Invariably it happens: That moment in a counseling relationship with someone where I realize that a large part of that person's current struggle is that of having confused Justification and Sanctification. A large factor in this is the poor teaching that exists in so many churches today. However, even with good preaching week by week, many counselees have gotten to the place in their lives where they confuse these two doctrines, and this has left them not only bereft of comfort in the gospel, but often, it has caused a wealth of depressive and/or anxious thoughts.
Many times a person will come to me because of an issue seemingly unrelated to theology or their spiritual journey, but when we begin to process what is bothering them, often, at least one component in the believer's life that is amiss is that somehow they have confused Justification (God's one time declaration of right standing regarding the believer based solely on the merits of Christ) with Sanctification (God's continual work of growing a believer into the likeness of Christ--the believer's slow growth in godliness and holiness). This confusion can be disastrous for a Christian. If a child of God is anxious, it could be connected to a variety of external circumstances, life issues, sometimes biological components mixed in as well. But often, at the root of that believer's life, there can be the functional view that God's favor toward them is based in their own performance (or lack thereof) for a day, a week, or a month, and what results is the view that God is no longer approachable in a reverential fear that causes the worshiper to draw near in grace (Heb 4 & 10), but rather He is a God Who cannot be sought...a God in Whom there cannot be true rest. Of course, most believers would agree if asked, that Jesus Saves and not our works, however, functionally, through sin, absence from the means of grace, exposure to less than accurate teaching, etc., the counselee has come to experience a hopelessness and an anxiety based in a felt insecurity before God. Oh how theology matters! I do not mean to insinuate that every case of depression or anxiety stems from a confusion of these two doctrines, but in my decade plus of counseling, I have seen this connection in so many people.
Can right theological understanding really affect the average believer's life including their cognitions, mood and personality? Absolutely! And theology and theological study is not devoid of soul-nourishing, psychological benefit. The authors of the Baptist Confession (1689) knew this all so well. Not only did they write accurate, theologically rich statements that systematized the doctrines of Scripture, but they often showed the effects of those doctrines in their expressions:
LBCF 11.1& 3 "Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth,
not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins,
and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for
anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone;
not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other
evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing
Christ's active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience
in his death for their whole and sole righteousness by faith, which
faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God."
"Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt
of all those that are justified; and did, by the sacrifice of himself
in the blood of his cross, undergoing in their stead the penalty due
unto them, make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God's justice
in their behalf; yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them,
and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead, and both
freely, not for anything in them, their justification is only of free
grace, that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be
glorified in the justification of sinners."
-Christ is the focus, and our standing before God is wholly in Him.
LBCF. 13.2 "This sanctification is throughout the whole man, yet imperfect
in this life; there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every
part, whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war; the flesh
lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh."
-Continued struggle with sin in the life of the believer is a given, and is not a "deal-breaker".
As in previous posts, again I will say: counseling very rarely if ever involves me quoting the Confession to counselees. However, I can no longer count the number of times I have actually used the theological words, and "re-taught" the difference between the two doctrines to a counselee struggling with sin, doubt, grief and despair. Often the response I get (particularly in counseling done outside of my particular local church context) is: "Wow, I've never thought of it that way before." Are there clinical cases of anxiety and depression that are not based on theological deficiency? I do indeed believe so. However, many times the wrong understanding of these two doctrines has left a counselee in despair...a despair which is avoidable. Theology matters, and confessions are so helpful.
Counselors, let us be skillful not just in detecting sin, relationship dynamics and/or medical issues in the lives of those we counsel, but let us also look for areas of theological misunderstanding, and let us with joy, skill, grace and listening ears, share the good news of the Scriptures. My sanctification will come out of God's justifying work in my life, and sanctification will be present in every true believer, but its slow progress will not undo God's justifying declaration in my life...what a message we have for those in guilt and despair!