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Counseling Today: Standing on Jay Adams’ Shoulders

Standing On Jay's Shoulders

“I’m thinking about pursuing counselor training and had some questions about the process, as well as the type of training organization from which I should receive my training. The counseling movement has changed over the past fifty years. Would you be willing to speak to those changes? Did it begin with Jay Adams? What was his role, and how has it evolved since his founding. Finally, how would you describe your role in biblical counseling?” —Supporting Member

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In the Beginning

Your question is excellent. Thank you for asking. As you delve into the world of biblical counseling, it would serve you well to understand the movement—past, present, and future—before you decide on training. One of the good things about church history is how different people have been raised through the years to highlight something that the church needed to consider, change, and move forward in their thought. Our creeds and confessions demonstrate this idea as they “moved us along in thought” and became part of the more significant corpus of Christian doctrine.

As you study the biblical counseling movement, you will notice a similar process. No one man has been able to bring “omni-thought and application” to this discipline. As you imply with your question, it has been a movement where the Lord has raised many people who have cooperated for the discipline’s greater good. The biblical or Christian counseling movement began with Jay Adams. Like spokes leading to a hub, you will find Jay Adams at its center no matter where you start thinking about the Christian counseling world. He is the de facto starting point. Though Jay would shrink back at such high praise, it is true nevertheless. God decided to raise Jay as His man to draw attention to this discipleship breakdown in His church.

Jay’s most outstanding achievement and most profound usefulness to the body of Christ was starting the modern-day biblical counseling movement. He is considered, and rightfully so, the father of the movement, and I have the utmost respect for him. My fondest memory of him was a private lunch in the small town where he lived. He is one of the most humble men you would ever want to meet. Though his preaching style was booming and authoritative, the man away from the pulpit was relaxed, considerate, and winsome. Jay is an icon in the counseling world. It’s a cliché, but he has forgotten more than I’ll ever know in the area of counseling. I had read many of his books and was trained partially by one of his students—Wayne Mack—when I went to The Master’s College to earn my MA in Biblical Counseling.

Hermeneutical Spiral

The biblical counseling movement has matured over the years. What Jay laid down for us was the beginnings of a positive evolution process for discipleship. You may be familiar with the hermeneutical spiral as it pertains to counseling. The hermeneutical spiral is a periodic revisiting of a biblical topic by running it back through the grid of Scripture to refine the idea. The beginning of the spiral is at its farther reaches. Each time you push the concept through the grid, the circle becomes smaller as it moves toward the center. The more often you run psychology through a Scriptural grid, the more precision you bring to the subject.

Let me give you an over-simplified illustration of the hermeneutical spiral as it pertains to biblical counseling. God raised Jay for the specific purpose of identifying where discipleship had gone wrong in the local church. He determined the secular world had become the new guardians of soul care. He disagreed with this notion and began developing a body of work that identified the Bible as sufficient for soul care and the Christian as the rightful executioner of this discipline. As we know it today, Jay was the first person to push psychology through the lens of Scriptures.

What he did set in motion was the biblical counseling movement. It became a revolution within the psychological community, both secular and the church. Jay’s work was as phenomenal as it was bold. Jay brought counseling in from the cold and put the local church on alert that counseling was its job. You could say Jay was to the counseling world what Martin Luther was to the evangelical world. He was a trail-blazer—a pioneer.

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Disciples of Jay began to pop up throughout the church. Wayne Mack was one of those stalwarts whose contribution to biblical counseling’s evolution has affected thousands of souls, including mine. During these early years, CCEF sprung up behind Jay’s influence and impact. One of the major players in this group—then and now—was David Powlison. In my opinion, David Powlison was the foremost thinker in the biblical counseling movement today.

What Calvin was to Luther, David laid down many innovative and ingenious layers to the work of Jay Adams. Through David’s work and our other friends at CCEF, the hermeneutical spiral gained more precision. David’s article, Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair, is classic Powlison. He brought the heart more into focus. It’s not that Jay avoided the heart—not at all. Jay’s work, especially his Theology of Christian Counseling text, goes to great lengths in helping us to understand the inter-machinations of a person’s soul.

The key for Powlison is he did not have to create the plethora of work Adams did, and he was not required to be as comprehensive in laying down a foundational worldview for counseling. Jay was a unique historical figure called to work from an ex-nihilo starting point: he had to make something out of nothing. Just as Calvin came along to bring more precision to what Luther did, Powlison came alongside Adams. Through collaboration, David was able to push further into a more profound theology of the heart. CCEF ran Jay’s work through the hermeneutical spiral. The precision brought Jay’s immense body of work into more clarity. This process was not a deviation from Jay’s work but an extension of it.

Third Generation

The biblical counseling movement parallels our sanctification. It is not static but fluid. We all change, grow, and mature. As we stand here today, many decades past Jay’s groundbreaking work, there have been more positive advancements in the movement. Currently, there is a third generation of biblical counselors standing on the shoulders of Luther and Calvin. I would be in this number. I trust we will be good stewards of what these men and women have done before us.

The most incredible honor we can bestow on them is to continue to be tenacious about the sufficiency of Scriptures and how it can be practically applied to any person’s life to bring about measurable and objective change internally and externally. As for this third-generation, there have been two points of emphasis that would highlight our watch. As we run biblical counseling back through the hermeneutical spiral, two things manifest, which gives us more as to how we do counseling:

  • The primary motive for change is the gospel.
  • The primary context for change is within the family and the local church.

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Motive and Example

Over the past ten years, we have seen a necessary emphasis on the gospel on sanctification. Gospel-centered counseling literature is something you did not read a lot about before 2000. We are relearning and rethinking how the gospel should have a maximum effect on our counseling. This concept is not a new way to counsel but how Christ and His friends taught us to do soul care (John 3:30; Romans 11:36; 1 Corinthians 2:20; Ephesians 5:1; Philippians 3:8-11).

The most succinct definition of the gospel is Christ. He is the gospel (Genesis 3:15). He is the Good News. He is the central point and the main theme of the Bible. He is the one the biblical counselor points to (Mark 1:7). Christ is the one who God forms in us (Galatians 4:19). Christ is the beginning and the end (Revelation 22:13). He will be the one we worship throughout eternity (Revelation 5:6-10). Knowing and imitating Him is the number one priority in biblical counseling (1 Corinthians 2:2, 11:1; Philippians 4:9).

Jay gave us a massive framework, which went deep and wide. But he did more. He inspired us as much as he released us to do what the Bible has always called us to do—to disciple others (Matthew 28:19-20; Romans 15:14). David continued Jay’s thoughts by drilling down to give us an even more nuanced understanding of the heart. Today, we all are giving more thought and resources to establishing Christ as the centerpiece of all sanctification work. We are learning how to connect the gospel to all of life, e.g., connecting the gospel to arguments, music, perfectionism, suffering, physical suffering, loneliness, parental discipline, God’s silence, and unfairness.

Place for Change

One of the most profound things Jay did was to tell us that we can counsel each other. Though it’s relatively straightforward in the Scripture, the church lost focus as they bought the secular lie of how psychology belonged to science rather than the church. This seemingly new revelation stirred many individuals within the church, but it did not shake the church the way the church needed shaking. Just because Jay ran the Christian counseling flag up the pole, the world did not surrender.

Their response was to write the DSM-4 and then the DSM-5. They have no contingency for going away. They have one goal: to fully establish themselves as the sole caregivers for the human community while making gobs of money in the process. Though there was a groundswell within the church, among some people, the more significant body of Christ still does not know their domain is under siege, and the “smart people” in the world revoked their biblical rights to provide soul care.

If you talk to the average Christian about counseling, he will tell you more about the world’s worldview than the Bible’s. Through mass media and public education, the average Christian has fully bought the lie. For the most part, families and local churches do not know how to walk an individual through a sanctification issue. Nobody has equipped them for this good work, and the oddity is that most Christians do not understand how they lack in this area. Discipleship and the church are in a challenging spot today. Elevating the church’s awareness of how sanctification (counseling or discipleship) begins in the home and continues in our local churches is essential.

Then and Now

To come full circle, I see the Christian counseling movement as always maturing by gaining more precision as we continue to rethink the most biblically effective ways to do soul care. Jay Adams and friends built a beautiful superstructure and filled it with incredible resources. David Powlison and friends made great strides in heart motivations, worship structures, manifold idolatries, and careful biblical introspection.

I hope my main contribution to the Christian counseling movement is a heightened awareness of the gospel (Christ) regarding our motive and model for change. I also want to join my many counselor friends who looped back around to Jay’s big vision of how every Christian can, to varying degrees, do the work of soul care. I long to see families and churches learning how to practically apply the Word of God to real-life situations. My students in our Mastermind Program tell me repeatedly how the most challenging part of the program is to take sound theology and practically apply it to real-life situations.

Thank you, Brandi, for the very thorough review of my first book report. This program is already nothing like a previous online ACBC course I took years back. There was barely any oversight from the admins, which made it just a little too easy to skate by. That is ultimately one of the main reasons I quit on it. I didn’t really feel like it was preparing me very well to become a certified counselor. It’s when I realized that literally anyone could get certified if they just ‘did the work,’ even though they may not be gifted as such. I really wanted help trying to figure that out of myself, and that wasn’t helping at all. —John

Without exception, this is the sticking point for all our students. They love and understand the Bible (theology). They enjoy and devour good books on sanctification (psychology). Their problem is when they have to take their theology, plus what they know about psychology, and make it practically real in someone’s life. This practical connection is their primary challenge. I hope this helps to give you an overview of the biblical counseling movement. I realize it’s like a rock skipping across a pond, but may the Lord motivate you to put your toe in the pond and begin training. It would be a joy to become your trainer over the next few years.

Call to Action

If you don’t pursue our training, you may want to consider our Membership Site. This option is a less intense and less expensive way to gain valuable training and engage a vibrant community of Christlike disciple-makers. As you continue to think about these things, please take the time to read these articles. They will help you to keep turning this multifaceted thing we call biblical counseling. With each turn, you will be amazed, inspired, equipped, and made competent to counsel.

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