Past Tense Living

When do Nouthetic Counselors deal with the past—or do they?

They do not deal with the past even though at times it may appear that they do. How is that? Compare what they do with Freudian archaeological expeditions into a person’s past. Freud was concerned with digging up the past to discover what had led to his patient’s present problems. NCs do not believe that this is biblical—or even possible. To try to upturn every flat stone in one’s past to discover what vermin lives there is not only an impossible task; it is unnecessary, unproductive, and harmful.

NC deal with the past only when it is actually present.

What does that mean?

Simply this: if, for instance, a person must still repent for something done in the past, the matter has never been settled to God’s satisfaction, and is, therefore, not a past issue. It is actually a present reality. He has unfinished business to attend to. The object in such cases is to deal with the issue in such a manner that it may truly become a past issue.

Similarly, when one has had an occurrence in the past that he brings unnecessarily into the present and makes it a present reality, the object will be to help him to put it where it belongs—in the past. If, for instance, someone has been abused, and allows that tragic event to govern his present life, he has brought the past into the present. If he fails to deal with it as a believer should he may carry anger and hurt with him throughout the rest of his life. As it continues to dog his steps it will cause him to live an unhappy and unfruitful life. A Christian is able, by God’s grace, to resolve issues of this sort, so that he no longer needs to go about thinking (and speaking) of himself as “an abused person,” the way many others do. It is wrong to build one’s future life around some such event in the past.

Nouthetic Counselors help people to live in the present with an eye fixed on the future. They encourage counselees to look to the past only to remember God’s goodness to them in past times. Otherwise, it is likely that they will be of little use in the kingdom in days to come, and they will chalk out a course for themselves in which past tragedy guides them into an uncertain, but almost certainly miserable future.

Extraordinary Gifts Have Ceased

I don’t intend to debate the entire issue; I have done so in my book, Signs and Wonders in the Last Days. Rather, I’d like to mention one or two facts to add to the debate.

First, we are often told that the Scriptures have no record of gifts that have ceased. I should like to say that such an assertion is contrary to fact.

Listen to this,

Having ascended to the heights, He . . . gave gifts to the people (Ephesians 4:8) . . . He gave some as apostles, some as prophets . . . (Ephesians 4:11).

Now, I’m writing to those who agree that there are today no apostles or prophets. On that assumption, connect the verses above and notice that these two “gifts” have ceased.

Next, let me indicate why they have.

In Ephesians 2:20, Paul speaks of the church as having been built “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” When you build, you first lay the foundation. When that’s completed, you build upon it. But you don’t continue to do foundational work up the walls and on to the roof! Foundational work goes on at the outset, and comes to a completion when a foundation is laid. Since their task was foundational, it ceased when completed. And, since they are long gone, the work has been completed.

One more note—The foundational work that they did was revelational, as Ephesians 3: 5 makes explicit when it speaks of data that were “revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” Since we have no prophets and apostles, there is no more revelation to be had—revelation was foundational work. And since we need no more revelation (having received all we need in the Scriptures written by the apostles and prophets), we need these offices no longer.

And, finally, in that regard, remember that revelation is complete since “all truth” was given to the apostles by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). He enabled them to remember (inerrantly) all that Jesus spoke, so that they could write the Gospels with complete accuracy (John 14:26).

Counseling and the Sovereignty of God

Today we post an important article Dr. Adams presented as an oral address to the students and faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary forty years ago this month. It is longer that our usual posts but you will be rewarded if you devote the time to reading it carefully.

A fourteen-year-old girl is abducted by a married man, the father of three children, who carries her off to an unknown destination. During the horror of the uncertain days that follow, what can sustain her parents? What is the supreme fact to which the Christian counselor can appeal that will bring hope and some measure of relief?

A family of seven, barely scraping along on the meager salary of a blue-collar worker in this inflationary era, is suddenly plunged into disaster by the closing down of the plant at which he works and his inability to obtain other work. They face the problem of survival amidst the uncertainties of a volatile world economy poorly managed by greedy and godless men. How can the family survive this blow? On what basis do they try to go on? Is there any use? Is there any meaning to it all? Any hope? To help them understand and cope with this dilemma, what does their pastor tell them? To what bottom-line truth should he point?

There is but one—the sovereignty of God.

Knowing that God knows, that God cares, that God hears their prayers, and that God can and will act in His time and way to work even in this for good to His own … that, and nothing less than that conviction, can carry them through. And what that hope may be reduced to is: a confident assurance that God is sovereign.

It has always been so.

When the problem of evil burned like an inextinguishable fire in his bones, and in the frustration of his situation he cried for a personal hearing before God in order to vindicate himself and discover why he had become the object of such pain and sorrow, Job received one answer, and one alone. From out of the whirlwind came the final unequivocal word to be spoken concerning human suffering:

I do in all the world according to my own good pleasure. I scattered the stars in the sky as I saw fit, and I created the beasts of the field and stream according to my desires. Job—where were you when all this took place? And who are you to question what I do with my own? I am sovereign.

In discussing the outcome of the remarkable course of history that through slavery and temptation and imprisonment at length raised him to the second highest political position in the world, Joseph assured his brothers: “You did not send me here but God did” (Genesis 45:8). And in a further affirmation, that was destined to become the Romans 8:28 of the Old Testament, he declared: You planned evil against me, but God planned it for good (Genesis 50:20). His firm conviction of this truth, doubtless growing stronger throughout the span of those hard days, was what made it all endurable.

When Moses protested that he could not undertake the task to which God was calling because of his slowness of speech, God did not acquiesce, argue or plead. He simply asserted His sovereignty in powerful words by means of a stinging statement: “Who made man’s mouth?” (Exodus 4:11).

Under the most extreme sort of pressure to engage in idolatrous worship, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (according to the words of their unflinching testimony) rested solely upon the sovereignty of God: “Our God,” they said, “is able to deliver us” (Daniel 3:17). And true to their word, in what may have been a preincarnate Christophany, that God in sovereign loving care walked through the fire with them.

In addition to these, others, who endured taunts and blows, fetters and prison, who were stoned to death, tortured, sawed in two, run through with the sword—others, I say, in faith rested upon the promises of a sovereign God whose Word they believed to be true and whose promise they considered to be unfailing. Threat of death itself was not enough to shake their confidence in a sovereign God.

Yes, it has always been that way; the sovereignty of God is the ultimate truth that meets human need. That is why the pastoral counselor, above all men, must believe this truth and search out its implications for each and every counseling situation.

And … that is why today, in the midst of the many modern crises that individuals and families undergo, the pastoral counselor who most assuredly affirms the sovereignty of God will bring the most significant help of all. Freudian fatalism, Rogerian humanism and Skinnerian evolutionary theory all fall woefully short of this help. Nothing less than this great truth can satisfy the longing heart or calm the troubled soul.

That is the way that it always has been, and this is the way that it always will be.

A counselor’s theology, and his use of it in counseling, then, is neither a matter of indifference nor a question of insignificance. Rather, it is an issue of the most profound importance. Truth and godliness, the reality of God and the welfare of His people are inseparable. The godly man, who copes with life, is always the one who has appropriated God’s truth for his life.

Take, for instance, the question on the lips of nearly every counselee—Why? Why did this have to happen? Why did it have to happen to me? Why did it have to happen now? Why? Why? Why?

Evolutionary explanations do not satisfy; they only aggravate. If man is no more than an animal, what hope is there? And of what significance is any attempt to change? The only value is the preservation of the herd.

Deistic determinism is no better. According to those who espouse such views, suffering merely follows as the inevitable consequence of the onward motion of impersonal law, in which the plight of the individual does not touch the heart of God since He has safely distanced Himself from His creation.

Existential embarrassment over the equivocation of a call to an authentic acknowledgment of the absurd can do no more than increase the pain.

Arminian answers that intimate that the problem may be a cause of frustration to God as well as to the counselee serve only to point the discouraged, defeated disciple to a pathway that leads ultimately to atheism.

The only explanation that can fully set to rest this insistent human inquiry into the ultimate reason for the existence of misery and death is that the all-powerful God who created and sustains this universe for His own good ends sovereignly has decreed it.

By this reply, simultaneously are swept aside all notions of man in the clutches of a blind, impersonal force, every concept of a weak and unworthy deity who is to be pitied along with the rest of us because He can control His runaway world no longer, and any lingering suspicion that the destiny of a human being is nothing more than a move in a cosmic chess game in which he is as ruthlessly dispensed with as if he were a pawn—heedless of the welfare of any other piece than the King. He is sovereign; all does exist for the King. But this kingly God of creation plays the game according to His own rules. He is altogether sovereign and, therefore, the Originator of the game as well—rules and all. And as He faultlessly makes each move across the board, His strategy for winning the game involves the blessing of His loyal subjects as well as His own glory. And each subject, whose every hair is numbered, moves as He moves in a responsible manner that He has sovereignly ordained.

So, you can see that a firm dependence upon the sovereignty of God is a dynamic concept in counseling—one that makes a difference, the difference—and, therefore, one that must undergird every effort at counseling. If, indeed, God is sovereign, ultimately all turns out well. All problems have solutions; every blighting effect of evil will be erased and all wrongs righted. The counselor who knows God as sovereign has found fertile ground in which to plant his pastoral ministry. He will soon send down a taproot through which he will draw the living waters of life for many thirsty souls. Rooted and grounded in this foundational doctrine, his standpoint allows him freedom to view and to evaluate both the grand sweep of things and the plight of a poor sinner agonizing in the throes of personal grief. The sovereignty of God is the ground of hope and order in all that he does in counseling. It is the basis for all assurance that God’s scriptural promises hold true. It is the cornerstone of Christian counseling.

But, before going any further, let me warn against two distinct, but dangerous, tendencies of those who, while superficially holding the truth of the sovereignty of God, draw faulty implications from that great teaching. The biblical doctrine lends no support whatever either to those who, with near profanity, so glibly cry, “Praise the Lord, anyway” in all sorts of inappropriate situations, nor does it provide comfort for mechanistic fatalists who wish to discount the idea of personal responsibility before God.

Taking the first matter seriously, there are at least two things to be said. On the one hand, counselors must affirm clearly that sin exists, and—along with it—that “misery” of which the catechisms so meaningfully speak. There can be no Christian Science-like denial of the stark tragedy of human existence since Adam. There can be no facile self-deception aimed at alleviating misery by attempting to conceal its true nature beneath a heap of pious expletives, symbolized in the phrase “Praise the Lord, anyway.” This vain effort, in the end, only lets one down hard. The counselor must give full recognition to sin and its terrifying effects if he wishes to be a faithful minister of the Lord Christ. After all, the Man of Sorrows, who was acquainted with grief, also believed in the sovereignty of God. Yet, He wept.

On the other hand, with equal vigor, every counselor worthy of the name of Christ must impress upon his counselees the truth that the existence of a sovereign God is truly a cause for great joy and hope in the midst of tragedy and sorrow. For if God is sovereign, life is not absurd; it has design, meaning and purpose.

Unlike existentialists, who vainly try to find meaning in man himself, the Christian pastoral counselor will show that this misdirected humanistic viewpoint is what constitutes the unbearable angst of which they so powerfully speak. Instead, the counselor directs the counselee’s attention from creatures who, in Adam, have done little better than to get themselves involved in a kind of global Watergate affair before God. It is to the sovereign Creator and Sustainer of the universe, rather than to fallen creatures, that he bids the counselees to look for the final explanation that he seeks.

Apart from such a God, who knows the end from the beginning (because He ordained it), human beings cannot explain their existence because they have no eschatology; death ends all. But, in Him, there is a denouement. There will be an ultimate disclosure of the unrevealed particulars of His divine purpose. Those things that now so often seem to be but meaningless functions in the course of human activity will all come alive with significance. Each piece of the puzzle at last will be put in place—the dark purples of despair, the fiery reds of anger and affliction, the sickly yellows—and we shall be permitted to view the whole as it now exists in the plan of God alone. The comforting conviction that there is a beautiful, meaningful picture on the cover of life’s puzzle box, to which each piece of distress and pain bears a faithful resemblance, belongs solely to those who affirm the sovereignty of God. Without such a conviction, there is no hope.

Likewise, one can escape the fear of a disorderly world, relentlessly rolling on like an avalanche that is out of control, only by an adherence to the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. Because of the certainty of order and control that the doctrine requires, even crazy and bizarre behavior in human beings is not inexplicable to the Christian counselor. Behind its baffling facade lies an etiology that can be traced immediately to personal rebellion against God and His laws, or (as a physiological consequence of Adam’s sin) may extend all of the way back to Eden. Either way he knows that deviant human thought and action is not the result of mere chance. It is explicable in terms of a violated covenant and the judgment of a personal God.

Thus hope wells up in the heart of every man to whom God reveals Himself savingly, for there is One who came to pay the penalty for the broken law and to keep covenant with the Father. Because of His perfect fulfillment of all that God demands, men may be saved here and hereafter from the penalty and from the grip of sin. Ultimately, the evil consequences of sin will be removed altogether from the lives and from the environment of the redeemed. Indeed, so great will be the effects of salvation that those who were created lower than the angels will in Christ be raised far above by His grace. They will share with Him in His glory. So, you see, there is meaning in it all, after all. Where sin abounded, grace more fully abounds. Even the absurd and the bizarre take on meaning as the foil against which the glory of God’s grace may best be displayed.

And, lastly, there is hope also in the fact of God’s sovereignty because His is a personal rule over His subjects. The atonement, by which the redeemed were reconciled to God, was no impersonal or abstract transaction, as if Christ dies for “mankind.” He is a personal Savior, who loved particular individuals and shed His blood for them.

Cicero, in De Natura Deorum (2:66), wrote: “Magna dei curant, parva neglegunt.” (“The gods are concerned with important things; trifles they ignore.”) No such God is the sovereign God of our salvation. A sick child was of no consequence to Venus or Aphrodite. Larger questions—like some of the ongoing rivalries and disputes with the other gods and goddesses of the Greek and Roman pantheons—occupied their time and attention. Such gods brought no comfort or hope to men, because they were not sovereign. Much of creation slipped by beyond their purview.

But there is hope in the presence of the true Sovereign because He is in control of everything. Not a sparrow falls without Him. He is the God of trifles. Jesus taught us by His works and words what this sovereign God is like. The way that He put it was: “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”

And, it is in that very Gospel of John in which these words are recorded that we are so pointedly shown Jesus’ deep concern for individuals—Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the blind man, Lazarus, Mary and Martha.… It is in the same Gospel that we hear Him speak of His shepherdly concern; a concern that extends to the hundredth sheep and that calls each by name. The sovereign Shepherd of Israel is great enough to care about trifles—like us. He labors under none of the limitations of the classical gods. Nor does He stand at a deistic distance in disinterest. This sovereign God is the Father of a redeemed family over which He exercises total care and concern. There is plenty of hope for every Christian counselor in that.

Moving now along a continuum full of factors that might command our attention, I suggest that we pause for a moment to urge every pastoral counselor to remember the sobering fact that the existence of a God who is sovereign neither removes nor lessens, but (rather) establishes human responsibility to that God. If He who is sovereign over all men and over all their actions has determined that they shall be responsible to Him—then that settles it. That is how it is when a sovereign Creator speaks. It does not matter whether it is difficult to reconcile responsibility with sovereignty or not, because that is precisely what God decreed: Men shall be responsible to Him! And if He sovereignly determined to create man as a being fashioned in His image and governed by His moral law … so be it! That is the prerogative of a sovereign God.

Shall the pot say to the potter, “Why have you made me thus?” When you stop to think about it, to whom could one be more responsible than to the One who created him and sustains his every breath? To put it another way—because God is sovereign, He is the only one who is not responsible to another. Did not the Lamb of God Himself, who according to the sovereign plan of God was “slain from the foundation of the world,” nevertheless declare, “It is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness”?

That statement presupposes responsibility.

It should be eminently clear, then, that God’s sovereignty neither encourages the utterance of pietistic platitudes like “Praise the Lord, anyway” as the solution to the problem of human suffering, nor does it leave us unaccountable. Indeed, it is this very truth that demands of us nothing less than a realistic, eyes-wide-open response to the existential situations of life, for God will hold us answerable both as counselors and counselees.

All counseling that measures up to the biblical standard must fully acknowledge both the tragedy of sin and the fact of human responsibility; it must reckon with God’s ultimate purpose to glorify Himself in His Son and in a people redeemed by His grace. While all things will turn out well, they do so, not apart from but precisely because of the responsible action of the Son of God who came and actually dies for those who from all eternity had been ordained to eternal life.

It should be obvious that I have not attempted to open up the many practical implications of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in any concrete way. The doctrine is so foundational that the number of such implications is large. I wish rather to invite others of you to join with me in extracting the ore from this virtually untouched mine.

The sovereignty of God has been taught and preached, largely in an abstract way—but little has been done to explore the applications of this doctrine for life, and (therefore) for counseling. Moreover, Christian counseling has failed to measure up to its name principally because its early theorists were unskilled in exegesis and theology. Largely, they came to counseling through a background of psychology. Yet as important as psychology (rightly conceived and practiced) may be, it can never be foundational to counseling, but only ancillary.

Counseling—as we shall see—has to do with the counselee’s relationship to persons. God and all the others who people his horizon are its concern. Only incidentally does the counselor concern himself with other matters. Clearly love for God and one’s neighbor is a prime interest of the minister of the Word.

That is why here at Westminster Theological Seminary over the past ten years the attempt has been made to teach pastoral counseling from the starting point of God’s sovereignty. In everything that has been done and every word that has been written, it has been our goal to take that doctrine seriously, following its implications obediently, no matter where they might lead. Often the road has proven both difficult and unpopular; yet travel along it always has been satisfying. Temptations to veer to the right or to the left have been numerous. It has not always been easy to resist them. God alone knows how well we have succeeded in doing so.

“But,” you inquire, “can you tell me more about the ways in which the doctrine of God’s sovereignty has affected the theory and practice of the teaching of counseling at Westminster?” The basic answer to your question is this: Both theory and practice have been affected in every way.

But to become more concrete, let me mention what I consider to be the most significant influence the doctrine has exerted, an influence that has had marked effect upon both theory and practice. Early in the development of a counseling stance from which to teach, the question of encyclopedia arose. To what task does the pastoral counselor address himself? In counseling does he handle a very narrow band of “spiritual” or “ecclesiastical” problems, or is his field of legitimate activity substantially larger? Is his counseling activity bordered (and thereby limited) by others from clearly distinct disciplines, namely psychologists and psychiatrists (whose titles, curiously enough, might be translated—not too freely—as “soul specialists” and “soul healers”)?

Over the years the question always has been kept in view. Gradually, the Scriptures have driven us to an answer; an answer that one hardly would have chosen by himself. The conviction has grown that it is God’s answer. And when God speaks by His inerrant Word, what He says is sovereign.

Because of the teaching of the Scriptures, one is forced to conclude that much of clinical and counseling psychology, as well as most of psychiatry, has been carried on without license from God and in autonomous rebellion against Him. This was inevitable because the Word of the sovereign God of creation has been ignored.

In that Word are “all things pertaining to life and godliness.” By it the man of God “may be fully equipped for every good work.” And it is that Word—and only that Word—that can tell a poor sinner how to love God with all of the heart, and mind, and soul, and how to love a neighbor with the same depth of concern that he exhibits toward himself. On these two commandments hang all the law and prophets. They are the very summation of God’s message to the world and to His redeemed people. And, as a consequence, it is the calling of the shepherds of God’s flock (par excellence) to guide the sheep into the pathways of loving righteousness for His Name’s sake. Putting it that way—that God’s Name is at stake—shows the importance of this task.

“All of that sounds quite biblical and … it all sounds very innocuous,” you may say. “But,” you continue, “I don’t see where that puts psychologists and psychiatrists in conflict with God. You’d better explain that one more fully.” OK. Let me screw the two things together for you so that you can see the interconnection that leads to the conflict.

In assigning the pastor the task of helping sheep to learn how to love God and neighbor, God has spoken sovereignly. If this is the pastor’s task, clearly delineated in the Bible, then he must pursue it. This puts him in the counseling business. But, immediately, upon surveillance of the field, he discovers all sorts of other persons already out there trying to do similar things and saying that to them, not to him, belongs the task of counseling. There are competitors in the vicinity. Indeed, even a cursory investigation indicates that they are not merely in the vicinity but in the sheepfold itself. And, as a result, the true shepherd soon discovers that they are leading the sheep astray.

“But,” you ask, “is there no basic difference between the work done by psychologists and psychiatrists and that done by a pastor?” There is no way to distinguish between the work of the pastor as it is sovereignly ordered in the Scriptures and that which is attempted by others who lay claim to the field. Persons who come to counselors for help are persons who are having difficulty with persons. They don’t come complaining, “You see, I’ve got this problem with my carburetor.” That is why love for God (the Person) and for one’s neighbor are such vital factors in counseling. Nothing could be more central to a pastor’s concern. Yet, it is with this concern about persons that psychologists and psychiatrists also busy themselves. They want to change persons and the relationships between persons.

I contend, therefore, that it is not the pastor who is responsible for the overlap; it is the psychologist on the one side, who has moved his fence over on to the pastor’s territory, and the psychiatrist on the other, who also has encroached upon his property. Unfortunately, until recently pastors have been all too willing to allow others to cut their grass. At long last, largely under the impetus of the Westminster emphasis, there has been a noticeable change in attitude by conservative pastors everywhere.

“Now, wait a minute. Are you saying that psychology and psychiatry are illegitimate disciplines? Do you think that they have no place at all?”

No, you misunderstand me. It is exactly not that. Remember, I said clearly that they live next door to the pastor. My problem with them is that they refuse to stay on their own property. I have been trying to get the pastor to mow his lawn to the very borders of this plot.

Psychology should be a legitimate and very useful neighbor to the pastor. Psychologists may make many helpful studies of man (e.g., on the effects of sleep loss). But psychologists—with neither warrant nor standard from God by which to do so—should get out of the business of trying to change persons. Psychology may be descriptive but transgresses its boundaries whenever it becomes prescriptive. It can tell us many things about what man does but not about what he should do.

Similarly, the neighbor who lives on the other side of the pastor’s lot could be a most welcome one with whom the pastor could live in real harmony were he satisfied to play croquet in his own yard. Psychiatrists, for the most part, are a tragic lot. I say this not only because among the professions psychiatrists have the highest suicide rate, but more fundamentally because they are persons highly trained in skills that they hardly use, and instead spend most of their time doing what they were never adequately trained to do. In the United States psychiatrists are physicians, who (for the most part) use their medical training to do little else than prescribe pills. Freud, himself, acknowledged that a background in medicine is not required for the practice of psychiatry. That is why in other parts of the world psychiatrists are not necessarily medical persons. And that is why clinical and counseling psychologists do the same things as psychiatrists without specialized training as physicians.

The pastor recognizes the effects of Adam’s sin upon the body; he, therefore, has no problem working side-by-side with a physician who treats the counselee’s body as he counsels him about its proper use. From the days of Paul and Luke, pastors have found kinship with medical personnel. Why, then, does the psychiatrist present a problem? Certainly it is not because of his medical background. The problem is that he will not stay in his own backyard. He keeps setting up his lawn chairs and moving his picnic table onto the pastor’s property.

If he were to use his medical training to find medical solutions to the truly organic difficulties that affect attitudes and behavior, the pastor would be excited about his work. But the difficulty arises as the psychiatrist—under the guise of medicine—attempts to change values and beliefs. That is not medicine. The pastor is disturbed at having residents from the adjoining lots digging up his backyard to plant corn and tomatoes. He does not object to—but rather encourages—all such activity in the yards next door.

So, in effect, the issue boils down to this: the Bible is the textbook for living before God and neighbor, and the pastor has been ordained to teach and guide God’s flock by it. When others take over the work and substitute other textbooks, conflict is inevitable. The most recent change has occurred because the pastor has taken a fresh look at his title deed and resurveyed the land. In the process he has discovered an incredible amount of usurpation by others. He dare not abandon the tract to which God in the Scriptures has given him a clear title. The idea is not to destroy psychology or psychiatry; pastors simply want psychologists and psychiatrists to cultivate their own property.

In all of this the sovereignty of God has played the conspicuous role. So often, however, when thinking of His sovereignty, we restrict our concerns to the matter of the relation of regeneration to faith. But it is not only in regeneration that God is sovereign; He is sovereign in sanctification as well. If, in order to accomplish His purposes in the believer He has given His Word to be ministered by His church in the power of His Spirit, that is how these purposes must be accomplished; there can be no other way. And pastors, as key persons in all of this, must see to it that this is the way that things are done—whether it pleases others or not. The ministry of the Word to believers in counseling can be dispensed with no more readily than the ministry of the Word in preaching.

In conclusion, therefore, I wish to emphasize the fact that what has been going on in the Practical Theology Department at Westminster in the area of counseling has issued from a tight theological commitment. The position that has been developed and articulated is the direct result of Reformed thinking. Those who hold to other theological commitments, it might be noted, have viewed the problems in the field quite differently. Because of their failure to acknowledge the sovereignty of God at other points, they cannot hold the line against the defection of autonomous thought and action in counseling either. So, if there is anything that has been done here over the last decade that is worthy of mention, it is but the natural outcome of the faithful efforts of those who labored before. For it was they who, against unthinkable odds, held tenaciously to, and in clarity and with power delineated, the scriptural truth of the sovereignty of God in all things. The principles that they taught us we now are making every effort to apply to the task of Christian counseling.

We call upon you—whoever you are, and in whatever way you can—to join with us in this work. It has just begun. During the next ten years far more can be accomplished if you do. The needs are great, the opportunities are numerous; the human resources are few. We would stagger at the enormity of the undertaking but for one fact. It is a fact that brings hope and confidence; a fact that is the source of all humility and gratitude.

It is the fact that God is Sovereign.



Accusation:  What you are doing isn’t really unique. It’s only a species of Behaviorism.

This false charge has been made by those who have a propensity to lump together all things that sound similar. Their problem—and it’s a serious one—is that they read and think carelessly. They have little power of discernment; they do not know how to make valid distinctions. “Adams speaks of ‘behavior,’ he talks about ‘reward and punishment.’ Ergo, he is teaching behaviorism.”

But long before Watson or Skinner ever drew a breath God was speaking of behavior, reward and punishment. Dare we call Him a Behaviorist? Hardly. God regularly traces outer behavior to the “heart.” By heart, He means the inner person. Outer action is but a result of the inner thinking, determining, etc. Nowhere is changing the outer person alone a solution to man’s problems. Rather, that is Pharisaism. Since sin is a “inside job,” salvation must be too. Inner regeneration is necessary to produce outer changes that please God. Works (outer behavior) must flow from faith (inner belief); neither is sufficient without the other.

Moreover, in behaviorism, the goal is to reward the desired behavior immediately in order to make it stick. In the Bible, true reward is delayed until eternity (Cf. Hebrews 11:13-16; 24-27). And, God-pleasing behavior is governed not by manipulation and “control,” but by inner desire to please God. Always keep in mind 1 Peter 1:14b-15, 18-19:

Don’t shape your lives by the desires that you used to follow in your ignorance. Instead, as the One Who called you is holy, you yourselves must become holy in all your behavior…knowing that you weren’t set free from the useless behavior patterns that were passed down from your forefathers, by the payment of a corruptible ransom like silver or gold, but with Christ’s valuable blood.

See the difference? The conclusion? “Be deeply concerned about how you behave during your residence as aliens” (1 Peter 1:17). Nouthetic counselors will continue to do so!

Promptings by the Spirit

In a book recently published by Hope Publishing Co., Edmund McDavid, III said it again. In answer to his own question, “Does God’s Spirit testify to me that I am a Christian?” he quoted Romans 8:16: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” Then, on the basis of this quotation, he went on to ask the reader, “Do you have promptings from the Holy Spirit that convince you that he indwells you—that you are a Christian?” Without further discussion or explanation of the verse (he assumes that one will agree that it teaches the Spirit not only prompts a Christian, but thereby assures him of his salvation) he goes on to another point, seemingly thinking that mere citation is sufficient to verify his view.

There are serious problems with this all-too-frequent misuse of Paul’s words. Let me mention two:

  1. Neither the term “prompt,” nor anything like it, ever occurs in the Scriptures as a means of assurance. The Bible allows for no such personal, individual revelation. People may have what they think are hunches, promptings, and the like, that originate from the Holy Spirit, but they have no biblical basis for interpreting these inner feelings as such. In particular, this verse teaches just the opposite, as I wish now to show you.
  2. The word translated “with” is the Greek term, sun, which means “together with.” It never has the meaning assigned to it that is required by McDavid’s understanding. The verse simply cannot mean that the Spirit “testifies to our spirit”—as his interpretation requires.

Paul is speaking of the well-known biblical requirement that testimony must be given by more than one witness in order to be accepted as valid. So, here, he says that not only does a believer have an inner conviction of one’s salvation (i.e., the testimony in his own spirit) but that, along with that inner assurance, the Spirit testifies as well. The inner testimony that belongs to a Christian comes from his faith in God’s biblical promises. The external testimony by means of which the Spirit testifies is those dependable Spirit-revealed biblical promises themselves.

It is time for people to stop misusing this passage. A Christian’s personal assurance is dependent upon the certain witness of the Spirit in the Word that we believe and to which we testify; not upon some subjective feeling in us which may or may not remain constant.

Let’s Talk Theology

Too often when people hear the word they become uninterested and turn away—was that your response to the title of this blog?

Well, if it was, please indulge me for a couple of minutes’ read to try to change your opinion.

What is theology anyway? Systematic theology, as its name indicates, is the culling of the principal aspects of various teachings in the Bible, placing them in juxtaposition to one another, and reaching general conclusions about what God has to say concerning each one. Let’s just take a taste of what this means.

For instance, consider the Bible’s teaching about salvation. In the Scriptures, we learn that the original word for “salvation” means “rescue.” So, to begin with, we discover that there is a need for rescuing people from a desperate situation. We also read that all have sinned and come short of eternal life. That is the situation from which there is a need to be rescued—failure to measure up to God’s standards. Moreover, we discover that because God demands perfection in order to enter heaven—which is a perfect place from which all sin is excluded—we are unable to rescue ourselves. We probe some more and note that the situation from which we must be rescued is everlasting punishment for our sin. Thinking biblically about sin—this barrier to heaven and cause of punishment—we conclude that sin is offending a holy God by disobeying His commands. So, in order to be saved from hell, and get to heaven, we next understand that someone else must rescue us by satisfying those commands. Moving along in the Bible, we next come to see that this is why Jesus Christ came to the earth. Since a holy God demands satisfaction, Jesus—the only perfect man (Who obeyed those commands in our place)—came to die in the stead of guilty sinners in order to save them from the consequences of their sin. As a perfect man, He did this by bearing the punishment of all who would believe in Him, as He suffered and died upon the cross. That God accepted His sacrifice for sinners is made clear by the fact that He raised Him from the dead and ascended into heaven. Furthermore, the Bible teaches that He will return a second time to receive all believers who are alive and to raise those who have died. Then, we shall ever be with the Lord.

Nearly every statement in the paragraph above (and almost every word) is a theological statement. It wasn’t hard to follow them was it? Yet, whether or not you know it, you have compassed a great deal of theology merely by reading it. If you find it interesting to note such interrelationships, and want a truly systematic approach to Christian theology, I suggest that you buy and devour either L. Berkhof’s Systematic Theology or A. A. Hodge’s Outlines of Systematic Theology. If you are a serious student of the Bible, you couldn’t do better than to purchase both!

I Heard It—Did You?

A rare thing happened the other day—I heard a good sermon. Let me briefly analyze it for you, noting some of the factors that made it good.

First, it was preaching; it was not a string of stories or a stodgy lecture. By that I mean, from start to finish, the sermon was directed to us. We were involved from the outset. The truth of the passage was presented as God’s message to us, not only to the members of a church long ago and far away in biblical times. God came alive to us as someone living, ruling, caring now—for us. The preacher made us concerned, and kept us concerned, about our families, our church, our community.

Next, what I heard was biblical preaching. What he preached was not an essay on some truth, not the ideas of politicians, media personalities, philosophers, theologians, or his own opinions, but what God said to us in Paul’s letter. Not only did he tell us what the preaching portion means, but he even showed us just how every point that he made comes from the passage. Because he did so, we were able to evaluate for ourselves whether the preacher’s conclusions about the text were accurate. Significantly, it was apparent that he had done his homework and that what he told us made sense. And, I believe others in the congregation, if asked, would agree with me that what he said about the text was accurate. He satisfied us that he was preaching what Paul had said. We went away understanding the passage and how everything in the sermon flowed from it. Consequently, we listened to his exhortations about our lives, not as the opinions of a man, but as a word from God to us. He preached, and his preaching was received, with an authority appropriate to the sort of message that it was. We left knowing that we had heard a proclamation from God.

Again, the sermon was interesting. The preacher did not cook the juice out of the passage, leaving hard, dry, burned-over abstract teaching. Nor did he serve it to us as a raw, bloody, uncooked chunk of meat. Like a fine chef, he knew just how to handle the passage, cooking it to a turn, garnishing and accenting it so that what he served was the text in full flavor. Its own nutritious juices were preserved, and where delicate nuances otherwise might be missed, he seasoned it with illustrations that brought them out. As he delivered it, the sermon sizzled!

Moreover, the sermon was well organized. There were points, sturdy as steel, under girding the whole, arranged in logical order. But the points did not protrude; he did not bore us with unnecessary firstlies, secondlies and thirdlies, he avoided details that added nothing to the central idea of the message, and—believe it or not—he did not bother us with distracting, forced alliteration. His entire focus in the sermon was on the intent of the Holy Spirit in the text. He kept moving ahead, avoiding all meaningless prefacing and repetition, instead skillfully thrusting each point straight into our hearts!

Now, I know that you will find it difficult to believe me when I tell you that, on top of everything else, that sermon was practical. Yes, it really was! It was carefully adapted to the particular congregation to which it was preached. And the preacher persisted in telling us not only what to do but how to do it. And sometimes, like his Lord in the Sermon on the Mount, he also told us how not to do it. It was plain that he had spent time thinking about what biblical principles mean in everyday living and had worked out biblically derived applications and implementations of each one.

What a sermon it was! You don’t hear many like it today. Indeed, because of this fact, you may wonder where it was preached and who preached it. You may ask, “Are cassette tapes available?” The answer is no. But I can tell you where I heard it—it was in a reverie while sitting in the Montreal airport that I heard that sermon, and the only record of it is the one that I am now sketching for you enroute to Moncton. But, is it doomed to remain merely a bare record, hidden away from the people of God in a pastoral journal sitting on your shelf? Why should it? Why don’t you bring it to life? Why don’t you preach it this Sunday to your congregation? Then, if you and scores of other preachers with you do so, thousands of people throughout the land will truly be able to say, “I heard a good sermon today!”—J.E.A.

Horatius Bonar

This Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland minister sought to meet a trend in his day that was sapping the life of the church. It was the burgeoning tide of Preparationism (adopted from the Roman Catholic doctrine of congruism).

Preparationism teaches, in effect, that in order to become regenerate a person has to put himself in the way of it. He is to read Scripture, put away all known sins, go to church regularly, and so forth. Then, in time, if he becomes “sensible” (aware and concerned about his sins), it would be allowable to present the Gospel to him.

People were put off for months–even years–before some self-righteous prig would deem them ready for the Gospel. I first ran into this at a conference years ago, when one of the other speakers told me after a message (and these are his exact words), “You’re preaching the Gospel too soon.” I was bowled over by such a comment, and so I investigated this entire movement.

It turns out that Bonar was right. He wrote against this works-righteousness, and even wrote some of our most beloved hymns to counter it. Bunyan, who seems to have been adversely affected by this teaching for a while (read Pilgrim’s Progress carefully), at length wrote a sermon entitled, “Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ.” And Jonathan Edwards was taught it. But, instead of groaning for months on end about his sins, Edwards, it seems, came to a sudden happy conversion. But it had made strong inroads into his thinking. And if Cherry, his biographer, is correct, it bothered him all his life that his Conversion didn’t fit the pattern. It was preparationism that, in New England led to the halfway covenant that wreaked havoc upon the region.

The Puritans who adopted and propagated this view (not all Puritans did) were the first psychologizers of religion. By laying out a pattern that was to be followed in order to be regenerated, they tried to understand the steps of conversion and then, having done so, attempted to program conversion step by step in individuals.

We must avoid ever returning to such teaching. Along with this astounding statement that almost bowled me over, another incident knocked me for a loop. The third speaker at that conference was also a preparationist. In his preaching, he spent the entire week trying to assure people that unless they had experienced the pattern I just described, they weren’t saved. I had encouraged a young girl who had just become a Christian to attend the conference (not knowing what we were about to run into since at such previous conferences nothing such as this had ever occurred). His preaching so unsettled her that she became uncertain of her salvation. When I spoke to the preacher who has caused this, he said, “Well when you plow with the Word, you sometimes take up the wheat with the tares.” I let him know that I was dismayed at such an unbiblical comment. It took us several weeks to put this girl’s faith back together again.

Why am I talking about this? Because there are signs that this teaching isn’t dead. While not yet widespread, some of the materials that teach it are out there on the “evangelical” market. Perhaps the most alarming is Alleine’s Alarm to the Unconverted. It is a virtual handbook of the doctrine. There is a chapter in it entitled, “Directions to the Unconverted” in which such things as I have mentioned above are advised, but nowhere is the reader told, “Repent and believe the Gospel.”

Keep a sharp eye cocked to detect any inklings of preparationism and refute it as soon as you detect it. Horatius Bonar’s materials and hymns will be a great help to you in the effort.


Beware of those who frequently use the word “nuance,” or some derivative thereof.


Because they may be attempting to “snow you” by using that term.

“What does the word mean?”

It comes from a French word that means “shades,” and refers, for instance, to various subtle shades of color.

“I still don’t get it.”

You see, such persons are claiming, “I don’t see things quite as black or white, they way you do. I see various delicate shades of meaning that you don’t,” while all the while the differences are wide enough to drive a Mack truck through.


And, so what is supposed to be a subtle distinction, quite often, is nothing of the sort—instead, it is a vital difference.

“And this is a way of covering up true differences?”

Exactly. While there are distinctions in the Scriptures, they are rarely (if ever) so subtle as to be called “nuances.” Often, a denial of some biblical truth is behind the use of the term.

“It’s a way of disguising true differences, then?”

Often is. And if you buy into it you will have been NUANCED!

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