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

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

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: 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.

Until next time…

Soli Deo Gloria!

Dr. L.S.

Biblical Counseling: The Reformed (Covenant) Approach Vs. The Dispensational Approach (Part Four)

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 grace are 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 diversity of 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.

Until Next Time…

Soli Deo Gloria!

Dr. L.S.

Biblical Counseling: The Reformed (Covenant) Approach Vs. The Dispensational Approach (Part Three)

In the last article, we discussed the historical roots of Reformed (Covenant) theology. We observed how the Covenant approach to counselors 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:

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 2:4; Acts 2:33). It is being filled and walking by the Holy Spirit that one exhibits the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:15-21; Gal. 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. 26:26-29; Lk. 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. 6:1-6; Col. 2:12; 1 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.

Until Next Time…

Soli Deo Gloria!

Dr. L.S.