Solid theological foundations of biblical counseling are clearly presented in contrast to humanistic and secular theories of psychological counseling. A practical, proactive, and relevant book for students, church leaders, and lay people. This collection of writers represents some of America's leading biblical teachers and counselors.
Other contributors include: Ken L. Sarles, David Powlison, Douglas Bookman, David B. Maddox, Robert Smith, William W. Goode, and Dennis M. Swanson.
About the Author
John MacArthur has served as pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, since 1969. His ministry of expository preaching is unparalleled in its breadth and influence. In more than five decades of ministry from the same pulpit, he has preached verse by verse through the entire New Testament and several key sections of the Old Testament. He is president of the Master’s University and the Master’s Seminary and can be heard daily on the Grace to You radio broadcast (carried on hundreds of radio stations worldwide). He has authored numerous bestselling books, including Twelve Ordinary Men and One Perfect Life.
For more details about John MacArthur and his Bible-teaching resources, contact Grace to You at 800-55-GRACE or gty.org.
Read an Excerpt
How to Counsel Biblically
By John MacArthur
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2005 John MacArthur
All rights reserved.
Rediscovering Biblical Counseling
Ever since apostolic times, counseling has occurred in the church as a natural function of corporate spiritual life. After all, the New Testament itself commands believers to "admonish one another" (Rom. 15:14); "encourage one another" (Heb. 3:13, KJV); "comfort one another with these words" (1 Thess. 4:18); "encourage one another, and build up one another" (1 Thess. 5:11); "confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed" (James 5:16).
The apostle Paul wrote, "We who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves" (Rom. 15:1). And, "Even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:1–2).
All those instructions apply to rank-and-file church members, not only to some priestly caste of experts. Counseling, particularly counseling that skillfully employs and applies God's Word, is a necessary duty of Christian life and fellowship. It is also the expected result of true spiritual maturity: "Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God" (Col. 3:16).
In recent years, however, there has been a strong and very influential movement within the church attempting to replace biblical counseling in the church body with "Christian psychology" — techniques and wisdom gleaned from secular therapies and dispensed primarily by paid professionals. Those who have championed this movement often sound vaguely biblical. That is, they quote Scripture and often blend theological ideas with the teachings of Freud, Rogers, Jung, or whatever school of secular psychology they follow. But the movement itself is certainly not taking the church in a biblical direction. It has conditioned Christians to think of counseling as something best left to trained experts. It has opened the door to a whole range of extrabiblical theories and therapies. Indeed, it has left many with the feeling that God's Word is incomplete, insufficient, unsophisticated, and unable to offer help for people's deepest emotional and spiritual problems. It has directed millions of Christians seeking spiritual help away from their pastors and fellow believers and into psychological clinics. It has given many the impression that adapting secular methods such as twelve-step recovery plans can be more helpful than spiritual means in weaning people from their sins. In short, it has diminished the church's confidence in Scripture, prayer, fellowship, and preaching as means through which the Spirit of God works to change lives.
If the presuppositions behind this movement were sound, we might expect that Christians today would be the most well-adjusted and mentally healthy generation who ever lived. After all, they have the benefit of several generations of psychological expertise, applied by men and women who claim to be able to synthesize such knowledge with Scripture and make it "Christian."
But, clearly, that is not the case. Record numbers of people are seeking psychological treatment. More Christians than ever before are lining up at the doors of clinics and professional counselors. Christian psychologists offering live counsel are now heard daily on thousands of Christian radio stations around the country. In the past decade and a half, Christian psychology has become a billion-dollar industry. Millions of evangelical Christians, it seems, are addicted to therapy.
In contrast to those trends, however, another movement has been gaining strength among evangelicals. Clear voices are beginning to call the church back to the Scriptures as a sufficient help for people's spiritual problems. A groundswell of support has been building for a return to biblical counseling in the church. Every week I hear from pastors and church leaders who are rediscovering the importance of biblical counseling. They are realizing what they have actually always believed: that Scripture is superior to human wisdom (1 Cor. 3:19); that the Word of God is a more effective discerner of the human heart than any earthly means (Heb. 4:12); that the Spirit of God is the only effective agent of recovery and regeneration (Eph. 5:18-19); and that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in Christ Himself (Col. 2:3).
Those truths are so basic to Christian belief that it is astonishing to think they would ever come under fire from within the church itself. But of course that is precisely what has happened over and over in church history. And it is happening even now as psychology is being peddled in the church as a necessary, and even superior, solution to spiritual problems.
I was first thrust into the forefront of the battle between psychology and biblical counseling in 1980, when our church was hit with the first ever "clergy malpractice" lawsuit. The suit charged that the pastors on our staff were negligent because we tried to help a suicidal young member of our church by giving him biblical truth. It was the first such case ever heard in the American court system. The secular media had a field day as the case dragged on for years. Some national news sources even alleged that our church had encouraged the young man to kill himself, teaching him that suicide was a sure way to heaven. Of course, that was not true. We showed him from Scripture that suicide is wrong. We urged him to let the Word of God lead him to intimate knowledge and appropriation of the resources available in the One who wanted to heal his troubled mind. Tragically, he refused our counsel and took his own life.
The case raised the question of whether churches should have the legal right to counsel troubled people using only the Bible. The plaintiffs argued that giving a depressed or suicidal person advice from Scripture is a simplistic and irresponsible approach to counseling. They brought forward several "experts" who testified that spiritual counsel is not appropriate for people who have real problems. Victims of chronic depression, suicidal tendencies, and similar emotional and mental problems should be referred to a psychological expert, they claimed. Pastors and church counselors should be required to refer such people to mental-health professionals, the lawsuit contended. Their basic charge was that attempting to counsel troubled people from the Bible amounts to recklessness and negligence for which church counselors must be held morally and legally culpable. Had they won the case, any church that practiced biblical counseling would be taking a huge liability risk.
The facts of the case that came out in court received little or no coverage on the network news. Testimony showed that this young man was under the care of professional psychiatrists. In addition to the biblical direction he received from our pastoral staff, he had sought psychiatric treatment. Moreover, our staff had seen to it that he was examined by several medical doctors, to rule out organic or chemical causes for his depression. He was receiving every kind of therapy available, but he chose to end his life anyway. We did all we could to help him; he rejected our counsel and turned his back on his spiritual sufficiency in Christ.
Three different courts actually heard evidence in the case, and all three ruled in favor of the church. Twice those rulings were overturned on appeal because of technicalities, but every court that actually tried the case agreed in the verdict absolving the church from any blame. Eventually, the case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The High Court refused to hear the case, thereby letting stand the California State Supreme Court's ruling that finally vindicated the church.
All three times the case was heard and a ruling was given, the judges also expressed the opinion that the church had not failed in its responsibility to give proper care. Their judgment was that our staff had more than fulfilled their legal and moral obligations in how we had attempted to help this young man who had sought our counsel. But even more important, the courts affirmed every church's constitutional right to counsel from the Bible. The case established a legal precedent upholding an important first-amendment right of freedom of religion. The court's ruling means that secular courts have no right to encroach on the area of counseling in the church.
Psychologizing the Church
That clergy malpractice trial thrust me into the midst of the debate about psychology and biblical counseling. Before that, I had noticed that Christian psychologists, once unheard of, were becoming more and more common, more and more outspoken. Unfortunately, I had paid little attention to the trend and was not listening closely to how they were marketing psychology in the church.
But during the trial itself, a surprising number of the "experts" who were called to argue against biblical counseling were professional Christian counselors. I was startled and dismayed during the trial to hear men who identified themselves as evangelicals testifying that the Bible alone does not contain sufficient help to meet people's deepest personal and emotional needs. These people were actually arguing before a secular court that God's Word is not an adequate resource for dealing with people's spiritual problems! What is truly appalling is the number of evangelicals who are willing to accept the word of such professionals.
There is no denying that psychology has made incredible inroads into evangelical culture over the past twenty-five years. The influence of psychology is reflected in the kind of sermons that are preached from evangelical pulpits, in the kind of counseling that is being offered over the radio airwaves, in the proliferation of psychologists who cater primarily to evangelical Christians, and in the books that are being offered by many evangelical publishers.
Over the past decades a host of evangelical psychological clinics have sprung up. Though almost all of them claim to offer biblical counsel, most merely dispense secular psychology disguised in spiritual terminology. This can be seen clearly in the literature spawned by the movement. As Jay Adams observed, "Nearly all recent counseling books for ministers, even conservative ones, are written from the Freudian perspective in the sense that they rest largely upon the presuppositions of the Freudian ethic of non-responsibility."
The rise of counseling clinics poses another problem for the church: the trend has removed the counseling ministry from its proper arena in the church body and conditioned most Christians to think of themselves as incompetent to counsel. Many pastors, feeling inadequate and perhaps afraid of possible malpractice litigation, are perfectly willing to let "professionals" take over what used to be seen as a vital pastoral responsibility. Too many have bought the lie that a crucial realm of spiritual wisdom exists outside Scripture, and that some idea or technique from that extrabiblical realm holds the real key to helping people with their deep problems.
What Is Wrong with Psychology?
The word psychology literally means "the study of the soul." True soul-study cannot be done by unbelievers. After all, only Christians have the resources for comprehending the nature of the human soul and understanding how it can be transformed. The secular discipline of psychology is based on godless assumptions and evolutionary foundations and is capable of dealing with people only superficially and only on the temporal level. Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, was an unbelieving humanist who devised psychology as a substitute for religion.
Before Freud, the study of the soul was thought of as a spiritual discipline. In other words, it was inherently associated with religion. Freud's chief contribution was to define the human soul and the study of human behavior in wholly secular terms. He utterly divorced anthropology (the study of human beings) from the spiritual realm and thus made way for atheistic, humanistic, and rationalistic theories about human behavior.
Those fundamentally antibiblical theories became the basis of all modern psychology. Of course, today's psychologists use hundreds of counseling models and techniques based on a myriad of conflicting theories, so it is impossible to speak of psychotherapy as if it were a unified and consistent science. But the basis of modern psychology can be summarized in several commonly held ideas that have their roots in early Freudian humanism. These are the very same ideas many Christians are zealously attempting to synthesize with biblical truth:
Human nature is basically good.
People have the answers to their problems inside them.
The key to understanding and correcting a person's attitudes and actions lies somewhere in that person's past.
Individuals' problems are the result of what someone else has done to them.
Human problems can be purely psychological in nature, unrelated to any spiritual or physical condition.
Deep-seated problems can be solved only by professional counselors using therapy.
Scripture, prayer, and the Holy Spirit are inadequate and simplistic resources for solving certain types of problems.
Those and other similar godless theories have filtered down into the church from the assorted stuff in the psychological tank and are having a profound and disturbing effect on its approach to helping people. Many sincere Christians are seriously off track in their understanding of what counseling is and what it is supposed to accomplish.
Some basic reminders might be helpful. For example, Scripture is the only reliable manual for true soul-study. It is so comprehensive in the diagnosis and treatment of every spiritual matter that, energized by the Holy Spirit in the believer, it leads to making one like Jesus Christ. This is the process of biblical sanctification. It is the goal of biblical counseling.
The Puritans, by the way, referred to the counseling ministry as "soul work." They spoke of the minister's responsibility as "the cure of souls." They understood that the only reliable help for the human soul is the infallible truth of Scripture applied by the Spirit of God. They knew that the only genuine, effective, or permanent cure for the soul's maladies is the transformation wrought by God's grace in the heart of a believer.
Are Psychological Techniques Ever Advisable?
Does that mean the modern behavioral sciences offer nothing of value in treating emotional or behavioral problems? Do not medication, shock therapy, group therapy, and other techniques help in some cases? Are not some soul-sicknesses actually medical problems that should be treated by skilled psychiatrists?
Certainly, it is reasonable for people to seek medical help for medical problems. We would send someone to the doctor for a broken leg, dysfunctional kidney, tooth cavity, or other physical malady. And it is true that certain kinds of depression actually have physical causes requiring medical treatment. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, best known for his powerful expository preaching ministry, was actually trained as a physician. He pointed out that depression and certain mental illnesses often have causes that are physical rather than spiritual. Pernicious anemia, arteriosclerosis, porphyria, and even gout are all examples Lloyd-Jones suggested of physical diseases that can cause dementia or produce depression. It is entirely appropriate, even advisable, for the counselor to advise the counselee suffering from such symptoms to seek medical advice or get a thorough physical examination to rule out such causes.
It is also sensible for someone who is alcoholic, drug addicted, learning disabled, traumatized by rape, incest, or severe battering, to seek help in trying to cope with their trauma. Some kinds of therapy or medical treatment can serve to lessen trauma or dependency. In extreme situations medication might be needed to stabilize an otherwise dangerous person.
It must be noted that these are relatively rare problems, however, and should not be used as examples to justify the indiscriminate use of secular psychological techniques for essentially spiritual problems. Dealing with the psychological and emotional issues of life in such ways is not sanctification. That is why such techniques are equally effective in modifying behavior in both Christians and non-Christians.
Excerpted from Counseling by John MacArthur. Copyright © 2005 John MacArthur. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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Table of Contents
Part I. The Historical Background of Biblical Counseling,
1. Rediscovering Biblical Counseling John MacArthur, 3,
2. Biblical Counseling in Recent Times David Powlison, 18,
3. Why Biblical Counseling and Not Psychology? John Street, 31,
Part II. The Theological Foundations of Biblical Counseling,
4. The Godward Focus of Biblical Counseling Douglas Bookman, 51,
5. Counseling and the Sinfulness of Humanity John MacArthur, 64,
6. The Work of the Spirit and Biblical Counseling John MacArthur, 79,
7. Spiritual Discipline and the Biblical Counselor Robert Smith, 88,
Part III. The Practice of Biblical Counseling,
8. Developing a Helping Relationship with Counselees Wayne A. Mack, 101,
9. Instilling Hope in the Counselee Wayne A. Mack, 114,
10. Taking Counselee Inventory: Collecting Data Wayne A. Mack, 131,
11. Interpreting Counselee Data Wayne A. Mack, 147,
12. Providing Instruction through Biblical Counseling Wayne A. Mack, 162,
13. Biblical Counseling and Inducement Wayne A. Mack, 176,
14. Implementing Biblical Instruction Wayne A. Mack, 190,
Part IV. The Ministry of Biblical Counseling,
15. Preaching and Biblical Counseling John MacArthur, 203,
16. Spirit-Giftedness and Biblical Counseling John MacArthur, 212,
17. Biblical Counseling and the Local Church William W. Goode, 222,
18. Resources for Biblical Counseling Dennis M. Swanson and Wayne A. Mack, 231,
19. Frequently Asked Questions about Biblical Counseling John MacArthur and Wayne A. Mack, eds., 244,
Appendix: Personal Data Inventory Form, 265,