If you’re anything like me, you can look back on your walk with the Lord and note what I call “high water mark” moments. These are times when my life was changed (sometimes radically) due to a new realization about the Word of God that I was previously unaware of. Chief among these was when I understood the Gospel and was converted. Although it was a little over 30 years ago, I can still vividly remember understanding the good news that Jesus died and rose again for me. He saved me. He loved me. He ransomed me. I’d heard it taught before generally, but the sovereign grace of God revealed it to me personally on the day of my conversion. I remember being challenged to use whatever gifts and talents the Lord blessed me with to serve Him and His people. I had no idea I could be used by God as a new Christian, only in my teens.
Not many years later, I was introduced to expositional preaching. I could see why the preacher said what he said because it was right there in the text in front of me. It caused me to read and study my Bible in a new and exciting way. For the first time ever, it dawned on me that I might actually understand the Word of God as I read it.
Soon after that, I was introduced to the Doctrines of Grace. This didn’t happen at once, but was the result of a rather careful studying of the Scriptures, only to find out that my salvation was a divine work of God from start to finish. The only thing I brought to the table was the sin from which I was saved.
There is a pattern here. The high water marks in my walk with the Lord were when what I knew to be generally true became personally applicable, and I bet it’s the same for you, too. Believing in God is one thing, but it really just puts you on par with Satan (James 2:19). It’s very different to realize Christ died for you. Knowing people could read and understand their Bibles is great. Knowing you could be one of those people is life-changing.
Biblical Counselors are united by a common conviction that the Word of God contains everything needed to live a life that is pleasing to God (2nd Timothy 3:17). We firmly believe in the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible. But what really gets us up in the morning is the sufficiency of the Scriptures. We’re convinced the Bible contains everything necessary for life and godliness (a concept not original to us; see 2nd Peter 1:3). We truly believe that, no matter what life throws at us or our counselees, the Bible has an answer that can be both known and applied to everyday life. Biblical counseling is some of the hardest work I do as a pastor, but it’s great when I get to see counselees experience their own high water mark moments.
And here’s the thing; it’s near impossible to limit what you’ve learned in biblical counseling training to one area of your life or ministry. Even as a young single man, I remember writing down key principles of communication on the back of a paper plate, and affixing it to the refrigerator with a magnet for me and my roommates to consider as we lived together. Biblical counseling principles are simply too effective and, quite frankly, too exciting to be used for just an hour or two each week. Before you know it, you find yourself applying biblical principles to more areas of life, and it is sweet.
When I climb into the pulpit to preach on a Sunday morning, my biblical counseling training comes with me. It’s one thing to say “Thus saith the Lord,” and proclaim the truth of God. Preaching is certainly not less than that, but it is more. My desire for people to see the living Word of God as applicable to their lives is as present in my sermons as it is in the counseling room. In both venues, I want people to hear and understand the Bible when we’re together so they’re able to apply the Word when we’re apart. Here’s how I try to do that.
Even Though I’m Preaching to Many, I’m Speaking to Individuals
The typical worship center is way more crowded than the counseling room. I may be mic’d up and standing on a stage, but I’m keenly aware that the flock is made up of many individual sheep, all with different hearts, minds, and circumstances in life. That means, as I preach, I’m taking the time to ensure I’m not giving a lecture, or a presentation of what God’s Word says (after all, they can read that for themselves). Instead, I’m painstakingly taking the time to preach the Word in such a way that it is not simply informative, but instructive in how to live life. This is what Paul exhorted Timothy to do; to preach the Word “…with complete patience and teaching” (2nd Timothy 4:3).
I’m Preaching for Transformation, Not Just Information
As a biblical counselor, I’ve seen firsthand how the Word of God transforms someone’s understanding of themselves, their circumstances, their relationships, even God Himself. Once you’ve seen that in the counseling room, you’ll do anything to see it in the pews. I’m always looking for opportunities to reference the transformative power of the Word of God. My eyes are peeled for chances to point to God’s desire to transform us to be doers of the Word, not hearers only (James 1:22). When I preach, I want people to leave with a better understanding of the text or topic. Further, I want them to interpret their circumstances (especially the most difficult ones) through a biblical lens.
I Preach on Sunday for Monday
Of the 168 hours in a week, biblical counselors spend a precious hour or so with their counselees. That’s why we know the importance of solid, relevant, pointed homework assignments to get the counselee to interact with their Bible and the principles we covered in the session when we’re not together. It’s very much the same when I preach. If someone leaves my counseling office with hope, but loses it by the time they wake up the next morning, it’s not very useful. Similarly, if someone leaves my church blessed by the message, but can’t do a thing with it the next day, I have to wonder if I’ve done my job well as a pastor.
“What about You?”
Throughout the sermon (usually 1-3 times), I pause and say “What about you?” before I ask the people to consider something. It’s a simple practice that gets people thinking about themselves individually regarding what I’m about to say or ask. When younger preachers ask me to review and critique their sermons, almost every time I challenge them to ask “What about you?” three times the next time they preach. It forces them to drop points of application throughout the message instead of leaving it all to the end (where it’s usually rushed) or omitting it altogether.
Questions for Community Group and/or Personal Application
We provide a sermon outline for people to follow along if they so choose. At the end of the outline, I always include questions for people to consider on their own time. Ours is a church of many Community Groups that meet throughout the week, many of which are “sermon-based” (they discuss the sermon that was preached on Sunday), so it serves them to consider these things as they meet together. What I’m endeavoring to do for the flock is the same thing I strive to do for my counselees. I’m giving them a means by which they can apply the Word of God long after the sermon is done, just like homework gives counselees a means to apply what we covered in our session long after they leave my office. As with everything on this side of heaven, there are pitfalls to avoid that I’ve either come near or had to climb out of. With those in mind, I offer you the following tips to consider.
Tip #1 – Preach What It Says, Not What You Wish It Said
This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Preachers and biblical counselors need to exercise careful exegesis in their studies and preparation as they share the Word with those entrusted to them. You may be well-intended, but you’re not doing anyone any favors if you’re misrepresenting the text you’re sharing. In fact, you run the risk of discrediting the Word you so desperately want your people to know, love, trust, and obey. Always ensure you’re placing yourself under the Word of God, just as you’d ask a counselee or any growing Christian to do.
Tip #2 – Preach Through Books of the Bible
I’m not against topical series, and think they can be incredibly helpful. Furthermore, I’m not in the camp that thinks preaching topically and expositionally are diametrically opposed to one another. However, this is where biblical counseling and preaching part ways.
In biblical counseling, we’re tasked with bringing the Scriptures to bear on a person’s life in a very specific area. Counseling is topical by definition, as a specific issue or circumstance is what brought the person to counseling to begin with.
Preaching is different. A pastor is tasked with preaching the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). If I only preach topically, I run the risk of only preaching the topics that I like or am comfortable with, and I can easily avoid the topics I’d prefer not to address. If you’re anything like me, you’ll admit sometimes the topics you prefer not to address are just what the flock needs to hear, and usually just what you need to wrestle with, too. Preaching through books of the Bible removes the option to skip the veggies and go straight for dessert, because if it’s in the text, it’ll be in the sermon (ready or not, here it comes). To borrow “major” and “minor” language from college, I think it’s best to major in preaching through books, and minor in preaching topical sermons. I think you’ll find that’s best for the flock, as well as the shepherd.
Tip #3 – Don’t Just Preach the Pauline Letters
Paul wrote almost half the New Testament, so he’s hard to avoid. Plus, he’s so very practical in his writing, therefore biblical counselor preachers find themselves tempted to preach topically or expositionally through the Pauline epistles, maybe more than anything. Don’t do this.
The reason God had Paul write only 13 books is because the Lord has other things for us and our people, and we do well to not deprive them of that. Preach through a Gospel and show them Jesus up close. Work through the Acts of the Apostles where the main character is the Word of God, noting it’s just as unstoppable and applicable today as it was to Christians in the first century. Preach through a wide range of emotions by spending some time in the Psalms. Do spend time with Paul, but then give him a rest and dive in elsewhere. You won’t regret it.
Tip #4 – Present Yourself as the Work in Progress You Are
If you’re alive, you haven’t “arrived” (Philippians 3:12-14). The “holy man” myth exists to varying degrees in just about every culture and people group. Dispel that myth as a pastor and/or counselor by sharing personal experiences that show you as the work in progress that you are. Don’t be the hero of every illustration. Share stories from your walk that show Jesus and His Word to be the hero that He is. If your counselees or church members leave with the impression that you’ve got it all together, they’ll usually end up intimidated by that soon afterward. But, when you show them that the best of men are only men at best, that you struggle and strive to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14), they might press on, too. God will always use humble, transparent, vulnerable honesty in the counseling room and the pulpit more than He’ll use your resume. The hymn writer was right:
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord
Is laid for your faith, In His excellent Word!
Whether preaching, counseling, parenting, coworking, or serving in whatever capacity the Lord has us, may we make much of Him and the sufficiency of His Word for His glory and the good of His people.