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

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 Scripture; Part Three: Minimization of the Holy Spirit, Prayer, and Faith / A False Dichotomy.



The primary problem with Adams’ perspective on the Christian life—and by extension, his nouthetic counseling method—seems to be his lack of acknowledgment of the importance of the spiritual realm, of true faith, desperately dependent prayer, and the power of the Resurrection through the Holy Spirit in the spiritual battles that we face.

However, to be fair, in this booklet he does mention faith once, prayer twice, and the Holy Spirit a few times. At one point he says, “The Holy Spirit has oriented you [at the beginning of your salvation] toward God and His holiness, putting a new focus on all of life. . . .” What he means here is that the Holy Spirit changed your direction, but now, he explains throughout the book, the work of transformation is up to you. He says, “Now the work of the Spirit is not mystical. . . . He says in the Scriptures that He ordinarily works through the Scriptures.” Once again I wonder what Scripture Adams is referring to when he says “He says in the Scriptures.” It simply isn’t there.

I also wonder what he means when he says that the work of the Spirit is “not mystical.” Would he say that that work of salvation ordinarily called justification is “mystical”? It is a mysterious work of transformation in the life of a person that cannot be fully explained. Paul said that he prayed that the Ephesians would “know” (experientially) the love of Christ, which passeth “knowledge” (intellectually). This is mysticism in its truest sense–a spiritual truth that cannot be explained on an intellectual level. The Holy Spirit is in the business of doing this kind of work all the time.

“[T]here is no easier path to godliness than the prayerful study and obedient practice of the Word of God.” I too believe that the Scriptures are exceedingly important, but it’s not because they give us guidelines by which we can practice our disciplines for godliness. It is because through the power of the Holy Spirit they show us our inability and point us to Jesus Christ, in whom is all Power (John 5:39).

Adams says, “Do you think that after going to all that trouble [of writing the Bible] He now zaps instant holiness into us apart from the Bible? . . .” Once again I’m astonished and dismayed. Whether or not you believe that the Holy Spirit ever “zaps instant holiness,” you have to acknowledge that “after going to all the trouble of writing the Bible” he still zaps instant salvation into people. Isn’t this foundational to our faith? And though the Scriptures are hugely instrumental in understanding, and I thank God for them, it is still true that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone.

“The Holy Spirit gives help when His people read His Word and then step out by faith to do as He says. He does not promise to strengthen us unless we do so; the power often comes in the doing.” Amazingly enough, this is the first (and only) time Adams has mentioned faith as having any role in living the Christian life. And the faith he describes is still a faith in self-effort. Instead of looking to Him for all my righteousness, all my salvation, all my holiness, all my consecration, all my victory over sin, I’m looking to my self-effort and expecting Him to help me.

Here’s another critical point. From the context of the booklet, I know that the “doing” Adams is talking about above is a List (which he must expect us to keep fairly short, lest we be overwhelmed with discouragement). But in the book of Hebrews, the “stepping out by faith” to do as God says were not List things. In fact, they were often pretty strange! By faith Abraham offered Isaac. By faith Rahab hid the spies. By faith Noah built an ark. By faith the priests put their feet in the rushing river. Why is this important? Because the life of faith, the walk of faith, will look different for different believers. In each case, though, we are all focusing all our hope for righteousness not on what we do, but on Whom we trust.

“When we read about [the requirements of the Scriptures],” Adams says toward the end, “we must then ask God by his grace to help us live accordingly.” This is the first time he has mentioned prayer. And yet, who do we think we are to think that we will accomplish anything in this Christian life without a daily, moment by moment, even desperate dependence on God? It is only by His power that we live the Christ-life. Why does Adams take so long to get to something so crucial? How important, really, does he think it is?

“Here then, is your answer: regularly read the Scriptures, prayerfully do as they say, according to schedule, regardless of how you feel.” Notice that if you don’t feel like reading the Scripture, he doesn’t mention the concept of crying out to God for deliverance from your coldness of heart. No, just plod ahead and expect your behaviorism to take effect eventually, making you godly–at least outwardly.

Somewhere in the middle Adams takes a brief about-face to contradict himself. “All of the stress that the Bible puts on human effort must not be misunderstood; we are talking about grace-motivated effort, not the work of the flesh.” First of all, the stress that the Bible puts is on the finished work of Christ—not human effort—and the divine inflow-outflow that results from that finished work. Second, how is he defining the “work of the flesh”? The work of the flesh appears to be what he has been emphasizing in all the rest of the book. And what does “grace-motivated” mean? He doesn’t explain, but I wonder if it’s the common thinking, “God did so much for me that I need to do as much as I can for Him”? Instead, I would say “grace-empowered.” God does the work. We have the privilege of participating in the results.


But that talk of “motivation” is telling, because it comes up again, in a very different way. At another point in the book, Adams says, “There are only two kinds of life, the feeling-motivated life of sin oriented toward self, and the commandment-motivated life of holiness oriented toward godliness.” To think that Jay Adams presents us with this artificial, unScriptural dichotomy of choices!

Yes, we can move toward self-centeredness or toward God-centeredness, but where in the Bible does the Lord tell us that these two options are the pathways–that feelings lead to sin and commandments lead to holiness? For one thing, “feelings” can motivate a person to “feel” the emptiness that he has within, and to cry out to God to relieve this emptiness. George Whitefield was saved by crying out, “I thirst!” Wasn’t his thirst a “feeling”? The Christian world has been guilty of belittling “feelings” to the point that they are ignored as a barometer of a person’s spiritual life, when in fact they can be crucial. After all, Paul said he wanted the Ephesians to know (to “experience” in their senses and their feelings) the love of Christ that passes knowledge (academically and intellectually). The reason a person would even be reading Jay Adams’ little book is that he “feels” that he is short of the godliness he desires. May the extreme reliance on feelings shown by some groups not cause us to disparage feelings altogether!

And again in that same quotation is his theme of the entire booklet: “the commandment-motivated life of holiness oriented toward godliness.” I shudder. The letter [law] kills, but the Spirit gives life! (II Cor 3:6) If a person believes that he must keep the commandments in order to be headed toward godliness, then he will either deceive himself in foolishly thinking he can do it, as the Pharisees did, or he’ll be driven to despair, because he cannot. Motivated by the commandments! Isn’t this what Paul spent much of his letter to the Galatians castigating them for?  Isn’t this what the whole New Testament decries?

If I were to write a booklet for unsaved people called “Salvation through Bible Reading,” you might say, oh, but salvation doesn’t come through Bible reading, however good and helpful that might be. Salvation comes through faith alone in Christ alone. This is what I say about sanctification/holiness/godliness. The so-called “Christian disciplines” of prayer, Bible reading, etc, are excellent and important things. But they are not the path to holiness any more than are the disciplines of physical exercise. All salvation—including the salvation from daily temptations to sin and daily reliance on God that is called “holiness”—is through faith alone in Christ alone. This is where all the Scriptures point us. This is the gospel, and it’s truly Good News. Grace—the divine inflow-outflow of God—comes through faith in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is freedom. This is joy.


Rebecca Davis is the author of Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind. She is also the collaborating author of Unholy Charade: Unmasking the Domestic Abuser in the Church and Tear Down this Wall of Silence: Dealing with Sexual Abuse in Our Churches.

8 Comments on “A critique of nouthetic (“Biblical”) counseling Part Three

  1. This is all true. A nouthetic counselor advised me that if I would get into a pattern/habit/routine of daily prayer and Bible reading that I would see change in the relationship between me and my abusive husband. In essence I am being told that the abuse is my fault–because of something that I am not doing right. She also said that she would not consider it physical abuse in my particular circumstance when my husband hit me.

    • Oh my, Ann! I pray you will find a better counselor. I feel your pain. I have been blessed by reading this article and agree completely.

  2. I agree with what you are saying. However, it has been my experience with my abuser that he takes that message and uses it as an excuse to sin. For example, he would constantly say that he is not under law he is under grace therefore he does not have to follow God’s law-it doesn’t apply any more because we are saved by grace through faith. So, if I ever expect him to live a godly life (not lie, steal, cheat, not watch pornography) he would say it is not possible for him to act godly all the time and for me to expect him to live godly is legalism. My response would be that if you are truly saved you want to live godly and God’s law is written on your heart so you turn from your sin and live a godly life. We would go around and around on this issue. How would you address that?

    I am a little confused about nouthetic counseling. I don’t know much about it, but was told by others that it calls people out on their sin instead of giving them a free pass to continue sinning.

  3. Hi Wondering, and thank you for your comment. The book of Jude says, “For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”

    The solution for that “license to sin” your abuser is talking about is not more rules. It is an understanding of what true salvation (by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone) really is. True salvation is transformative. Our hearts and desires change, so that sin that used to be attractive is now repugnant. Even though Satan can still come as an angel of light and deceive people with attractive sin, the true child of God will have a heart desire to turn from his or her sin, drawn by the love of God to repentance. True salvation brings about a fundamental change in the deepest part of the soul.

    It’s not legalism to expect a person who claims the name of Christ to be living the Christ life (love, mercy, truth, justice). After all, Jesus said, “By their fruit you shall know them.” If a person bears rotten fruit in his life over a period of time, without repentance, we can begin to wonder if he is indeed a child of the Father of Rotten Fruit.

  4. Thank you for this careful analysis. I have struggled with anxiety and depression throughout my life. As I began turning to the the principles of Jay Adams I was left in despair. Horrible guilt as I found the “restitution” he required of me would require my entire life to carry out, and even then I would never have the comfort of knowing that I had sufficiently made restitution. For old criminals like myself, our sins are so many that simply trying to make right according to the law is impossible. But by Adam’s teaching I should do exactly that, living each moment of each day for the rest of my life trying to find a relief to my guilt, because the guilt is a result of not meeting the demands of the Law in Exodus (or extended to the the Law of Love). I was left with the belief that I could never find peace with God unless I completely fulfilled the demands of my anxious conscience.

    To show you how far my anxiety drove me, it led me to doubt the godless of my repentance and then doubt my salvation. How could God have saved me if I was so disobedient in sanctification? Therefore, must not really be saved, and couldn’t find rest until I had made right every sin of my past. I began to go through and list my transgressions. The more I dug the worse it became and the more impossible to fulfill (of course, by his teachings I was led to believe that I was simply avoiding what I should do). Did God wish me to spend my entire life (I’m being quite literal) making restitution? For those of us with anxiety disorders (which he would say is the result of my sinful disobedience), we can walk around with a encyclopedia of our sins, and never trust that we have made true restitution even when we have made specific efforts.

    Thank you for Biblically addressing Jay Adams. I pray that I will fully comprehend the grace of God through this teaching.

    • Mike R, Wow! My heart aches reading your story, and I’m angered at how the abuse of Jay Adams’ misinterpretations have increased your anxiety and brought you from depression to despair. Despair is the fruit of Satan. Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would be with Him that same day in paradise, not go make restitution. The cross reconciled you to God and makes restitution on your behalf. While I believe it’s right and good to make restitution whenever possible, nowhere in scripture are we commanded to make restitution for our whole lives! The Bible says that He has cast our sins as far as the east is from the west, you are free from the burden of sin. However, there may be consequences set in motion that may be causing you anxiety – I don’t know – but even so, Christ has given us a way to deal through even that, “do not not be anxious about anything, but in everything make your requests known to God”, “cast all your cares on Him for He cares for you.” I too suffered severe anxiety and depression, but I realized (after a decade) that it was due to my emotionally destructive marriage. Why a decade, you may wonder? Because people like J. Adams told me that I was in sin by not doing a,b,c – while never acknowledging my spouse’s abuse. So I kept foolishly believing that I could therefore “work my way out of sin” (problem was that I wasn’t sinning but being sinned against) You see, he never had to repent and change, but I did. Talk about despair!! Anyway, I hope that you have found peace in your soul and are able to rejoice in your salvation. “May the Lord lead your hearts into a full understanding and expression of the love of God and the patient endurance that comes from Christ.” 2 Thessalonians 3:5

  5. When I read the writing of people like Adams, I always wonder what kind of childhood they had — what their parents were like, what they were taught in churches. I always wonder if their parents loved with strings attached.