Counseling Fallen People Based on the Bible’s Teaching on Sin

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Counseling and Sin

Every counseling practitioner does his or her work out of the overflow of a worldview that answers who we are, what is wrong with us, and what it would take to fix it. Counseling people means the counselor has an understanding of who people are. Counseling people also means having an understanding of what is wrong with people, since the work of giving counsel assumes the existence of a problem. Counseling people also means understanding what it takes to fix those problems, since counseling moves toward solutions. Each of these three elements in the required counseling worldview is crucial, but our focus here is the second element: an understanding of what is wrong with us.

Every counseling practitioner has an understanding of what is wrong with the people who seek out counseling services. Things get complicated at this point because there are nearly as many different understandings of what is wrong with people as there are counseling practitioners. There are a variety of explanations for why people have problems that require counseling, including parental influences from early childhood, genetic influences, chemical influences in the brain, habituated behaviors, negative responses to traumatic experiences, unmet needs, and many, many others. Very thick books have been written engaging the corpus of explanations for what is wrong with people who seek counseling help.

Ruined Sinners to Reclaim

Ruined Sinners to Reclaim

David Gibson, Jonathan Gibson

With contributions from more than two dozen well-respected Reformed theologians and church leaders, this volume offers a comprehensive defense of the doctrine of total depravity from historical, biblical, theological, and pastoral perspectives.

The examples that I have listed, like the many I have not listed, are not wrong but are incomplete. Counseling systems that seek to answer what is wrong with people are often correct as far as they go. The problem is that they address only a narrow slice of human difficulties; they fail to account for other manifestations of difficulty outside of the specific area they address, and they fail to understand the genesis of the problem in the first place. One of the ongoing problems in the counseling world is that there is no grand unifying theory that explains what is ultimately wrong with people.

This is not a problem for Christians. As believers we have God’s authoritative word, the Bible, that tells us what is wrong with us. In the Bible God reveals the master category for all counseling problems. More than that, he describes the various manifestations of that master category. In Scripture God makes clear that what explains every counseling dilemma, every problem in living, is the tragedy of sin.

Sin as the root of all counseling problems is one of the most important contributions to the counseling field from counseling practitioners who are committed to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. The biblical doctrine of total depravity teaches that, while God’s common grace protects human beings from performing the maximum amount of sinful acts (cf. Gen. 4:15; 11:6–9; 20:6; 2 Thess. 2:7), sin has completely corrupted each person. Human beings are not just touched by sin. They are not merely tainted. They are ruined.

This sinful ruin devastates our standing before God. Humans are separated from God because of sin, and their consciences convict them of it (Rom. 5:12–14; 2:14–15). There is no aspect of our humanness that has not been affected by sin. This sinful ruin devastates our volition. Sin distorts our motivations, corrupting our ability to choose what is right (James 1:14–15). Sin has calamitous effects on our thinking. Because of our rebellion against God, the cognitive abilities of our minds are severely damaged (Rom. 1:18ff.; Col. 1:21; Eph. 4:17–18). Sin also disrupts our emotions. The destructive effects of sin corrupt God’s good gift of emotion, rendering us unable to feel as we should (Prov. 2:14). Sin impacts our bodies, so that what God made perfect is now weak (1 Cor. 15:42–44). Sin impacts our relationships, so that good fellowship between persons is corrupted (Titus 3:3). Sin is so devastating that its consequences corrupt even the entire created order (Rom. 8:20–22). This is a brief summary of the effects of human sinfulness.1 All of this sinful corruption touches down in the practice of counseling in three specific ways.

Cosmic Corruption

The Bible makes clear that, when Adam sinned, he plunged the entire cosmos into a state of ruin along with him (Gen. 3:17–19). The entire created order was devastated by Adam’s disobedience, and a limitless buffet of terror has followed in its wake. Cells grow at unnatural and unprecedented rates; animals develop a predatory instinct and attack; demonic forces are on the prowl, looking to devour; weather systems develop into deadly forces that wipe out entire cities; genes mutate, leading to babies with any number of congenital abnormalities.

These manifestations of the cosmic consequences of sin—combined with many, many others—lead to counseling problems that are all incredibly painful but for which no living person is accountable. Of course, these problems trace back to the fall of Adam, but no person in the counselee’s life is responsible; not themselves, and not anyone they know. Hurting men and women seek out counseling care because they are overwhelmed by a terminal cancer diagnosis after living a healthy life, or a loved one was killed in a hurricane, or their family has welcomed the birth of a precious baby with all the challenges of a trisomy 13 diagnosis. Sin is at the root of these kinds of counseling problems, but the focus of counseling is not to locate responsibility for sin on the hurting person but rather to help them trust God amid the excruciating consequences of living life in a world devastated by the cosmic results of sin.

In the Bible God reveals the master category for all counseling problems.

Individual Corruption

Sin has cosmic consequences, but it has individual effects as well. Living in a sinful world means each individual person sins in very specific ways. Individuals damage their lives through the abuse of chemicals like alcohol and tobacco. They destroy their bodies through self-mutilating acts like cutting. They isolate themselves from others to focus on pornography addictions. They lose their jobs after misappropriating funds. Such manifestations of sinfulness fill up countless counseling hours.

In these cases, the responsibility for sin is much more personal than in the consequences of sin that flow from Adam’s disobedience alone. Our individual corruption proves that each human being is a sinner in his or her own right, and is happy to choose actions that lead to destruction (Rom. 1:32). Counseling in such situations seeks to love people by helping them see their sin, take responsibility for it, seek the forgiveness of God in Christ to atone for it, and put off earthly practices in pursuit of putting on the practices of God’s chosen ones (Col. 3:1–17).

Relational Corruption

Because every sinful individual lives life with other sinful individuals, sin always has a relational impact. The sin of one person impacts another and creates pain. Friends quit speaking to one another, spouses divorce, parents abuse their children, Christians gossip about one another, and people sue their bosses for wrongful termination. In these as well as in other countless examples, we see the moral friction caused as sinners live together in a corrupt world.

Counseling in a world of relational brokenness is about walking with people who have sinned in their relationships, assisting them in seeing where they have wronged another person, and helping them to take responsibility through confession of sin and satisfaction of any restitution that may be required (Matt. 7:3–5). It is also about helping them to know what forgiveness and reconciliation look like when others have sinned against them (Matt. 18:15–35).

Incorporating the Bible’s Teaching on Sin

These three categories are commonplace for most Christians. Believers are accustomed to thinking about them. But they are absolutely revolutionary in the field of counseling. They are revolutionary for secular counseling practitioners who lack this organizing principle from God himself that arranges every single counseling problem. These categories are also revolutionary for many Christians who do not appreciate how comprehensive these categories are and how relevant they are to the counseling problems people face.

In instructing his people about sin, God has provided an incredible gift. There is no place else besides the Bible that includes such crucial information. There is no research study that demonstrates this truth, and there is no secular theorist who describes it. Ever since the scientific revolution touched the field of psychology in he late 1800s, the gathered forces of the Western scholarly world have struggled to describe what the nature of human problems is.4 God alone tells us. And he tells us in shockingly moral categories: humans have defied God, leading to earth-shaking consequences. That defiance destroys our relationships and our lives, and ultimately ends in death.

This is the key to unlocking every counseling problem in the universe. And only those with access to God’s special revelation know it. Christians know it from studying the Bible. And so we must conclude that counseling fallen people requires the Bible, because all counseling problems are sin problems, which the Bible alone understands. Any approach to counseling that is ignorant of the Bible’s teaching on sin—or, which refuses to implement the Bible’s teaching on sin—will be insufficient and, ultimately, unhelpful as a counseling resource.

Notes:

  1.  Heath Lambert, A Theology of Biblical Counseling: The Doctrinal Foundation of Counseling Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 214–46.

This article is by Heath Lambert and is adapted from Ruined Sinners to Reclaim: Sin and Depravity in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective coedited by David and Jonathan Gibson.


Heath Lambert

Heath Lambert (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida, is a founding council board member of the Biblical Counseling Coalition, and sits on the review board for The Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He previously served as executive director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors and as associate professor of biblical counseling at Boyce College of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.


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