Martin Luther and Jay Adams

This year we remember the work of a reformer, Martin Luther, who five hundred years ago dared to challenge the established ecclesiastical authorities when he nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg. I see many similarities to what happened about fifty years ago when another reformer, Jay Adams, came on the scene and challenged the established church in the area of counseling and soul care through his book, Competent to Counsel. I believe that there are many significant parallels between Adams and Luther.

  • Both men based their conclusions on the Bible alone – Sola Scriptura.

Luther, when his life was on the line, said, “Unless I am convinced by scripture or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in counsels alone, since it is well known that they often err and contradict themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me Amen.”

Jay Adams, as he began the new movement of biblical (or nouthetic) counseling, wrote, “The conclusions in this book are not based upon scientific findings. My method is presuppositional. I avowedly accept the inerrant Bible as the standard of all faith and practice. The Scriptures, therefore, are the basis and contain the criteria by which I have sought to make every judgment” (Competent to Counsel p. xxi). And, “I am aware of the sweeping implications of the changes that I advocate. I am willing to refine my position if I have gone too far. I want to alter any or all of what I have written provided that I can be shown to be wrong biblically” (ibid, p. 269).

  • Each was engaged in academic studies for the purpose of training future leaders when he, in a sense, stumbled upon his challenge to the status quo. Luther was a professor in Wittenberg, while Adams was teaching at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia.
  • Neither initially had any idea what he was starting. Nor did he anticipate turning the world upside down by starting a new movement.
  • Neither saw himself as an innovator beginning something new, but rather believed that he was recovering something old which had been lost. Luther sought to restore the biblical truths of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. Adams was seeking to restore a faithful heritage of soul care. As John Frame has written, “Sola Scriptura has historically been a powerful housecleaning tool” (p. 573, The Doctrine of the Word of God).
  • Both were preceded by forerunners who had significant influence on them. Luther came after Hus and Wycliffe. Adams was influenced by men like Machen, who stood firm on biblical authority, and Van Til, whose presuppositional approach to biblical truth was foundational for Adams.
  • Both had sympathizers who urged them to tone down their rhetoric. And both ignored such advice. Each was gifted with a personality that didn’t mind standing alone against the religious establishment. Sometimes the church needs a man wielding a machete and a blow torch who can blaze a trail of truth through a jungle of error and confusion.
  • Both upset the existing establishment which first tried to dialogue with them and then separated from and maligned them. Luther participated in several disputations with representatives of the Roman Catholic establishment before being excommunicated as a “wild boar in the Lord’s vineyard.” Adams had some significant public and private discussions with Christian psychologists before being written off by the great majority who were threatened and offended by his condemnation of secular psychology and his assertion of biblical sufficiency.
  • Both were sharpened by debates with their critics. Luther’s initial challenge to church errors over indulgences led him to question church authority in many other areas, leading to a clear understanding of biblical authority and the gospel of free grace. Adams’ views were refined through debates with those who wanted to integrate psychology with Scripture.
  • Both were followed by consolidators who had different gifts which God used to shape the ongoing movement. Phillip Melanchthon came after Luther and consolidated Lutheran theology and ecclesiology throughout much of Europe. Men like David Powlison have followed Adams and have helpfully built upon the foundation he laid both by placing greater emphasis on certain key themes (such as understanding suffering along with sin in our counselees), and by expanding resources and opportunities for church leaders to be trained as biblical counselors.
  • Both were committed to the involvement of lay people in their movement. Luther emphasized the priesthood of all believers and translated the Bible into the common language of the people. Adams taught that all believers are to be involved in soul care and took Romans 15:14 as the theme verse for Competent to Counsel, which was, in essence, his 95 Theses. “And concerning you, my brethren, I myself am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish each other.”

I realize that it is out of fashion in certain circles of biblical counselors to speak positively about Jay Adams. Some are embarrassed by what they perceive to be his shortcomings and would like to think that we have moved beyond Adams. Many people who have never heard Jay or even read one of his books are extremely critical of him.[i] Some, when they take the time to read Jay’s books, are surprised to discover how biblically balanced and insightful he was, especially given that he was starting something very new.[ii] While most of us can’t affirm everything Martin Luther ever said or did, we thank God for Martin Luther and how he was used five hundred years ago to recover the great Solas of our faith. In the same way, I am not claiming that Jay Adams is a perfect man or a perfect scholar, but I thank God for how Jay has been used to lay a foundation of soul care which is based upon God’s all-sufficient and powerful Word and is centered in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The rest of us are building upon that foundation.

[i] I ran into an editor who said that he would never recommend a book based upon biblical counseling because he hates “John Adams” and all for which he stands (based upon something he had heard decades before). I didn’t point out at the time that while this man had the wrong Adams, it is true that John Adams, like Jay, was a founding father.

[ii] I had a friend who once said, “Imagine what Calvin and Luther could have written if they could have read Calvin and Luther before they started writing.” Similar things could be said of Jay.