Specialists in Applied Sanctification?
The founder of the organization at which I did my internship described Christian mental health professionals as “specialists in applied sanctification.” I think this is a good example of the kind of error in thinking about the occupation that causes folks like Ryan from What Did Jesus Do to reject psychology outright, and makes others quite nervous about what we do.
It seems that a proper understanding of the two kinds of righteousness is absolutely essential here. Our fallen human nature and concupiscence means that we can never, ever, ever, ever, satisfy any of the first table of the law, even for a moment without the gift of faith. This is Christian Righteousness which is only possible with the free, completely unmerited gift of Christ's Righteousness. But, if I'm reading him correctly, Luther was willing to grant that non-believers, having the law written on their hearts, are able to do things which are civilly righteous at least some of the time. Indeed, while the will is entirely bound and cannot fear or trust in God, nor prepare itself in any way for faith, the will is free (truly and not just an illusion) in matters of Civil Righteousness. According to Luther this means being a good friend, working hard, being a faithful spouse, not murder, not steal, etc. (Augsburg Confession: Article XVIII). Let's posit for a second that non-believers are even able, lacking the Holy Spirit, to satisfy all of the second table of the law, even in their hearts (in other words, not murdering and not hating others in their hearts either, etc.) based on the general providence of God. Now, I don't think that this is the case for a second, but for arguments sake, let us posit it. Even if we were to concede this, lacking the Holy Spirit, damnation is entirely deserved on the basis of the first table alone, in fact, it is the first table that drives the rest. I love that the Short Catechism begins the explanations of all the commandments with a reference to the first commandment, "We should fear and love God that ..." and then goes on to explain that stealing is forbidden, etc. I don't believe that it is possible to satisfy the second table (especially internally as Christ taught on the Mount) without the Holy Spirit, and for this I praise God. It would be far too easy to convince myself that on the basis of my obedience to the second table, that I do indeed fear and love God, when I do not.
Now, while we are in the mood to posit things that are entirely impossible, let us posit that counseling/psychotherapy is able to help someone to improve themselves in accordance to the law such that they cease to violate any of the second table of the law. Some (especially behavioral) psychologists were convinced that eventually we would know the developmental features that play into different adult problems and provide a perfect environment that would enable optimal development. Additionally, in adulthood psychotherapy is provided to iron out any other irrational beliefs and personality flaws that the person might have. So as an adult, this hypothetical person has no desire to steal from others, being in touch with the feelings of others and being unwilling to subject others to pain. Lets assume that this is true for all of the commandments which refer to our dealings with other human beings.
Now the question becomes this, is this sanctification? No. Even if it were possible to eliminate sinful behavior in regard to others, this is not sanctification, as proven by the thought experiment above that non-believers are able to improve in this Civil Righteousness. Choose your favorite extremely moral non-believing group in the real world as an example. There are groups that are so Civilly Righteous that it puts Christians to shame and seduces Christians to believe lies because of the quality of the behavior of their adherants. This is what I meant several posts ago when I said that sanctification is not committing fewer sins. Rather, sanctification is growing in the fear and love of God, which is done entirely by the Holy Spirit and not of ourselves. Of course, this will lead to fewer civil violations because we will be motivated by our love of God to love our neighbors as well.
The problem with counseling in the hands of well-meaning Christians, is that it becomes understood as contributing to Sanctification. This is completely and utterly false. First, counselors are not the Holy Spirit and therefore have no power to make anything holy. Second, it misunderstands sanctification as pertaining to the second table of the law, or worse, involving warm feelings toward God/Jesus which is defined as the "love of God" which I believe to be manufacturable. I can help you to have warm feelings about a pole or a rock using principles of modeling and learning. Warm feelings toward my internal picture of God (made in my image) does not equate to fear and love of the God who is as He knows himself to be (thanks to Lewis via Screwtape for this language).
As always, I am (or hope that I am) entirely open to correction/reproof from my betters. Please let me know what you think.