Biblical Counseling as Problem-Occasioned Evangelism

Church planter, don’t punt away your opportunities just because you don’t see yourself as a “counselor.”You meet Tony in a coffee shop. Your plan to start a church intrigues him. As you sit down together, you quickly assess that he is not a Christian but he is open to religious matters. You also learn that his wife moved out last week but that he wants to repair his marriage. What do you do with Tony?

One of your core-team members invites her coworker Renee to your worship service. You chat with her briefly. While not a believer, she is interested in the things of Jesus. You hear pain in her voice as she discloses her recent divorce, but her overwhelming burden right now is how to handle her rebellious fifteen-year-old daughter. What do you do with Renee?

Kenny is a college student who visited your home Bible study. While not ready to commit to Christ, his comments and questions put him into your category of a seeker. As you get to know him, he tells you that he needs to find a new apartment because of his recent fight with his two co-renters. His vocal tone in describing the incident—the third one in recent weeks—is enough to tell you that he has major anger issues. What do you do with Kenny?

Our harvest field abounds not only with lost people in general, but also lost people like Tony, Renee, and Kenny, not to mention others like Carla (with chronic anxiety), Jenny (with same-sex attraction), and Bill (with excessive drinking). These are the men and women we must win to Christ.

How should you handle these opportunities? Let me give four lines of counsel:

1. Know beyond any doubt that what you have is what this person most desperately needs. What do these friends need? More than anything, they need Jesus, “who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). They need his Word that “refreshes the soul . . . , makes wise the simple . . . , gives joy to the heart . . . , [and] gives light to the eyes” (Ps 19:7–8). They need his Spirit who can deeply transform them “with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).

In other words, don’t let the presence of marriage (Tony), parenting (Renee), anger (Kenny), worry (Carla), sexual orientation (Jenny), or addiction (Bill) problems distract you from seeing their deepest need and God’s ultimate provision. To rightly view this person, we must resist the temptation to bifurcate the “spiritual” and the “psychological.” The Bible speaks to all of these above issues—powerfully, robustly, and sweetly. Only the truths of God’s gospel, not the ideas of secular psychologies, can save and satisfy them. And this is the life-changing provision and the calling with which we have been entrusted. God and his Word are more than sufficient to help Tony and everyone else (For a primer on the Bible’s power to change lives—biblical counseling—see David Powlison, Seeing With New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture (P&R, 2003) or Powlison’s contribution to Psychology & Christianity: Five Views, 2e, edited by Eric L. Johnson (IVP, 2010)).

2. See yourself as God’s instrument to bring Jesus to this person. Why has God placed Tony or Renee in your life? Is it only to refer him or her to an outside counselor? To serve this person well, we must resist the temptation to compartmentalize biblical evangelism and biblical counseling. The people above need a trained gospel minister, not a therapist, to bring them God’s saving, satisfying truth. As Paul reminded Timothy, the God-breathed Scriptures have been given to ministers of that Word to make people “wise for salvation” and for our ministries of “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:14–17).

What is our ministry task with these people? I would describe it as problem-occasioned evangelism. In other words, we seize the occasion—their felt-need counseling issue—to present Jesus not only as the immediate answer to their presenting problems but also as the deeper answer to their life problems.

3. Move toward this person with compassion, care, confidentiality, and competency. How? Let our Lord’s model move you: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:35–36). Simply put, Jesus entered their world, understood their need, and brought his saving help.

In similar ways, we enter our friend’s world by showing our care, compassion, and presence. As we meet with him, we invite him to share his story. We ask wise questions and we listen for inroads into his heart. We pray for him. As we build the relationship and discern both his felt needs and his true needs, we then bring those specific truths about Christ most suited to his particular struggle. If you need more training in biblical counseling, there many avenues available in our day. Take steps to grow in this vital aspect of your ministry (Biblical counseling seminaries like Southeastern (www.sebts.edu) offer certificate, masters, and doctoral programs. See also organizations like www.biblicalcounseling.com, www.ccef.org, and www.biblicalcounselingcoalition.org. For a brief, practical approach to pastoral counseling, see Jeremy Pierre and Deepak Reju, The Pastor and Counseling: The Basics of Shepherding Members in Need (Crossway, 2015). For a more general and thorough book for leaders and laypeople, see Paul David Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (P&R, 2002)).

4. Seek to address with this person both his counseling problem and his deeper problem. You must, of course, address his felt-need problem. If the person wants to talk about his marriage (or anger, anxiety, etc.), you must not pull a bait-n-switch maneuver by agreeing to discuss his marriage but then immediately inserting an evangelistic presentation. But you almost must also not hold back the ultimate answer that meets needs in this life and in the life to come.

Instead, do both. If it’s Tony, give him wise counsel about his marriage and bear that burden with him. Suggest practical steps for becoming a better husband and winning back his wife. Pray for them in his presence. But along the way—concurrently—communicate to him that the only true, lasting, and God-pleasing solution to any of our problems is found in Jesus Christ, and that begins with conversion. Voice to him our Lord’s invitation, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:28–29).

One Christ-centered counselor uses this metaphor with non-Christian counselees, “God has answers to all your problems, and I shall be happy to talk to you about them. . . . But those answers are all on the other side of a wall that separates you from them. You may not avail yourself of them until first you pass through the door in that wall. That door, of course, is the One about whom I have been speaking to you: Jesus Christ.” You can then go to John 10 to talk about Jesus as the door (NIV, gate; 10:1–10) and then Jesus as the good shepherd who lays down his life for us (10:11–18).

Should you decide to suggest a followup assignment—some homework between your meeting with him—keep the same “both/and” guideline in mind. Give him something that will concurrently address both his marriage problem and his need for Christ. For the latter, I encourage non-Christians to read, on their own, John 1:19–51 (Not the 1:1–18 prologue with all its dense, didactic theological truths, but the narrative in 1:19–51 in which different people met and began to follow Jesus). I encourage the person to read the story at least two times on different days and to jot down five or six titles or names of descriptions of Jesus. Twice the passage references Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” giving you a clear gospel path when you meet again to discuss it.

By keeping this both/and perspective in counseling lost people, you provide both the help they have sought and the greater help that they might not have sought but ultimately need.