BCC Staff Note: You’re reading the third in a multi-part BCC Grace & Truth blog series on Biblical Counseling Education and Equipping. These posts will be written by leading biblical counseling equippers/educators. In today’s post, Dr. Robert Jones of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary shares about Biblically-Accurate Biblical Counseling.
“Is That What That Verse Means?”
I have the privilege of teaching biblical counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. I also serve as Pastor of Biblical Counseling at Open Door Church in Raleigh, NC. In both roles, it is my vision to equip students for biblically-accurate biblical counseling.
Among the many values of pursuing theological training, the chief, arguably, is learning to interpret and apply the Bible accurately. Bible college and seminary courses in biblical interpretation, the Old and New Testaments, theology, and the original languages increase our skill in correctly handling God’s Word.
Why is such accuracy vital in our counseling ministries? Because whenever we mishandle a Scripture passage, we commit not one but two errors. First, we make a text say something it does not say, bringing a wrong interpretation and application.
Second, we fail to let the same text say what it does say, ignoring its intended meaning. In other words, mishandling God’s Word produces interpretive sins of commission (teaching what it does not say) and interpretive sins of omission (not teaching what it does say). Either way, we rob our counselees of God’s life-giving truth.
Consider three common examples (citations from the NIV).
1. John 10:10
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
How often have we used this verse to contrast Jesus’s life-giving purposes with Satan’s destructive agenda? While this is theologically true—the devil is a devouring enemy (1 Peter 5:8)—there is nothing in the verse, the immediate context, or the entire chapter to suggest that our Lord refers to the devil.
If there is a direct reference needed—it may simply be a proverbial saying or a metaphor that needs no personal antecedent—then the preceding context refers to the unfaithful religious leaders or the false messiahs of Jesus’s day. Let us as biblical counselors not over-credit Satan; let us recognize the superiority of Jesus to all other religious prophets or saviors.
2. Ephesians 4:15
“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).
The phrase, “speaking the truth in love,” has become a cliché in many evangelical circles. Consider the dilemma a woman faces when her friend asks her what she thinks about that friend’s new outfit or hairstyle, but the woman doesn’t like it. “How do I speak the truth (I must be honest, I can’t lie) in love (I don’t want to hurt her feelings)?”
Or a member of your small group has grown spiritually cold and you believe God wants you to confront his sinful behavior. “Pray for me,” you say to your group leader, “that I will speak the truth to this man (I need to be bold) but that I will do so in love (I need to be gracious).”
Or maybe you assess the history and variations of biblical counseling and you conclude that we need to be people who can properly “balance” the call to speak the truth (e.g., about sin) with the call to do so in love (e.g., with grace).
What do these three applications of verse 15 have in common? They wrongly pit truth and love against one another, something foreign to the context. Moreover, they assign the meaning of confrontation to the term truth. But what does “truth” mean here? It means the gospel message. Verse 15 parallels verse 13, which refers to the “knowledge of the Son of God” that matures us. The noun form of “truth” appears in Ephesians 1:13; 4:21; and 6:14 and the verbal form (as in our verse) appears in Galatians 4:16. In each verse, the truth is the gospel!
What truth do we miss (interpretive sin of omission) when we misinterpret Ephesians 4:15? We miss Paul’s striking vision of each church member proclaiming to each other the gospel—what God has done, is doing, and will do in them and for them through Jesus Christ. Living out and sharing gospel applications—including nuances of comforting or confronting or instructing—lies at the heart of the Ephesians 4:11–16 vision. Let us as biblical counselors—and as church members—never pit love against truth or reduce speaking the truth to merely confronting. Instead, moved by love, let us speak gospel-drenched words to others.
“See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Hebrews 12:15).
The NIV translation I have cited avoids the common interpretive error that can arise from translations that refer to a “root of bitterness.” Based on this verse, counselors sometimes warn their counselees to resolve their anger (good counsel!) lest it sink down and form a root of bitterness (i.e., deep stubborn resentment, settled anger). In other words, bitterness takes “root” inside, and in turn it produces all sorts of personal and relational problems. Change comes, then, not by mere behavioral adjustments but by dealing with that bitterness on the root level, in the heart.
But is this what Hebrews 12:15 teaches? No. Nothing in the text or context points to a sin of bitterness. The writer alludes to Deuteronomy 29:18 where Moses warns the nation of Israel to make sure that no one among them turns away from the LORD. He then uses a metaphor. Such a person would be like a noxious root within the congregation that produces “bitter poison” (ESV “poisonous and bitter fruit”) that will lead others astray.
Commentator David Petersen observes:
“The image of a bitter root that can spread to infect many is from Deuteronomy 29:18…. The text in Deuteronomy is quite appropriate, for it refers to apostasy, as the writer of Hebrews does.”
Hebrews 12:15 is not addressing the sin of bitterness in our hearts. It uses a metaphor to warn against apostasy and to call the congregation to take spiritual oversight of one another. (For further comments, see my book, Uprooting Anger, Appendix A.) I certainly don’t deny that sinful anger can settle into heart bitterness (as any sin can); I just don’t think Hebrews 12:15 teaches it. And when we make a text say what it doesn’t say (interpretive sin of commission), we miss what it does say (interpretive sin of omission).
My hope is that these three examples—we can cite others—highlight the ongoing need for biblical counselors to be careful exegetes of the Bible, and that we as a BC movement will value Bible college and seminary training for counselors. With many in the Christian counseling world neglecting or mis-using the Christian Scriptures, we have a wide opportunity to re-assert the life-changing wisdom and power of God’s Word. And for those who are able, a few years of focused training in correctly handling Scripture will yield a lifetime of wisdom, credibility, and confidence in your counseling ministry.
Getting to Know Southeastern
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary is located in Wake Forest, NC (near Raleigh) and offers fully accredited MA, M.Div., D.Min, and Ph.D. degrees in Christ-centered biblical counseling. Many courses increasingly are available online and in short-term intensive formats. Southeastern also offers additional courses to meet state-licensure requirements for men and women who missionally desire to penetrate the mental health world with Christ-centered counseling wisdom.
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