Before 2008 I was vaguely aware of Jay Adams’ nouthetic counseling. But in 2008 I read his little booklet Godliness Through Discipline, and I was incensed.
At that time my understanding about abuse and abuse enablers was microscopic, but I had been studying the Scriptures, and I knew this teaching was wrong and would lead people away from Jesus instead of toward Him.
(Only later did I understand the dynamics of how this wrong teaching could lead to abuse enabling and blaming and shaming of victims.)
So I wrote a passionate refutation of the booklet. But I didn’t know what to do with that refutation. I didn’t have any place to publish it. I didn’t even have a blog yet. And when I did start my blog the following year, it was a devotional blog, and this passionate critique didn’t quite fit there.
Finally, in 2013, I realized I could post it as a book review on Amazon. (It is by far the book’s longest review.) In 2014 when I and some friends started the BJUGrace blog, I posted it there in 3 parts.
Since Here’s the Joy took a turn to speak out for the oppressed in 2016 or so, I’ve written to refute Jay Adams Nouthetic Counseling (often called “Biblical counseling”) many times. Many others are also speaking out about it, for which I’m very thankful. Mostly the conversation centers around the abysmal and utterly destructive counseling that is given to abuse victims and abusers about repentance, forgiveness, bitterness, etc, which certainly does merit much discussion.
But the Jay Adams presentation of sanctification merits discussion as well. It is also destructive in its way.
Here is my 2008 critique in its entirety (with only a few small edits), for anyone who wants to better understand what Jay Adams teaches about sanctification and why I believe his teachings are deeply detrimental to our Christian lives.
Because this critique is from 2008, it doesn’t mention abuse and trauma. Perhaps in the comments we can discuss how it applies to the current discussion.
Here is my review of Godliness Through Discipline.
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 as a free online download, 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 book.
“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,” Galatians 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,” Romans 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 2 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 claims that the more a person does something fleshly and “natural,” the more “natural” it becomes. He then claims 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), as I continue 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 principles (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 Romans 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 persevere 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,” Galatians 2:21.
Misrepresentation of Scripture
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 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: Romans 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 (Hebrews 2:10; Heb 5:9). We too, are told over and over that we are to become perfect (Matthew 5:48; 2 Cor 13:11; Eph 4:13; Col 1:28; Col 4:12; I Thess 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 1 Corinthians 15:31, where Paul said, “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 was talking about physical persecutions and physical death, the same as in 2 Corinthians 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.”
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. Second Corinthians 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.
Minimization of the Holy Spirit, Prayer, and Faith
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 battle 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 passes “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 when they trust in Jesus Christ. 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 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 Who 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.
Motivation to Change
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”? It appears to be what he’s 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, he 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. Again, 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 (2 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?
How Do We Get Godliness?
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 Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is freedom. This is joy. This is Christianity.
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.