Thursday, October 13, 2011

Counsel from the Cross: A Book Review

Elyse Fitzpatrick’s nearly twenty-year involvement in biblical counseling and Dennis Johnson’s experience as a pastor and seminary professor of practical theology uniquely qualify them to write a volume addressing gospel-centered counseling and discipleship. They have done outstanding work. Their expertise and passion for the gospel in Counsel from the Cross are desperately needed in the church today. Sadly, most of the contemporary church has blindly substituted man-centered psychology and self-help for the gospel of Jesus Christ, and its life transforming truths. Fitzpatrick and Johnson have written a powerful, and practical corrective that if heeded will serve to reignite that church’s passion for the gospel, particularly when it comes to counseling and discipleship.

Fitzpatrick and Johnson begin Counsel from the Cross by charging that many Christians are overfamiliar with the gospel, and therefore need to experience it anew and relish in its glorious provisions. Then in chapter two, the authors describe the transformation that takes place as Christians behold God’s glory through gospel preaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper and fellowship. These may seem weak and ineffective, but God is pleased to work through them.

Chapters three and four of Counsel from the Cross address God’s love. The gospel reveals God’s great love to us, and motivates us to love God and others. Some take it too lightly, others attempt to earn it, but God’s love enthralls gospel-centered Christians.

In chapter five, the authors shift the discussion to the necessity of Gospel-centered counseling. They define it as “the process of one Christian coming alongside another with words of truth to encourage, admonish, comfort, and help—words drawn from Scriptures, grounded in the gracious saving work of Jesus Christ, and presented in the context of relationship (91)." They expand on this definition in what follows, and exhort biblical counselors to maintain balance between gospel-demands and the Christian’s new identity in Christ.

From chapters six through eight, the authors aim to show that the gospel is as necessary for sanctification as it is for initial salvation. First, the gospel reminds us of our union with Christ, and the resulting ability to live holy. Second, meditating on gospel truths transforms emotions, which is vital since one’s emotions affects moods and physical health. Finally, relationships rooted in the gospel are harmonious and glorify God.

Fitzpatrick and Johnson conclude Counsel from the Cross by contrasting what they call the “glory story” with the gospel story. The “glory story” wrongly says we can attain glory through rigorous self-effort and self-discipline. Whereas the gospel story teaches that, we share the glory of another, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Fitzpatrick and Johnson state a four-fold purpose for writing Counsel from the Cross. First, they desire to take “the truth of our acceptance before God by Christ’s righteousness alone and make it practical. . .” for everyday living (19). Second, they aim to equip Christians involved in helping ministries to serve their suffering brothers and sisters. Third, the authors want to caution biblical counselors about the necessity of keeping gospel identity, which is who we are in Christ, in balance with gospel imperatives and commands. They argue that it is all too easy for biblical counselors to overemphasize what Christians are to do while neglecting the resources available in Christ to empower obedience. Finally, the authors write to offer “a gift for all believers who love their Savior and want to spend time savoring him (22).” Unquestionably, they accomplished all their stated aims.

Counsel from the Cross establishes the gospel’s practicality, and absolute necessity for daily living through the authors’ thorough exegesis, excellent case studies and real life examples. At the end of each chapter, the authors provide well-crafted questions that seek to aid the reader in plumbing the depths of the truths proclaimed. The reader is encouraged to summarize and personally apply the gospel truths. Consequently, if one reads carefully, answers the questions, and works through personal application, he or she will certainly discover firsthand the gospel’s practicality and transforming power. Moreover, the reader will cultivate an increasing appreciation of the Savior’s finished work on he or she’s behalf, which will serve as motivation to pursue a growing Christlikeness. Therefore, Counsel from the Cross makes an excellent resource for gospel-centered counseling and discipleship, whether one is a new believer or has been one for many years.

Christians involved in helping ministries will definitely discover the tools they need for gospel-centered ministry in Counsel from the Cross. They will learn that their most important and powerful tool is indeed the gospel itself. For example, in the first chapter the authors tell the about a devoted Christian mother who is blinded-sided by the immorality and pregnancy of her adolescent daughter, a professed believer who has been living a double-life. How does one minister in a difficult and painful situation like this one? Fitzpatrick and Johnson definitively answer this question with an adept application of the gospel. They clearly describe and illustrate the gospel’s power to redeem, heal and transform people and relationships ravaged by sin and its destructive consequences.

One of the helping ministries which Fitzpatrick and Johnson are obviously passionate about is counseling, as the title of their book indicates. They wrote Counsel from the Cross to admonish biblical counselors about the necessity of keeping the life-changing gospel central in their ministries. The authors’ definition of gospel-centered counseling aptly validates this fact:

…gospel-centered counseling, as we are defining it, is 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 (91-92).

Thankfully, the authors do much more than give a definition of gospel-centered counseling. They build a rock-solid biblical foundation for it, and describe how to do it. Although the entire volume is aimed on how to do gospel-centered counseling, the second half, chapters five through nine, are especially helpful in this regard. These chapters deal with the problems that biblical counselors most often encounter with their counselees.

One of the key problem areas the authors address is emotions. Negative emotions such as fear, anger, and sorrow overwhelm many believers. These negative emotions have the power to affect one’s moods as well as one’s mental and physical health. Unfortunately, too many Christians have been duped by the predominant theory of modern medicine, which the authors describe as materialistic determinism. This theory essentially says that humans have no inner person, and that their emotions and choices are due to certain chemical levels in the brain. Therefore, if one seeks help from the medical community for emotional problems the prescribed solution will likely be pharmaceutical. In contrast, Fitzpatrick and Johnson advocate renewing one’s mind, the inner person, with the truth of the gospel. In their words, “The only way that we can change our feelings is by changing our core beliefs and the thoughts that occupy our minds (140).” This helpful insight is just one of many in the authors’ discussion of emotions. Granted, some may find it simplistic, but only if they lack faith in the clear teaching of Scripture, for instance, Rom. 12a which says, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. . . (NASB)”

As mentioned earlier, the authors’ last purpose for penning Counsel from the Cross was to help believers who love Christ to savor him more. Frankly, it is impossible for a sympathetic reader not to develop a growing appreciation of Jesus Christ and his finished work. Fitzpatrick and Johnson continually remind the reader that treasuring the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the absolute key to loving him better and living for his glory. In addition, the authors show this gospel to be the balm one needs for sins’ wounds, whether they are self-inflicted or perpetrated by another. In the authors’ words, “we are all more sinful and flawed than we ever dared believe but more loved and welcomed than we ever dared hope(49)."

In short, Counsel from the Cross is a tremendously useful book. Pastors, biblical counselors, and Christians who want to grow in love and obedience will benefit immeasurably from its contents.

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