Vile, Wretched, Miserable, Blind?

30 May 2023 by Wes Bredenhof

Heath Lambert’s A Theology of Biblical Counseling is a rewritten, updated, and improved version of Jay Adams’ A Theology of Christian Counseling.  I read Adams’ book back in 1997, mostly when I was on breaks at my summer job.  I found it helpful – I remember especially being impressed with his insight that what we gain in Christ is far more than what we lost in Adam. 

Both of these books are exemplars of what used to be called nouthetic counselling.  That name never really caught on – so it’s now known as biblical counselling.  To make matters even more confusing, what’s now known as Christian counselling takes a far different and more eclectic approach.  Christian counselling is open to augmenting biblical teaching with secular counselling practices.

One of Lambert’s strengths is his critique of some of those contemporary secular practices.  For example, he provides biblical assessments of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Reparative Therapy.  Like Adams and others, he distinguishes between scientific observations we can use from psychology and the interpretation of those observations, and the subsequent incorporation of those interpretations into counselling methodology.    

Overall, I have a lot of appreciation for Lambert’s A Theology of Biblical Counselling.  I’d say it’s recommended reading especially for pastors, elders, and anyone else involved in having what David Powlison described as “intentionally helpful conversations” (a.k.a. ‘counselling’).  However, I do have one minor quibble and one major point of disagreement.

Chapter 4 is about ‘Biblical Counseling and a Theology of God.’  He explores God’s attributes and how they relate to counselling.  He numbers God’s wrath among those attributes: “This is an attribute of God that often makes people feel uncomfortable” (p.131). For something to be an attribute of God, it has to be true of him eternally.  God did not have wrath in eternity past because there was nothing to have wrath towards.  There was no sin.  This is why it’s more accurate to say that the wrath of God is the expression of his attribute of justice towards sin.  The attribute is justice or righteousness – wrath is an expression of that attribute in the presence of sin.

My major disagreement has to do with something Lambert writes about regeneration in chapter 10, ‘Biblical Counseling and a Theology of Salvation.’  He lays the doctrine out correctly as the change of heart the Holy Spirit gives before someone can have faith.  Then he identifies an area of misunderstanding on this doctrine.  This is where he goes off-roading into the muck for a spell. 

Lambert claims that the Puritans were often guilty of undervaluing “the magnitude of the heart change that has taken place in believers.” As an example, he quotes a prayer from the Puritan devotional The Valley of Vision:  “Eternal Father, Thou art good beyond all thought, but I am vile, wretched, miserable, blind…”  According to Lambert, “…words like these improperly confess the nature of a regenerate person” (p.282).  He says that prayers like that “constitute an unintentional denial of the doctrine of regeneration.  Christians are not vile, wretched, miserable, and blind….It is harmful and confusing to believe doctrines, pray prayers, or live lives that minimize that truth” (p.283).

Lambert’s view is not uncommon, but it is surprising to read it in a book purporting to present biblical counselling.  I say that because, in this instance, the Puritans are more biblical than Heath Lambert.  Most famously, in Romans 7:24 the Apostle Paul called himself a “wretched man.”  But the actual language of that Puritan prayer is likely drawn from Christ’s words to the church in Laodicea in Revelation 3:17, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”  Remember:  those are words addressed to a church.  Are we to suppose all the people in that church weren’t born again?        

The language of Scripture is reflected in our Reformed confessions.  In Lord’s Day 51 of the Heidelberg Catechism, we find these words explaining the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer:  “For the sake of Christ, do not impute to us, wretched sinners, any of our transgressions, nor the evil which still clings to us…”  This language was by no means unusual during the time of the Reformation.  John Calvin’s prayer of confession in Geneva reads as follows: 

O LORD God, eternal and almighty Father, we acknowledge and sincerely confess before thy Holy Majesty that we are miserable sinners, conceived and born in guilt and sin, prone to iniquity, and incapable of any good work, and that in depravity we make no end of transgressing thy commandments.  We thus call down destruction upon ourselves from thy just judgment.

Calvin wasn’t original – he based that prayer on Martin Bucer’s confession of sin in Strasbourg.

Rather than too low a view of the extent of our regeneration, I would contend that today we often have too low a view of sin.  After all, as Lambert says too, Scripture teaches that sin dwells even in the regenerated.  But now consider that the heinousness of any sin rests in the infinite majesty sinned against.  The least sin in my life is horrifically vile, wretched and miserable – and I am such for committing it.  Scripture teaches me to humbly own it and confess it – to confess who I am for having done it.  It’s not like someone else did it.  I did.  Next to God’s infinite holiness, I am in myself vile, wretched, miserable, and blind.  I must cry out with Isaiah, “Woe is me!  For I am lost…” (Isa. 6:5).   It’s when I take that humble posture that God also comes to me with his gospel word of pardon:  “…your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Isa. 6:7).  The gospel of Jesus Christ is for honest, humble, repentant sinners.

It’s ironic that, back in the day, nouthetic counselling was sometimes panned for allegedly having an overemphasis on sin.  Now nouthetic counselling is gone and biblical counselling is in.  And with it, at least with Heath Lambert’s version in that one section, the sin of believers doesn’t seem as heinous as it once was.  Thankfully, you can read chapter 8 and find Lambert speaking about sin more along the lines of Scripture – a blessed inconsistency in this book.