Grace-Driven Change in Biblical Counseling

If the apostle Paul was clear on just one thing in all of his New Testament writing, it would have to include that the Christian life, from first to last, is by grace alone (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16).

This post, I must admit, is woefully insufficient to address one of the most complex, hotly debated, yet theologically critical issues of the Christian life in the church today (or for all of church history for that matter).

I don't intend in any way to pretend that it's even scarcely adequate for exhaustive understanding, but want only to call attention to the issue, and perhaps posit a few relevant thoughts for the task of biblical counseling and discipleship.

The topic? 

Sanctification by grace alone.

In the age of "radical Christianity," I consider the misunderstanding of this doctrine to be one of the greatest threats to true biblical counseling and discipleship today. Whether it's misunderstood by intention or ignorance, it's too important to be ignored.

Fruit and Consequences

The threat we're facing can be summed in this way: 

That the insertion of a requirement for good works into the process of sanctification as a condition for, rather than the proper fruit or consequence of ongoing sanctification obscures the gospel message, namely, that we are saved, from first to last, by grace alone.

Theologians call this threat, neonomianism (new law). A simple way to understand this significant doctrinal error is to say that while we may enter the kingdom of God by grace alone, we stay in the kingdom of God by grace and works.

My concern is not so much to thoroughly define the problem, which is extensive and multifaceted (impossible, even, for a mere blog post), but to call to our attention the possibility that this error has infiltrated parts of biblical counseling precisely because it has penetrated parts modern evangelicalism.

Principally, then, the wise biblical counselor is always examining their counsel to make certain that it remains in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5).

Biblical counselors must be certain that as they call counselees to repentance, faith, and the proper manifestation of the fruit of faith in their lives, that they do not commit the neonomian error of mixing law and gospel.

Dr. John Fonville, writing in Modern Reformation, observed that, "Whenever the law is confused with the gospel, the remedy is always wrong." Biblical counselors must always be concerned with Gospel remedies to sin and suffering.

Before you allow your eyes to roll into the back of your head, assuming that this topic is for theologians only, let me remind you, whether you're a counselor or counselee, that you are, in fact, a theologian. The only question is, are you a good one or a bad one?

Further, allow me to submit that you already carry an opinion on this topic, whether you know it or not. The only question is, is it a right one or a wrong one?

Finally, allow me to suggest that doctrinal error concerning this topic isn't rightly handled by a shrug of the shoulders, but a pouring over Scripture, and even the great creeds and confessions, so that we might rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). 

Sola Gratia: By Grace Alone

Sanctification, for the Christian, is the lifelong process that, according to a Reformed understanding of the Ordo Salutis, follows justification. By it, they are progressively fashioned into the likeness of Christ by the work of God, the result of which is works.

The authors of the Westminster Shorter Catechism help us understand:

Q.35: What is sanctification?
Sanctification is the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Likewise, the authors of the 1689 London Baptist Confession, influenced greatly by Westminster, wrote in their Chapter 13 on Sanctification:

They who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, are also farther sanctified, really and personally, through the same virtue, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them.

What Scripture makes unmistakably plain, and the great Protestant creeds and confessions make clear, is that sanctification, like justification, is by grace alone.

We are not sanctified in any way by our works, rather, our good deeds provide testimony for and evidence of the work of God in us. They glorify God's name and produce joy in our hearts, but they are not ever the basis of our salvation, to which the work of sanctification belongs.

The concern then is that it's a significant and increasingly common error to insert, whether intentionally or by ignorance, the necessity of works into sanctification, even as we hold to justification by grace and faith alone. 

Some potential aftershocks of this neonomian error are:

1) The immediate erosion of the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone,

2) Doubt concerning whether the amount of good works produced warrant any assurance of salvation whatsoever, and

3) Doubt concerning how our good deeds could ever be the basis for salvation, even if surreptitiously inserted into sanctification, when even as believers our best works are left wanting by the remaining stain of sin (Isaiah 64:6).

For the biblical counselor or anyone involved in discipleship, the neonomian error threatens to derail the work of the Gospel by turning the glorious truths of the cross into a new law, a new duty that must be performed by the believer, rather than in the believer.

Rest for the Weary

Even if inadvertent, there is great risk for biblical counselors that we not turn the heart of the counselee away from trust in the active obedience of Christ, and toward any reliance on the production of works in sanctification.

As Dr. R. Scott Clark wrote at The Heidelblog, "The law says 'do and live' (Luke 10:28) but grace says: Christ has fulfilled the law for you, as your substitute. Believe and be saved. The moralist cannot have such a clear distinction. He quickly reaches for a handful of mud to obscure the distinction and to make the one look like the other."

For those involved in biblical counseling, the answer to a counselee whose life fails to evidence the fruit of salvation is not "try harder," but, "Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28).

(There are many other related issues concerning this topic and biblical counseling. This is an introductory discussion that may be followed by other posts.)

JW