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A Response to David Murray’s Misappropriation of Common Grace

Greg E. Gifford, PhD, CBC



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Screen Shot 2018-03-16 at 8.22.37 PMDavid Murray has had much to say about biblical counseling within the past few years since assuming his teaching position at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in 2007. Of his publications, he has written mostly within the area of practical theology and now has placed himself within the biblical counseling movement. Most recently, in his article on The Gospel Coalition’s website, “How Biblical is Biblical Counseling?” he identified himself as a family member of the biblical counseling movement with some familial concerns.[2] His concerns have stimulated conversations within the biblical counseling movement of the nature and validity of the term biblical counseling.[3] His critique proved to be helpful in promoting clarity in what biblical does and does not mean as we use it within the context of biblical counseling. However, his article provided clarity in a way that was—most likely—not Murray’s intent. The reason being is that his article has encouraged biblical counselors to think well about their own position and, consequently, Murray’s misrepresentation of it.

Murray has, again, published a series of provoking instructional videos on biblical counseling that can help provide clarity on what we biblical counselors mean by the term biblical counseling.[4] Yet, like Murray’s blog post, the videos are forcing biblical counselors to further solidify their understanding of biblical counseling in contrast to Murray’s misrepresentation of biblical counseling. This is not to suggest ill intent by Murray, but perhaps even a lack of clarity in his understanding about biblical counseling. Nevertheless, the clarity that needs to be provided in light of Murray’s training videos is that of common grace as it pertains to the task of biblical counseling. David Murray has used the doctrine of common grace to necessitate the incorporation of extra-biblical methodologies and ideologies into the process of biblical counseling. It is my purpose to show you how he has done this through a definition of biblical counseling and common grace from Murray’s perspective, and then a biblical and historical critique.

Points of Affirmation

According to Murray, “Biblical counseling aims to bring individual sinners to repentance and faith, and to restore individuals broken by sin’s consequences to wholeness, by a wise use of God’s Word and works, for God’s glory.”[5] Just to be candid, this definition seems mostly right at first glance. Biblical counseling does aim to promote repentance and faith in individual sinners. It also does seek “restoration of individuals broken by sin’s consequences.” We should always ask for clarity on what he means by “restore … to wholeness,” but Murray provides that clarity in making reference to the “their [the individual’s] relationship to God, and likeness to Christ’s image.”[6] Although biblical terminology is always preferable, Murray is accurate in including this as one of the goals of biblical counseling.

Furthermore, every biblical counselor should seek to use the Word of God in a way that is both accurate and wise. Our desire, as biblical counselors, is to be faithful to the text (2 Tim. 2:15)—Murray is, again, right on this point. As well meaning and charitable our motivations to help may be, we are of no help as biblical counselors if we are not connecting the problems of man to the living and abiding word of God (1 Pet. 1:23; John 6:68). Biblical counseling is only effective as it is accurate to the Scripture and in that accurate use of Scripture, there is a needed wisdom. This can be understood in commands like Ephesians 4:29 where we are told to use words that “fit the occasion.” Proverbs would state something similar in regards to the importance of both truth and the timeliness of that truth (Prov. 25:11). We must use the word of God accurately and wisely as counselors. Murray is making reference to the means of biblical counseling in this part of his definition, and most—if not all—biblical counselors would be okay with this. But then he adds the next phrase to his definition, which is where the confusion starts.

Points of Confusion

Murray incorporates the phrase, “by a wise use of God’s Word and works [emphasis added]” when referencing the means of biblical counseling.[7] In regards to the works of God, he says the following: “God’s common grace has provided additional help to deal with the consequences of sin. That may include medical treatments and some talking therapies, as well.”[8] At first glance, it may sound somewhat benign: common grace provides use of God’s works to help people in counseling. We have to think clearly about what Murray is suggesting here and he further expands this thought in his book, Christians Get Depressed Too, where he says:

Often the problems we face in counseling are a mixture of the spiritual, mental, relational, social, financial, and physical. In some cases the Scriptures will be explicit. In others we can deduce helpful principles. But in some areas we need to use our Bible as spectacles to read and learn from the knowledge God has distributed and deposited in the world. If we refuse to do this, if we say that we must separate ourselves from all knowledge outside the Bible, there is the risk of inadvertently undermining the sufficiency of Scripture [emphasis added].[9]

What Murray is doing is shifting from the fact that God has bestowed grace upon all “where and in what measure seems good to him” to the requirement of pursuing that knowledge in biblical counseling.[10] It is one thing to recognize common grace, but the difference is that Murray is suggesting we need the works of God—knowledge made available in common grace—in order to care for people. The Bible is not sufficient for the entire task, from Murray’s perspective.

Getting Common Grace Right

Historically, John Calvin helped to formulate the idea of common grace and Abraham Kuyper is credited with solidifying a modern understanding of common grace.[11] Common grace can be summarized as “the grace of God by which he gives people innumerable blessings that are not part of salvation.”[12] Scripture teaches that God gives sunshine, rain, governments, intellectual gifts, and other forms of grace to everyone as an overflow of his gracious character (Matt. 5:44-45; Rom. 13:4; John 1:9). These forms of grace are available to all, both believer and unbeliever alike and are not salvific in any nature or form. Meaning, the common grace of God differs from the saving grace of God in that some will receive common grace while saving grace is only given to those who believe in Jesus (Eph. 2:3; Phil. 3:18; Col. 1:21).

The way Murray has defined biblical counseling is to require “the works of God” as part of the counseling means. He has explicitly stated that, according to his definition, biblical counseling needs to use the Bible as a lens of interpreting knowledge made available through common grace.[13] Murray, perhaps unknown to himself, in attempting to define biblical counseling has defined Christian integrationism. It seems like he misses this as he reads multiple definitions of biblical counseling from those who are actually biblical counselors in his video entitled, “Why is Defining Biblical Counseling So Important?”[14] He highlights Bob Kellemen’s blog post from 2015 in which Kellemen provides leading biblical counselors definitions of the term biblical counseling.[15] What Murray overlooks is that no other biblical counselor includes the idea of God’s “works”—knowledge through common grace—as being required in the counseling process. He does quote Eric Johnson, however, to support his position on this matter and Johnson would openly describe himself as an integrationist.[16] Essentially, Murray is defining biblical counseling in ways that are more consistent with Christian integrationism than they are biblical counseling.

Murray is right in that God provides medical treatments as a form of common grace. Biblical counselors know and understand the importance of medicine and working with a wise medical doctor in the counseling process. Murray is wrong, however, to blend medical treatment with talk therapies. This is a subtle, yet important clarification: Murray has combined the idea that God can bestow grace through the means of “talk therapies” with a necessity to pursue these therapies because God can use them to bestow common grace. This is the watershed of Murray’s argument. Murray misses the fact that common grace does not mean that we should pursue unbiblical methods because God can use those unbiblical methods to bestow grace (i.e., government organization, counseling methodology, family structure, etc.). This is crucial to understand because if you miss this point, you will come to conclusions similar to that of Murray.[17]

For instance, let’s think through the example of workplace leadership to describe this process. Imagine you were to have a boss who was not a Christian and that boss was very demanding. He required long hours of you and had a mentality that “work comes first” in our life. Though he was difficult, extremely demanding, and hard to work for, your company loved him because he was increasing profitability. His leadership was making money for the company, so he was admired and respected. Ultimately, you also benefited when Christmas bonuses came around as this year’s bonus was significantly higher than last year’s. You, as a believer, have received the common grace of God through unbiblical leadership. Remember, your work is never to come first in your life, and to do so is to misconstrue God’s priorities (Exod. 20:3; Col. 3:23; Matt. 20:26-27). A wrong understanding would be to say that I should pursue this style of leadership because I can bless others with the results of this workplace leadership. This is what Murray has done. He has taken what God can use to offer common grace (i.e., “talk therapies”) and necessitated it in the counseling process, even if that thing is antithetical to God’s Word (i.e., “talk therapies).

In Conclusion

We have seen that David Murray has misconstrued a definition of biblical counseling and it seems he is a bit unclear in his own thinking as to the true nature of biblical counseling. Murray has used the doctrine of common grace to necessitate the incorporation of extra-biblical methodologies and ideologies into the process of biblical counseling. He has taken what God can use to bestow blessing and made it necessary in the counseling process. In turn, Murray has minimized the claims of Scripture, which state that through the word of God we are fully equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:17).

The corrective that I hope to offer to you, and David Murray, is that we do have a good God who offers innumerable blessings to all through common grace. On this we can all agree. And this good God has provided us his word that is sufficient for the task of biblical counseling. It is sufficient for the task because biblical counseling aims at repentance, faith, greater Christlikeness, and the glory of God (Acts 2:38; 1 Cor. 10:31). However, to ignore or minimize the Bible’s claims of its own sufficiency for this task is to call it insufficient (2 Pet. 1:3-4; 2 Tim. 3:17). Common grace does not mean we use unbiblical methods because they can potentially bestow blessing. That is a misappropriation of common grace. In saying this, it does not mean we are taking a position of “extreme sufficiency,” as Murray would suggest.[18] Rather, we are holding to the fact that God’s word is entirely sufficient for the task of the care of souls. May God be honored in our commitments and may the manifold wisdom and knowledge of Jesus Christ be displayed for our counselees as we minister this sufficient word to them (Col. 2:3).





[1] Professor of Biblical Counseling at The Master’s University, PhD in Biblical Counseling, and Managing Editor of The Journal of Biblical Soul Care, http://www.masters.edu/jbsc.

[2] Cf. David Murray, “How Biblical Is Biblical Counseling?” The Gospel Coalition, October 1, 2012, accessed November 17, 2017, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/how-biblical-is-biblical-counseling.

[3] Also see Dale Johnson’s response to this article, “The ‘Biblical’ in Biblical Counseling,” Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, October 21, 2017, accessed November 17, 2017, https://biblicalcounseling.com/2017/10/biblical-biblical-counseling.

[4] David Murray, “Biblical Counseling Videos,” Head Heart Hands, November 9, 2017, accessed November 17, 2017, http://headhearthand.org/blog/2017/11/09/biblical-counseling-videos.

[5] David Murray, “Q2: What is Biblical Counseling?,” You Tube, October 9, 2017, accessed November 17, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_DF7WLM2MF8.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] David Murray, “Q2: What is Biblical Counseling?”

[9] David Murray, Christians Get Depressed Too (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 110.

[10] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: MI, Eerdman’s, 1932), 436.

[11] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 434.

[12] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 657.

[13] Murray, Christians Get Depressed Too, 110.

[14] Murray, “Biblical Counseling Videos,” http://headhearthand.org/blog/2017/11/09/biblical-counseling-videos.

[15] Bob Kellemen, “5 Definitions of Biblical Counseling,” RPM Ministries, March 11, 2013, accessed November 18, 2017.

[16] Eric Johnson, Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal (Grand Rapids, MI: IVP, 2014), 9-10.

[17] A biblical counselor recognizes that God “grants unbelievers the ability to apprehend facts in science, for example, and is why believers can affirm the true information that unbelievers come to understand. … [However] because the central elements of counseling include God, the nature of the human problem, and God’s solution in Christ, the counseling methods of secular people are at odds with a uniquely biblical approach to counseling. Heath Lambert, “Standards of Doctrine of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors,” Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, June 5, 2015, accessed November 18, 2017, https://biblicalcounseling.com/2015/06/the-standards-of-doctrine-of-the-association-of-certified-biblical-counselors.

[18] Murray, Christians Get Depressed Too, 107.

"God may be looked upon in an absolute consideration, as he is in himself the best and most excellent being, wherein we behold the concurrence of all perfections, the most amiable and beauteous excellences, to an intellectual eye, that it can have an apprehension of." --John Howe, On Delighting in God
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