Tag Archives: Jay Adams

‘We’ or ‘You’ in Preaching?

When he’s making his applications, should a preacher use ‘we’ or ‘you’?   There are arguments for and against both.  Using “we” sounds more humble and preachers don’t want to be accused of coming off arrogant and self-righteous.  But using “we” also sounds a bit weak-kneed, as if God’s Word doesn’t speak authoritatively and directly to the congregation from the pulpit.

In one corner is Alec Motyer, a ‘we’ proponent.  In his book Preaching? Simple Teaching on Simply Preaching, he says he’s “not comfortable with the ‘you’ approach to preaching.  We are not like doctors diagnosing and prescribing for someone else’s complaint – in which case ‘you’ is appropriate and necessary.  We who preach are fellow-sufferers from the same disease!” (p.95)

In the other corner of the ring, we find, perhaps not surprisingly, Jay Adams.  In Truth Applied, Adams argues that effective application requires direct language directed to the hearer.  He says that applicatory language is “at once clear, simple, direct, personal, active and concrete” (p.115).  Whether in the introduction or elsewhere, the preacher has to direct his speech to the congregation.  It’s got to have punch.  That means ‘you.’

‘We’ or ‘you’ may appear a vexing question.  But what if the Bible gave us an answer?  What if there was a sermon addressed to a congregation of believers where we might be able to see not only how the early Christians dealt with this, but also discern God’s will?

While the book of Hebrews is often described as a ‘letter’ or ‘epistle,’ a good case can be made that it is actually a sermon from the apostolic church era.  One of the most compelling arguments is the use of the expression ‘a word of exhortation’ to describe the work in Hebrews 13:22.  Exactly the same expression appears in Acts 13:15 to describe preaching in the synagogue.  Moreover, numerous scholars have drawn attention to rhetorical devices used in the work – these devices are usually associated with spoken language rather than written.  While there’s no way to be absolutely certain, it’s quite likely that most of what we call Hebrews was originally a message delivered to one or more churches.

Now if that’s true (I think it is), then we could examine the applicatory language used by the author/preacher of Hebrews.  Does he use ‘we’ or ‘you’?  There’s plenty of applicatory language to be surveyed throughout the book.  I didn’t do a tally of all the uses, but I’m going to guess that it’s about half and half for ‘we’ and ‘you.’  Here are a few select examples of ‘we’:

“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.”  (Heb. 2:1)

“Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.”  (Heb. 4:11)

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.” (Heb. 4:14)

Here are just a few examples of ‘you’ (second person plural):

“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” (Heb. 3:12)

“Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.” (Heb. 10:35)

“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’”  (Heb. 13:5)

This variety of applicatory usage is found throughout the book, although it does start to clump up in chapter 13 with its large section of application.

If we take our lead from Hebrews, it seems that both ‘we’ and ‘you’ are equally valid ways of bringing application to bear in sermons.  But it would also seem that one shouldn’t be used to the complete exclusion of the other.  It’s good to be authoritative and direct with the congregation, but at times it’s also good to include yourself as a sinner equally addressed by the exhortations of God’s Word.  Let me give the final word to Bryan Chapell.  He writes in a footnote in Christ-Centered Preaching:

I encourage students to ignore the senseless arguments over whether preachers should exhort with the words we or you.   The arguments some preachers make for the exclusive use of one or the other are specious at best…Obviously, a preacher who never confronts others speaks without the authority Scripture grants, but a pastor who never identifies with sinners preaches with an arrogance even Jesus did not assume. (p. 143)

Top Five Books on Preaching

I try to read at least one book on preaching each year.  So far, I’ve been in the ministry for nearly 20 years and I’ve read at least 25 books.  It looks like I’m keeping on track.  Some of the books have been mediocre, but most of them have had something worthwhile.  Some have really stood out in my mind and continue to.  If asked for my top five must-reads about preaching, this would be my list and in this order:

  1. Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, Bryan Chapell

A fellow student introduced me to Bryan Chapell’s book while I was in seminary.  I learned so much from this book about how to preach Christ.  I especially appreciate Chapell’s notion of the Fallen Condition Focus of each passage – often when I struggle to formulate a theme for my sermon, I go back to this notion and everything falls into place.  There is a second edition available, but I’ve only read the first.  I’m not sure about the differences between the two.

  1. Expository Preaching With Word Pictures: With Illustrations from the Sermons of Thomas Watson, Jack Hughes

I’ve always loved Thomas Watson.  He’s the most readable of the Puritans.  He has a style that’s stood the test of time.  Hughes demonstrates why and also how his approach can be appropriated by preachers today.  If you want to preach vividly, like Watson did, this book is priceless.

  1. Reformed Preaching: Proclaiming God’s Word from the Heart of the Preacher to the Heart of His People, Joel R. Beeke

This large volume is all about reaching not only the minds of listeners, but also their hearts.  It’s solid on the theology of preaching, as well as on the practice.  It’s grounded in Scripture, however it also works extensively with church history.  If you’re going to read this one, also read the next one – they overlap a little bit, but also complement one another beautifully.

  1. Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship, John Piper

Few people ever think about preaching as an act of worship.  But Piper convincingly argues from Scripture that both the giving and receiving of preaching are worship.  Then he shows how thinking about it that way makes a huge difference.  As with Beeke’s book, this one gets to the heart matters and also stresses the urgency of the preacher’s task.  I’ve read numerous Piper books and this is one of his best.

  1. Truth Applied: Application in Preaching, Jay Adams

I read this back in seminary, over one of my summer breaks.  More than any other book, it impressed upon me the need to have preaching that aims to change hearts and lives.  Even if you disagree with Adams’ approach to counselling, there’s a lot to glean from what he’s written about preaching.

Jay Adams and Colitis


I really do appreciate a lot of what Jay Adams has done for Christian counselling.  In fact, in 2010, I featured him in my series “Friends You Should Meet.”  I’ve read quite a number of his books and have gained something from almost all of them.  I especially appreciate his eagerness to have the Word of God as the foundation and guide for Christian counselling.

Over the last while, I was reading his 1972 collection of essays and addresses, The Big Umbrella.  This was published two years after his landmark volume, Competent to Counsel.  In these essays, one finds the same principled approach to the discipline:  “The Scriptures must be the basis for all that is said and done in counselling” (26).  Moreover, as elsewhere, he affirms that there is really such a thing as mental illness.  It can be due to “organic problems, brain damage, chemical damage or malfunction, toxic damage, or other organic causes” (47).  In a footnote later in the book, Adams adds that some mental health issues can be caused by glandular imbalances.  Then he also says this:  “There is also a gray area of problems that are of uncertain etiology” (161).  Etiology refers to the causes of diseases.  Uncertain etiology means that we don’t know what causes it.  Adams usually deals in black and white, but in this footnote he admitted a gray area.

The chapter “Is Society Sick?” includes a note about “Sickness in the Scriptures.”  This note mentions Adams’ idea of hamartiagenic illnesses.  Hamartiagenic illnesses are those that are brought on by sin.  A classic example would be how sexual promiscuity results in sexually transmitted diseases.  You would not have caught that disease if you had not been sexually immoral.  As a category per se, I don’t think there is any reason to object to this notion.

However, later in that note, Adams mentions colitis as a hamartiagenic illness.  (What is colitis?  Click here.) The underlying cause of colitis, says Adams, is resentment.  I looked to see if Adams discusses this anywhere else.  I found mention of it in The Christian Counselor’s Manual (1973).  There Adams is discussing a hypothetical marriage breakdown involving Bill and Jane.  Adams says to Jane, “Your colitis is not the result of Bill’s wrongs toward you, but evidently has been occasioned by the sinful way in which you have handled these wrongs.  After all, Jesus did not have a colitis attack on the cross” (268).  Adams bases this view on a 1963 book by Dr. S. I. McMillan, None of These Diseases (since republished many times, also in a revised edition).  McMillan cited research supposedly showing that “96 per cent of colitis patients admitted to one hospital were dominantly resentful persons” (Adams, The Big Umbrella, 61).  Bitterness and resentment cause colitis, and colitis is therefore a hamartiagenic illness — according to Adams in 1972/73.

I read this and went a little squinty-eyed.  I’ve been a pastor for a few years now and I’ve known several parishioners who suffer with colitis and its cousin, Crohn’s disease.  I don’t recall these parishioners being particularly resentful or bitter people.  Maybe they were and just hid it well — that can happen.  But what Adams was saying just does not seem to fit with what I have observed.  Could Adams have been wrong on this?  Notice that his case was not made on the basis of what Scripture says, but on the basis of a medical study done some years earlier.

I did some further research.  I asked friends on Facebook — a very scientific way to start, I know.  Of those who responded, some were colitis sufferers and said that emotional stress can definitely make the symptoms of their colitis worse.  However, can emotional stress (including intense bitterness, anger, resentment) cause colitis? According to Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, the cause of colitis is still unknown.  However, as also mentioned anecdotally by my Facebook friends, stress of all kinds can aggravate symptoms.  Interestingly, the Crohn’s and Colitis Canada website adds that the reverse is also true:  colitis can cause stress and emotional upset.  People might get angry, bitter, resentful because of their colitis.  Research done at the University of Calgary also suggests other possibilities.   But to categorically claim that colitis is a sin-engendered illness — that really seems to be a stretch in 2016.

Perhaps it was credible in the nouthetic counselling world in 1972, but today Adams’ claim is not only rather questionable, but also potentially dangerous.  I could imagine someone reading The Big Umbrella, not doing their own research into the state of the question today, encountering someone with colitis, and concluding that they must be bitter and resentful.   Addressing them on that basis could do a lot of harm, not only to the individual being suspected of sin, but especially to the relationship between the pastor/counsellor and the colitis sufferer.  At best, when it comes to the cause of colitis, one should fall back to “uncertain etiology.”  We don’t know what causes it.  That being true, pastors and other counsellors should focus their attention on helping people cope with their colitis in a biblical, God-honouring fashion.

Top Ten Influential Books

There’s this thing on Facebook where people are invited to share the top ten influential books in their lives.  A while back I was tagged for this too.  It didn’t take much thought — I had my top ten in ten minutes.  For my own future reference, and perhaps to point you in the direction of some good books too, I thought I would post it over here as well.

1. The Word of God — a light for my path, wisdom from above, good news for a great sinner.
2. The Defense of the Faith (3rd edition), by Cornelius Van Til. This book and its biblical approach has been foundational for everything, not just apologetics.
3. A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, by J. I. Packer. Combined with the next volume, this set me to learn from the Puritans.
4. Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were, by Leland Ryken. This busted all kinds of preconceived notions of the Puritans.
5. All Things for Good, by Thomas Watson. This is the first Puritan book I read. It’s powerful!
6. Expository Preaching with Word Pictures, by Jack Hughes. This one unfolds the method behind Watson’s genius and applies it to preaching today.
7. Christ-Centered Preaching, by Bryan Chapell. The book my seminary preaching prof dissed, but which many of us loved and learned lots from.
8. The Christian Soldier, by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. This helped to bridge the gap between my military ambitions and the desire to serve in a different army.
9. Competent to Counsel, by Jay Adams. How do you apply Van Til’s presuppositionalism to counselling? Adams made a good initial effort to show us.
10. War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin, by Carlos M. N. Eire. Was the Regulative Principle of Worship invented by the Puritans? No, Eire demonstrates that its pedigree goes back to at least Geneva.

There are lots of other books, but I’d say that those 10 were definitely some of the biggest ones in my life so far.

Friends You Should Meet (3) — Jay Adams

It’s not a secret that I love books.  Here in my study I often feel like I’m surrounded by good friends.  In this series of posts, I’d like to introduce you to some of my friends, both the old ones from centuries ago and the more recent ones.  I’ll describe their strengths and, where necessary, their weaknesses.  The aim is to help you find good friends for yourself — in other words, to find edifying reading that will give you a better understanding of the Christian faith, a greater grasp of the gospel, and a deeper love for Christ.

What does Jay Adams have in common with the Puritans?  I mean, besides many theological commonalities?  Both are objects of intense prejudice.  Everybody knows that Jay Adams and his counseling methodology is bad, but very few people have actually read anything by Jay Adams.  In the Canadian Reformed community, the source of this deep antipathy for Adams can be traced back to a 1977 article in Clarion by Dutch theologian C. Trimp.  The article (originally a lecture he delivered at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary), while expressing some appreciation, generally took Adams apart.  Trimp’s critique would be parroted by CanRC leaders for years to come.  However, what Trimp wrote was based on just one early book of Adams (Competent to Counsel) and, in the meantime, Adams had written several more books.  In some of those books, he explained himself further and negated many of the criticisms that Trimp offered.  I began reading Adams in university and was immediately impressed by his deep commitment to Scripture and the Reformed faith.

Jay Adams (born 1929) is the author of more than 100 books and remains an in-demand lecturer.  He did his seminary training at Reformed Episcopal Seminary and completed a Ph.D. at the University of Missouri.  From 1963-1983, he taught at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  Prior to that, he pastored a number of Presbyterian churches, including an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation.  The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church currently holds his ministerial credentials.  He was the founder of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) as well as the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC).  He’s currently involved with the Institute for Nouthetic Studies.

Why is Jay Adams important? For precisely the same reason I first appreciated Adams back in university:  he takes the Bible seriously.  He writes on a variety of subjects, from Christian living to counselling to preaching, but whatever the topic, sola Scriptura is his touchstone.  You may not always agree with his conclusions, but you have to agree that this is the right approach.  Basically, Adams takes the presuppositional approach of Cornelius Van Til and applies it to pastoral theology.  I’ve read about a dozen of Adams’ books and have learned a lot from them.

Where do I start? As mentioned, Competent to Counsel was one of Adam’s earliest books, published in 1970.  It’s an important book, but it does leave a lot of questions hanging.  If you’re interested in Adam’s counselling methodology, a better place to start would be A Theology of Christian Counseling: More Than Redemption.  A good follow-up would be How to Help People Change: The Four-Step Biblical Process.  A couple of other books that are more directed to the regular “person in the pew”:  What To Do on Thursday: A Layman’s Guide to the Practical Use of the Scriptures and The Biblical View of Self-Esteem, Self-Love, Self-Image.  Preachers and aspiring preachers need to read his Truth Applied: Application in Preaching.

What to look out for? Adams is a controversial figure.  On a formal level, some people have a difficult time getting past Adams’ tone and style.  For some, he’s too strident, too forceful, too critical, or too this or that.  Theologically, questions have sometimes been raised about Adam’s concept of habituation.  George M. Schwab wrote an article in the Winter 2003 Journal of Biblical Counseling (published by CCEF) alleging that Adams was more influenced by O. Hobart Mowrer and William Glasser than by Scripture on this point.  When someone has written as much as Adams, you can expect that there will be disagreements and critiques.  Meanwhile, another generation of counselors has arisen and some of these (esp. at CCEF) have modified Adams’ approach in what may be described as a kinder and gentler direction.  While this is not a serious theological faux pas, if I remember correctly, Adams is also postmillennial in his eschatology.

Writing about Jay Adams in a positive way is a risky endeavour.  For every positive point that one might rise, there will be a host of people who raise the negatives.  Adams is not infallible, but he does respect the infallible Bible and he is Reformed in his convictions.  I know that my life and  ministry have certainly been enriched by his writings.  Perhaps he has something to offer you too.

BTW, Jay Adams blogs here.