John W. Mallin
Counsel from the Cross: Connecting Broken People to the Love of Christ, by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Dennis E. Johnson. Wheaton: Crossway, 2009, 236 pages, appendices, endnotes, index, $15.99, paper.
Counsel from the Cross will be helpful to anyone interested in counseling.
The purpose of the book is essentially to teach the reader how to apply the gospel. On page 12 of the preface, Johnson writes: "Elyse Fitzpatrick and I want to lay before you a provocative claim: the cross of Christ and the gospel that proclaims it really are 'the power of God for salvation [comprehensive rescue] to everyone who believes' (Rom. 1:16)." And he goes on to write:
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 in to the favor and family of God but rather by moving more deeply into that same gospel. And we invite you to notice the many ways in which the inspired human authors of God's inerrant Word, the Bible, bring their readers back, again and again, to what Jesus has done for us through his obedient life and sinless sacrifice. They address a whole spectrum of interpersonal conflicts and intrapersonal captivities. (14)
Following the preface, acknowledgments, and introduction are nine chapters, four appendices, endnotes, and an index. The book reflects biblical scholarship and counseling experience.
Chapters 1 through 4 unpack the gospel as God's declaration of his love to hurting, guilty, trapped people. Calling for a gospel-centered response to this declaration, the authors provide the important cautionary note: "None of us lives everyday in the light of the gospel as we should" (82).
Chapter 5 begins an exposition of the counseling process. The authors define gospel-centered counseling:
Very briefly, gospel-centered counseling, as we are defining it, is the process of one Christian coming alongside another with words of truth to encourage, admonish, comfort, and helpwords drawn from Scripture, grounded in the gracious saving work of Jesus Christ, and presented in the context of relationship. 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. (91-92)
Chapter 6: explains "gospelized sanctification" (113); i.e., progressive sanctification governed by our belief that we are in union with Christ, making the points that the gospel is as necessary to sanctification as it was to our initial justification and that joy in the Lord is the strength needed for growth in obedience, for the war against sin. Chapter 7 tackles the controversial and difficult subject of the emotions. The discussion of emotions as "mirrors of our hearts" is helpful in applying the gospel in response to feelings. Chapter 8 expounds the importance of relationships, analyzes the impact of forgetting the gospel in marital and parental relationships, and illustratively describes gospel-centered parenting. Chapter 9 seeks to counter the tendency to seek self-made glory, perfection, even by living in the light of the gospel or by uncovering idols.
Each chapter is followed by questions to aid reflection on the chapter. The appendices are helpful complements to the book. The endnotes are not merely citations, but additional comments, which might have been more helpful as footnotes. The index is full, including coverage of the appendices and endnotes.
The cross from which we are to counsel means the whole gospel, the entirety of the work of Christ. The authors take sin seriously, at the heart level, not merely behavioral level. The illustrations support this effectively.
The counseling model presented is not simple or formulaic or routine, but complex. Of course, the Bible is not formulaic and life is neither formulaic, nor simple, nor routine. Counseling is a very personal process that involves counselor and counselee, both complex sinners, as well as the triune God, all in relationship.
One discordant note. While chapter 2 devotes attention to the importance of the use of the means of grace and has helpful things to say about the Word preached, the sacraments, and fellowship gets similar attention in this context, prayer is not treated at all. Similarly, Chapter 4 closes with a paragraph (89) that begins: "We believe that it is your Father's desire to convince you of his love and that he yearns for you to believe it. Let him speak to you through his Word, through the sacraments, and through other believers." This is a curious omission which gives rise to the question, why was prayer omitted (although references to prayer are occasionally made)?
The book has more the quality of a basic textbook than that of a popular topical book or of a manual. It is brief, not exhaustive, and does not cover everything that might be covered in a textbook, nor say everything that might be said about what is covered. It is not designed for quick reading and easy answers, but for reflection on God and self with the book's guidance. Although not difficult reading, those who do not have the patience to think about implications and applications to their own hearts will find it inaccessible. Regrettably, this means that, not unlike the gospel itself, the book will be put down by some who might most benefit from it. But it serves as an effective reminder of what counseling should be.
John W. Mallin