Counseling Confessionally

A wave of pastoral suicides in many corners of Christ’s Church has renewed the call for the appropriate care of those with mental health issues in the Church. For the average pastor, this call can be both comforting, giving hope that they themselves might receive some much-needed care, and terrifying as they are confronted with a lack of understanding in how to care for others with intensive inner-man struggles. This call for mental healthcare is always a dividing line for the Church: will we care for those in the throes of spiritual struggle from a basis of God’s revealed truth about people, or the world’s developed understanding of them? For those of us who reside in the Confessional camp of Christianity adhering to agreed upon formulations that summarize what Scripture teaches, we might see a disparity between what we believe and teach (the Confessions & Catechisms) and how we care for the broken. In other words, we might be challenged to answer the question: Does the glorifying and enjoying of God (which is our chief purpose revealed in Scripture – Shorter Catechism Q. 1) entail matters of mental health, or is that for someone else to handle? Or, what good are the Confession and Catechisms when it comes to practical ministry to those struggling with mental health? My desire is to spend my time on “A Standard for Living” exploring the application of the Confession and Catechisms in the practice of counseling.

For this first article, I want to present a basic framework of understanding for how to consider the Westminster documents in relationship to counseling. In other words, there will be no mind or heart-blowing matters handled here, just a pair of glasses to slip on to begin thinking “counselingly” about the Confession and Catechisms. Crown & Covenant Publications recently reissued a new typeset of a standalone volume of the Larger Catechism. In his helpful and encouraging introduction, Nathan Eshelman, pastor of the RPCNA in Los Angeles, reminds us that the Shorter Catechism was for children and the Larger Catechism was for “those more advanced in the faith.” Obviously, the times, reading levels, and abilities to memorize have changed. But, we can still retool and use the Westminster documents fruitfully in the moments we are given to help believers to verbally confront the sin in, at, or around themselves, for their good and change.

To lay out the aforementioned framework, let’s look generally at the topic of sanctification. This past summer, I had the pleasure of teaching “Dynamics of Biblical Change” in the Philippines to a class of twenty pastors, counselors, academic administrators, and seminarians. The core of this class is unpacking the question: How is it that people really change? Or, What does sanctification look like worked out in the life of a counselee? In the course of a counseling case, a counselor may need to not only teach a counselee how to be sanctified, but, even more basically, help the counselee understand what sanctification is or how it works! How might each of the 3 Westminster Documents aid in this teaching and counseling moment? They do so in the following three phases.

The Confession for Expositional Preparation for Counseling:

Pithy quotes for the counselee are meaningless if not supported by robust doctrinal realities. The mind of the counselor must be filled with the rushing rapids of God’s Truth if one drop of counsel is going to be effective. The counselor must develop a close relationship with God’s Word. To help develop that relationship, he’s been given the helpful tool of the Confession of Faith. The Confession helps one to think topically, orderly, and, with the help of the proof texts, Scripturally. Since counseling is the application of God’s Word to the various topics of life, it behooves us to begin to unpack all that the Scriptures teach on certain topics. This labor of love must be done in preparation for the counseling session. The Confession gives a full-orbed understanding of Scripture’s perspective on various topics, all of which are practical in the life of the believer struggling against the sin in, at , or around him. For instance, in sanctification, the counselor is operating in a spectrum of consideration from the effectual call of God, to the hand-to-hand combative war that is some days won, some days lost, but always fought in the shadow of Christ’s ultimate victory on the cross.

Chapter 13: Of Sanctification

1. They who are effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them: the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.

2. This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part: whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war; the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.

3. In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

The Larger Catechism as Script for the Counselor:

While the Confession is great for study and preparation for the counseling moment, some of the least effective counseling would start with “Point 1,” followed by a reading of the Confessional paragraphs on sanctification. No, the counselor must hold those points in his consciousness, but have a clear summary to keep washing over the heart of the counselee. The counselor must have the map firmly in his understanding if he is to lead the counselee wisely and carefully through the ravines. The Larger Catechism gives that map, it is that script, and it keeps in mind a summary of the Confession’s teachings.

One is reminded of the basis of election in the biblical change process, that sanctification is an eternal matter, giving confidence it will be worked out, etc. A robust summary of Scripture is densely packed into this short paragraph, giving the counselor much meat to serve the counselee in the session together, allowing him nimbleness as various concerns, protests, or doubts are expressed.

Q. 75. What is sanctification?

A. Sanctification is a work of God’s grace, whereby they whom God hath before the foundation of the world chosen to be holy, are in time through the powerful operation of his Spirit, applying the death and resurrection of Christ unto them, renewed in their whole man after the image of God; having the seeds of repentance unto life, and all other saving graces, put into their hearts, and those graces so stirred up, increased, and strengthened, as that they more and more die unto sin and rise unto newness of life.

The Shorter Catechism as Take-home Wisdom for the Counselee:

For some, the Larger Catechism might serve as a Script for the counselor and as a take-home for the counselee. For many, however, the struggle of sin can come quickly and forcefully in the course of the week, and a shorter reminder can be more effective at battling the sin in, at, or around the one in the moment. God is working here. My entire self is being renewed. The Image of God is the standard here. Sanctification is a process of dying as well as living. Righteousness is my new focus. These quick, near rapid-fire echos from the counseling session will serve the counselee well in those greater moments of struggle. Additionally, memorization of, meditation upon, and journaling about the proof texts will serve the counselee well in building their personal arsenal against attack when tempted to think their sanctification relies strictly on him and his choice, that it won’t ever finish, etc.

Q. 35. What is sanctification?

A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

In short, the Westminster theologians gave us a treasure trove of counseling material for the entirety of the counseling context when they outlined, topically, what God’s word teaches about what we are to believe about God and what He requires of us. We will seek to mine this out, nugget by nugget, in our time together on A Standard for Living.

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