In this article, we examine the discipline of godly counsel by expositing Romans 15:14-16. I call counseling a discipline because, like all spiritual disciplines, the Bible commands us to regularly give and receive godly counsel, to grow in giving in receiving godly counsel. And, like all spiritual disciplines, the Bible tells us that it is for our good.
I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.Romans 15:14–16, ESV
I believe this passage is a wonderful complementary text to 1 Thessalonians 5:14, in which Paul and Silas give directives that get to the substance of what is means to counsel biblically. To counsel biblically is “to warn those who are idle, to comfort the discouraged, to help the weak, and to be patient with everyone.”
But there are some foundational questions about biblical counsel that we will find answers to in Romans 15:14.
- What is biblical counsel?
- Who can counsel biblically (and who can not)?
- What can biblical counsel look like in the local church?
It seems to me that for whatever reason – possibly lies we’ve been told by our culture, possibly insecurity, or possibly fear of man – many of us are afraid to give counsel to one another.
But that is the chief problem I believe the text today addresses. I hope to let the Scriptures show you that we can counsel not because we are experts but because we are Spirit-empowered people equipped with the sufficient Word of God.
Our Cultural Moment
Now, I want to being by saying that from my own observation, I am convinced that the current culture of the West is the most concerned about counseling than any other culture at any point in history.
It seems like each day, in separate circumstances, I see people in person and especially on social media being told to go see a counselor for whatever issue they may be facing.
But the counseling model of the Scriptures differs greatly from the counseling model of our culture.
And that really should not surprise us, right?
Because we already know that our foundation and source of truth is entirely different from our culture – our foundation is Bible.
Our view of humanity is entirely different from our culture – we believe man is inherently sinful, guilty before God, under the curse of sin.
Our understanding of what it means to live rightly is entirely different from our culture – we know our lives should be lived in obedience to our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Our view of how people change is entirely different from our culture – we believe that God alone is sovereign over man.
Our culture’s insatiable devotion to counseling exists in part because there also is a very keen awareness of the issues of life. This devotion also exists in part because they have been convinced that the counsel that they offer is the solution to those issues.
I say all of this to say that I believe for many reasons that our cultural counseling model and the biblical model are completely incompatible. If you hold to a secular model of counseling, it is easy to be convinced that no one here can competent to counsel. But I hope to show you that equipped with the Spirit of God and the Word of God, you can be.
Now, considering how to rightly handle this text, I think it is important for me to more positively look into this issue. What I mean by that is that rather than look at how the secular counseling model does not fit with the biblical model, I simply want to open the Scriptures to define the biblical model.
The reason I mention any of this is because I want you to be aware that as we look at how the Bible teaches us to counsel, we must build upon a clean slate. We have had our culture’s idea of counseling coming at us for years, and there may be vestiges of cultural thinking even in the most discerning men and women.
Build the biblical idea of instruction, also called counseling, upon a clean slate.
So, here’s where we are going to go. We’re jumping 15 chapters ahead in the book of Romans, and especially with this passage, I think it is important for us to examine the landscape of this text before we set up camp and go deep into verse 14. What is the landscape of this passage?
Then, we are going to define what exactly Paul means when he says that we are able to “instruct” one another. What is biblical counsel?
Then, we are going to focus on those two phrases “full of goodness” and “filled with all knowledge” to see exactly what it takes to counsel biblically. Who can counsel biblically?
Finally, we will need to ask the practical question – how can we counsel one another in the church? What is the appropriate time and place? That’s where we are going to go. We’re going to flow through the passage, but these questions summarize well the path we are going to take as we go through it.
Examining the Landscape Before Setting Up Camp
As I said, before we set up camp in this passage, it’s important to survey the landscape. What did we just walk into?
We’re 15 chapters into Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he has written about everything from every matter from apostasy to gospel fidelity, from homosexuality to what it means to have a Christian conscience. This is easily one of the most theologically rich books in the Bible, if not the most theologically rich book in the Bible.
Right before we get to our passage, Paul gives instruction to the church on dealing with weaker brothers and how we can best love them. He tells the church that we have a strong obligation to bear the weaknesses of those who are without strength, and that we must put others before ourselves. And he encourages the church with Psalm 117:1 to “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles!”
Where we enter into the text seems to be a change of thought. Or maybe even an interruption of thought. After some bold proclamation, which is what Paul himself calls it, he interrupts himself to make a point that seems to be very important.
He says, brothers and sisters, I am convinced that you are able to instruct one another. Nevertheless, I am instructing you more boldly on some points because God has given me grace and a special calling to reach the Gentiles. But this is not the norm, and it should not keep you from instructing one another.
In other words, “with bold teaching like this, you might want more like it” or “with instruction like this, you may think you can’t instruct one another” or “with counsel coming from outside of your church, you may decide to look outside of your church again.” But I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.
You should know that you are able to instruct one another. That’s the norm. And it is important to know that that’s the norm. We all should be competent to counsel one another because we are Spirit-empowered people equipped with the Sufficient word of God.
That’s the landscape. The fact that Paul thinks it necessary to say this at this time is very telling.
Biblical Instruction, Biblical Counsel
Now, we’re going to jump to the end of this verse and then come back to the beginning. We’ll look at what exactly Paul means when he says that they are able to instruct one another, then we’ll look at those two phrases “full of goodness” and “filled with all knowledge.”
You’ve probably already noticed that I have been using the words “instruct” and “counsel” interchangeably. I feel that I should probably explain that.
Counseling is to give advice to someone, to admonish them, or to encourage them in a particular direction. All counsel has a goal – most often it is to help someone navigate problems and pains in their life. That is the sense that the word “counseling” is used historically and in our language and in our culture.
The word “instruction” in our text carries this same meaning. I know because we look at how it is used elsewhere in the Scriptures. The Greek word, for those who are interested, is νουθετέω, which is where we get the term nouthetic counseling, for those who have heard of it.
But we see this word used in numerous places to mean to admonish. We see this in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Same word. Admonish one another.
We also see it in the Scriptures to mean “to warn.” We actually see that in 1 Thessalonians 5:14, “And we exhort you, brothers and sisters: warn those who are idle, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” Same word. Instruct those who are idle. Counsel those who are idle.
There are numerous other instances in which the word νουθετέω is used, but suffice to say that it seems clear that these words can and should be rightly used interchangeably.
The late theologian Jay Adams used the translation “competent to counsel” rather than “able to instruct,” though the two phrases mean the same thing. Jay Adams entitled one of his premier books on counseling with that exact phrase, the book is “Competent to Counsel.”
Now, we know more about what it means to counsel biblically than just “admonishment, warning, advice.” God’s word explains what it means to counsel, and what it means to counsel one another well.
So, let’s look at what we know about biblical counseling. I want to show you five things we know about biblical counsel from the Scriptures.
1. The goal of biblical counsel is to become more like Christ.
The goal of biblical counsel is to become like Christ because that is what it means to live rightly as a Christian. Paul writes to the Roman church just three chapters earlier: “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.”
The goal of our counsel should reflect the will of God – which we know is our sanctification. This glorifies God, and produces joy in our hearts beyond joy that we can get from the world.
Joy comes from obedience to Christ! A great verse to memorize is Psalm 119:1, “How happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk according to the Lord’s instruction!”
And my friends, as the people of Christ, you are more equipped to bring about Christlikeness in one another than anyone else in the world. That’s part of God’s design for the church – that we may encourage one another toward worshipful holiness!
Competent to counsel means competent to help one another become more like Christ.
2. Biblical counsel is directive.
You all know the Great Commission in Matthew 28, what does Jesus say first? “All authority has been given to me.” What we have in the Scriptures is the word of God’s Son, the one with all authority. Hebrews 1:2 tells us that in these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son.
The counsel of the Scriptures is not the wisdom of man. If we counsel the wisdom of man, we might be more inclined to say along with it, “but I don’t know, take it with a grain of salt.” But the Bible is the wisdom of God. It is the instruction of the Creator, the Lord, to whom belongs all things.
It carries all of the booming authority of the one who is the first and the last, the alpha and the omega.
Imagine a preacher standing behind the pulpit preaching a text like Mark 1:15, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the gospel!” And the preacher adds, “But you know what’s best for you. Do what you want with that.”
That would completely undermine the authority of Christ! Likewise, to counsel the Word without the authority of the Word is to functionally deny the authority of Christ. And by the way, what a great thing that God has directed us in what we should do!
Biblical counsel is directive because we know that God knows what is best for us. Christians come to God because he knows better for us than we know even for ourselves. And we hear his words as our loving Father.
We are often inclined to be afraid to counsel God’s word, especially because to stand firmly on truth can feel like we have lost our humility. Even equipped with God’s word, we may feel prideful when we advise one another on what we should do.
I just want to remind you, brothers and sisters, that our humility is first and foremost to God and then to one another, we humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God and accept what he says.
Competent to counsel means competent to give one another the authoritative Word of God.
3. Biblical counsel is comprehensive.
There is no guidance we need in order to live righteous lives that the Scriptures do not provide for us.
Think back to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
The Bible will expose the lies you believe, show you the truth, train you to live godly lives, correct you when you do not, and always point you to the redemption found in Christ, so that you, the man or woman of God, will be complete, lacking nothing.
That is the scope of the Sufficiency of Scripture. Teaching, reproof (or rebuking), correcting, training, to make you complete.
In other words, equipped with the counsel of the Scriptures, nothing can stand between you and the completeness of your godliness. No lie can stand in between you and godliness without the Scriptures correcting it and showing you the truth. No sin can stand in between you and godliness without the Scriptures rebuking it and training you to live righteously.
Competent to counsel means competent to give one another the counsel of God in all circumstances in life.
4. Biblical counsel offers the only true hope for change.
Sinful people need a work of God in them to change – especially to put away our sins and run to the throne of grace. But praise be to God that he has taken on our sin and works in us through the gospel and through his word.
And the Spirit of God does work through his word. Hear this from 1 Thessalonians 2:13 “when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” Other translations say the word of God, which works effectively in you who believe.
Not a human message but as it truly is, the word of God, which also works effectively in you who believe! If you want hope for change, you can be certain that God will work in you effectively through his word.
And let us remember that the reason there is hope for change through God’s word is because of the message of God’s word – the gospel of Jesus Christ. The foundation of biblical counsel is the gospel.
The message of the gospel is that even though we were living out our fleshly desires, carrying out the sinful inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and even though we were by nature children under wrath; that God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. We are saved by grace!
And Christ who took our sin upon himself as our substitute promised to send his Spirit to will and to work in according to his good purpose.
Biblical counsel offers the only true hope for change because we have been redeemed by Christ and have the powerful word of the Spirit who lives in us and works through his word.
5. Biblical counsel must be based on the word of God.
I’m certain you’ve picked up on this by now because it flows from everything we have said so far. Because the goal of biblical counsel is to make us like Christ and the Spirit of Christ wills to work through his word, because the word of God is sufficient to accomplish the goal of our lives, biblical counsel must be based on the word of God.
Hear what Psalm 1:1-3 says about those who receive the counsel of God’s word:
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.Psalm 1:1–3
The one who delights in the Lord’s instruction is like a tree planted beside flowing streams: streams that yield the fruit of a godly life in us!
Preachers are often encouraged to preach the word! This is what Paul tells Timothy – preach the word in season and out of season. I think we can rightly add “counsel the Word!” Let us give one another the gospel, the wisdom of God, the only source of hope that we have.
Competent to counsel means competent to bring the Word of God to bear in one another’s lives.
Counseling: The Work of the Spirit
That is why, empowered by the Spirit of God and equipped with the word of God, we are competent to counsel. Not because we are experts but because the great Counselor is in us. Before the incarnation of Christ, the people of God looked forward to the Son who was to come, whom the prophet Isaiah called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace”.
And Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor, made a promise to his people. John 14:15-17, Jesus says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever. He is the Spirit of truth. The world is unable to receive him it doesn’t see him or know him. But you do know him because he remains with you and will be in you.”
Counseling is not our work! The strength to walk away from our sins isn’t just hidden deep down inside of us if we just talk about it enough. The deep-seated lies in our hearts take the Spirit of truth to bring them to light! The nature of the problems that we face requires work that humans alone cannot do.
Human wisdom is not enough to provide the right answers to the deepest longings and questions of our hearts! We need the wisdom of God!
When we counsel, we must hold oh so tightly to the promise: the Counselor, the Spirit of truth, will be with you and will remain in you forever!
Counseling/instructing one another is one way that the Spirit works through his people.
Look at the two ways that Paul describes the Roman church: full of goodness and filled with all knowledge! Can we be full of goodness apart from the Spirit? Absolutely not. Can be be filled with all knowledge apart from the Spirit? Absolutely not.
In fact, in our text, it says we must be filled with all knowledge. I notice that passive tense and I think to myself, who fills us with knowledge? The clear answer is the Spirit. God himself, the Author of this Word, lives in us.
Who Can Counsel?
Here’s what I think is the next logical question: What does it look like to be a Spirit-empowered people equipped with the sufficient word of God?
And the answer is exactly what we just looked at: Spirit-empowered people equipped with the sufficient word of God are full of goodness and filled with all knowledge.
In one sense all Christians are able to instruct one another. We all have the Spirit, and we all should bring the Word of God to bear in one another’s lives. No one is disqualified from speaking the truth of the Scriptures.
But in another sense, there is a spiritual maturity required of those who will regularly counsel. To be full of goodness comes from time spent pursuing holiness by the Spirit of God. To be filled with all knowledge comes from time spent sitting humbly under the word of God.
It is natural and biblically expected that those who are younger or newer to the faith look to those who are older and wiser for counsel. Paul asked the Corinthian church when they were looking to the world to settle matters between members of the church this question: “Can it be that there is not one wise person among you who is able to arbitrate between fellow believers?” Paul also tells young Timothy, “Don’t rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father.”
There is also another sense in which we look for utmost guidance from those whom God has called to shepherd his people: our pastors. The author of Hebrews instructs us this way: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
So, here is the point brothers and sisters. All Christians empowered by the Spirit and equipped with the word of God can counsel. AND we should continue to grow in the goodness that comes from the Spirit and the knowledge that comes from the word. And we should look to those who are full of goodness and filled with all knowledge for counsel.
Let’s look at these two descriptions in depth. What are the dangers of lacking the fullness of goodness or the fullness of knowledge as we seek to counsel one another? Let’s look at each of them individually. First, let’s look at the man who is filled with goodness and is not full of knowledge. I’ve lovingly named this man the good-hearted goof.
The Good-Hearted Goof
There are two kinds of people without knowledge: The first are those who fear God but are ignorant. Their greatest need is to be students of God’s word. And this is how we all are at some point. It is not bad to be this person when we are younger in our faith, but to not grow in knowledge as we mature in our faith is what the author of Hebrews calls laziness.
The second are those who have no fear of God. These people are ignorant, but that’s not their main problem. Confronted with the truth, they despise it. This person would more rightly be called a fool than a goof. And their greatest need is to gain reverence for God.
So, I thought goof was a good summary of those two kinds of people who are not full of knowledge: the good-hearted goof.
Good-hearted goofs are like the friends of Job. All of them give horrible advice to Job, though they seem to (at least somewhat) have meant him well. His friend Bildad told Job that if he would just repent, God would restore everything to him that he has lost. But thankfully, Job knew better.
God ends up rebuking Job’s friends, telling them “I am angry with you , for you have not spoken the truth about me.” That’s exactly what God rebukes them for: You have not spoken the truth. And my friends, even from a good heart, there is no comfort without truth. Job tells his friends, Job 16:2 “You are all miserable comforters.”
Here’s the danger of the good-hearted goof, summarized by Jesus in Matthew 15:14, “They are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
Now, let’s look at the man who is full of knowledge but is not filled with goodness. I have lovingly named this person the uncaring know-it-all.
The Uncaring Know-It-All
The Bible tells us that the tongue is a sword that can pierce our brothers and sisters. Proverbs 12:18 “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
There is a line between speaking the truth harshly and neglecting the truth in favor of gentleness. The Scriptures tell us exactly what that line is, right? Ephesians 4:15: Speaking the truth in love.
Loving truth may still be tough to swallow at times, but there is a right way to speak the truth.
Our speech should be full of truth and our hearts should be full of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
There’s one more problem with the uncaring know it all, the man lacking goodness: he is a hypocrite. The Bible expects leaders to set an example – there are many examples of that. The author of Hebrews tells us again: Heb. 13:7 “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
But uncaring know-it-alls are like the Pharisees. Jesus said of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:4 “They tie up heavy loads that are hard to carry and put them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves aren’t willing to lift a finger to move them.”
The uncaring know it all can not set an example and does not speak in a way that edifies. They are not careful with their words. They wield their tongues like swords against God’s people.
So, we looked at the good-hearted goof and the uncaring know-it-all, but I just want to briefly mention that there could be some who lack the virtues of both, and certainly many do.
But, my friends, there is one perfect example of the man who is full of goodness and filled with all knowledge: the Wonderful Counselor himself. We should learn from the way Jesus righteously and courageously spoke the truth to all.
With the Wonderful Counselor as our example, and as people empowered by the Spirit of God and equipped with the sufficient word of God, we can be competent to counsel.
Instructing One Another in the Church
The final question that we’re left with: we may be competent to counsel, but what is the time and the place? How can we counsel one another in the church? I have a few practical words in this regard.
First, we should be ready and willing to counsel. When we have an opportunity to encourage one another with God’s word, we should take it. I think we have been conditioned for many reasons to believe that we have no right to counsel one another, but I hope you see now that you are competent and called to counsel.
Second, be ready and willing to receive counsel. It is wholly appropriate to go to men and women in this church who are wise and ask for counsel. It can be hard to do, but one easy way to start would be to ask for prayer in a more personal way. Instead of “be praying for me, I got stuff going on,” say “Brother, be praying for me, I’m struggling with this situation and I’m not sure what I should do.” And humbly listen to counsel when it is given to you.
Proverbs 12:15 “A fool’s way is right in his own eyes, but whoever listens to counsel is wise.”
There are numerous places in church where you can give and receive counsel. We receive counsel every week from the pulpit, but we should fellowship in intentional ways before and after we worship together on Sunday mornings. Fellowship and counsel are part of our Sunday gathering.
Community groups are often the best way to give and receive counsel. I would encourage you to confidently give counsel and receive counsel in your community group, and to join a community group if you are not currently part of one.
There are many churches that are beginning to offer biblical counseling as a ministry to members and those in the community.
But just like we don’t have to get involved with a prayer ministry to pray, or a preaching ministry to study the Scriptures, we don’t have to be in a biblical counseling ministry to counsel one another.
I will add that if you are looking for a more formal type of counseling, I highly recommend checking out counselors who are certified by the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. These men and women counsel God’s word as we have been speaking about.
Last point: You can prepare yourself now to be a person who is full of goodness and filled with all knowledge! It starts with studying the Scriptures – not only memorizing verses that talk about common issues we face but also studying the full counsel of God so that we can understand his will and instruction for us.
Growing in goodness starts with being serious about our sin, asking the Spirit to conform us to the image of Christ, and striving to live our lives in a manner worthy of the gospel.
Brothers and sisters, this is the point: Be bold in counseling! We are Spirit-empowered people equipped with the sufficient word of God!