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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Biblical Counseling, CCEF, Jay Adams, etc.

I recently participated in the following email exchange about those topics with some friends, which started with one of them [Friend 1] saying that he read the book How People Change by Paul Tripp and Timothy Lane (from CCEF), and thought that it seemed to contradict my approach to counseling and shepherding. My response to that starts this string of emails, which I reproduce here for your interest and edification. As always, I welcome any posts to continue the discussion...

(My response:)
Thanks! I definitely want to discuss this more with anyone and everyone… there is nothing except the gospel itself (and maybe the doctrines of grace) that is more important and impactful to the life and vision of a church than how people change and how we deal with our problems!

But to begin with, I can tell you right now that I agree with almost everything in How People Change, and I think its a great book, but it is not complete in that it doesn’t discuss everything that is important to change, and especially church ministry (no book can, of course). I am a pastor and the men who wrote that book were not pastoring at the time they wrote it, so maybe that explains why they don’t include much about shepherding and discipline, for instance. Notice in the Scripture index that no reference is made to passages about those topics like Matthew 18:15-18, Acts 20:28ff, 1 Corinthians 5:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, 1 or 2 Timothy, Hebrews 13:17, James 5, 1 Peter 5:1-5, or the churches in Revelation.

Maybe the fact that I talk about and even sometimes emphasize those things is why you think I may contradict Lane and Tripp, but of course I don’t believe that emphasis contradicts them in any way, because it’s all from the Bible. In fact, I think that my “additions” to the content of that book fit very well with their emphasis on change being a “community” project. They just didn’t talk about that important aspect of church community…important because it is talked about so often in the New Testament (passages above). That’s why I talk about it and sometimes emphasize it, by the way, because it’s all over the Bible and because I have observed that it is often neglected. For instance, a long-time Christian who was sick recently said they didn’t even know about James 5:14-16 until I showed it to them, and it’s the most direct reference in the Bible about what to do when you’re sick.

Maybe there needs to be some additional books called “How to know if the people under your care are changing,” “What to do when people don’t change,” or most important “How church leaders can help people change.” That book would definitely need to include at least some of the passages above.

In Christ, Dave

[From Friend 2:]
Dear Brothers,

The biggest thing the Lord has been teaching me in 2009 is about his present grace. We all agree on the past and future ramifications of the work of Christ on the cross. We are lost without the mercy and work of God, and are fully saved and justified by the death and resurrection of His son Jesus. We are risen with Him to eternal life in Him. But what does this mean to our present walk in the Lord? What does it mean to the present state of our hearts? How then should we live now in Christ ?

I have come to learn much better that Christ lives in me, and I live in Christ, and that through Him I am able to stand in him and honor him in my life. But my heart remains an idol factory, prone to wander from Him in many ways. Some of those ways are outward hypocrisy on the other six days of the week (and on Sunday also, in the temple), but just as many of those ways are pride and self-righteousness, where I am "doing the right thing" and "telling myself the right thing", but for the wrong reasons, to my own glory/justification, to want to feel that God somehow "owes" me a good life because of all the good I am doing for Him. And what I have learned (and am learning) well is that I cannot stop myself from either the wrong actions or the right actions for the wrong reaons, except by the present mercy of the Lord to guide and deliver me. But that mercy and grace is ever present in my life, both guiding me in the right direction and forgiving and training and shaping and encouraging me when I fail in younger brother acts of rebellion by outward hypocrisy or in older brother acts of rebellion by self-righteousness.

Recognition of this in our lives, and from the pulpit and in our teaching, can, by God's grace, lead to an open fellowship where we are able to share our struggles and failings and encourage one another in the grace of God, because we recognize that we are all constantly in the midst of struggles and failings, and that we are all constant recipients of present grace.

But anything that tells us that we are saved and therefore need to try harder in ourselves to stop sinning and honor God more and do better is prone to lead us to self-righteous behavior and a pharisaical atmosphere where we are trying to all convince ourselves and one another that we love God and therefore want to do and are doing the right thing. It will lead us to deny our inward self-righteous sins of the heart, only focusing on outward behavior, and dividing us into the "well-behaved" people who "love God" and the "problem" people who "need help". This is the state of almost every church I know, and brings glory to "good Christian people" rather than to God.

[From Friend 1]

I'm still trying to understand your position on the role of the church officers in how people change. If I summarize what I think you are saying, could you please let me know if I'm right about what you are saying or where I'm wrong?

Here's my summary of what I think you have taught us:

The work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts is necessary but not sufficient for sanctification. In addition to the Holy Spirit's work in our hearts, Christians need to be motivated to stop sinning by increasing levels of loving confrontation of sin by the church officers. This starts with preaching the Word and the general threat of discipline, then as the officers find out specific sins that people persist in, it leads to telling the rest of the church about specific sins and finally censures.

Is this accurate?

[My response:]
The work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts is sufficient for sanctification. Not only that, it is the only way anyone can be sanctified. (That’s actually the point of all my talk about “biblical counseling” as opposed to psychological or pharmacological methods of dealing with our spiritual problems.) But the Holy Spirit does His work of sanctification in our hearts in many different ways, all discussed in the Scriptures and commonly known as “the means of grace.” When another believer encourages me (Heb. 3:12-13) or stimulates me to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24), that is the Holy Spirit doing His work of sanctification in my heart. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper also are ways that He works in the hearts of God’s people. When we pray “in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18), we are sanctified and strengthened for spiritual battle. And so on…everything truly good that is done in us and by us (another way to say “sanctification”) is a product of the Holy Spirit’s work.

And that includes the oversight and shepherding of elders, which is Spirit-ordained (Acts 20:28) and Spirit-empowered (Col. 1:27). And part of the work of elders is to exemplify and oversee the process of loving confrontation and church discipline taught by Christ in Matthew 18:15-18 and illustrated in passages like 1 Corinthians 5, 1 Timothy 1:20, Philippians 4:2-3, and 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15. This is only a part of the elders’ work, but it is an important part, especially because it is so often neglected today while being so often mentioned in the NT. It is one of the ways that the Holy Spirit uses elders to encourage and stimulate the members of the body to growth in Christ. The Holy Spirit gave us the Scriptures (and empowers us) “for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Those four activities, with prayer added in, could serve as a summary of the elders’ ministry, and of how people are sanctified. In fact, it seems that Paul used them in that very way in the passage. And talking about and practicing church discipline, though it is only a small part of how we do those ministries, has relation to all of them: It is instructive to the body (1 Tim. 5:20), it is a heightened form of rebuke and correction when necessary, and it provides added motivation for continuing in righteousness (2 Cor. 13:2, Rev. 2:5 and 3:19-20).

On a different but possibly related topic, I don’t know if this applies to any of you, but we need to guard ourselves from an error that I and others have noticed can sometimes develop along with the emphasis on “Sonship,” “gospel-centered living,” “living by grace,” etc. This emphasis is very biblical and important, especially for people who tend to have a legalistic or “performance” mentality, but it should never be emphasized to the exclusion of other important biblical principles like self-discipline, church discipline, etc. Nor should our counsel to people be only concerned with inward faith and repentance, without helping them to practically put off and put on in their actions (Eph. 4:22-32). The heart is of utmost importance, no question, but remember that Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). Who you are inside affects what you will do, very definitely, but what you do also affects who you will be inside.

Sometimes people get excited about the doctrines of free justification, Sonship, and the role of faith in sanctification (and well they should, because those doctrines are exciting!), but then they start to think that any concern or teaching about our behavior or morals is behavioristic or moralistic, and they lapse into a modern form of quietism, or worse, antinomianism. But behaviorism or moralism is talking about what we do exclusively without referencing why we do it… a biblical balance is what we need. To bring this back around to our original topic of conversation (the book), I can put it this way… If someone thinks that How People Change is a comprehensive treatment of sanctification, they are wrong. There are many aspects of sanctification not discussed in that book (of course, because no book can cover it all, except the Bible itself). I’m sure the authors don’t think it is exhaustive, but if they or another else did that would be an error akin to quietism or antinomianism, because of the important aspects of sanctification and ministry that it does not address. Jay Adams’ books tend to emphasize more the behavioral aspects of sanctification and counseling, and the “new CCEF” guys tend to emphasize the heart and gospel aspects more. I think they are both basically biblical in what they say, and should be combined for a good balanced approach to Christian life and ministry. That’s what I try to do... with varying degrees of success, I’m sure!

In Christ, Dave

[Friend 2:]
- Quietism and Antinomianism would be very grave errors indeed. Thankfully, I have not seen them whatsoever in the Gospel Transformation materials or in the reading and training I have had through CCEF. All of the aforementioned are very concerned with outward change toward holiness, but that it come from a heart that is turned to and reliant upon the Lord, that finds it's righteousness in Christ rather than in the individual.

- Agreed that 'How People Change' is not a standalone book claiming to be the first and last word on sanctfication. It deals with inner change. It is part of a trilogy, along with 'Instruments in the Hands of the Redeemer' (which is subtitled "People in need of change helping people in need of change") and 'Relationships: A Mess Worth Making'. It would be good to read all three books.

- I don't see inward faith/repentance and outward change as either/or, or even as both/and. Outward change that is true, meaningful, God-pleasing, and lasting, can only come from inward heart change. If it could work the other way, the pharisee and the older brother would have been growing in Godliness and approved by God in Luke 18:9-13 and Luke 15:11-32 respectively. If we are working with the behaviors apart from the heart, we are helping to produce pharisees and can't help but engender self-righteousness. If the old heart is no longer sinning in one way, it is not growing in righteousness in the Lord, but rather sinning in new, different ways (and often will then also return to the old ways in frustration). I am in constant fear of that in my own life, and for my children. Any teaching that is urging moral behavior from them, but not impressing the gospel and their needy hearts on them, is working against what they need to grow in their reliance on the Lord, and is producing a self-righteous, better than thou attitude.

[My response:]
Good thoughts! I totally agree with you that “working with behaviors apart from the heart” is wrong and counter-productive. I would just encourage you to recognize also, based on Scripture, that God uses “outward” means in our sanctification process (defined as change that flows from the heart). The Pharisee and elder brother did not want to do the right thing, so no amount of behavioral counsel or change could make an iota of difference in their relationship with God (as you said). But for believers who want to do what is right, become more like Christ, etc. what we do is an important part of God’s means of grace (Kent Hughes and Jerry Bridges have called them “The Discipline(s) of Grace” in good books by that title). And I think we also need to say that God can use “outward” discipline, even from human authority, to work in people’s hearts. A clear example is parental discipline… Proverbs says “foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him” and “You shall beat him with the rod and save his soul from death” and etc. etc. If I just spank my kids but don’t teach my children the gospel, they will never believe and honor God; but on the other hand, if I only teach them the gospel but never discipline them, they probably won’t either. Likewise, a man who has been addicted to porn can want to change and even “preach the gospel to himself” regularly, but if he doesn’t discipline himself to pray, spend time in the Word, practice radical amputation in specific ways, and put off and put on in other ways in his actions, he likely will not see permanent change. And if he does do those things out of a desire to please God, that will contribute to further heart change, for again as Jesus said, “Lay up treasure in heaven…for where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.”

So in our understanding of sanctification, we need to factor in that verse and the others mentioned above (particularly Eph. 4:21-32) plus Romans 6:12-13, where after telling us our spiritual position (“died with Christ”) Paul commands us to live out that position practically: “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.” Romans 12:1-2 also comes to mind, where our response to the mercies of God involves both our actions (“present your bodies as a living sacrifice”) and our hearts (“be transformed by the renewing of your mind”), with logical priority placed on the heart change.

[Friend 2:]
Thanks Dave, very helpful email and one I want to digest for awhile. You make some really good points that I think it would be fruitful to discuss how they should inform preaching. I'll flesh that out in another email after I have a chance to think through it some more...

[Dave's concluding note about the emails:]

The comment below by a pastor friend uses the word "conflict" to refer to this discussion, but I don't think any of the ideas presented in the emails are really conflicting (though the writers might be like "passing ships" sometimes). That's what I was trying to say throughout, that positional and practical righteousness are both important truths taught in the Bible and are not contradictory to one another. And I think those who emphasize one can learn from people who emphasize the other, and we should not "polarize" in opposite directions. I hope this discussion has been helpful to you as you seek to understand the Scriptures and how they apply to our lives!

1 comment:

  1. Here is a response to these emails from a pastor friend:

    Hi Dave,
    I read the emails and the issue conflict is pretty apparent. It is a common one I have seen in a number of churches and which you reference in one of your emails. That is the intersection of positional sanctification and progressive sanctification. Sonship champions the former. Nouthetic counseling the latter. Although both are caricatures of their positions, as Miller's book on Repentance and 20th Century Man and Adam's Theology of Christian Counseling illustrate. Your point about the judicial versus parental relationship with God is important to express the dynamic of the two and is represented in 1 John 1:8-2:2, which declares a positional and thorough forgiveness by virtue of union with Christ and the need for honesty about sin and need for ongoing confession of sin, which relates only to believers. The best book on the subject is Jerry Bridges' Disciplines of Grace, which combines his books Pursuit of Holiness (think Adams) with Transforming Grace (think Miller).