Counseling Unbelievers…

Sad Man Half Face

Dr. Ab Abercrombie

The Bible is fully sufficient for the counseling task and superior to any method the world has to offer…for believers. But is the same claim applicable to unbelievers? Many in the biblical counseling field think not. For example, Jay Adams and many within the Nouthetic arena contend that unbelievers require “pre-counseling evangelism” before biblical counseling can ensue. (Newheiser, 2006).

But often counseling is initiated before the counselor can assess the spiritual status of the counselee. Other times an individual enters counseling convinced of his/her salvation, yet lacking the capacity to hear and respond to Scripture, due to an unregenerate heart. In situations like these, should the counselor place the counseling on pause to initiate evangelism?

Rather I suggest there are biblical mandates to both restore the fallen (Gal 6:1-2) and evangelize the lost (Matt 28:19-20) which dictate the counselor’s response and no distinction between the two activities exists. In fact, the course and nature of the counseling can only be determined within the counseling setting, where the Word and the Spirit direct the counselor’s assessment of spiritual need.

Without this assessment, the counselor is left to trust the counselee’s representation of spiritual status without biblical examination. This is dangerous because many within the Church bear a false security reinforced by human markers of salvation (i.e. church membership, baptism, confirmation, or experience). Others may be genuinely born-again yet now doubt or discount their salvation due to the presence of sin and its destructive impact in their lives.

Because of this, the first step of effective biblical counseling is the analysis of the assignment: Is the task evangelistic or restorative? Counseling must begin in order to discern this critical truth. Some steps for making this assessment follow:

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Me…An Evangelist?

Dr. Ab AbercrombieWoman dazed

Most Biblical Counselors do not define their work as evangelism. We are more familiar, and perhaps more comfortable, with the biblical roles of teaching, encouragement, discipleship, and restoration. We often assume that because a counselee has selected a counselor with a biblical orientation, he/she is already a believer. But beginning with that supposition can lead to ineffective treatment results that carry great eternal ramifications.

While it is certain that none of us can fully know the true spiritual condition of another person’s heart, we must be receptive to what the Holy Spirit reveals when we begin a counseling process. A thorough and ongoing spiritual assessment must be at the foundation of everything a counselor does.

Typically a counselor is consulted at a point of great distress and brokenness. God can, and will use this vulnerability to open the client’s heart to the gospel message. The fact that a non-believer has selected a biblical counselor may be evidence that God is working in that client’s life. Jesus said:

“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him…” (Jn 6:44a).

When broken and tender, the heart of the client is searching for truth and peace that can only come through a personal relationship with Jesus. The Lord uses that pain and suffering to draw us into a situation where the truth can be spoken and received. Since there are no errors or accidents in the timing of God, the counseling session can be His appointed moment. Paul wrote:

…for He says, “AT THE ACCEPTABLE TIME I LISTENED TO YOU, AND ON THE DAY OF SALVATION I HELPED YOU.” Behold, now is “THE ACCEPTABLE TIME,” behold, now is “THE DAY OF SALVATION ” (2 Cor 6:2).

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“Do you wish to get well?”

Dr. Ab Abercrombie Sad man praying

As a biblical counselor, I sometimes encounter counselees who seem immobilized. They appear simply unable or unwilling to move forward, languishing in despair, relational struggle, and sin. Even when seeming to understand Scripture and claiming conviction, they remain unchanged.

In one such occasion I was helping Ron, a professing believer, evaluate his role as a husband and spiritual head of his home. Over three meetings we had examined his salvation and studied numerous scriptures pertaining to spiritual submission (Jas 4:5-8), authority (1 Cor 11:3), leadership (Eph 5:22-29), love (1 Cor 13:3-7), forgiveness (Matt 6:14-15), and accountability (Rom 14:11-12).

In each example the counselee expressed grief and claimed conviction to lead and love his wife as Scripture instructs. But near the end of the third meeting the discussion veered off course:

Ron: I know the Bible is true and God expects me to do these things. But how can I?

Counselor: What do you mean?

Ron: How can I lead when my wife will not cooperate? How can I love someone who is cold and distant?

Counselor: So you are unable to obey God’s teaching because of your wife’s condition?

Ron: I would be a better Christian if I were married to a godly woman. I just don’t see how I can do anything until she gets it together.

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Asking The Right Questions…The Process of Biblical Counseling

Dr. Ab AbercrombieThe Right Question

Biblical Counseling, obviously involves the reading and study of Scripture. But often getting the Bible open, within the context of an emotional discussion, can be a challenge. However, the importance of using God’s Word cannot be overstated. After all, it is the Word that is powerful, superior, and sufficient in its scope and impact, not the counselor.

Biblical counselors must not rely upon the restating of scriptural themes and guidelines only. Rather the literal reading of Scripture is central to the process of salvation, repentance, sanctification, and discipleship. Statements like, “The Bible says…” or “God requires…” are valuable introductions; but they must be followed with specific, contextual digestion of Scripture, if transformation is to occur.

Asking Questions that Require a Biblical Response

Whether the counselor is involved in formal or informal counseling, the use of biblical questions is key to advancing a scriptural process. Questions that require a biblical response are effective in both matters of restoration and evangelism and provide a bridge to opening God’s Word.

Examples of this type of inquiry follow:

  • What does Scripture teach on the topic of divorce?
  • Where in the Bible are we encouraged to harbor anger and pursue revenge?
  • Do you remember any biblical characters who were fearful?
  • Have you ever examined the topic of suffering in Scripture?
  • How do your reconcile this decision with God’s Word?
  • According to the Bible, how does a person gain eternal life?
  • Do you remember the story of David and Bathsheba?
  • Are you familiar with God’s teaching on perseverance?

Clearly the potential questions are endless, but their selection must be Spirit led. Just as in the choice of Scripture, God must direct this method of inquiry. When He does, the question will always be pointed, penetrating, and revealing. These questions will invariably lead to one of three outcomes:

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A Little (Psychological) Leaven…Leavens the Whole Lump of Dough

Dr. Ab AbercrombiePsychology text

The Southern Baptist Convention seems compelled to adopt annual resolutions designed to shape and direct its nearly 16 million members toward informed opinions and appropriate conduct. Their latest offering is a Resolution on Mental Health Concerns and the Heart of God. On the surface the proclamation appears compassionate, but in full context it contradicts scriptural truth while sanctioning psychological explanations and psychiatric treatment for “mental illness.”

The resolution speaks out against prejudice and stigmatization, and encourages ministry outreach to suffering individuals and their families. Few could find argument with this intent. But the document goes far beyond the needed expression of compassion, promoting questionable and potentially harmful positions that will forever alter the church’s view of human suffering. In the resolution, Southern Baptists declare and affirm that:

  • Mental illness, as defined by psychology and psychiatry, is a valid medical condition needing specialized medical care.
  • Conditions like “autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, clinical depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders, and eating disorders” are medical illnesses present in our world as a consequence of “the Fall.”
  • The “wise use of medical intervention for mental health concerns” is an “appropriate” remedy for such problems.

Why are preachers and theologians making these proclamations and what is their source of authority on the issues of depression, instability, anxiety, fear, anger, suicide, and madness? Clearly they have sacrificed the Bible and scriptural sufficiency in favor of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and the unscientific reasoning of man. Point in fact, the original resolution had two amendments attached which stated:

  • Scripture is the “final authority” on all mental health issues, and
  • Scripture is “sufficient for counseling all phases of the human condition.”

Both amendments were “overwhelmingly defeated” by those attending the convention and therefore were removed from the final resolution (Steffan, 2014). It is a fearful day when Southern Baptists publicly proclaim that Scripture is insufficient and lacking in authority for matters of “life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:2-3).

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Christian Character or Controlled Conduct?

Dr. Ab AbercrombieBible 10 Commandments

Many have a misunderstanding of what takes place in biblical counseling, seeing only part of the process while overlooking the larger objectives. Biblical care is often viewed as the administration of biblical imperatives only; directives to stop certain sinful expressions of behavior and replace them with godly conduct.

And while behavioral change should be one result of biblical intervention, it can be achieved as a secondary byproduct of transformative character change. Until there exists a “new self,” the “old self” has no hope of prolonged and consistent management of sin. Paul wrote:

…that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (Eph 4:22-24).

In this passage Paul is not speaking of the exchange of one set of behaviors for another. He is not addressing a change in conduct. Rather the apostle is reminding the believer of the transformation that has occurred through the regenerative impact of salvation, while also stressing the pursuit of sanctification and the development of a character that reflects the “likeness of God.”

Truly this is a call to extinguish the former self and be made new. With that newness comes changed affections, kingdom orientation, distain for sin, and the desire for truth. As these new aspects are developed and purified, behavior must also change. Only the transformed heart can receive and practice the absolute imperatives of Scripture. which now have become relevant, alive, and achievable under the renewing power of the Holy Spirit, as He teaches and interprets God’s Word within the heart of God’s “new creature” (2 Cor 5:17).

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Fruit Sins and Root Sins

Dr. Ab AbercrombieRoots

In his Bible study entitled, “Behold Your God”, Dr. John Snyder provides an excellent teaching on “fruit sins” and “root sins” which has special relevance to the practice of biblical counseling. Within the study, Snyder emphasizes the importance of true repentance that reaches to the heart of one’s deepest spiritual condition so that character and identity are literally changed.

Fruit sins are defined as the behavioral expressions of an inner heart condition. As Scripture relates, “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident…” (Gal 5:19a): they are obvious. Like apples hanging from a tree, these expressions of sin are dependent upon the root. In other words, an apple tree cannot produce pears nor an orange tree avocados. Consequently, removing the obvious fruit will not change the identity of the tree.

In human terms, the modification of behavior does not change the character of a man or woman. Only by impacting the root can the fruit be altered. Jesus taught this truth plainly, saying:

“You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit” (Matt 7:16-18).

Since fruit sins are visible, repentance often centers only upon what has been revealed or discovered. When a husband is caught in pornography he repents for what has been found out. When a wife’s excessive spending becomes apparent because hidden bank statements are exposed, she is sorry for the consequences of her actions. Both the husband and wife may then strive to stop their individual expressions of sin, and for a season, may be successful. But unless the heart issues are addressed (root sins), the behavior will likely return in its original or modified form.

This type of repentance is superficial and fails to address the true depth and scope of the spiritual problem. At the root of these issues there lies a much more insidious problem that is grounded in one’s identity, integrity, and character. Many of the most common and compromising root sins include idolatry, unbelief, selfishness, pride, unforgiveness, anger, wrath, and bitterness. Until the fullness of the heart is addressed, these core vulnerabilities will continue to yield behavioral sin.

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What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Dr. Ab AbercrombieRed Heart

I do not often quote rock music icons to make a point, but Tina Turner’s heartfelt question is remarkably relevant for the ministry of biblical counseling: “What’s love got to do with it? According to the apostle Paul…everything!

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing (1 Cor 13:1-3).

Paul provides a poignant reminder that the core of the Gospel is love. While knowledge of God’s holy and perfect nature, the severity of His justice, and the righteousness of His law, awakens and convicts the human heart of its depravity and need; it is the God’s love that draws and transforms the sinner. The Word exposes the counselee’s human plight (Rom 3:10-12, 23) but also provides the grace and sufficiency of Christ as our remedy. Paul wrote:

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him (Rom 5:8-9).

As ministers of Christ we are endowed with gifts and callings that are powerful under His direction; but without love the aim of our ministry will prove futile. Biblical counseling is a hard process of diagnosing and exposing sin through the use of God’s Word (Heb 4:12). It also deals with the impact of living in this fallen world, including the often unjust suffering shared by unbelievers and Christians alike.

Showing counselees their biblical infractions is critical if they are to recognize and address matters of unbelief, idolatry, self-centeredness, and pride. Repentance is fundamental both to regeneration and restoration. But if counselors are not cautious, our presentation of truth can become harsh and condemning, leaving the counselee with a sense of hopelessness.

Helping with the hardships of life require a proper view of God’s sovereignty and grace, the necessity for endurance, and sensitivity to spiritual needs that are revealed in times of greatest trial. And while absolute truth is necessary both for sin issues and circumstantial sorrow, the Bible requires us to advance God’s truth in merger with God’s love. Paul wrote:

As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love (Eph 4:14-16).

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Consequence or Condemnation…

Dr. Ab AbercrombieDepressed Man

“As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Ps 103:12).

Here King David records a truly remarkable promise of God. Once we are His children we are forever covered in the security of His forgiveness and mercy.

As humans it is hard for us to fathom such a complete separation from sin. But according to God’s Word, once our sins are confessed before the Lord, they are literally forgotten. If our confession and devotion to Jesus is genuine, then eternity with Him is assured and no act or person can ever take us from His presence. Jesus said,

“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand” (Jn 10:27-28).

As followers of Christ, we can find great comfort in our Savior’s words. But we must be mindful of the fact that forgiveness, mercy, and salvation are terms dealing with eternity. In other words, our sins and transgressions have been made clean by the blood of Jesus and we now are saved from the condemnation of hell. As Paul wrote:

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1).


But does freedom from condemnation also provide the believer freedom from consequence? Does faith in Christ render one invincible and oblivious to the effect of sin? Does godly conduct really matter once we are under grace? Paul asked and answered the same sort of question,

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? (Rom 6:1-2).

Clearly the Christian is not excused by grace to go on with his/her previous state of living. Instead we are called to no longer live for ourselves but rather conduct our lives with honor, compelled by the love of the One who saved us (2 Cor 5:14-15). In this state of love and honor we are connected to Christ in a manner that yields conviction and sorrow when we sin; provoking repentance and restoration rather than prolonged, deliberate disobedience. Paul wrote,

For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death (2 Cor 7:10, NKJV).

Read MoreConsequence or Condemnation…

Kingdom Success: Imagine What God Could Do…

Dr. Ab AbercrombieRunners legs

Through the years I have taken note of my fluid and changing definition of success. When I was a young child, pleasing others seemed to be my goal, and I especially wanted my parent’s approval for the things I did. Their evaluation was the only measuring stick I had. If they were happy with me, then I was a success.

By middle school I had discovered music and sports along with the recognition of others for accomplishments in each.  The spirit of competition emerged and I quickly moved toward an orientation of “winning and losing” as I approached activates in my life. My parent’s approval was still important, but I now viewed it as much more “conditional” in its nature. My father seemed more excited when I won “first chair” status in the trumpet section or when I made the starting lineup on the football team.  Success, I determined, was much sweeter in the winner’s circle.

High school brought the acute awareness of friends, females, and fun. By this time, my parent’s approval was the antithesis of success. If they liked it, there must be something wrong with it. I wanted popularity, recognition, fellowship, and good times. If I was connected and included in “the group,” this was my greatest achievement. I still loved completion and wanted to win, but not at the cost of my inner circle.

After winning an athletic scholarship to college I now focused on the next level of accomplishment. By this time my identity was that of a “jock.”  I loved being on the team, standing out, and being something special. I was known by the number on my jersey and my accomplishments on the field. I guess that identity would have sustained me longer if only I hadn’t been such a “flop” at the collegiate level. In college the winner’s circle is pretty small and needless to say, I was well beyond the outer rim.

Since I had built my entire reputation as #75, there had to be a reorientation. “Winning,” to coin a phrase, “isn’t everything.” I swallowed hard, looked around, and decided I needed to re-invent myself. I surmised that if I wasn’t going to be an All-American, I’d better be smart and make a lot of money. So an “A” student I became, graduate school I pursued, a doctorate I received, and a private practice I built.

I was educated; I owned my own business; I had a beautiful wife; a baby daughter; a house on the bay; and even had my old football stories to tell. It’s amazing how much greater you were, the longer you are away from the game! I was the unhappiest “winner” you could have ever met.

So I decided I needed to work harder; build more business; hire associates and dominate the market. I worked 50, 60, 70 hours a week. But the harder I pressed, the greater my desperation and pain. I had spent the past 35 years of my life chasing the world and alas, the world had won. My proclaimed victory had in fact become my greatest defeat. My call to reality came from a question Jesus asked:

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt 16:26)

Read MoreKingdom Success: Imagine What God Could Do…