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The Work of the Spirit and Biblical Counseling
A recent book titled I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional, by Wendy Kaminer, debunks much of the mystique of modern psychology.1 The author does not purport to be a Christian. In fact, she describes herself as “a skeptical, secular humanist, Jewish, feminist, intellectual lawyer.”2 Yet she writes as a bitter critic of the marriage of religion and psychology. She notes that religion and psychology have always more or less deemed one another incompatible. Now she sees “not just a truce but a remarkable accommodation.”3 Even from her perspective as an unbeliever, she can see that this accommodation has meant a change in the fundamental message Christians convey to the world. She writes:
Religious writers would minimize or dismiss the effect of psychology on religion, fiercely denying that it has made doctrinal changes, but it does seem to have influenced the tone and packaging of religious appeals … Christian codependency books, like those produced by the Minirth-Meier clinic in Texas, are practically indistinguishable from codependency books published by secular writers … Religious writers justify their reliance on psychology by praising it for “catching up” to some eternal truths, but they’ve also found a way to make the temporal truths of psychology palatable. Religious leaders once condemned psychoanalysis for its moral neutrality … Now popular religious literature equates illness with sin.4
Some of the criticism Kaminer levels against evangelicals is unwarranted or misguided, but in this respect she is right on target: evangelicalism has been infiltrated by a worldly anthropology-psychology-theology that is diametrically opposed to the biblical doctrines of sin and sanctification. As a result of this accommodation, the Church has compromised and hopelessly muddled the message it is to proclaim.
Visit your local Christian bookstore and notice the proliferation of books on addiction recovery, emotional therapy, self-esteem, and other psychology-related topics. The language of such books carries a common theme: “look within yourself”; “get in touch with your inner child; “explore the recesses of your past fears, hurts, and disappointments”; and “find the real answers to your problems within your own heart.” Why? Because “the answers lie deep within.”
Those books may sport logos from Christian publishers, but that kind of advice is not biblical and is unworthy of being labeled Christian. In fact, it sums up the very worst advice secular psychology offers.
Nowhere does Scripture advise people to seek answers by looking within. In fact, Scripture explicitly teaches us that we are sinners and should distrust our own hearts: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it? I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind …” (Jer. 17:9–10). Those who look within themselves to find answers are in a hopeless situation. Instead of answers, they get lies.
Psychology cannot solve this dilemma. Virtually all psychotherapy turns people inward, studying feelings, groping for suppressed memories, seeking self-esteem, scrutinizing attitudes, and generally listening to one’s own heart. But emotions are hopelessly subjective, and our own hearts are deceitful. Only biblical counseling can offer reliable, authoritative, objective answers. And the objective truth of Scripture is the only tool God uses in the process of sanctification. Jesus Himself prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth” (John 17:17).
Unfortunately, psychology and worldly therapies have usurped the role of sanctification in some Christians’ thinking. Psychological sanctification has become a substitute for the Spirit-filled life. The notion is abroad within the Church that psychotherapy is often a more effective change agent—particularly in dealing with the most difficult cases—than the Holy Spirit who sanctifies.
But can psychotherapy possibly accomplish something that the Holy Spirit cannot? Can an earthly therapist achieve more than a heavenly Comforter? Is behavior modification more helpful than sanctification? Of course not.
To understand the crucial role the Holy Spirit plays in meeting people’s inner needs, we must go back to what Jesus taught His disciples when He first promised them He would send the Holy Spirit. It happened on the night Jesus was betrayed. His crucifixion was drawing near, and the disciples were fearful and confused. When Jesus spoke to them about going away, their hearts were troubled (John 14:1–2). In that hour of turmoil, they feared being left alone. But Jesus assured them that they would not be left to fend for themselves. He comforted them with this wonderful promise:
“I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you, and will be in you.
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. After a little while the world will behold Me no more; but you will behold Me; because I live, you shall live also. In that day you shall know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.
“He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me; and he who loves Me shall be loved by My Father, and I will love him, and will disclose Myself to him.”
Judas (not Iscariot) said to Him, “Lord, what then has happened that You are going to disclose Your self to us, and not to the world?” …
Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me. These things I have spoken to you, while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:16–26).
“Helper” in verse 16 is the Greek word paraklētos, meaning someone called to another’s aid. First John 2:1 applies the same term to Jesus Himself: “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate [paraklētos] with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” The word is sometimes transliterated into English as “paraclete.” It describes a spiritual attendant whose role is to offer assistance, succor, support, relief, advocacy, and guidance—a divine Counselor whose ministry to believers is to offer the very things that so many people vainly seek in therapy!
The promises Jesus made with regard to the Holy Spirit and His ministry are staggering in their scope. Let’s look at some of the key elements of this text.
A Divine Helper
The word translated “another” is a key to understanding the nature of the Holy Spirit. The Greek text carries a precision that is not immediately evident in English. Two Greek words can be translated “another.” One is heteros, which means “a different one, a different kind” as in, “If that style is not what you want, try another.” Allos is also translated “another” in English, but it means “another of the same kind,” as in, “That cookie was tasty; may I have another?”
Jesus used allos to describe the Holy Spirit: “another [allos] Helper [of the same kind].” He was promising to send His disciples a Helper exactly like Himself—a compassionate, loving, divine Paraclete. They had grown dependent on Jesus’ ministry to them. He had been their Wonderful Cou
Here, for the first time, Jesus gave the disciples extensive teaching about the Holy Spirit and His role. Note that our Lord spoke of the Spirit as a Person, not an influence, not a mystical power, not some ethereal, impersonal, phantom force. The Spirit has all the attributes of personality (mind—Rom. 8:27; emotions—Eph. 4:30; and will—Heb. 2:4) and all the attributes of deity (cf. Acts 5:3–4). He is another Paraclete of exactly the same essence as Jesus.
There was, however, a significant difference: Jesus was returning to the Father, but the Holy Spirit would “be with you forever” (v. 16). The Holy Spirit is a constant, sure, trustworthy, divine Paraclete graciously given by Christ to His disciples to be with them forever.
A Guide to Truth
It is noteworthy that Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of truth” (v. 17). As God, He is the essence of truth; as a Paraclete, He is the One who guides us into truth. That is why apart from Him, it is impossible for sinful beings to know or understand any spiritual truth. Jesus said, “The world cannot receive [Him], because it does not behold Him or know Him” (v. 17). Echoing that truth, Paul wrote, “To us God revealed [things which the world cannot see or understand] through the Spirit … Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God … But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:10, 12, 14).
The unregenerate have no facility for spiritual perception. They cannot comprehend spiritual truth because they are spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1), unable to respond to anything except their own sinful passions. Believers, on the other hand, are actually taught spiritual truth by God Himself (cf. John 6:45). In fact, much of the Holy Spirit’s ministry to believers involves teaching them (John 14:26; 1 Cor. 2:13; 1 John 2:20, 27); guiding them into the truth of Christ (John 16:13–14); and illuminating the truth for them (1 Cor. 2:12).
This promise of a supernatural Teacher had a special application for the eleven disciples. Often, Jesus’ teaching was difficult for them to understand immediately. In fact, much of what He told them meant nothing to them until after His resurrection. For example, in John 2:22 we read, “When … He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had spoken.” John 12:16 says, “These things His disciples did not understand at the first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written of Him, and that they had done these things to Him.” In John 16:12, Jesus said, “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”
After Jesus ascended to heaven, one of the crucial ministries of the Holy Spirit was to bring to the disciples’ minds what Jesus had said and to teach them what He meant: “These things I have spoken to you, while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:25–26). That means that the Holy Spirit enabled the disciples to recall the precise words Jesus had spoken to them—so that when they recorded them as Scripture, the words were perfect and error free. This assured that the gospel accounts were recorded infallibly, and that the apostolic teaching was unadulterated.
But this promise of our Lord also reveals the Holy Spirit as a supernatural Teacher who ministers truth to the hearts of those whom He indwells. The Spirit guides us into the truth of God’s Word. He teaches us, affirms the truth in our hearts, convicts us of sin, and often brings to mind specific truths and statements of Scripture that are applicable to our lives. As we noted, “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him … to us God revealed them through the Spirit …” (1 Cor. 2:9–10, emphasis added).
As a divinely indwelling teacher, the Spirit of Truth fills a function that no human counselor can even approach. He is constantly there, pointing the way to truth, applying the truth directly to our hearts, prompting us to conform to the truth—in short, sanctifying us in the truth (John 17:17).
The Indwelling Presence
Look a little more closely at Jesus’ words at the end of John 14:17: “He abides with you, and will be in you.” Our Lord was promising that the Holy Spirit would take up permanent, uninterrupted residence within His disciples. It was not only that the Spirit would be present with them; the greater truth was that He would be resident within them permanently.
This truth of the permanently indwelling Spirit is one of the wonderful New Covenant realities. Ezekiel 37:14 foretold it: “I will put My Spirit within you, and you will come to life.” In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit was often present with believers, but He did not indwell them. Moreover, His presence seemed to be conditional; so David prayed, “Do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11).
In the New Testament era, however, believers have a permanently resident Paraclete, not with, but within. In fact, the indwelling presence of the Spirit is one of the proofs of salvation: “You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him” (Rom. 8:9).
Jesus’ promise in John 14 that the Holy Spirit would reside within was not limited to the eleven apostles who were present that night. The Holy Spirit indwells every Christian. In verse 23, Jesus said, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him” (emphasis added). Paul, writing to the Corinthians, said, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Cor. 6:19). Thus each believer enjoys the permanent, continuing presence of the Holy Spirit living within.
Union With Christ
In John 14:18–19, Jesus continued, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. After a little while the world will behold Me no more; but you will behold Me.” Christ knew that within hours He would be crucified. His earthly ministry was coming to an end. But He reassured the disciples that He was not leaving them altogether. They would continue to behold Him.
What does that mean? In what sense would they be able to behold Him? There seem to be two key elements to that promise. First, He was reassuring them by implication that He would rise from the dead. Death would neither conquer Him nor end His ministry in their lives. Second, He promised, “I will come to you” (v. 18). That promise can be interpreted in various ways. Some see it as a reference to the Second Coming. Others view it as a promise that He would appear to them after He rose from the dead. In this context, however, this promise seems linked to the coming of the Holy Spirit to dwell within them. What Jesus seems to be saying is that He will be spiritually present in the disciples through the agency of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Compare this to the subsequent promise He gave just before He ascended: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). In what sense is He “with His chosen ones? And in what sense would they “behold” Him? The answer seems to be tha
This doctrine is known as union with Christ. John Murray wrote, “Union with Christ is really the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.”5 All believers are joined with Christ by the Holy Spirit in an inseparable union. Scripture sometimes speaks of this union as our being in Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17; Phil. 3:9), and sometimes as Christ’s being in us (cf. Rom. 8:10; Gal. 2:20, Col. 1:27). A few passages even merge the twin concepts: “Abide in Me, and I in you. (John 15:4). “By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit” (1 John 4:13).
As that last verse shows, our union with Christ is inextricably linked to the Holy Spirit’s indwelling. It is through the Holy Spirit that we become one with Christ, and through the Spirit that Christ lives in our hearts. Those in whom the Spirit abides operate in a different dimension. They are alive to the spiritual realm. They commune with Christ. They move and participate in the life of the Spirit. They have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).
Jesus continued His comforting words to the disciples in John 14: “In that day you shall know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you” (v. 20). Here He was emphasizing our spiritual union with Him and His own union with the Father. It seems evident that on this dreadful night when Jesus was about to be betrayed, the disciples still did not understand the mystery of Christ’s relationship to His Father. Much less could they have grasped the concept of their own union with Christ. But Jesus told them that the time would come when they would begin to understand the richness of these realities: “In that day you shall know” (v. 20) seems to refer to the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came in power. What happened that day demonstrates the power of God’s Spirit to teach us, to untangle our confusion, and to empower us for service. Peter suddenly stood up and began preaching with a power, a clarity, and a boldness that were foreign to him. It was as if everything suddenly fell into place spiritually for him. He had the mind of Christ and was immediately transformed from a cowering, confused disciple, into a fearless, forthright apostle. He was united through faith with Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit. He now had access to a power and a confidence that he had never shown before.
The Love of God
There is at least one more important aspect of Jesus’ promise to His disciples on that final night. He told them, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me; and he who loves Me shall be loved by My Father, and I will love him, and will disclose Myself to him” (John 14:21). There Jesus echoes a statement He had made just a few verses earlier (“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments”—v. 15), then expands that truth into a promise of the Father’s love graciously shown to those who follow the Son.
That passage describes the believer’s relationship with the Father and the Son. We love Christ, so we keep His commandments. Those who love Christ are loved by the Father, and Christ manifests Himself to them. The Spirit’s role is not explicitly stated here, but it is the Spirit within who empowers believers to love and obey Christ: “The love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5). It is not that God loves us because we love the Son. On the contrary, our love for Him is prompted by His grace to us. The apostle John says elsewhere, “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Thus Christianity involves a supernatural relationship with the Trinity. The Spirit indwells the believer, kindling righteous desires and holy affections, pouring out the love of God in our hearts. The believer thus loves Christ and strives to obey Him. Moreover, both the Father and the Son pledge their love to believers, and Christ continually manifests Himself in that love. The believer, then, is the beneficiary of a loving relationship involving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
At this point in Jesus’ discourse, Judas—not Judas Iscariot but the disciple who is also called Lebbaeus and Thaddaeus—spoke out: “Lord, what then has happened that You are going to disclose Yourself to us, and not to the world?” (John 14:22). Jesus answered, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him” (v. 23).
That answer simply reiterated what the Lord had said in verses 15 and 21. But Jesus continued: “He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me” (v. 24). The implication is clear: The Lord Jesus will not manifest Himself to those who are disobedient. Those who do not love Christ, who do not want Him, who refuse to obey His words, are cut off from any relationship or fellowship with Him.
Moreover, those who reject the Son reject the Father as well. When they turn from the commandments of Christ, they scorn the Father’s Word. They cut themselves off from any of the spiritual benefits of fellowship with God.
That raises a question essential to the issue of biblical counseling. Can the biblical counselor offer meaningful help for non-Christians? If the counselee lacks all the spiritual resources Jesus has described; if the Holy Spirit does not dwell within; if the person has no fellowship with the Father or the Son—can any amount of counsel ultimately help resolve the problems that brought the individual for help in the first place?
The answer seems obvious. Some superficial problems might be addressed by the application of biblical principles. For example, a husband might be encouraged to live with his wife in an understanding way (1 Pet.3:7), and the quality of that marriage might improve some. Or a young person struggling with submission to authority might learn the importance of complying with parents and authority figures, and thereby avoid some conflicts. But apart from the regenerating influence of the Holy Spirit, no amount of counseling can resolve the root problems. External conformity even to biblical law cannot undo the effects of sin.
Therefore, the biblical counselor’s first priority is to determine whether the counselee is a believer. Those who are not must be shown their need for redemption first of all. That is, in fact, the way Jesus Himself modeled counseling. When Nicodemus came to Him by night, Jesus told him, “You must be born again” (John 3:7).
The Holy Spirit in Biblical Counseling
The new birth is the Holy Spirit’s sovereign work (John 3:8). And every aspect of true spiritual growth in the life of the believer is prompted by the Spirit, using the truth of Scripture (John 17:17). The counselor who misses that point will experience failure, frustration, and discouragement.
Only the Holy Spirit can work fundamental changes in the human heart. Therefore, the Holy Spirit is the necessary agent in all effective biblical counseling. The counselor, armed with biblical truth, can offer objective guidance and steps for change. But unless the Holy Spirit is working in the heart of the counselee, any apparent change will be illusory, superficial, or temporary—and the same problems or worse ones will soon reappear.
At the outset of this chapter we spoke of the futility of looking within to find answers to our problems. And it is certainly true that those who focus on themselves, their childhood traumas, their wounded feelings, their emotional cravings, or other egocentric sources will never find genuine answers to their troubles.
The true believer, however, does have a Helper who dwells within. He is the Holy Spirit, who applies the objective truth of Scripture in the process of sanctification. Yet even He does not draw our at
Ultimately, it is unto Christ that the counselee’s focus must be directed. “Beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). That is the process of sanctification. And it is the ultimate goal of all truly biblical counseling.
1 1 Wendy Kaminer, I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1992).
2 2 Ibid., 121.
3 3 Ibid., 124.
4 4 Kaminer,I’m Dysfunctional, 124–125.
5 5 John Murray, Redemption—Accomplished and Applied(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 161.
John MacArthur, F., Jr, Wayne A. Mack and Master’s College, Introduction to Biblical Counseling : Basic Guide to the Principles and Practice of Counseling, Electronic ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1997, c1994), 131.
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