If one has a specific problem, such as anger, biblical counselors generally focus on that problem. Questions are asked, information is gleaned, and assumptions are often made. Generally such conversations will involve speaking ill of others, including parents and spouses. Generally after much conversation about the problem some Bible verses associated with that problem may be introduced with a plan to overcome the sin. Using verses associated with problems can certainly indicate when sin is involved, but one does not overcome sin by the law, but rather by walking according to the Spirit. Therefore, the “cure” is not to work on anger alone or any other problem directly as if it is isolated from the rest of one’s life, but rather to submit to the biblical means of spiritual growth.
One could try to stop the anger (external behavior) with no inner heart transformation. A host of verses having to do with anger may be enlisted, but unless one uses the anger and any associated verses as a signal to turn from walking according to the flesh to walking according to the Spirit, one will be left to struggle in the flesh and, even if there is some success, the flesh may be strengthened.
On the other hand, one could blame the anger on the “idols of the heart” (inner drives and motives) and start trying to figure out how these “idols” developed by searching into past circumstances, but that could end up being just another fleshly activity. At the least, it would be analytic and supposition-bound rather than spiritual. An “idols of the heart” approach may lead accurately and/or inaccurately to some form of cognitive growth, but not necessarily spiritual growth. Moreover, just as psychological counseling can only affect the natural man of the flesh, counseling that attempts to deal with problems may also be limited to affecting and even strengthening the natural man of the flesh rather than leading to spiritual growth.
Many Christians already know that various attitudes and actions are sinful, but knowing better does not equal doing better, as the apostle Paul confessed, “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I” (Romans 7:15). Even God’s perfect law does not enable believers to do what is right. The apostle Paul explains the foundation from which believers are enabled to overcome sin in Romans 6-8. Christ has given them new life to replace the one that was “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). They have also been given the indwelling Holy Spirit to enable them to follow God’s Word. While biblical counselors would agree that believers have been given new life to replace the old and that believers are to walk according to the Spirit rather than according to the flesh, they nevertheless focus more on the problem at hand. Biblical counselors would also agree with the truth of Galatians 5:
Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh (v. 16).
And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit (vv. 24-25).
However, these truths seem to be taken for granted rather than being emphasized as the foundation from which a believer’s behavior should flow. Rather than emphasizing and reminding fellow believers of the basic doctrines of the faith, most biblical counselors talk about the problems and what one should do about them. This is worse than putting the cart before the horse; it is equivalent to making the cart go by itself. It is the error of the “imperative” without the “indicative.”
The indicative and the imperative are two different kinds of sentences. The indicative is a statement of fact, while the imperative is a command. In the context of personal ministry, the indicative gives the foundational truths which must come first; the imperative tells believers what to do. Paul was very careful to instruct believers in the doctrines of the faith (indicative) before telling them about how the faith was to be worked out in their lives. For instance, Paul explains what it is to be a Christian in the first three chapters of Ephesians (indicative), before he tells believers how to behave (imperative). He follows the same pattern in Romans and Colossians. The Christian life is one of faith in which the good works follow the doctrines of the faith (Eph. 2:10).
New Covenant Relationship
The Christian walk begins by grace through faith in believing in Jesus Christ and all He accomplished through his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension whereby He won salvation for believers by dying in their place and by giving them a brand new life in the Spirit. In so doing, Christ established a New Covenantal relationship in which the believer lives by the new life in Him, rather than under the Old Covenant relationship of the Mosaic Law given at Mount Sinai. Thus, all of the believer’s life is to flow from this New Covenant relationship in Christ, wherein the believer walks by faith according to the Spirit rather than according to the flesh (Romans 8:4). Therefore every situation is to be seen from the perspective of being in union with Christ and responded to according to the new life in Christ by faith.
As believers we have been given new life so that we can walk according to the Spirit. However, Scripture tells us that the flesh wars against the Spirit (Gal. 5:17), so that we need to resist reverting to the old ways of the flesh by grace through faith in Christ and His Word. The way to nurture the new life is not behavior modification or analyzing and thereby trying to fix up the “old man, which is corrupt according to deceitful lusts” (Eph. 4:22). The way of the new life is to believe and follow the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a matter of trusting and obeying Him daily and moment by moment. When believers walk according to the Spirit they have power over sin, but when they revert to the flesh they become deceived and, even while they may seem to be improving their behavior, they are not doing it by the power of God, but by the power of the flesh. This is not equivalent to a “good me/bad me” mentality. Instead, it is “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” in contrast to the former ways of being in bondage to sin. It is walking in the kingdom of light instead of the kingdom of darkness.
Where Is the Focus?
One may ask how one can deal with anger, for instance, if one does not work directly on the anger problem. Rather than focusing on the problem, the believer is to give attention to Christ, all He has done, and the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Bible tells us that believers become more like Jesus when they are looking unto Him: “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18). Considering Christ’s perfection expands one’s vision of who He is and of His goal for believers to reflect Him.
When we say that believers are not to focus on the problem, we are not saying that they are to ignore it or deny it or minimize the seriousness. Instead, we suggest that believers use every temptation and every sin that they commit as an alarm that is blaring out the fact that they are not (at least in this instance) walking according to the Spirit. They are not living according to their new life in Christ. This alarm is a signal for them to turn around, which the Lord will enable them to do if they but turn to Him, for He has given His children a wonderful recourse for when they sin: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). While all sins (past, present, and future) have been taken care of at the cross, such recognition and confession here represent a turning back to the truth of what Christ has done in cleansing us from all unrighteousness. This is another way of saying that, when we recognize that we are walking according to the flesh, He has already provided the way for us to turn back to walking according to the Spirit.
Daily Dependence on Christ
As believers spend time in God’s presence daily in prayer, praise, worship, and Bible reading and as they serve the Lord and fellowship with other believers, they will more and more be walking according to the Spirit, which is also referred to as walking in the light. However, if they live day to day independently from the Lord with only an occasional recognition of His presence in their lives, they will get used to walking according to the flesh (walking in darkness) and will not notice when they begin to sin. In fact, they may excuse what they are doing and deny the fact of their sinfulness. The apostle John speaks of the difference between the two ways of walking:
If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (1 John 1:6-10).
As believers, we need to be awake to the life of Christ in us that we might walk in the light even as He is in the light, shining the light of truth on our attitudes, thoughts, words, and actions to see if they are expressions of the Spirit or the flesh. When we notice that they are of the Spirit we praise and thank God for His abiding presence through the Holy Spirit, but when we notice that they are of the flesh, we can repent, turn back to Christ, and walk according to the Spirit. When we remember and believe the “indicative,” the doctrine of the new life in Christ, we are enabled by grace through faith to obey the “imperative,” the admonitions of Scripture, such as those listed in Ephesians 4:25 – 6:20.
Such a walk of faith is one of daily dependence on God, but not according to a let-go-and-let-God attitude, but according to being so yoked with Christ that the believer’s faith is active moment by moment, responding to life’s circumstances in accordance with both the doctrines and directions of Scriptures. Paul described his own walk of faith this way:
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).
The life of independence must be put off so that the believer is dependent on the life of Christ living in him. This is the place of victory over sin and the place of spiritual growth through problems of living. Just as Jesus taught His disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (regarding our dependence on God for our daily physical provision), this new way of living must have daily spiritual sustenance. Believers need to feed daily on the living Word of God.
How much better it is to spend time daily with the Lord and to become cognizant of His constant presence through the Holy Spirit! How much better to be turning to Him throughout the day, no matter what the circumstances! How much better to be growing spiritually rather than focusing on problems! As we look to Him more and more and consider all He has done for us, we will actually become more aware of His goodness and of our own sinfulness—not just the obvious sins, but the more subtle ones of not being thankful, which can lead to ongoing inner and outer complaining, which can lead to ingratitude, self-pity, and self-centeredness.
As believers walk closely with the Lord they will notice when they are shifting back to the flesh and will turn back to the Lord and resume walking in the Spirit.
One could list a multitude of problems, both personal and interpersonal, but the answer would be the same: putting off the old ways, living by the new life, growing spiritually, and walking daily according to the Spirit. We would not discount any verse that tells us what to do (the imperative). We would use them, but in conjunction with the doctrines of the faith (indicative), with a special emphasis on the new life in Christ. Thus we would use the whole counsel of God and encourage spiritual growth, for as one matures in the faith one will be equipped to handle problems of living in such a way as to glorify God.
The Wrong Way or the Right Way?
Psychological counseling centers on the person and the problem through secular, fleshly means. Likewise, biblical counseling centers on the person and the problem, but through a mixed means. When the flesh is engaged in self-improvement, even to the extent of following the moral law, the flesh is strengthened rather than one’s spiritual life in Christ. The similarities between secular and biblical counseling are increasing at the same time the biblical counseling movement is gaining momentum throughout Christian churches, schools, colleges, and seminaries. We say, “Halt! Turn back to the Lord and His Word.” As good as so much of what is called “biblical counseling” may appear without close examination in the light of Scripture, it is the wrong way; the biblical ministry of teaching and mutual care in the Body of Christ is the biblical way, the right way.
(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, May-June 2010, Vol. 18, No. 3)