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).
The imperatives of Scripture are critical to the Christian life. They are the guardrails that protect and hold the believer to the narrow way (Matt 7:13-14). These absolute requirements reflect God’s holiness and express His command for obedience; knowledge every Christian requires. They include:
“You shall not commit adultery” (Ex 20:14).
“Flee immorality…” (1 Cor 6:18).
“Cease from anger and forsake wrath” (Ps 37:8).
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Eph 4:31).
But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions (Matt 6:15).
“Be anxious for nothing…” (Phil 4:6).
“Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Eph 5:22).
“Husbands love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church…” (Eph 5:25).
As true and necessary as these admonitions are, they are contrary to the flesh (Gal 5:17). When a counselee is unregenerate, there is no inner capacity to follow these godly instructions, however right and helpful they may be. Paul wrote:
But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised (1 Cor 2:14).
God’s Word is true, even though the unbeliever “cannot understand.” In fact, the presentation of God’s mandates and character help awaken the lost person to his/her plight and need for salvation. In this regard, the imperatives of Scripture have impact in that they expose sin and convict the heart toward change. But obedience to God’s requirements is not achievable before the transition from unbelief to salvation occurs.
For fallen believers, gripped by repetitive sin, the quandary is similar. While the Christian has been transformed through God’s grace and imputed righteousness, willful sin divides him/her from the spiritual capacity to answer many of the simplest and most basic biblical requirements. Paul wrote:
To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed (Titus 1:15-16).
The defilement of sin subjects the Christian to a state of unbelief, after which, “their mind and conscience are defiled.” They cease to think biblically and correctly. Their focus and meditations change. Their conscience (sense of right and wrong) is undermined. Suddenly what previously was right is now wrong; and what was wrong is now right! Unbelief stirs the flesh and quenches the Spirit and even God’s elect are vulnerable. God warned His people through the prophet Isaiah:
Behold, the LORD’S hand is not so short
That it cannot save;
Nor is His ear so dull
That it cannot hear.
But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God,
And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear (Is 59:1-2).
Divided from God, apart from the Vine, the Christian can “do nothing” (Jn 15:5). Through sin, believers can render themselves powerless to answer God’s standards and therefore fail to demonstrate biblical obedience. Even though the believer knows what to do, he/she is temporarily lacking the capacity to do so. James wrote:
Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin (Jas 4:17).
Knowledge without spiritual empowerment leaves the Christian in a tortured state; aware of his/her rebellion and yet seemingly unable to act. Often, rather than repentance, believers try harder to do right, only to fall into repeated frustration and even surrender to a fallen position. Paul wrote of this most common human dilemma:
For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate (Rom 7:14-15).
Paul is acknowledging his base nature, which is hopelessly sinful. Later he actually states that in his flesh “nothing good dwells” (Rom 7:18). Therefore, one cannot rely upon discipline, self determination, or personal strength to accomplish the will of God. Only when flesh has been regenerated bearing newness of life, infused with God’s Spirit, is there hope of answering biblical truth.
For these reasons biblical counseling must go deeper than the giving of directions and the encouragement of obedience. Rather the unbeliever must become saved (Matt 28:19-20) and the fallen Christian must be restored (Gal 6:1-2). Only then will external evidence of obedience come into view. The absolute law of God is an expression of His holiness. His truths cannot be denied. But for the transformed heart, obedience is simply the outpouring of one’s character; the overflow of an altered identity in Christ. At his departure from Ephesus, Paul told the church:
Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God (Acts 20:26-27).
Counselors then must be innocent of error and willing to declare the “whole purpose (counsel) of God.” The wholeness of God incorporates so much more than His law and mandates. The totality of Scripture speaks to the fullness of God’s character; a character we are to embrace, emulate, and express in our daily lives.
The whole purpose of God must begin with instruction on God Himself. Too often counselors begin with focus on the counselee; seeking to understand and meet needs and relieve pain rather than pursue godliness.
Certainly a counselor should gain information about the counselee and with that knowledge, understanding of his/her worldview and orientation to God. Counselors must learn about the counselee’s spiritual condition, need for evangelism or restoration, and formulate a plan for addressing such matters.
But the counselor’s earliest intervention is not behavioral and does not deal with the horizontal matters of life. Instead the counselor’s activity must look vertically, seeking to reveal knowledge of God so the mandates of Scripture can be taught in a proper context. That context includes the holiness and sovereignty of God, His power and authority, His wrath and severity, along with His love and kind intentions. This knowledge defines God as worthy of all submission while revealing the frailty and plight of the human condition that undermines man’s ability to choose and act rightly.
A counselee’s knowledge of God will shape and dictate his/her understanding of self. And the understanding of self will direct the counselee’s view of sin and salvation. Until the counselee recognizes the sovereignty of God, the view of self will be inflated and self-directed. The counselee will never see and acknowledge personal depravity until there is a clear experience of holiness. Only then do God’s imperatives ring true and necessary.
In the light of God’s holiness, the counselee submits in broken humility, yielding more easily to His strong commands for purity, obedience, and kingdom focused priorities. Knowledge of God provokes godly sorrow leading to repentance (2 Cor 7:10), and in repentance one life is ended and a new life is born. Only in this Spirit-filled condition can the counselee respond rightly to His Creator. Paul wrote:
For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf (2 Cor 5:14-15).
In the Greek, to be controlled by the “love of Christ” means to be compressed forcibly into a single path. It is a compulsive and compelling love that leaves the redeemed with no options but death and resurrection; living for themselves “no longer.”
Confrontation and accountability are good and important, but transformation is empowering. Counselors must always address the truth of God’s commands but never neglect the foundation upon which Christian conduct stands: God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the indwelling Spirit that guides and directs our lives. Successful counseling will always be built upon the fullness and substantiality of the Chief Cornerstone (1 Pet 2:4-7).
Copyright © 2015, W.P. “Ab” Abercrombie and The Biblical Counseling Institute
4 thoughts on “Christian Character or Controlled Conduct?”
Amen! Behavior modification is not the goal, although it should be a collateral benefit!
Many thanks for presenting this so clearly.
Blessings in Christ,
Ultimately behavior cannot be modified without the heart change God gives. Thanks for sharing this.
Ultimately behavior modification cannot work without the heart change given by God.
Thanks for sharing this.
The Law is good and obedience to it brings a particular glory, as when Moses descended from the mountain with the tablets of stone, his face shone. The problem remains that the Law and the keeping of it can never lead to salvation, and, therefore, to an eternal intimate relationship with God. Jesus invites us into a much better covenant established first on relationship and resulting in an empowerment to keep the Law. A transition from glory (the Law) to glory (the more excellent way of relationship). 2 Cor. 6:17 defines the legal instruction, verse 18 defines the goal of following the Law. The ministry of Biblical Counseling fosters and encourages the pursuit of the intimate relationship. 2 Cor. 7:1 continues the presentation of Paul’s argument: the believer’s responsibility in addressing their ongoing perfection of holiness.