Book Review: Counsel from the Cross, by Elyse Fitzpatrick and Dennis Johnson
“My counselor never prays or uses his Bible.”
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a variation of that sentence, I’d be a rich man. Sadly, many evangelical Christian counselors buy too heavily into secular thinking, while they too sparingly apply their faith to counseling.
Counseling books that point us to the cross are always a breath of fresh air. Elyse Fitzpatrick and Dennis Johnson’s new book, Counsel From the Cross, is one of those books.
WHAT’S THE POINT OF THE BOOK? APPLYING THE GOSPEL TO LIFE
There are literally thousands of counseling books out on the market now. And with the rapid growth of Christian counseling, why add another? What seems to be lacking among most of these books is a distinctive focus on the gospel. Hence, the authors say early on:
We focus on gospel truths for the sake of Christians involved in helping ministries who want to see how the Bible and, in particular, the gospel of Jesus Christ can help others who are suffering. For instance, does the Bible address the blight of pornography or the darkness of depression? If so, how? Does the gospel speak to men and women with broken hearts and broken marriages? What does Jesus’ sinless life mean when your friend discovers that her husband has filed for divorce? (20)
The strength of this book is its relentless pursuit of the gospel. After a few foundational chapters (chs. 1-4), the authors attempt to apply this gospel-centered lens to a number of areas: counseling (ch. 5), sanctification (ch. 6), emotions (ch. 7), and relationships (ch. 8). The book concludes with a relishing of the gospel story (ch. 9), a defense of biblical counseling (appendix 1), a chart of Scripture passages for use in counseling (organized topically; appendix 2), an overview of the gospel (appendix 3), and an evangelistic presentation (appendix 4).
One of the latest trends in counseling has been adopting the term “biblical” to make one’s work seem more scriptural. Traditional biblical counselors (those associated with NANC, CCEF, or other organizations long associated with the movement) have complained that generic Christian counselors are muddying the waters by borrowing the term.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Fitzpatrick and Johnson adopt the term “gospel-centered counseling,” both to put the emphasis in the right place (the gospel!) and to move away from terms like “biblical counseling” (which carries a lot of baggage itself). They define gospel-centered counseling as
…the process of one Christian coming alongside another with words of truth to encourage, admonish, comfort, and help—words drawn from Scripture, grounded in the gracious saving work of Jesus Christ, and presented in the context of relationship. The goal of this counseling is that the brother or sister in need of counsel would grow in his or her understanding of the gospel and how it applies to every area of life and then respond in grateful obedience in every circumstance, all to the building up of the church and for the glory of God. (92)
THE PROPER CONTEXT FOR COUNSELING: THE CHURCH
We spend a lot of time at 9Marks talking about the church. Why? Because it’s in the Bible. And also because sometimes it seems like the church doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
Christian counseling is predominantly individualistic. For the most part, counselors see themselves as independent operators (with a limited amount of accountability to licensing organizations). One-on-one is the norm for Christian and secular counselors. So I was pleasantly surprised to read Fitzpatrick and Johnson’s discussion of the relationship between counseling and the church:
The gospel message—that God has made us his own in spite of our sin—is what we need to hear over and over again. . . . Because of this, some of the first questions we should ask are: How are you doing with church attendance? Does your pastor preach the gospel to you every Sunday, and when he does, do you listen intently? How long has it been since you gave your soul a delicious draught of the glorious gospel message by listening attentively, expectantly, and prayerfully as it is preached from the pulpit? (42-43)
If you liked that quote, how about this:
The ministry that furthers growth in Christlike desires, emotions, and behaviors belongs in the church and is a function of the church. It is only within the context of the church that ongoing spiritual care, encouragement, and accountability can occur. It is only as we use the powerful word of the gospel in each other’s lives that we can change. (48)
These authors understand that the proper context for spiritual growth is a local church and not our own individualistic endeavors.
OTHER USEFUL PARTS OF THE BOOK
Here are a few other things I liked about the book:
- In chapter 2, the authors helpfully explore three important means of grace in the Christian life: the preached Word, baptism, and fellowship with the saints. Relational issues are common in counseling books, but to hear counselors talk about preaching and baptism is highly unusual!
- In chapter 4, the authors describe two types of Christians: the happy moralist and the sad moralist. While we want to be careful not to be reductionistic, these profiles can help us recognize some dangerous tendencies among Christians. The happy moralist knows God loves him, pridefully thinks he is doing a pretty good job at persevering as a Christian, and feels that with a little help from God he will be just fine. The sad moralist sees God as transcendent and is always surprised that God would bother to help him out. He is prone to see himself as a worm or wretch who doesn’t deserve God’s love. He readily sees his sin and beats himself up for it. He doesn’t as readily embrace the grace that God offers us in the gospel which removes the guilt of our sin. Happy moralists plague the Western church, while reformed types are often sad moralists.
- In chapter 5, the authors describe the declarations of the gospel (i.e., our identity in Christ) and the obligations of the gospel (i.e., what the gospel asks of us—to fight sin and put on Christ). They use the lens of gospel declarations and obligations as a way to think about how to apply the gospel to people’s lives.
- In their discussion of the relationship between the gospel and our emotions in chapter 7, the authors do a good job of connecting our emotions to the biblical concept of the heart.
SHOULD YOU GET A COPY? YES!
The book is scripturally sound and helpful for equipping pastors, lay counselors, and anyone who wants to make the gospel central in their life and the lives of others. If you are interested in counseling, this book is well worth your time!