Counseling One Another

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Counseling One Another

6 Unbiblical Methods for Change

Many professing Christians seek change in their lives using methods which are contrary to Scripture. As a result, they don’t experience the change which God seeks to produce in his people. In the very helpful booklet, HELP! Want to Change, which I refer to as a primer on progressive sanctification, pastor and biblical counselor Jim Newheiser mentions six common, but ineffective, methods for lasting personal transformation.

  1. Deliverance Ministries: Some claim that the source of every personal problem is demonic and that the solution is to identify and cast out the evil spirit(s). Certain preachers claim to have the special powers and methods to perform these deliverances. They often draw large crowds of people desperate for help. While the Bible does teach that we are engaged in spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:11–12), it does not teach that all our spiritual problems can be solved by casting out demons.
  2. Mysticism: Many believers expect that God will somehow instantly zap away their sin patterns and problems through dramatic answers to certain kinds of prayers. Some seek out spiritual leaders who claim to have special powers in prayer to produce dramatic results. The Bible, on the other hand, teaches that spiritual growth and true wisdom are typically obtained through a persistent disciplined pursuit of God (Proverbs 2:2–12), not through a one-time experience.
  3. Medication: While we embrace the use of medicine for true medical problems, many believers are hoping to find quick and easy solutions to their spiritual problems through pills. Some drugs may dull some of the symptoms of our emotional pain, but they do not address the heart issues from which sin comes (Proverbs 4:23; Mark 7:20–23). Wisdom must be exercised.
  4. Self-Improvement Formulas: Worldly methods of change typically involve finding the resources within yourself to successfully lose weight, stop smoking, control anger, and so on. This is contrary to Scripture, which teaches that we are totally dependent upon God for meaningful transformation. Jesus said, “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
  5. Moralism: Many try to change by seeking to discipline themselves to do the “right thing” by keeping a list of rules. God’s Word teaches that we can’t keep God’s law in our own power (Romans 3:20) and that we cannot be truly changed merely by keeping rules. “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son…” (Romans 8:3). Those pursuing moralistic solutions will either have to lower their standards far below those of Scripture, resulting in pride, or they will endure an endless cycle of failure, resulting in despair.
  6. Recovery Programs: Twelve-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, are very widely used by those who seek to make significant changes in their lives. Such programs typically combine elements of mysticism (relying on an undefined higher power), self-improvement formulas, and moralism, while neglecting the biblical instructions as to how we can change.

In contrast to all these methods, Scripture teaches us that God transforms us as we understand and experience the power of the gospel and then step forward in Spirit-enabled obedience.

You should consider adding Jim Newheiser’s new booklet  HELP! Want to Change to your counseling resource toolbox.

Take a look at all titles in the LifeLine mini-book series.

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  1. I would be interested to know what his opinion of Celebrate Recovery is. From my understanding, it quite similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, but for any “habits, hurts and hangups”, not just substance abuse. It seems to be somewhat common in Bible-believing & preaching churches.

  2. Nice list, but the thing that I envy about the 12-step programs is their authenticity and their ability to create genuine fellowship among people. The church could learn a lot from some of the 12-step methodology. Granted, only the church holds the keys to the kingdom of salvation, but we really lack in our ability to connect with the people who need the community of the saints the most. Thanks for the article.

    • I must say that not all churches lack in fellowship, “ability to connect with people”, our church “Centerview Baptist Church” does a great job with connecting with others and helping others. The reason I decided to go there was because of the continuous genuine loving and honest attitude the Saints there have.

      • Amen! Thanks, Jennifer. Praise the Lord that there are many churches who understand biblical fellowship and the mandate to all of us to stimulate one another on toward holiness, which requires humility and love: humility to receive correction and love to speak it.

  3. Excellent stuff, Paul, thank you. I might add thrice weekly walks forward to an altar call at churches that imply that change comes by relieving the guilt produced by manipulative sermons that see success as the number of people that walk twenty feet each time you preach. Or, if I might paraphrase Jesus, “Sanctify them through the emotional response which engages their feet!” Not!

  4. I agree with you about the first five – and especially the fifth. They will not work, even though they are attractive. I disagree strenuously, however, with the idea that the Twelve Steps do not work to bring lasting change. For one thing, they were devised by an Episcopal presbyter, the Rev Samuel Shoemaker, who was an evangelical clergyman. He based the Steps on biblical principles, and they agree with the Scriptures. One of my seminary professors at Gordon-Conwell, the Rev Dr Richard Lovelace (Presbyterian, and Reformed in his theology) wrote a book on justification and sanctification entitled “Dynamics of Spiritual Life,” and he said that the Twelve Steps are biblical. In addition, I know far too many people, in far too many places, who have come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus and to a sane life lived out of their relationship to him, to be able to say that the Twelve Steps do not work.

    God is pleased to use means in his work of calling us to himself, granting us faith, and enabling us to grow. While the Twelve Steps will not work in and of themselves, God has used them to bring hope and change to thousands, if not millions, of people.

    • With regards to the sixth, I fully agree with the original post. Now, if you can get past the name of the website, here is a link that is quite helpful in understanding the psychology that goes into the 12-step programs ( There are other good ebooks on that website that directly address the infiltration of psychology into the church, which I believe is having a damaging effect overall. I myself have a psychology degree from an Ivy league institution and became a believer during my university years. I definitely agree with what the authors (Martin and Deidre Bobgan) have to say regarding psychology and its foundations. His background also is in psychology.

  5. I’m going to agree with Charlie.

    Just because AA doesn’t force people into the Christian sphere to use it, doesn’t mean it’s wrong for Christians to use it as a tool. I might even buy into the argument that it might work best for Christians because of the close personal relationship possible with their higher power.

    In my humble experience, AA and Long-term residential substance abuse Counseling centers are the only two effective methods of overcoming (in the long term) substance addictions for the majority of folks who haven’t had the miraculous intervention experience.

  6. I wonder if it would be helpful to make a distinction between behavioral or lifestyle change and eternal change. Just because something doesn’t produce eternal change in one’s heart (which is the ultimate goal and can only be accomplished by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit), doesn’t mean that it is useless and can’t make effective change in one’s life. My parents were both alcoholics; my mother eventually died of cirrhosis but my father eventually went to Alcoholics Anonymous at the insistence of my stepmother. It did not produce eternal change in his life; it has been over 20 years and he still is not a believer. However, it saved a marriage and made life much more pleasant for family members. I am still praying for his salvation, but I am also grateful for the real changes that took place in his life and in our family as a result of his going to AA. I’m sure the families of many alcoholics would say the same.

  7. Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. James 5:16

  8. My step-father was a man raised by two of the most sickening excuses for drunken abusive non-parents one could imagine, and was kicked out of the house at 13 years old (already a drinker himself). Before he was even 30 years old, he puked blood daily from his boozing. Before he was 45, he had had a number of heart attacks and nearly died from alcohol poisoning on several occasions.

    One day, in his early-50’s – he quit drinking. He didn’t go to AA, or any counseling, he didn’t use any behavior modification drugs, hypnosis, or any of the other myriad piles of methods touted to stop people from boozing. He just quit. He never “fell off the wagon”, or had a “lost weekend”, and he died 3 years ago (aged 73) still sober.

    AA proponents would say that he was in denial because he never referred to himself as an alcoholic after he quit drinking, or because during the last 25-ish years of his life he took a total of 3 swallows of wine (each during a toast at a special event) and so could not by their modern standards be anything but an alcoholic. They are wrong – from the day he stopped drinking onward, he was not an alcoholic.

    I have on my medical records a diagnosis of being Manic Depressive (Bipolar type 1) with varying and numerous add-on and run alongside mental issues. According to the nonsense spouted by modern psychology and accepted by the medical field, I cannot be cured – ever! I can at best, be “managed” with a strict regimen of psychotropic drug cocktails, constant counseling/therapy, and various exercises; all of this of course will need to be monitored and adjusted continually to even try and keep me somewhere near “stable” and “normal” as the so-called incurable “disease” I have is always shifting.

    I have been without ANY drugs in my system, or ANY therapy sessions of any kind for 12 (TWELVE!) years now. I submitted myself to the fact that the root causes of my issues were caused by and emanated from my sins, I chose to repent of it and believe that what God says about me is true, and to do things His way, and my wonderful merciful Father delivered me from it. No matter what the medical establishment may say – I am NOT bipolar.

    When my wife and I were in the process of adopting our daughter from China, I had to undergo a pscyh eval by my old therapist (he had to sign-off that I was okay and would not be a danger to my child). My wife and I spent an hour with Ray, who gaped and double-taked, and stammered repeatedly at the changes apparent in me, more than once stating “Where is the Loren I know?” and “What happened to you???”. Unfortunately, my attributing it all to the work of God fell on deaf ears, but he could not deny the results, and wrote a glowing recommendation.

    Way back in the early days of AA, one of the steps was centered directly on getting right with God in Heaven by admitting your sin, and when you were finished, you were not expected to flog yourself until life’s end with an internal and outwardly vocal disparagement of yourself as forever being an alcoholic, an anchor you are to drag with you everywhere you go. Over time, repenting to Holy God was left behind and replaced with the vague notion that you should try and make peace if you could with whatever-you-think-feel-like-as-higher-power, and that you should never ever ever forget for even one solitary second that you are still an alcoholic who could at any moment be completely lost to booze again.

    Over the decades, have AA and all the pop-psychology outlets done anything except build a growing and enduring mass of people dependent on their continued services and products? Has the number of boozers, druggies (of which I was one once), adulterers, perverts, and so on grown or shrunk? Has the number of people in therapy and/or on drugs for Bipolar, anxiety, schizophrenia and all the other mood/mental disorders gone down, or does it all keep going up and up…and up?

    For those of you struggling with family and friends who are not saved, but you have seen some lasting change in their behavior that you attribute to AA, Al-Anon, the APA and users of the DSM5 and drugs – Please do KEEP ON PRAYING FOR THEM! BUT,..also recognize that any of those changes that have been lasting and good in them came about through the common grace of a merciful God who chooses to shine as well as rain on the just and the unjust alike, and until they do bow down to God for salvation, even if He allows them to remain “sober” until the grave…Hell still awaits.

    Pray without ceasing brothers and sisters, pray without ceasing.

  9. I know quite a few people in Celebrate Recovery and overwhelmingly I think it is a good thing. But what is the best part is the sense of community and accountability. Besides being Christ based of course. I was in it for a while but didn’t feel it was for me. I particularly did not like the reference to Jesus being our higher power. I felt it was too impersonal.
    The one in here that caught my attention the most was the mystical. That I think is a strong factor in Theophostic Prayer Ministry, Ancient Paths, SOZO and the Father Heart seminars. Every four or five years another one pops up and people run to it. The SOZO as practiced by Bethel Church in Redding CA is especially troubling. Just reading the claims on their website is a big “red flag.”

  10. Although I am sympathetic to those who have seen people go through 12-step programs “successfully”, I have several concerns. The main concern is the philosophy on which the programs are based. When you look at the basis of behavioral change, you are delving into psychology.

    At the very roots, psychology is man-centered. It originates from the self. When you start there, you only get programs that end up feeding an already inward-centered flesh. If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you see that the pinnacle is man himself, or self-actualization. Jesus says we need to deny ourselves. Another example is the self-esteem movement, propagated for 30+ years now. I find it ironic that now the psychologists are backpedaling and saying that the self-esteem movement has now raised a generation of people who think they’re good at things they’re not. Again, we are not to esteem ourselves. That is anti-biblical. We are to, what? Think of others more highly than ourselves.

    Some like to say that it is a useful tool, but really, there is no way to pick and choose from a system that is inherently flawed. Increasingly, people will say, if it works for you, it is a good tool. A very postmodern way of approaching things. But my understanding is that with the tool comes the baggage that brought about the tool.

    Again, for those of you who think that psychology is a science, there is rarely any hard evidence for any of its claims. It is not like physics or chemistry, where you can repeatedly conduct the same experiment and produce the same results. These are not laws. They are theories. And these theories change, which is why there will never be a dearth of psychological self-help books. Psychology tries to explain human behavior in man-centered ways. The Bible clearly states one thing – we have a sin problem. And that is where the problems come from. We have one solution. That is Jesus Christ.

    Let’s just look at one other example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, otherwise referred to as the DSM, currently in its 4th revision (DSM-IV). This is the way they define mental disorders:

    The current version of the DSM says that “…no definition adequately specifies precise boundaries for the concept of ‘mental disorder’…different situations call for different definitions”. It states that “there is no assumption that each category of mental disorder is a completely discrete entity with absolute boundaries dividing it from other mental disorders or from no mental disorder” (APA, 1994 and 2000).

    Not so definite any more, is it? And as someone already shared above, these tools may change behavior, but ultimately, it is heart change. Without heart change, we can use these “tools” until Jesus returns, but I don’t think the reply will be, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. You tried really hard, and you overcame your addiction, so I think I’ll write your name in the Book of Life.” If we focus on the sin, then we’ve lost. We must focus on the Savior. We need to address it at this level. We can clean people up on the outside, but only Jesus’ blood can clean someone up on the inside.

    Just because someone attaches the label of “Christian” to a program or a movement does not make it inherently biblical. Likewise, you cannot Christianize something by just changing the wording. The foundations of the program need to be scrutinized. And I think from there, you’ll finally get your answers.

  11. The key is realising that shame brings the problem in the first instance. The best ministry I have come across who teaches a biblical solution to freedom from bondage is Family Foundations. Definitely worth checking out. You will experience total freedom, doing away with the need for all of these unbiblical change methods.

  12. Unpacking deeply rooted sin that has been held in the heart, & giving it to God, is biblical. It is spiritual, not “mystical”.

  13. Funny that a Christian Pastor that you disregard a personal prayer life in your number #2 and that a one time conversion experience is repulsive to you? Have you not heard of St. Paul? Joseph and the angel? shall I go on?

    • Hi Charles, on the contrary, prayer is hugely important in the process of sanctification. However, biblical prayer is quite different from the mysticism that Newheiser is addressing in his booklet. Also, on the contrary, one-time conversion is the only kind of conversion the Bible speaks of (see “conversion” links at right). However, subsequent to conversion there is a life of ongoing discipline for godliness (check out the “sanctification” links in the right margin as well). Blessings!

  14. I believe “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5) is referring to anything spiritually good. It doesn’t mean we can do literally nothing. I would say there are a few changes we can make in our behavior, like not kicking the dog, that we don’t need to rely on God’s power necessarily, we just need to stop doing it.

    I think maybe different Scripture and a little different way of explaining it would be helpful because I agree with what you’re saying. If we want to grow in knowledge, God is the teacher. We can’t just read and expect to grow in true spiritual knowledge for example. Wisdom even more so.