Nouthetic Counseling – Scripture as a Standard guideline for Directional Counsel

By Prasha Maharjan

Counseling means giving advice to a person having practical problems (McLemore, 5).  In the Christian world, the word ‘counsel’ is seen both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Scripture refers God to be the perfect counselor and when Christ ascended to Heaven, God gave believers the Holy Spirit as their Guide or Advisor. People in the past generations might have very well used the Old Testament, especially the wisdom literature for guidance. It was a basis for morality and justice. Even Jesus counseled using the Old Testament during His time.  Certainly, counseling simply meant advising, and perhaps it was a guide to live a problem-free life as well.

Dr. Jay Adams in the year 1970 developed a model of counseling derived from biblical principles. Nonetheless, Biblical counseling, of the kind represented by the Nouthetic school of counseling, is unbiblical, not because it does not use the Bible (which it does, and often effectively), but because it is not biblical enough. That is, it leaves out certain aspects of human life and function that are essential to having a holistic Biblical perspective.

Counseling had been taking place within the church but a model had not been developed then. Adams who is considered the founding father of Biblical counseling came out of the seminary to preach at a church, He said he found himself incompetent at counseling a suffering person. Adams became interested in psychology to learn about counseling people. However, psychology did not help Adams any more than the seminary degree that he graduated with. In the following years, under O. Hobert Mowrer, Adams had his eye-opening experiences to true counseling. Though Mowrer was not a Christian or even a theist, Mowrer recognized that psychotherapy was a failure because it blamed others for all the problems. Mowrer contended that the problem was actually the patient’s own behavior. This was not new to Adams who as a Christian knew that the basic problem of humankind is its sinful nature. Henceforth, Adams engaged himself in developing a model for counseling based on biblical principles and gave birth to Nouthetic counseling.

Adams’ model for Nouthetic counseling is comprised of three elements.

The Nouthetic confrontation always implies a problem, and presupposes an obstacle that must be overcome; something is wrong in the life of the one who is confronted. The idea of something wrong, some sin, some obstruction, some problem, some difficulty, some need that has to be acknowledged and dealt with, is central. In short, Nouthetic confrontation arises out of a condition in the counselee that God wants changed. The fundamental purpose of Nouthetic confrontation, then, is to effect personality and behavioral change. (Adams 45).

The second element in the concept of Nouthetic confrontation is that problems are solved nouthetically by verbal means.  In Adams’ words, “Nouthetical counseling deals with the question of what, rather than why. What was done? What must be done to rectify it? What should future responses be” (45)?  Adams says, “People never understand the “why” more clearly than when the focus is upon the “what” (46).

The third element of the Nouthetic confrontation is that verbal correction is intended to benefit the counselee. Nouthesis is motivated by love and deep concern, in which clients are counseled and corrected by verbal means for their good, ultimately, of course, that God may be glorified (50).

John D. Carter, in his article “Adams’ theory of Nouthetic counseling” said that Adams’ view of man in a psychological sense was almost completely external and behavioral. Adams’ metaphysical commitment to God and the Bible were the only aspects that prevented him from being full-fledged Skinnerian or Mowrerian. Behavior is translated into the active effort of keeping command. Carter further argued that Adams’ does not bring into perspective the New Testament concepts of spirit, soul, heart, and the flesh. Thus his concept of human being suffers because of his description of man or his problems. In contrast to Adams’ external behavioral orientation, Carter added that Jesus focuses on the heart and makes the inner aspects fundamental. Just a few references will show how basic the concept of heart is in biblical psychology: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34); “a good man brings good out of his heart” (Matthew 15:19);” out of the heart proceed evil thoughts” (Matthew 15:19). Doubt (Mark 11:23), conviction (Acts 2:37), and belief (Romans 10:9) are other aspect that take place in the heart. Carter also added that adultery is also not just a behavioral act but an event which can take place in the heart without external evidence (Matthew 5:28). Finally, the first and greatest commandment stresses the internal aspect of man who is to love God with all his heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37).

Adams also excludes passive commands and exhortations of Scripture such as: “abide in Christ” (John 15:4); “let the peace of Christ dwell in your hearts” (Colossians 3:15); and “be anxious for nothing” (Philippians 4:6). These passive commands, which focus on the inner or central aspects of human nature, are apparently excluded along with heart, soul, and spirit because they are not assertive and do not lend themselves to behavioral definition. Adams’ definition of sin is in terms of the heart and its deceitfulness (Jeremiah 17:9; Mark 7:21) is parallel to man’s sinful nature, which is lost. According to Carter, Adams has truncated the heart and the inner aspect of sin as the fall and the atonement. Thus, nouthetic counseling as a discussion of sanctification suffers since what the Christian is being sanctified from is inadequately defined.

Martin and Diedre Bobgan, known for their hostility towards psychology also critiqued in their book Against Biblical Counseling that Adams excludes “spiritual issues that underlie behavior” (6). Thus, the conceptual status of the inner aspect of man (heart, soul, and spirit) and the inner nature of sin (the flesh) is so fundamental that no model of man and counseling can be called biblical without it.

Carter also criticizes Adams choice of the Greek word ‘noutheteo’ and its cognate ‘nouthtesia’ from the biblical perspective for his model of counseling. Adams has never given the rationale for the choice of that concept; rather he has asserted it to be true. This word appears thirteen times in the New Testament. Adams links the word “noutheteo” to preaching and discipline which are not true and central to counseling. Preaching and discipline are not necessarily the first things that a counselor would want to impose on a counselee. More often than not, counselees are looking for words of comfort and exhortation. Carter has offered “parakaleo” and its cognate “paraklesis” as a much more adequate model for counseling from the biblical perspective.  These words or concepts are translated 29 times as “comfort,” 27 times as “exhort,” 14 times as “consolation,” and 43 times as “beseech.”  Carter emphasizes that “paraklesis” is listed as a gift to the church (Romans 12:8).  The core meaning of these words implies to simply call on people to be by their side. Berry (1974) has also recognized the appropriateness of “paraklesis” as a model of biblical counseling. Carter said, “The concept is broad enough to support a variety of therapeutic techniques from crisis intervention to depth therapy, and it is a gift given to the church.” Thus, “nouthesia” represents a rather narrow range of functioning which Christians are to engage in but does not have the status of a gift to the church and does not have the focus that Adams wants to give it.

Miles J. Stanford has also pointed out the inadequacy of considering Nouthetic counseling biblical. The framework of Nouthetic counseling does not capture the full spectrum of God’s redemptive plan through grace. Picking and applying just the relevant verses while counseling is not the way a faithful Nouthetic counselor ought to function with the use of the Bible. Stanford points out that “covenantism [is] erroneously applied to the Church that which belongs primarily to Israel”. All that the Nouthetic counselors touch becomes law-bound under the name of Covenant grace. Adams leaves no question as to that in his following statements:

Moral judgment is the essence of counsel in the book of Proverbs. The unique element in the wisdom of that counsel is its moral orientation. These are commands for the covenant people which enable them to live in proper covenant relationship to God (p. 85).

Adams further says:

In nouthetic counseling the Book of Proverbs plays a very significant part because these proverbs give instruction. The system of counseling advocated in Proverbs is plainly nouthetic. Proverbs assumes the need for divine wisdom imparted by verbal means: by instruction, by reproof, by rebuke, by correction, and by applying God commandments in order to change behavior for one’s benefit (p.99).

God’s story in the Bible is about grace. When Jesus died on the cross for sinners who did not deserve such great love, it was grace. To impose instruction, reproof, correction, and application of God’s commandments to change behavior for one’s benefit is biblical teaching but this is not what can really change a person’s heart or for that matter behavior. Change of behavior is an expression of gratitude with the understanding of God’s immeasurable love for undeserving sinners. Paul clearly says “But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter” (Romans 7:6) Thus, counselors need to understand the concept of grace and should then spur the counselee to change his behavior and rightly so that Jesus receives full credit and glory.  What Adams instead focuses on is legalism, the very laws that Jesus died for and for what Paul was passionate to renounce:

Structure is the means of moral living. Lives structured according to the Ten Commandments are by the very nature of the case also structured to the principles upon which God structured the world. The life which disciplined disciples endeavor to live is the same life of discipline and training for eternal holiness that Christ, the Son, perfectly lived. The disciplined life (a life lived according to God’s commandments) therefore grows out of the same kind of training to which Christ subjected Himself (p. 190).

The above statements plainly ignore how God has made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:6).

The Bobgans contend that biblical counseling, of which the nouthetic model is a representation, is more focused on the problem, rather than the person’s spiritual sanctification and the walk with the Lord. It is problem-centered. They urge all Christians to rather practice practical theology: studying the Bible, thinking about it, and doing it. Practical theology, they believe is what every Christian is called to exercise, not biblical counseling. In their words, “No Counseling program can ever prepare a person to minister the counsel of the Lord. Only the Lord can prepare a person—through His Word and then through opportunities (life’s circumstances) to practice that Word through loving obedience to Him “(2).

Although Nouthetic counseling uses much of the biblical principles and teachings, it fails to incorporate the idea of grace, the idea which is the most essential in bringing about genuine change in people. It is centered on problems instead of the person. Thus, the Nouthetic model of counseling is unbiblical, not because it does not use the Bible but because it is not biblical enough. It leaves out certain aspects of human life and functions of human life that are essential to having a holistic Biblical perspective.


1. Adams, J. E. (1970). Competent to Counsel. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.

2. Carter, J. D. (1975). Adams’ Theory of Nouthetic Counseling. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 3(2), 143-155.

3. Stanford, M. J. (1975, January). Incompetent to Counsel. Retrieved April 5, 2007, from

4. Adams, J. E. (1980). Helping people grow. Nouthetic Counseling, p 151-164Santa Ana, Calif : Vision House Pub, .

5. McLemore, C. W. (1985). Counseling and Psychotherapy: An Overview. In D. G. Benner (Ed.), Psychotherapy In Christian Perspective. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.


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