Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, executive editor here at Books At a Glance, and today we’re talking to Heath Lambert, author of the new book, A Theology of Biblical Counseling: The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry. Dr. Lambert is Executive Director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors and the author of several other well-known counseling-related books. He is also Associate Pastor at First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, FL, and a visiting professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Today he’s here to talk to us about his new work.
Heath, welcome, and thanks for talking to us today.
It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Explain for us what your book is about and the contribution you hope to make.
The summary for the book is actually in the title, that it’s a theology of biblical counseling. My effort in the book is to talk about theology and it’s to talk about biblical counseling and I guess I want to do two things: I want to show that counseling is a theological discipline. I want to show that it is the truths of Scripture that are summarized in faithful theology that uphold and undergird the practice of counseling. I want to show that you cannot do counseling without having theology at the core of what you say and accompanying conversation. That theology might be good or bad but it will be there.
So first is: theology upholds and undergirds counseling. And the second thing I really want to show is that counseling is one of the disciplines that bring theology to life. And so theology and our study of it is not an end in and of itself. We are not supposed to know theology just to know it. There’s a great blessing in knowing theology and God wants us to know him and love him as a result of we learn in theology. But God also calls us to apply our theology and disciplines like preaching and, I argue in the book, in disciplines like counseling. And so if you are the kind of person who wants to study the truths of God just so you can know it, you’ve really become a bad theologian. One of the ways to be a faithful theologian is to purvey what you know. And counseling is one of the most powerful ways that we can communicate the truth of God because we’re communicating the truth of God to people who need to know about God the most, namely people who are broken and in pain.
A generation ago Jay Adams wrote a similar kind of book. How is yours different?
It might be easier to start by saying how they are the same. Both Dr. Adams and I believe what I just articulated, that counseling is at the core an exercise in theology. We both believe that. We both argue that. We both believe that the Scriptures are sufficient resource to do counseling ministry. So there’s no difference in that. Where there is a difference is in the way we unpack it. Idea with topics that Dr. Adams does not deal with. And even when we deal with topics that are similar, we both handle them in different ways.
One example of that would be in the doctrine of God. Dr. Adams deals with biblical counseling and the doctrine of God; I deal with biblical counseling and the doctrine of God, but when he deals with the doctrine of God he unpacks the doctrine of the Trinity and its implications for counseling, and in my work on the doctrine of God I give a glancing look at the doctrine of the Trinity but I really unpacked the attributes of God. So my goal in the book was…. Dr. Adams in his book, 36 years ago wanted to say, “Hey here’s what I’m doing, it’s a limited project, I want to call on other people to do that.” and I really wanted to heed his call, but address different topics that he did. So there’s things that the books have in common but we’re really moving in different directions in terms of the categories that we address and unpack.
Your fundamental presupposition in this book is that counseling is a theological discipline. Why is that a controversial notion?
Well, it shouldn’t be a controversial notion, but it is. And the reason that it’s a controversial notion is because over the course of the last century, the discipline of counseling has come to be informed by its secularity. It is secular thinkers, secular authors, secular practitioners who have begun to argue, and actually in Western culture particularly in America, Americans believe that if you need counseling, you need to go to somebody who has been secularly trained – somebody who has got a degree from Yale, who has a degree from UCLA or Murray State or one of these places. And then, having been trained in these sort of secular places, you need a secular license, a license from the state where secular authorities have authorized you to do this work. That’s what everybody in our culture believes, almost to a man. But what we need to understand is that from a historical perspective, that’s brand new.
From a historical perspective it was the church of Jesus Christ that was understood to be the place for counsel and care. And it was the Scriptures of the old and new Testaments that was seen to provide the wisdom and theories that undergirded counseling. So it’s controversial because we live in a secular world, understandably so, that does not grasp that counseling is fundamentally about the issues that come up as we live life before the face of God and the trouble that we experience in those encounters. Even Christians in the so-called Christian counseling movement take the fundamental presupposition of secular counseling that the Bible really doesn’t have the heft to carry the weight of a counseling conversation and so we need resources outside of the Bible for counseling conversation and that’s where they always go to the resources of secular psychology. So it’s controversial because in our historically novel situation people don’t understand that counseling really is theological, but they think it’s secular. And that’s what we have to deal with.
Okay, let’s talk basics: What is counseling? And then, specifically, what is biblical counseling?
That’s the question. And actually a lot of the controversy dwindles, I think, if we can really understand what we’re talking about when we talk about counseling. The way I define counseling in the book is, I say that it’s the conversation where one party with questions, problems, and trouble seeks assistance from someone they believe has answers, solutions, and help. So it’s a conversation. And it’s a conversation where somebody who has a difficulty seeks wisdom from somebody who wants to remediate that difficulty. And the answers and solutions and help that the counselor would give to the struggling person is all built on a foundation of wisdom and theory or worldview. And so counseling really is an exchange of wisdom from one person who wants to help another troubled person.
Talk to us about the sufficiency of Scripture as it relates to counseling and finding help with the various problems we face. What do we mean when we say the Bible is “enough”? And perhaps you could also explain what we do not mean by this.
Yes, that’s a great question. So if counseling is what I just indicated it was, that it’s a wisdom exchange, someone with trouble is receiving wisdom from someone who wants to help them in that trouble, those conversations are going to be built on the foundation of a worldview, a view of life or a view of reality about who we are, what’s wrong with us, what should be right with us, what does it take to fix that problem? Those are the questions that are addressed in the biblical worldview that informs counseling. When we say that the Bible is sufficient for counseling we mean that the Bible is sufficient to answer those questions, to inform that worldview and provide the resources for the exchange of wisdom that is a counseling conversation.
We believe that the Bible, as it was written by God, was given to us to address our problems in living. We know that because God finished the Bible in about 90 A.D. and so for almost 2000 years what people had to address their problems in living was the Scriptures – the old and new Testaments. We didn’t have the advent of secular psychology until the late 1800s and it didn’t start to get really up and running until the middle of the 1900s. I think it’s not credible to believe that God authorized his perfect Scriptures and then sat around in heaven waiting for 2000 years for real help to come with the advent of secular psychology.
And so when we say the Bible is sufficient for counseling, it’s a statement of trust in the Lord that when the Lord gave us the Scriptures, he gave us what we needed to live our life. What we don’t mean when we talk about the Scriptures being enough, or the Scriptures being sufficient, is we don’t mean silly things. Like there’s no information that exists outside the Bible. This is a critique that comes from outside the biblical counseling movement that no biblical counselor in the last 40 years has ever articulated. Certainly none of the intellectual leadership in the biblical counseling movement.
We don’t mean that there is no true information outside of the Bible. The Bible itself teaches the doctrine of common grace, that God gives good, intellectual gifts even to unbelievers. And so we believe there is true information outside the Bible. We also don’t mean when we say the Bible is sufficient for the Bible is enough, that the Bible is sufficient to address medical problems. The Bible doesn’t claim to address medical problems. The Bible teaches that as physical beings we will have medical problems, but the Bible doesn’t spell out the solution for those medical problems. And so a belief in the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling actually leads us into the Scriptures to see that we are both physical and spiritual beings. The Bible addresses comprehensively the spiritual ones, and only addresses in a limited way the physical issues.
So the Bible itself and belief in the sufficiency of Scripture actually encourages the use of good medical science, good medical exams is a very, very helpful and useful adjunct to the practice of counseling. But what we mean when we say the Bible is sufficient for counseling is that it is good enough, it is more than enough to address the problems in living that we have.
That is certainly a claim the Bible is bold to make – not only that Scripture is God-breathed but that it is able to equip for every good work (2Tim.3:16-17).
That’s right, “that the man of God might be competent for every good work.” In II Peter, Peter says that the Bible has given us all that we need for life and godliness. In fact, that’s interesting, in most of the passages that Christians that Christians point to to affirm the inerrancy and authority of God’s word, passages like II Peter 1 and II Timothy 3, God, very regularly, when he inspires the authors of Scripture to teach about the authority and inspiration of the text, he also inspires them in the same breath to write about the sufficiency of the text of Scripture for the very problems that were talking about in counseling. So they go together.
How is secular counsel limited, and why should Christians be cautious about it? Should a Christian be open to professional secular counseling? And maybe you could include some remarks here about the sufficiency of Scripture and how this bears on our subject.
The irony of the debate in the counseling were all between biblical counselors and Christian counselors and secular counselors is… for the last number of years, biblical counselors have been on the defense. Like, you know, because the charge is, Hey, the Bible isn’t sufficient for counseling, so prove it. But actually, the irony is, is that what’s not sufficient for counseling is the secular worldview that informs secular counseling. Because secularists don’t see all of the truth that informs the problem so we have.
They don’t see the operations of the devil, they don’t see the spirit of man because they are materialistic in their worldview, they don’t see that mankind is made in the image of God because they’ve suppressed the truth about God and unrighteousness. They don’t see – they don’t even see – this is amazing – in the last couple of years, they don’t even see the gendered nature of human nature, men and women, they suppress that obvious physical reality in unrighteousness because that’s what they do. They suppress the truth. And so secular people simply are not equipped to deal with the profound problems that come up in counsel. It really breaks my heart when Christians want to trade the rich resources of Scripture for a secular bill of goods.
Now, none of that means that secular people can’t say anything right. We talked about common grace a little bit ago. God will see to it that in his common grace even unbelievers who suppress the truth in unrighteousness will stumble onto the truth and be able to discover true things. But the issue is, how would we know when a secular person, when their counsel, is right or when it’s wrong? Well, the reality is, we need the Bible to do that.
I had a couple in my office just the other day who went to see a secular counselor in the secular counselor said, “Well, you need to get divorced. You don’t love each other anymore, this thing is over. Elvis has left the building. You need to and it.” Well, that’s counsel, you know, and the question is, “is it faithful or faithless, and how would we tell the difference?” Well, we tell the difference, because we open up the Bible and we see that this couple is, in fact, there was no adultery, there was no abuse, there was just affection had grown cold.
And so we’re able to look at that secular counsel and say, “That was bad.” And the reason we can say it was bad because we compared to God’s word and it doesn’t measure up. So that’s an example of secular counselors blowing it, but even when they get it right… You can take this to the bank… When we hear good counseling interventions from secular people, it will be where they are unwittingly most like the Bible. The most faithful secular counseling you will find is the area where they are unintentionally the most like the Scriptures in the counseling approach. So that doesn’t mean that you can never go to them. It means it’s never ideal, there’s going to be some situations where you have to. There’s going to be some referrals that the government says that you have to go to a licensed person. You can’t get out of it in some cases, but what we always need to do is have our biblical thinking caps on. The listening. Be good Bereans. Let’s listen to what’s being said and let’s compare it to the Scriptures.
Talk to us about those occasions when an unbeliever – a non-Christian – comes to a biblical counselor for help. What is the counselor’s challenge in such a case? And his objective? What does he have to offer?
These are some of the most exciting opportunities in ministry, because this is where we get the opportunity to point lost people to Jesus Christ and to the truth of God and his word in the context of the counseling conversation. Some people will say they don’t like biblical counseling because you can’t help unbelievers. And I’m going, “Have you read the book of Acts? Have you read the Gospels?” I mean Jesus, the apostle Paul, Peter, these guys are having conversations with unbelievers all of the time. And they’re pointing them to faith in Jesus Christ.
The difference in counseling between an unbeliever who has a marriage problem and a believer who has a marriage problem is this: the believer needs the grace of Jesus Christ to help their marriage and they know it. The unbeliever needs the grace of Jesus Christ to help their marriage and they don’t know it. So what we get to do is we get to say, “Hey, look, there’s all kinds of strategies, there’s all kinds of communication help, all kinds of sex advice, all kinds of how to love one another advice, but all of that is going to be tied to the grace of Jesus. And I’m going to tell you every week that you need to ask your wife for forgiveness. You need to confess your sin. You need to extend forgiveness to her. You need to be more patient with her. You need to be more gentle with her. But what you’re going to find every week, is that you are going to be at the end of yourself without the grace of Jesus.” So every week I’m going to be saying, “You need to repent of your sins and trust Jesus Christ to give you the grace to be the kind of man, the kind of husband, the kind of wife that God called you to be.”
And so biblical counseling for an unbeliever is always going to be very practical, it’s always going to be very strategic, and by that I mean focused on strategies to help the marriage, but it’s also always going to be grounded in the grace of Jesus Christ and making an appeal to unbelievers to repent of their sins and trust in Jesus so that they can change in a way that honors Jesus Christ.
Explain for us what you mean when you say that “faith in Christ” is the solution to the problems we address in counseling. I just know that some people are going to hear that and say it’s too simplistic. What do you mean that faith in Christ is the answer to all of our problems?
Yeah, that is the thing that just gets in people’s head. They hear that and they go, “Oh my goodness, you’re going to get people off their medication.” And, “Oh my goodness, you’re going to have people that need a medical evaluation and they’re not going to get it.” And what I want to say to that is, “What do you think the solution to people’s problem is?” “What else is there?” I think if you could boil the whole Bible down from Genesis to Revelation, I think what the message would be is, “You need to repent in faith in Jesus Christ.” That’s what I think the whole shooting match is about.
And, good night, that does not mean, when you make a summary statement like that… that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing else. It just means that it’s the most important. In fact, the reason you can know that it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing else is because… I don’t know how many thousands of words I’ve written about biblical counseling, I’ve written a number of books, I’ve written a number of articles, I’ve contributed chapters to numerous books, I’ve written thousands and thousands of words and what I write is more than just, “Have faith in Jesus Christ.” But I never contradict that. I just explain more fully what I mean by that. What does it mean to have faith in Jesus Christ when you’re struggling with anger? What does it mean to have faith in Jesus Christ when you have a cancer diagnosis? Faith in Jesus Christ is not at odds with saying other things. It’s not at odds with, for example, medical care. But it always is going to be the bedrock principle for that.
Let’s take an obvious medical problem. Let’s say that somebody in your church gets a cancer diagnosis. We would not say or at least we should not say, well, don’t worry about chemo, don’t worry about doctors visits, just have faith in Jesus Christ and you’ll be okay. Nobody says that. And in fact I’m at pains in the chapter on the doctrine of humanity to explain how the body and the soul interact in these kinds of matters.
But I would say this, it is more important that you trust in Jesus with your cancer then it is that you get chemo. And it is more important that you trust Jesus with your heart disease than that you get to the best cardiologist in the whole world. It’s more important that you trust Jesus with your diabetes than that you get insulin. Most of the time our trust in Jesus is not at odds with those things, but we live in a world that medicalize his every single problem. And our hope is that in medical interventions, and that is a hope that is on a collision course with what the Bible teaches.
At the end of the day, every single human medical doctor fails. Your patients get better and then they die. You get cured of the cancer and then you die. You might die 20 years later, but you die. You control your diabetes with insulin, and then 30 years later you die. Without faith in Jesus all of those other important, but lesser, interventions don’t ultimately help. In biblical counseling we have the privilege of doing work that’s way more important than an oncologist. Way more important than a cardiologist. We get to deal with the hearts of men and women as they exist before the God with whom they have to do forever.
And so, yes, in counseling the most important thing we do is faith in Christ. That’s how you boil it all down. He gets more sophisticated in the context of daily conversations, in the context of medical problems that complicate our spiritual problems, but at the end of the day we say you need to trust in Jesus Christ.
Who is your intended audience? And how do you hope this book will be used?
Students of biblical counseling. And when I say students of biblical counseling, I have in mind three basic groups: laypeople that are interested in biblical counseling. One of my goals in writing the book was I wanted to talk about important and profound realities, but I really wanted to do it in an accessible way. And so I’m hopeful that as people start to read the book that they are going to find that you don’t have to have a PhD, you don’t have to have a Masters degree, to really understand what I’m talking about, but if you really want to learn how to help people, if you want to learn what God’s word says how to help people, I hope that people will find that I’ve communicated this truth in a really accessible way.
Second group of people that I’m interested in is people who are studying biblical counseling in a formal context. I’ve taught biblical counseling at the seminary and Bible college level for the last 10 years and I have a real heart for those people.
So that’s where I really wanted to make arguments so they’re written with accessible language and not like an egg head. I really wanted to deal with profound issues and it was my goal in writing the book to address the most significant threats against the biblical counseling movement and I tried to do that. And I hope that people studying in formal environments will appreciate. And then also I wrote with people who are outside of the biblical counseling movement in mind. I want to persuade people who love Jesus and love the Bible but think that the Bible is not sufficient for counseling, I want to persuade them that that’s not true. I want to persuade them that the doctrines of Scripture, the doctrine of God, the doctrine of salvation, the doctrine of Scripture, all of those underline the essential usefulness, the sufficiency of Scripture for counseling. And so I hope any and all of those three kinds of people will want to read and benefit from the book.
We’re talking to Dr. Heath Lambert, author of the new book, A Theology of Biblical Counseling: The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry. It is a book any Christian could enjoyably read with much profit, and we encourage you to get a copy for yourself.
Heath, thanks for taking time with us today.
Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure.
Buy the books
A THEOLOGY OF BIBLICAL COUNSELING: THE DOCTRINAL FOUNDATIONS OF COUNSELING MINISTRY, by Heath Lambert