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Biblical Counseling Coalition: Grace & Truth

Old School Counseling, Part 1

Old School Counseling Part 1

BCC Staff Note: You’re reading Part One in a two-part blog mini-series by Adam Embry on learning biblical counseling from the Puritans. The BCC will post Part Two in the upcoming weeks and link back to this post.

Stumbling Blocks in Soul Care

In his book on learning about pastoral care from the classical tradition, Thomas Oden warns pastors involved in soul care about three stumbling blocks:

  • Having an anti-historical view of pastoral theology;
  • An anti-pastoral approach to historical theology; and
  • An anti-theological style of pastoral care.[1]

Pastoral counselors can have their theology and practice informed by reliable pastoral practices from church history. I believe that the theology and practice of the English Puritans can help biblical counselors avoid these stumbling blocks and be more faithful to God’s Word.

The Puritans and Biblical Counseling

Thankfully, there have been several blogs on the Puritans at the BCC that have sought to incorporate pastoral and historical theology into pastoral care and avoid the stumbling blocks Oden described. For example, several of Todd Hardin’s articles focus on the English Puritan Richard Sibbes. Use of the Puritans in biblical counseling is not new. But, if it is for you, check out Tim Keller’s article, Puritan Resources for Biblical Counseling, at CCEF’s website.

Understanding and Using God’s Promises

Part 1 of this blog will briefly cover the first of two counseling practices from Joel Beeke and Mark Jones’ recently published book A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life that have helped me think more biblically and clearly about biblical counseling – understanding and using God’s promises. Part 2 will cover the practice of meditation.

How Can I Help Counselees Understand God’s Promises?

Troubled Christians need hope that God’s promises bring. Suffering and sin cloud often their eyes as they read Scripture looking for hope. Or, if counselees find a meaningful promise, they don’t understand how to apply it to their life. Some counselees read Romans 8:28 and say, “Well, I know that Paul knows God works all things for God and knows I should, but I just don’t know how it can be true!” Puritan pastors didn’t apply the promises until they educated their parishioners on how to understand God’s Word. Then they helped apply them.

Beeke and Jones summarized what the Puritans believed about God’s promises when they write, “The promises [of God] are the pathways where Christ meets the soul” (401). There are times when we counselors think, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if Timmy or Sally just realizes how much Jesus wants to change them, care for them, and help them see his amazing love.” We want those we help to be changed by meeting the living Word. Helping counselees understand God’s promises ensure that they find hope that Jesus will change and care for them. The Puritans believed 2 Corinthians 1:20, that all of God’s promises come true in Jesus. Helping counselees understand God’s promises keep us Christ-centered in our counseling.

Puritan pastors believed that a proper understanding of God’s promises resulted in obedience. As biblical counselors, we encourage counselees to obey God’s commands and take seriously his warnings for disobedience. God’s promises confirm obedience, that is, “they confirm what God, motive by His sovereign mercy and good pleasure, will do for us. Thus, a promise reveals a truth that will benefit us in particular. It declares God’s will concerning the good with which He will bless us or the evil He will remove from us” (402). Helping counselees understand God’s promises directs their hearts to see how the Father has already prepared to bless a life of obedience.

How Can I Help Counselees Use God’s Promises?

Puritan pastors believed God’s promises should be believed, applied, and then prayed. Faith welcomes, embraces, and loves God’s promises. Belief in God’s promises promote defeat of sin (2 Corinthians 7:1), comfort in affliction (Psalm 119:50, 92), a pilgrim mindset (Hebrews 11:3, 16), and heart-felt praise (Psalm 71:14; 1 Peter 1:8-9). Biblical counselors should aim at helping counselees believe God’s promises with their mind and heart.

The promises are applied by actively applying them. With pastoral insight, Beeke and Jones describe what the Puritans, as well as us, know to be true.

“As we read the Scriptures and come across a particular promise that directly speaks to our situation, we yield a hearty amen to it, but them we quickly close our minds as we close our Bibles and think no more of it, trying once against to live independently from the promises. It is as if we expect the fulfillment of a promise to drop from the sky into our laps simply by our knowing and assenting to it. When the fulfillment of that promise does not happen, we look for another promise, hoping to light upon one with efficacy” (411).

Applying God’s promises moves counselees to action by keeping God’s promises ready to meditate on, promote obedience, and instill hope. For example, if you are burdened by sin and despair, Puritan pastors would encourage you to apply Exodus 34:6-7 to your situation. Do you struggle to find spiritual encouragement? Isaiah 43:2-3 was a passage they often used to comfort Christians.

The Puritans were wise and seasoned pastors who knew that the fulfillment of God’s promises might not happen right away. So too, we should encouraged Christians to be patient and hopeful while living obediently, yet discourage them from basing their certainty of God’s promises on their feelings.

Counselees should be taught to pray God’s promises. Puritan pastors believed praying God’s promises were the culmination of and most important aspect of applying God’s promises. Often, when asked how they’ve dealt with their problems, counselees will say, “I’ve prayed about it, but nothing’s happened.” Such a response not only shows disconnect between prayer and actively obeying the Word, but also understanding God’s promises and prayer. The Puritans believed that “Prayer, more than anything else, denies self, relinquishes control, confesses need, leans on God, goes outside of ourselves, and cries out for help” (414). Prayer puts the troubled soul in the right position before God to consider who he is and how he can help (Genesis 32:9-12; Daniel 9:2-3; 2 Samuel 7:28-29). We should teach counselees that prayer needs to come with understanding and applying God’s promises.

There is much more that could be written on how the Puritans helped Christians understand and use God’s promises. It’s my hope that you’ll pick up A Puritan Theology and learn how you can better understand and use God’s promises in your life as you seek to counsel others.

Join the Conversation

How can you help counselees understand and use God’s promises in your counseling?

[1]Thomas C. Oden, Care of Souls in the Classical Tradition, (Fortress Press, 1984), 13. A must-read chapter from Oden’s book can be read here.

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The BCC exists to strengthen churches, para-church organizations, and educational institutions by promoting excellence and unity in biblical counseling as a means to accomplish compassionate outreach and effective discipleship.