Sonship, Dr. Adams, and the Use of Doctrine for Godliness.
Recently I read a small booklet written by Dr. Jay Adams on a ministry and theology known as Sonship. Dr. Adams was a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and is probably best known for his work and books on counseling. His efforts in Nouthetic Counseling have been controversial in the christian counseling community. Well, this booklet on Sonship is controversial as well and I thought it might be good to put in writing some of my thoughts about Dr. Adam’s comments in case anyone has been influenced by it. Unfortunately Dr. Adams makes some personal attacks in the book on Dr. and Mrs. Miller. Dr. John Miller has passed away but Rosemarie Miller is still living and active in ministry, serving in London, UK. Dr. Miller and Dr. Adams served together at the seminary and I have no idea what if any relationship they might have had. I have no official connection with World Harvest Mission or the Sonship course other than having personally taken the course and taught it in my congregation. I have family and friends who have been connected with the ministry. No one asked me to do this and I hope I cause them no concern because of what I am about to say. Frankly I found the booklet to be rather unkind, faulty in reasoning, and at the very least inept in its attempt to be theological. In this unfortunate little booklet Dr. Adams seems to attempt to undermine the theological and Biblical legitimacy of the Sonship course and the Miller’s ministry while presenting himself as someone giving an objective look at it. If someone had never taken the Sonship course and simply had this book to read I am afraid they would have a terribly prejudiced and inaccurate view of the teaching and the ministry. Dr. Adams engages in some petty and negative carping about the Miller’s presentation. One instance is where he goes after them for using the word “miracle.” Anyone who has studied in a Reformed seminary probably remembers a discussion about this word. We know that Biblical miracles are those things that are impossible without a work of God to interrupt the physical “laws” of creation, such as gravity, death, etc. Dr. Adams seems to not like any other use of the word, although in common parlance people use the word in a much more casual way to describe things that don’t often happen, or have never happened, but could happen without an intervention in the rules of physics. Dr. Adams attacks the Millers for using the word in testimony when they speak of God’s answers to prayer or some obvious work of God’s grace to change someone’s behavior. I suppose if Dr. Miller knew that when he spoke it was actually a Presbytery exam he and his wife might have been careful to give a definition of miracle that Dr. Adams would have accepted. They instead speak as normal people who are amazed at how God has worked in their lives and the lives of others. As it is, Dr. Adams comes across as petty and vindictive in this discussion. Dr. Adams is again petty when he goes after the Millers for using the concept of Adoption as the cornerstone of their Sonship teaching. He wants us to know that being children of God is the important thing, not the moment or act of Spiritual adoption. Of course he neglects to notice or admit that the course is called, “Sonship” and that therefore is the fulfillment of the very point he seems to want to make. From what I have heard from the Millers they would agree adoption is where that relationship started. Following Dr. Adams logic I suppose none of us should celebrate a birthday since we are obviously alive, but it seems to me to be significant to the present reality. Adoption is used in Sonship as the doctrine, once we understand it, that can keep us from feeling like we are orphans when it comes to having a relationship with God. One of the things I realized when I was first introduced to Sonship concepts was that it used some of the great theological ideas in Reformed theology as a technique to help believers in their struggle against sin and in their walk with God. I wondered at first if this was legitimate, and then of course I realized that if our theological concepts articulated in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were Biblical they were indeed to be used to help us in our pursuit of godliness. Theological propositions are not just articulated and studied so we can think systematically but so we can live in conformity with the Truth of God, and in that conformity see our lives transformed so we become more and more like Jesus. Dr. Adams attacks Sonship for emphasizing Justification. He says it is simply a legal declaration. According to Dr. Adams the truly life changing doctrine is what happened in our regeneration. I certainly have no argument against Regeneration. I know that this is the very work of the Holy Spirit to miraculously (okay, I admit I think a work of grace is miraculous) take dead sinners and bring them to spiritual life. Does he ever do it apart from the work of Justification? Does Justification ever take place without the faith of the believer, brought about due to Regeneration? I don’t think so, and this is part of Dr. Adams great failing, and most likely the failing of many who don’t get Sonship, and that is to fail to understand the power of faith that God himself gives us. God has ordained that we believe in Truth, and that believing brings change in our lives. This righteousness from heaven has been revealed, and it is by faith from first to last. (Romans 1:17) Our standards articulate that these doctrines are to be believed and that in the believing of them God works grace in our lives. (see WSC q.30, 33, 34, and especially 36) I like what it says in Chapter 14 of the Confession when it says about our faith, that it “…gets the victory.” Paul says, “the only thing that counts is faith, working itself out through love.” (Galatians 5:6) “Preaching the Gospel to ourselves,” another phrase Dr. Adams seems to have trouble with is simply the idea of continuing to believe in what God has done for us in Justification. But if it is only a legal declaration, then why should I use the idea of it as something to believe in, and how could believing in a legal declaration help me? I suppose one might have to read and understand the books of Romans and Galatians to get it. I think Sonship is more consistent with their teaching than Dr. Adams seems to be in his booklet. Dr. Adams goes after the Millers for using phrases that imply the Holy Spirit still speaks or leads believers today. He sets up the straw man that every time one has a “leading” or claims that God “told” them what to do they ought to write it down as Scripture. Of course, this never even happened in Scripture in the early days of the Church. Neither the Millers, no anyone I know in Sonship or World Harvest Mission is claiming extra-Biblical revelation or even ideas that cannot be exhaustively examined and defended as from Scripture. To cavalierly ascribe this to them is slander. I just wonder how the Holy Spirit can actually bear witness with our spirit that we are the sons of God? Maybe the rationalistic academics interpret that to mean it can only be a written statement in Scripture. How terrible I think to keep telling the Holy Ghost what he can and can’t do, especially when the Scriptures He wrote tells us otherwise. I realize that some people are intimidated by fellow believers who seem to have been transformed in their love for Christ and walk with God by a revival they experienced from taking a Sonship course. There is nothing new here, no change from the Gospel of grace, just a fresh discovery of it by people who are being told they must take their sin seriously and that the answer to it is not from legalism, nor from pretense or hiding, but from a joyous understanding of our new relationship with our loving Father, a confidence that our sins are forever paid for and our righteousness is all of grace from the imputation of the righteousness of Christ and that through faith. There may be problems with Sonship but not those of which Dr. Adams speaks. The biggest one in my opinion is to divorce it from what it was written to do, and that is to launch people out into mission and evangelism. It was written originally to be part of training for missionaries. Any discipleship training should not ultimately be for self-indulgence, though we are always blessed as we grow closer to Christ. It should help us follow the Master, and learn how to fish for men. Some of the controversy with Sonship is not with the joy of the revived, but sometimes with those who observe that revival and might feel intimidated. Some might be suspect of how or why it happened. There may be some who are resentful, or envious, or fearful that now they will have to actually deal with their old nature and not attempt to cover it up with rule keeping. Sonship is in no way an opening for licentiousness. Grace doesn’t teach us to use our liberty to sin, but to confidently repent, and to say “no” effectively to temptation (Titus 2:11) There has been far too much bashing of Sonship from voices in the Reformed community who should be wiser, and careful not to attack the wonderful counsel of God it joyously proclaims, about how the Lord has exercised grace to us. That grace expressed in wonderful truths which helps us live for God in power.