Counseling has been a significant part of my life–both in study and in practice–as a pastor, and as a counselor who has been in private practice/counseling ministry. There is a wonderful wealth of counseling training materials for Christians seeking to counsel. Of course, there are a variety of theories on counseling, from ‘Nouthetic’ to ‘Theories of Explanation’ paradigms, and all manner of approaches in between. I lean very strongly to a Word-informed, Word-saturated approach in counseling. I have sat with hurting people for countless hours seeking to apply the truths of God’s Word to their situations, thoughts, experiences and sinful patterns, and yet over the years I have come to realize that counseling, while often a very helpful component to the ministry of the church, is to complement the means of grace. By means of grace, I mean those ordinary means that the Lord Christ has given His bride to feed their faith until they are with Him face to face (not the basis of our justification, but the ordinary, God-ordained mechanisms through which His people are fed by the grace wrought by the merits and work of Christ).
The Baptist Confession (1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith) 14.1 says:
“The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened. ( 2 Corinthians 4:13; Ephesians 2:8; Romans 10:14, 17; Luke 17:5; 1 Peter 2:2; Acts 20:32 )”
While counseling, rightly performed, is an offshoot of the ministry of the Word, it is not a replacement for the public ordinary means of grace. Counseling is the ministry of the Word applied to the pain caused by the fallen world, but also applied in discipleship to the growth of the Christian. However, how many of us, pastors and counselors alike, forget the means of grace in the process? How often have we labored with individuals in listening, speaking, shedding tears, and encouraging and yet have forgotten to commend the ordinary means of grace to individuals? Many of us counsel those within the local church that we pastor, and so this may be a less prevalent reality, albeit it a necessary reminder nonetheless. Others have spent time outside the local church counseling persons, and we have failed to even consider the role that the means of grace (and their absence in the life of the individual) play in their journey. What if a depressed individual is not regularly coming to the table of the Lord, and is looking for our “wisdom” alone to get them through? What if a person struggling with grief is talking to us, but not currently sitting under the preaching of the Word, or assembling regularly in communion through the Supper? Or, how about the individual who is struggling with the sin of drunkenness, and is seeking to talk it out with us, but is not currently praying regularly according to the biblical pattern that the Lord has given? Our counsel, if the Lord wills, can be of great comfort, and spiritual benefit, but it cannot replace the public ordinary means of grace that the Lord has ordained for His people until they are home.
Please do not misunderstand me. I know many of the deep hurts and struggles that believers have experienced, and I do not mean to insinuate for example that the woman who was regularly abused by her father and is now in the throws of pain over it needs to forsake counseling, and “just take the Lord’s Supper.” The means of grace are not a magic pill for all depression, anxiety, trauma recovery, etc. However, they should not be neglected in the lives of those individuals who are working through these issues. Many readers will be thinking, “Well of course! I would never expect a counselee to not be involved in the means.” Yet do we regularly encourage them as part of the overall picture of a person? Wouldn’t it be a better approach to see counseling as a necessary and yet secondary complement to the Lord’s work in feeding faith through the ordinary means?
Oh how important is the phrase “ordinarily wrought” in the confessional paragraph above. When a brother or sister or “counselee” sits in my office, my first question will not likely be “when was the last time you took the Lord’s Supper?” However, the Word preached, the sacraments, and prayer should be a consideration as the counseling unfolds. We may talk through problems and sins and pain, but it is most useful as a complement to the Lord’s given public means of feeding His people in His grace.
The means of grace are the banquet. Counseling ministry is a needed help, but it alone will not satisfy the spiritual appetite…
Pastor Ryan has been serving at Grace since August of 2008. Ryan is married to his beautiful wife Christie, and they have four wonderful children: Micah, Lydia, Shaphan, and Magdalene. Ryan holds degrees from Samford University (B.A.), The College of William & Mary (M.Ed.) in Counseling, and Southern Seminary (Th.M.) in Louisville, KY, and is completing a (Ph.D.) from The Free University of Amsterdam, Netherlands in Early Church History/Pastoral Theology. He has also undertaken further graduate studies at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, MI. Ryan also teaches adjunctly at one local University and in pastor training locations around the world. He has published a few resources to aid the body of Christ including Thinking Through Anxiety (Ichthus, 2017) and Green Pastures: A Primer on the Ordinary Means of Grace (Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2019). Ryan likes fishing with the kids, enjoying his wife’s culinary delights, running (every once in a while), and fellowship with friends around the table.
Courses taught for CBTS: Introduction to Pastoral Counseling, Marriage and Family Counseling.