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Keeping the Gospel Central in Counseling

Truth In Love 388

How do we keep the gospel central throughout the counseling process?

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast I have with me, Pastor Keith Christensen. Keith is the preaching pastor of Christ Fellowship Bible Church, a recent church plant in the Fort Worth, Texas area. He’s a certified ACBC counselor, he’s been involved in training biblical counselors since 2016. He helps one of our great training centers down in the Fort Worth, Texas area the Center for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship. Keith and his wife lived there in Fort Worth and have five children. Brother, I’m so grateful that you are here with us reminding us of the beauty of the Gospel in counseling. Let me just say a couple of things really quick that I think are important to address here.

I think it’s obvious, we do see a drift, a tendency in counseling even in churches among the believers to drift towards something where we think it improves upon the gospel or it improves upon the Scriptures, or it adds to depth and degree of the effectiveness of Scripture. I’m grateful that you’re wanting to bring us back to the centerpiece of the Gospel that we never grow over it, we never improve upon it and it always has to be a centerpiece in the work that we do in the counseling room. It is by nature now who we are as Bible believers who trust in the Lord Jesus and His work alone. That’s who we are. So, I want to start here. Make a case for us in this situation. Make a case for us about biblical counselors needing to keep the gospel central throughout the counseling process because we might even start well and then we sort of drift away from the gospel. Make this case for us.

Keith Christensen: Yes, and I appreciate it. You picked up maybe on that. What you said there last, that we might start well. My main burden in starting to teach about this is to push gently back against the notion that as biblical counselors we need to share the gospel with people in the first or second session, clarify people’s relationship to the gospel as best we can, make sure they’ve trusted upon the gospel because we know we can’t disciple someone who isn’t a disciple, we can’t help someone follow Christ who hasn’t trusted in Christ. Apart from Jesus you can do nothing, but by abiding in Him you can bear much fruit…we know they need to be Christians. But then I think sometimes we think, okay, great! gospel, check. And then we leave it in session one or two and don’t take it with us to the other counseling sessions. That’s why I appreciate how you word this question to keep the gospel central throughout the counseling process. This is a podcast of ACBC. I like to use the standards of conduct of ACBC to impress this necessity of making the gospel central throughout the counseling process, especially for people who are already inclined to believe that ACBC has a good thing going, like I do.

So, the standards of conduct of ACBC say biblical counselors must be committed to the truth that the fundamental key to the process of biblical counseling, not just the beginning, but the fundamental key to the process of biblical counseling is the person and work of Jesus Christ. That’s the gospel. So, the fundamental key to biblical counseling is not heart idolatry or the principles of put off, put on or, you know, the Four G’s of peacemaking or the four rules of communication, or the four promises of forgiveness or anything else other than the person and work of Jesus. Now, all of those other truths are helpful and even necessary to the task of biblical counseling, some people overcorrect and go gospel-centered in a way that you kick out everything that isn’t the gospel. We don’t want to do that. Don’t kick out those other truths, put off, put on, heart idolatry, etc. But we need to show how those things only work in the context of an ongoing faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And we need to show how those Scriptural principles of sanctification depend on the grace that’s available in Christ, and our ongoing faith in God for that grace. That’s especially for ACBC listeners that is how I would want to develop a little ethos and make the case for the need to do this. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, I think this needs to be a constant clarion call for us. One of the things C.S. Lewis said, and I’ll paraphrase is that what makes a great moral teacher is not that he’s giving us new morality, is he’s reminding us of the old and I think in this case, when we talk about the centerpiece of the gospel for our counseling, we have to constantly revisit this. Remind ourselves over and over again, and then practically live this out in the counseling room, so that we make sure that our counselee’s hope resides in Christ for help, not in our abilities, not in our wisdom, and so on and so forth.

Now, I want you to slow this down a little bit and give us a few ideas about how we might connect the gospel. We talked about that, man, this is a great idea confessionally, and yes, we hold to this and we cheer about this idea and we all want to be this but then it comes nitty-gritty time about how we connect the gospel in the counseling room in an ongoing way, help us to understand how we do that.

Keith Christensen: Well, practically. I think the way to do that is to minister the Bible in context, especially at the New Testament, all of the moral and ethical instruction of the New Testament is grounded in the person and work of Christ. We think about the letters of Paul. The first part of it is most often just focused on what God has done for us in Christ and then there’s some great ‘therefore’ as in Romans 12 or Ephesians 4 or Colossians 3:5, and then it says, “therefore on the basis of what Christ has done do these things,” and we should keep that we should try and minister not rush over the gospel to these ethical instructions of how people need to grow and change in specific ways without grounding them in the work of Christ. And then, often what New Testament authors will do is even within those passages of ethical instruction they will drop little gospel grounds of the exhortation they just gave.

So, one practical thing to do is when you minister the Scriptures, let’s say you want to minister, you know, put off, put on from Ephesians 4:22-24. Well, Ephesians 4:22 does not begin a new sentence. I mean, just just take a little bit of the wider context and what does it say right before that? let me turn there in my Bible. Before it says, “put off your old self,” it says, “that is not the way you learned Christ. Assuming you have heard about Him and were taught in Him as the truth is in Jesus to put off your old self which belongs to your former manner of life etc.” So it’s ground, this put off, put on, has to be in the context of I am following Jesus. The truth is in Him or if you’re teaching the fruit of the spirit, you know, Galatians 5, walk in the spirit. What is the fruit of the spirit? Galatians 5:22-23. Well, go ahead and take the next verse Galatians 5:24 says, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” So, how is it that we actually can walk in the Spirit and not fulfill the desires of the flesh? Well, it’s only if you’ve been crucified with Christ, you are trusting in Him.

2 Corinthians 5:9, “therefore we make it our ambition whether at home or a way to please God.” That’s great. Well, where on earth did those desires come from? Well, okay, nowhere on earth, but take the wider passage. Why don’t you go down a few verses? And when you teach that truth, that principle that there were only two options on the shelf, right? Pleasing Christ or pleasing self. We’ll add to that jingle a few verses later second Corinthians 5:14-15, says the love of Christ controls us or compels us. In 15 says He died for all so that those who live might no longer live for themselves. But for Him who for their sakes died and was raised, how can I actually develop new desires of wanting to please God? was because Jesus died and was raised for me and one of the results of that is that I do not live for myself anymore, but for Him who died for me. So, that’s one way. There’s some, you know, charts, you could revisit with people, the three trees, I have one I use called The Gospel box. You can Google those. When you assign Scripture passages to people for homework, you can ask them as one of the study questions. How does this passage reveal or point to the gospel? And in doing that, you’re also helping to clarify their understanding of the gospel in an ongoing way throughout the counseling.

Dale Johnson: I want to re-emphasize one of the primary things that you said is we don’t leave the ethical calls, the ethical actions of Scripture, right? But what you’re saying is all of those ethical actions are to be rooted in and motivated by a renewed mind, always connected to our heart, and our belief, and our desires being driven and controlled by the work of Christ and the ways of Christ, and we have to see those connections woven together and that’s the beauty of how we see change happen. And I love this because this place is the onus on the Holy Spirit to do this work, we’re using His sword to accomplish this work in a person’s life because we’re rooting them, even their actions into gospel saturation in the work of Christ. So, I love the way that you’re describing this. Now, bring us a little bit further. Give us some practical suggestions for how counselors who, you know, are listening to the podcast can grow in this particular area. All of us could stand to grow in this area deeper and deeper as we counsel others.

Keith Christensen: Yeah, just as a way to become more skilled, more equipped at not, like you said, not giving the gospel instead of sharp, clear, direct, moral instruction. I mean, the Scripture is for training in righteousness, but to actually ground that in the grace of Christ wherein those instructions are actually possible with a heart motive that pleases God at that too. So, one way to grow in this is to learn from other skilled counselors, and here’s the way I would encourage you to do that is read counseling books, and try and have an eye out for how are they grounding the counsel they’re giving in the gospel. I love Heath Lambert’s Finally Free for this. So, I would encourage you to maybe read, if not all of people Lambert’s Finally Free talking about biblical counseling for the issue of pornography, at least read his introduction, chapter 1, where he talks about how he’s going to ground all of the counsel he’s going to give in the grace that’s available in Christ. But then also read the conclusion and application questions of each chapter and there, he’ll show you how whatever he’s talked about radical amputation, growing and gratitude, whatever, he grounds it at the end of the chapter in the Gospel. I think that would be very instructive.

Or look out for that when you’re reading Ken Sande’s The Peacemaker, see how each new counseling principle he talks about ties it back into the gospel, whether as the motivation or the example or forgiveness for not doing it or the message in which you actually have the power to do these things. A smaller work you could do is, be discipled by really good counselors through their books. Jim Newheiser has a couple of booklets that are great on this. One is very small and called, Help! I want to change. And this is all about how the gospel needs to be central throughout the counseling process. And then you can see how he applies that methodologically to the issue of anger, in a little booklet, Help! My anger is out of control or something like that. So, that’s something I want to encourage you to have an eye out for when you read good biblical counseling books and it will help you to grow in your own understanding of how you can apply the gospel to very specific counseling issues in an ongoing kind of way.

One other thing and this is coming from Heath Lambert’s Finally Free, but I don’t remember if it’s chapter 1 or the introduction but encourage your counselee whatever the issue is to walk in ongoing repentance toward God and a kind of repentance that is last tightly together with faith in the gospel. That’s biblical repentance. So, if I’m dealing with anger toward my family, all right, just have your counselee throughout counseling. So, we’re going to do this, whenever you’re getting angry, I’m requiring you, you need to go to God, confess your sin of anger to Him, and try and do that with godly sorrow. Ask for His forgiveness for this. And then either, after you do that, thank Him for the forgiveness that He offers in Christ and believe upon a promise in Scripture for that or ask specifically for forgiveness on the basis of some promise for forgiveness in Christ. And then after you ask for forgiveness, ask God for the power to change. And either ask God for power to change on the basis of a promise of Scripture that you have power to change because of what Jesus did or after you ask for power to change, then, you know, quote one of those gospel passages in Romans 6:11, Titus 2:11-14, one of these gospel promises that in Christ because of His work, we have power to change and thank God for this. So, that’s a way to just. Hey, whenever you struggle with this, we’re going to talk to God about it. Yes, we’re going to ask for His forgiveness, we’re going to ask for power to change and we are going to depend on the work of Jesus Christ for both. And I think that’s an easy, excellent way to just keep the gospel with you throughout the counseling process. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, this is great. Counselors ask me all the time, how do I measure my growth in counseling? Keith, what you’ve done today is you’ve helped us to have a backdrop, a measuring stick of how we evaluate ourselves. So, for those of you who are early on in the counseling process or maybe you’ve been doing this for a long time, this is always helpful to revisit after you finish in the counseling room to sit, meditate, and think about what just unfolded, and evaluate yourself. How did you in your counseling, how did you maintain gospel-centeredness even in the things that you’re calling them to do? Are you rooting that in the work of Christ and the beliefs and promises that the Lord has given us in the way in which we correct ourselves? Are we measuring ourselves against Christ’s calling, Christ’s commands in the ways that we sinned, or how we repent, those sorts of things.

This is a beautiful measuring stick for how we evaluate our growth, as a counselor, or our health as a biblical counselor. Keith, this has been very helpful and I’m so grateful for the reminder, brother. Thank you for helping to focus our attention here on maintaining gospel-centeredness throughout the counseling process.

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