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Biblical Counseling: The Reformed (Covenant) Approach Vs. The Dispensational Approach (Part Three)

In the last article, we discussed the historical roots of Reformed (Covenant) theology. We observed how the Covenant approach to counselors is a “one size fits all” perspective. We also observed the reason why there is a “one size fits all” approach–the Reformed approach adheres to the Westminster Confession of faith.  This confession was developed as a response to the practices, and instruction of the Roman Catholic Church, and promoted justification by faith alone (sola fidae), in Christ alone (Solus Christus). Because this confession was frozen in time, the Reformed counselor only observes problems and solutions through the lens of active sin and repentance.  The Dispensational approach does not look to confessions but looks to the sacred Scriptures alone to resolve issues to problems.  In addition, a Dispensational counselor uses the applications, or indicatives, in the Bible to address various problems that one has in their life.

Now we turn our attention to the Reformed (Covenant) and Dispensational approach concerning the work of the Holy Spirit, specifically the area of sanctification in Biblical counseling. Those who adhere to a Reformed approach believe the Holy Spirit works in what is known as the “means of grace.” The Westminister Confession states this:

I. Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ and His benefits; and to confirm our interest in Him: as also, to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to His Word.II. There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.III. The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither does the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that does administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.IV. There are only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord: neither of which may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained.V. The sacraments of the Old Testament in regard to the spiritual things thereby signified and exhibited, were, for substance, the same with those of the new.

The Westminster Confession states that the Holy Spirit works within the sacraments, specifically baptism and the Lord’s supper. The Westminster confession also references the practices of the Old Testament. Specifically, circumcision.  One who holds to the Westminster Confession also believes the Holy Spirit does mysterious things through these sacraments. Ligonier, a website committed to the Reformed (Covenant) theological position states below:

Question and answer 65 of the Heidelberg Catechism emphasize the role of the sacraments in confirming our faith. They bless us as we receive them in faith, and if we neglect them, we weaken our trust in God’s work. The sacraments are mysteries in that we cannot explain fully what God accomplishes through them. We do know, however, that they are more than memorial observations. They become effectual means of grace to those with faith by the working of the Holy Spirit (WLC , Q. 161). To downplay their importance is to desupernaturalize our holy religion, so let us have a high view of the sacraments as confirming signs of God’s Word.Ligonier Ministries. Means of grace. Retrieved February 25, 2017 from:

Why is this important to Biblical counseling? The treatment for a Reformed counselor that will be promoted in this particular theological approach will include, in some way, the means of grace in their counseling plan. The problem is the “means of grace” is a confessional instruction, not a Biblical instruction.

The Dispensational approach observes the working of the Holy Spirit, not through a confession, but by means of sacred Scripture only. A Dispensational approach knows the Holy Spirit convicts mankind of sin and unbelief (Jn. 16:5-11). It is His Holy Spirit that baptizes us into the church (Acts 2:4; Acts 2:33). It is being filled and walking by the Holy Spirit that one exhibits the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:15-21; Gal. 5:13-25). A Dispensational approach would not mention the Holy Spirit working through water baptism and the Lord’s Supper because the word of God does not explicitly state the Holy Spirit works through these ordinances.  However, the Holy Spirit works, not through the substance of water baptism and the Lord’s supper, but through believers as they submit themselves to the Holy Spirit in their daily living. It is here the Dispensational approach operates with the Christian in terms of Biblical counseling.

This is not to say that the Dispensational approach minimizes or disregards water baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Christ told them to conduct the Lord’s supper in remembrance of Him  (Matt. 26:26-29; Lk. 14:22-23). Christians take the Lord’s Supper because they are to remember and proclaim the death of Christ Jesus until He returns (1 Cor. 11:23-26). Water baptism represents the work of the Holy Spirit in a believer as the Christian identifies with the death of Christ, and cleansing the conscience by pointing a Christian to Jesus’s resurrection (Rom. 6:1-6; Col. 2:12; 1 Pet. 3:21). The Dispensational approach could use this in the counseling session to point to the significance of the death of Christ, and how this is important for reconciliation, and forgiveness. The Dispensational approach could also bring up how being baptized in the Holy Spirit is important to being a new creature, having a new identity in Christ, and how this new identity looks for the Christian (2 Cor. 5:17-19). Yet, the Dispensational approach would not promote the Holy Spirit working through the “means of grace,” because it is not explicitly taught in Scripture.

The Reformed approach operates from a worldview underscored in the Westminster Confession. This approach has a specific way it views the process of sanctification. A Reformed counselor, in an attempt to work with their counselees, would mention the “means of grace” and how it is important for one’s sanctification in counseling. The Dispensational approach does not look to confessions along with the Scripture but observes the Holy Spirit’s work in positional and progressive sanctification from what God has revealed in sacred Scripture alone.

Let us continue as Biblical counselors to observe how to best serve people, not from the confessions of history, but from Scripture alone. In doing so this is how we can best love our neighbor, and glorify God as we seek to do good works as Biblical counselors, to our neighbors.

Until Next Time…

Soli Deo Gloria!

Dr. L.S.

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