What is the fundamental key to the process of biblical counseling?
Here is the answer of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC): “Biblical counselors must be committed to the truth that the fundamental key to the process of biblical counseling is the person and work of Jesus Christ.”¹ The person and work of Jesus Christ is, to put it simply, the gospel. So the fundamental key to biblical counseling is not heart idolatry, not the principles of put off/put on, not the 4 G’s of reconciliation, not the 4 promises of forgiveness, nor anything other than the gospel (though those other biblical truths are helpful and even necessary to the process of biblical counseling).
Again, ACBC asserts, “Jesus Christ serves as the personal solution to all of our counseling difficulties.” That is a massive claim that – if true – should massively shape our biblical counseling ministries.
First of all, this truth means “the primary goal of every counselor should be to introduce counselees to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.” I think that “primary goal” is likely the main way that most biblical counselors relate the gospel to their counseling ministries. But this cannot be the only way that the gospel meaningfully relates to our biblical counseling ministries, if the gospel is the fundamental key to the process of biblical counseling. Surely, this means more than just explaining the gospel in sessions 1 or 2, and simply trying to make sure counselees understand it before “moving on” to other biblical truths to help them grow and change in “practical” ways.
ACBC further states, “Biblical counselors must also point their counselees to the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ unto sanctification. Faith in Jesus Christ is essential, not only to enter the Christian life, but also to grow in holiness throughout life. Biblical counselors point their believing counselees to the person and work of Christ as that which makes it possible for them to live the life of faith.”
To restate this concept, the person and work of Jesus Christ (the gospel) is essential, not only to the beginning of the biblical counseling process, but also to the growth and change we hope to achieve throughout biblical counseling. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should make the gospel the only truth we use in biblical counseling. Not so! It does mean, however, that we need to teach people how the gospel relates to growing and changing.
Here’s an important question that all biblical counselors should ask themselves: Can I explain how the gospel actually has anything to do with the very specific ways in which my counselee needs to change? For example, if you’re counseling a Christian man with marriage problems, can you show him how the good news about Jesus is connected to the biblical command “Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them” (Col. 3:19)?
I want to share a simple tool I use to help explain connections like these. I call it the “Gospel Box,” and it’s meant to visually demonstrate for people some of the ways in which the gospel relates to growth (and, therefore, the biblical counseling process). You could share this with your counselee directly. Or perhaps you could just keep this simple chart in your mind to help you remember some of the ways you can continue pointing your counselees to the person and work of Jesus as they pursue change.
Here’s the filled in diagram, using as an example a man who needs to stop being unkind to his wife:
You could put any Scriptural command in the center of the box. All of the arrows around the box represent ways in which the gospel relates to the specific counseling issue. I will explain in brief:
The first and most obvious way the work of Christ relates to this command is that our counselee can be forgiven by God for failing to treat his wife like he should (Rom. 4:7-8). Hallelujah! Our friend does not have to go to hell forever for the ways he has been harsh to his bride (Jn. 3:16). He can know and have fellowship with God instead of being estranged and at enmity with God on account of his mistreatment of his wife. Similarly, the good news about Jesus means that our counselee can be justified, or declared righteous, by God (Rom. 4:3-5). More than just having the record of his sin removed (Col. 2:13-14), our friend can have the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ credited to him (2 Cor. 5:21). United to Christ by faith, our counselee can have a sure hope that God counts him as if he has been perfectly righteous in the ways he has interacted with his wife (Phil. 3:9).
In addition to having a record of perfected righteousness credited to his account, the work of Christ means that our counselee can have access to divine empowerment to pursue change and obedience. He actually can start to love his wife in reality more and more, and be harsh with her less and less, because of what Jesus did! Christ’s work frees his people from sin’s penalty and power. If our counselee is a Christian, God commands him to walk in faith, believing that he really is dead to the sin of being harsh to his wife (Rom. 6:11). He is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), truly able to say “no” to that ungodliness (Titus 2:11-12) as he abides in Jesus (Jn. 15:4-5).
Our counselee has power in Christ to obey this command, but he still may not pursue obedience in reality. For that, he needs to be made not only able, but also willing. Happily, the same gospel that gives empowerment to obey also provides motivation to obey. As we consider and learn more about all that Jesus’s work means for us (and learn to make that the ongoing trust of our hearts), then we will be motivated to live for him, serve him, love him, and obey him (1 Jn. 4:17-19, John 14:15, Lk. 7:41-49, 2 Cor. 5:14-15).
Importantly, the gospel cultivates the correct motivations for obedience in our counselees. We could incentivize a kind of external obedience to the command “stop being harsh” in all kinds of ways, but it will not be a good work in God’s eyes if the effort to not be harsh doesn’t come from faith (Rom. 14:23, Heb. 11:6) and isn’t aimed at proper ends (explained below). God judges the hearts of men. We do not just want our counselee to stop being harsh to his wife for any reason that might “work.” We want him to stop being harsh to his wife for the purpose of pleasing (2 Cor. 5:21), glorifying (1 Cor. 10:31), and loving (Mt. 22:37-38) God. The gospel message is one of the main biblical truths (though, admittedly, not the only one) that promotes godly motivations for obedience to God’s commands.
Of course, our counselee will never perfectly measure up to this command on this side of heaven. Even when he does love his wife and forsake harshness, he will never do so in this life from a heart perfectly moved by the godly motivations explained above. But God promises to graciously accept and reward the sincere, though imperfect, works of believers, because we offer them to God in and through Christ (1 Pt. 2:5). The good news of God’s grace in Christ is so stupendously good, that “the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.”²
Lastly, the work of Christ also provides believers with an example to follow. The Bible makes this explicit: when Christ suffered for us, he left us an example, that we might follow in in his steps (1 Pt. 2:21). We are to love (Jn. 13:34), forgive (Eph. 4:23), serve (Mark 10:42-45), endure suffering in righteousness (1 Peter 2:19-24, 3:17-18, 4:12-19), humbly consider others’ interests and obey God (Phil. 2:4-11), and please others for their good (Rom. 15:2-3), all after the pattern of Christ’s gospel work. We should point to the gospel, point out the character and glory of God on display there, and then urge our counselees: be imitators of God. Live like Christ (Eph. 5:1-2).
Hopefully this “Gospel Box” will help you, and your counselees, see how the work of Christ relates to the specific ways in which we need to change and grow. In summary, when we think of any particular command of Scripture, because of the work of Jesus Christ, we can be forgiven by God completely for not doing it, counted righteous by God as if we had always done it perfectly, empowered by God to actually be able to do it, motivated by God to actually want to do it, given an example by God to follow in doing it, and accepted and graciously rewarded by God for sincerely, though imperfectly, trying to do it. Hallelujah, what a Savior!
I’ll end this article by lining up beside ACBC: the fundamental key to the process of biblical counseling is the person and work of Christ.
- ACBC’s Standards of Conduct, found on their website at https://biblicalcounseling.com/certification/standards-of-conduct/. on June 20, 2019. The quotations from the next few paragraphs come from the same source.
- Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 16, article 6. The rest of of chapter 16 in the Westminster Confession of Faith is helpful along these lines, as is Q&A numbers 62, 63, and 91 in the Heidelberg Catechism.