Counseling with the Old Testament

When people ask me what I teach at Puritan Reformed Seminary, they usually look deeply puzzled when I say, “Biblical Counseling, Hebrew Exegesis, Leadership, Ministry, and Preaching.”

“Biblical Counseling AND Old Testament exegesis?” is often the eye-brow raising question. It’s as if I’ve just said that I teach How to Knit AND Engineering. 

There is a disadvantage in having such a wide teaching responsibility; I cannot specialize as much as I’d sometimes like to; I cannot hope to keep up with all the books that come out in these various fields.

However, that’s a sacrifice I and the Seminary have so far been prepared to make because of the advantage of cross-fertilization, and especially in the two areas of Biblical Counseling and biblical exegesis. Every time I teach my two counseling courses (Foundations of Biblical Counseling; Issues in Biblical Counseling), that’s followed in the next two semesters by my two Old Testament Exegesis courses (Pentateuch & Historical Books; Poets & Prophets).

But how do counseling and the Old Testament fit together?

Counseling Texts
First, when I choose which passages to focus on in my Old Testament exegesis classes, I gravitate towards the texts that will help my students pastor and counsel people. Take a sampling of some of passages we exegete from the Poetic books:

  • Job 19 equips us to counsel people struggling with assurance.
  • Job 23 helps us minister to people in the fire of affliction.
  • Psalm 8 encourages the young and the weak that God can use even them to silence His enemies.
  • Psalm 16 gives hope of the resurrection and heaven to those who are dying.
  • Psalm 42 argues the despairing along the path to trust and peace.
  • Proverbs 1 points us to the source of all wisdom and the sufficiency of Scripture.
  • Proverbs 8 assures us of the Lord’s eternal purposes and good will towards us.
  • Ecclesiastes 1-2 demonstrates the emptiness of this world and yet also the value and significance of a simple God-centered life.
  • Song of Solomon celebrates and commends the highest experiences of love, first in marriage, but calling ultimately to enjoy God’s love as the climactic love.

I could go on, but I hope that gives a flavor of how useful the Old Testament is in counseling.

Counseling Teaching
I was recently speaking at a conference where I used Psalm 77 and Philippians 4 to teach people how to counsel themselves and others. Psalm 77 provides an especially helpful structure and pattern for helping people retrain their thinking patterns. Kind of like a pre-CBT CBT.

Counseling Foundations
The Old Testament also provides the essential foundation for understanding what we once were (Genesis 1-2), what happened to us (Genesis 3:1-13), and God’s purposes of Gospel restoration (Genesis 3:14ff).

It’s almost impossible to know what we are aiming at in counseling without knowing what God first designed us to be. And it’s equally difficult to understand what’s wrong with us without knowing the impact and consequences of the fall into sin. But the early glimmer of Gospel hope, even in the midst of so much destruction and devastation is also hugely encouraging when we are facing the worst human scenarios in our own day.

Counseling Examples
God has provided us with countless individual Old Testament biographies as examples to follow or flee (Romans 15:4). And that’s not only true on a personal level; the whole history of Israel is full of examples to learn from and apply in counseling situations (1 Cor. 10:11).

Counseling Sin
Maybe we could say that the Old Testament prophets were the first biblical counselors. They took the texts of the past, especially Deuteronomy, and applied them powerfully to the culture and church of their own day. They are wonderful examples of courageously confronting sin, of incisively getting to heart issues, but also of giving Gospel hope, particularly towards the end of their books, and especially in their compassionate comforting of the true people of God.

Counseling God’s Character
One of the questions that I’m always urging students to ask Old Testament passages is: “What does this reveal of the character of God?” What attribute, what characteristic of God is highlighted here? What does this incident, event, experience tell us about God, especially the redemptive character of God?

Counseling His Story
Ultimately, though, perhaps the greatest benefit of studying the Old Testament for counseling is getting a bigger and better sense of the redemptive plan of God as revealed and advanced throughout redemptive history. Only in the light of this BIG picture do we begin to make sense of our little snapshot of life.

As the ancient Biblical story becomes more and more woven into our fabric, it strengthens, supports, and sustains us in ways that convey sometimes inexplicable but always incalculable blessing as we face the challenges of our 21st century lives.

Check out


How This Millennial Learned That Any Job Is Better Than No Job
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Faithfulness at the Photocopier: How Little Acts Develop Big Character
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5 Reasons Studying the Original Languages Is Worth the Pain
“You can use Greek and Hebrew without having to memorize a single paradigm, let alone 3,000 vocab words, so why torture yourself? I’ll give you ten reasons studying the original languages is worth the pain, five this week and five next.”

11 Tips for New Ministry Bloggers
If you’re interested in getting into blogging, here’s some good start-up advice.

Why Study the Books of 1–2 Timothy and Titus?
“Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus celebrate the glorious gospel message that Jesus saves sinners, stress the need for godly living as the fruit of gospel grace, and call us to preserve and pass on the good deposit of the gospel through deliberate discipleship.”

The Shock of Eternity
“Because of what is at stake, this ought to be a doctrine which God’s people do not hide. To stutter or shuffle our feet on the truth of hell is to do humanity a great injustice. Love necessitates speaking plainly about the truths of eternity; why and how one would enter heaven or hell and what the two forevers will be like.”

Marriage Lessons from the Luthers
“Katharina and Martin Luther lived 500 years ago, but they can teach us much about how to live well in our own modern-day marriages.”

New Book

God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God by Mark Jones

This book aims to help us study and understand the attributes of God so that we delight in and love him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. Each chapter explains one attribute, shows how it is most clearly manifested in Christ, and provides practical application for the Christian life.

Kindle Books

For your non-Kindle book buying needs please consider using Reformation Heritage Books in the USA and Reformed Book Services in Canada. Good value prices and shipping.

3 2 1: The Story of God, the World and You by Glen Scrivener $4.99.

What do you think of me? Why do I care? by Ed Welch $1.59.

Should we re-model our church or build a new one?

I was involved in leading two church building projects in the two churches I pastored in Scotland. I never thought that I’d be doing that again when I moved to the USA.  Yet, here I am, pastoring a congregation in Grand Rapids that is beginning the process of deciding whether to build a new church or re-model our existing building. Hence, at our elders’ and deacons’ meeting this week, I made a presentation on the primary purposes of a church building and the considerations to bear in mind when deciding whether to re-model or build anew. I thought I’d post a summary of that report here with the hope of getting feedback from others who have gone through this process. Have I missed anything? Anything I should change, add, etc?


Any church building (new or re-model) must provide for the following.

Worship: The most important area of a church building is the worship area or sanctuary.

Education: Classrooms are required for Sunday school classes for all ages, youth group, Bible studies, prayer groups, library.

Evangelism: Resource room, place for informal Bible studies.

Counseling: Private room for pastoral counseling.

Community: Spaces to greet, fellowship, welcome desk, provide refreshments, hospitality.

Administration: Office space for secretary, files, supplies, deacons.


When deciding on how these aims should be accomplished in any re-model or new church building, the following factors should be considered:

Mission: What does the church see as its main mission? Is it to be primarily (1) an outreach church or (2) a church that teaches and builds up God’s people? If it is aiming to be both, what proportion or priority is to be given to each?

Leadership: Does the church have the leadership to facilitate the size of project being envisaged?

Unity: Is the leadership united in the project and are the leaders united with members?

Size: How many people is the building for? Now and in the future? Is the parking lot big enough and close enough to the building?

Style: Will the church have a traditional (churchy) style or will it be more modern (seeker-friendly)? Previous answers will help to answer this question.

Comfort: To be blunt, pews or padded seats?

Technology: Will services be streamed or recorded in audio and/or video? What rooms will have TV/Internet/video? Will there be psalters/hymnals or projection of songs?

Accessibility: What provision will be made for those with special physical, mental, or hearing needs?

Location: Is the church in the right place? Could it be in a better place? How many locations should there be? If the church is thinking about expanding its facility, would it be better to plant another church instead?

Safety: Stewarding of parking lot and inside areas to keep children safe.

Security: Is there a security plan and are there security provisions such as cameras, alarms, etc?

Witness: What does the church building say about the church? What message does the outside convey to passers-by and what impression does it give to any visitors?

Future: Is this the best use of money for the next generation. Will those still worshipping here in fifty years time look back and say, “Why did they take on so much debt?” or “Why didn’t they invest in a building for future generations?”

Cost: The bottom line. How much will a new build cost compared to various re-model options? How much will maintenance be on each option? Do we have the donor base to fund this without asking for huge loans?

Prayer: Cover every purpose and consideration with prayer, asking the builder of his church, “Lord what will you have us to do?”

Check Out


Help Your Kids Hope in God | Jason Helopoulos, Desiring God
“In family worship, we simply put ourselves and our children in the way of Christ’s blessing. Try it. I promise, it isn’t hard. Over time, practicing daily family worship will change your home. It will change your life. By coming daily to Jesus, not just in our private devotions but together as families, Christ pours out blessings that will overflow into eternity.”

The Challenge of University Evangelism | Tim and Michael Keller, TGC
“…Some believe, however, that the university may be entering a new era of opposition to student ministry, and particularly to evangelism. When weighing what seems to be the beginning of a shift or trend, it’s always hard to know whether it’ll be localized and temporary or sweeping and lasting. However, particularly in elite American universities, students are becoming highly sensitive, traumatized, and outraged by opposing viewpoints.”

7 Tips for Sharing the Gospel with Teens | Jaquelle Crowe, Crossway Articles
“I hadn’t seen my friend McKenzie in months. Now we sat together in a coffee shop downtown, two teens sipping mugs of hot tea and catching up on life. A lot had happened, and conversation flowed freely. Except for one problem—my stomach was in knots. McKenzie was not a Christian, and I felt desperately like I needed share the gospel with her.”

6 Things to Do with Your Anxiety | David Powlison, TGC
As Justin says this is for everyday anxiety, bot anxiety disorders.

“Anxiety is a universal human experience, and you need to approach it with a plan…I want to give you six things as a game plan for when you start to worry and obsess.”

20 Quotes from the Best Introduction to Christianity I’ve Ever Read | Matt Smethurst, TGC
“While I would still give Mere Christianity or The Reason for God or Making Sense of God to an intellectually minded skeptic, I think [3 2 1: The Story of God the World and You] is the finest ‘street-level’ introduction to the Christian story I’ve encountered. Scrivener has a remarkable way of painting pictures with words. If you want the good news of grace to land on you in a fresh way, pick up this book. Then buy a copy for a non-Christian friend.”

How Savings Can Save Your Ministry | Art Rainer, For The Church
“Having three to six months worth of living expenses set aside is an important component of financial health. It can take you off the financial edge. It can benefit your home life. And it can benefit your ministry.”

Listen and watch Dr. Lloyd-Jones | Credo Magazine

New Book

Complete in Him: A Guide to Understanding and Enjoying the Gospel by Michael P. V. Barrett.

Kindle Deals

Living Without Worry: How to replace anxiety with peace by Timothy Lane ($2.99)

Comforts from the Cross: Celebrating the Gospel One Day at a Time by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick ($2.99)

Christ or Chaos by Dan DeWitt ($2.99)

The Cross: God’s Way of Salvation by Martyn Lloyd-Jones ($2.99)

Did Christ really have to die?

“Why do we do this?”

We’ve all thought his, haven’t we? We’re processing some data, we’re writing a report, or we’re engaged in a routine task, and we suddenly realize, “There’s absolutely no reason for this.”

We ask around, “Why is this process or report necessary?” No one seems to know and no one wants to know. “We’ve always done it that way,” or “Don’t ask questions, just do it,” are frequent responses.

Sometimes—though rarely—someone says, “Good question. Either we should find out why this is necessary or we should stop doing it.” After a bit of investigation and research, a reason is discovered; and it’s a good one. The meeting or the process is absolutely and indispensably necessary and there’s no other way of accomplishing the aim.

Why did Christ do this?
Have you ever applied the same question to Christ’s death? Why did he do this? Was it really necessary? Why did Christ have to die, and to die such a death?

Though it’s rarely asked today, it was asked by many in the 19th century and many wrong answers were proposed. In Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement, Scottish theologian George Smeaton addressed a number of these erroneous and dangerous answers. Among them were:

  • Christ’s death was prophesied and therefore had to happen to fulfill these prophecies.
  • Christ’s death was necessary to confirm his teaching.
  • Christ’s death was necessary to impress humanity with God’s love.

Smeaton argued that there was a much deeper necessity involved: the morality of God’s government. God could not pass over sin without his justice being completely and perfectly satisfied. As Smeaton said:

 There could be no other reason sufficiently important for God to abase Himself and to be made in fashion as a man, and suffer on the cross; for God would not subject His Son to such agonies if sin could have been remitted without satisfaction.

The error that had taken the deepest hold in Smeaton’s day was idea that the atonement was a way of impressing the human mind with God’s love. This, said Smeaton, turned Christ person and work into a mere drama, an act, a theatrical performance, that was designed to make an inward impression upon humanity but had no impact or influence upon God and his moral government.

Silence does not mean denial
Smeaton concedes that Christ was relatively silent on the necessity of his dying to satisfy divine justice. However, he defends this silence by explaining that Christ was addressing Jews who were already familiar with the necessity of an atonement. The whole history of Israel and especially of the sacrificial system had developed in them the core idea that sin must be punished by sacrifice to God.

The whole Old Testament was thus calculated to bring into prominence the necessity of an atonement, and to sharpen the conviction that sin required a higher sacrifice; and the sacrifice, presupposing the sinful deed, showed the inviolability of the law and covenant.

Smeaton even went so far as to say that the primary reason for Israel’s election and separation from the nations of the earth was to demonstrate to the world that sin must be punished, but that sacrifice could avert punishment. Christ took that national consciousness for granted in his ministry and therefore did not speak much about the necessity of an atoning sacrifice. He knew the Jews knew that an atonement was indispensably necessary.

Beheading the Hydra
Not surprisingly the same error is rearing it’s ugly head in our own day. Smeaton cut off one head of this hydra, but other heads appear in different forms at different times. Whatever the form it takes though, the root cause and remedy are the same. Just as in Smeaton’s time, present denials of the atonement are rooted in an ignorance and neglect of the Old Testament (see here and here for evidence of that). Only by recovering its core message—God must punish sin, but God’s anger can be satisfied and averted by sacrifice—will the indispensable necessity of Christ sin-atoning death be recovered.

Previous Posts in this Series on the Atonement

Was Jesus ever ill?
The Most Sympathetic Man in the World
What did Christ believe about the atonement?
The Four Essentials of a Successful Atonement
Three Old and New Errors about the Atonement
Christ’s Weaknesses
How to Measure the Immeausurable

Grace-Paced Life Links

We all know self-care is important, but it can be hard to make the time for it. Amy Jen Su shares ways to weave self-care into your workday:

One CEO I worked with summed it up best when he said: “Self-care is no longer a luxury; it’s part of the job.”

So, what exactly is self-care, and how do we do it?

Here are some of Su’s main points:

  • Define self-care more broadly
  • Take out the word “should”
  • Operationalize self-care in your day-to-day work
  • Notice when you’ve slipped out of self-care mode

Similarly, Courtney Reissig speaks to the reality of work in our day and age. She says, “…so while [my husband] might be on vacation from work, his customers are not. In an ever-connected digital age, work never stops.” She goes on to dive into the subjects of rest and Sabbath and how both work and rest exist for the Lord, not for oneself. She shows us how sometimes rest may look differently than we expect.

In When You Feel Spread too Thin, Christine Hoover encourages us to “steward the abundance.” She reminds us to:

  • Praise God for the abundance. “If your ministry or your life has vitality, praise God. If you have relationships and friendships, praise God. If you have more coming at you than you know what to do with, praise God.”
  • Check your heart. “Are you spreading yourself too thin because of self-idolatry?” Ouch. A potentially painful question to ask yourself.
  • Clarify your people priorities. “After spouse and kids or roommate relationships, who are the people He most wants you to invest your life in?”
  • Say yes and also say no. “I’ve learned that a slow response gives me time to ask God about it.”
  • Cultivate intersections rather than being a cul-de-sac. “Use your opportunities and influence to connect people with each other…”
  • Plan ahead for friendship. “Plan ahead for time with those you consider heart friends.”

Are we facing an epidemic of loneliness? “All too often, what is sacrificed at the altars of ‘work’ and ‘family’ is friendship (and sleep). In the process of reporting the piece, Baker comes to realize that he is, in fact, ‘a textbook case of the silent majority of middle-aged men who won’t admit they’re starved for friendship, even if all signs point to the contrary.’” Philip Lorish goes on to speak to the “crowding out” effect technology is having on our person-to-person relationships and the reasons a Google Hangout just won’t cut it when it comes to meaningful relationships.

Next, we have 25 Signs of a Healthy Leader. The article is meant to be used as a self-assessment tool and contains statements like:

  • I get enough sleep
  • I exercise on a regular basis
  • I spend time in God’s Word and in prayer on a regular basis
  • I listen to others well (including my spouse and children)
  • I am not in debt or have a concrete plan for getting out of debt
  • I forgive myself when I make mistakes

Some strong words to consider here from Chris Thomas:

We have forgotten how to be quiet. We have long abandoned the notion of developing stillness as a way of life. These joint disciplines have somehow slipped from grace and tumbled into the dark closet of the past.

Like all things unknown, we’ve become afraid of what’s lurking in the darkness.

So while we like to dim the lights at an appropriate time in the service and pull down the levels on the band while we all sing “Be still and know that I am God”—the reality of that statement is often a mystery to us.

Chris continues to give some encouragement on how to turn down the volume knob in our own lives.

Lastly, seasoned pastor Todd Gaddis shares “nineteen matters I will give special attention to as I head into the home stretch.” Here are some favorites:

  • Build margin into my schedule
  • Find a new hobby
  • Speak positively
  • Dig deeper in the Word
  • Remember the Sabbath
  • Please God first.

More grace-paced life links here.