Paul's Passing Thoughts

David Powlison’s Real Legacy: He Deliberately Destroyed The Real Biblical Counseling Movement

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul M. Dohse Sr. on December 26, 2021

“Powlison’s pseudo legacy will undoubtedly include the assumption that he was on the right side of the gospel while allowing the default assumption that Powlison propagated for years: Jay Adams’ biblical counseling construct is predicated on a false gospel. I am writing this article to set the record straight.” 

David Powlison, the longtime biblical counseling icon and faculty member of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation at Westminster Seminary has died. He was 69 years old. While I feel no animosity towards Powlison, and as a caregiver do not wish pancreatic cancer on anyone, I am not going to stand by idle while The Gospel Coalition partakes in its usual rewriting of contemporary church history. Not only that, Powlison changed what the church could have become though still found wanting. After all, something is better than nothing. Powlison was a classic mystic despot dressed in scholarly garb, while teaching counterintuitive truths of old without a state to enforce orthodoxy. Nevertheless, he improvised while having the demeanor of Mr. Rogers and the cunning of the Lion King’s wicked uncle “Scar.” That seems harsh, but my rational will be explained further along in this article.

Central to the conversation here is the gospel. Indeed, Powlison said it himself: the biblical counseling controversy between him and Jay Adams involved two different gospels. Yes, I know, everything in the church is destined to become an argument, that’s just church, but that’s what he said….period. So, two different gospels cannot be true; one of them is false, or both are false. Powlison’s pseudo legacy will undoubtedly include the assumption that he was on the right side of the gospel while allowing the default assumption that Powlison propagated for years: Jay Adams’ biblical counseling construct is predicated on a false gospel. I am writing this article to set the record straight.

We all know what I think of Calvinism, and not because of the predestination issue, but because Calvin clearly taught progressive justification. However, the counseling philosophy of a sanctified Calvinist saved my life. The term, “sanctified Calvinist” is reserved exclusively for Jay Adams out of respect. In reality, he is a confused Calvinist for the better but I would never call him that. Adams is a Calvinist who had sanctification half right, which led to an actual revival, a revival that I witnessed firsthand and experienced for myself. Does the gospel have enough power to change lives and spark a revival when it is partially right? Certainly. Part of the gospel message is the issue of people living by their consciences. Do many unbelievers have a healthy conscience? Yes. Will they be happier if they live by it? Certainly. Does the same principle apply to Christians? Definitely. Will living by conscience save you? No. However, this is an example of a practical principle that Adams implemented in his counseling construct because, as we know, if you jump of a cliff, injury is determined by the height of the fall, and God would agree with that assessment.

With Powlison, not so much. Powlison would have said that such a question must be answered in its, “gospel context.” With Powlison, one thing was always certain: any no-brainer question would be answered with a cacophony of nuance in order to further Powlison’s view of spiritual hierarchy. Powlison was the epitome of someone who was all about spiritual caste. Adams was not of the same college. Before I clearly specify the difference, in a manner of speaking, between the Powlison gospel and the Adams gospel, the difference of mentality between the two is an important distinction. The Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) is the counseling wing of Westminster Seminary. NANC, (National Association of Nouthetic Counselors) was a certification organization that many said Adams founded but he didn’t. Adams wanted his counseling movement begun by the controversial book written by him, “Competent to Counsel,” to be a layman’s movement. He believed the average Christian was competent to counsel other Christians. It was Powlison et al (the others will be mentioned further along) who wanted the movement to be an elitist professional movement. This was Powlison’s first act of hijacking the Adams revival. I call it that for convenient nomenclature while noting that Jay would object to me referring to it as such. Adams went along with the NANC thing while seeing little harm in it, but always emphasized the ability of the average Christian to take the word of God and help others with it.

Before we get into the two gospels that drive the two different counseling constructs, we want to take a look at the very important contemporary history of, yes, the crux of this issue, the New Calvinist movement. Adams’ controversial book, “Competent to Counsel,” was published in 1970, and that is an extremely important date. Interestingly, while reading the accoladent articles concerning Powlison’s departure, NANC, which is now ACBC (Association of Certified Biblical Counselors), is scrubbed from the history just like the real history of the New Calvinist movement. Adams, after a traumatic experience with a parishioner, set out to solve the problem of pastoral inability to help people with life’s deeper problems. His findings were published in the aforementioned book, but something else very important was going on in 1970. Following is the dirty little secret the church is presently trying to scrub from contemporary church history: the church, had in fact, lost sight of the authentic Protestant gospel. The authentic Protestant gospel did not see sanctification as separate from justification, but rather the progression of justification. Authentic Protestantism’s gospel was predicated on a strict dichotomy between good and humanity. So, sanctification as a Christian life that is infused with God’s nature and life with humanity was rejected with prejudice by the reformers, viz, Calvin and Luther in particular. According to Protestant orthodoxy, ALL goodness or the ability to do good remains outside of the believer. And “faith” was defined as an illumination that only enables the “believer” to perceive this fact. Hence, faith is all about a deeper and deeper knowledge of how far one is from God’s holiness leading to an increased gratitude for God’s grace and salvation. Sanctification isn’t about being more like our Father, which supposedly leads to the diminishing of the cross’s significance, but rather a deeper and deeper realization of how far we are from God’s holiness, again, leading to a deeper gratitude for salvation.

Well then, obviously, the focus would not be learning God’s truth for purposes of applying it to Christian living, but rather using the Bible to obtain the exact opposite: to learn how far we are from God leading to a greater emphasis on the cross. So, of course Christians lacked an ability to use the Bible to help each other live a more wise and godly life; that was NEVER the Protestant purpose of the Bible. NEVER. However, the advent of Americanism confused that truth. The authentic Protestant gospel that the Puritans had brought to America became integrated with Enlightenment Era ideas. Hence, Christians started reading their Bibles grammatically from an individualistic perspective rather than a redemptive perspective collectively. The result? American churches functioned according to the authentic Protestant gospel while denying its orthodoxy intellectually. This led to the application of biblical generalities leading to a weak sanctification. Nevertheless, this weak sanctification had a profound effect on American culture. Even limited practical application of the Bible made America one of the more moral societies on the face of the earth. Yet, because the church still functioned according to authentic Protestant orthodoxy while denying much of its orthodoxy intellectually, it was primed for a return to the authentic article; in other words, from a weak sanctification back to no sanctification at all. From the beginning, Protestantism was about justification being a mere “legal declaration” and NOT a state of being. In contrast, the church had adopted an Enlightenment idea that Christians are not merely declared righteous, we ARE righteous.

This is where the New Calvinist movement started. An Adventist theologian by the name of Robert Brinsmead discovered the error of the church’s ways and began a movement to bring Protestantism back to its former roots. This was the “Awakening” movement also known as the “Progressive Adventist” movement. Brinsmead was joined by two Anglican ministers and a Reformed Baptist who formed the core four of the “Australian Forum,” which was a Theological think tank that sought to bring the church back to its original gospel roots. By the way, Al Mohler invited one of these members of the Forum to Southern Seminary in 2009 to lecture on what the Reformation was really about. Yes, the problem with the church was the following according to the Australian Forum: it wasn’t vertical enough, and too horizontal. In the same year that the forum started getting traction in the church, Adams was taking the church in the opposite direction; ie., the church was too vertical and not horizontal enough. Adams was, and maybe still is, a Calvinist that had some sanctification; he believed that goodness is inside of believers and enables them to do good things that please God. However, that idea is totally antithetical to authentic Protestant orthodoxy. Also involved in the foundations of the biblical counseling movement was David Powlison who was of the opposite school, that is, the “Vertical Church” view. More on that at this time.

Jay Adams, David Powlison, and a fellow named Dr. John “Jack” Miller were teachers at Westminster Seminary in the 70s. The Australian Forum was actually invited to Westminster to set the Protestant brain trust straight on what the true Protestant gospel is, and they listened. So much for so-called “historical precedent,” for 200 years after the American Revolution, the church in general, and those in the hallowed halls of Westminster didn’t even have a right understanding of what the authentic Protestant gospel is. Nevertheless, this is where the New Calvinist movement started. The “scandalous gospel” indeed, the rediscovery of the true Protestant gospel is owed to a Seventh-Day Adventist.  Dr. Miller took hold of the new revelations delivered by the Forum and put his own spin on it; a program called, “The Sonship Discipleship Course” or simply “Sonship Theology.” David Powlison was mentored by Miller. Powlison and Miller worked together to form their own counseling construct based on the newfound Protestant gospel in opposition to what Adams was doing, and the war was on. Except, Adams had no idea what was going on. He barked about Westminster inviting the Forum to visit, and sarcastically suggested that pork be served for lunch (along with some insults hurled towards Ellen White), and indeed, pork was served during the visit, but he had no idea that the visit would have a future profound effect upon his life and career.

At any rate, my thesis here concerning the lost gospel of Protestantism is confirmed by the all-out civil war that ensued amongst Protestant Calvinists during the 90s. Sonship Theology was nothing less than spot-on Reformation soteriology. And by the way, a Presbyterian minister who was in the middle of the fray defending Sonship was a guy named “Tim Keller,” Is that name familiar? Adams published a book in 1999 against Sonship Theology that was instrumental in defeating the movement, or so everyone thought. The movement went underground and changed its name to “Gospel Transformation” and “Gospel Centrality.” And, to object to the teaching of this movement was to be against what it was named, right? And the ploy worked; if you were against this movement, you were against “the gospel.” Meanwhile, Adams never connected the two movements as being the same thing. Do I attribute this cunning primarily to David Powlison? Yes I do.

By the 90s, Adams had developed a practical application of the Bible to sanctification that was yielding an all-out revival in churches worldwide. I ended up being counseled by a pastor influenced by him. The counseling saved my life, although I could have been healed much faster if the counseling was a thoroughbred biblical sanctification. Not withstanding, the truth of his counseling saved me from a significant time of darkness. I will say this unequivocally; I owe Jay Adams my life, but that does not obligate me to agree with him on everything. I joined the particular church where I received the counseling, and witnessed the Jay Adams revival firsthand. Unbelievers coming to counseling at that church were astounded to find the Bible’s explanations and answers to life’s deepest problems and the hope therein. Consequently, they received Christ and led lives that yielded good fruit. In one year, through the counseling, there were 12 solid conversions, or one per month, and trust me, in a church of 250 members, that is utterly unprecedented. But meanwhile, as the biblical counseling movement skyrocketed, Adams began to experience more and more persecution from within the ranks of CCEF and NANC. This was perplexing to him. The civil war going on within the movement was the elephant in the room that nobody was addressing.

Enter in the second generation of those mentored by Jack Miller and overseen by David Powlison. Primarily, Paul David Tripp. As mentioned earlier, I do not disdain Powlison (besides, he just died), but I am not so sure I can say the same about Tripp. I do, God help me, consider Tripp to be an evil false teacher. But in both cases, the following is not commendable: instead of teaching their own convictions separately and letting God’s people decide for themselves, they deemed it necessary to infiltrate NANC and destroy it, not that it was ever Adams’ organization, but merely because it was strongly associated with him. Powlison won that battle, but I don’t think he won the war…a war against God whether witting or unwitting.

The Gospel Transformation movement was deliberately covert and marked by hostile takeovers of evangelical churches. Even churches founded by the likes of D. James Kennedy stature fell victim. No one knew what was hitting the evangelical church, or why it was happening. The church I mentioned earlier that I joined fell pray to the movement and I was one of the casualties. The leadership that took over was overtly anti-Adams which was perplexing to me. Yes, apparently, all Jay Adams ever did was, “make people better Pharisees.” When I shared with one elder that NANC counseling had saved my life, he openly mocked me. Eventually, I was brought up on bogus church discipline and my family was ripped apart for asking too many questions.

But upon departing from there, I was determined to understand what happened if it took the rest of my life. Funny, earlier in my life, I prayed to God to show me why the church has such a problem getting its act together; he was in the process of answering that prayer. During the Adams revival I thought my prayer had been answered, but that notion was dashed when I witnessed the perplexing pushback against what could only be deemed a blessing. I often think about those like Dr. John Street who now go along with the narrative that those days were a lie. I left and formed TANC Ministries, a research organization. In circa 2007, Adams contacted our ministry, and through mutual correspondence between us, the nameless movement was dubbed “Gospel Sanctification.” A little more than a year later, the movement was known as the “New Calvinist” movement.

The authentic Protestant gospel propagated by Powlison has a particular serious problem: good works cannot be dichotomized from love. Grace cannot be dichotomized from love. If “infused grace” is a false gospel, if only Christ works, then there is no love in any person whether they profess to be a Christian or not, nor can they perform any act of love pleasing to God. This was David Powlison’s gospel. And though Adams professes the Protestant gospel, his sanctification construct calls for the ability of the believer to please God by loving others with a love that is within, so…

…thank God he is confused, or rather, a sanctified Calvinist. I might have to speak better of him after he dies, that is, if he dies. But, the rapture isn’t a Reformed thing either.


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