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

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.  The review is being posted in three parts: Part One: Godliness Through the Development of Habits? Part Two: Misrepresentation of Scripture; Part Three: Minimization of the Holy Spirit, Prayer, and Faith / A False Dichotomy.



Adams says, “Because of the work of Christ, you have been counted perfect in God’s sight, but in actuality you are still far from the goal.” I don’t know if you’re troubled by that “it’s-true-but-it’s-not-true” thinking that’s so prevalent in some Christian circles. If God says something is true, but it isn’t really true, doesn’t that make God a liar? But the fact is that the Bible never says we are counted perfect because of Christ. The Bible says that we are counted righteous: Rom 3:28, 4:4-5, 23-24. That’s different. And we don’t have to go through any semantic gymnastics to say “we are, but we really aren’t.” We are in Christ. Therefore we really are righteous. Period.

Perfection, in Scripture, is a “finishedness,” a “readiness,” and we’re told that even Christ, who was as righteous as anyone can be, had to be made “perfect,” or finished, through His sacrifice (Heb 2:10; Heb 5:9). We too, are told over and over that we are to become perfect (Matt 5:48; II Cor 13:11; Eph 4:13; Col 1:28; Col 4:12; I Thes 3:10). God clearly did not count us so upon our justification. There is no “it’s-true-but-it’s-not-true” in Scripture.

Adams says, “. . . many of your practices are not yet oriented toward godliness. The ‘old man’ (old ways of living) is still your unwelcome companion.” But look at the Scriptures.  There are three references to the “old man” in the Scriptures:  Rom 6:6, “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with [him], that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.” Eph 4:22 “That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts;” Col 3:9 “Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds.” Each of these “is crucified,” “put off,” “you have put off” is in the aorist tense, which I understand to indicate punctiliar action, usually represented by the English past. These Scriptures indicate that (even though we can still live as if the old man is with us), the old man is no longer our unwelcome companion—this is what our death and resurrection with Christ is all about. Why is this truth crucial to godliness? Because understanding it, believing it—rather than trying to develop habits—is what will change our lives.

Colossians 3, which is the crucial Scripture that explains about putting off the old man and putting on the new man, first emphasizes, in explaining how to accomplish this, the solid truth of our resurrection in Christ, an absolutely essential truth for godly living that Adams apparently finds immaterial, because he never mentions Christ’s Resurrection at all in the context of our becoming godly. Then this passage goes on to emphasize the importance of focusing our eyes and hearts on things above, on Christ Himself. And so because of these crucial truths, Colossians 3:5, we can consider our members dead to sin, as dead as Abraham’s body was when he could not produce a child. Verse 7 says that we can “put off” the deeds of sin—cast them off like an old dirty robe—because we have “put off” the old man—a different Greek word meaning utterly trounced in battle. Colossians says clearly that we have already put off the old man and (vs 10) we have already put on the new man. This is not about forming new habits. This is about believing truth, trusting Christ.

Another example of Adams’ misrepresentation of Scripture appears when he says, “Paul says that the believer must daily deny (literally say ‘no’ to) the self.” But the apostle Paul never said that. Maybe Adams is referring to I Corinthians 15:31, where Paul says, “I die daily.” This partial sentence is almost always taken out of context. It doesn’t say that the believer must daily deny himself. In fact, from a careful reading of the context, it’s clear that Paul is talking about physical persecutions and physical death, the same as in II Cor 11:23. Spiritually, all the dying that needed to be done took place on the cross. The believer died in Christ and was raised in Christ, according to the absolutely crucial passage Romans 6:1-14, which Adams fails to give even a mention. What we need now is not more death, but faith in the death and Resurrection that have already taken place.

In another misrepresentation of Scripture, Adams says that Jesus “represented the Christian life as a daily struggle to change.” What? I have no idea what Scripture he is referring to here. I can’t think of a time when Christ ever did this. I can’t even think of another Scripture that he might be taking out of context. But Adams forges ahead, assuming that his reader will simply accept that assertion. “Too many Christians . . . want change without the daily struggle”—apparently that daily struggle that Jesus didn’t talk about. Using the example of learning to ice skate, he says, “Perhaps you have been afraid to talk to someone about Christ. Maybe you tried it once or twice, and as far as you are concerned you went zip bang! . . . that is simply part of learning to skate (or witness, or love).” So . . . failing in giving the gospel has nothing to do with a lack of faith in the power of Christ through the Holy Spirit? It’s only about practice and habit and forcing ourselves to keep trying? When the disciples couldn’t cast out a demon and asked in Matthew 17:19, “But Lord, why could we not cast him out?” what was Jesus’ answer? Hmmm. “It’s because you haven’t practiced enough. You haven’t disciplined yourselves enough. It’s a daily struggle.”

Adams presumes on the Scriptures again when he says, “Structure alone brings freedom. Discipline brings liberty. . . . The order is first, structured discipline, then freedom; there is no other. . . . Liberty comes through law, not apart from it.” Is the concept of the “freedom through structure” supported in Scripture?  John 8:32, 36, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. . . . If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” Jesus Christ is the one who makes us free, through the truth. John 14 tells us that He is the Truth. II Cor 3:17-18 says, “Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” It is the Spirit of the Lord that brings liberty, and the context of this passage tells us that this is apart from the law. It is through the beholding of the face of Jesus Christ that we are made truly, spiritually free from sin. Every other New Testament Scripture about freedom supports this concept.


2 Comments on “A critique of nouthetic (“Biblical”) counseling Part Two

  1. It feels like you’re outlining the difference between how I was raised (in Adam’s style works habit training) vs what I believe now (grace/faith in Christ alone and not by works). It’s fascinating to see the contrast so clearly laid out. Thank you.

  2. This has been very helpful to me in further clarifying legalism. Thank you. I tossed my pamphlets by Jay Adams based on this review. I hadn’t read them in awhile. I wonder if his earlier work “Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible” also strays from the gospel message. I’ll be looking at my copy with a sharper eye (and heart) now. Thank you.