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The Work of the Holy Spirit in Counseling

Truth in Love 298

Only the Spirit of God can truly transform a person.

Feb 15, 2021

Dale Johnson: What a fun week this will be as we get to interview Dr. John Street. Dr. Street is a Professor of Biblical Counseling at The Master’s University and also The Master’s Seminary. He is Chairman of our Board here at ACBC. He is a member and a Fellow that serves with ACBC as well—he’s been doing that for many years. He’s married to Janie, he has four children and six grandchildren. And I’m going to have to keep him on topic talking about the Holy Spirit; he enjoys to talk about his children and grandchildren. I love this man. I am so grateful for him and his leadership at ACBC. He helps to keep me on track in my role. Dr. Street, I’m so glad that we were able to sit down and have very important discussion about the work of the Holy Spirit. Thank you, brother.

John Street: Thank you. Dr. Johnson, or Dale, as I love to call you.

Dale Johnson: That’s right. Dr. Street, this is an important discussion and I think some people will hear this and say, “We’ve heard this before,” but I think this is a critical discussion that we need to revisit consistently. Even since the beginning of the biblical counseling movement, we have recognized that one of the key issues that we have dismissed in our culture at large—particularly the Christian culture—when we approach the issue of counseling, we often dismiss the work and the role of the Holy Spirit. We allow other things to take His role and place in secular systems as opposed to allowing Him to do the work that the Scriptures tell us He will do in changing people, making them new, illuminating, and so on and so forth. We have to recover that, we have to be consistent and solid even as we move forward as a movement. We have to keep the main things the main things.

This idea of the work of the Holy Spirit is among our key tenants. Let’s start with this question I think is important. Why is the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of the counselor and the counselee so important to biblical counseling?

John Street: Wow, this is a great question and something that, as you said, we’ve often neglected. In fact this plays into something that you just recently did in publishing a book about the professionalization of counseling. That was such an important book. You gave me an opportunity to read an advance copy of that and give an endorsement of it, and it was such an important book because as the counseling movement grows and it becomes more and more influential (and it is growing expeditiously around the world), as that is happening there is a tendency among many people to equate us with everything else that’s going on in the psychotherapeutic and counseling world—whether it’s pagan, secular, or Christian. When in reality what we’re doing is decisively and radically different than what’s going on out there in the world. We are modeling everything that we know about Scripture after the way in which Jesus and the apostles set up the New Testament church and how counseling is done under the authority of the church. 

With the professionalization of counseling that has occurred in the last 150 years, that’s been one of the most destructive things that have happened in regards to counseling because basically it’s reduced counseling to a set of techniques and methodology. It is something that if you follow these procedures, if you follow this technique, if you follow the DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the APA), and you follow what they say is the real problem here, then you can get your problem solved. Most counselors—whether their secular or Christian or even biblical for that matter—will acknowledge to you that things are not that simple.

This is where the work of the Holy Spirit comes in. There have been times, Dale and probably you’ve experienced this in your own counseling ministry, but I certainly have had probably an unusual amount of times, where I have done my very very best to counsel someone from the Word of God and give them caring, loving, godly counsel. When I finished with those sessions, I’ve walked out and thought to myself, “My goodness, how can anybody resist what I just told them? After all this is God’s authoritative Word. They claim to be a Christian. They should be following this. I should be able to see radical changes in their life.” And there’s no changes. Nothing changes and that counseling session was dramatic. It was insightful. It was incredibly loaded with good biblical truths—exactly what they needed to do in order to address their problems, how they needed to deal with their heart issues. And then as a result of that their attitudes and behaviors. They walk away from it and they don’t deal with it.

Then there have been other occasions where in counseling, at the end of it, I’ve thought to myself, “These poor people they have the worst counselor on the planet. I could have done this better. I could have done this better and I could have done that better.” I’m thinking about all the ways in which I failed them. And God through the Holy Spirit radically changes their life. I’m going, “Wait a minute. How did this happen?”

Biblical counseling does not rely upon technique or methodology. Now, there are certain things that we need to do and we need to do them properly, but that doesn’t ultimately change anyone. You can’t do that. You can’t change anybody—only the Spirit of God can truly transform a person on a core level. That’s where sometimes the Spirit is at work in you as a counselor, and sometimes the Spirit is at work in your counselee. And sometimes there is this “magical time” where the Spirit is at work at both, unusual time where the Spirit is at work in both of you and radical things happen; changes occur.

I’m reminded in John 3 where Jesus is confronted by Nicodemus. Nicodemus knew that he was a Rabbi that came from God. “You’ve come from God,” he says, “For no one can do the signs that you do unless God is with you.” And that was kind of obvious, but Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. … Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Now, I think the water and Spirit is a reference primarily to physical birth and then spiritual birth. Not just physical birth, because Nicodemus was a Jew, being physically born, thought he was naturally a part of the kingdom of God. Everybody knows about a mother’s water breaking and being born. The Spirit is key.

But then he says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” And then he refers to that later on in verse 8. He says, “The wind blows where it wishes.” The implication is that’s the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God works where He wishes in the life of the counselee. No amount of technique or methodology or procedural preciseness are going to be the big transforming thing that happens. Our responsibility as counselors is be faithful to the Word of God, deliver the goods, and then we have to leave it up to the Spirit of God and the winds going to blow where it’s going to blow. 

Dale Johnson: That’s right, man. And that’s comforting to me as a counselor to know that I don’t have the manipulative words to change the heart of a person. That is the Lord’s business. My call is to be faithful. Now, we talk about the work of the Holy Spirit—and rightfully so, we shouldn’t neglect the idea of the work of the Holy Spirit as it relates to the counselee and our hope as counselors that God will do His work as the change agent in the hearts of people. But sometimes we forget to think about the work of the Holy Spirit on the person who’s in the counseling chair. So talk about that for a moment. What is the role of the Holy Spirit in the process of biblical interpretation? 

John Street: That’s a great question because this is an area where I think what is commonly referred to as the doctrine of Illumination is so misused. I think a lot of people believe that a person who is genuinely a Christian, where the Holy Spirit indwells them, their body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, that they sort of have an edge on everybody else when it comes to understanding the biblical text. That is not what the illumination of the Spirit really means. In fact, I know a lot of biblical counselors who use that as an excuse to not have to study the Bible. “I don’t have to study the Bible. I’m going to rely upon the Holy Spirit. I’m going to open the Bible, go to a particular passage, and the Holy Spirit’s going to tell me what that means.” 

Now, the Bible was written in very understandable way. It doesn’t mean that all the Bible is equally understandable. Sometimes it takes a lot of study to understand more complicated passages, but it was written in a very understandable way with linguistic format. And God has given to man the acuity to be able to read the Bible, understand what’s going on. I have secular scholars on my office shelf who are experts in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and they can go into detail and explain to me exactly what the text is saying and they’re often better at understanding what the actual text is saying then many Christians. Many Christians bring a lot of biases, or maybe false things that they’ve heard about the text, to that particular text. Here, these secular scholars, they don’t believe it, but they’re just telling you what the text is saying. Now, how is that possible if the doctrine of illumination means that somehow a person has an additional IQ into the meaning of the text? 

That’s not what the doctrine of illumination means. When Jesus said farewell to His disciples and He knew He was going to leave them on Thursday night of passion week. When He’s giving them last minute instructions before He goes to the cross, dies, and then is resurrected and ascended back to heaven—before that happens, He says that He was going to send the Spirit of truth to them. He said He will guide you into all truth. That’s usually a text that is used to speak about everybody who is a Christian, the Spirit will guide you into all truth.

When you study that contextually, that’s not what He’s saying. He’s saying to the disciples that there’s more post-death and post-resurrection revelation to come. He’s saying, “I’m going to send this truth.” In other words, the cannon wasn’t closed. That’s His argument. The cannon wasn’t closed—there was still more to come after He returned to heaven, so he’s going to send them the Spirit to guide them into all truth. That was not something that was given to every Christian, it was given to the disciples so that they knew what was going on. 

The other classic text that’s used to talk about that is 1 Corinthians 2. In 1 Corinthians 2, in the overall argument of that chapter, the Apostle Paul is actually arguing for his apostleship and the fact that the Corinthians should follow his admonition because he is an apostle—even though he considers himself to be the least of the apostles. In the first five verses of 1 Corinthians 2, he talks about “I” (speaking of himself) and “you” (that is you Corinthian believers). All the way down through verse 5, and then all of a sudden in verse 6, he switches to third person plural “we.” 

“Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (vv. 6-7). In verse 10, he says, “these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” And then later on, he says, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.”

Now, that’s used as proof text for the doctrine of illumination, that God gives us special insight into the Scriptures. But in context here the “we” is not we Christians, it’s we Apostles. How do we know that? Because he continues his argument all the way down into chapter 4 and verse 9 when he says, “For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.” 

What’s going on is the doctrine of illumination is used as an excuse not to do good hermeneutics and good Bible study. That’s the problem. When we, as Christians, put ourselves in the position of Paul and the apostles, this is called stolen valor. It’s stolen valor of the authority of an apostle having received divine truth. Now, can you argue the fact that the Spirit of God works in a person’s life and enlivens their beliefs, so that when they read the Bible they are hearing God’s voice, so to speak? The answer is yes.

Is that the doctrine of Illumination? Yes, that’s what I think it is, because secular people can read the Bible and totally deny it, but the believer through the Spirit’s illumination reads it with faith—that is with belief—it has a binding quality on their life.

Usually at the beginning of my hermeneutics class I say, “Listen, if you’re the type of person who’s a lazy expositor of the Bible, you’re a lazy interpreter of the Scripture, then you’re going to make a lousy biblical counselor. In fact, you’re not a biblical counselor, you’re working on your own hunches. You’re not using biblical truth.” To the degree that you don’t use biblical truth is the degree that the authority of your counsel will be undermined. You’ve got to know what God is really saying and study it within context. Every one of my students know I use that little adage, “A text without a context is a pretext for proof text.” You’ve got to understand the text within context.

Dale Johnson: That’s so important and I think we need to be consistently grounded in this area. We as counselors have a lot of work to do as it relates to the Scripture because we know, the Bible teaches us, that it’s the truth that sets people free. It’s the truth of God by His divine power that destroys strongholds in the lives of people—not our own ingenuity. That’s a critical piece of the puzzle. Let’s finish with a brief answer to this question because we still need to ask it: Why is the Holy Spirit so important to the timing of sanctification and change in the counselee? 

John Street: Well, because there is not going to be any genuine change on a heart level or at a depth until the Holy Spirit is at work. It’s not going to happen. A person can give all the best counsel on the planet; if the Holy Spirit is not at work in the person that you’re counseling, then it’s not the right time for change. I’ve had people walk out of counseling and I don’t see them until two or three years later. And they will say to me,”You remember last time we were in counseling?” I say, “Yeah.” They say, “Do you know that I was upset at you and I was mad at you?” I said, “Well, I had a pretty good idea.” Then they said, “But I kept hearing your voice saying, this my conscience and I want to let you know I really have repented. I’ve dealt with that issue.” 

Why is that? Because it was the Holy Spirit’s perfect timing to bring about the change. They had more things they needed to learn before there was real change there. I trust the Lord. I trust what He’s doing; we can’t force these things as counselors.

Dale Johnson: That’s so important—for us not to be lazy counselors, but yet to understand that it is the work of the Spirit. All that in and of itself is so comforting to me as a counselor. I pray for our listeners that this will be comforting to you. This is a doctrine that we have to defend well, and not just defend intellectually, but practice that we trust the work of the Spirit of God to do His work in the lives of people.