Part 1 in the Series: Competent to Examine Jay Adams and His Nouthetic Counseling

I have posted about “nouthetic counseling” (later rebranded to be called “Biblical counseling”) more than any other tagged topic on this blog.

But this series will examine Jay Adams’ writings themselves, drawing from the work of Valerie Jacobsen on her Facebook page, with her permission.

Because all Christians have the Word of God and the Holy Spirit and life experience and access to the findings of brain science, so all of us can be competent to examine Jay Adams’ teachings.

Jay Adams, founder of nouthetic counseling, later rebranded to be called “Biblical counseling”

Jay Adams, who died in November 2020, was so highly regarded in the fundamentalist and evangelical Christian world that his influence can hardly be overestimated.

Through his long and prolific life—over 100 books telling us we need no book for counseling other than the Bible—his teachings can be reduced to just a few points.

Primarily, this one:  almost every single non-physical problem a person has can be boiled down to a problem of personal sin. (He does make exceptions for brain injuries.)

The solution, then, to every problem of the soul or spirit—including such a variety of experiences as anxiety, depression, obsessions, compulsions,  dissociation, nightmares—and much, much more …

… the solution is to be found in acknowledging the sin, being sorry for it, and turning from it by an act of the will (what he calls “repentance”).

Then the way to grow in the Christian life is to determine to change, do prescribed homework, and practice particular habits.

Four simple steps in helping people change

Second Timothy 3:16 is the Scripture on which Adams ostensibly formed his entire counseling model. According to that, he says, there are four steps in helping people change.

    1. Teach them what is right (“doctrine”).
    2. Press for conviction (“reproof”).
    3. Correct them (“correction”).
    4. Discipline them in righteousness (“instruction in righteousness”).

That, according to Adams, is the simple four-phase path to helping people change in any way involving the soul or spirit.

Each of these steps is accomplished through application of the Scriptures and no other means. Adams scorns the “mystical” idea of “hearing from the Lord in our hearts.” (You can see from my “Beliefs behind the blog” page that I disagree with this.)

I agree, of course, that the Scriptures are profitable for these things, but I want to point out that the Bible does not claim that this is the one and only path to change in the lives of all individuals. (Again, this is elaborated on in my “Beliefs behind the blog” page.)

Trigger Warning: Casual attitude toward child sexual abuse

The example I’m looking at today is from his book How to Help People Change, originally published in 1986. The edition I’m using was published in 2010.

I’m diving into the middle of the book, because it has an especially notorious section in chapter 14, “The Use of the Scriptures in Conviction.”

On page 126, Adams says,

Let’s take an example [of counseling people from Scripture]. You have been counseling with Ted, a Christian, who tells you of his “overwhelming desire” to fondle little girls.

So let’s get this straight.

This is a pedophile. We’re talking about a pedophile. (One who claims to be a Christian??)

The more benign word “fondle” should really be replaced with the more accurate word “molest.”

This is the kind of thing that can have deep and lasting negative impact on little girls, though it’s evident here that Jay Adams has zero concern about that.

Adams goes on to say,

He claims that he cannot help it and that he has tried to stop, but this “desire, like a power greater than myself,” as he puts it, just takes over before he realizes what he has done.

Please note that Adams is describing ongoing criminal behavior.

What if Ted had said, “I have this constant urge to go to the park and find women who are jogging alone and rape them. I’m currently raping about two a week.”

Try to imagine Adams’ casual attitude toward this sin problem (and yes it is a sin problem, though it is also far more).

Adams responds by instructing the pastor/counselor to read or recite 1 Peter 4:1-2, telling Ted that,

“it is now possible to live the remainder of your time in the flesh no longer following human desires, but following the will of God.”

First Peter is Scripture, and it’s true for anyone who is in Christ Jesus. (That’s what the “now” refers to.)

But criminal behavior in which children are being harmed cannot simply be treated the way we would treat impatience or chain smoking.

Adams goes on to say (page 127),

[The Apostle] Peter’s words, when pressed, explained, and applied to Ted’s situation, put an end to his excuse making, convict him of sin, and bring him to repentance, including an eagerness to change.

Well that was easy.

Adams then tells the pastor to file this verse away to use when someone argues that they can’t change, to refute people like Ted who have these overwhelming urges.

If after this Ted still puts up an argument, the pastor is to say (p 127):

“Yes, I know your desire can be strong, especially when you have submitted to it for years.” [Emphasis mine.]

So now it is revealed that the pastor knows that Ted has been molesting little girls for years.

No problem, though. Let’s just keep working through the program.

“Perhaps you have tried to quit and failed,”

the pastor is instructed to say.

That is, Ted may have tried to quit molesting little girls just as a chain smoker may have tried to quit smoking.

Then the pastor is instructed to say the next appalling thing. In the context of how the Holy Spirit can help a person overcome sin, he is to say,

“Ted … there are many Christians just like you who have given up because they have failed in the past.” [Emphasis mine.]

Now, lest you forget, I’ll remind you once again that we’re talking here about a pedophile. One who sexually abuses little children for his own perverted pleasure.

A Christian pedophile, so Jay Adams tells us, assuming there is such a thing.

Jay Adams is normalizing pedophilia and treating it as if it will regularly be found in the Christian church in the body of Christ. Other Christians, he says, have failed to curb their perverted desires to molest little girls. They have given up and just keep on doing it.

He tells Ted it is a sin, to be sure, but he has no interest whatsoever in the impact of the abuse on the little girls he has been sexually abusing for years.

Ted sees the light

If Ted says he sees the error of his ways and says he wants to change, then we must assume he is to be forgiven and the sin is to be thought of no more (from Jay Adams’ other writings).

Perhaps in honor of his repentance he would then be promoted to a new leadership position, such as head of the children’s church. I have known this type of thing to be done in churches that practice nouthetic counseling.

If the pedophile resists the counsel

If on the other hand Ted is honest enough to express resistance to the idea of putting a stop to his molestation of little girls, then Adams has the next directive:

The counselor may wait a week or so to see if the Spirit will yet use the presentation of the Word that was given.

(“No, it didn’t work, pastor. I molested a few more little girls this week at the school where I work. Lost count.”)

The counselor will make it clear that counseling cannot continue until repentance takes place.

So when we have a confession that someone is committing criminal activity, endangering the lives of children, there is no mention of law enforcement. No mention of the fact that this activity is criminal. And no concern about the lives at risk.

Church discipline

Adams continues on page 129:

If at any length, there is continued refusal to acknowledge sin and repent, the counselor may have to institute the process of church discipline, in which one or two others (and eventually the whole church, if necessary), continue to bring relevant scriptural exhortation to bear upon the reluctant brother (see especially II Thess. 3:15). Throughout, he must be confronted with the Word in order to be brought to conviction.

Any thought about keeping him away from little girls?

No, not one mention of it. Doesn’t even cross the radar.

How much harm this one section of this one book has done through the years!

I ponder why Adams chose to use the example of a man who molests (“fondles”) little girls. If I didn’t know better, I might consider that this book was originally written in 1986 when these things were less understood. But indeed they were understood enough at that time by the secular world (which Adams spurned) for them to know this was a huge problem. And besides that, the edition I’m working from was published in 2010.

As I ponder it, I consider that Adams has most likely counseled men with a similar sin problem, and this is how he counseled them.

I wonder how it turned out.

I wonder if any of the women are still around who were “little girls” when the pedophile Adams counseled—or any of the pedophiles Adams’ thousands of disciples counseled—was abusing them. I wonder if any of them would give testimony about how it worked out for them.

The repentance

On page 133 Adams says,

[L]et me make it clear that conviction must not become a morbid, drawn-out exercise in introspection. The idea is not to make the counselee sweat it out. There are people in the church who have revived the notion of some Puritans that people must repent of their sins over long periods of time. No such thing is in view. The discussion should continue until the conviction has been carried out, no longer. When a counselee acknowledges that he has sinned, makes no excuses for his sin, is sorry and seeks God’s forgiveness, counseling must move on.

That is, counseling would move on to the next stages, correction and instruction in righteousness. Adams adds on page 134,

God …  tells us to look for the fruit of repentance in a changed lifestyle.

I would have thought that the fruit of repentance would include Ted’s willingness to turn himself into law enforcement and name all his victims so they can be properly helped and he can make restitution.

But this is not part of the picture for Jay Adams. In his teachings he makes quite plain that what he means is a particular list that he suggests and the counselor lays out: things like church attendance, Scripture memorization, and completing the counselor’s assigned homework.

Who is the real hypocrite?

On page 134 Adams writes,

[T]here are those whose consciences have been dulled, perhaps even “seared” by lies, hypocrisy, and a failure to listen to truth. Such people must be confronted about that dullness itself and the scriptural need for change must be freshly pressed upon them. Sometimes, however, the only thing that restores life to the deadened nerve cells of a seared conscience is the threat or actual pursuit of church discipline. Some people must be “taught by discipline” (1 Tim 1:20). That is unfortunate, but for their sakes, as well as for the purity of the church and the Name of Christ, such persons must be excommunicated if all else fails. [Emphasis mine.]

Now, I can’t tell you how firmly I agree with this. All Scripture points to this, and I would draw our attention especially to Hebrews 12:15, which tells us that the “bitter root” (the sociopathic abuser) is to be cast out of the church. (More about that at this blog post, in my first Untwisting Scriptures book, and in this conference talk.)

However, I do want to point out that those whose consciences have been dulled, even seared, those who fail to listen to the truth, may be absolute masters of hypocrisy.

Adams assumes that the pastor-counselor will recognize the hypocrisy, but I know for a fact that they often don’t.

So, what has happened, notoriously, in those who follow Jay Adams’ teachings?

Not just once, but hundreds and perhaps even thousands of times?

First, let’s consider this scenario:

A man comes to the pastor for help because he molests little girls.

Because his wife found out.

She is utterly distraught, beside herself, doesn’t know what to do, in a moment of boldness tells him to move out of the house, tells him he can’t come back until he gets help, and assumes the pastor knows the answers and will help him appropriately.

The pedophile “sees the light” and “repents” (and secretly vows to become better at hiding his predilection).

The pastor is convinced that all is well and is elated to have such an eager new counselee.

And since he uses Jay Adams’ book How to Help People Change, it never even crosses his mind to go to law enforcement or try to find the little girls who have been harmed and tell their parents. (What they don’t know won’t hurt them, right?)

The tables are turned

The wife, however, is afraid to let her husband back in the home. After all it was her own young daughter and her daughter’s friend that she found her husband molesting.

Suddenly then, to her shock, she finds that the tables have been turned.

“You must be confronted about your lack of forgiveness for this brother who has repented,” the elders tell her. “You are trying to act like a Christian but you are failing to listen to the truth. This means you’re living in hypocrisy and need to be church disciplined. If you don’t repent and let him back into the home, we’ll have to excommunicate you.”

The wife wonders, “How did I get to be the wrongdoer here?”

In Jay-Adams-following churches, the details may vary, but the basic scenario has been the same. The criminally abusive husband gains favored status by jumping through the designated hoops. The wife who wants to protect her children and herself—unless she allows him back in the home without mentioning his sin again—will find herself facing the possibility of losing almost every person in her life.

Is this the kind of counseling Jesus would have us do?

Or is this kind of counseling actually coming from the father of lies?

You will know them by their fruit. And not simply the “fruit” that is produced in the public image. But the fruit that is growing behind the scenes, in the dark.


I have heard many stories from those who have experienced nouthetic counseling and from those who have been trained in it. I appreciate further commentary here regarding similar scenarios, as we expose the dark underbelly of nouthetic (“Biblical”) counseling.


Edited to add: I’ve received questions from a couple of people about whether or not Ted, the pedophile in question here, was actually acting out on his desires, or was successfully struggling against them when he came in for counseling.

I replied to one of those below (another by email), but since that reply to this important question may be missed in all the many comments,  I’m copying my reply below here:

Regarding the possibility that Adams was describing simply the *desire* to molest rather than the actual act, I could be wrong, but this paragraph leads me to believe that’s not what Adams was talking about:

He claims that he cannot help it and that he has tried to stop, but this “desire, like a power greater than myself,” as he puts it, just takes over before he realizes what he has done.

Also this:

“Yes, I know your desire can be strong, especially when you have submitted to it for years.”

I would ask, what does it mean to submit to a desire except to carry out the action that the desire is pushing you toward?


Part Two of this series is now published here.

Part Three is now published here.




Go here to download your free Guide, How to Enjoy the Bible Again (when you’re ready) After Spiritual Abuse (without feeling guilty or getting triggered out of your mind). You’ll receive access to both print and audio versions of the Guide (audio read by me). I’m praying it will be helpful.



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