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How to Help People Change

Book Review

Dr. Jay Adams remains Gospel-centered, God-exalting, and emphasizes the Spirit's power as he endeavors to answer the question, "How can we help people change?"

Jul 6, 2021

Counseling is concerned with helping people change. This begs the question, “How do we do that?” Dr. Jay Adams endeavors to answer that question in his book, How to Help People Change: The Four-Step Biblical Process.  

In Part I, Dr. Adams introduces the concept of biblical change. The goal of biblical change is pleasing God, and this is accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit. The process of this change is laid out in 2 Timothy 3:16 and involves teaching, convicting, correcting, and training in righteousness. Dr. Adams spends the remainder of the book expanding on this process, step-by-step.

Step 1 in the process is “teaching.” Dr. Adams explains that true biblical teaching is teaching to habitually observe Christ’s transcultural, unchanging, authoritative commands. This happens through the process of not only formal weekly counseling, but assigning homework that enables counselees to put God’s Word into practice in normal, day-to-day situations.  

Step 2 is “convicting.” Conviction involves ministering the Word in the power of the Spirit in order that counselees realize that they are falling short of God’s standards. Counselors must gather data, interpret it according to biblical categories, and use it to help their counselees view their lives (i.e., actions, feelings, responses, words, thoughts) in light of Scripture. Dr. Adams also comments on the necessity to differentiate not only between needs and desires, but also between conviction and introspection. He also points out the insufficiency of a mere change in thinking, and the hope in confronting sin, and dullness of heart.

Step 3, “correcting,” is the natural progression from convicting. Since counselors cannot see a man’s heart, they must create observable opportunities for correction, which is why homework is necessary. Correction does not come without repentance, which encompasses confessing sin to God and men, seeking forgiveness, abandoning sinful practices, and beginning new God-pleasing practices. Dr. Adams provides an extensive explanation of the elements of true biblical repentance, such as confessing and forsaking sin, and restoration within the body of Christ.

In Step 4, “training in righteousness,” Adams contends that biblical counselors often miss this important step and make their counseling both incomplete and ineffective in helping counselees with continual discouraging failure. The counselor’s goal is to help counselees, who are already righteous in Christ, flee self-righteousness and put on true Christlike righteousness. Many are tempted to think this is impossible due to their continual battles with sin along with their understanding of Romans 7:14-25. However, Adams reminds his readers that, according to Romans 6, 1 Peter 4, and 1 John, righteous living is not only possible, it is promised and therefore expected. One key to this training in righteousness is the concept of habit. Habits enable us to do our normal activities unconsciously. Sadly, we have twisted these blessings and developed sinful habits while living in the flesh. We need new habits by the power of the Word and Spirit. Such patterns need to be established before counseling ceases. 

There are several strengths to this book that make it a useful resource, particularly for younger biblical counselors. First, Dr. Adams possessed a wonderful and rare ability to provide biblical steps, processes and methods without delving into moralism and pragmatism. He always remains Gospel-centered, God-exalting, and emphasizes the Spirit’s power. Second, the case studies are wonderful illustrations that encourage counselors with the hope that they too can minister the Scriptures in such a way that encourages biblical change in people’s lives. Finally, Dr. Adams addresses the issue of integrating psychology into counseling and delivers a robust and concise defense of the sufficiency of Scripture. On a personal note, this writer has yet to come across a more helpful answer to that fiercely contested issue. I highly recommend this book.

Helpful Quotes 

  1. “External changes that do not follow an internal change of heart toward God always move a person further away from the Lord. So change that is socially good may be religiously evil” (page 6). 
  1. “Our problem is not that we do not have what we need in the Bible, but that we do not have enough of the Bible in us, which we need!” (page 32).  
  1. “The Bible must not only be used up front in counseling; it must be kept before the counselee at all times as the basis for everything that is done” (page 70). 
  1. “Jesus taught frequently the doctrine of radical amputation.… Cutting off a right hand or foot or gouging out a right eye is a preventive measure, designed to deter repetition of a sin. It is a way of (1) preventing unconscious, automatic, habitual sin and (2) making it difficult to sin again in the same manner” (page 73). 
  1. “God taught truth in the milieu because He did not want us to dichotomize truth and life. Truth is to be ‘observed’; it is for living, for pleasing God. We can learn much by simply observing how God teaches in His own Word. If we do not, we shall never learn to teach well ourselves” (page 89). 
  1. “Much change that is offered today in counseling—even in the Name of Christ—is sub-Christian. Aimed at little more than making counselees happier, it neglects the basic reason why a believer must change: to please God” (page 109). 
  1. “God does not ask us to tally the emotional responses that accompany conviction; He tells us to look for the fruit of repentance in a changed lifestyle” (page 134). 
  1. “By instructing the counselor to use the Scriptures to train in righteousness those who have been corrected, [Paul] was attempting to avert one of the most disheartening burdens a Christian can ever bear—the burden of continual, discouraging failure” (page 171). 
  1. “No one has any business counseling until he affirms, with John, that it is truly possible for a child of God to ‘do righteousness’” (page 185). 
  1. “Habit is a blessing from God that enables us to do things unconsciously, automatically, skillfully, and comfortably (its four characteristics) so that we can do other things at the same time” (page 193).