Biblical Counseling: The Reformed (Covenant) Approach vs. The Dispensational Approach

Part 1

During my time, counseling from a Biblical worldview, I have heard many people say something similar to this statement: “As long as a counselor is a Christian, and is using the word of God, what difference does it make what approach they use?” Although it is understandable why one would express such a view, one may fail to observe the conclusions a counselor may come to when a specific approach is used. What one believes about sacred Scripture in terms of the philosophy of history, will ultimately influence how one will assist a person in Biblical Counseling.

It is in this light, I present two perspectives one may use in terms of Biblical counseling: The Reformed approach, and the Dispensational approach.

The Reformed approach to Biblical counseling finds its origin from the Reformed theological view, which is defined below:

Reformed theology is generally considered synonymous with Calvinism and most often, in the U.S. and the UK, is specifically associated with the theology of the historic church confessions such as the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Three Forms of Unity.

Reformed Theology. Theopedia.com. Retrieved February 15 2017 from; https://www.theopedia.com/reformed-theology

By contrast, a Dispensational approach to Biblical counseling supports a Dispensational theological view, which is explained as follows:

Dispensational theology can be defined, very simply, as a system of theology which attempts to develop the Bible’s philosophy of history on the basis of the sovereign rule of God. It represents the whole of Scripture and history as being covered by several dispensations of God’s rule.

Charles Ryrie. Dispensationalism. (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute,1995). 40.

Even within the definitions themselves, there are some clear differences. Reformed theology establishes a philosophy of history with the Bible and the historic church confessions, specifically the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the “Three Forms of Unity” (i.e., The Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canon of Dort). By comparison, the Dispensational position observes the philosophy of history through the pages of God’s word.

When it comes to Biblical counseling and these theological systems, there are qualities Reformed and Dispensational counselors share. Some of these qualities are examined below:

  • Reformed and Dispensational counselors believe in the authority of God’s word: Both counselors believe the Bible is inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:162 Pet. 1:203:16), and because the Bible is inspired by God, the Scriptures are the ultimate source of authority for life, instruction and practice for the Christian.
  • Reformed and Dispensational counselors believe the secular humanistic worldview is destructive: The secular humanistic worldview believes in embracing human reason, and values, from a perspective of personal experience, while at the same time rejecting religious beliefs and practices. Paul Kurtz defines secular humanism when he writes:

[Secular Humanism is] a body of principles suitable for orienting a complete human life. As a secular lifestance, secular humanism incorporates the Enlightenment principle of individualism, which celebrates emancipating the individual from traditional controls by family, church, and state, increasingly empowering each of us to set the terms of his or her own life.

Council of Secular Humanism. Retrieved February 15, 2017 fromhttps://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php/3260

Reformed, and Dispensational, counselors believe the secular humanistic worldview is in opposition to the Biblical worldview. As mentioned above both Covenant and Dispensational counselors promote that God is the highest authority, and God, as the ultimate Authority, sets the terms for how mankind should conduct themselves in the world.

  • Reformed and Dispensational counselors believe counseling is the glory of God: Both counselors recognize their counseling is to ultimately please and magnify, one Person: God (However there is a difference between the two theological systems in how the glory of God is seen). The Reformed counselor would point to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism to highlight this truth, which is described below:
  1. 1. What is the chief end of man?
    A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

Westminster Shorter Catechism. Retreived February 16, 2017 from: http://www.westminsterconfession.org/confessional-standards/the-westminster-shorter-catechism.php.

The Dispensational perspective of the glory of God is described by what Dr. Charles Ryrie referred to as the sine qua non, which he writes:

A third aspect of the sine qua non of dispensationalism…concerns the underlying purpose of God in the world… the dispensationalist says the purpose is…namely the glory of God.

Charles Ryrie. Dispensationalism. (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute,1995). 40.

There are many points Reformed and Dispensational counselors would agree on concerning their theology. However, despite some of the commonalities between both theological systems, there are distinct contrasts between them. These differences affect the way one approaches how problems in mankind develop, and how the counselor would assist them in addressing these problems.

Dispensational counselors work from the Biblical worldview, while Reformed counselors work from and Biblical worldview and the historic church confessions: Those who counsel from a Reformed worldview counsel from a place of the Scriptures and the confessions of the Reformed church. Consequently, this will result in a narrowview in counseling, because the Reformed counselor will diagnose the problem, and solution, in light of a confessional worldview, not an exclusively Biblical worldview. For example, in the case of a negative mental state, such as depression, a counselor, working from a Reformed theological system, may observe this mental state as an excuse one may use to cover up their sin, which may, or may not, be the case. The solution they may give is to just repent publicly from their sin, and walk in the Lord’s commandments. This is due, in part, to the Reformed counselor’s confessional belief that God’s glory is only found in the eternal salvation of mankind, as Ryrie notes when he comments:

The covenant theologian in practice believes the [underlying purpose of God] to be salvation [of man].

Charles Ryrie. Dispensationalism. (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute,1995). 40.

In essence, due to their confessional worldview, all problems are a “one size fits all” problem (i.e., active sin), and their solution is a “one size fits all solution” (i.e., personal/public confession of sin, and walk in His commandments).

A Dispensational counselor, because they observe the Scriptures from a historical literal-grammatical hermeneutic, and not from a confession, or a group of confessions, will examine a negative mental state, such as depression, more broadly. Depression could be due to one who is failing to admit their active sin, such as the case of King David (Psalm 32:1-4). However, depression can occur in a person who is overwhelmed with a series of external events that are hostile, like in the case of the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 7:5). These types of depression are in different contexts, and the Dispensational counselor knows these types of depression, from a Biblical worldview, must be handled differently, depending on what caused a person to become depressed. This perspective of counseling ultimately brings God glory.

Although there are many doctrines a Reformed and Dispensational counselor agree with, there are distinct differences between the two. These slight differences, make a big difference in the perspective of the diagnosis of a problem, and the goals one has when each one counsels. The Reformed counselor works from a worldview, which is highlighted in the historic confessions. As a result, a Reformed counselor has a narrow view of a problem, and the solution, in relation to human experience. The Dispensational counselor operates from a Biblical worldview. As a result of this theological system this counselor is able to give a broader explanation of a problem, and the solution, in relation to the human experience.

As Biblical counselors, who hold to a Dispensational theology, let us not counsel from the confessions (or models that are sympathetic to a Reformed/Covenant theology) resulting in a “one size fits all” problem, and solution. Let us seek to observe to assist people with sacred Scripture, using techniques and methods that emphasize to the truth of God’s word, and God’s word alone. Amen.

Part 2

In the last article, we examined the Reformed and Dispensational approaches to counseling. I noted although there were some similarities between the two theological systems, and there were also vast differences.The Reformed counselor observes problems, and solutions, from a Biblical and confessional worldview, and the Dispensational counselor observes troubles one experiences, and the resolution to those experiences, from a Biblical worldview only. These differences affect the way one observes how problems develop, and the solution to how these problems would be resolved. To the Reformed counselor, they observe problems, and solutions in a “one size fits all” perspective (i.e., active sin and public repentance). The Dispensational counselor, due to their Biblical worldview, observes problems in their unique context, and therefore is able to give solutions that assist in this particular context.

Why do Reformed counselors only observe problems, and solutions, in a “one size fits all” perspective? This is due to the historical nature of the Reformed confessions (i.e., the Westminster Confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Cannon of Dort).

The Protestant Reformation was launched by Martin Luther in the 16th century due to the abuses and the false teachings that were promoted by the Roman Catholic Church. The battle centered on three important issues: 1.) Salvation on the basis of faith alone (sola fidae), 2.) A person did not need an earthly priest to go to God to forgive sins, but one could go to God directly, and be forgiven, and 3.) God’s word alone (Sola Scriptura) was authoritative for life, doctrine, and practice, not the man-made traditions of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Reformation, with its roots in Germany, spread all across Western Europe, and with every area, each region had established its own confession or catechism. Germany, with Martin Luther and Philip Malancthon penned the Augsberg Confession (1530), and later The Book of Concord (1580). Although, Jean (John) Calvin never penned a confession he did write a book that had prominent significance in the Netherlands titled Institutes of The Christian Religion (1536)In 1561, scholars and theologians from the Calvinst tradition, penned what became known as the Belgic Confessions. Later in 1563, when Calvinism spread through the Netherlands, the Dutch church, in response to Arminianism, drafted what became known as the Cannons of Dort. That same year, the very same group that created the Cannons of Dort, also created the Heidelberg Catechism, which later became known as the Three Forms of Unity (That is, “unity” concerning the Reformed tradition).

It was not till 1643, with Calvinism having widespread influence all over the Western world, the English government called on learned scholars and teachers, all who had been catechized in the Reformed tradition, to give counsel on matters of worship and the faith. These men (known as the “Westminster Assembly”) met for a period of 5 years, and created what became known as the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646). This is what those who hold to a Reformed position still use and confess today.

So back to the previous question: Why do Reformed counselors observe problems, and solutions, in “one size fits all” way? The confessions were written at a time when the prevailing argument was, mainly, justification by faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone. These confessions, for the most part, were drafted as a response and protest against the practices, and traditions, of the Roman Catholic Church. In other words, none of these confessions addressed the issue of Biblical counseling because this was not what these confessions were created for. A person who builds a counseling model out of Reformed theology is essentially building a model out of a confession that is frozen in time, and does not cover Biblical counseling.

This is the reason why a diagnosis of a problem, and the solution are so narrow, when building a counseling model from a Reformed confessional theology, and not exclusively from the Bible. Any problem, to the Reformed counselor, because they lead off with the confession, is always due to someone’s active sin, and the solution is always public (or private) confession of sin, because this is what the confessions teach.

The Dispensational counselor, analyses problems, not from a confessional grid, but from the Scriptures alone. Therefore, the Dispensational counselor is able to observe problems on a more extensive scale because the counselor is operating from a Biblical grid observing the consistent literal-grammatical explanation of the Scriptures, and drawing from them proper applications to address the problem.

For example, a person may come into counseling to address how they are to take care of a member who has schizophrenia. The Reformed counselor may assess the problem and presume that the problem may lie with the schizophrenic person, because their active sin may have caused this disorder. As a result, the solution may be to seek repentance from God, and slowly be healed of schizophrenia.

By contrast, a Dispensational counselor will assess the problem, and instead of offering repentance, the counselor may point out it is a good work to get help from a medical practitioner, because God has created medical practitioners for assist with this disorder (Eph. 2:9-10). The Dispensational counselor also can highlight how this care emphasizes serving and loving their neighbor (Rom. 13:9Gal. 5:4Jas. 2:8). The Dispensational counselor, as a help, would offer referrals to medical practitioners if the family member does not have one, to assist in helping the family member with schizophrenia. The Dispensational counselor would possibly even give information on schizophrenia, and the various treatments that are available to treat the disorder.

The Reformed counselor, has a narrow view of the diagnosis of the problem, and the treatment of the problem, because they operate from confessions that addressed the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church concerning justification, authority, and the priesthood of believers. The confessions that were written at this time did not address the practices of Biblical counseling. To build a Biblical counseling model out of this theological system is to impose a confessional grid on the way one sees problems, and solutions. However, a Dispensational approach always observes Scripture, using a consistent historical literal-grammatical method, and drawing out the application or the indicative found in the Bible to address the various problems one may desire to solve.

Let us as Biblical counselors operate from a Biblical worldview when we assist people in our care. To trust in a confession as a supplemental authoritative source, may limit one from diagnosing the problem, and the solution, in a way that exemplifies Christ, and serves our neighbor well.

Part 3

In the last article, we discussed the historical roots of Reformed (Covenant) theology. We observed how the Covenant approach to counseling is a “one size fits all” perspective. We also observed the reason why there is a “one size fits all” approach–the Reformed approach adheres to the Westminster Confession of faith.  This confession was developed as a response to the practices, and instruction of the Roman Catholic Church, and promoted justification by faith alone (sola fidae), in Christ alone (Solus Christus). Because this confession was frozen in time, the Reformed counselor only observes problems and solutions through the lens of active sin and repentance.  The Dispensational approach does not look to confessions but looks to the sacred Scriptures alone to resolve issues to problems.  In addition, a Dispensational counselor uses the applications, or indicatives, in the Bible to address various problems that one has in their life.

Now we turn our attention to the Reformed (Covenant) and Dispensational approach concerning the work of the Holy Spirit, specifically the area of sanctification in Biblical counseling. Those who adhere to a Reformed approach believe the Holy Spirit works in what is known as the “means of grace.” The Westminister Confession states this:

I. Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ and His benefits; and to confirm our interest in Him: as also, to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to His Word.

II. There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.

III. The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither does the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that does administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.

IV. There are only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord: neither of which may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained.

V. The sacraments of the Old Testament in regard to the spiritual things thereby signified and exhibited, were, for substance, the same with those of the new.

The Westminster Confession states that the Holy Spirit works within the sacraments, specifically baptism and the Lord’s supper. The Westminster confession also references the practices of the Old Testament. Specifically, circumcision.  One who holds to the Westminster Confession also believes the Holy Spirit does mysterious things through these sacraments. Ligonier, a website committed to the Reformed (Covenant) theological position states below:

Question and answer 65 of the Heidelberg Catechism emphasize the role of the sacraments in confirming our faith. They bless us as we receive them in faith, and if we neglect them, we weaken our trust in God’s work. The sacraments are mysteries in that we cannot explain fully what God accomplishes through them. We do know, however, that they are more than memorial observations. They become effectual means of grace to those with faith by the working of the Holy Spirit (WLC , Q. 161). To downplay their importance is to desupernaturalize our holy religion, so let us have a high view of the sacraments as confirming signs of God’s Word.

Ligonier Ministries. Means of grace. Retrieved February 25, 2017 from: http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/means-of-grace/.

Why is this important to Biblical counseling? The treatment for a Reformed counselor that will be promoted in this particular theological approach will include, in some way, the means of grace in their counseling plan. The problem is the “means of grace” is a confessional instruction, not a Biblical instruction.

The Dispensational approach observes the working of the Holy Spirit, not through a confession, but by means of sacred Scripture only. A Dispensational approach knows the Holy Spirit convicts mankind of sin and unbelief (Jn. 16:5-11). It is His Holy Spirit that baptizes us into the church (Acts 2:4Acts 2:33). It is being filled and walking by the Holy Spirit that one exhibits the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:15-21Gal. 5:13-25). A Dispensational approach would not mention the Holy Spirit working through water baptism and the Lord’s Supper because the word of God does not explicitly state the Holy Spirit works through these ordinances.  However, the Holy Spirit works, not through the substance of water baptism and the Lord’s supper, but through believers as they submit themselves to the Holy Spirit in their daily living. It is here the Dispensational approach operates with the Christian in terms of Biblical counseling.

This is not to say that the Dispensational approach minimizes or disregards water baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Christ told them to conduct the Lord’s supper in remembrance of Him  (Matt. 26:26-29Lk. 14:22-23). Christians take the Lord’s Supper because they are to remember and proclaim the death of Christ Jesus until He returns (1 Cor. 11:23-26). Water baptism represents the work of the Holy Spirit in a believer as the Christian identifies with the death of Christ, and cleansing the conscience by pointing a Christian to Jesus’s resurrection (Rom. 6:1-6Col. 2:121 Pet. 3:21). The Dispensational approach could use this in the counseling session to point to the significance of the death of Christ, and how this is important for reconciliation, and forgiveness. The Dispensational approach could also bring up how being baptized in the Holy Spirit is important to being a new creature, having a new identity in Christ, and how this new identity looks for the Christian (2 Cor. 5:17-19). Yet, the Dispensational approach would not promote the Holy Spirit working through the “means of grace,” because it is not explicitly taught in Scripture.

The Reformed approach operates from a worldview underscored in the Westminster Confession. This approach has a specific way it views the process of sanctification. A Reformed counselor, in an attempt to work with their counselees, would mention the “means of grace” and how it is important for one’s sanctification in counseling. The Dispensational approach does not look to confessions along with the Scripture but observes the Holy Spirit’s work in positional and progressive sanctification from what God has revealed in sacred Scripture alone.

Let us continue as Biblical counselors to observe how to best serve people, not from the confessions of history, but from Scripture alone. In doing so this is how we can best love our neighbor, and glorify God as we seek to do good works as Biblical counselors, to our neighbors.

Part 4

In the previous article, the difference between counseling from a Reformed (i.e., Covenant) approach and a Dispensational approach discussing the role of the Holy Spirit in Biblical counseling was observed. The Reformed (Covenant) approach was that the Holy Spirit works through what is known as the means of grace. The means of graceare not from a consistent literal-grammatical hermeneutic but come out of the instruction of the Westminster Confession of Faith. By contrast, the counselor working from a Dispensational approach, would not mention the means of grace in their counseling because the means of grace are not explicitly taught in sacred Scripture.

Now in this article, we turn our attention to the foundational verse of the Reformed Counselor, which is Romans 15:14:

And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another (NASB).

The word that is emphasized in this verse for the Reformed counselor focuses is the word “admonish.” This word used in the Bible is the word νουθετειν which comes from the word nouthesia (noutheteo in the verb form). This Greek word can mean to “warn,” “instruct,” or “correct.” In this passage, Paul told the believers in Rome that he was convinced they were all full of good, all knowledge and that they were able to instruct (or admonish) one another in all matters. The nouthetic (or admonish) approach is at the heart of the Reformed (Covenant) counseling model, and they are convinced it is the way that a counselor should operate in every counseling session.

There is one benefit to this particular counseling approach, which is examined below:

  • Admonishing one another is something that all believers should be doing:  On a practical level all believers are to continually instruct, and even warn one another at certain times. This is also connected with the fact that a believer is to be filled with goodness and knowledge (Rom. 15:14a). In other words, a believer that does not have these particular qualities will not be able to admonish other believers. As a saint in Christ grows in the knowledge and goodness of the Lord, and His word, Christian should look to be instructed and to instruct others.

Noutheic counselors are correct to emphasize admonishment in their counseling model. There are times in counseling counselees are to be instructed, and warned, according to the situation shared in the counseling session. However, there are several limitations the nouthetic model does not account for:

  • The nouthetic model is too narrow to address all problems believers experience: Although admonishing is something that Biblical counselors can do for counselees, it is not the only way to address every issue that surfaces in counseling. Paul, who addressed the churches in Thessalonica wrote:

We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.

1 Thess. 5:14-15 NASB

When a Reformed counselor focuses on just the nouthetic model it is not broad enough to cover all of the other people, with different issues that need to be counseled. For example, take a person who is faint-hearted (lit. “small-soul” or “small-hearted”). A person in this state may be overwhelmed and troubled with many problems in life and may feel like they cannot carry on. These people are not to be admonished, but are to be encouraged (i.e., “strengthened”). A person who is weak (lit. “no strength”) is not to be admonished, but to be supported (lit. “to hold too firmly”). The nouthetic model does not (and this author would argue because of its specific focus cannot) make room for other problems a person may experience in their life.

  • The nouthetic model promotes the “active sin only” perspective underscored in Reformed (Covenant) counseling: The Reformed (Covenant) counseling model, due to its soteriological perspective, may believe that all problems a counselee faces are due to only active sin in a person’s life. This means in nouthetic counseling that all counselees, no matter what the problem, have to be admonished because it is presupposed that the problem’s origin, and present existence, is always due to the counselee’s active sin. However, this may not the case with some counselees. A person could be faint-hearted, not because they are actively sinning, but because they are experiencing the extreme burdens of life, and are emotionally weary. A person who also lacks strength may also not be participating in any sinful activity, but it could be due to the reality that they are overwhelmed with various problems that are beyond their control.

The nouthetic model leaves no room for any other option to see the problem other than this person is sinful, and the solution is they need to be instructed, or warned, and repent of their sin.

  • The nouthetic model does not account for all the ways the Bible recognizes how one is admonished: There are other ways that the word of God uses the word “admonish.” For instance, admonishment does not just apply to those who refuse to accept the apostle’s instruction (2 Thess. 3:15). Paul mentioned another way to admonish one another as believers:

Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Col. 3:16 NASB (emphasis mine)

Paul writing to the churches in Colossae did not mention anything about active sin and the attempt to admonish them. Instead, Paul tells the saints to instruct one another with music (spec. songs, hymns, and spiritual songs).

In addition, Paul also admonished the churches in Corinth when he reminded them about his own hardships as an apostle, and how this was for their benefit concerning the gospel (1 Cor. 4:8-13). The limitation with the nouthetic model is this model recognizes only one type of admonishment, and it does not recognize the diversityof how admonishment (i.e., nouthetic) is used in the sacred Scriptures.

In contrast to Reformed (Covenant) counselors, Dispensational counselors observe a consistent literal-grammatical hermeneutic in biblical counseling. They acknowledge not only the diversity of admonishing in counseling, but they see admonishment is not the only way to address the various issues of a counselee. A Dispensational counselor understands there are times when counselees come to counseling because of consequences due to their active sin, in which warning and instruction are applied. However Dispensational counselors also believe that some problems are due to living in a cursed world, in which encouragement and support are promoted.

Paul when he was suffering from depression concerning his labor from Macedonia, was not admonished. Instead, Paul and his workers were comforted by the coming of Titus with a report on how Titus was treated by the saints in Corinth (2 Cor. 7:6-7). Due to the situation of the matter, there was no need for any instruction or training (i.e., admonishment). Paul needed comfort, and this is what Paul had received from God through Titus.

The Reformed (Covenant) Counselor recognizes the importance of admonishment in Biblical counseling. However, due to its “one size fits all” approach it does not acknowledge the diversity of how admonishment is conducted according to the Scriptures. In addition, Reformed (Covenant) counselors may not observe that admonishment is not the only way to address problems in the lives of people. The Dispensational counselor, rooted in a consistent literal-grammatical hermeneutic observes the diversity of admonishment in Biblical counseling. Also, the Dispensational counselor observes the general context of the problem surrounding the individual so they know how best to approach a person’s issues in counseling from a Biblical worldview.

Let us continue to observe the sacred Scriptures from a consistent literal-grammatical way, and the diversity of how to address the issues of our counselees. In so doing we as biblical counselors will glorify God, and will serve our counselees appropriately.

Part 5

In the previous article, we examined the difference between the Reformed and Dispensational approach to Biblical counseling concerning the word nouthetic (or admonish). It was seen that the Reformed approach of nouthetic was appropriate in one aspect of Biblical counseling, and that was instructing a person out of active sin. However, it was too narrow because it did not cover all of the ways a person can admonish as seen in Scripture. In addition, the Reformed position was not broad enough to cover all of the ways a person can be cared for in terms of counseling. By contrast, the Dispensational, due to their Biblical hermeneutic, observes a diverse range of addressing problems based on the context of the problem the counselee is experiencing.

Next, we examine the overarching perspective for the counselee in Biblical counseling. What is the overall aspect of both the Reformed (Covenant) approach and the Dispensational approach?

The founder of nouthetic counseling comes from a man by the name of Jay Adams, who is a devoted Presbyterian, which roots originate from 5-point, or “classical,” Calvinism. The broader Presbyterian tradition instructs from the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechism. In the catechism, it defines the 10 Commandments as the “moral laws” that govern men, and specifically Christians. These are found in Questions 40-42 in the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechism:

Quest. 40. What did God at first reveal to man for the rule of his obedience?
Ans. 40. The rule which God at first revealed to man for his obedience, was the moral law.(1)

Quest. 41. Where is the moral law summarily comprehended?
Ans. 41. The moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments.

Quest. 42. What is the sum of the ten commandments?
Ans. 42. The sum of the ten commandments is, To love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mind; and our neighbor as ourselves.

These three particular points found Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechism are the goal of Reformed (Covenant) Counseling: to change behaviors so that they are in the confines of the moral law. Jay Adams underscores this in his book Competent To Counsel:

The overarching purpose of preaching and counseling is God’s glory. But the underneath side of that splendid rainbow is love. A simple biblical definition of love is: The fulfillment of God’s commandments. Love is a relationship conditioned upon responsibility, that is, responsible observance of the commandments of God…Thus the goal of nouthetic counseling is set forth plainly in the Scriptures: to bring men into loving conformity to the law of God (Adams, 55 emphasis mine).

However, the Dispensational counselor has a different goal in mind in counseling Biblically, which is set forth in the Scriptures. Paul writes in his letter to Titus and stated the following:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, 12 instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age…

Titus 2:11-12 NASB

Paul, addressing the churches in Rome, also writes:

12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, 13 and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. 14 For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.

Rom. 6:12-14 NASB

The Dispensational counselor, unlike the Reformed (Covenant) counselor, does not attempt to alter behaviors and attitudes to conform to the “moral law” (i.e., the Ten Commandments) because the church age saint is not under the Ten Commandments. Instead, the Dispensational counselor seeks to give counsel others from a perspective of grace, and this is the perspective that the Dispensational counselor works from. In fact, the Dispensational counselor would strongly assert there would be no way a counselee could conform to the “moral law” because of the very purpose of the Law, which Paul highlighted in his letter to the Romans:

Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; 20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

Rom. 2:19-20 NASB

The Counselor who works from a Dispensational view sees that the “moral law” (i.e., the Ten Commandments) give one an awareness of sin, and how they fall short. To attempt to conform a counselee under the “moral law” would be to place a person under a great burden. When a Dispensational counselor works with a counselee their consistent perspective is to work from a position of grace.

This is also not to say that the Dispensational counselor avoids confronting active sin with a counselee. Referring to Paul in his letter to Titus it is the grace of God that instructs the Christian in a two-fold manner: 1. To deny ungodliness and worldly desires, and 2. To live sensibly, righteously, and godly in this present age (Titus 2:11-12). Paul even repeats this in his letter to the Roman believers in which he makes the case they were not under (i.e., to be subject to) the Law but under grace (Rom. 6:12-14)!

Once more this underscores the “one size fits all ” approach Reformed (Covenant) counselors take. Because they are attempting to conform one to the “moral law” by intrinsic design they have to look at all problems as a result of active sin because this is what the Law is designed to observe. At the same time, the very “moral law” they attempt to use to conform a counselee’s behavior is the same Law that condemns the counselee, because no one can conform themselves to the Law perfectly (which question 82 of the Catechisms also recognize)!

To sum up: The Reformed (Covenant) counselor uses what is known as the “moral law” to guide their counselees. This belief comes from the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechism which teaches the “moral law” is the Ten Commandments. The Dispensational counselor, in contrast to the Reformed (Covenant) counselor, looks not to the “moral law,” but to the grace of God (i.e., Jesus Christ) to instruct the counselee to deny and throw off their active sin and to seek to live a godly life that pleases God. This approach comes not from a catechism, but from a plain consistent literal-grammatical reading of the sacred Scripture.

Let us continue as biblical counselors not to look to models that are built on creeds, confessions, or catechisms. Let us continue to apply secondary applications from a proper Bibliology that come from the truth of the sacred Scriptures.

Part 6

In the last article, we examined the difference between Reformed (Covenant) counseling, Dispensational counseling, and their overall goal for the counselee in each approach. In respect to Reformed (Covenant) counseling, they will counsel from the perspective of what they would call the “moral law,” or the ten commandments. Their particular goal would be to transform the counselee’s behavior to these commandments. In contrast to the Reformed (Covenant) counselor, the Dispensational counselor observes to counsel and transform their behaviors and attitudes, not to the “moral law,” (i.e., the Ten Commandments) but under the grace of God.

Let us now turn our attention to the subject of idolatry and what this means for both approaches. The Reformed (Covenant) counselor sees this as a major issue for people who come into Biblical Counseling seeking to resolve their own internal, and external conflicts. Most who take this position believe that idolatry is at the heart of every issue a person faces. For instance, there are Biblical counselors that are convinced that eating disorders are due to a direct result of an idolatrous heart. There are some Biblical counselors who teach that being dependent upon a spouse is considered idolatry.  As previously stated, the Biblical counselor may believe that idolatry is fundamental to most problems in Biblical counseling.

This idea of idols being fundamental in the human being was emphasized from the Reformer John Calvin in his book titled The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Concerning idolatry and the heart of man he writes the following:

In regard to the origin of idols, the statement contained in the Book of Wisdom has been received with almost universal consent—viz. that they originated with those who bestowed this honour on the dead, from a superstitious regard to their memory. I admit that this perverse practice is of very high antiquity, and I deny not that  it was a kind of torch by which the infatuated proneness of mankind to idolatry was kindled into a greater blaze. I do not, however, admit that it was the first origin of the practice. That idols were in use before the prevalence of that ambitious consecration of the images of the dead, frequently adverted to by profane writers, is evident from the words of Moses (Gen. 31:19). When he relates that Rachel stole her father’s images, he speaks of the use of idols as a common vice.

Hence we may infer, that the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols. There was a kind of renewal of the world at the deluge, but before many years elapse, men are forging gods at will. There is reason to believe, that in the holy Patriarch’s lifetime his grandchildren were given to idolatry: so that he must with his own eyes, not without the deepest grief, have seen the earth polluted with idols—that earth whose iniquities God had lately purged with so fearful a Judgment. For Joshua testifies (Josh. 24:2), that Torah and Nachor, even before the birth of Abraham, were the worshipers of false gods. The progeny of Shem having so speedily revolted, what are we to think of the posterity of Ham, who had been cursed long before in their father? Thus, indeed, it is.

The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labours under dullness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God. To these evils another is added. The god whom man has thus conceived inwardly he attempts to embody outwardly. The mind, in this way, conceives the idol, and the hand gives it birth. That idolatry has its origin in the idea which men have, that God is not present with them unless his presence is carnally exhibited, appears from the example of the Israelites: “Up,” said they, “make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wet not what is become of him,” (Exod. 22:1). They knew, indeed, that there was a God whose mighty power they had experienced in so many miracles, but they had no confidence of his being near to them, if they did not with their eyes behold a corporeal symbol of his presence, as an attestation to his actual government.

John Calvin. Institutes of The Christian Religion. Book I: Chapter XI. Retrieved from: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iii.xii.html. Emphasis mine.

In context, the entire chapter is John Calvin’s thoughts and reasoning on the importance of the second commandment God gave to the nation of Israel. He explained idolatry is at the core of mankind’s nature. As a result, the creation of idols by man is just as natural as breathing. This same concept John Calvin wrote in these paragraphs is found throughout Reformed (Covenant) Biblical counseling in this contemporary age. The prevailing thought among Biblical counselors seems to be that because idols are found in the thoughts and heart of man, every problem man deals with is idol-centered. The idea that idolatry is the fundamental problem that is addressed in Biblical counseling finds its origin from a Reformed (Covenant) sanctification approach.

Most Biblical counselors, even those who hold to a Dispensational approach in their Biblical counseling, may find they subscribe to this belief that idolatry is at the heart of every counseling problem. However, is this approach to every problem a counselee faces Biblical?

The New Testament does speak of idols and idolatry. Paul addresses the churches of Corinth and told them to flee from idolatry warning them that those who were Christians and involved in the practices of sacrificing something to an idol were sacrificing to demons (1 Cor. 10:14-21). In addition, Paul also wrote more broadly about idolatry to the saints in Colossae in this manner:

Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.

Colossians 3:5 NASB; emphasis mine

In the Scripture above, the Greek word for “amounts” is singular, not plural. This means that the verb is describing the nearest noun, which is “greed.” The word “greed” in this context comes from two Greek words literally meaning to “hold/have more.” This “greed” carries with it the reality of one hoarding and boasting in their physical possessions. The same word is used in Ephesians 5:5 below:

For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God (NASB emphasis mine).

This type of idolatry is what Jesus underscored when He discussed the issue of money being one’s master, and how this conflicts with one serving God (Matt. 6:24). In addition, Jesus tells the parable of the man who had an abundance of grain and decided to build a larger barn to hold all of his grain. The man, with his covetous attitude, was not aware that he would pass away that very day without all his possessions (Lk. 12:13-21).

A Biblical counselor, using the Dispensational approach will observe idolatry very specifically, based on how Scripture describes the word in its specific context. For example, a person with an eating disorder would not be considered struggling with idolatry according to the description of idolatry sacred Scripture gives. However, a person who is having problems being generous with their resources, and harbors jealousy because they do not possess what others have is clearly, according to Scripture considered idolatry. In addition, if one comes into a biblical counseling office, and says they are Christian, and it is discovered they are a Mormon, this is also considered idolatry because they are worshipping a false god.

Let us continue as biblical counselors looking to the Scriptures, rather to the theologians of old, observing the definitions that they give us. For when we do we are serving our neighbor well, and we glorify God and His eternal word. Amen.

Dr. Luther Smith – www.theurbantheologiansite.wordpress.com