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:

1. Listen carefully (and quietly) as the counselee describes his/her complaint. Be attuned to biblical infractions while taking note of the counselee’s attitude toward sin. Is there evidence of godly sorrow (2 Cor 7:10) or does the counselee grieve only because of personal consequences?

Godly sorrow is a deep, abiding awareness of error before a Holy God. When there is no evidence of this, it should stir concern for the counselee’s salvation. Even those hardened by chronic, willful sin, will often bear conflict with the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote:

For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please (Gal 5:17).

When this friction between flesh and Spirit is absent, it should prompt the counselor to explore the counselee’s salvation more deeply.

2. Ask questions that require a biblical response. In other words, probe the counselee’s orientation to truth. Does he/she view the problem within a scriptural context or is there a lack of understanding and/or sensitivity to the Word? As an example, if the person is speaking of getting a divorce without biblical merit ask: “How will you reconcile this decision with Scripture? What does the Word teach about divorce?

If instead the counselee is bitter and justifies chronic anger ask: “What does the Bible say about prolonged anger? What is the risk of unforgiveness?

Often the counselee does not know what the Bible teaches. This allows the counselor to offer: “Would you mind if I showed you what the Bible says about this issue?” The counselor’s desire is always to get the Scriptures open so that God’s Word can do the work. We do not wish to tell the counselee what the Bible says…we want to show them, in full context, the teachings of Scripture, no matter the topic at hand.

Other times the counselee may know very well what the Word says but he/she may be in rebellion stating a refusal to comply. Others may distort or revise the Word to suit their own end. Yet some will know the Word and its impact will be positive. The counselor will see hesitation, struggle, even sorrow for their biblical disobedience.

These varied responses are telling and advance the opportunity to expand scriptural truth. But these responses also provide insight into the counselee’s relationship with Christ, or lack thereof. The presence of sin does not declare a person unsaved; but the absence of conflict and conviction of sin, should be cause for deeper assessment. The Word is the template of measurement and the counselor must apply Scripture to discern the true spiritual nature of the counselee.

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12).

3. Explore the counselee’s testimony of faith. This requires much more than accepting the means by which the counselee defines him/herself born-again. The testimony of the Christian goes beyond the event upon which one relies as evidence. Instead we search for the fiber of a believer’s walk. Is there fruitful evidence of a submitted life in Christ that defines the person as a child of God. John warned:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world (1 Jn 4:1-3).

The counselor must “test the spirits” because the church has given many false renditions of faith and many have been deceived within our congregations. False assurance is rampant giving rise to confusion and failure within the Body as church members attempt to live biblical lives without the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. As Paul wrote:

But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ (2 Cor 11:3).

This deception has left many inside the church with the illusion of Christianity that sometimes is revealed only in a time of crisis. The counselor must be attuned to the difference between the verbal confession of faith only, and a confession that finds full and complete agreement with the call of Christ. Not that any Christian is without flaw, but there should be definitive evidence of a life devoted to a process of sanctification and repentance when wrong.

4. When a counselee insists he/she is a Christian, even though the evidence is contradictory, treat him/her as a believer. This means apply the Word of God and the tenants of truth with the assumption the counselee will benefit. Over time, the working of the Word will reveal the true spiritual status of the counselee as he/she either responds to, or rejects, scriptural realities. The biblical structure and imperatives of Scripture will have little or no impact in the life of an unsaved person. 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).

If, in the process of counseling, the Word does not penetrate and stir the counselee toward change, the counselor must confront this reality. For example the counselor might say: “Each week we discuss and read Scripture together, but it seems to have no affect in your life. You do not seem convicted by God’s Word to alter the course of your life. Why do you think it is this way?”

The counselor must probe the reality that Scripture is “foolishness” to the counselee. This is one of the points we look for as evidence of a converted life; sensitivity to the Word. John denoted this in his first epistle:

We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error (1 Jn 4:6).

By addressing this absence of listening and responding, the counselor can better move into an evangelistic mode of counseling. This lack of activity in the heart of the unbeliever opens the door to the presentation of the Gospel. And while the instructions of Scripture, meant for believers, often have no influence upon the heart of the lost; the Scriptural Gospel is the means unto salvation. Paul wrote:

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 (Rom 1:16).

A person cannot be born again without the presentation of Scripture. Therefore biblical counseling is an excellent vehicle for this to occur. Both blatant unbelievers and deceived church members need the Word of God in order to recognize God’s law, the presence of sin, the hopelessness of works, the need for a Savior, and the truth of Christ.

How can such mysteries be conveyed but through the Bible? In defining our mission, the proper application of Scripture becomes clear. The counselor is either pursuing the correction of believers or the presentation of the Gospel for those yet to know the Lord Jesus Christ.

5. Never offer anything other than Scripture. Biblical counseling, even for unbelievers, is designed for eternal outcomes not temporal relief. The counselor must not offer a psychological substitution to truth when salvation is at hand. Our work is spiritual always; our calling is unlike secular therapy. Consider it a divine appointment when unbelievers arrive for counseling. God has a purpose and the counselor is His tool. Paul wrote:

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction…But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Tim 4:1-2 and 5).


Abercrombie, A. & Skinner, K., Wonderful Counselor: A Return to Truth, 2007, BCI Publishing,

Newheiser, J., 2006, Introduction to Biblical Counseling,


4 thoughts on “Counseling Unbelievers…”

  1. Very wise counsel to Biblical Counselors. Shared on Facebook and posted to LinkedIn on the Reformed Baptist Connection.

  2. Thank you Dr. Ab for taking the time to share these insightful teachings.
    God is continuing to use you to help those of us that counsel.
    God’s blessings,

  3. Dr. Ab really I would like to thank you for this insightful and wonderful teaching of Biblical Counseling, I really like to applaude you this oustanding work you are doing. Thanks it helps me seriosly and may God Almighty continue with His divine Blessings upon you and His revelation He gives to you.

  4. Thanks for the pointers. I found your article through dr. Google. Just ran into a Muslim couple who are having a marital problem. Although the statistics shows that “Christian” marriages failed as much as non believers’, but in comparison to this couple’s, we are so rich in resources. I don’t know where to start to help them ecxept for praying, feeling empathy, and being a good listener. Can you suggest a book or an article I can read about a practical approach to help them? Btw, am in overseas.


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