Recently I have been reading a book that seeks to integrate psychology and theology. As is often true with integrationist works, the authors share many helpful statistics, historical perspectives, and insights, but they also seem to water down both the seriousness of the human condition and the liberating power of the gospel. One idea in the book is that religion can offer resources to help people cope better with problems in living. While this is true, it falls short of the hope we seek to offer to sufferers and sinners. This general statement about coping contrasts with Paul’s gospel exclamation in Galatians 5: 1: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” A proper perspective on our goal is critical: Is counseling a matter of using religious resources to learn to cope better with problems, or is it a decisive and progressive liberation from destructive slavery? Let’s look at Paul’s manifesto of freedom in Galatians for truths that lead to true freedom and life.
- Galatians 1: 1—“Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father….” In any counseling relationship the question of authority is crucial: By whose authority do you seek to understand counselees’ problems and offer counsel? There are many competing human psychologies and counseling models from which to choose. To whom should we listen? Paul’s claim to be “an apostle–not from men nor through man, but through Jesus” is a claim that his understanding of the fallen human condition and its ultimate cure (the gospel) is not human but divine. He had received this liberating message not from any man or institution, but from the Wonderful Counselor himself. Therefore, the gospel Paul explains in Galatians has divine authority to persuade and divine power to set free. When we counsel with God’s Word, we counsel with this same authority, clarity, and power.
- Galatians 1: 10—“For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” The gospel of freedom Paul preached had already done its work in him. He was free from the debilitating power of the fear of man. He sought to please God as a servant of Christ and to love others by preaching the truth to them. It’s tempting to counsel others hoping they will change quickly and affirm us so we can feel good about ourselves. The gospel gives us a deep security to counsel with love and power for the glory of Christ and the good of our counselees—with no strings attached.
- Galatians 2: 13-14—“And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him….But when I saw their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel….” What is fundamentally wrong with those whom we counsel—past trauma, wrong cognitions, unhelpful conditioned responses, poor modeling, unmet needs, biological weaknesses? According to Paul, the most serious issue is that people do not walk in step with the gospel and that this inevitably leads to hypocritical or inauthentic living. As we will see, people naturally seek to do life on their own, according to their own perceived needs and pursuing their own false saviors. This leads to various forms of self-deceived thinking and self-enslaved behavior. “Religious resources for coping” are powerless to deal with these entrenched patterns of slavery.
- Galatians 2: 16—“yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Here Paul introduces the foundational deliverance from all that enslaves us: being made right with God through justification by faith in Christ. This is a main theme of Galatians and the foundation for all authentic freedom. Justification means that by the simple act of trusting in Christ alone for salvation a person is completely forgiven of all past, present, and future sins and is permanently accepted by God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness. This truth, which most people either don’t understand or don’t fully assimilate, can have a liberating effect on counselees enslaved to various forms of self-justifying performance. Being assured that God accepts and welcomes them in Christ is a powerful motivator for godly living!
- Galatians 2: 20—“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” One of the crucial questions we ask as counselors is, “What identity is this person living out?” Recently I helped a counselee struggling with alcohol addiction to see that he has a much more glorious identity than “recovering alcoholic”—he is a blood-bought, Spirit-filled, beloved, headed-for-heaven, child of God. Only Christ, through the gospel, can give us a totally new identity: Christ himself living in us! The Son of God loved us enough to give himself for us so that we could live by faith, hope, and love. This is so much more than just coping!
- Galatians 3: 5—“Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” According to Paul, freedom for authentic godly living is the result of justification, a new identity, and the gift of the Spirit, and hearing with faith is the means by which we receive them. Here Paul contrasts faith and works as diametrically opposed paths to freedom and life. Appealing to their conversion and early experience, Paul presses home that the gospel is good news, not good advice; it is rescue from slavery, not religious reform; it is a gift of sheer grace, not an award for meritorious service. Many counselees are exhausted and insecure because they think they must perform up to a certain standard for God’s approval and blessing. But they don’t have to!
- Galatians 3: 10, 13-14—“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’….Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…so that so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” Here Paul exposes the futility of self-justification: trying to be saved by works of the law leads to being cursed by God! The problem he points out is that God’s standard of performance is perfect obedience and no one can live up to it. Trying to save ourselves in any way brings us under “the curse of the law” (see Deuteronomy 28: 15-68 for a terrifying overview of this curse) and leads to many counselees having problems like anxiety, depression, relational problems, and addictions. Again, Paul points us and our counselees to the curse-bearing cross of Christ and the life-imparting power of the Spirit: freedom from the curse and freedom for the blessing increases as we assist counselees to “live by faith” (Galatians 3: 11).
Let’s summarize: Biblical counseling does not offer religious resources for coping with the problems of life. Rather, it offers a deep, decisive, and progressive freedom from all enslaving forms of performance-oriented law-keeping and enslaving patterns of law-breaking. In the gospel we have a divinely authoritative message of forgiveness, righteousness, freedom, and new life in Christ. And all this is experienced by trusting in the curse-bearing death of Jesus and receiving the blessing of the Holy Spirit. We will look at some more liberating truths in Galatians in the near future.
Join the Conversation
Have you sought to justify yourself by your own performance (or counseling)? How is the gospel setting you free? Think of someone you are counseling: which of these truths does this person need to hear with faith?