Dale Johnson: Today, I’m so excited to have with us one of my most favorite folks in our organization, Dr. George Scipione. He’s teaching as a professor of biblical counseling at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has taught in numerous places, not just in the US, but all over the world. He was a Fellow even from the beginning of the biblical counseling movement in 1976. I love to be in a room with him, talk about the history of our movement, and what he saw unfold and his experiences. Today, he’s going to help us walk through some of the ideas that I think are quite critical and pertinent relative to our cultural standing even now. Dr. Scipione, it seems that in our culture we’ve lost the fear of God and, maybe what is more concerning, it’s not just in the culture at large, but it seems that we’ve lost some of these ideas even in the church.
George Scipione: I think you’re absolutely right. People are asking questions today like, “Is the Pope really Catholic when he doesn’t act like a Catholic pope? Are Evangelical Christians really evangelical?” Many have written dozens of books on this, but the reality is that people have a designer view of God, they call it the “Mr. Potato Head” view. We take the attributes we like, pop it into our view of God, and voila, we think that’s God. In actuality, that view is more like Psalm 115, “They that make them become like them.” It’s the living God that we have to reflect, or we’re going to be reflecting the culture.
Dale Johnson: That’s right. When we think about the doctrine of God, it seems that where we lose the fear of God is when we begin to separate our doctrine, our beliefs of who is God, from the application of playing out those beliefs in our daily lives. It can often become like an intellectual pursuit, something that we know in our minds, but we lose sight of how that knowledge is supposed to affect our daily living. Talk about how necessary it is for those two things to be wed together in our culture.
George Scipione: Well, it won’t be in the culture if it isn’t in the church. We’re the ones that are supposed to have the new creation of our hearts through the Holy Spirit. As I point out to people, most of the people in the Bible that meet God face to face think they’re going to die. They’re not high fiving Him, they’re not putting on the sneakers in the gym with Him, no “Jesus and me, we’re buds.” There’s none of that in the Bible. You can go through that in Manoah, Gideon, Isaiah, Moses at the bush, they all think, “Man, I’m undone. I’m going to fall apart,” because they’ve seen the glory of the Lord. And that’s exactly what John picks up. Isaiah saw this, he saw His glory, the glory of Jesus Christ way back in his day, that is, who Jesus is, the glory of God.
People mistake the fear of God for an abject fear that Satan and the demons have. They’re orthodox in their theology, but they aren’t going to repent. James argues, “You believe in God? The real God? Good, the devils do too, but they tremble.” That’s what’s been missing, that God is only an intellectual idea, or I grew up with this, “Oh, you need to accept Him as your personal Lord and Savior.” Well, what does that mean? For most people, Jesus is there to save me because I’m the center of the universe, and to be honest, we know that the prosperity doctrine is a false doctrine, but most people have that buried in their hearts. “Hey, as long as God’s blessing, I’m on board. As soon as God makes something hard happen to me, I’m looking for the exit.”
Dale Johnson: That reminds me of the parable of the seed and the sower. It’s where we hear the Word of God and we experience those things that are difficult, or we have love and care and concern for the things of the world, and we don’t persevere. When we think about this idea of the doctrine of God and who God is, we as human beings are dependent beings upon God, who is an independent being. It’s necessary that if we don’t understand him, we cannot understand us. Talk us through a little bit about the important aspects of how we in the church return to teaching properly a doctrine of God that is actually living, that’s true to the Scriptures, where the Spirit of God can guide us into teaching and empower us to obey?
George Scipione: That’s a good question. It goes back to the Old Testament which is picked up by Jesus and the apostles. Deuteronomy hammers with, “Don’t add or subtract from the Word,” and then, “Don’t deviate to the left to the right.” Since we all have things that we find hard in Scripture, or things that we don’t feel comfortable with, we tend to shave those off or not emphasize it. I think that, without going on a long excursus, preaching and counseling has to be balanced. We have to preach the whole counsel of God and the whole of the books of the Bible and present the individual passages there. I’m afraid what’s happened somewhat in the biblical counseling movement, because we always get pushback from secularists and Christian counselors, is we become problem-oriented instead of God-oriented.
So again, functionally, we don’t mean to, but God is there to take care of my problem and fix me or fix my marriage, and it just boils down to the first four commandments, that’s the greatest commandment, and then the other 6. If you put the other six before the first four, you’ve kind of reversed God’s order. The danger is, we counsel and we preach for our own joy and the help of the people we’re helping, which is okay, but if it isn’t for the honor of God, it’s not going to work.
Dale Johnson: That’s right. When you think about the implications of all that you’re describing for counseling, when we’re in the counseling room, we’re dealing with some of the residual effects of us not thinking about God properly, us not living according to His Word daily. Describe for us just a little bit about the implications and what they look like in the counseling room.
George Scipione: You know, that’s multifaceted depending on the person in the situation. For example, if a person is living in sin, they’re a professing believer, they know it’s wrong, they’re not stopping. Well, the emphasis must be on repentance. It has to be on, “God is not mocked.” Whatever man sows, that he will reap even if you are a Christian. As 1 Corinthians 11 says, “Some of you are weak, sick, and some of you are asleep,” not because the pastor has boring sermons, but because they are dead, and he says, “God judges you so he won’t have to condemn you along with the world.”
That’s another thing we’ve heard, “God doesn’t judge the church.” You look at the Old Testament people of God, and he judges them all the time. What’s that quote from Fiddler on the Roof? “Well, if that’s what it means to be God’s people, let him choose someone else for a while.” The bottom line is, God does discipline His people and we think, “Okay, I’m getting out of hell, everything’s fine.” No, you’ll read those seven churches in Revelation, “Hey, I’ll praise you for this, but I’m going to ding you for this.” That’s what must happen in the counseling room where someone is living in sin.
I had a pastor once when he said, “I know I’m sinning, but I’m going to divorce my wife and marry this other woman, and God is going to forgive me.” I just said, “Really?” I then read Deuteronomy to him and Hebrews and said, “Look, give me a 20-minute head start, because when this is going to be the epicenter of God’s wrath, there could be collateral damage.” That man had to be confronted with the truth that you can’t mock God.
Someone has been molested who thinks it’s all their fault or whatever, they don’t believe that God can be merciful to the downtrodden. No, no, God cares for the downtrodden. So, it always becomes an individualized, “What are the passages and concepts of Scripture and aspects of God’s whole character that need to be applied to this person at this conjunction in this time.” That’s why I think counseling is more difficult than preaching. I tell the guys all the time at seminary, “You pick one passage you try to apply to everybody. This person comes in, you’ve got to apply the whole Bible to this whole person in this context, and you’re scrambling all over the place.” It’s just not a simple one passage kind of deal.
Dale Johnson: Well, I appreciate the multi-faceted way that you described that, because sometimes the way we’re criticized is that we have one basic vein in which we think of and it’s always to confront these people in this particular sin. But we see the Bible is certainly primarily against sin and these issues, and this is what the doctrine of God is about. But we also know that the truths about God are comforting to the broken hearted, and so it’s critical that we are wise in our discerning and we see the need of the moment and we’re appropriately applying the truth of who God is effectively for this particular person in this particular need. So, I appreciate you nuancing some of that.
Now, it’s important in the counseling room also that we learn the process of discipling this person, teaching this person. How do we take these very important concepts of God and who He is, that guide who we are, that dictate and describe the beings that we should be and how we live life, how do we teach this to others?
George Scipione: Well, that’s a good question, Dale. First of all, we have to model it in the counseling room, but to beat another drum, this is why it has to be in the local church. This person must see me in the pulpit, out of the pulpit, in the Sunday school room, at the ballgame, wherever in the whole context of life, because that’s where they live; it’s not just in that counseling room. Really, it is almost impossible to disciple people in the biblical sense without the local church. It just cannot be done in the fullest sense. It’s that, and it’s putting them into the context of pastoral care from the elders or others, discipleship relationships, getting them plugged into service and ministry so they’re not just sponging it in, they’re squeezing it out and serving other people.
Again, we need the full orbed ministry of a local church for people to figure out who they are in Christ and then figure out how to serve other people, and you do that by observing. They’ve got to be in people’s homes, they’ve got to be in places where they can observe the things that they’re supposed to be doing, as well as getting this kind of “cognitive impute” and little bursts of love and truth there in the counseling room. I tell people, “You need to be in the local church,” and then the local church must really think in terms of discipleship. It’s more than to just say, “Hey, go read your Bible, pray, and come to church.” I’ve got to teach them how to apply, “All that I’ve taught you,” as Jesus says in the Great Commission.
Dale Johnson: The truth of the matter is, you and I could sit here and talk about this particular issue all day long. As we dive into the Scripture and the abundance of knowing our immeasurable God, and then how that plays out in daily living for us personally and for the folks that we counsel and attend church with, what are some other resources that we could go to that would help our thinking in this direction? Where can we learn more about God and who He is on a personal level and applying these things to daily life?
George Scipione: The first thing that comes to mind are books like A.W. Pink’s Attributes of God and Knowing God by J.I. Packer, in terms of general things like who God is and studying those. Even systematic theologies, which are not exactly scintillating reading, but to read the attributes of God and see and study the passages of Scripture. Those are two books that I think that would help. There’s one called, The Fear of God: A Forgotten Doctrine, second edition by Frank Arnold. It’s his project on the fear of God for preaching. A second one by Al Martin, a well-known Baptist preacher, The Forgotten Fear: Where Have All the God-Fearers Gone? That’s a Grand Rapids Christian Heritage book, 2015.
Then some other things would be the workshop, “The Fear of the Lord: The Beginning of Counseling” where there’s a fuller version of this. I have two talks on the IBCD website at their conferences. One is called “The Attributes of a Christ-like Counselor,” in terms of taking Isaiah 11 where it says the root of Jesse, a stump will be cut off, a root will come up the branch, and he’ll have these attributes, the counsel, the wisdom, and strength. It’s a description of the Messiah, the six-fold ability of the Wonderful Counselor, which I tried to argue in a long ago forgotten article, “The Wonderful Counselor: The Other Counselor In You,” and Westminster theological journal in terms of saying Christ is the arch-counselor. Then there was also, “A God-Centered Counseling,” given at the IBCD conference. Then there’s some stuff in my intro course on fear and how you deal with people that fear. It distinguishes godly fear from craven fear that really binds people.
But back to the other thing, again, I think studying those key passages, Adam in the garden and then when God gives them the clothing and says, “We’re going to send the seed of the woman.” Noah, Abraham, and all their lives when they come face-to-face with God; you see what He does to people, Moses at the bush, David, Isaiah, all those key passages were people see Him face-to-face and then all of a sudden, you’re going to go, “Hmm, this kind of high-fiving, good-old-boy Jesus is just not the God of the Bible.” I think those are some of the things that people could do that would really round out their view of God.