas. Those ideas quickly turned into a protest, and that protest turned into a reformation that ultimately changed the world. The change resulted in a conflict that was presumed over those ideas that now they call us Protestants. Now, half a millennium later, protests have fallen on hard times in Protestantism. There is discomfort critiquing other Christians even in serious error. It is often safer to be guilty of theological error than to confront it. No area of Protestantism experiences this more than in the counseling world.
The counseling wars have raged in evangelicalism for more than a century. And boy have I hated them. Because it’s easier to cover it up, look the other way- it can be tempting to want to do that, but we can’t do that because the issues are too important. People’s eternal lives are at stake, and we don’t have the luxury of looking away, being quiet, or failing to be honest when lives are on the line. We have a serious disagreement we must not ignore, not only because of what happened 500 years ago, but because of the biblical example of protest that predates it.
Biblical and Theological Foundations for Protest
Our text begins with a protest (2:11-14) Peter was behaving hypocritically. He believed the gospel, knew who Jesus was, had died to the law, but then some representatives from James came and we know that when they came, he drew back from eating with the Gentiles. He was a hypocrite. He wasn’t living as a Christian. Other Jews were following in his error, including even Barnabas.
Paul believed his conduct was out of step with the gospel. Paul believed his conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel. He believed he stood condemned, and he engaged in a stern protest. An account of this protest proceeds with Paul laying out his theological foundations for such an extreme action.
- Five theological principles that undergird Paul’s rebuke of Peter:
- Sola Fide (2:15-16)
It’s a conviction about faith alone that allows Paul to do what he did. Paul says he and Peter are Jews by birth. They’re not Gentile sinners. They know the law can’t save you; works of the law don’t save anybody. Paul says the gospel is by faith alone.
- Solus Christus (2:15-16)
Faith alone depends on Christ alone. Faith needs an object. It has to have something to look to or it won’t work. The object of obedience was the law and the object of faith was Christ. Only Christ can obey the law. In the New Testament, Christ replaces the law. Faith replaces works.
- Sola Scriptura (2:16)
Sola fide and solus christus depend on sola scriptura. Faith alone and Christ alone depend on the Word of God. Without the Word of God, we don’t know; we have to have someone to tell us. Paul writes it himself under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That would be enough, but it’s not enough for Paul. The apostle Paul is not content with creating Scripture as he was used by the Spirit; he also depends on the Scripture. He quotes Psalm 143:2. He wants to quote Scripture because Scripture is his authority too. It was always the case you have to be saved by faith. The New Testament is just making clear what was true in the Old Testament.
- Sola Gratia (2:21)
Paul says I don’t nullify the grace of God. This comes at the end of verse 17, which is an accusation that pursuing justification in Christ and not the law makes Christ a servant of sin (2:17). That is the argument he wants to respond to. His point is justification in Christ makes you a sinner. Sin here is not objective moral guilt. He’s referring to how the Jews thought of sin. According to the Jews, Gentiles are sinners not because they don’t keep the law only, but because they don’t have the law. Not having the law makes Gentiles sinners. But that’s what Paul and Peter are doing! They are getting rid of the law- so they are creating a situation of sin, right? (So goes the argument.) Paul flatly denies this. He makes the opposite argument. He says we tore down the law. If I rebuild what I tore down, that’s when I prove myself a transgressor (2:18) The law teaches faith is required (2:16, 19; Ps 143:2). When you look at the law as merely something to obey, you’ve missed the point of the law. The point of the law is to exhaust your resources and lead you to Christ. The Jews have it exactly wrong. If I want to live to God, I have to live by the Law of Christ. If I want to live to God I have to die to the law by faith in Christ who lives for me (2:19-20). I can’t come to God through the law. I can only come to God through Christ. When I abandon the law and draw near to God by faith in Christ, that is when I finally start to live. Getting rid of the law as the means of salvation does not make Christ the servant of sin—it highlights him as the exclusive vehicle of divine grace. Paul says I don’t nullify grace.
- Soli Deo Gloria
All of this – faith in Someone who has done something for you that you could never do, revealed at the hands of someone you could never figure out – all of this minimizes our glory and maximizes the glory of God (cf., 1 Cor 1:28-31). It’s all about who He is and his glory; it’s not about you. Glory be to God alone for doing what only God could do.
Those are the 5 solas of the reformation arranged around this text of Scripture itself. Each element of Paul’s theological framework fits together. Each element of Paul’s theological foundation depends on the other elements. His biblical and theological commitments are a web, not a list. You cannot take any one away without damaging the entire system. If you take away sola Scriptura there is no way to know the others. If you take away Christ there is no object of faith. If you take away faith there is no way to lay hold of Christ’s work.
Paul rebukes Peter based on commitment to theological convictions. Biblical counselors have rebuked other counseling approaches for the same reason. They’ve rebuked other counseling approaches based on those that are theological in nature. It’s hard for Christians to disagree on things that are so central. It gets people so upset. We can also sin in our disagreements; I know I have. It’s also hard because people come to counselors for help, not a debate. It’s hard to see a fight between people you went to for aid and care. It’s also hard because counseling disagreements are personal. It doesn’t mean we should protest or have the option to avoid it. It means we should be very careful when we do it.
Observations on Protest from Paul’s Rebuke of Peter
- You can be a really good Christian and be really wrong (consider Peter, one of the three main apostles!)
- You can offer a strong rebuke of someone you really appreciate (cf., 2:7-10). You see him acknowledge Peter for what they agree on, and then in the next verse, he has his finger in his face
- The best rebukes happen face to face (2:11).
- Some issues are so crucial that they require a public rebuke. Can you imagine a more public rebuke than the one here? Paul published it in the Bible! But some need to be as public as possible.
- Rebukes are essential to preserve faithfulness to the gospel. Peter needed the rebuke he got. He needed it. He believed the gospel, but was acting like he didn’t and was leading others astray and he needed someone to say “You are wrong. Stop it!” The Jews needed someone to say “What you’re doing is wrong. Don’t follow him!” The Galatians needed to receive this letter- you better never put anything before the gospel of Christ. And we need to hear this today. We better never in a billion years compromise the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s this public rebuke that helps us.
I want to in the time left talk about a protest in biblical counseling. I want to extend a protest based on theological principles that are good and crucial. The counseling wars have traditionally operated around the sufficiency of scripture for counseling. When we talk about the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling, we mean that the Bible includes such an abundance of particular information on the topic of counseling problems, that when you correctly understand people and their problems as well as the content of Scripture you are in need of no other resource for counseling wisdom (i.e., the resources of secular therapy).
This has been a source of great disagreement. The difference between biblical counselors and Christian psychologists is not whether psychologists can know true things; they can. It’s not whether people need medical care; they do. But it has been whether the Bible is sufficient or lacking in counseling material. That is the important issue of sufficiency.
- People seek counseling help to gain wisdom for questions, problems, and trouble they face as they live life in a fallen world.
- God wrote the Bible to provide the answers, solutions, and help for people in need of wisdom to face life in a fallen world.
- Therefore, the Bible is a sufficient resource to address counseling problems.
I don’t want to repeat this argument tonight, but make a different point. I want to talk about the difference between the sufficiency and authority of scripture. If you are compromised on sufficiency, you will be compromised on authority.
Authority says the Bible is our supreme standard for what we should believe and how we should behave because it comes from God who cannot lie. Whenever God intends to sufficiently address a particular topic in Scripture, and you deny it, then you will also deny the Bible’s authority on that issue. If Scripture is sufficient for an issue, but you deny this sufficiency, then you will not be able to submit to the Bible’s authority on that issue because you will have denied that the Bible addresses it. The Bible cannot be your supreme standard for what you should believe about an issue and how you should behave regarding it if you do not believe the Bible addresses it.
So a great deal is involved in the rejection of the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling. If biblical counseling is wrong, we have been simplistic and over scrupulous. If we are right then other approaches do not just have a sufficiency problem, they have an authority problem. And in misunderstanding the content of Scripture, they will have denied Scripture itself. I do not want to make the argument that the Bible is sufficient for counseling abstractly, but very practically.
There is a book that shows 5 different counseling approaches for engaging a troubled man named Jake, including our own Stuart Scott who represents biblical counseling. All agree how much they want to care for his body and have a good relationship with him. Only one, the biblical counseling approach, is committed to using the Bible at all. Diane Langberg represented the Christian Psychology approach, and she writes, “Jake has expressed ambivalence about his faith, and his theology is meager, unclear and somewhat self-serving. It is would be hoped that he might connect with another man, such as the chaplain, who could provide support and connection as well as ongoing spiritual nurture that is grounded in the Word of God.” (118) At least says she would use the Bible (she gives one paragraph in 20 pages to mentioning it). She mentions she’s open to talking about faith if the therapy goes well.
Gary Moon represented the Transformational Psychology approach, and writes “I will only consider “spiritual approaches” for clients who have given informed consent and who are requesting such interventions. Further, I will not go beyond the boundaries appropriate to the setting in which I am practicing.” (141)
Another example is Eric Johnson from the Christian Psychology position at a talk at the Christian Association for Psychological Studies on March 30, 2017. He was discussing developing Christian Counselor/Therapist Identity and Political Competence. His point was that therapists need to use the resources of common grace (“creation grace”) in therapy, and he talks about its benefits. One person asks, “Isn’t there a danger that if you focus on creation grace that you communicate the idea that people can be made happy, content, and whole without Christ?” Here is Johnson’s response to this: “Yeah, that is implied in some of the slides. I just don’t know anyway around that. I think the Christian therapist has to live in that tension, and pray, and look for opportunities, and really trust that we have loved them in Jesus name whether they know it or not, and just do the best we can. The analogy is the same for mercy ministry, and inner city context, and digging wells in Africa. We don’t require them—“You can’t have this water unless you get saved!” And similarly, we have creation grace resources that we want to share with them to promote their gladness of heart. And we can do the best we can in Jesus’ name.” After this response, a lady in the audience interjected, “Whether it is overt or not, Jesus is in the room whether I mention him or not. I bring him in there.” To this statement, Johnson responded, “Absolutely.”1Transcript of audio recording of the Christian Association of Psychological Studies (CAPS) talk on March 30, 2017.
Each of these have a sufficiency problem. They do not believe that the Bible has enough resources to carry a counseling case. In rejecting it, they go to another resource to augment the resources that Scripture is said to lack: secular therapy. In doing that, they have an authority problem. They conform to the secular standard of whether and how to speak about Jesus. And I would say with respect that they do not sound like the Bible or the Apostle Paul who said “I determined to know nothing while I was with you, but Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Or here: “He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” (Acts 28:30-31) Or here: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom 10:14) We don’t just have a sufficiency problem here. We have an authority problem.
Now, I’m a Baptist. I’m a Southern Baptist. And you’re being hosted by a remarkable Southern Baptist Church here at First Baptist. These scholars don’t just have a problem with the ACBC Standards. They have a problem that faithful Christians should reject all over the place. I want you to listen to the Baptist Faith and Message on this issue: “It is the duty of every child of God to seek constantly to win the lost to Christ by verbal witness undergirded by a Christian lifestyle, and by other methods in harmony with the gospel of Christ.”
This isn’t a counseling disagreement, but a disagreement on Jesus and how we will speak of Jesus. Remember that the solas all hang together. When you get rid of authority, you get rid of everything else. If you don’t get Scripture, you don’t get Christ, faith grace, and you die. If Jesus is something you never get to, or you might get to later, you nullify grace.
This is about whether we will speak about Jesus. How do you solve problems without Jesus? If you know of a way to talk to people about their problems by side-stepping Jesus and grace and faith, then you’re doing it wrong. Can’t we say the name of Jesus to people who need it? We cannot be people who want to help people with their problems and leave their eternal problem untouched. What shall we call this? What words are strong enough? We can at least say it is “conduct not in step with the truth of the gospel”
A second example is from Mark Yarhouse and Integration. He wrote a book entitled Understanding Gender Dysphoria. He writes, “Many people I have known who experience gender dysphoria have found it helpful, in keeping with a disability framework, to think of ways they can learn to manage their gender dysphoria. Different behaviors or dress may not be ideal, but the person identifies the least invasive way to manage their dysphoria so that it does not become too distressing or impairing. This places such management on a continuum from least to most invasive and recognizes that hormonal treatment and sex reassignment would be the most invasive. This is not to say a Christian would not consider the most invasive procedures; I know many who have. But they would not begin there, nor would they take such a decision lightly. Ideally, they would consider options based upon the input and recommendations from experts in this area, as well as thoughtful and prayerful consideration with a discernment group of those whose perspectives they respect.” (123-24)
- Here is both a sufficiency problem and an authority problem: an integrationist who rejects the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling. This has everything to do with the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling people who are struggling with gender issues. You have to go shopping for the resources you say the Bible lack. But the authority problem comes when you overlook all the Bible has to say in favor of a different authority (cf. Genesis 1:27). Yarhouse leaves the door open for cross-dressing, hormone suppression therapy in teenagers, and gender reassignment surgery. It’s not just that he can’t be a member of ACBC, but we have an authority problem here. He has a problem with how he believes of the authority of Scripture.
I had the opportunity to work on the draft committee of the Nashville Statement. Listen to Article 10:
Article 10: WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.
WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.
It’s not just a counseling disagreement. It’s a disagreement that compromises your faithfulness as a Christian teacher. Remember that the solas hang together. When the authority of the Word of God goes away here, so does repentance, and Christ, and faith, and grace, and God’s glory. We’ve got people being mutiliated over this. We are sterilizing our children with hormone suppression. And we’re told to be kind, loving, and suppressive. And we’re mutilating our people. What happened to us?
These examples and others are serious. It is not a problem with your counseling approach. It is a problem with your commitment to the authority of Scripture. These are not matters about which Christians can agree to disagree, but matters central to our faithfulness as believers in Jesus Christ and the Word of God.
And so I protest and say, “Here I stand!” And I’m issuing a call for repentance. I know brothers and sisters who believe the gospel but who teach these things are watching this. And so many of you are smarter than I am. So many of you have read far more than I have. But I just want to ask you to repent. I don’t have anything against anybody. I don’t want a war to persist. But just like Peter needed a rebuke you need a rebuke too. You can stop violating the word of God at anytime if you’ll repent. And that’s what you should do. With all the care and conviction that I can muster we have to agree together, ACBC, that here we stand. After all – we are Protestants. We of all people know that when the gospel is at stake that is worthy of a protest.
The Five Solas