3 characteristics of David Powlison that influenced me

Leaving a legacy of words

June 10, 2019

When I received the news that David Powlison had passed away after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, I immediately messaged those closest to me to let them know the news. Though I knew his illness was progressing, I was still devastated. My wife, close friends, and colleagues know how much Powlison means to me, but not in the way you might think.

I never knew him personally, we never corresponded, nor did we ever actually meet. Since the news of his death, those who worked closely with him and knew him well have written touching tributes. Like the vast majority of those that Powlison impacted, however, my experience with him has all been from a distance through his writing, teaching, and public ministry.

Perhaps, then, you can relate to me when I say that though I never knew him, Powlison is one of the most trusted mentors I have ever had. When I think about his influence on my life and ministry, three distinct characteristics of Powlison rise to the surface.

The way he talked about counseling

When I started attending Southern Seminary in 2009, I began my M.Div. program in biblical and theological studies, focusing on languages and exegesis. Things changed quickly, however, in a family ministry class my first semester. My professor taught a lecture on the importance of biblical counseling in the local church. At that time, I thought of counseling as only taking place in extreme circumstances with people who had a special calling to that type of practice. But when this professor talked about counseling, he used the phrase “interpersonal ministry of the Word.” He normalized the practice of counseling for everyday ministry, and I was intrigued to learn more.  

This began a process of drinking deeply from biblical counseling resources and eventually switching to the biblical counseling program. This led me to Powlison’s work. He had a way of talking about counseling without you ever realizing he was talking about counseling. Whether you’re engulfed in a chapter of his writing on idolatry or listening to an interview with him untangling the complexities of human suffering, you enter into the dynamic Christian life. The way he talked about counseling helped me discover that it really is beautiful and normal, the rhythm of Christian relationships as God designed them. Counseling is a gift that God has given, in one shape or another, to the entire Church.

The way he talked about the Bible

Powlison talked about the Bible as if it were alive and true, as if it would bring hope and help to the broken, and this was the foundation of his ministry. I was particularly influenced by his helpful book, Seeing with New Eyes (P&R, 2003), where he used the book of Ephesians as an example of how to utilize Scripture in counseling. He wrote that “in a pinch you could do all counseling from Ephesians” (p.17). Then, he took the practical theology of this gospel-rich Epistle to show how to apply it to a variety of circumstances. I fell in love with the book of Ephesians, and to this day, it’s the book of the Bible to which I will most often run to provide counsel.

Powlison was gifted in the art of going from the Bible to life, as well as life to the Bible. He had a vibrant way of using Scripture to minister to others through his counseling, writing, and teaching. Those who were helped by him ended up loving God and his Word more.

The way he talked to others

In an era of Twitter debates and inflammatory language, Powlison was a breath of fresh air, though he was no stranger to debate or critical thinking. The so-called “counseling wars” of the past few decades over the use of secular resources at the counseling table have been intense, and Powlison was an important voice in the dialogue. What was distinct about Powlison was his gentle, convictional tone which earned him a reputation that was above reproach, even among those who had the sharpest disagreements with him. Rather than using his words to tear others down, he was careful to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) and made every opportunity to “build up” (Eph. 4:29).

The common thread among all these characteristics was Powlison’s strategic gift of using words that truly help others in a way that glorifies God. In his recent book, God’s Grace in Your Suffering (Crossway, 2018), he reflected on his gift:

“I love the ministry of putting words into sentences that I hope will help someone. But it is guaranteed that someday I will no longer be able to do this thing I love. And it is so important that the ability to complete a thought does not define who I am. I am weak; Christ is strong. I am a refugee falling into his care. I am one of his own” (43).

Powlison’s earthly gifts and ministry have come to an end. As we look to our brother as an example, may our words be seasoned with grace to help those in time of need. More importantly, may we long for the day when our earthly ministry and words will end, and like Powlison, our faith will become sight.

Dane Hays

Dane is a pastor and ministry leader in the Huntsville, Alabama area. After 16 years of ministry with LifeWay Christian Stores, he is transitioning into the role of executive director at North Alabama Biblical Counseling this summer. He is married to Amanda and is the father to Virginia and Mary Catherine. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24