The language of therapy has a stranglehold on our culture. Children don’t lie anymore, they tell stories. Serial adulterers have been re-branded as sex addicts. Drunkenness is now an alcohol disorder—in fact, addiction itself is treated like a disease. Even the gross perversion of pedophilia is listed as a psychiatric disorder in the ever-expanding Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
In short, the world’s pattern for dealing with sin is to diagnose away the guilt, or redefine wickedness as something more innocuous. You’re not a sinner, you’re a victim. And regardless of who or what is victimizing you, you’re not to blame for your flaws and faults.
Tragically, the church is following that thinking.
Today, psychological terminology shapes the way our culture talks about life, and that same terminology has infected the church. This psychological assault has major implications for biblical authority and gospel purity. One prominent professor of a major Christian seminary argues:
It is time for Christian sages—psychologically informed pastors, theologians, counselors, therapists as well as psychologists—to speak wisdom into the mind and heart of the church concerning its mandate to explore human nature.John Coe, “Why Biblical Counseling is Unbiblical, or Speaking Psychology Gently into the Church,” Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) Western Division Annual Meeting, 1991.
The only mandate that Jesus gave the church is the Great Commission. The gospel message is not concerned with exploring human nature, it is the remedy for human nature (cf. Genesis 6:5; John 3:19–20; Romans 1:18–20; Romans 3:10–23). What needs further exploration?
But with the Freudian view of man we don’t need salvation, we need healing. We don’t need to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, we need fulfillment. The self-affirming language of psychology has changed the way we talk about sin, the gospel, and the life of the believer. With a few choice words, we’ve turned the life-transforming truth of the gospel into nothing more than a motivational speech.
More than twenty years ago, John MacArthur saw the threat that psychology posed to the church. He warned believers not to give credibility to the secular pseudo-science.
Psychology is no more a science than the atheistic evolutionary theory upon which it is based. Like theistic evolution, “Christian psychology” is an attempt to harmonize two inherently contradictory systems of thought. Modern psychology and the Bible cannot be blended without serious compromise to or utter abandonment of the principle of Scripture’s sufficiency.Our Sufficiency in Christ (Dallas, Texas: Word Publishing, 1991) p. 66
At the time, pastors and church leaders were being cowed into surrendering aspects of their leadership to “professionals” who could supposedly better address the emotional and psychological needs of believers.
Evangelical psychological clinics have sprung up. Though almost all of them claim to offer biblical counsel, most merely dispense secular psychology disguised in spiritual terminology. Moreover, they are removing the counseling ministry from its proper arena in the church body and conditioning Christians to think of themselves as incompetent to counsel. Many pastors, feeling inadequate and perhaps afraid of possible malpractice litigation, are perfectly willing to let “professionals” take over what used to be seen as a vital pastoral responsibility. Too many have bought the lie that a crucial realm of wisdom exists outside Scripture and one’s relationship to Jesus Christ, and that some idea or technique from that extrabiblical realm holds the real key to helping people with their deep problems.Our Sufficiency in Christ, p. 57-58
Fast forward two decades and it’s no longer a question of surrender. Instead, church leaders have embraced the therapeutic culture and adopted the kind of terminology that appeals to a generation of victims.
Most celebrity pastors today won’t talk about sin or repentance or righteousness. Sermons—well, not sermons, talks—center on life’s journey, fulfillment, and relationship counseling. Christ is a cool guy who set a great example for us. The Holy Spirit is little more than an enabler. And a whole list of topics—basically anything that would confront any of society’s favorite sins—is all but forbidden.
In his book, Christless Christianity, Michael Horton describes the vacuous tendencies of modern evangelicalism:
We are getting dangerously close to the place in everyday American church life where the Bible is mined for “relevant” quotes but is largely irrelevant on its own terms; God is used as a personal resource rather than known, worshiped and trusted; Jesus Christ is a coach with a good game plan for our victory rather than a Savior Who has already achieved it for us; salvation is more a matter of having our best life now than being saved from God’s judgment by God Himself; and the Holy Spirit is an electrical outlet we can plug into for the power we need to become all that we can be.Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2008), 19.
While many in the church may be passively capitulating to those tendencies, the end result is still the same: The authority of God’s Word is neutered and the gospel watered down to an easy-to-swallow self-help message.
We need to reassert the prophetic voice of the church, and make loud and clear the hard truths of Scripture. We need to cut off the influence of those who would soften or dull the gospel, and vigorously proclaim the only truth that offers lasting hope, peace, and fulfillment.
And we need to remember, as John MacArthur wrote all those years ago, that the things that separate us from this therapeutic culture are the very things that are most valuable in our efforts to win the men and women in it to faith and repentance:
True psychology (“the study of the soul”) can be done only by Christians, since only Christians have the resources for the understanding and the transformation of the soul. Since the secular discipline of psychology is based on godless assumptions and evolutionary foundations, it is capable of dealing with people only superficially and only on the temporal level. . . . If one is a truly Christian psychologist, he must be doing soul work in the realm of the deep things of the Word and the Spirit—not fooling around in the shallows of behavior modification. Why should a believer choose to do behavior modification when he has the tools for spiritual transformation (like a surgeon wreaking havoc with a butter knife instead of using a scalpel)? The most skilled counselor is the one who most carefully, prayerfully, and faithfully applies the divine sanctification—shaping another into the image of Jesus Christ.Our Sufficiency in Christ, p. 58-60