By: Scott O'Malley
February 4th, 2022
If we are to provide counsel that is truly Christian and helpful to others we must keep the gospel central. In 1 Corinthians 2:1-2, the Apostle Paul said, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” The center of our counsel is not self, success, or even pain relief. At the very heart of biblical counseling is the cross, which points us to the reality of the Suffering Servant Who lived and died to unite us to Him.
“The words crucial and crux both have their root in the Latin word for "cross," crux, and they have come into the English language with their current meanings because the concept of the cross is at the very center and core of biblical Christianity” (R.C. Sproul, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/what-does-it-mean-christ-and-him-crucified).
Foundation #12 – The gospel must be at the core of our counsel
As counselors, every person we work with should hear the gospel and how it applies to their life and situation. This proclamation of the gospel in counseling is essential first and foremost because not everyone who professes faith in Christ is in fact a Christian (Matthew 7:21-23). Second, the gospel of grace is essential in growing in Christlike character for those of us who are truly Christians (Titus 2:11-12).
I would like to examine three different types of counselees – all professing Christians - and how we can apply the gospel in each situation. Let’s look at counselees who are: 1) stubborn, 2) ensnared, or 3) suffering.
As we begin, I would like to share a conclusion I have come to after 20 plus years of counseling: I do not believe it is my place as a counselor to make a determination as to whether or not the person I am working with is a Christian. The reason I say that is because the Bible warns us that many people will not only profess faith in Christ but act like Christians, while at the same time never be in Christ at all (Judas Iscariot, 1 John 2:19).
I do not believe it is my place as a counselor to make a determination as to whether or not the person I am working with is a Christian.
Therefore, because we cannot know for certain who is in Christ and who is not, I believe we must share the gospel with everyone we counsel. In my early days of counseling I felt like it was my responsibility to determine who was in Christ and who was not. As I reflect on those early counseling situations I have come to believe I judged some genuinely saved people who were struggling. Rather than use the gospel to comfort and encourage, I instead made declarations of a person being lost when only God is fit to make such judgments (James 4:11-12).
Please do not misunderstand me however; there is certainly a place to help someone examine themselves to see if they are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). It is just not our job to make a determination of whether or not a professing Christian is truly in Christ because it is so easy to be wrong. Therefore, everyone should hear the gospel and be challenged to respond to the good news of Jesus Christ. Let’s examine those three different scenarios that are representative of what you will encounter in many counseling situations, and then consider how to apply the gospel in each situation.
It is just not our job to make a determination of whether or not a professing Christian is truly in Christ because it is so easy to be wrong.
The stubborn professing Christian
The first scenario is the stubborn professing Christian. This is someone who can clearly articulate the facts of the gospel but is resistant when confronted with his or her sin. When I refer to the facts of the gospel I am referring to a person who acknowledges he is a sinner (Romans 3:23) and that his sin means he deserves punishment in hell forever (Romans 6:23). He further says he believes God, in His great love sent His Son Jesus Christ to live a perfect life, die on a cross, and rise again conquering sin and death for all who believe in Him (Romans 5:8; 2 Corinthians 5:21, John 3:16-18).
In applying the gospel to the stubborn professing Christian, we are assuming we have first listened well, identified heart issues, and then addressed those heart issues with Scripture. What do you do at this point if the counselee continues to be resistant or stubbornly responds to correction rather than demonstrating fruits of repentance?
The dominant word that comes to mind is warning (Proverbs 12:1). The gospel provides a warning that there are eternal consequences for unrepentant sinners (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Revelation 20:11-15). This stubborn person is in danger and we as counselors must provide a warning that rises to the level of the seriousness of their resistance without judging someone’s soul. Jesus provided us a great question that leads into a powerful warning.
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great” (Luke 6:46-49).
These verses tell us a profession of faith with no interest in obedience or surrender to Jesus Christ as Lord is worthless. It is appropriate to warn and challenge a person in this condition to consider that the Bible describes the genuine Christian as someone who walks in the light and confesses sin (1 John 1:5-9), not someone who conceals his sin (Proverbs 28:13). Jesus provides us another warning in Luke 9:23-25:
"And he [Jesus] said to all, 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?'”
May God help us as counselors to have the courage and the grace to warn those stubborn professing Christians that they are in danger.
The ensnared professing Christian
The second scenario is an ensnared professing Christian. This person is someone who can clearly articulate the facts of the gospel, is very aware of their sin and even heartbroken by it, but there is little change. In my experience, people in this situation need a lot of encouragement. They need encouragement that God has sufficient grace to forgive them and they need encouragement they can change.
Providing encouragement that God has grace for their sin even though it is severe is one of the great joys of my counseling. So many people I counsel have been ensnared in sin for so long that they have lost hope that forgiveness is available for them. They often wonder, “Am I too far gone?” Jesus’ encounter with a “woman of the city” in Luke 7:36-50 provides a wonderful picture of the lavish grace of God. This woman who is known to all because of her sinful lifestyle kissed Jesus’ feet, wet His feet with her tears, and anointed His feet with ointment. Then, in Luke 7:47 Jesus says of her, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven – for she loved much.” Then Jesus said to her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50).
We see the lavishness of God’s grace all over the Scriptures to encourage struggling sinners but Romans 5:20 says it so well, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” The weary sinner needs to be reminded that they cannot out-sin God’s grace. Another example of the mind-blowing grace of God is found in Ephesians 1:7-8 which says:
“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight.”
The weary sinner needs to be reminded that they cannot out-sin God’s grace.
The word lavish means: “abundant; to be in excess, exceed in number or measure . . . to have more than enough, superabundance.” Those of us who have put our faith and trust in the shed blood of Jesus Christ as payment for our sin are lavished with unmerited favor from God. This grace then is intended by God to serve as a powerful motivator to turn from sin and turn to righteousness. Titus 2:11-12 says:
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.”
Unfortunately, many Christians get discouraged in their fight against sin. But we as counselors want to remind strugglers that this war against sin is part of the human experience, this side of heaven. The Apostle Paul described his struggle in Romans 7:22-24:
“For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
“Paul’s humble confession is an honest description of the war that often rages within us between our conversion and our home-going. Notice that he uses war language to characterize the struggle between delighting in God’s law and the evil that lies close at hand” (Paul Tripp, Do You Believe? Pg. 297).
As we engage with someone ensnared in sin we need to continue to point them to our victorious Savior. “Whether it is the war within or the war raging around you, you can be thankful that your Savior King is up to the battle, and he will win. Until then, we put on gospel armor, we pray for guardian grace, and we celebrate the presence, power, and promises of Jesus” (Paul Tripp, Do You Believe? Pg. 299-300).
The suffering professing Christian
The third scenario is the suffering professing Christian. This is someone who can clearly articulate the facts of the gospel, knows he or she is a sinner and consistently confesses sin, but is deeply discouraged by the circumstances of their suffering or some mistreatment. People in this situation don’t need us as counselors to go on a sin hunt but rather would benefit greatly from the comfort of the gospel – that Jesus Christ understands our suffering. Hebrews 4:14-16 says,
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Not only did Jesus die on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, He sympathizes with our suffering in such a way that He identifies with us. He then invites us to draw near to Him so we may receive grace and mercy to help in time of need. Helping people who are suffering be reminded that God invites them to draw near can be of great comfort. Another helpful passage to explore is Isaiah 43:1-3 which says:
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
Emphasizing the nearness of God in the midst of suffering is vital to offering biblical counsel (Psalm 23:4; Deuteronomy 31:8; Isaiah 41:10). Another aspect of gospel hope for the sufferer is that suffering in this life is temporary in light of eternity. The Apostle Paul said it this way:
“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
Emphasizing the nearness of God in the midst of suffering is vital to offering biblical counsel.
As we journey with those who are suffering, may we not be like Job’s friends who added significantly to the burden he was facing because of false accusations of sin causing the suffering. May we instead remind sufferers of the nearness of God while representing Him by staying near ourselves.
Regardless of the situations we encounter in counseling, the gospel message must be at the core of everything we do as counselors. Some need the warning of the gospel; some need encouragement from the gospel; and others need comfort from the gospel. May God help us faithfully and wisely apply the gospel to everyone we counsel. As a fitting conclusion, my prayer for all of us is that we can join Paul when he said:
“But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
Questions for Reflection
How are you doing at allowing the gospel to provide warning, encouragement, and comfort in your own life?
In the counsel you give to others, how prevalent is the gospel in those conversations? Consider ways of bringing the gospel into conversations more consistently.