Saturday, May 14, 2011

For the Last Time, Jay Adams is NOT a 'Behaviorist'!

Since beginning my formal course of training in biblical counseling about a year and a half ago, I have come to understand much better the process of what counselors call "total restructuring", the practice of "putting off" sinful behavior and thought processes (Eph. 4:22), and being enabled by the Holy Spirit to "put on" the new self - thoughts and practices which are pleasing to God (Eph. 4:24). It should go without saying that walking in obedience is not a one-time event as salvation is, but the way of life Christ expects and demands from His followers. (John Piper wrote an excellent book, "What Jesus Demands from the World", exegeting each one of His imperatives to believers.) Of course, there are those who would distinguish between what they term a "Pauline Christianity" and the Gospel, but this is a false dichotomy. Paul consistently preached Christ crucified (1 Cor. 2:2).

Jay Adams, the founder of the modern biblical counseling movement, does the same thing.

During my course of study with INS, the subject of so-called "Keswick sanctification" was covered and Dr. Adams explained what was wrong with it (he also terms it "quietism"). This philosophy is similar to the "let go and let God" bumper-sticker mentality that if we are simply "empty vessels" fully "yielded" to God, the Holy Spirit will achieve progressive sanctification on our behalf. In this pseudo-pietist formula, it is NOT considered spiritual, or even correct, to strive for our own holiness and sanctification. We are to remain completely passive. This erroneous view of Scripture struck a chord with me, as I had been exposed to it years earlier in a charismatic church. In fact, when reviewing my book manuscript, Martha Peace urged me to remove the words "yield" and "surrender" from the chapters on repentance - NOT because the terms don't occur in the Bible (they do;) but because of how they have become mis-used in the modern Church to promote a passive, almost mystical view of sanctification.

I have spent hours on the phone with Martha, scrutinizing the precision of my terminology when discussing heart change and love of God, the believer's responsibility to repent, and how to walk in obedience. I have spent many MORE hours viewing lectures of Dr. Adams and studying the requisite texts for a certificate in nouthetic counseling (from noutheteo,translated "admonish, correct or instruct;" see Romans 15:14). If I have learned nothing else from Dr. Adams, it is that we are to (and help our counselees learn to) honor and glorify God, whether we feel like it or not. Our motivation is NOT to please ourselves, but to please God. This is the only appropriate response to the One Who first condescended to love us sinners, and gave Himself up for us (Gal. 2:20).

True, inner heart change (conversion) is a work of God. We can do nothing to save ourselves (Eph. 3:23); it is entirely His doing - hence the term "monergism". However, the Bible is clear from Genesis to Revelation that God expects His people to obey Him. This is a synergistic effort (the Holy Spirit enables blood-bought disciples, and we are to "will and to work for His good pleasure"; Phil. 2:13). Justification (being declared righteous before God because of faith in His Son) will always result in increasing holiness and sanctification. Unfortunately, even within the biblical counseling movement, there is a school of thought which considers sanctification entirely a work of God (as if the believer need not practice discipline or "work" towards taking his or her own thoughts captive; put on self-control; etc.)

It is from this misunderstanding of the Scriptural teaching on sanctification that Dr. Adams has wrongly been called a "behaviorist". The term may more accurately be applied to secular psychiatrists who follow the Skinner theories of behavior modification - known more simply as "conditioning". Nowhere, in any of his more than 50 books, has Adams ever promoted the view that by changing one's outward behavior, one becomes acceptable to God. Nor is it accurate to say that a more disciplined lifestyle results in true holiness. In fact, Adams cautions against counseling non-Christians for this very reason: an unregenerate person may only move from one lifestyle that is displeasing to God to another, equally displeasing lifestyle (Heb. 11:6).

Part of the tendency on the part of his critics to misrepresent Adams' teaching comes, I believe, from taking citations out of context. Jay Adams is a man who has been teaching, preaching and writing for quite a few decades on more subjects than I could mention in a blog post. Three of the required texts for students of biblical counseling are "Competent to Counsel", "The Christian Counselor's Manual", and "More than Redemption" (the last one is a systematic theology text). These three books are around 400 pages EACH. In addition to these, there are many of his shorter, "summary" type books on specific subjects (forgiveness; hermaneutics; divorce and re-marriage) we are to read. It is both inaccurate and unfair to take (for example) a paragraph on what specific behaviors a counselee might take to overcome lust from page 402 of one of his books and treat it as if it were the only and final word Adams has written on the subject. By the time the reader arrives at Chapter 35 of CCM, Adams presumably takes it for granted the reader has read the first 34 chapters, AND perhaps CTC (which is a precursor to CCM). It should not be necessary for him to re-lay the groundwork of God's great love, conviction, confession of sin, heart-felt repentance and what may be going on in the counselee's heart that causes him to rebel against God each time he gives a counseling scenario.

Yesterday, in an entry by Dr. Adams called "Gospel Sanctification" on the Institutes's blog, a conversation ensued in which the usual arguments about "behaviorism" were dragged out. I had been planning to write about this issue anyway, since learning that some in the biblical counseling movement have been leaning towards a passive, "resting and feeding" faith* while omitting our responsibility to be co-laborers in our own spiritual growth. One nay-sayer wrote:

"Marie, from what I have read of Dr. Adams, he is a behaviorist/moralist. He teaches that changing the behavior is the way to change the heart. At least that’s what I read on the pages of Competent to Counsel. I was so shocked at what I read that I withdrew my application to a seminary that uses Dr Adams as its text. Check it for yourself."
Of course, I HAVE read CTC for myself, as well as the books mentioned above and a great many more. What this straw-man argument fails to acknowledge is that Adams himself has written specifically and succinctly on the subject of progressive sanctification in a small, highly readable book, "Growing by Grace". At less than 100 pages, (I read it at McDonalds' PlayPlace last summer), it is a useful overview of what the Christian life should look like for anyone desiring to follow God. He discusses the New Birth and why it is necessary for any true, inner change; then goes on to describe how God enables His children to live lives "worthy of the calling" they have received (Eph. 4:1). This is a basic, fundamental calling of every believer throughout his/her entire life; it is not limited to those in the counseling room. Adams writes,

"When counselors help counselees to develop new biblical habits to replace old ones, for instance, they encourage them to ask God to change not only externals but also to change their hearts. Peter speaks of "hearts trained in greed" (II Peter 2:14). The heart is where the habit is.....The heart must be changed as the habit is; the habit will be changed as the heart is. The one cannot be divorced from the other. Holiness is first and foremost an inside job! To encourage counselees merely to change their outer behavior is to create hypocritical counselees and to make God out to be nothing more than a decorative God who superficially paints over the rotten wood beneath! The biblical counselor must stress prayer, the work of the Spirit, and the Word in enabling him to obey. God is an Interior Decorator."
Big, fat 'Amen'! The insight that working on changing the behavior right alongside the heart is one that rings especially true for former addicts. More than once, I have received the question from young women with eating disorders, "When will God change my heart? Did you stop [bulimic behavior] after God changed your heart, or did it all happen at the same time?"

Teaching that deep reflection on the Cross and meditating on the sufferings of Christ is all that is needed to 'change our hearts' confuses and frustrates people stuck in life-dominating sin. YES, it is necessary. It is, after all, God's kindness which leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). Without being broken over one's sin and staying in fellowship with the compassionate, gracious Savior Who loves us, no real change can occur in our hearts - nor, consequently, in our behavior. BUT, and this is the key difference, "preaching the Gospel to ourselves" doesn't stop with recognizing Christ's great love and our redemption. It continues - by recalling His command to "follow Me" (die to self-centered desires) and "go and sin no more".

A simple, common-sense application of this heart+disciplined action = change is as follows: I used to smoke cigarettes. Somewhere around 2002, as God was pricking my conscience over several long-standing sins, I began to feel convicted that God wanted me to stop smoking. I realized that when under stress or angry, I would "stuff" my angry thoughts and feelings by using this habit; that it was unhealthy and therefore in violation of 1 Cor. 6:19; and that since cigarettes had now hit $5.00/pack in Massachusetts, it was poor stewardship. I decided to quit.

I prayed about it. I "shared my feelings" with the Lord. I re-affirmed His love for me from the pages of Scripture. I recognized that Christ had died on the Cross for me. But you know what else? I stopped going to the mini-market for Marlboros. I quit hanging around the designated smoke area out back at work, with my homegirls from the temp agency. I threw away my ashtray and lighter, and then....most significantly of all, I told my husband I wasn't going to smoke anymore. Ah...the accountability factor. Once you tell your husband or wife, it's written in stone.

I never lit another cigarette again.

Now, smoking may be a fairly benign example of this principle, but anyone can see how making changes in one's habitual behavior concurrently with the heart change God brings about will lead to victory over a particular sin (or bad habit). So, is this 'behaviorism'? Let's let Dr. Adams himself answer that charge:

"Not if what he does is done out of love for God! One must have the inner desire to please God when out of duty he obeys a commandment that is not pleasant to obey. A housewife cleans the toilets not because she enjoys the chore but because she loves her family. A counselee may be called on to obey a command out of love for God and his neighbor, even when he does not look forward to the task itself. That is what must be stressed. The counselee must understand that in his inner person, he must not do anything God commands for brownie points; he must obey out of love."
(Emphasis mine)

I truly hope that these illustrations and Dr. Adams' own words help any would-be critics understand progressive sanctification. This critically-important doctrine is one which biblical counselors strive to present from the pages of Scripture; not from feel-good, needs-based psychology. Insisting on obedience (as Christ Himself did repeatedly) by means of the Spirit is neither legalism nor 'behaviorism'. As one grows in his/her relationship with Christ, he/she naturally becomes increasingly conformed to His likeness (Romans 8:29). This is true "Gospel Sanctification", and is what Dr. Adams has preached from day one.

* See "The Journal of Modern Ministry", Vol. 8, Issue I.
Excerpts taken from "Growing by Grace", Dr. Jay Adams, published by Timeless Texts, 2003. Pgs. 92-93,


Reformed and Renewed said...

Hi there, yes Jay Adams is excellent I am busy with my degree in Theology and his book is prescribed for the counseling course. I agree with you he is not a "behaviourist" But I can see how his teachings would be a threat to charismatics and those involved in the Purpose drive movements. Adams uses the bible, as Does MacArthur who has also writtne an excellent book on counselling. Also highly recommend Wayne Mack. He used to lecture at MAcArthurs Bible seminary.
Having said that Adams is not easy reading but he makes sense.

Marie said...

Hi Simon,

Thanks for your comment. Yes, I have Macarthur's "How to Counsel Biblically" and agree it is very good. Wayne Mack has written some excellent materials, including worksheets designed as homework for counselees (one of which, on forgiveness, I quoted in my own book.)

I think one reason Dr. Adams is maligned by some is the general lack of emphasis on sound doctrine in the Church today. Oftentimes, those who insist on "dividing the Word rightly" are (wrongly) accused of being "Pharisees" or "legalistic".

Of course, that isn't to say there aren't some areas of theology where one might differ with Adams and others (for example, I'm a pre-trib/pre-mil gal myself, and I'll freely admit I don't understand preterism....or the eschatological disagreements between Reformed ad non-Reformed in general), but these areas are generally somewhat minor and at any rate certainly don't change the fact Dr. Adams is a superb teacher and biblical counselor.

Anonymous said...


I have read Adams; I have never been accused of not having (and loving) sound doctrine, I'm not a Charismatic, but I'm reformed through and through, and I would call Adams a behaviorist. His method, for the most part, is outside-in vs inside-out. That's how I would define a behaviorist.

There is a very simple test that you can apply to any strategy for change. If it works (your technique) who gets the glory? If I come up with a 10 step plan to be more patient with my wife and I'm successful, who can I say caused the change, me or God through His Spirit?

You see, saints and sinners can both change, but only saints can fully give God the glory for the change because they know full well, with Paul, that there is "no good thing that dwells within them". This is a huge point. My righteousness is outside of myself. It is, as Luther called it, "foreign righteousness".

When anything is added to Grace, it is no longer grace. Even the smallest part of works nullifies grace. This is why, start to finish, God has made this a life a faith. The battle is always a battle of faith. Do I take God at his word or not? Since I would rather trust in myself than in Him, I find a way to make His promise true in my own way, just as Abraham found his Hagar, I find my own methods to bring about what God has promised me. It always ends in disaster. I'm either crushed by the weight of my own sin and guilt when I fail (and I WILL fail) or proud as a Devil himself when I think that my performance is up to par.

Slave or free? That is the question. In Jesus' own words, "So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."

The Christ I know and love provided a complete and wonderful salvation - it lacks nothing. He only asks that I abide in Him, and I WILL bear good fruit. That's the promise, and Jesus commands that we believe Him. Do we?

Marie said...

Hi Anon,

Thanks for your comment. I agree with everything you say completely. It also reflects Adams' position on sanctification -while I certainly wouldn't want to put words in his mouth, in all of the courses I have taken under Dr. Adams he has talked about the need to be right in one's heart before God prior to any behavioral changes being acceptable. Moreover, from lecture one of course one (as well as in many of his books) he repeatedly identifies the goal of biblical counseling: to help counselees become conformed to the image of Christ. This occurs in the inner man. He is CONTINUALLY stating (both in lectures and his writings) that the purpose of all change and holiness is for teh glory of God - NOT man's - and he does not agree with 10-step/self-improvement plans (even "Christian" ones)for exactly the reason you stated.

For true, lasting "fruit" in a believer's walk, repentance is necessary. He has taught much on this; it is a work of grace in a believer's heart which will subsequently affect one's outward behavior. He has repeatedly stressed that no change or obedience can occur without the empowering work of the Holy Spirit.

So no difference in his position vs. yours is apparent to me, after reading many of his books (including the "main" ones) and studying under him for a year and a half. (Like Martha Peace, I'm finding that his critics tend to either take him out of context or twist his words to mis-represent him.) I'm not saying that's what you're doing, but if you could point me to something specifically that he has written (on sanctification) with which you disagree, it would be helpful. I have given in this blog entry a small sample of what he has written regarding grace and sanctification; if you have something to the contrary I would like to have a look at it in context and see where the issue lies.

Adams is certainly not infallible any more than any other Bible teacher is, but I do believe that in the matter of sanctification, biblical change and Christian Spirit-led living, he gets it right.

Anonymous said...


First, I'm sure that Adam's and I do agree on many points, but Roman Catholics and I have a lot in common too. For instance, we both say that we are saved by grace, but as I'm sure you know, we both mean very different things by that. This is what I think is going on with my disagreement with Adams. Although he does say the right things about sanctification, I could see an underlying sentiment of self-sanctification on just about every page that I read.

Also, I have only read Competent to Counsel, so am not as familiar with his work as you are, and I don't have chapter and verse of the issue that concerns me most about his teaching, which is change through habit forming. I recall it being something like, do a good habit for 21 days. . .

That kind of thinking may work, but it's not Christianity. Mormons & Muslims can be extremely self-disciplined, and Hindus go to great lengths to prove their self-discipline.

Barbara said...

I know this is old by now, but reading the comments I understand what Anon is saying, but of course the matter of first importance is to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit by Grace through saving Faith, and thus in that we are given the power to obey and to put off the old man and to put on the new. I myself struggled and battled with some of the tendency toward behaviorism per se, but I think it goes back to partly my own flesh battling against godly change, and partly a need for that point (empowerment through freedom from the enslavement of sin so that we CAN then learn to live in a way that pleases God, as any child of His would want to do)to stand out a little more throughout the book. A Theology of Christian Counseling is very, very, very good to help offset some of the problems in Competent to Counsel, and Dr. Adams himself admits to the fact that CtoC really shouldn't stand alone.

That said, the reason I popped in was to say thank you. Let me share a little story of Providence with you, if I may:

Because of some issues with trying to learn and discern how to think biblically about all the corporate think and behavioral change/motivational interviewing psychology and such being thrown at me at work, I started digging around to learn more about what nouthetic counseling is about. I only heard of it because your writing about it. Did a web search and found the site, realized I agreed wholeheartedly with the theological distinctives, and found the one training center in our area, a PCA church about 40 miles up the road in a college town where my son is attending school and which sponsors the RUF campus ministry of which he is a part. So I started going to classes there. And I was so taken by the teaching and the godly fellowship among the members who attended this class, the sheer depth of the discussions among the participants, and the way the teacher (who is an NANC fellow and associate pastor at the church, having trained directly under Jay Adams, and as it turns out the lead pastor has been friends with Dr. Adams for a number of years)...the way he would talk about the way the members of the church would "one-another" each other and come alongside and counsel one another; the church has been steeped in this kind of depth for some years. Left me hungry for it, but I wouldn't abandon my own church at the time.

But when my hand was forced and things got ugly, I knew exactly where I would go. I went to that church, and wept - just absolutely wept - at the beauty and depth and richness of the teaching and the fellowship there - Christ is in the midst of it all. After close to 9 months of attending there, and taking all the inquirers classes, I became privileged to stand among the congregation and take membership vows and being counted among them. There has been healing and growth and joy and just the pouring out of water into dry soil that hadn't realized how dry it was. That may well not have happened, but for the fact that some years ago you began writing about something called "nouthetic counseling" and now, I'm also working toward certification myself so that I can work as a part of the church's counseling ministry in the local community.

God bless you.

Barbara said...

Oh. Here. I wrote this at the time it was all going on. Just so you know: