Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 11/16/2009 by Bob Kellemen.
Recommended. The next generation text for Christian counselors and manual for Christian living for believers. This book excels at explaining the connection between the Christian gospel and Christian counseling.
Authors Elyse Fitzpatrick and Dennis Johnson state in their preface that they want to lay before their readers the provocative claim that "the cross of Christ and the gospel that proclaim it really are 'the power of God for salvation [comprehensive rescue] to everyone who believe' (Rom. 1:16." Their book Counsel from the Cross engagingly demonstrates that in the cross lies the power to liberate hearts and to instill hope. Thankfully, they have the audacity to believe that change can actually happen—because of what Christ has already done.
Infinitely Loved by an Infinitely Loving God
Paul Tripp gets it right in his back-cover recommendation when he says the book is "a triumph of a maturing biblical counseling movement." At times, the modern biblical counseling movement has been good at communicating, "It’s horrible to sin," but not always as good at communicating, "It’s wonderful to be forgiven." Fitzpatrick and Johnson understand the truth of Romans 5:20 that where sin abounds, grace super-abounds. They understand our guilt before a holy God and our salvation from a loving God. As they beautifully state it, "The cross declares that we are loved with an intensity that defies our capacity to comprehend, not because we are intrinsically lovable but because God is intrinsically love."
The authors rightfully claim and artfully present throughout their book that "in the cross of Christ and in the surprising combination of ego-smashing humility and despair-smashing confidence . . . lies the power to set struggling people free." In this, they follow the ancient Puritan arts of loading the conscience with guilt and of lightening the conscience with grace. They follow the principle of historic reconciliation that combines the truths that "it’s horrible to sin, and wonderful to be forgiven."
The Cure-All that Cures All
Here’s the profound truth communicated in Counsel from the Cross. "We believe that when God the Creator provides a cure-all, it really cures all." Fitzpatrick and Johnson are convinced that "this reality is profoundly relevant to the way Christian counselors address the struggles of those who come to them for help."
Upon this foundation, the authors send the following invitation to their readers. "So we invite you to join us in a venture of exploration to discover the power to defeat sin and sadness, conflict and bitterness, and self-pity and self-contempt, not by walking beyond the gospel that first brought us into the favor and family of God but rather by moving more deeply into that same gospel."
Martin Luther based his ministry of spiritual consolation and spiritual direction upon the truth that "sanctification is the art of getting used to our justification." Fitzpatrick and Johnson similarly believe that the truth of our acceptance before God by Christ’s righteousness alone must be made practical as we live our everyday lives. They say it so memorably. "We become people who ask WWJD (What would Jesus do?) without ever considering the gospel or WDJD (What did Jesus do?)." They add: "We naively press the gospel out to the margins of our faith because we have never really been taught how it’s meant to connect with our daily lives."
Salvation Grace and Sanctification Grace
Beginning in chapter one with the truth that we are loved by God in Christ, they begin to demonstrate how the applied knowledge of our grace acceptance changes everything about how we view God, ourselves, and others. Continuing in the second chapter, they help us to understand that Christ’s salvation grace is also sanctification grace. The same grace that saved and cleansed us from sin equally empowers us day-by-day to be victorious over sin and in suffering.
Chapter three explains why it is so important to remember and apply God’s immeasurable love: because we have a love problem. No, it’s not that we don’t love ourselves enough. It’s because we love God too little and false gods too much. "Every false god we serve . . . has the power to entice and entrap us only because our love for the Lord is weak." So we must remember God’s love for us in Christ for one reason: our love for God and for others is responsive in nature. We love God in response to His love for us (1 John 4:19-20). We will never be able to mortify our sins, Fitzpatrick and Johnson correctly explain, "if we are unsure or doubtful about God’s disposition toward us, if we think that he is unloving, displeased, or angry."
Chapter four explains how believing God’s grace love for us impels us to love Him and others. They call the person who understands this the "gospel-centered Christian." The rest of the book then builds upon these first four chapters as it elaborates upon such relevant themes as gospel-centered counseling, the gospel and our sanctification, the gospel and our emotions, the gospel and our relationships, and the gospel story and the glory story (chapters four-to-nine, respectively).
Applying Timeless Truths in Timely Ways
The authors begin with their definition of counseling. "Gospel-centered counseling is 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." They are to be commended for such a Christ-centered, comprehensive, and compassionate description of biblical counseling.
They aren’t finished. "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." Counseling is not ultimately about the counselee. Counseling is ultimately about the Divine Counselor. And counseling, though perceived to be so individualistic, in the eyes and hands of Fitzpatrick and Johnson, is corporate and communal.
In this chapter (chapter five), the authors build an absolutely necessary foundation. We can change because we have already been changed. We can put off the old, because in Christ we are new creations. They believe that some modern approaches to biblical counseling have focused on biblical imperatives absence an equal focus on our new identity in Christ (what I would call our "new nature") and our new relationship to Christ (what I would call our "new nurture"). Gospel-centered counseling applies our justification, regeneration, reconciliation, and redemption to our lives so that the motivation for change and the hope for change both derive from what Christ has already done and not from human self-effort. Chapter six then uses several real-life vignettes to contrast and compare how gospel-centered counseling, versus other approaches to counseling, would address the issue of sanctification—daily growth in grace into the image of Christ.
How does this play itself out practically? Fitzpatrick and Johnson answer that question by addressing the gospel and our emotions (chapter seven). They begin by describing the complex interworking of our body and soul. They comprehensively detail the soul as including our capacities to think and reason, emote, and choose. They then carefully explain the interaction of our brain/mind and body/soul relative to emotions. The authors use several narratives and illustrations relative to various emotions to explain their theory of applying the gospel to troubling feelings and mood states. Chapter eight follows a similar pattern as it applies the gospel to our relationships. Here they highlight the importance of our religious affections (love for God) as the basis for holy and healthy human relationships.
In their final chapter (chapter nine), the authors discuss two hugely different ideas of the "glory story." The secular glory story teaches that we can attain glory by hard work, self-discipline, and the right list of activities. The scriptural glory story teaches us that our current maturity (sanctification) and our future glory (glorification) are grace-based. Our future promised victory over sin motivates us today to cling to Christ’s grace for progressive sanctification as we battle idols of the heart and besetting sins.
Pursuing Counsel from the Cross
In the spirit of the book’s entire message of applying truth to life, Fitzpatrick and Johnson include in each chapter personal illustrations, counseling vignettes, and real-life narratives. They also conclude each chapter with a built-in discussion/application guide aptly labeled "Pursuing Counsel from the Cross." Their questions are carefully crafted to engage readers in personalizing the truths in each chapter by applying them to their lives and ministries.
Counsel from the Cross is a refreshing, nourishing, and nurturing examination of what makes biblical counseling truly biblical and what makes Christian living truly Christian. Pastors, counselors, educators, and students would all do well to build their ministries upon this model. As believers, we would all do well to build our lives upon the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ—as explained in Counsel from the Cross.