Counseling and the Doctrine of Sin

by Derek Brown

In a previous article, I argued that Scripture is sufficient for the counseling task. My basic premise in that article was that in Scripture God has provided everything we need to effectively counsel one another. Methodologically speaking, Christians do not need to incorporate the insights, discoveries, or interpretations of modern psychology into their counseling approach in order to provide fellow believers with robust, effective, and Christ-exalting remedies to their problems. The Scripture supplies the underlying worldview, doctrinal content, counseling technique, and God-sanctioned solutions for every non-medical problem that a Christian will face in this life.

This is a radical statement in our day, and one that will likely garner the scorn of both modern psychologists and Christian integrationists alike. I will address in later articles the philosophical reasons for why this kind of statement is so jarring to our modern ears. For now, I want to continue with this theme of Scripture’s sufficiency by considering the doctrine of sin and how it relates to the counseling task.

A Difference Between Integrationism and Biblical Counseling
Biblical counselors and evangelical integrationists (see my previous article for a description of the differences between biblical counselors and integrationists) agree that sin has infected our world and our humanity in a profound way, and that all people need the forgiveness and cleansing that is found only through faith in Jesus Christ. Both groups would also agree that spiritual growth and sanctification are important aspects of our walk with Christ and play a role in the counseling venture.

While the most theologically astute integrationists place a priority on Christian doctrine and how it must shape a counselor’s view of man and his problems, many if not most integrationists typically receive a good portion of their post-secondary training in psychology, not theology. Thus, in their treatments of their methodology, integrationists do not give Christian theology and its corresponding relationship to counseling thorough enough engagement. 

A distinctive of the biblical counseling methodology, however, is that it begins by going as deep as possible into all that Scripture says about our greatest problem and what God has done for us and will do in us as we follow Christ in faith and obedience. This approach flows from the conviction of Scripture’s sufficiency for counseling, but also from the recognition that counseling is always a theological venture. As Heath Lambert has rightly noted,

There is no option available to us but to have a theological vision of reality. Every vision of reality about counseling will be theological. The only question is whether a counselor adopts a theological vision of reality that God believes is faithful—or unfaithful. We cannot choose to have a vision of reality that is not theological (A Theology of Biblical Counseling, 17.)

A Theology of Biblical Counseling, 17.

If we are going to address people’s problems, we must view them and their problems rightly. And we only view people and their problems rightly when we view them through a sound theology. Superficiality in doctrine and biblical exegesis will not provide the counselor with the clarity they need to diagnose and treat people’s problems in a way that is enduringly effective or Christ-exalting.

At basic, counselors need a comprehensive anthropology that reckons with our nature as image-bearers who exist as psycho-somatic unities (we are both body and soul), who were originally created good but who, by way of original sin, are now afflicted with a depravity that affects every aspect of our personhood (Gen 6:5).

But we also need a theology of sin that encompasses the curse and provides a basis for understanding life in a fallen world. Some have wrongly assumed that biblical counseling’s emphasis on sin implies that we trace the root of the counselee’s every problem to their own personal sin. This narrow approach to people’s problems may be the practice of some so-called biblical counselors, but it isn’t the biblical model. Rather, a sound doctrine of sin allows for counselors to offer comfort to counselees when their troubles are the result of another person’s sin or simply the sad effect of living in a fallen world. As we will see, the counselee’s personal sin will be relevant to how they respond to the sins of others or the trials of life in a fallen world, but a well-nuanced biblical counseling methodology doesn’t trace the blame for a counselee’s every problem to their own personal sin.

Nevertheless, without a thorough theology of sin, we will not be able to address the various lesser problems that people face because we won’t have a grasp on the biggest problem people face. As I tell my theology students every winter quarter in our soteriology class, “If we don’t get sin right, we won’t get grace right.”  

Man’s Biggest and Deepest Problem: Sin
It is not an overstatement to say that man’s deepest and most serious ailment is sin. Nor is it an exaggeration to say that every other problem that man experiences is a result of sin. Ultimately, all the troubles we face in this life derive from Adam’s transgression because he is responsible for introducing sin into our human experience (Rom 5:12ff). But our problems also spring from our own personal sin, the sin of others, and the cursed environment we inhabit.

This truth about our sin separates modern psychology from Christianity at a foundational level. Indeed, so stark is the difference at this point that a Christian anthropology simply cannot be reconciled with a secular psychological view of the human person which assesses people and their problems within a naturalistic, evolutionary framework and, due to these assumptions, primarily in terms of their biology. The biblical category of sin has been erased from the modern psychological lexicon almost completely, thus rendering modern psychologists and psychiatrists unable to rightly diagnose and treat people’s problems because they are working without information that is essential to explaining humankind and the mess that we are in.

The Christian doctrine of sin provides us with insight into the nature, cause, and remedy for the greatest problem that afflicts us and gives rise to every other problem we face.

The Christian doctrine of sin provides us with insight into the nature, cause, and remedy for the greatest problem that afflicts us and gives rise to every other problem we face. Let’s consider a few important facets of a theology of sin so we might better see how our closely connected our problems are to sin.

What Happened at the Fall?
Prior to Adam’s sin, humanity lived in a state of moral innocence in an environment that was uncorrupted. The world that Adam and Eve inhabited and interacted with responded to them in ways commensurate with its nature and their nature. When Adam sinned, not only did he become morally guilty before God, but God cursed his environment in response to his sin so that the earth no longer functioned the way it was originally designed (Gen 3:16-19; Rom 8:18-25). Scripture tells us that God subjected our environment to “futility,” which means that the world we presently occupy is in a constant state of ineffectiveness. The curse did not render the creation utterly useless, but the sad truth is that this creation no longer fulfills the role for which God created it.

Due to Adam’s sin and the subsequent curse, we not only inherit Adam’s sin and guilt, but we also live among other sinful image-bearers and live in a world that bears the weight of the curse. These realities relate directly to every problem we might face in this world.

The Nature of Man’s Problems
At basic, human beings exist in a perpetual state of spiritual death, spiritual blindness, and corruption which leads us to sin against God and others (Rom 1:28-32; 3:10ff; Eph 2:1-3; 2 Cor 4:1-6). Sin, in its essence, is any lack of conformity in thought, affection, word, or action to God’s law, and, contrary to the modern sentiment, all human beings are sinful to the core (although we don’t all express sin to the fullest extent possible). In our natural state we do not seek God, submit to God, nor can we do anything to please God (Rom 3:10-19; 8:7-8). Our propensity is to exalt self over God and his Word, and this self-exaltation is the root of all sin (Gen 3:1-7).[1]

The implication of these truths is that in our natural state we live in constant friction against reality. By rejecting the Creator and his Word, we have rejected the very basis for real knowledge of ourselves, our problems, the way things are, and the way things are supposed to be. And, because sin by its nature works against the Creator’s good law (Rom 7:12-14), it is self-destructive. That is, sin enslaves a person to want to do what will ultimately destroy them and to refuse what is ultimately best for them. As a result, we experience serious trouble in our lives (Prov 14:16; 18:6; 19:3).

These troubles often express themselves in disordered desires (Ps 10:3; 1 Tim 6:9; 2 Pet 1:4). Our desires for food, relationship, sexual intimacy, productivity, rest, and dominion over the created order are all God-given desires, but they have been distorted and perverted by sin. Now we desire the wrong object, or we desire the right object with an inappropriate intensity. Our desires are turned inward and focused on ourselves so that we harm others to get what we want (James 4:1-3). Our minds and hearts that do not work the way they were made (Ps 97:7; Is 44:15-17; Rom 1:18-32; 1 John 2:15-17), so our thoughts and emotions are twisted and unreliable. Our speech destroys rather than builds up (James 3:1ff). The heart is bent on self rather than God and others (2 Tim 3:1-2).

Our minds have a natural proclivity to think wrongly about God, ourselves, the world, and other people, so we love the wrong things or we hate the right things, or we get angry for wrong reasons and fail to get angry for the right reasons. As a result of these sinful proclivities, we constantly sin against God and against others, which leads to a defiled, burdened conscience, guilt over sin, ruptured relationships, financial woes, workplace trouble, and relational pain and/or animosity leading to anger, fear, anxiety, and irrational behavior.

Life in a Fallen World
But not all of our problems are the direct result of our own sin. We also experience problems in our lives due to sin committed against us (Ps 13:1-2; 41:9). We can be the object of random violence or hurtful words. We might suffer under someone’s unrighteous anger. We may be the object of physical abuse or neglect. Someone can cause us financial trouble and loss. However, these sins against us and our responses to them can cause grief, depression, anxiety, fear, anger, confusion, sadness, a desire to escape reality (drugs, alcohol, schizophrenia), and personal harm (cutting, anorexia, drug use). 

Sin and the curse are also the reason we experience physical ailments (1 Kings 17:17; Mark 1:30; Rom 8:18-25; 2 Tim 4:20). Our bodies no longer function the way they are supposed to, and we are now susceptible to physical illness, disease, and ultimately death. Furthermore, because we are psycho-somatic unities, our bodies can affect our souls and our souls can affect our bodies in negative, unpleasant ways (see Ps 32:3-4). These physical difficulties cause suffering which can lead us to sin against others or cause us to become angry with God. By responding to our suffering with more sin, we further defile our conscience and create more problems in our lives. Related to these physical troubles is the reality that we live in a fallen and cursed environment, as I noted above (Gen 3:16-19; Rom 8:18-25). We suffer from the creation’s futility in our work as well as natural disasters that destroy and ruin life and livelihoods, creating more suffering and more sin against God which perpetuates inward turmoil and trouble.

Counseling and the Doctrine of Sin
In order to proceed in the counseling task with spiritual competence, therefore, Christian counselors must reckon with the biblical doctrine of sin. This knowledge is vital first because we cannot fully understand a person and their problems without a comprehensive theology of sin. It is not enough to have a vague idea that man does wrong things or that we are “sinners.” A person has no basis on which to counsel another Christian about their problems until they have a clear understanding of their deepest problem and the remedy for it.  

Second, Christian counselors can only engage in counseling with a sound doctrine of sin because when personal problems—anxiety, anger, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, addiction—are not viewed within the context of sin (e.g., our disordered desires and distorted motives, the sins of others, our fallen environment), they will be handled apart from God’s remedy in Christ. This will result in a person’s problems compounding on each other (creating more guilt, leading to more sin to remove the sense of guilt which burdens the soul with even more guilt), making the problem worse, or increasing a person’s independence from God because that person was able to gain some measure of relief from their problems without his help. A biblical doctrine of sin is the only way the counselor and the counselee will be prepared for God’s remedy in Christ.

This remedy, as we will see in future articles, includes not only regeneration and justification through faith in Christ, but a progressive sanctification that involves active confession and repentance, the intentional restoration of broken relationships, forgiving others who’ve wronged us, growing in wisdom, and embracing promises of future glory in the midst of suffering. But these latter blessings cannot be experienced if the doctrine of sin is not embraced in its fullness. 

The doctrine of sin, therefore, is essential to the counseling task. In order to rightly understand people and their problems and deliver a remedy that glorifies God and blesses the counselee with long-term relief, counselors must labor to understand all that Scripture teaches about sin, its effects, and how God has provided a comprehensive remedy in Christ.

[1]See Heath Lambert, The Biblical Counseling Movement after Adams (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 139-155. 

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