David Powlison (2010) explains that, for Jay Adams, the primary goal of counseling is righteousness (p. 102). Distinct from a forensic righteousness, Adams’s focus on righteousness centers around behavioral change into the likeness of Christ where counselees are to “repent, trust, and obey” (Powlison, 2010, p. 127). Similarly, the goal of counseling for non-Christians is also to lead them to “know, trust, love, and obey Jesus Christ” (Powlison, 2010, p. 129).
Development of Problems and Personal Need
For Adams, humanity’s problem is sin (Powlison, 2010, p. 102). Adams identifies six problem areas of life that result from sin, which include problematic relationships, unhealthy emotions, wrong behaviors, faulty beliefs, inappropriate responses to suffering, and bizarre actions (Powlison, 2010, pp. 101-108). Since the problem of humanity is sin, the primary need of humanity is the forgiveness of sin through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Adams believes that forgiveness provides the motivation for change, and through Christ’s presence the counselee is “progressively changed” (Powlison, pp. 123-125).
Regarding Scripture, Adams fits Larry Crabb’s label of “Nothing Buttery” (Crabb, 2013, pp. 42-43). In other words, Adams’s view of Scripture as inerrant, infallible, and God-breathed means that it is sufficient as a comprehensive textbook for counseling, thus counseling needs “nothing but” the Bible (Powlison, 2010, p. 100). More specifically, Adams asserts that the Bible not only defines truth, but also provides a methodology for counseling as well as the organizational system to deploy counseling, the local church (Powlison, 2010, pp. 96-98).
Formula for Change
Adams has neither documented a systematic methodology of counseling nor distilled change into a formulaic process. However, a four-step process is apparent in Adam’s work. According to Johnny Baker, the first step is for the counselee to be didactically introduced to biblical doctrine since Adams is convinced that people do not inherently have answers to problems (Liberty University, Nouthetic). The second step is reproof where the power of the Holy Spirit convicts the individual of their need to repent (Liberty University, Nouthetic). The third step is correction, where the Holy Spirit helps the individual bear fruit (Liberty University, Nouthetic). The final step is a lifestyle of righteousness exemplified by spiritual disciplines or exercises where a lifestyle of sanctification occurs (Liberty University, Nouthetic).
Balance of Theology and Spirituality
Adams leans more toward theology than spirituality. Adams relies on Calvinistic theology where Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection provide forgiveness to guilty people who are “justified by faith” (Powlison, 2010, p. 125). After regeneration, the presence of the Holy Spirit then empowers sanctification, which occurs progressively (Powlison, 2010, p. 125). Finally, Adams asserts that sin is ultimately destroyed upon the return of Christ (Powlison, 2010, p. 126). It is upon Adams’s Calvinistic perspective of theology and requisite obedience that the personal experience of spirituality resides.
According to Kevin Corsini, the structure of human personality for most approaches to Christian counseling is built upon the concept that humanity was created in God’s image, but sin entered in the Garden and community was lost; Adams’s perspective is no different (Liberty University, Back). From a developmental perspective, Adams’s “recurrent concern was to exclude any possibility of social determinism for sin” (Powlison, 2010, p. 111). In sum, mankind has no excuse for sinning. Accordingly, Adams strongly rejected personality theories such as Freudian psychoanalysis that make people irresponsible victims, Rogerian humanism that assumes the goodness of man, and Skinnerian behaviorism that reduces humanity to animals (Powlison, 2010, pp. 155-158).
Counselor’s Function and Role
Adams asserts that counseling is primarily pastoral work performed in conjunction with the local church, although laypersons may counsel brothers and sisters in Christ (Powlison, 2010, p .130-131). Kevin identifies a perspective of counseling that aligns with Adams, the optometrist, which deals with sin directly by placing truth in front of the client (Liberty University, Back). Since Adams presupposes that people do not inherently have the answers to their problems, counseling must speak “frankly and authoritatively when communicating the promises and commands of God” (Powlison, 2010, p. 138). Thus, similar to other forms of counseling, the role of the counselor for Adams is to assist the client in becoming more like Christ (Liberty University, Back).
Major Contribution to Counseling
During a time when the influence of secular psychology and liberal theology was on the rise, Adams provides three important contributions to the counseling community. First, Adams asserts that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible revelation of God. Second, Adams highlights the importance of personal responsibility and humanity’s ability to choose. Third, Adams emphasizes the importance of righteous conduct that aligns with God’s will.
Limitations of This Counseling Theory
Adams’s counseling theory has several limitations. First, Adams’s attacks on secular psychology are often “polemical and propagandistic, hence he was reductionistic,” which risks ignoring certain positive aspects of psychology (Powlison, 2010, p. 156). Second, Adams suggests that the more directive the counseling, the better the results (Powlison, 2010, p. 147). However, an overly directive approach to counseling risks creating a co-dependent relationship with the counselor where the counselee depends on the counselor rather than the Spirit. Third, a confrontational and authoritarian approach to counseling risks putting the individual on the defensive (Powlison, 2010, p. 252). Alternatively, healthy inquiry may allow the client to reach the same conclusion on their own without the risk of defensive posturing.
Adams’s methodology is classified as nouthetic. If aligned with Scripture, Adams does not reject all forms of psychology, but he does assert that the Bible is completely sufficient to address all counseling issues without the assistance of psychology (Powlison, 2010, p. 100). Due to the sufficiency of the Bible, Adams does not fit the category of an integrationist. Furthermore, due to the directive and authoritarian nature of Adams’s approach, nouthetic counseling best describes the classification of his methodology.
Counseling Utility and Specific Potential Influence
Adams’s methodology provides two important utilitarian benefits to the overall discipline of counseling. Although Adams limits the realm of counseling primarily to pastors, currently most Christian counselors are not full-time pastors. Unfortunately, many Christian counselors are simply secularly trained therapists who pray at the end of the counseling session. Adams’s emphasis on Scripture and theological training are critically important practical necessities for counselors identified as Christian counselors (Powlison, 2010, pp. 133-135). Next, Adams appropriately observes that both Christian and secular counselors who “attempt to change beliefs, values, attitudes, relationships, and behavior” all end up “wading neck deep into theological waters” (Powlison, 2010, p. 156). Accordingly, Adams provides an important contribution by asserting that all therapists should disclose their theological presuppositions to clients.
Adams’s methodology is a reminder that Scripture is sufficient for my life. I have personally struggled with anxiety for decades, and it is easy to become sidetracked into various psychological theories to find relief. Although psychology may offer nuggets of support, I must remain cognizant of the risk of syncretism and mindful of the sufficiency of Scripture. As a director of a Christian counseling ministry, Adams’s work is also a good reminder of the importance of theological training within the counseling ministry. The state of Indiana requires continuing education for licensed counselors, but those who identify themselves as Christian must also have continuing theological and biblical training.
Counseling Moment Example
A friend recommended that David talk with me. David was married, but often cheated on his wife. He had been involved in dozens of illicit affairs. Although the morally reprehensible behavior was taking a toll on various aspects of his life, he claimed that he enjoyed the affairs. He saw nothing “really” wrong with the affairs, and he had no intention of quitting. I decided to read Proverbs 6:27-29 (English Standard Version) to David, “Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished.” I asked David whether he understood that his actions would have consequences that would be painful. He acknowledged the possibility, but he said nothing too bad had happened yet. I explained that God’s Word was true. David shrugged. I mentioned that there may be a time the time that he may need help. I gave David my card and explained that I would be available.
Crabb, L. (2013). Effective biblical counseling: A model for helping caring Christians become capable counselors. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Liberty University (Producer). (2010). Presentation: Nouthetic counseling [Video]. Available from http://www.apple.com/itunes/download.
Liberty University (Producer). (2010). Presentation: Back to the blueprint [Video]. Available from http://www.apple.com/itunes/download.
Powlison, D. (2010). The biblical counseling movement: History and context. Greensboro, NC: New Growth.