Change Begins by Understanding and Applying the Gospel
But, first, and I start here very deliberately, change begins as we understand and apply the gospel. There are some, even in Biblical counseling, who, I believe, wrongfully begin with the imperative, the command, what we must do for God. And I believe when you begin with the command, with a Christian counselee, especially, this can lead to a moralism, which is un-Biblical, and is destined for failure.
Scripture begins with the indicative, what God has done for us in Christ, as the ground for imperatives.
And as we read the pattern, especially in the New Testament, the Biblical pattern, the Bible typically begins with the indicative, that is what God has done for us in Christ as the ground for the imperative, and that is what we do as a result. And you see this most clearly in the epistles of Paul where, for example, in Ephesians, chapters one to three, are description of the gospel, what God has done for us in Christ. And it’s a magnificent description of the gospel. Then, chapters four to six, it’s okay, therefore, and then it’s our call to be united and to love, and to put off and to put off, and to work these things out in our families. Likewise in Colossians, the first two chapters are description of what God has done for us. And then, three and four, put that into application. And Machen, J. Gresham Machen, says “Christianity begins in the indicative, not what we do. What God has done provides the foundation for what we do.” And I’ve been fascinated as well, in Ephesians, for example, where typically people will say, “Oh, well, the first three chapters of Ephesians are the doctrinal part, and chapters four to six are the application part.”
But when you read the application parts, when you read the very practical parts, these, too, are founded in the gospel, after Paul had presented the gospel in chapters one to three, when he starts giving these commands, he keeps going back to the gospel. And when he begins the put off, put on section, how we should not walk as the gentiles walked in all of their sin, then he says, “But you did not learn Christ in this way.” So the way we are to walk is the way we learn Christ. That’s the gospel. In verse 24, “As we put on the new self and the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” He’s talking about how this new self has been created by the new birth when we believe, when God made us alive, which he talked about in chapter two, in verse four, and likewise in Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other just as God and Christ has also forgiven you.” So even in the very practical section, he keeps going back to the fact, “How can I forgive?” It’s because God and Christ has forgiven me, it’s the gospel that enables me to do this.
So now that Christians can change. In another aspect of this, since it’s found in the gospel, only a Christian is capable of the kind of change that we’re seeking. Remember, when we’re defining Biblical counseling, it’s helping someone to achieve God’s goals, to live to the glory of God. In Romans eight, speaking of the unbeliever, says, “Those who are in the flesh, that their minds on the things of the flesh, for those who are according the spirit on the things of the spirit. For the mindset on the flesh is death, but the mindset on the spirit is life and peace. For the mindset on the flesh is hostile toward God, it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, for those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” The unbeliever is incapable of living out the gospel. Without faith, the author of the Hebrew says it is impossible to please God.
But then someone may object, say, “Well, what about the cases in which unbelievers appear to change?” Sometimes dramatic change. And, for example, the TV show The Biggest Loser, and you see people who are unbelievers and they lose 200 pounds, and they run marathons, or you’ve known unbelievers who quit smoking, or quit drinking, through some other program. And it’s true that unbelievers are capable of exercising self-discipline in order to get what they want out of life. But the issue is motive. The motive, when someone loses the weight, an unbeliever loses the weight or quits smoking, is not for the glory of God, but rather he’s working so that someone will think more highly of him, people think they’re more popular, they can get girlfriends or boyfriends. And the remaining heart idols remain. And actually they’re really exchanging, for example, the idol of gluttony for the idol of attractiveness, or pride. And this is not the change that God seeks.
The change that God seeks, is when we, whatever we eat or drink, or do, we do for His glory. So the change we seek is Jesus, it’s out of the heart that every sin comes, Mark seven. And then the change we seek is the heart is changed and as the heart is changed, behavior is changed, but then that behavior is motivated by a zeal for the glory of God.
We and our counselees need to comprehend that who we are in Christ is the basis for the changed lives we want to live. Rom 6:11; Col 3:1ff; 2 Pet 1:3-4
And as far as the gospel is concerned, the way the scripture lays this out is that we need, along with our counselees, to spend a lot of time and effort contemplating who we are in Christ as the basis for the change that we want to see happen in our lives. In Galatians chapter three, verse three, Paul challenges the Galatians saying, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” And my observation with many believers is when it comes to justification. Justification takes place when we believe, and you understand that you are a sinner and you trust Christ’s atonement as the sole ground of your forgiveness before God. God declares you righteous through faith. And many people look at that as kind of the beginning of your Christian life, and you’re justified by faith alone in this gospel. But then they don’t understand the relevance of the gospel for sanctification for growth. And then they get somehow the idea that we’re justified by grace, we’re justified through faith. But then they get the idea that they’re sanctified by their works, and that they’re laboring in their own strength to become better. And to help enable somehow that God to be pleased with them. And this is the most natural thing in the world. Because as I said earlier, we are born Pharisees, it’s the most natural thing to go back to the law.
And what we and our counselees need to realize is that a gospel is just as important for your sanctification as it was for your justification. And there’s an expression that you need to preach the gospel to yourself every day. And we need this reminder of the gospel because if left to ourselves, we will keep going back to the law as the means of how we think of ourselves and justifying ourselves. And we’re also tempted to think that God accepts me based upon how well I’m measuring up. If I avoided drink, or I avoided pornography, or if she was the perfect wife and mother, and dinner was ready on time, and the children were all neatly dressed in clothes that she made, the dad’s the provider and the leader and you’re having a quiet time in family devotions, then God is happy with you and you’ve kinda made it, you’ve achieved it. And I see some people are especially prone to this. I see especially, I think, there are many women who are prone to a form of perfectionism and then they think they’ve gotta achieve this ideal of the mom and the wife, and all the Proverbs 31 woman. And, by the way, I’m all for those things. But when they have in their mind that, two things, one is that God will only accept them based upon how well they do at that. They’ve lost sight of the gospel, which is, no, God has accepted you based upon Christ and not that.
As Paul says in Philippians 3:9, that he has, as he’s found in Christ, “Not having a righteousness of my own derived from the law, but that which is through faith and Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” And so we’re not producing the righteousness that makes ourselves acceptable to God. God accepts us in Christ. And then the other harm that comes as a result is when we fail, and one or two things could happen, you’ll either lower the standard so far that it doesn’t resemble the Bible anymore, and then finally you can do it and feel good about yourself, which is pride. Or there’s gonna be despair, because you’re not able to meet that standard still. And you’re utterly discouraged. And this is where we, as counselors, come in is, I think, some of us can be tempted to go too quickly to the imperative. Put off laziness, put on work, put off this, you know. And I’m all for the put off, put on, it’s in the Bible. But Paul didn’t get to that in Ephesians before he did a very thorough job of explaining what God has done for us in Christ. And I think we need to explain to our counselees better, ’cause I think most of them are quite ignorant of how the gospel itself relates to change, and who we really are in Christ. And sometimes with our homework, do this, do that, and that’s not going to be successful if they do not have a Biblical understanding of how change takes place in light of our identity, as believers, in our union with Christ. Many of our counselees actually have a false and un-Biblical identity. I had a counselee one time, speaking with him, and he was describing how he had been labeled an alcoholic. And he was told he would always be an alcoholic. And this is actually very much true in our culture now is we’ve taken our problems, our sins, really, as our identity, be it an adulterer, homosexual, an abuser, and I had my counselee read out loud First Corinthians six, verses nine to 11, where Paul says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God, do not be deceived, neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate or homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you. You were just washed, you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the spirit of our God.” And it said, see, that the key thing for my friend was the second word of verse 11, “such were you.” You were a drunkard, you were an adulterer, but now that you’re in Christ, this is no longer who you are. And understanding that new identity in Christ is crucial to change. And this man actually began to weep as he heard this. And then that’s the joy that the gospel, is a weeping of joy that the gospel brings.