Repentance must be a hallmark of every believer. It can be defined as “a change of mind away from sin and toward God” (Acts 20:21).1 Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, vol. 3, The Doctrines of Salvation, the Church, and Last Things (Allen Park, MI: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2009), 62. It entails a disposition and desire to seek pardon and forgiveness (i.e., a determination to trust and obey God).
Repentance is the first expression of a person’s conversion. Like John the Baptist before Him, Jesus began His preaching ministry with a message of repentance and faith, “Repent and believe, the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). Paul told the non-Christians at the Areopagus, “God is now declaring that all men everywhere should repent” (Acts 17:30).
All people are deserving of God’s just condemnation for their sin, but God offers unmerited favor through Christ’s substitutionary atonement. The basis for guilt being removed is Christ’s finished work on the cross. For a person to be saved, the necessary response is repentance and faith. Both repentance and faith are two aspects of conversion.2 McCune, Systematic Theology, 68 They are gifts of God that come by means of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. Those who are spiritually dead are completely unable to come to God (Ephesians 2:1–3; Romans 8:7). Therefore, God has to do a unilateral work of imparting life to the spiritually dead. The response of repentance and faith can only happen if God first initiates salvation through the process of regeneration.
Although repentance is required for saving faith, repentance does not end at salvation. Because salvation does not immediately eliminate all sin, believers must repent regularly. Consequently, believers will struggle against sin for the rest of their lives. Yet the Bible calls them to repent of their sins and restore their fellowship with God. The apostle John says that the one who practices sin is not born of God (1 John 3:9). He is of the devil (1 John 3:8). The implication is that those who do know God do not go on practicing sin. Instead, as repenting people, they are killing sin.
In order to consider what the process of turning from sin and to God looks like, this essay will present a biblical model for repentance, using sinful anger as an example. Repentance involves three main phases: determining to turn away from sin to God, designing a plan to change, and doing—putting the plan into action (see chart 1).
In the first phase, the sinner determines to turn away from his sin to God. He does this by seeing his sin as God sees it, seeking forgiveness from God, and then evaluating himself in light of the Word.
See Your Sin as God Does
No one can receive salvation apart from repentance. And no one can enter into eternal glory apart from repentance. Repentance starts with the mind, moves to the emotions, and culminates in the will (from internal to external).3 Thomas Watson writes, “Repentance is a spiritual medicine made up of six ingredients: sight of sin, sorrow for sin, confession of sin, shame for sin, hatred for sin, and turning from sin.” Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance, beginning of chapter 3. In order to turn in the right direction, a person must first recognize that he or she is moving in the wrong direction. The individual needs to come into the light, take ownership of his or her sin, and determine to change using God’s means through His Spirit. This was the experience of the prodigal son in Luke 15:17, “He came to his senses.” There is no weeping over sin unless a person first sees his or her sin. The first question to ask is, “What does God want me to see?” That person needs God to open their eyes to their sin.
Chart 1: A Model of Repentance
The pathway of repentance begins with God speaking to an individual through the Word and continues with that person responding with acknowledgement of the sin. Sometimes God uses another Christian to expose sin (e.g., Samuel to Saul, Nathan to David, etc.). Other times God uses a personal crisis to wake a person up to the reality of sin. Whatever means God uses to awaken a person to the reality of sin, that person’s job is to see sin as God does. They must see that there genuinely is a problem within them (James 1:14). Their recognition of that sin should lead to repentance. No one can repent for them. Their pastor cannot. Their parents cannot. Their spouse cannot. God cannot. They should be willing to come into the light. They must seek to see what God sees. They do this by identifying what is going on. Once the sin has come into view, and they recognize that it is a problem, what happens next? They should identify the sin and take ownership of the sin.
Identify the Sin (Name It)
In 2015, McDonald’s began a method to reduce errors in their drive thru orders, called “ask, ask, tell.” After a customer orders their meal, the employee repeats it back by asking, “Did you get the large Big Mac combo with a Coke?” Then when the customer gets to the first window, prior to paying, the employee asks, “Did you get the large Big Mac combo with a Coke?” When the person arrives at the pickup window, the employee tells the customer their order one final time, “Here is your large Coke, and here is your Big Mac and fries.” There is something to be said about stating something that should be straightforward. In a similar way, transformation begins when a person sees what is already there and identifies it as such.
Could McDonald’s method help believers to identify their sin? “I exploded in anger because I did not get my way. I need to change.” Of course, nothing is going to magically happen just because a person called it out. If McDonald’s called out the right order but continued to prepare the wrong order, then they would not have accomplished anything besides making the drive-thru wait longer. But this is the first step: identification. Believers should seek to see what God sees and identify it as such. Mindless repetition of the same sins without stopping to identify the problem is not going to accomplish change. It is too easy to walk around with a log coming from an eye, aware of what is going on in other people’s lives, but at the same time unaware of what is going on within (Matthew 7:3).
Take Ownership of the Sin (Do Not Blame It)
Once the sin has been seen and identified, the next step is to take ownership of what has been done. After having seen the sin as God sees it, the temptation is to pass blame to someone else. When Adam’s sin was exposed to him, his first reaction was to shift the blame. To whom did he shift the blame? “It was the woman that You gave me” (Genesis 3:13). He pointed the finger at his imperfect wife and by implication his seemingly incapable God.
God often uses another person to reveal the evil in a person’s heart. Dave Harvey illustrates it like this: “I cannot tell you how many times I thought, ‘I never had these problems before. This must be my wife’s fault.’ The truth is, I’d always been a blameshifter—it’s just that after getting married there were so many more good opportunities to express this fault!”4 Dave Harvey, When Sinners Say “I Do”: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage (Wapwallopen, PA: Shepherd Press, 2007), 69. He goes on to say, “Blame-shifting is what I do when I basically know I’m guilty and am just trying to convince myself or someone else that maybe I’m not.”5 Harvey, When Sinners Say I Do, 70. Thomas Watson agrees that believers must own their sin, “We must so charge ourselves as to clear God.”6 Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance, chapter 3. If a person is going to repent, he must determine not to pass blame to God or others.
One of the ways that believers can check themselves is to present their case to close friends and family. Would they detect any hint of blame-shifting? There is no repentance without a humble recognition of ownership. Repentance is more than simply acknowledging sin, but it is not less.
Seek Forgiveness from God
Genuine repentance cannot happen apart from the humble sinner acknowledging his sin before the God who promises to forgive. But this forgiveness presupposes that the sinner is sorrowful, and that he is looking to change.
Repentance Presupposes Godly Sorrow
Paul rejoiced that his letter to the Corinthians made the believers “sorrowful to the point of repentance…for the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation” (2 Corinthians 7:9–10). While repentance includes sorrow, it is much more than that. Repentance is a radical change in disposition that is initiated by God (Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:24–25). Repentance and faith are often combined in Scripture, with repentance preceding faith (Mark 1:15). No one can come to saving faith apart from repentance. At the time of salvation, a person confesses his sin before God, and makes a committed turn away from sin and to God.
The difference between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow is that godly sorrow leads to repentance, while worldly sorrow leads to death (2 Corinthians 7:10). Examples of people who expressed worldly sorrow in the Bible are Esau (sought repentance with tears, Genesis 27), Pharaoh (acknowledged sin, Exodus 9:27; 10:16–17), Saul (1 Samuel 15), and Judas (Matthew 27:3–5). Counselees who are unwilling to own up to their sin and its consequences are not serious about repentance. Examples of godly sorrow in the Scripture are David (2 Samuel 12; Psalm 32; 51), the prodigal son (Luke 15), Peter (Luke 22:54–62), and the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39–43).
Genuine repentance acknowledges sin without making excuses. It steps into the light of the Scripture, so that it can be exposed to the truth. It accepts the full consequences of sin. Zacchaeus is a good example of a man who accepted the consequences of his sin (Luke 19:1–10).7 James MacDonald and Garrett Higbee, “The Power of Confession and Repentance” in James MacDonald, Robert Kellemen, and Steve Viars, eds., Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling: Changing Lives with God’s Changeless Truth (Harvest House, 2013), 361–362. He did not try to deny his guilt, or rationalize his sin. He effectively said, “I was wrong. I need forgiveness. I want to make things right with You, and with those against whom I have sinned.” This is genuine repentance. The means of repentance in the life of a believer comes by means of the Holy Spirit as He works through the Word.
Godly sorrow comes when believers see their sins properly, that is, in a way that aligns with how God sees their sin. Therefore, believers need to appreciate the weight of their sin.
Repentance Presupposes a Pursuit of Internal Change
People are often happy to go through the motions of repenting externally; however, God commanded the people through the prophet to “rend your hearts, not your garments” (Joel 2:13). In Malachi 1 the people were bringing all the blind and lame animals to be sacrificed, unconcerned about genuine repentance. They were trying to appease God, like a pagan would do to his false god. They just wanted to take the steps.
Or consider the Pharisees who put on a gloomy face in order to be noticed by others for their fasting (Matthew 6:16). Repentance requires a change in the mind, emotions, and will. It is a change in the mind in the way that a person thinks about God and sin (Psalm 51:3). It is a change in desire, in that it affects a person’s feelings (2 Corinthians 7:9–10). And it also includes a change of the will, in that it has a desire to be pardoned by God (Psalm 51:10; Acts 26:20), and consequently moves to action.
Once a believer sees what was done, and has owned what was done, he can do one of three things: (1) ignore the sin; (2) try to pay for the sin; or (3) bring the sin to God. Those who ignore their sin are under the wrath of God. Those who seek to pay for their sin (penance) will not find atonement. The only way that guilt can be removed is through a proper atonement.
Often people come to see their sin and yet in shame and fear, they neglect to bring the sin before the God who knows all things and who is willing to cover sin. With forgiveness, they must confess their sins to God, and rely on Him and His means to transform them. God promises to grant forgiveness and cleansing to those who confess their sins (1 John 1:9; Proverbs 28:13).
Evaluate in Light of His Word
After a believer sees his sin and seeks God’s forgiveness, he must evaluate his sin in light of Scripture. Evaluation begins with identifying lies and replacing them with truth and ends with dissecting sinful actions.
Identify Lies and Replace with Truth
A proper evaluation includes identifying lies that are believed and then replacing those with truth. For instance, what kinds of lies might a person believe when he chooses sinful anger? The answer to that question is the beginning of change. Once the lies are identified, the believer can think about texts or principles from Scripture that expose these statements as lies, and then replace them with the truth.
- Lie: This anger is a result of the person’s unique situation.
- Truth: This situation is not uncommon, because no temptation overtakes a person except what is common to man (1 Corinthians 10:13).
- Lie: This anger is inevitable or the product of the person’s environment. Anyone in this situation would respond in exactly the same way. This is a common refrain in counseling from people who have committed serious sins. A counselee might say, “Every guy in our church is struggling with the same things I am.” In saying this, he minimizes and normalizes sin in order to justify his own sin.
- Truth: This anger is not inevitable. James 1:14 says that everyone is “drawn away and enticed by his own lust.” Just because other people struggle with and express their anger in ways that are similar to an individual, that does not mean that that person has the right to give into sin. God calls that person to be holy like He is.
- Lie: This anger is untamable. Controlling anger is too difficult. To put it in starker terms, God was unjust when he gave the person such strong convictions about things (which is why the anger comes).
- Truth: This anger is not untamable for several reasons. First, God is faithful (1 Corinthians 10:13). Second, He who began a good work in a believer’s life will perfect it (Philippians 1:6). Third, this is what God’s grace was designed to do. His grace appeared to save His people and then to transform them, according to Titus 2:11-14. In the context, Paul told elders that they must not be quick tempered (1:7). He said that older men are to be temperate, dignified, sensible (2:2), that young women are to be sensible (2:5), and that younger men are to be sensible and dignified (2:6, 7). He said that workers are to not be argumentative (2:9). His point is that the grace of God has appeared to eliminate these sins in the lives of believers. Thus, the sin of quick-temperedness is not untamable.
- Lie: This anger is useful. To the excuse-maker, it is the best way to show the other person how serious they are, and to get the other person to do what they want. In other words, their anger gets results.
- Truth: This anger may not accomplish what they want. That person may think that it is the best way to get people to do things—and quickly! But it does not accomplish what God wants, and it creates greater problems. Consider Proverbs 29:22, “An angry man stirs up strife, and a hot-tempered man abounds in transgression.”
- Lie: This anger is usually not sinful.
- Truth: This anger is often sinful. It is true that anger is not always sinful, but the best way to tell is to look at the fruit of anger. If it produces strife, quarrels and/or divisions, then it is not of God.
- Lie: This anger is payback for a wrong suffered.
- Truth: This anger should never be designed to pay someone back for the hurt they have caused. Revenge is not a believer’s job. It is God’s. If a person wants to be delivered, he must wait on the Lord (Proverbs 20:22).
- Lie: This anger is controlled. The angry person believes that it will never cause the person to do anything serious against the people they love or against the people they hate. This is an interesting lie to believe, since it is easy for a person to deceive himself into thinking that the same sin is untamable (impulsive, uncontrolled).
- Truth: This anger may get out of hand. Paul says, “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you do not fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Humility demands that people see that they have not arrived. They will never get to a point where they stop fighting against sinful anger. They must not get arrogant and think that they have it controlled, when in reality, the anger may be worsening.
Dissect Sinful Actions
The key question when it comes to dissecting sinful actions is asking what change should the believer make regarding their sin? If they continue to do the same sin without reflecting on what happened, and what desires and beliefs lie below the surface, they will continue to wallow in sinfulness. In addition to identifying lies, another helpful tool for evaluating a person’s heart comes from Paul Tripp and his five heart questions for parents to ask of their children.8 Paul Tripp, “Getting to the Heart of Parenting,” DVD series. The questions are as follows, and the order is important:
- What was going on?
- What were you thinking and feeling as this was happening? This question gets to the heart.
- What did you do in response? This question goes after words and behavior. This comes third because the words and behavior come from the heart (second question).
- Why? What were you seeking to accomplish? This goes toward goals and purposes.
- What was the result? This question goes after consequences (cf. Galatians 6:7). The seeds of the harvest grow from questions 2 and 4.
- What could you have done differently?9 The sixth question was added by the author of this essay.
Once a person has determined to change, it is time to design a plan for change. The design phase includes two parts: thinking big and acting small.
Suppose a person comes to the doctor because he has had shortness of breath. The doctor determines that he also has high blood pressure, which is connected to his obesity. The doctor gives him a prescription for a drug to bring his blood pressure down, but what else might the doctor tell the patient? Would he not tell the man to change his lifestyle habits? The patient has a whole person problem. He needs to start eating better and exercising more. He needs to start thinking better about what health is and what it looks like for him. He cannot merely expect to come to the doctor, get a prescription, and be cured. Similarly, counselees dealing with a particular sin need a holistic change. They need to be growing under the preaching of God’s Word in the context of relationships in a local church.
In John 6:26, many people came to Jesus in order to be fed. They were coming to Him only because of what He could do for them. Those who come to Jesus primarily for His gifts lose sight of who serves whom. The shift from humble servant to entitled individual is often subtle. Before long, people start to think that God exists to serve them, but the Scriptures reject that idea (Romans 11:36).
While many in the crowd in John 6 were unbelievers, other parts of Scripture show that even believers can lose focus. Consider the disciples in Mark 10. At this point in Jesus’ ministry, the disciples recognize that Jesus is the Christ, but they deliberate over who will get a seat of prominence in the coming kingdom. They love Jesus, but they lose sight of who He is. He is not a genie in a lamp. He is the God of the universe, to whom they owe themselves completely.10 While we must not come to God only for the gifts that He can give, at the same time, God expects us to ask Him for gifts (James 4:2; Matthew 7:7–11). We should strike a balance between using God for His gifts and failing to ask God for gifts at all. 1 John 5:14 says that we can be confident that if we ask anything according to His will, He will hear us. The balance comes when we ask according to God’s desires. When we see God as a good Father who gives good gifts, we should expect Him to give us what is good. They were obsessed with what they could get, but they ought to have been captivated by Him. Heath Lambert states, “When we focus on our own interests and desires, we miss the ultimate reason that God provided Jesus to save us. We need to know that the bread we should be consuming is Jesus.”11 Heath Lambert, Finally Free: Fighting for Purity with the Power of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 140.
God often allows believers to experience negative consequences in order to open their eyes to their sin. While God does want believers to get rid of particular sins for which they are facing consequences, He is also interested in a holistic change. God’s goal for believers is bigger than for them to simply stop sinning in the area where they are experiencing consequences.
A person who tries to repent of sinful anger without a willingness to look at other sins may try for a compartmentalized approach. The individual might be willing to submit himself to God with regard to his anger, but unwilling to submit his greed or impurity to God’s demands. This mentality is self-centered and destructive. It is a mindset that seeks comfort (peace from the consequences of sin) but is not concerned primarily with God and His glory. In reality, many times God alerts a believer to a particular sin in order to make that person aware of other sins. God is often concerned about something else in addition to relief from sin’s consequences.
If the only time a person is concerned about walking with Jesus is when he wants help in the removal of the consequences of sin, then he is not walking in the fullness of the loving relationship that Jesus wants him to have with Him.12 Lambert, Finally Free, 142. Instead, he should come pursuing a full-fledged relationship with this sovereign King who saves, desiring to draw close to Him in every way, and not just seeking to get his problems fixed.13 Lambert, Finally Free, 142.
The point is that believers need to fight for a dynamic relationship with Jesus more than they fight against the individual sin that is bothering them. If they fight to make Jesus at the center of everything they think and do, sooner or later, they will inevitably stop pursuing the sin that plagues them.14 Lambert, Finally Free, 142.
Genuine change begins with the work of the Spirit as He brings the Scriptures to bear on the person’s challenge. However, this change does not happen overnight. In addition to looking at the bigger reality of God’s glory, a proper understanding of sanctification that compels trust in God must be examined. This is critical even when the steps of spiritual growth seem small and slow-going. So how does this happen? Taking a complex transformation and turning it into small steps of Christlikeness happens when a person does three things: (1) Use the means that God has provided; (2) Keep in step with the Spirit; and (3) Organize good intentions into smaller tasks.
Use the Means that God has Provided
God has given all the tools that a person needs to follow Him (2 Peter 1:3). Nothing is lacking. Conversely, any failure or neglect on a believer’s part to pursue sanctification is not because of God. Therefore, believers need to put themselves in a place where they can receive God’s grace.15 David Doran, “Spiritual Disciplines,” Inter-City Baptist Church ABF Elective, Class Notes, 2013.
The Puritans taught that Christians receive grace through three primary means: the Word, prayer, and fellowship with God’s people.16 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 603–606. Biblical counselors should rely on God through the means of grace17 The means of grace are media through which grace is received. We can divide the means of grace into two categories: the means of saving grace and the means of continuing grace. The primary means of saving grace is the Holy Scripture, from which our whole knowledge of the Christian faith is derived. Other means of saving grace include preaching and evangelism. The means of continuing grace include the Holy Scripture, preaching, prayer, fellowship with other Christians, and participation of the ordinances. All of these means of grace must be properly received by faith. P.E. Hughes, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2nd ed., s.v. “Grace, Means of.” (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 522. and help counselees to rely on those same means. In this section these three means of grace will be explored: the counselor’s reliance on God through the Word; through prayer; and through Christ’s church.
Reliance on God through the Word
Biblical counselors put God at the center of their counseling by making His Word the center. God has clearly revealed Himself in His written Word.18 See Heath Lambert, A Theology of Biblical Counseling: The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 327. He explains the difference between special revelation and general revelation. God has revealed Himself through general revelation. However, general revelation is not adequate to reveal the nature of sins, to reveal the basics of the gospel, to tell people who Jesus Christ is and what He demands. General revelation cannot save a person from sins, nor does general revelation give what is needed in order to know how to be sanctified. General revelation can speak to what is, but special revelation is needed to say what should be. The Bible is necessary for counseling, because the Bible is sufficient. To illustrate this point, consider what people need when they come to a counselor for help. They might need to be taught sound doctrine (i.e., teaching); they might need to have their thinking challenged (i.e., reproof); they might need to be shown how to obey (i.e., training in righteousness); or they might need to be confronted about the way that they live (i.e., correction). The Scriptures are sufficient to provide guidance to people in need of help. Paul affirms this in 2 Timothy 3:16–17: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God be adequate, equipped for every good work.”19 See the Westminster Confession 1:6, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence, may be deduced from Scripture, to which nothing at any time is to be added by new revelations of the spirit or traditions of men.”
Because the Scriptures are sufficient for all of life and godliness (2 Peter 1:2–11), the Scriptures must be at the center of biblical counseling.20 Wayne Grudem describes the sufficiency of Scripture as follows: “Scripture contained all the words of God He intended His people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting Him perfectly, and for obeying Him perfectly.” Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 127. All spiritual growth is connected to the Bible. This is described in 2 Corinthians 3:18, where Paul teaches that if a person is going to be “transformed” from one level of glory to another, then he or she must gaze on the Word with an unveiled face. Believers who have been and who are being illumined by the Holy Spirit must engage in the task of investigation. They must look at the Word, meditate on it, interpret it properly, and then apply it to their lives. Only then will real transformation come (“from one level of glory to another”). Psychology is not necessary for a person to counsel spiritual issues.
Biblical counselors must rely on the Scriptures both for the diagnosis of a problem as well as the prognosis. That is, counselors must make the Scriptures their guide as they seek to identify the problems and to provide solutions. Both the description and the prescription of the problem must be talked about in terms of explicit or implicit truth derived from the Scriptures. From these principles, counselors help the counselee draw specific application to their situation. Only the Word of God is necessary (Matthew 4:4), because it is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), and therefore, biblical counselors rely on it to provide the counselees genuine help and hope.
Reliance on God through Prayer
Biblical counseling involves speaking to a person on behalf of God using the Word, but it also includes speaking to God on behalf of that person: prayer. If there is going to be any real change, then it has to come through the work of God. The counselor must be committed to relying on God through prayer, and he should encourage the counselee to do the same. Prayer must be a priority to the counselor’s preparation, to the counseling session, and to the counselee’s ongoing spiritual change.
First, prayer must be a priority to the counselor’s preparation for the counseling session. The Christian life involves spiritual opposition. God promises to give mercy and grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16). When a believer makes it a practice to rely on God in prayer prior to the counseling session, he is expressing dependence on God.
Second, prayer must be a priority to the counseling session. A good practice is to make prayer a priority near the beginning of the session, inviting the counselee to join the counselor in relying on God. And then it is good to conclude the session by praying for specific items that have been discovered during the counseling session.
Finally, prayer must be a priority to the counselee’s ongoing spiritual change. Practically, many people will come to counselors because of a sin struggle, but they may not necessarily have a close personal relationship with God. They may not be in the habit of practicing the disciplines of grace. And if they are not regularly and fervently praying for themselves, then counselors have a great privilege to come alongside of them and bear their burdens to God with them. Of course, this does not excuse their prayerlessness. Instead, it highlights the importance for counselors to plead with God on their behalf. “Unless the Lord [causes the change]…we labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). Counseling in one’s own strength puts the counselor in the same category as the secular psychologist: unable to offer hope that moves toward genuine change.
Reliance on God through Christ’s Church
In addition to the Word and prayer, counselees need the body of Christ. Speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) happens within a community of believers. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:11–16 about speaking the truth in love within the context of hearing the Word preached by a pastor (v. 11). But this mutual truth-speaking also happens in the context of other believers (vv. 12–13, 15b–16). The change that God desires in the counselee’s life is not confined to his or her presenting problem. God wants a whole person change (Romans 8:29), which is best cultivated in the context of united believers who are being led by pastors who are caring for their souls.
Practically, counselors would be wise to demand regular church attendance, which may sound something like this: “If you think that coming to see me is going to solve all of your problems, you are wrong. God wants to change you in more ways than the problem that you have come for. So you need to regularly be in church, hearing God speak.”21 The source/solution/savior is not the counselor himself, but the normal “means of grace” in the context of the local church (Pearson Johnson, e-mail message to author, September 24, 2019).
David Powlison highlights the necessity of the church in the sanctification process by arguing for the church’s power. He writes that the church is a group of believers who have covenanted themselves together to help one another, having a defined set of beliefs. But not only does the church hold to common beliefs, they are committed to them. One of the most important commitments among local church members is that the Bible is their authority and that it is sufficient to answer life’s most important problems.22 David Powlison, The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2010), 295–300. Counseling is best handled in the church because the main agent for the ministry of the Word is the church (1 Timothy 3:15; 2 Timothy 4:2). This ministry of the Word includes both the public and the private ministry of the Word.23 Dale Johnson, “Why Should Counseling be Done in the Church?” Webinar, May 14, 2019, https://vimeo.com/339408458/6aa7fefc33. A counselor’s engagement of the counselee in the local church serves to protect the counselor’s pride, just as much as it is a genuine help to the counselee (cf. Acts 20:28) (Pearson Johnson, e-mail message to author, September 24, 2019).
An agreement to receive counseling should also be an agreement to accept personal accountability through loving relationships.24 The following discussion is derived from David Doran, “Introduction to Biblical Counseling” Class Notes. Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. Summer 2017. The Scriptures affirm that believers (not just pastors) engage in mutual exhortation. Counselors ought to commend accountability that encourages, admonishes, confronts, and disciplines so that the person is restored to fellowship with Christ and with the body of believers. Counseling is a part of discipleship. While most of counseling focuses on restoring believers who have sinned, not all counseling is that way. Wounded sheep tend to get the most attention, while the healthy ones are left alone. However, while a good shepherd should not ignore the wounded sheep, he should at the same time be working to advance and strengthen the healthy sheep. Pastors, therefore, should seek for opportunities in counseling to help healthy sheep (pre-marital counseling, marriage mentoring, job decisions, parenting, and to equip the wounded to minister).
While believers should be taught the Word from a pulpit and from behind a desk, transformation is best applied both personally and corporately in the context of the gathering of believers, where the edification ministry of fellow saints is experienced, including encouragement, exhortation, and example.25 Pearson Johnson, e-mail message to author, September 24, 2019.
Keep in Step with the Spirit
The Scriptures’ means of change requires the active work of two persons: God and the individual. Paul explains it this way in Philippians 2:12–13, “Work out your own salvation [our role of active participation]…for it is God who is at work in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure [God’s role in the change process].”
Peter taught in 2 Peter 1:8–9 that stunted, ineffective and unproductive growth happens when believers are not abounding in Christlike qualities. Biblical counselors need to get counselees to engage in the work that Spirit is doing. Complicity with the Spirit looks like walking in the Spirit. Galatians 5:16 notes, “Walk in the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh.” The Spirit is not going to force anyone into conformity. He leads by walking on ahead of believers, and they are responsible to keep in step with Him. Both the believer and God must be engaged in the process of change. A believer can never do what God alone will do, and He will never do what a believer alone must do.
Counselees cannot sit idly by and expect God to zap them into conformity. People in need of change are unable to produce fruit on their own, but at the same time God will never do for them what they must do themselves.26 For more on the sufficiency of Christ as it relates to the sufficiency of Scripture, see “God’s Word is Enough” in Kevin DeYoung, Taking God At His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016). They must cooperate with the work that the Spirit is doing in them.
Organize Your Intentions into Smaller Tasks
Intentions are great, but they are only part of the change process. Intentions—even good ones—are useless apart from specificity. Good intentions can easily be snuffed out by ambiguous generalities (e.g., “I want to be a better husband,” “I plan to stop drinking,” “No more porn,” etc.). Good intentions are only the bones of change. The muscle and flesh of intentions are specific, measurable action steps. Counselees must consider how their good intentions will become reality by God’s grace. For example, “By Friday, I will make a list of all of the unresolved conflicts that I have with my wife,” or “By tomorrow morning, I will empty all the alcohol bottles in my house, and will resolve not to make any purchases at a place where alcohol is sold.”
If counselees are not specific, they may continue to face their problems unchanged by the Word, and potentially set themselves on a path toward turning away from Christ. Jesus illustrated this kind of danger in Luke 12:45–48, where He tells the parable of the unfaithful slave. Interestingly, the servant that is judged by Christ does not raise his fist and say, “I hate the master, and I will not do anything for him.” He has good intentions to obey the master, but he fails because he delays. Similarly, the counselee may think that he has a long time to obey the Master, so he or she may continue to have expectations of change and intentions to change, but because of procrastination, nothing happens. Maybe the counselee is waiting for his or her spouse to change, or for somebody from the church to come to the rescue. Respectfully, this author believes that hell will be full of people who had good intentions. To illustrate this sobering reality, consider the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25. The Master returned and the five virgins were ready to get to work trimming their lamps. They had good intentions, they scrambled, but it was too late. Counselees must be warned about good intentions disconnected from specific steps toward change. God is patient. He is longsuffering, and slow to anger. But His patience will eventually be exhausted (cf. 2 Peter 3:3–18). Believers must put their intentions into actionable steps.
It is not enough to know what to do. It is not enough to hear the Word. It is not enough to know what God wants. Truth must be acted upon. James 1:25 calls Christians to be doers, not hearers only. Consider the parable of the soil (Mark 4:1–20) and the parable of the wise man and foolish man (Matthew 7:24–29). What separates the soil that bears fruit from the soils that do not bear fruit? What separates the wise man from the foolish man? It is not that one hears the Word and the other does not. In fact, Jesus states that they all hear the Word.
Parable of the Soils
|Beside the road||“…when they hear, immediately Satan…” (Mark 4:15)|
|Rocky ground||“…when they hear the word, they receive it with joy” (Mark 4:16)|
|Thorny ground||“…who have heard the word, but the worries of the world” (Mark 4:18–19)|
|Good soil||“…they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit” (Mark 4:20)|
Parable of the Wise Man and the Foolish Man
|Wise man||“…hears these words of mine and acts on them (Matthew 7:24)|
|Foolish man||“…hears these words of mine and does not act on them (Matthew 7:26)|
The difference between the good soil/wise man and the other soils/foolish man is that one heard the word and acted on it, and the other heard the word and did not act on it.
The necessity of putting intentions into action is one of the reasons counselors should give homework. Practically, if there is going to be genuine transformation, the counselee must be willing to pursue spiritual change outside of the counseling session. All the transformation that is necessary will not happen in a sixty-minute counseling session. To think that way is to think like an obese patient who expects that a one-hour conversation at the doctor’s office will produce all the change that is necessary for him to lose weight. Homework should include both foundational elements (renewing the mind, Romans 12:2) as well as practical elements (e.g., encourage your wife in three ways this week; sign up for Covenant Eyes by Thursday; or be at all the church services this week).
The sin has been brought to the person’s attention. He has determined to turn away from it to God. He has thought about what facts led to the sin. He has put a plan in place to change. Now it is time to act. Since the larger goal/ambition has already been broken down into smaller, specific steps, the next thing to do is to take the first step. The final phase of repentance is to move to action. The individual needs to get started with God’s help, keep going in God’s strength, and be patient throughout the process.
Get Started with God’s Help
Because of the enormity of the process, the process of change can be overwhelming. For example, a person who is struggling with pornography might be overwhelmed by dozens of things that need to happen. He might categorize them this way: he has to stop engaging in something he loves; he has to seek forgiveness from his wife; he has to pursue accountability; and he must increase his desire for God. None of these are easy tasks, and so he may be overwhelmed. Additionally, he might focus so much on the specifics that he becomes paralyzed from acting at all.
One key to change is movement, not perfection. A person without a detailed road map for every item of change might not want to start the journey at all. But change requires movement.27 James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones (New York: Avery, 2018), 143. With God’s help, He will strengthen believers to pursue transformation. Ephesians 6:10 says, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.” The Spirit produces fruit in believers to help combat the sin and move them toward righteousness (Galatians 5:22–23).
Keep Going in God’s Strength
With God’s strength, repentant believers must work hard and work in the right direction. In other words, persevere. The marathon runner does not see the finish line until the last bit of the race. However, even when the finish line is out of view, he stays on course, works hard, and works in the right direction.
When it comes to change, people love to see results, but transformation takes time and requires perseverance. Patience is especially critical when immediate results are not seen. The farmer keeps working, even though he does not see immediate results. Sanctification will include obstacles and setbacks. Faith-filled work will be rewarded with transformation and eternal reward. One small act of obedience may not look like it does much of anything, but consider the stonecutter. He hammers away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. But then on the one hundred and first blow, the rock splits into two. And the stonecutter realizes that it was not the last blow that did it. It was all of the blows before that.28 Clear, Atomic Habits, 21.
The author of Hebrews talks about this kind of Spirit-produced patience (Galatians 5:22) in Hebrews 6:11–12, “And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you will not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” He goes on to say that Abraham had to patiently await the promise from God. The work of transformation requires this kind of patience that looks to the promises of God, and believes them, obeying God’s commands, without seeing the immediate results.
Once a believer has gotten to this stage in the transformation process, he should not get comfortable, but should regularly reevaluate and revise. This assumes an attitude of humility. Full transformation has not been realized. There is no time for complacency. Believers must stick to the fundamentals, and make sure that they do not veer off course. Consider Steve Kerr’s coaching model. When he started as the coach of the Golden State Warriors, one of the first things he did was to require the players to go back to dribbling and passing drills. Here you have a coach of world-class basketball players, and the coach is telling them to practice something that is practically second nature. The Word, prayer, and God’s people ought to be major factors in this evaluation process. Repentant believers must stick with the fundamentals.
Repentance is neither easy nor automatic, but with God’s strength and God’s resources, believers are empowered to work through the process of turning from sin to God. In the end God receives the glory.