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5 Portraits of Gospel-Centered Counseling

Previously we asked, “How Does God Use His Word in Our Lives? We pondered together what is most important in biblical counseling. Is the ministry of the Word primary and loving relationships are secondary? Or, is the relationship central and you need to wait to share truth until you’ve established a trusting relationship? We saw that God calls us to give both Scripture and soul, truth and love. We also noted that 1 Thessalonians 2 provides 5 portraits of a truth-and-love biblical counselor. Here we want to dig into those.

Portrait # 1: The Love of a Defending Brother

Portrait 1 paints the picture of the love of a defending brother. Paul uses the Greek word for “brother” twenty-one times in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. He starts his first letter to the believers in Thessalonica by letting them know that he always thanks God for them “for we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you” (1 Thess. 1:4). Paul is saying they are siblings in God’s family by grace. Imagine hearing from the great apostle Paul that you are family; you are equals—equally loved by God’s grace.

Paul’s use of the word “brothers” is not limited to a family context, but also extends to a military context in the sense of a band of brothers who have one another’s backs. Paul says it like this in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-2:

You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure. We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition.

The word “opposition” means agonizing and struggling together. It was used of teammates training together and of soldiers fighting together in warfare.

Though persecuted, Paul courageously shares Scripture and soul because he cares. Paul’s brotherly relationship is not devoid of truth; it is richly focused on Christ’s gospel of grace.

Portrait # 2: The Love of a Cherishing Mother

In the first portrait, Paul says to his counselee, “I’ve got your back fam!” In this second portrait, Paul speaks as a mother who says, “I long for you with a nourishing and cherishing affection.” We read of Paul’s motherly love in 1 Thessalonians 2:7: “But we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children.”

Paul’s describes his gentle relational ministry like a nursing mother, literally picturing the tender nourishing of breast-feeding. The word “caring” highlights cherishing, keeping warm, and tenderly comforting.

John Calvin portrays the scene beautifully:

A mother nursing her children manifests a certain rare and wonderful affection, inasmuch as she spares no labor and trouble, shuns no anxiety, is worn out by no labor, and even with cheerfulness of spirit gives herself to her child.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:9, we learn the nature of the nourishment Paul shares. “While we preached the gospel of God to you.” Paul’s motherly love is not simply touchy-feely love devoid of truth. It is passionate love filled with the meat of God’s Word applied to people’s lives.

Paul continues his theme of motherly affection in 1 Thessalonians 2:8. “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.”

I call this a ministry sandwich because Paul sandwiches loving them so much and being dear to us around sharing Scripture and soul. The phrase “we loved you so much” means to long for, to affectionately desire, and to yearn after tenderly. “Delighted” means to joyfully serve out of pleasure and not out of a sense of duty or obligation. “Impart” emphasizes sharing generously and personally.

Speaking about 1 Thessalonians 2:8, Milton Vincent, author of A Gospel Primer for Christians, describes well who we are, how we relate, and what we share:

We are significant players in each other’s gospel narrative, and it is in relationship with one another that we experience the fullness of God in Christ…. The greatest gift I can give to my fellow-Christian is the gospel itself.

Portrait # 3: The Love of a Shepherding Father

Paul’s third portrait of the biblical counselor communicates, “I love you as a father guiding you individually and uniquely.” We see this beginning in 1 Thessalonians 2:11, “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children.”

The Greek word highlights the individual, focused attention that Paul gives each person he ministers to—each of you, his own children. Leon Morris notes that this is not just general group concern, but individual pastoral care. To Paul, no one was simply a number, or an item on a “to do” list.

Paul further describes his fatherly focused attention with these words, “as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:10b-11).

Paul’s ministry is not a one-size-fits-all ministry.

  • To those in need of hope, Paul offers encouraging care—coming alongside to help and to en-courage (i.e., to implant courage into).
  • To those struggling with loss, Paul offers comforting care—consoling the grieving and fainthearted, and sharing in their sorrows.
  • To those in need of insight and direction, Paul provides guidance by urging them—discussing application of truth to the specifics of their lives.

Paul offers person-specific, situation-specific, and need-specific counsel (see also Ephesians 4:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; and Romans 12:15).

Portrait # 4: The Love of a Longing Child/Orphan

Paul now turns his portraits upside down. Previously he has described his relationships as a brother to a sibling, a mother to her infant children, and a father to his individual children. He now contrasts and communicates the love of an orphaned child bereaved of his parents. “But brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of intense longing we made every effort to see you” (1 Thess. 2:17).

“Torn away” is a phrase used of a child bereft from a parent. Chrysostom, a Church Father, depicts the word powerfully,

He sought for a word that might fitly indicate his mental anguish. Though standing in relation of a father to them all, he yet utters the language of orphan children that have permanently lost their parent.

It reminds us of Paul’s description of his leave-taking with the Ephesian elders.

When he said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship. After we had torn ourselves away from them, we put out to sea and sailed straight to Cos. – Acts 20:36-21:1

And what was the content of Paul’s relational ministry to the Ephesian believers? It was gospel truth for daily sanctification.

You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and house to house. … However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again…. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. … Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. – Acts 20:20, 24-25, 27, 31-32

When torn away, here’s how Paul responded. “Out of intense longing we made every effort to see you” (1 Thess. 2:17b). We could translate it like this, “We experienced such non-stop, eager desire to reconnect with you that we endeavored exceedingly to see you!”

Let’s be honest. There are some counselees whose struggles are so difficult and whose way of relating so troublesome that at times we think, “Couldn’t someone else counsel this person?” In those moments, we need to pray for the Spirit to empower us with the type of love and longing that Paul writes about in 1 Thessalonians 2:17.

Portrait # 5: The Loving Respect of a Proud Mentor

Paul’s final portrait of the personal ministry of the Word comes in a military context. He writes in 1 Thessalonians 2:18, “For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan stopped us.” “Stopped us” literally means a cut in the road—an obstacle placed in the road by a military opponent to impeded or slow the advance of oncoming troops.

Paul continues this military context in 2:19: “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes?” Paul now paints the image of the conquering king or general. Typically that general would gladly, and not-so-humbly, claim all the accolades for himself. Instead Paul turns to the “lowly private” and says, “You earned the victors crown. The glory wreath! You are a spiritual warrior. Well done!”

Sometimes we so focused on confronting the sins of our counselees that we forget that they are, by God’s grace, saints—victorious in Christ. And we forget to celebrate their victories.

As if to put an exclamation point on his respect for them, Paul concludes, “Indeed, you are our glory and joy.” Paul loves them and is proud of them. He publicly honors them for their esteemed service. They are spiritual champions in Christ.

Truth for Life and Ministry

Could the people we minister to say the following of us?

  •  “I experienced you as a beloved brother embracing me as a fellow, equal member of God’s forever family by grace.”
  •  “I experienced our relationship as a band of brothers and as a teammate who fights for me and agonizes on my behalf as you relate Christ’s grace to my life.”
  •  “I experienced you as a nursing mother nourishing me with gospel truth through tender, cherishing love.”
  •  “I experienced you as an affectionate, generous mother giving me Scripture and your very own soul because I am dearly loved by you.”
  •  “I experienced you as a father focused on me with individual pastoral attention”
  •  “I experienced you as a wise and caring father, shepherding me with exactly the biblical wisdom I uniquely needed at that specific moment.”
  •  “I experienced you as longing for me so much that when we are apart you grieved like an orphan.”
  •  “I experienced you as desperately longing for deep connection with me as a child longs for connection with a parent.”
  •  “I experienced you as a mentor so proud of who I am in Christ that you give me a spiritual medal of honor.”
  •  “I experienced you as a mentor so proud of who I am in Christ that I am your pride and joy.”

Dr. Robert W. Kellemen: Bob is the Vice President for Institutional Development and Chair of the Biblical Counseling Department at Crossroads Bible College, the Founder and CEO of RPM Ministries, and served for five years as the founding Executive Director of the Biblical Counseling Coalition. For seventeen years Bob served as the founding Chairman of and Professor in the MA in Christian Counseling and Discipleship department at Capital Bible Seminary. Bob pastored for 15 years and has trained pastors and counselors for three decades. Bob earned his BA in Pastoral Ministry from Baptist Bible College (PA), his Th.M. in Theology and Biblical Counseling from Grace Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in Counselor Education from Kent State University. Bob and his wife, Shirley, have been married for thirty-five years; they have two adult children, Josh and Marie, one daughter-in-law, Andi, and three granddaughters: Naomi, Penelope, and Phoebe. Dr. Kellemen is the author of thirteen books including Gospel-Centered Counseling and Gospel Conversations.