In the ministry of biblical soul-care we share the common conviction that the Word of God is the sufficient and unsurpassed instrument to do the work of biblical counseling. Yet the question remains, how are we to handle the Scriptures in order to fulfill this ministry accurately?
Just recently in preparing for a counseling session I happened to come across a very familiar passage from Romans 1:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17)
Those are very familiar words from the apostle Paul which can serve as a fine summary of the letter to the church in Rome. I had read those words many times, and I had used them many times. The content is not that hard to catch, so I never bothered to think a lot about the last phrase “The righteous shall live by faith.” I just thought that since justification is by faith alone, Paul is basically saying that our sanctification is also by faith alone. I thought this is obvious, so I never bothered to look up the reference in the Old Testament from which Paul was quoting.
Yet this time it was different. The quote is from Habakkuk 2:4, so I started reading from the beginning (since it is really a short book). When I finally came across verse 4 in chapter 2, I was astonished. Reading the context from which Paul took his quote, I suddenly realized that I had always missed the point.
To give a short summary: Habakkuk was ministering before the first Chaldean captivity. He was saddened by the awful spiritual condition of the Israelites. He was crying out to the Lord to do something (1:2). To his surprise the Lord announced “something” unexpected—a horrible defeat under the Chaldeans (1:5-11). Habakkuk was in shock. Yes, he wanted the Lord to do something, but it would not have been the use of those uncircumcised barbarians to discipline his people! So he talks back to the Lord and pursues a strategy similar to what his father Abraham had tried before in Genesis 18:23ff: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Habakkuk wanted to persuade God not to bring such a harsh punishment by reminding Him of the righteous among His people. And it is in this context that the Lord informs Habakkuk that even the righteous in his nation will not live because of their righteousness, but because of their faith!
When Paul was referring to “the righteous” in Romans 1:17, he obviously did not have Christians in mind who had been justified by the blood of Jesus Christ, already bearing His righteousness (even though this is part of sound theology). Rather, Paul wanted to remind the Romans that no matter what kind of life they had been living, no matter whether they belonged to the Jewish nation or to a Gentile nation, no matter how hard they had tried to live a life pleasing to God, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—they could have contributed to the righteousness of God which is needed to be reconciled with him. It is by faith alone for everybody, even for the so-called righteous.
What is the Difference?
Whether we teach from Romans 1:17b that Christians who have been justified through faith are now being sanctified through faith – or – that anybody in spite of his descent, achievements, and performance will only be made righteous through faith doesn’t seem to make a big difference at first. Aren’t both biblical?
Well, both are biblical statements, but coming up with the first interpretation is what I would call “edifying abuse” of the Scriptures. We are saying something the author – which is actually the Holy Spirit – never intended to say through this text. What I was teaching from Romans 1:17 all those years, before I actually did my homework and studied the context in Habakkuk, wasn’t wrong theology – but I basically used the Word to make it say something it never intended to say. I used it for my own purposes. This is not only a misuse of the Word of God; I firmly believe that it has crucial ramifications for the whole counseling process.
What We Lose
The Word of God is clear when it comes to the question about who has the authority and the power to change people from the inside out (Hebrews 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). So if both the authority and the power to change the lives of people to the glory of God comes not from us but from the Scriptures, we jeopardize this authority and power by not handling the Word of God rightly (2 Timothy 2:15). Only if we are laboring diligently and study the author’s intent can we expect the Lord to come alongside and fulfill the promises He has laid out in His Word. Biblical counselors have the very same responsibility as preachers who want to be biblical in expositing the Word of God. The standard for interpreting the Scriptures in the public ministry of the Word of God is the very same as in the personal ministry of the Word of God. If Biblical counselors fail to measure up to that standard, the ramifications are far-reaching. Just to mention a few:
- we obscure the profound meaning of the Scriptures
- our counsel will lose its power
- we cannot expect the Holy Spirit to work
- we are usurping God’s authority over the soul of man
- we will keep the counselee dependent on our interpretation of the Word
- our counselees will copy our slack manner of handling the Scriptures
For those among us who are eager to see that the Word of God being effective in the lives of counselees in a direct, convincing, plausible and powerful manner, there is but one solution: Don’t be lazy! Handle the Word of God accurately in the counseling room as well as in the pulpit.
Join the Conversation
Do we biblical counselors see the great responsibility and high calling we have in handling the Word of God accurately? Do we trust in our ability or in the ability of the Word of God?