Gospel Conversations, How to Care Like Christ
by Robert W. Kellemen (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015) 397 pp., paper, $18.99
Gospel Conversations is a long, intense and thorough manual for biblical counseling. The big idea communicated throughout the book is that “we learn to become competent biblical counselors by giving and receiving biblical counseling in the context of real and raw Christian community” (p. 17). The focus is on training counselors to grow in four areas: biblical content, Christlike character, counseling competence, and Christian community (p. 24). Counselors, in turn, seek to implement these same four areas into the lives of those they counsel. Along the way Kellemen develops 21 biblical relational competencies (p. 44), and eight ultimate life questions (pp. 52-53). In addition, there are two guideposts and four compass points of biblical counseling, four heart-focused goals, five sustaining competencies, five healing competencies, six reconciling competencies and five guiding competencies. The author rightly desires the whole body of Christ to be involved in counseling one another (pp. 82, 87-91, 299-300, 354), yet the system he offers is so robust (a word he uses numerous times but does not define) and complicated that I fear most believers reading this book would view themselves as thoroughly ill-equipped.
The New Testament implies that normal Christians, armed with the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, are competent to exhort one another (Romans 15:14) but Gospel Conversations, I fear, will be more than they bargained for. Only those who spend the bulk of their lives involved in direct biblical counseling could hope to absorb and apply all of these “competencies” and compass points, etc. For the rest, the expectations are overwhelming. That is not to say that there are not valuable insights in the book. For those being trained to minister in biblical counseling this volume can serve as a helpful training course. For others who are searching for ways of sharpening their counseling skills, much too can be gleaned.
Kellemen emphasizes that biblical counseling is more than a sermon; rather it is a true, heart-felt relationship in which the counselor climbs “into the casket” (p. 146) with the one he is seeking to help. Counseling is “a complex, back-and-forth, relational, soulful process,” which the author creatively calls “spaghetti relationships” (p. 100). The counselor must look beyond the immediate, presented problem and examine the heart. It will often be discovered that Christ has been “cropped” out of the picture and the counselor must help the one struggling to add Him back in (p. 112).
Kellemen correctly emphasizes that both the indicatives of what Christ has done and is doing for us, and the imperative actions we must take, are essential (pp. 300, 331). He thus avoids a dangerous modern trend that calls Christians to merely rest in Christ’s provisions, demonizing application and sanctifying effort as legalism. Still, the author seems to lack balance in his desire to dispense grace by saying law conversations crush and destroy relationships (p. 163). Did not Jesus and the biblical writers use plenty of law conversations? Surely the purpose behind God’s imperatives and commands is not always to crush relationships. Kellemen also provides numerous templates to use in training for biblical counselors and an incredible number of helpful questions to probe the hearts and minds of those being counseled.
There is much of value in Gospel Conversations, but there are also some concerns.
- The book is too long, complicated and redundant for most people to plow through. At 400 pages few will endure, and if overlap, repetition and reviews could be minimized, a 100 pages probably could be eliminated from the book without harm.
- Kellemen’s use of the word “gospel” to refer to virtually everything from Christ (p. 194) to Scripture (pp. 207, 216) to grace (p. 278) while trendy is a misuse of the word and ultimately misinforms. The gospel is the good news about Christ’s “cross-work” which provides for our redemption (1 Corinthians 15:1-4), it is not a catch-word for Scripture, God, or for every aspect of Christian living. To use the word “gospel” in such a sloppy way consistently throughout the manual, is irritating and unbiblical.
- Kellemen has bought into the redemptive hermeneutical (Christocentric) approach to biblical interpretation. He sees redemption and the gospel as the controlling lens of biblical counseling and its metanarrative (p. 51). By doing so, he finds Christ everywhere in Scripture, even when He is not there. For example, he forces the rape of Tamar into a picture of Christ and gospel hope (p. 174). This is an abuse of Scripture, and allegorical hermeneutics.
- The author views God as good but life as bad (pp. 106, 111, 167, 181, 224). But while life is often difficult, Scripture would not support the view that all of life is bad. In fact, the Lord has given us all “good things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 5:17).
- Kellemen sees the role of biblical counselors as that of “Jesus with skin on” (pp. 127, 280). However, this incarnational view of Christian living is unsupportable in the New Testament. We are ambassadors for Jesus, but we are certainly not Jesus.
- Satan is consistently portrayed as our ultimate antagonist (pp. 157, 191, 208), and while the New Testament does not minimize his role, strangely Kellemen has almost nothing to say about the enemy of the flesh, which is far more prominent in the New Testament witness. This is a key oversight.
- Based on James 5:13-20, the author believes we are commanded to confess our sins to one another (p. 286). Based on Hebrews 13:12-15 we are to have a spiritual friendship with at least one other person. And based on Hebrews 10:24-25 we are to engage in spiritual fellowship with a small group (p. 320). While these exhortations could be applications drawn from these texts, none of them should be interpreted as Kellemen interprets them.
- Toward the end of the book the author interjects the idea of “New Covenant Christians.” While providing no exegesis of Hebrews 8:7-13, he seems to latch onto one element within the New Covenant, that of a new heart. Given that the New Covenant, with its promise of a new heart, is a promise to Israel during the kingdom age to come, it is problematic, at best, to ignore the context and proclaim that believers have new hearts without proving this thesis. He seems to equate a new heart with the Christian’s new nature, but he does not make that link clearly.
- Kellemen seems to promote Spiritual Formation disciplines drawn from Roman Catholic mysticism (p. 318), although he had earlier denied that he did so (p. 107).
- There are a couple of strange statements such as we are God’s heroes (p. 210) that are troubling.
Despite these caveats, overall Gospel Conversations provides much of value in training biblical counsellors and sharpening their skills. The areas of concern which I have pinpointed, need to be considered, but they do not negate the big picture and benefits of the book.
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher at Southern View Chapel