There has been much debate about the appropriate use of common grace wisdom in faithful biblical counseling. As a counseling professor who affirms the sufficiency of Scriptural wisdom to help people with their spiritual needs, I have struggled to develop a clear way of explaining which use of extra-biblical information and wisdom is faithful to the Scriptures and what would constitute a denial of the sufficiency of God’s Word in counseling.
In addition to teaching biblical counseling, it is my great privilege to teach an introductory preaching class at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte. In so doing, I believe that I have discovered a useful parallel. We use common grace wisdom in counseling (the private ministry of the Word) similarly to the way we appropriately use common grace wisdom in preaching (the public ministry of the Word).
All Use Common Grace Wisdom in Preaching (The Public Ministry of God’s Word)
While the call of God is for pastors to “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:1ff), there are many important common grace insights which make preaching more effective. Most seminaries expect their M.Div. students (future pastors) to have taken a college speech class before enrolling in homiletics (preaching) courses. The training they receive in such a class, even if taught by an unbeliever at a secular institution, provides skills for constructing and delivering a speech which are of great value to the preacher. The student learns that a good speech has one main focus or purpose. He1 also learns how important it is to have well-organized thoughts, with a limited number of main points which faithfully develop the main idea. A speech class teaches the student how to connect with the audience so that the message will be more persuasive. A good speech class will talk about the characteristics of effective delivery—varying pause, pitch, pace, and punch; making eye contact; avoiding verbal pauses; using appropriate gestures, etc. Students in speech class have opportunities to practice their technique and can improve through constructive criticism. I have observed that students who have taken a college speech class often have a big advantage when it comes time to preach.
Textbooks used in seminary preaching classes typically apply many of these common grace insights to aspiring preachers. Haddon Robinson, whose book Biblical Preaching has trained a generation of expository preachers, encourages pastors to prepare messages which have one main point—a “big idea”—which is clearly developed. He reviews many important aspects of delivery. The founder of the modern biblical counseling movement, Jay Adams2, wrote extensively about preaching. His outstanding book, Preaching with Purpose, declares that sermons should have one clear purpose (derived from the Scriptural text using careful exegesis) and should be developed in a well-organized way which directly addresses the audience. He shares insights about the differences between spoken versus written English and encourages preachers to form brief, clear sentences and to use vivid language. Other homiletics books also apply what I would call common grace rhetorical principles to the sacred proclamation of the gospel in worship.
While the Bible tells us that we must preach the Word, Scripture does not exhaustively teach principles of effective sermon delivery.3 Nor does the Bible explicitly tell us that a sermon consists of a big idea developed by a limited number of points. While one could argue that training preachers in the common grace principles of rhetoric—organization, structure, and delivery—is not absolutely necessary, most would acknowledge that these are useful principles which help to make preaching more effective. There are other common grace principles which may enhance the public preaching of the Word—for example, making practical arrangements so that the speaker can be seen and heard and so that the hearers will not be distracted (see Neh. 8:4-5).
The Content of Preaching is the Infallible Truth of God’s Word, not Common Grace Wisdom
Make no mistake, however. The message of the preacher is God’s Word. The purpose of his being trained in common grace rhetorical principles is to help him deliver God’s authoritative message most effectively. While there is value in devoting some of his education to these principles, the bulk of his training must be in the Word. It would be a travesty if a preacher were to be all about his rhetorical technique while neglecting biblical content. It would be even worse if a seminary were to devote most of its curriculum to common grace principles of rhetoric while devoting relatively little time to biblical languages, exegesis, and theology.4
Common Grace Wisdom Can Help our Counseling (The Personal Ministry of God’s Word)
You may have already figured out where I am going with this. I believe that there are significant parallels between how we apply common grace principles to preaching and how we apply common grace wisdom to counseling without compromising the sufficiency of Scripture. Just as common grace principles of speech and rhetoric may help us become better preachers, common grace wisdom such as listening techniques, understanding certain physical/medical issues, learning from secular studies about observed patterns of human behavior, etc., may help us to be better counselors. Those who train biblical counselors have typically included such principles of common grace wisdom in their teaching.
The Content of our Counseling is the Wisdom of God’s Word, not Common Grace Wisdom
What matters most in both the public and private ministries of the Word is the message. Just as the business of the public ministry of the Word is to proclaim the Bible, so the business of the private ministry of the Word is to proclaim the Bible. Common grace insight is helpful only to the extent that it enables us to be more effective in delivering God’s message from Scripture. A preacher whose message becomes focused on something other than Scripture, such as politics, pop-psychology or secular principles of leadership, or whose ministry becomes more about style than substance, is not being faithful to his calling to “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:1ff).
In the same way, a biblical counselor who is excited about discovering and using common grace wisdom from secular sources while failing to make God’s Word central in their counseling is falling short of their call to counsel the Word. Similarly, while a counseling training or degree program may offer instruction in useful common grace insights, the bulk of that training should be in how to understand and apply God’s Word. Counseling training programs which focus upon common grace principles (which David Powlison calls “tertiary”) neglect God’s Word which alone contains infallible wisdom which can restore the soul and enlighten the eyes and can equip us for every good work (Ps. 19:7-9; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Questions for Reflection
How can common grace insight enhance the public ministry of the Word (preaching)? What place do you believe common grace insight has in the private ministry of the Word (counseling)? Are there significant differences as to how common grace insight can be useful in counseling as opposed to preaching?
- I am using the male pronoun because I am speaking of preaching which is to be carried out by men in the church (1 Tim. 2:12-13, 3:1-7).
- Some may not be aware that Jay Adams’ Ph.D. was in speech from a secular university (University of Missouri). I believe that he used much of what he learned in that program when teaching his preaching students at Westminster. It is even likely that some of what he gained from his Ph.D. studies influenced his teaching about biblical counseling.
- The Bible gives us some principles of wisdom for forming and delivering sermons, including the practical arrangements made for the proclamation of God’s Word in Nehemiah 8 and general principles of wise speech contained in Proverbs. Scripture also contains many useful examples of inspired public speech including the sermons in the Gospels and Acts, the speeches of the Old Testament Prophets, and the epistles of the Apostles.
- In our current context, the argument is not so much with preachers who become enamored with ancient rhetoric, but rather that they seek to build their ministry on common grace principles of entertainment, management, and marketing. Paul warned about this: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires” (2 Tim. 4:3).