Jay Adams’ Teaching on Sanctification

A Biblical Analysis

The following is a discussion of Jay Adams’ booklet entitled Godliness Through Discipline (Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., Phillipsburg, NJ, 1980).

It is with great reluctance that I share in writing anything critical of Jay Adams, whom I respect and esteem highly in many ways and count as a genuine brother in Christ. His books are a valuable part of my library and I have profited greatly from them. I have personally heard him speak on a couple of occasions and I have listened to a number of his messages on cassette tapes. Most of what he says I have found to be profitable and edifying.

My criticism of Jay Adams is not directed to him personally, but to the theological system which he represents. Jay Adams, as he himself would avow, is a reformed Christian and subscribes to reformed theology. He is not a dispensationalist and would reject dispensational theology. Dispensationalism (Various Studies)

Those in the reformed tradition have much to be commended for. In general it has been a God-honoring movement which has preached Christ, honored the Bible, detested sin, acknowledged that God rules on His sovereign throne and proclaimed the glorious doctrine of justification by grace through faith according to the Scriptures. Such should be true of every blood-bought believer in Christ.  For a more complete discussion of Reformed Theology see Problems with Reformed Theology.

One problem with reformed theology is its understanding of the crosswork of Christ and the extent of the atonement. Jay Adams presents the reformed position as follows: "But counselors, as Christians, are obligated to present the claims of Christ. They must present the good news that Christ Jesus died on the cross in the place of his own, that he bore the guilt and suffered the penalty for their sins. He died that all whom the Father had given to him might come unto him and have life everlasting. As a reformed Christian, the writer believes that counselors must not tell any unsaved counselee that Christ died for him, for they cannot say that. No man knows except Christ himself who are his elect for whom he died."    See our study For Whom Did Christ Die?

Another concern we have with reformed theology, and the one that will be addressed in this pamphlet, pertains to the area of sanctification. Reformed theology teaches that the believer is under the law as a rule of life. Concerning sanctification and how one is to live a set apart and holy life, reformed theology will often send the believer back to Mount Sinai rather than to Mount Calvary. But it is at the cross where true freedom from sin is found.  For a fuller discussion of this see What is the Believer's Rule of Life?

The key to living the Christian life is not found at Mt. Sinai. It is found at Mt. Calvary. The law (which is holy and just and good) came forth from Sinai, but GRACE flowed forth and gushed forth from Calvary, and it is the grace of God that teaches us "that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world [age]" (see Titus 2:11-12). The foolish Galatians abandoned Mt. Calvary in favor of Mt. Sinai even though Jesus Christ had been evidently and openly set forth before their eyes crucified among them (Gal. 3:1). Paul determined that his emphasis would be upon the cross: "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). "But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world" (Gal. 6:14).

In Jay Adams’ booklet, Godliness Through Discipline, we have an illustration of how reformed men put believers under law in very subtle ways. In writing this booklet Dr. Adams realized the frustration that so many believers have in failing to be the person God wants them to be and failing to live the kind of lives that God wants them to live. He thus wrote this book with the desire to provide spiritual help for those struggling and often failing to live godly in Christ Jesus. What he says makes good sense and seems to offer practical help and give specific directions as to how believers can be godly and live righteous lives. The major problem is that Jay Adams fails to present Jesus Christ as the believer’s sanctification (see 1 Cor. 1:30). Instead he puts the earnest believer on a legalistic course which could end in even deeper frustration and perhaps ultimate failure.

Reformed theologians, such as Jay Adams, are sound in their teaching on justification. They teach that the believer is justified by grace apart from any works of the law (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16), and with this we would heartily agree. Concerning sanctification, however, they tend to dethrone the grace of God and put the law in its place. In a subtle way Jay Adams does this in Godliness Through Discipline. The Apostle Paul reacted strongly to any teaching that looks for Christian maturity or sanctification by way of the flesh or by way of the law: "O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?" (Gal. 3:1-3).

As the title of the booklet indicates, Dr. Adams teaches that the believer is sanctified through self discipline (Godliness Through Discipline). "Discipline is the secret of godliness" (p.2). "You must learn to discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness" (p.2). He bases his view of sanctification on 1 Timothy 4:7. It is interesting that in a booklet dealing with godliness, holiness and sanctification, no reference is made to the crucially important chapters of Romans 6, 7 and 8.

What does Dr. Adams mean by DISCIPLINE? "Discipline means work; it means sustained daily effort....An athlete becomes an expert only by years of hard practice" (p.3, emphasis his). On pages 3-4 he gives the illustration of how Brooks Robinson became such a great third baseman. He describes how it took years of hard work and practice and daily effort which developed the skills and habits which he had as an outstanding ball player. "Continued daily effort is an essential element of Christian discipline....It is high time that we all recognize that God requires us to discipline ourselves by constant practice in obeying His revealed will and thus exercise (train) ourselves toward godliness" (p.4).

Self effort alone will not produce godliness. Our working, no matter how diligent we are or how much effort we put forth, is not sufficient:

Your self efforts are useless, futile. They do not answer or solve anything. Human desire and discipline are not enough. You canít win in this way. Self effort does not win. The flesh fails. There needs to be POWER (Pastor George Parsons, Adult Sunday School lesson on Self Control given on 11/22/98).

On page 4 Jay Adams refers to Luke 9:23 and the need for self denial. On the same page he says that the believer must take up the cross "as an instrument of death upon which to crucify the self every day." Thus Jay Adams has much to say about self discipline and self denial and self crucifixion but in his booklet he has nothing to say about the Pauline doctrine of co-crucifixion (see Gal. 2:20 and Romans chapter 6). The great truth of our identification with Christ in His death and resurrection is not mentioned. The emphasis seems to be on self discipline and daily effort instead of reckoning upon what Christ has already accomplished for the believer based upon His death and resurrection. True sanctification is based, not so much on what the believer does, but on what Christ has already done. The finished work of Christ is essential not only for justification but for sanctification as well. If we are not resting upon the finished work of Christ, then all of our efforts to discipline ourselves will be in vain.

When thinking about our duties as redeemed saints, it is important to be precise. The New Testament epistles never speak of self crucifixion. We are never told to put self to death. Instead we are told that this has already been done! Again and again we are told that we have already died! "Knowing this, that our old man is [the correct tense of the verb is past tense and should be translated "was"] crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed [rendered ineffective], that henceforth we should not serve sin" (Rom. 6:6). "For ye died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3, literal translation from the Greek). Instead of somehow trying to put ourselves to death, we are to recognize that we have already died. When Christ died, I died! When Christ arose, I arose! We are to reckon these facts as true and claim them by faith.  See Romans chapter 6.

Jay Adams further explains his view as follows:

"[Taking up the cross] means putting to death the old life patterns of the old man....This is what it means to discipline oneself for godliness. It means to continue to say ‘no’ to self and to say ‘yes’ to Christ every day until one by one all of the old habitual ways are replaced by new ones. It means that by daily endeavor to follow God’s Son, one finds at length that doing so is more ‘natural’ than not doing so" (p.5).

On page 6 he says, "If you practice what God tells you to do, the obedient life will become a part of you. There is no simple, quick, easy way to instant godliness."

We fully agree with Jay Adams that godliness is not something that the believer arrives at quickly and instantly. The Bible clearly teaches that sanctification is a process (2 Cor. 3:18). The real question is whether a believer will ever get on the true path to holiness if he follows Jay Adam’s procedure.

Jay Adam’s procedure seems to be one of self sanctification. On page 10 he emphasizes that real change cannot come without "daily struggle." "It usually takes at least three weeks of proper daily effort for one to feel comfortable in performing a new practice" (p.10). On page 11 he says that the key to godliness through discipline is "endurance" (not giving up) and "persistence."

When it comes to sanctification, the believer is not under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14). Grace means that God does something for me; law means that I do something for God. Law means that God has certain holy and righteous demands which He places upon me. If law means that God requires something of me for its fulfillment, then deliverance from the law (Romans 7:4,6) means that He no longer requires that from me but He Himself provides it. The life we need is in Christ Jesus (Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:1-4) and the power we need is God the Holy Spirit (Romans 8). The problem in Romans 7 is that the believer tries to do something for God. The more we try the more we fail: "...how to perform that which is good I find not" (Rom. 7:18). At last the believer comes to the place where he recognizes his own wretchedness and helplessness and inability: "I am a sinner through and through. In me dwelleth no good thing. Of myself and by myself I can do nothing whatever to please a holy God. Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Self discipline will not deliver me. Daily effort and constant practice will not deliver me. Self denial and self crucifixion will not deliver me. Jesus Christ will deliver me! "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord....For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death" (Rom. 7:25; 8:2).

Law and grace cannot be mixed. When you try to mix law and grace then grace ceases to be grace (Romans 11:6). At the end of his booklet Jay Adams tried to bring in the grace of God, but it is almost as an afterthought. He made mention of the power of the Holy Spirit and the working of God in the believer. He said it this way:

All of the stress that the Bible puts upon human effort must not be misunderstood; we are talking about grace-motivated effort, not the work of the flesh. It is not effort apart from the Holy Spirit that produces godliness. Rather it is through the power of the Holy Spirit alone that one can so endure. Of his own effort a man may persist in learning to skate, but he will not persist in the pursuit of godliness. A Christian does good works because the Spirit first works in him (p.11).

I appreciate this emphasis. It was the best paragraph in the booklet. I am only sorry that this is not the overall emphasis of the booklet. In the bulk of his work little is said about the finished work of Christ, the cross of Christ (as it relates to sanctification), the life of Christ, the believerís life in Christ, etc. It is only the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus that can make us free from the law of sin and death (Rom. 8:2). Instead of the Spirit of Godís ministry being almost like a footnote at the end of the booklet, it should be the dominate theme of any study explaining how believers are to be holy. So too, the cross of Christ should be central. Mount Calvary should be prominent.

Jay Adams calls attention to God’s commands and the requirements of the Scriptures: "It is by willing, prayerful and persistent obedience to the requirements of the Scriptures that godly patterns are developed and come to be a part of us" (p.12). I appreciate Jay Adams’ emphasis on obedience. The New Testament emphasizes the same (John 14:15, 20-24; 1 John 2:3-5). But obedience is the result and outflow of God’s life and God’s working. Obedience is the fruit of sanctification, not the cause. Discipline is the fruit of godliness, not the cause of godliness. In Galatians 5:22-23 we learn that temperance (self control, discipline) is the fruit of the Spirit, the result of God’s life in the believer. Self control is the result of Christ living His life in me (Gal. 2:20) and my being controlled by Him (Eph. 5:18).

Any teaching on godliness which stresses self effort and self discipline and self sanctification to the neglect of the great identification truths of Romans chapter 6 and the great dynamic of the Spirit in Romans chapter 8 is in danger of plunging the believer into the failures and frustrations of Romans chapter 7. In Romans chapter 7 we find a believer doing the things he hates and failing to perform that which is good, certainly not the experience which God has intended for His children. The description given in Romans 7 is of a believer who is sincerely trying to fulfill God’s requirements but who is unable to do so: "...how to perform that which is good I find not" (Rom. 7:18). He finally realizes that Jesus Christ, and not SELF, is his only hope of deliverance.  Romans Chapter 7 verse by verse

We are not teaching that the believer is completely passive when it comes to sanctification.  Some would say, "Let go and let God."  The Bible never says, "Let go" but rather "Hold fast!"  The key to living the Christian life is FAITH (2 Cor. 5:7; Col. 2:6), and faith is not passive but is very active.  We are actively holding fast to Jesus Christ, putting all our weight on His Person and His Promises and His great working in us.

What happens to the sincere believer who tries to follow Adams’ advice?

Iím going to discipline myself to godliness. Iím going to work at it. Iím going to engage in sustained daily effort in doing Godís will and obeying Godís requirements. Iím going to deny self and crucify self every day. Iím going to put to death the old life patterns of the old man. Iím going to say Ďnoí to self and say Ďyesí to Christ every day. As I do these things I will be developing godly habits. I will not give up but I will persist in doing right. I will do what the Scriptures say regardless of how I feel. I will live a commandment-motivated life of holiness oriented towards godliness.

What will this person discover? His desires are great. He wants what is right. He is like the man in Romans 7 who delights in the law of God and desire to do right. But what will happen?

He will likely become very frustrated. He will learn that the problem is not with what he has set forth to do, but the problem is with himself (Rom. 7:14). What he wants to do (as stated in the previous paragraph) he does not do. What he hates to do he ends up doing (Rom. 7:15). He recognizes that Jay Adams’ advice is very good (Rom. 7:16). His problem is indwelling sin (Rom. 7:17). He has the desire to do good but he is totally unable to perform what is good (Rom. 7:18). "O wretched man that I am!" (Rom. 7:24). He fails in following Jay Adams’ procedure even though he wants to and he ends up a slave to the old sinful patterns (Rom. 7:19).

The main thrust of Jay Adams’ booklet does not bring the believer to Christ or to the cross. Instead it brings him to Mount Sinai, face to face with God’s awesome requirements as set forth in the Scriptures, but where is the power and the dynamic to fill these requirements? We need to apply the principles of Romans chapter 6 and claim the power of Romans chapter 8.

                                            George Zeller, revised 12/98


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