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Counseling Unbelievers

Truth in Love 440

As biblical counselors, can we counsel unbelievers?

Nov 13, 2023

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I have with me Pastor Tim Pasma. He has ministered at Larue Baptist Church in LaRue, Ohio since the spring of 1985. He’s married to Rebecca. God has blessed them with three sons and three daughters, three daughters-in-law and a son-in-law and 14 quite active grandchildren. Pastor Tim earned his B.A. from Cedarville University and the M.Div From Grace Theological Seminary. He serves as an ACBC fellow and he’s on ACBC’s Board of Trustees. He lectures frequently on counseling issues at counseling conferences and for a number of Christian organizations. Tim, I am so grateful for you brother.

Tim Pasma: It’s a privilege to be here.

Dale Johnson: Listen, we’re going to talk about what do we do with unbelievers. How do we counsel unbelievers or even do we counsel unbelievers? Some people say you cannot counsel unbelievers. Is that true?

Tim Pasma: Yeah, that’s true. But you’ve got to understand what we’re talking about there. When you’re counseling, you’re counseling the Word of God and the Spirit uses the Word to help people change. However, what do you do with people who don’t have the Spirit of God? They can’t change in any significant way. You know what Jesus said, “Everything comes from the heart; everything that shows up on the outside comes from the inside.” If you have an unregenerate heart, these things are going to show up.

So how do you counsel someone or can you counsel someone who is unregenerate? They don’t have the resources to really change in the way that God says. So in one sense, we say you can’t counsel unbelievers. Now, a guy I love and respect, Jay Adams, was the one who essentially said that and he said, “So counseling becomes what you might call pre-evangelism or evangelism, actually evangelism.” I think that’s right. It becomes a way of doing evangelism. When you say, “You can’t counsel unbelievers,” people say, “All right, so what do you do? You just take three weeks and if they don’t accept Jesus, then you’re done. You say I can’t counsel you anymore.” No, that’s not what we’re saying. We’re not saying then that you don’t meet with them weekly as if you would with a counselee. You still are meeting every week. You’re still talking and so forth. When we say you can’t counsel unbelievers, that’s what we mean, not meaning, “No, I’m not even going to try.”

Dale Johnson: I think that’s a helpful clarification because when people hear you say we can’t counsel unbelievers then, “Oh, you don’t meet with unbelievers at all?” No, that’s not the point. That’s a really helpful distinction because the fact of the matter is if we were to give biblical counsel to an unbeliever, we’re asking them to do something without the power of the Spirit. We’re asking them to now become a Pharisee essentially. I call it becoming a more sophisticated sinner. That’s not helpful, that actually darkens our heart more and more. I think you’ve qualified and clarified in a very healthy way. No, we want to meet with them. We want to be able to show how their experiences in life are consistent with what the Lord says is true. That’s like somebody who’s walking around in the dark and who has no hope and then we are able to talk about the beauty of the hope of Christ.

Now, let’s move into a little bit in terms of strategy. What helps you the most when you counsel unbelievers?

Tim Pasma: This is what helps me understand how to approach an unbelieving counselee. It’s one of my favorite Christmas verses, it’s Matthew 1:21, Joseph’s instructions about Jesus who is coming, who is going to be born. He says, “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” When I approach unbelievers, I’m identifying the problem is sin, but then I’m pointing them to Jesus and saying, “Jesus came in order to deal with your anger, to save you from your anger, to save you from these things that you’re bringing to the table. He’s come to save you from those so that you can be done with those. You can grow. Those don’t have to be with true of you.” So that’s one part. The other part is, Jesus knows what suffering is, so I have an unbeliever coming because he’s suffering, his wife is done with him, wants to be done with him. I can say, “Jesus knows what it is to suffer and He’s the One who says, “Come to me and I will give you rest.” I can keep telling them those things as we move along.

Dale Johnson: I love that. I think, as we talk about strategy, that gives proper focus. We want to approach it with this in mind. What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but he loses his own soul? We have to think about our counsel to this man or woman in this way, an unbeliever. Is our counsel going to be adequate for them when they draw their last breath and they stand before the Lord? They can change or improve their behavior, but what have they done in relation to the problem they have before a holy God? That’s a big big deal and that has to be a framework.

Now, we’ve talked about framework. I love the way you described that because that is Jesus’ reason for coming and we have to carry that same message. As we talk about basic strategy, what is your basic strategy when counseling unbelievers?

Tim Pasma: I want to always put it in the context of your relationship with God. The reason why these things are part of your life is because you’re corrupted. I want to show them that. I’m going to say, “Here’s the reason why you have these problems. It’s not just the environment. It’s not your mom and your dad, it’s not your wife that you’re struggling with. It’s the fact that you are corrupted,” and they have to know the origin of these problems. You know the origin, you know the answer. I want to give them the origin of this. I want to help them see that the problem is they have a problem with God. They need to be reconciled to God and having been reconciled, they then have a Father who will help them.

Let me give you an example of something that happened. I’m sitting in my office and I’m in a small town and one of the guys I know pretty well, he comes in. He’s downtrodden, he’s not a believer, and he says, “My wife has said she’s done with me. I’ll commit suicide. I just can’t take this.” He’s a truck driver, he talks about thinking about running his truck into that bridge. Right away, you want to say, “Well, don’t do this, don’t do that.” I remember what I said to him, I’ll just call him Mark. I said, “Mark, I could sit here and tell you all kinds of things to do. I could tell you all things to do, like here are some nifty techniques for a good marriage, nifty techniques to maybe win your wife over. That wouldn’t help you.” I drew a tree on my board and I had some fruit on there and I said, “The problem is there’s rotten fruit up here and actually the problem is down here in the roots, you’ve got to understand something.” I read Romans 3:10 to the end of the chapter. “There’s no one righteous not even one, no one!” But I said, “Here is the problem, right here at the roots. I can’t tell you all these nifty techniques, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about: you’re at war with God.” In that passage, it says, “Misery marks their ways.” I remember saying to him, “You’re miserable, because of the lack of your relationship with God. So we have to deal with this.” I wish I could tell you he was converted right there. He was converted later in life. Again, that’s more or less how I would approach it.

Dale Johnson: As you’re talking about that, I’m reminded of a passage of Scripture that Randy Patten talks about frequently: the way of the transgressor is hard. What we’re doing is we’re demonstrating that this person’s life, as messed up as it is in this moment, at the difficulty that they’re experiencing, it actually makes sense according to Scripture. The Lord says that when we choose our own way away from Him, life is going to be difficult. They’re going to experience heartache and struggle. It starts to make sense of their life. I’m glad to hear that Mark, in this case, came to faith. That is an encouraging thing. We do see that quite frequently, as we’re able to really talk about their insufficiency in life and the beautiful sufficiency of Christ for them.

Let’s make some distinction here because some people might be asking, “Well, you said no, we don’t counsel unbelievers, but that sounds sort of similar to what we would do.” I want you to distinguish in what ways is this type of counseling like normal counseling and what ways do you say that it’s different?

Tim Pasma: In ways that it’s the same is like, I’m still going to meet with you weekly as long as you want. We’ll talk about the Lord Jesus and how He’s the answer. There are times when I say, “Here’s what God requires you to do, now do it and come back.” I remember one couple in particular, they kept coming back and saying this is impossible. I would say, “Well, you know what? you need a new heart.” I must have said that to them every week. You need a new heart. If you pray, if you’re really serious about it, ask God for it, He’ll give you one.

It’s normal in the sense of, I’ll still meet with them, we’ll still talk, we’ll still do this. You need to tell them the goal of counseling, which is to glorify God. I’m going to do that with an unbeliever. I’m going to say, “Our goal here is that you glorify God.” Now, they need to understand that it’s impossible for them to glorify God without Jesus, but at least the goal is still the same. Biblical counseling is discipleship. Well, discipleship begins with conversion, it still fits in within that paradigm. “I want you to be a disciple of Jesus, here’s where we start. Recognize who Jesus is and entrust yourself to Him, and thus, you’re on the road to discipleship.” In that way, it’s the same.

It’s different in the fact that I’m consistently speaking of Jesus, that’s going to save them from their sins. I’m consistently going to be evangelistic in my approach. The gospel has to be with unbelievers and believers. It’s the grace of God that motivates growth, so that’s the same as well. I’m going to come at it more of an evangelistic way and say, “You need Jesus before you can really have a different life, you need to have a different life principle at work.” In that sense, it’s different.

Dale Johnson: Yes, absolutely, I’m going to do my best to try and expose all the things that he’s been hoping in and show them as inadequate, right? He’s been trusting in something, He is been trusting in himself or in some method to get what he wants. I’m going to demonstrate by his own experience that those things are quite inadequate and call him to take on this burden, which the Lord says is light. The Lord says, “It will bring rest for his soul.”

Tim, this has been so helpful. I know this will be helpful for our counselors. We are called by Christ to engage the darkness that we see around us. This is one of the primary ways. Biblical counseling can be so unbelievably missional, so I don’t want churches to miss that opportunity. We don’t counsel in the same way, but we want to engage unbelievers with the beauty of the gospel, knowing that the Lord transforms hearts when people hear the Word and believe and trust and repent by faith.

Tim Pasma: Yes, and to see that what a great opportunity for evangelism. I’m in a small town, I’m the counseling guy. We get opportunities of unbelievers coming a lot and it is great to share the gospel. I remember outlining this, “There’s none righteous, no, not one, except for Jesus.” I remember sitting there and the counselee leaning over the desk and saying to me, “Wow, we’re all in this camp and nobody’s in this camp. What hope is there?” What an opportunity!

Dale Johnson: Absolutely, I know it will be clarifying for our people, engage a lost world, we have the truth of the gospel and it will pierce the darkness. Thanks for your time today, Tim.

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