On the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I am profoundly thankful for the many efforts to commemorate the theological themes central to the great recovery of the gospel in the 16th century. Most people summarize those key themes in the Five Solas of the Reformation: Sola Fide, Solus Christus, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura, and Soli Deo Gloria.
Sola Fide, or the doctrine of faith alone, teaches that Christians are justified by faith, and not by any work they can perform. Solus Christus, or the truth about Christ alone, teaches that the exclusive object of faith is Jesus Christ, who earned righteousness for His people in His life, death, and resurrection. Sola Gratia, or the glorious teaching of grace alone, underlines that our salvation is based entirely on the kindness of God, and not on the merit of people. Sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone, is the conviction that the Bible is the authority for all Christian belief and practice. Soli Deo Gloria, or glory to God alone, reminds Christians that God is to receive all glory for our salvation because of the gracious intervention of Jesus to spare us from Hell, and because of His revelation to us of this fact in Scripture. On my way to explaining the close relationship between the Reformation and biblical counseling, I would like to make two observations about the Five Solas of the Reformation.
All the Solas Are Linked Together
The first observation is that the Five Solas are inextricably linked together. That is to say that Reformation theology is a web, rather than a list. You can remove items on a list without necessarily damaging other items on that list. That is not the case with a web. You cannot damage one part of a spider web without risking the integrity of the entire structure. So it is with Reformation theology. None of the Five Solas can be preserved in isolation from the others. Each individual piece requires the other four.
Let me explain. If we keep intact the Reformation teaching on faith, grace, Christ, and the glory of God, but remove our commitment to the authority of Scripture, then we destroy the entire configuration, because it is the Bible alone that explains the other elements. If we keep every element of the system except Christ, then we destroy the whole thing, because our faith has no object. If we keep everything but faith, we have no way to lay hold of the work of Christ. You see the point. If one portion of the theological superstructure of Reformation theology is destroyed, the other pieces go with it.
The Five Solas and Counseling Conversations
The second observation I would like to make about the Five Solas of the Reformation is that—far from being theoretical matters of abstract theology—they are each crucial to addressing the very practical matters on the table in counseling conversations. On this anniversary of the Reformation, it is common to point out how indispensable these theological commitments are to Christian theology. What I wish to do here is point out how indispensable those commitments are to any practice of counseling that would be worthy of being labeled Christian.
Let me demonstrate this by addressing just one topic, namely, the issue of whether and how counselors speak of Jesus Christ in counseling. Most self-styled Christian counselors subscribe to codes of counseling ethics that make it unacceptable, or else optional, to engage in proselytizing during counseling. That is to say that most Christian counselors do not have an unshakable commitment to sharing the gospel in counseling because of requirements of state licensure, or even in some cases, the requirements of the “Christian” counseling organization of which they are a part. That means that, for the most part, there are Christians engaging in counseling all across the country and world who are willing to let counseling conversations progress without reference to Jesus Christ, or the need that troubled people have to depend on Him for eternal life.
This is a significant problem that compromises biblical authority for any counselor who agrees to play by those rules. Jesus Christ commands in Matthew 28:19-20 that His people are to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I command you.” The Apostle Paul describes his own commitment to this command when he says in 1 Corinthians 2:2 that he “determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified”. Examples could be multiplied, but the point is already obvious: Jesus and His apostles do not give Christian people the option of whether to speak of salvation in Jesus’ name. It is required in Scripture. To choose to behave in any other way during a counseling conversation is to trade in the authority of Scripture for the authority of secular ethical standards.
If that reality were not bad enough, it is important to remember the first observation I made. When you destroy one element of Reformation theology, you destroy the others. Whenever Christian counselors reject biblical authority on the issue of speaking of Jesus they also destroy the truth about Christ alone, and the teaching about faith, which is the exclusive vehicle for laying hold of His work. When these realities are destroyed they take the beauty of God’s grace with them since they will not be on display where Christ is concealed. In such situations, God’s glory will be obscured since we will be talking about paths to joy and wholeness which are devoid of Christ.
Biblical Counseling is To Embody the Reformation
That is why I believe authentically biblical counseling is required to best embody the Reformation themes that we all cherish so much. There is only one counseling code of ethics in the entire world that requires the proclamation of Christ in the counseling room. It is the code of ethics of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). Article XIV of their Standards of Doctrine is entitled, The Doctrine of the Great Commission, and says:
The church has been called to go into the world with the task of evangelism and discipleship. In giving this commission, Jesus requires his people to use their conversations to point people to Christ in evangelism and to build people up in Christ in discipleship. The Great Commission necessitates that all faithful counseling conversations must have Jesus Christ as their ultimate goal. Our Lord and Savior does not give believers the option to avoid counseling conversations or to avoid directing those conversations toward Jesus. The commitment of Christians to the Great Commission and to faithful biblical counseling is therefore one and the same.
This is not an extreme statement, but one that simply applies the biblical teaching about Scriptural authority and the necessity of Christ to counseling practice. It is decidedly reformational, and sets the standard that absolutely every Christian should commit to. It undermines the truth of Scripture, the work of Jesus Christ, and the principles of the Reformation for any Christian to avoid using their conversations to point to Jesus Christ merely because that conversation is labeled “counseling”.
This is, of course, just one very important example. But we could see the same thing over and again with how so-called Christian counselors deal with everything from fear in counseling to gender confusion. The Bible practically addresses the issues that counselors are concerned to address, and the principles of the Reformation summarize the broad theological themes of how those issues are addressed. A practical commitment to embodying the principles of the Reformation will require a commitment to biblical counseling as well.