Skip to main content

First Thoughts

The Powlison Legacy

What Would David Powlison Do?

Since releasing my essay, Priests in the Garden, Zombies in the Wilderness, and Prophets on the Wall: The Current State of the Contemporary Biblical Counseling Movement, I’ve had some conversations about the nature of the legacy of David Powlison.

It will be obvious to most that no essay I would write, no analogy I could deploy, and no story I have shared could ever represent the legacy of a man as remarkable as David. I made this clear at the beginning of my essay, “The competing claims about David’s legacy will require a comprehensive appraisal of his teaching, but I am engaging in no such undertaking here. At the beginning of this essay, I only want to share a personal story about my dear friend.”

Unpacking David’s legacy is going to require careful work over many years. This post should not be confused with that careful effort any more than my recent essay should. Here, I just want to make three personal observations about the Powlison legacy.

A Unique Gift

I once heard David describe someone as having “the gift of friendship.” He wasn’t talking about himself, but he might have been. David had the ability to be friends with anyone. It was a truly remarkable gift. There was something about the intensity of his gaze, the tenderness of his attention, and the genuine care in his heart that made everyone feel loved and esteemed. He could be friends with a guy who writes an essay about secular zombies, with people who hate essays like that, and with everyone in between. We all knew he loved us.

David’s ministry affiliations were a remarkable example of this. David’s most obvious ministry connection was at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF). This was where he poured out his heart and soul for ministry. But it is often overlooked that, for most of his ministry, David was a member of and sat on the board for the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). The people at ACBC loved and admired him just as much as the people at CCEF. That is a remarkable gift that is unlikely to be repeated.

A Disagreement

David and I agreed on a lot. But we did not agree on everything. In fact, David and I sometimes disagreed on how best to oppose ministry systems opposed to biblical counseling. My preference for clarity over confusion comes out in my desire to take the ministry bull by the horns and place obvious ministry differences out in the open where we can deal with them. David would sometimes wince at this, would sometimes make fun of me for it, and other times would coach me on how to do better. On one occasion, he gave me a stern rebuke before coming back and saying that disagreements on tone don’t merit such admonitions.

You, me, David, and every other Christian can agree on the necessity of speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). But that is the easy part. The hard part is figuring out when to express honest compassion tenderly and when to express it sternly. All of us—perhaps none more than me—need to learn from David’s legacy of warmth and care. But even more than learning from Powlison, we all need to learn from Scripture how to do this well.

That leads to my last point.

The Sufficiency of Scripture

In my essay on priests, zombies, and prophets, I shared some of my personal relationship with David because the analogy I used in the essay was developed with his help, was first given as a talk at his invitation, and because I was attempting a practical outworking of his concept of counter-conversion. My personal connection provided the context for how my illustration came about. But that is not the most important reason for the personal story.

I shared the main concern I wanted to get across when I said, “Opposing sides claim him because everyone knows he was wonderful. Like Protestants and Catholics with Augustine of Hippo, both sides want everyone to believe he is on their side. David would be nervous about most of this. He would remind us that it is Christ and his Word, not any man, who stands as the authority on the cure of souls.”

As we get around to the good work of unpacking David’s legacy, all of us who know how incredible and how important he was will need to be careful. We can sometimes get carried away in our love and respect and miss that everything wonderful about David flowed from his trust in Jesus and his embrace of his Word. In the foreword to one of my books, David said this about his commitment to biblical counseling,

I am not committed to biblical counseling because it’s a theory that I happened to find persuasive, or because one killer Bible verse turned the lights on. I am committed because God tells the truth about me, about my world, about the Father, Savior, and Friend who has taken me to heart and takes me in hand. And I come to know any other human being—you, my fellow struggler, my brother or sister—by the same light in which I am coming to know myself.

David was committed to biblical counseling because he was personally committed to the Bible. David embraced a vision of counseling founded on the authority of Christ because Jesus reigned in his life.

I cannot speak to all of David’s legacy—much less represent it. But I can speak to the man I knew whose life had been mastered by Christ and his Word. It is what I loved about him, and it is what the people who disagree with me loved about him. If I know anything about David, it is that he would not want us to be defined by an approach to ministry that is uniquely Powlisonian but one that is uniquely biblical.

Dr. Heath Lambert is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of several books, including The Great Love of God: Encountering God’s Heart for a Hostile World. 

Share this

Subscribe Via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.