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The Holy Spirit and Counseling

Counseling Is the Work of the Spirit

Counseling is the work of the Holy Spirit. Effective counseling cannot be done apart from him. He is called the paraclete1 (“counselor”) who in Christ’s place came to be another counselor2 of the same sort that Christ had been to his disciples.3 Because unsaved counselors do not know the Holy Spirit, they ignore his counseling activity and fail to avail themselves of his direction and power.

Counseling, to be Christian, must be carried on in harmony with the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is called “Holy” because of his nature and his work. All holiness stems from his activity in human lives. All of the personality traits that might be held forth to counselees as fundamental goals for growth (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) God declares to be the “fruit” (i.e., the result of the work) of the Spirit. Not only is it futile to attempt to generate these qualities apart from him (as non-Christian and even some Christian counselors try to do), but such an approach is at bottom rebellion against God grounded upon humanistic assumptions of man’s autonomy. By-passing the Spirit amounts to the denial of human depravity and the affirmation of man’s innate goodness. The need for grace and the atoning work of Christ are both undercut, and the counselee is left instead with the husk of a legalistic works-righteousness which will lead ultimately to despair since it divests itself of the life and power of the Spirit.

How Does the Holy Spirit Work in Counseling?

The Holy Spirit is the source of all genuine personality changes that involve the sanctification1 of the believer, just as truly as he alone is the One who brings life to the dead sinner. It is time that Christian ministers and other counselors asked again, “Who has bewitched you … Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”2 Why are Christians without peace turning to men who themselves know nothing of the “peace of God that passes all understanding”? How is it that Christian ministers refer parishioners who lack self-control to a psychiatrist who has never been able to discover the secret of self-control in his own life? Outwardly he may appear calm and assured, mature, patient and even suave. Can this be his actual inward condition if he does not know Jesus Christ?3 Can he have this fruit of the Spirit apart from the Spirit?

The Holy Spirit Works through Means

The Holy Spirit ordinarily effects his characterological work in the lives of believers through the means of grace. He uses the ministry of the Word, the sacraments, prayer and the fellowship of God’s people as the principal vehicles through which he brings about such changes. How can counseling that is removed from the means of grace expect to effect the permanent changes that come only by growth in grace?

The inconsistency and tension of this problem is felt by nearly every conservative minister at some time or another. But fear and uncertainty (growing out of mental health propaganda), frustration (at not knowing how to handle complex problems), or simple acquiescence in referral as an easy way out, often win out. It is time to reexamine our stance as Christians, and the most important factor in, that reexamination should be an honest consideration of the place of the Holy Spirit in counseling.

The Holy Spirit’s Work Is Sovereign

The Holy Spirit is a Person, not a force or a law. While he always works according to and in complete harmony with his will as he has revealed it in Scripture, he chooses his own times, means and occasions for doing his work. That is to say, the Holy Spirit works when and where and how he pleases. The Holy Spirit is God with us. Counselors and counselees alike must respect the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit. Expectations of clients and promises made by counselors must all be carefully qualified by this important dimension of the counseling situation. This fact should not discourage counseling, but rather should encourage the counselor since he knows that his work does not depend ultimately upon his own abilities.

But the counselor’s abilities (gifts of the Spirit exercised under the Spirit’s calling and direction), like the preaching gifts of the minister, should be a matter of concern to him. He cannot be sloppy about the way in which he counsels, expecting the Holy Spirit to do his work regardless of how the counselor does his. Chiefly the Holy Spirit works in conjunction with the proper exercise of the gifts he has given (although, of course, he is not bound to do so). This is because he has chosen to work through human agency, a fact which he has clearly demonstrated by giving gifts of ministry to his church.1 The Spirit does not foolishly give gifts that he does not intend to use. The use of human agency in counseling, then, does not in itself bypass the work of the Spirit; to the contrary, it is the principal and ordinary means by which he works. But, as Paul says in Galatians 3, human activity which neither acknowledges nor draws upon the power of the Holy Spirit, rebelliously seeks to circumvent the Spirit and is thereby devoid of the power to effect what can only be brought about by the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit Works by Means of His Word

The Holy Spirit expects counselors to use his Word, the Holy Scriptures. We shall see infra that he gave it for such a purpose, and that it is powerful when used for that purpose (2 Timothy 3:16, 17). His counseling work is ordinarily performed through the ministry of this Word. In this chapter it is unnecessary to reexamine all of the biblical passages by which this relationship of the Spirit to the Word may be established, since that has been done frequently in books on systematic theology and treatises specifically relating to the work of the Holy Spirit. But it will be necessary to study the Scriptures to see what the Holy Spirit has told us about counseling, for this has not been done satisfactorily.

A further word, however, should be said about the Spirit’s use of the Scriptures. To be led by the Spirit (Galatians 5:18), for instance, should be understood not as being led apart from, but rather by means of the Scriptures.2 The word “led” does not refer to inner feelings or hunches, or to visions or extra-biblical revelations. The point that needs to be made is that since the Holy Spirit employs his Word as the principal means by which Christians may grow in sanctification, counseling cannot be effective (in any biblical sense of that term) apart from the use of the Scriptures. The fact of the Holy Spirit in counseling, therefore, implies the presence of the Holy Scriptures as well.1 This fundamental relationship in itself should be decisive for any Christian who carefully thinks through the counseling situation. Counseling without the Scriptures can only be expected to be counseling without the Holy Spirit.

Frequent references to the place of the Holy Spirit in counseling will be made specifically throughout this book, but wherever his work has not been spelled out in detail, it is everywhere assumed. Since concrete methodology in counseling will often be discussed at length, it might be possible to dip into portions of the book and get the impression that the Holy Spi
rit has been supplanted by human techniques. But it is precisely this disjunction which is false. When the Holy Spirit moved directly in the hearts of believers at Jerusalem to motivate them by love to pool their goods for the sake of the poor, he was no more at work than when Paul organized and conducted a successful fund raising campaign throughout the Mediterranean world for the same purpose. Methodology and technique, skill and the exercise of gifts are all consonant with the work of the Spirit. What makes the difference is one’s attitude and inner motivation: does he do what he does in reliance upon his own efforts, in dependence upon methods and techniques, or does he acknowledge his own inability and ask the Spirit to use his gifts and methods? Gifts, methodology and technique, of course, may be abused; they may be set over against the Spirit and may be used to replace his work. But they also may be used in complete subjection to him to the glory of God and the benefit of his children. Davison has well stated this point when he rightly warns against the attempt to secure a spiritual end by the adoption of habits, the multiplication of rules, and the observance of external standards, excellent in themselves, but useful only as means subordinate to the Spirit.1

1 John 14:16, 17.

2 The Greek word means “another of the same kind.”

3 In Isaiah 9:6, Christ, too, is called “Counselor.” His words in John 14 (see previous footnote) indicate that he considered himself to be a counselor of his disciples.

1 Growth away from sin and toward righteousness. In II Corinthians 3:18 Paul wrote of the growing change in which believers are being transformed into the likeness of Christ, and concluded: “for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

2 Galatians 3:1, 3.

3 The suicide rate is significantly higher among psychiatrists than among those of any of the other sixteen specialty groups listed by the American Medical Association as a part of the medical profession. (Bulletin of Suicidology, December 1968, Washington: U. S. Government Printing House, p. 5.)

1 Cf. Ephesians 4:7–13.

2 The Holy Spirit is the one who enlightens believers as they read the Bible. In I Corinthians 2, Paul clearly states that men cannot understand the things of God apart from the Spirit’s work.

1 Note, for instance, the following verses: Romans 15:13; 15:4. “Hope” and “encouragement” (King James, “comfort,” the word paraclesis could be translated “counsel”) are said equally to come from the Scriptures and from the Holy Spirit. It is obvious that both are true, since the Holy Spirit uses the Scriptures to bring hope.

1 W. T. Davison, The Indwelling Spirit (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911), pp. 167, 168.

Jay Edward Adams, Competent to Counsel : Introduction to Nouthetic Counseling, Reprint. Originally Published: Phillipsburg, N.J. : Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., c1970. (Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resources Library, 1986], c1970), 20.

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