Mark Shaw

The Gospel for Extremists

November 30, 2015

Mark Shaw

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Mark Shaw

“Where have you been? I haven’t seen you for two weeks,” you ask a counselee over the phone.

She responds, “I blew it two weeks ago, and I just couldn’t face you. I won’t be back for counseling.”

Has this ever happened to you? Have you had counselees who have blown it? By blown it I mean that after a period of success in battling her particular sin (e.g., anger, depression, sexual sin, an addictive pleasure) your counselee has a moment of weakness where she willfully chooses to love her sin more than her Savior. That choice then leads her further than she thought she would go, and she becomes more engaged in the sinful behavior. She gets immersed in guilt and shame, which results in feeling estranged from both you and God. It is a dark and lonely path. In my biblical counseling experience, counselees who have blown it often respond in one of two extremes. Thankfully, the gospel offers true hope for both extreme responses.

Extreme #1: Making Too Little of Sin

Sometimes the response is not a strong enough hatred of the heart issues that led to the sin. Rarely do I focus solely upon sinful behavior because that is not the root problem. The heart motives driving the behavior are the problem, because those “thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12 NASB) will continue until God transforms them into new ones. That may happen immediately, but I find that more often new desires develop after a season of practicing righteous thinking. My strategy in counseling people who do not hate their sinful desires is to begin with heart-probing questions. These help to reveal motives. I may already suspect certain heart motives based on data gathered in past interactions, but I want counselees to figure it out as well. This is for the purpose of leading them to repentance and reconciliation with Christ. If counselees make too little of their sin, I can share with them the magnitude of what Christ was required to do at Calvary.

Proverbs 28:13 reminds us of a simple truth: “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” Sometimes counselees desire to conceal their transgressions because they do not want to deal with it at the heart level. Hiding it, minimizing it, relabeling it, and shifting blame for it are some of the ways counselees might conceal sin without a hatred of it, often wanting to continue on in their sin.

In some cases, the sinful choice is the “best friend” of the counselee. For example, the self-injurer does not want to stop cutting, because it is her most effective way to deal with anger and disappointment. The alcoholic’s drink is his best tool to battle the hurt of a painful divorce. Letting go of that tool being used to escape pain is going to be difficult. Only the Word of God and the convicting power of the Holy Spirit as ministered by a committed, biblical friend in the local Body of Christ will offer real hope and practical help for counselees who make too little of their sin.

Extreme #2: Making Too Much of Sin

Sometimes the response is in the opposite direction. Counselees who believe Christ cannot or will not forgive them again and again for sin breeds hopelessness. Failing to see the everlasting grace and mercy of the forgiveness of Christ is not only a huge hurdle for counselees to overcome, but also is an offense to the living God. When the Lord passed before Moses in Exodus 34:6-7, He described Himself in the following manner:

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Moses responded as the representative of a sinful people in this moment with worship as he cried out for mercy and grace according to verses 8-9:

And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. And he said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”

Moses knew the sin of his people was severe (worship of a false god) and that he was begging for mercy to the One True God who describes Himself as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” Moses’ response to God was right and true: He knew they were undeserving of God’s mercy, but He pled for mercy anyway. A paraphrase could be “Because of Your character, Lord, please forgive us by not giving us what we deserve (mercy) and go with us, enabling us to do what You have called us to do (grace).”

Again, the gospel demonstrates the mercy and grace of a just and holy God who loves us and forgives the repentant heart of counselees who makes too much of their sin.


It is our task as biblical counselors to identify either of these extremes for counselees who have blown it and to lead them in examining their motives and inaccurate beliefs about God, His character, and the gospel. Our duty is to compassionately address our counselees by speaking the truth in love. Proverbs 27:5-6 reminds us: “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” In speaking the truth in love, our goal is to emphasize the importance of knowing Jesus Christ intimately as the starting point of eternal life: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

Either extreme can be overcome through an accurate depiction of the gospel and a skillful handling of the Scriptures that balances truth and grace (John 1:14). In either case of extreme thinking, presenting the gospel and opening the Scriptures will give the counselee an opportunity to know Christ accurately according to His Word. As you rely upon the Holy Spirit to do His work in the hearts of your counselees, may He be ever gracious and merciful to you as His ambassador. Remember that you are simply “one beggar showing another beggar where the bread is,” recognizing your need for Christ as you instruct and counsel a sin-stuck person. What a privilege to be a messenger of God’s mercy, grace, and truth!

Join the Conversation

  • How can you tell when a counselee is making too little or too much of his or her sin? What are some of the statements a counselee makes in either/both extremes?
  • How important is humility for the counselor and for the counselee experiencing either extreme?

One thought on “The Gospel for Extremists

  1. The ultimate in prideful legalism is “I did not live up to my own expectations of myself,” or put another way, “I thought I was better than this…” Once my legalism judged others and wrongly thought I myself was righteous but I have learned to give others grace I have not learned to walk in myself. I am very prone to allowing one sin to lead me into the sin of despair of my own unfaithfulness and then depression and giving up.

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