What Alternative?

In 2002 the Journal of Biblical Counseling (which, ironically, was founded by Dr. Adams) published an article by Edward Welch entitled "How Theology Shapes Ministry: Jay Adams' View of the Flesh and an Alternative." In the article, Welch accused Adams of being a closet Behaviorist among other things. Adams wrote the following "Letter to the Editor" to rebut Welch's claims but the Journal's editor, David Powlison, declined to print it, opting to run only a few excerpts. Here is Dr. Adams' entire response.


I wish to thank Ed Welch for his comments on my view of "flesh" found in Paul's letter to the Roman church. It gives me the opportunity to squelch some of the erroneous ideas that may be floating around. The opportunity that a response provides is to clarify, extend and state those views with greater vigor and to do a bit of teaching as well.

I shall begin by asking the question—unanswered in the Journal article—“If sin in some way is physically 'in the members', 'in the body' and 'in the flesh' (three ways of saying the same thing), as Paul plainly taught that it is, then what does he mean; and how is this so? Paul was no Gnostic; he believed that the body God gave man, as such, is itself neither evil nor the source of sin; sin is not inherent in it. Then, how does sin gain control of the body, the flesh and of the members thereof? If he does not mean that sin gains control of the believer's body as the result of programming by the sinful spirit of man in his unregenerate state, and then through habitual practice takes over, bringing these habits into the new regenerate life, how does it do so? Plainly, in Paul's analogy, it is the slave's body (not his soul) that is owned and used by sin. And his members are, as Paul says, used to further sin's purposes. In the same way he pictures the Spirit gaining control and use of these very members of the regenerate man's body instead (Romans 6:13, 19). The believer is to present (or yield) the members of his body to God rather than to sin. How does he do so, except by consecration leading to obedience to God?

No, the "alternative" view, mentioned but not fully subscribed to by Ed, is that "flesh" doesn't pertain to the physical body at all, but to a "flesh group!" These people supposedly are those who depend on the law for salvation -- in short, they are Judaizers. They are "living under the old covenant and not indwelt by the Spirit," he says. This group participates in a "sarx life" (life lived by the flesh) but now Paul belongs to a different "community." This new group lives the "Spirit life." Paul, he says, was merely using a "Rhetorical" device when referring to himself rather than speaking of "his actual experience."

But Paul doesn't set forth the struggle of Romans 7:14-24 as vacillation that comes from living under two covenants rather than one. The idea that the passage is not autobiographical, but speaking in rhetorical terms, leads the reader to the strange belief that he meant that the group was suffering from "tensions in life under two covenants rather than within the individual." Now, Ed makes it clear that he isn't by any means sure of this construction of Paul's words: "I have not developed alternatives." For that, I can only be glad. Yet he "briefly highlights" this new view as an alternative to mine. Frankly, I was greatly disappointed in this aspect of Ed's article. I thought there would be something solid in the article to get my teeth into. Why is he concerned to refute one view when not sure of his own?

Now, how can the "alternative" viewpoint account for expressions like sin in the flesh, sin in the body and sin in the members? Really, I cannot see how it can. The new view does not seem compatible with Paul's words. There is no reason to expect that Paul is using an analogy here. The analogy in the passage has to do with slavery. To posit another analogy on top of that one seems a stretch. Other expressions also clash with the "alternative" view. How does one stop "yielding" his members to sin as a master and begin yielding them to God? Ed dances around passages, saying things here and there about them, but hardly comes up with anything certain. The title of the article doesn't compute with what Ed does. He seems more concerned to debunk my view than to present an "alternative." The latter is given so tentatively and in such short compass that it looks like it was merely tacked on to the article which really is an attempt to refute my view of flesh.

How Ed goes about this is interesting. There is no exegesis. There is really no argumentation. What we encounter, instead, is a list of dotted references that Ed thinks my view of flesh might possibly lead to. So, in order to respond, all I can do is address the matter found in the article's twenty dots. This I shall now do. For convenience, I shall number the dots as D1, D2, etc. In order to follow along in his article, I suggest that you also number the dots in your copy of the journal article.

Under D1Ed claims that my view of flesh leads to making self-discipline "the central task." Of course, that isn't true of Nouthetic Counseling. There is nothing wrong with emphasizing self-discipline when necessary—the Bible does. But the "central task?" Hardly. Unintentionally (I am sure) Ed makes it sound like I am teaching self-help. But instead of this, we hold that the central task is to so minister the Scriptures that God, the Holy Spirit, will use His Word to change the counselee. This misunderstanding of the biblical system is buttressed in D2 by comparing training "in righteousness" from the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:17) with "developing a tennis serve." His concern is repetition. But why? The Bible is highly repetitive. There must be a reason for this! Moreover the God has made the same man who "develops" a tennis serve by repetition able to learn many other things that way. Why should we not expect Him to help people learn how to live according the Scriptures in a similar fashion? Christians may "learn" many things by the same means, but the great difference about counseling is that God directs, motivates and enables us to make the behavioral changes addressed. Repetition of thought and action is but one element in the process of sanctification. Again in D2, D3 and D4 the intimation is that Nouthetic Counseling is nothing more than a refinement of Behaviorism. Not so!

In D4 motivation is said not to be the "target" for change. Here an erroneous either/or view of Nouthetic Counseling is conjured up. There is no denial of the importance of motivation in my view. In D5 Ed seems concerned about the relationship of the counselor to the counselee as a "means of God's grace to a counselee." But the "means of grace" which most theologians and exegetes accept do not include this. Where does Ed find this in the Scriptures? The counselor's task is not to get in the way of the message that he is explaining from the Bible, thus impeding the counselee's progress. When it comes to furthering relations that are gracious, it is the counselor's task to assure the counselee that he must have the proper relationship to God. This is what he does. After all, it is the Holy Spirit Who changes His people; not the counselor. I said this as far back as the publication of Competent to Counsel.

Even unbelieving counselors may be able to bring about changes in counselees (often by their relationships), but these changes will not please God (Romans 8:8). Any change that arises in counseling that, at bottom, is not brought about by the Spirit, is unacceptable. The counselor's task is to so minister the Word that the Spirit uses it to bring about change.

In D6 Ed is concerned to have counselors reveal that they and the counselees are in the same boat. In  2 Corinthians 1:4 Paul does speak about being able to counsel others from his own experience. But a close look at the passage makes it plain that he was not interested in matching people with similar problems. He says that his experience will enable him to counsel others with any sort of problem. How? The type of experience is not in focus; it is God's comforting solution to the problem that he is speaking about. Sympathy for others is not enough. A biblical sort of empathy is necessary: in it the counselor enters into his counselee's problem in such a way that the counselor sees more deeply than his counselee. He reaches so deeply that he not only sees and feels the dimensions of the problem as his counselee does, but beyond that he sees God's solution to it.

In D7 Ed expresses fear that counselees are not taught "to look to Jesus in the battle against sin." Nothing could be farther from the truth. Faith, which he mentions, is not "defined" by us as "establishing new habits." Faith is trust in God that takes Him at His Word. It is believing and acting upon that Word so as to make changes that will please His Lord. Faith rests not upon counselors nor upon their words (D8) but solely upon God and His promises.

In D9"teaching" is equated with "rote memorization." I have never said or done anything of the sort! Again, a false antithesis is constructed in which thinking is set over against "growing in the knowledge of Christ." When I give thought to my spiritual growth, I recognize that I cannot grow as I should without learning (the other side of teaching)! Repentance, for instance, involves not only a change of action, but also a change of thought. Knowing Christ for counselees is not developing some mystical, extra-biblical relationship by which I come to "know" Him better. Teaching is often necessary in counseling—precisely to help counselees to come to know Christ better and to serve Him more faithfully. Sometimes, when necessary, teaching is "heavy," something Ed apparently deplores. But rote memorization? Where does that idea come from? Certainly not from my practice or writings!

Again, connecting some of Ed's dots, what I said before applies once more. There is no either/or in Nouthetic Counseling as Ed describes it in D10.

I would like to discuss D11 in more depth than I can here. Ed focuses upon motivation It is important to remember that the Bible teaches that it is impossible to know another's heart. He cannot know the motivation of others. God, in contradistinction to man, is called the "Heart-Knower" (Acts 1:24; cf. 1 Samuel 16:7). The heart belongs to God alone. On the issue of "Idols of the heart" (D13) I reserve comment for another time and place. There is much to be said, since unbiblical exegesis and ideas have been taught under this rubric.

Who said the model "does not induce one to examine motivations"? My "model" urges counselees to do so -- But, N.B., they are called upon to examine their own motives for themselves. Again, this discussion must be reserved for a later time and place when ideas in D14 are more fully examined elsewhere.

The statement in D15 fails to describe Nouthetic Counseling. One reason medications are often opposed is because they may be used to mask true problems and circumvent God's ways.

D17 seems to ignore the fact that what one has done in his past may not correspond to his inner life (what he habitually thinks and revels in). Perhaps out of fear of consequences, previously, he has refrained from doing what he now indulges in. Peter writes about those who have hearts "trained" in greed (2 Peter 2:14). He speaks also about how their "eyes" continually "look for sin." Isn't this a matter of hearts having trained the "members" of the body?

D18 fails to understand that the invention of "new ways to sin" may, itself, be a habitual pattern!

D19 simply doesn't fairly represent Nouthetic Counseling.

D20 ignores material written and taught about "covert" patterns.

Now, it is fortunate that Ed admits that I might "disavow" some of his conclusions. I certainly do! In fact, I disavow most, if not every one of them.

I ask again, if not by a process of habituation, how does sin in the body, in the flesh and in the members come about? How is it put off and how are new ways put on, if this doesn't involve learning about these from Scripture, asking God to enable one to obediently do what is right—and then doing it? When Paul writes about that which he calls the "law in my members" (Romans 7:23) what does he have in mind? This "law" is a power that opposes the law of his mind. To the extent that it overpowers his better intentions ("the law of my mind") it takes him "captive." That is to say, he finds it difficult to overcome. What power can sin exert upon the body so as to set up a warfare within the Christian? Can you think of anything other than habit which clearly fits the bill?

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