Book Review

"Counsel from the Cross: Connecting Broken People to the Love of Christ" by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Dennis E. Johnson

Debbe Mays
Rod Mays
Thursday, September 1st 2011
Sep/Oct 2011

Cultural shifts in the perspective of broad fields of study such as philosophy, theology, sociology, and psychology eventually trickle down and begin to affect individuals in a society. The movement away from biblical truth in the twenty-first century is having a devastating effect on men and women already ruined by the Fall’devastating because most human beings move through life believing that they are basically good and that the answer to their despair can be found in their own, or another’s, ability to think through their problems. In Counsel from the Cross, Elyse Fitzpatrick and Dennis Johnson set forth the major premise for the biblical “curing of souls.” Those involved in the fields of counseling and pastoral care are called to stand solidly on the truths of Scripture, neither moving away from nor moving beyond the gospel, but digging more deeply into the gospel of grace. The work of Christ on the cross brings gospel clarity to the various issues men and women face daily.

In the preface to the book, Johnson states that “in [the] cross lies the power both to liberate hearts that have been caught in seemingly unbreakable cycles of defeat and to instill hope that change can actually happen in us, in our relationships, and in those whom we love fiercely and resent immensely at the same time.” Here is a realistic picture of the human heart: fighting the hopeless cycle of negative emotions; the rollercoaster of inconsistent thoughts, motives, and feelings; and the constant battle against unbelief in the reality of our already justified but not yet fully sanctified daily grind.

Those of us who counsel often understand that one of our first priorities is to help counselees see themselves as players in a story bigger than their own. Fitzpatrick and Johnson explain the necessity to emphasize the story of redemption in all of our lives. They move us from the “white noise” of the gospel (we know the truths are there; we just don’t pay much attention to them) to an appreciation for the riveting, incomprehensible work of Jesus on the cross. How do we connect the truth of the gospel to the way we feel on Tuesday morning? The authors’ definitions of the “Happy Moralist” and the “Sad Moralist” are recognizable, helpful descriptions to aid the counselor in moving counselees along to healthy self-awareness and understanding. They write, “Most counseling or self-help books are very much alike…because they all contain what Martin Luther called a ‘glory story.’ This perspective…contains an unstated but deeply held belief that people don’t really need a crucified Savior; they just need a little help…they can attain glory by hard work, self-discipline, and the right list of activities.” This statement is true whether the Happy Moralist tries one method after another to attain perfection and peace, or the Sad Moralist continually searches for the one sin he needs to repent of to have a sense of well-being in the soul.

Another strength of this book lies in Fitzpatrick and Johnson’s use of theological terms and their adequate explanations of how theology can be applied to counseling needs. This book answers many questions and helps pastors and counselors set goals for those they counsel: How do I grow in grace’and what does that really mean? How do I participate in true fellowship and find avenues of service in the church? How do I engage others with the gospel story? The authors’ explanation of how the ordinary means of grace’in preaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and in fellowship with other believers’can positively affect lives, furthering “the growth of Christlike desires, emotions, behaviors,” and how that work belongs to the church alone is pure gold in encouraging pastors and counselors to unabashedly begin at the cross.

Fitzpatrick and Johnson ask us to build a system for counseling with a strong, Christo-centric foundation that includes Scripture, justification, and sanctification. It is apparent that many counselees come to us confused at these points. Scripture is the filter that every idea must pass through, and the authors emphatically state their primary premise: “Any counseling that does not begin and consistently stay with the Bible’s revelation about God and man will always slide into man-centeredness. It will always make man and his plans, power, goals and aspirations the focus of counseling.”

The man-centered approach often confuses justification and sanctification. The Happy Moralist will believe he is doing a pretty good job of keeping the rules, and he misses the truth about the depths of his own sin and depravity. Fitzpatrick and Johnson get justification and sanctification in the right order. Justification is the prerequisite for sanctification, and the gospel is necessary for both; we cannot be perfected by the flesh (Gal. 3:3). This book constantly reminds us of the beauty and glory of the imputed righteousness of Christ, and the fact that sanctification is both definitive (it has been accomplished at a specific time) and progressive (the process is day by day). The authors write: “In progressive sanctification, we become in actuality what he has declared is already true of us.”

In a chapter titled “The Gospel and Our Emotions,” the authors do a good job of defining current psychological theory as to materialistic determinism or the belief that “what we are, every decision we make, and how we live our lives have been predetermined by the material part of us, most notably the levels of certain chemicals in our brains,” and they go on to explain that “another consequence of materialistic determinism is the belief that altering the levels of certain chemicals in the brain is the proper way to create emotional health.” They write in detail about feelings and moods and how our physiological responses to fear and sadness are directly related to our beliefs and thoughts about our experiences. Fitzpatrick and Johnson also describe their view of the mind-body-brain connection and how medication may stop the physiologic responses to stress, but will not necessarily provide the right feelings and thoughts, which drives the counselor again to the gospel to provide a firm anchor for the counselee’s belief system whether the counselee chooses to take medication or not.

The practical and applicatory strengths of Counsel from the Cross are more than adequate. This book is replete with numerous examples of how the gospel can be applied to various counseling situations and continuously states that we are sinful and flawed, yet loved and welcomed. Furthermore, case studies make this book a practical and helpful resource for any pastor, counselor, or believer’all who want to better understand themselves and their relationships and to begin to “counsel from the cross.”

Thursday, September 1st 2011

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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