A critique of nouthetic (“Biblical”) counseling Part One

posted by Rebecca

This critique of nouthetic counseling comes in the form of a book review of the booklet Godliness through Discipline, by Jay Adams, the founder of nouthetic counseling. Because the booklet, available online in full, not only outlines the basics of nouthetic counseling, but also makes for very quick reading, it serves as a useful vehicle for a critique of the system as a whole.  This review was first written in 2008, before I was aware of the ramifications of nouthetic counseling in cases of trauma. I posted it as a book review on Amazon in 2013. The review is being posted in three parts on three days: Part One: Godliness Through the Development of Habits? Part Two: Misrepresentation of ScripturePart Three: Minimization of the Holy Spirit, Prayer, and Faith / A False Dichotomy.


Behaviorism teaches that behavioral change is the kind of change we’re aiming for–that is, a change of action without regard to a change of heart (perhaps expecting a change of heart to follow, but not considering that particularly important). It’s important to understand that yes, this is what is taught in this little booklet, available for free reading online, and then to understand why that’s a problem. A big problem.

Jay Adams, the Father of Nouthetic Counseling, begins this booklet by presenting an example of what he calls a typical Christian, who keeps trying to change but continues to fail. He claims that the reason you can’t change is that you have tried to obtain instant godliness, which doesn’t exist. (It seems presumptuous for him to assume that this is the reason the reader is discouraged in his pursuit of godliness. This was not the reason I was discouraged. I didn’t care about instant godliness. My problem was that somehow it seemed that I couldn’t obtain godliness at all. The harder I tried, the more unattainable true godliness seemed to be.)


First Timothy 4:7 is the key verse Adams uses to posit, “you must discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” When Adams says, in so many words, “Discipline [which he goes on to define as development of specific habits] is the path to godliness,” he’s teaching behaviorism.

“We must please God by being, thinking, doing, saying and feeling in the ways that He wants us to,” Adams says. “You will become that much more like God only because of what you have done and thought and said each day.” He is certain that you can become godly—like God, pleasing to God—through your own self-effort, the development of what you determine to be your “Godly habits.”

Adams goes to great lengths to develop the concept of self-effort (establishing habits) in order to become godly. He gives very lengthy examples of an athlete, a baseball player, a weight lifter, and how all of them had to work to become good at what they did. Throughout the book he gives further lengthy examples of buttoning a shirt, driving a car, brushing your teeth, ice skating, yo-yoing, playing the organ, and getting up in the morning. These examples of developing habits take up at least half of the booklet. “God requires us,” he says, “to discipline ourselves by constant practice in obeying His revealed will and thus exercise (train) ourselves toward godliness.” He couldn’t say it much more clearly that our works—our bootstrap obedience—will make us holy. This works-sanctification thinking is what motivated Paul to rail against the Galatians, calling them “foolish.” Paul said that when people try to obtain godliness by the works of the flesh—by “doing”—then they “cannot do the things that [they] would,” Gal 5:17-18.

“Christian” behaviorism—changing actions in order to become godly—is really the antithesis of the true Christian life, the life of faith in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Faith alone was the initial path to salvation (the justification aspect), and faith alone will continue that same salvation (the sanctification aspect), according to Galatians 3:1-3. (The discipline, or training, needed is that of keeping our hearts and minds on Christ, i.e., “walking in the Spirit.” Rom 8:3-4.)

However, Adams vehemently defends his Christian behaviorism to his hypothetical reader (who, like me, is apparently protesting an inability to accomplish godliness this way). He supports his view with negative examples, based on II Peter 2:14: hearts are “trained in greed,” the same word as in Timothy. “Without consciously thinking about it,” Adams says, “such a person ‘automatically’ behaves greedily in various situations where the temptation is present.” This comparison is a crucial error. He is claiming that the more a person does something fleshly and “natural,” the more “natural” it becomes, then claiming that this is the same way that the life of the Spirit is accomplished. But is it our fleshly efforts that will make the powerful life of divine grace more “natural”? Or is it faith?

“Godly, commandment-oriented living comes only from biblical structure and discipline,” Adams says. “There is only one possible way to become godly: You must be disciplined toward godliness until you do in fact become godly. . . .” Adams tells me to be orienting myself toward the commandments rather than toward Christ. And then to give myself a list of rules from the Bible. As I strive to keep those rules (and he never addresses the fact that I won’t be able to keep them, perhaps because he expects me to make my list small and easy to keep), continuing to get back up and keep trying when I fail, eventually I will become godly.

He says that the way to godliness is through applying principles, guidelines extrapolated from the law. But the Scriptures clearly say again and again that the only thing that the law can accomplish in us is to show us our inability. So let’s say I see a Biblical injunction to love God with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. So I say, “All right, I am going to exercise determination and perseverance and endurance to discipline myself to love. . . . Well, I failed, but I won’t give up. I’ll keep trying. Oh, I failed again. But I will grit my teeth and persevere, because that’s what God wants me to do.” So I try again and again and again, and during this time I find my heart becoming more and more shriveled in love, a dry leaf, because I cannot accomplish it. But this is the very greatest law! If I can’t keep that, I can’t keep any! I will despair! Do I despair because I didn’t get the godliness instantly? No! I despair because I can’t get it at all. I’ll despair because I was studying the demands of the law, but I was not realizing that the purpose of the principles of the law was to show me my inability. This is made clear from Rom 7:21-25. The next passage, Romans 8, makes clear that the Christian life cannot be lived by trying to follow principles, but by walking in the Spirit. The law could not do it, because it was weak through the flesh. The nation of Israel (Rom 9:31-32) could not attain to the righteousness God required. Why not? Was it because they didn’t keep trying? Because they didn’t perseverere and endure? No. It was because they didn’t seek it by faith. “If righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain,” Gal 2:21.


11 Comments on “A critique of nouthetic (“Biblical”) counseling Part One

  1. OOOOOH how this teaching hurt believers. I was taught this as a young 20ish new believer. Let’s call this what it really is …WORKS SANCTIFICATION!!! I should have been at the level of Mother Teresa how hard I worked at all of this. Instead I was angry and confused. I felt like a failure and although I thought I was doing all of this to change and because I loved God, fruitless existence. THIS IS NOT WHAT JESUS TEACHES!!!! It is about RESTING/ABIDING in Jesus. Sitting at his feet. Not a HUMAN DOING but a HUMAN BEING…simply being. Please do not misunderstand me reading and studying the word so we can know what Jesus teaches and to pray are part of the communion we have with the Lord. I was more lost with this false teaching than I was before I became a believer (mentally not positionally). I fell into a very deep and life threatening depression in utter despair. I thank God for bringing me to a group of believers who lived and taught Grace. Who lived RESTING/ABIDING not striving and works. I am so pleased you are addressing this. When I think of all the years I wasted trying to live the way the article teaches…with commitment and sincerity and how I failed and failed. Blessed be the God who knows this way fails and has such an easier yoke. For it is easy and light.

  2. Oh, wow, I’ve been reading some other sites’ perspectives on Biblical counseling, and this is fascinating and…explains a lot.

    This is, thankfully, /not/ what my Christian counselor did when we met before + after I moved out on my own.

  3. Rebecca, Yes it is evident in Romans. Just from reading Jay Adams instructions he has not read the book of Romans himself. It appears he is teaching the opposite of scriptures. Looking forward to the next post.

  4. This article is spot on. It wasn’t until I was subjected to Nouthetic counseling that my eyes were opened to how legalistic the PCA really was. I felt like a burden of impossible works were laid upon me in which I was somehow expected to not only endure marital abuse but also fix the abuser. Ultimately I was threatened with church discipline for making the same observations that are in this excellent article and left on my own accord for a church body that supports abuse victims (LCMS).

    Thank you for this expose of the works righteousness that Nouthetic counseling is based upon. Although many churches will say that they believe that our salvation is based on faith alone through Christ alone, they in practice operate through works. Why won’t the theologians of denominations that support Nouthetic counseling take a good hard look at how this false teaching is forced upon the people of God? They seem loathe to do so and are responsible for permitting this false teaching to continue devouring Christ’s lambs. Shame on them! All we can do is try to point out these errors and then shake the dust off our feet and move on.

    I am thankful that being subjected to Nouthetic counseling was a wake-up-call to other serious doctrinal issues that I would have otherwise overlooked. I suggest that if one belongs to a denomination with seminaries that endorse Nouthetic counseling, read their Book of Church Order and other documents. It is very likely one will find the same legalistic spirit alive there as well. Now looking back and flourishing in a Gospel driven church, I am convinced that God worked this for my good.

  5. Isn’t this akin to what Satan said to Eve? –> “You will become that much more like God only because of what you have done and thought and said each day.” (says Adams) He is certain that you can become godly—like God, pleasing to God—through your own self-effort, the development of what you determine to be your ‘Godly habits.’

  6. One must understand that the foundations for this unbiblical ‘counseling” method/movement/model are Calvinism and Reformed theology. It’s no wonder then that it is such an unbiblical mess. Stay clear of it, under whichever name it manifests, ACBC, for example.
    I have personal experience of this devastating ungodly way of doing things. Avoid, dear sisters of mine.

    • I had similar problems with this
      I believe Jay Adams is terribly misled by Satan
      So sad
      Run away from the Nouthetic
      Well meaning and very dangerous

  7. I had similar problems with this
    I believe Jay Adams is terribly misled by Satan
    So sad
    Run away from the Nouthetic
    Well meaning and very dangerous