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The Future of the Biblical Counseling Movement

Truth in Love 174

What is on the horizon for the biblical counseling movement?

Oct 1, 2018

Heath Lambert: This podcast is releasing on Monday, October 1, 2018, and it is our 174th edition of Truth and Love. This edition will be my very last time hosting Truth and Love since we started recording the podcast in the summer of 2015. In fact, tomorrow, Tuesday, October 2nd, I will step down as the Executive Director of ACBC. I just want to let you know how grateful we are that you have taken the time to listen to this podcast.

When we began the podcast three years ago, our hope was that a thousand or so people would listen to it, and we have experienced the just blowing away of those very modest expectations. Last year, in 2017, more than 200,000 of you listened to the Truth and Love podcast, and this year already, the first week in October, 300,000 of you have listened to it, and that’s in more than 50 countries. We have just been amazed at the reach of this podcast, and as I record this podcast for the very last time, I want to let you know how much I appreciate you allowing us the privilege of coming into your homes, your offices, your cars, and your earbuds. I really hope that the work we have done here for this podcast has been a blessing to you.

The topic that I was asked to address on this last edition of Truth and Love that I’ll be hosting is to address the issue of the future of the biblical counseling movement. I’m happy to talk about that. The biblical counseling movement has been a source of fascination for me for many years. I’ve spent a lot of time studying it, I’ve spent a lot of time involved in it and writing about it. It was the subject of my doctoral dissertation more than 10 years ago, which actually became a book with Crossway called The Biblical Counseling Movement after Adams.

One of the things that I do in the After Adams book is I divide the history of the biblical counseling movement into two sections that I call “generations.” I talked about a first generation that was focused on foundations of the movement, which happened more or less between 1970 and 1990. That’s where you have the founding work of Jay Adams and his books and his teaching really building the biblical counseling movement from scratch after more than a century of decay.

Then after that first generation, I talk about a second generation of biblical counseling which focused on development of the movement. That really happened more or less between 1990 and 2010. I’m a little more precise than that in the book, but for our purposes we can think about a first generation of foundations from 1970 to 1990, and a second generation of development from 1990 to 2010. In that developmental generation, that is where so much of the good things that happened in the first generation were refined and enhanced. There were some corrections that were thrown in there.

That gets us to the current day. We’re now in 2018, and what I would want to say is that the biblical counseling movement is now in a third generation. The leader of the first generation was Jay Adams, as I argue in my book. The leader of the second generation, as I argue in my book, was David Powlison. But now we’re in a third generation, we are in a new, fresh season of the biblical counseling movement, and one of the things that’s very, very hard to do is evaluate something that is going on. It’s nearly impossible to gauge what is happening with something while it’s moving.

So in the midst of a third generation with many more years to go, as we make sense of this, we have to be honest that the biblical counseling movement is in a time of transition. The biblical counseling movement is sort of sifting itself out. What organizations are going to be the most influential in the movement? What voices, what leaders are going to be the ones who are the champions for the movement? I’m just going to be honest with you, the biblical counseling movement has not figured out the answer to those questions right now. It is very much in flux. We will know more in 2030 than we know right now. But right now, we would just say the biblical counseling movement is trying to figure out who their spokespersons are, who their leading organizations are, and that is not a matter that is settled right now.

As we sit in the early years of a third generation of biblical counseling and look towards the future, I will just tell you as I am walking away from my leadership post at ACBC that I have encouragements about the future of biblical counseling and I have cautions about the biblical counseling future. Here is an encouragement. First of all, biblical counseling is expanding. It’s expanding at the institutional level and it is expanding at the individual level.

As far as institutions are concerned, there are organizations that are committed to biblical counseling right now, today, in 2018, that in the 1970s, in the 1980s, in the 1990s, and even in the early 2000s, nobody could have imagined that an institution like that would be committed to biblical counseling. I’m talking churches. I’m talking seminaries. I’m talking training centers. I’m talking parachurch ministries. It is a good day to be involved in biblical counseling as we see the expansion of biblical counseling to many, many institutions that so many would have thought were untouchable in even the very recent past.

We’re also seeing the expansion of biblical counseling to many individuals. Right now, today, in October of 2018, ACBC is the largest biblical counseling organization in the world. We have members and training centers all across the United States, and we have members and training centers in twenty-nine countries. We have seen, over the last several years, dramatic growth in our organization. That is very exciting to see Christians and local churches being excited about the practice of biblical counseling. It is amazing to see the growth of this thing we call biblical counseling. That is a significant encouragement.

But with the encouragement comes caution, and the big caution that you always have to be aware of is that anything that is “cool” is very, very near to being compromised. As soon as everybody likes something, the instinct is to have it increase in popularity and for faithfulness to go by the wayside. That is where I think about the cautions that I have about the future of the biblical counseling movement.

I would put my cautions about biblical counseling in a couple of different categories. First, I think we need to be very, very cautious and even concerned about the confession of various biblical counselors and biblical counseling organizations. What it means to be a part of the biblical counseling movement is to be committed to the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling. That is, the Bible is a book about counseling. The issues that get discussed in counseling are the same issues that God discusses in His Word.

When biblical counselors talk about the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling, they have always argued—from Jay Adams in the first generation, to David Powlison in the second generation, to any faithful person in the third generation—they have always believed that the Bible is a book that is comprehensively sufficient for counseling. That is to say that when you understand what God reveals in His Word about the problems of your counselee, you don’t need anything else to understand them.

The biblical counseling movement has been hit over the head for half a century that, “Oh, that means you don’t think there’s truth in medical science.” Not true. I’ve said it a hundred times. “Oh, that means you reject other forms of science.” That’s not true. I’ve said that a hundred times. What we’re saying is that when you have the Bible, you have the resource that God has intended you to have for thousands of years to care for people who are experiencing the kind of troubles that they go to a counselor for relief.

Biblical counselors have to continue to believe that. Listen to me, there are plenty of people who don’t think you need the Bible to do counseling. There are plenty of people who think you need the Bible plus other resources in order to do biblical counseling. It is biblical counselors who believe that one of the most central expressions of God’s care for us is the instructions that He gave us in the Bible about how to love one another in counseling. We believe that God told us how to care for one another in counseling in the Bible, and He did not give us the Bible and then ask us to wait a couple of thousand years until some really smart people in the Western world came up with some stuff that would really help in the discipline of secular psychology. Biblical counselors believe in the sufficiency of Scripture.

I’m just telling you right now, today, there are people within the biblical counseling movement who are questioning the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling and who even are writing attacks and critiques of the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling. We have to be very careful. By the time we’ve got folks who are calling themselves biblical counselors and who are a part of biblical counseling organizations and are questioning and critiquing the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling, we have a very serious problem that needs to be addressed.

We can’t take for granted that what we have always believed is what we will continue to believe. One of the things that the third generation is going to have to figure out is whether it’s acceptable to have people who call themselves biblical counselors and say they are part of the biblical counseling movement who do not believe the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling. If that persists, we won’t have a biblical counseling movement for very long, so we need to be very diligent here.

Another issue under the category of caution is the issue of counseling practice. Listen, biblical counseling is a practitioner’s discipline. That is, you can’t just talk about it rightly, you have to do it well. It’s very like its sister discipline of preaching. You can understand good preaching and argue for good preaching and recognize good preaching, but if we don’t have good preaching, then before long, all of our arguments for good preaching will wither away if we can’t deliver the goods.

It’s exactly the same in counseling. It’s not enough for people in the biblical counseling movement to understand the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling and to be able to win an argument against it. If we can’t deliver excellent counseling, then pretty soon, we won’t have a biblical counseling movement, because what we try to persuade in terms of our arguments will fall flat in terms of our practice. The biblical counseling movement in this third generation needs to devote itself to having a very clear confession and understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling, and then from that, we need to dive into the Scriptures and understand what God is saying about how to care for people with the kinds of trouble that we deal with in counseling, and then have people that are growing to talk about those realities in a way that is defined by excellence.

One of the things that you will find is that, in order to be faithful, that takes intentional effort. Faithfulness never, in the history of the church, happens on accident. It happens when people wake up every morning and are bound and determined to maintain a faithful confession and maintain a faithful practice. The biblical counseling movement is asking and answering very, very important questions that have to do with our faithfulness as human beings and with our very existence as a movement. If we betray fifty years of confession and fifty years of an effort to improve at counseling practice, then we’re going to wake up in about ten or fifteen years and talk about this thing that used to exist called the biblical counseling movement. It is my desire and my prayer that this won’t happen.

This is why I have loved serving ACBC so much. One of the great joys that I’ve had in my life is to be the Executive Director of ACBC, an organization that is committed very, very clearly in it’s confession to the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling, and an organization with thousands of people all across the world who are growing in their ability to do counseling well. I am convinced that ACBC is going to continue to be a vibrant and important organization as we talk about biblical counseling from a standpoint of confessional fidelity and practical faithfulness.

I want you to know that as this organization continues to grow in strength, the Truth and Love podcast will continue. Next week, we will be right back on Monday morning with a new edition hosted this time by the next Executive Director of ACBC, Dr. Dale Johnson. I’m thrilled for the future of ACBC under his leadership and for the future of this podcast. My prayers go with each and every one of you, with Dr. Johnson, and with ACBC.