Miles J. Stanford

The purpose of this paper is to look further into the Nouthetic (pronounced newthetic) technique of Dr. Jay E. Adams, and to bring out its similarity to the teaching of Dr. John F. MacArthur. [Since the National Association of Nouthetic Councelors (NANC), the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF), and the Biblical Counseling Foundation (BCF) all employ the counseling teachings and methodologies of Dr. Adams, the comments made herein also apply to these organizations.]

The counseling program of The Master's College and The Master's Seminary has been formulated and is directed by Dr. Wayne A. Mack, longtime associate of Dr. Adams. The title of the textbook for the MacArthur counseling program is Introduction to Biblical Counseling (Word 1994, 408 pages), and was primarily edited and written by the Covenant theologian, Dr. Mack.

We will look at some of Dr. Adams' nouthetic teaching, upon which the MacArthur program is built. Probably the best known and most widely used book on Biblical Counseling is Dr. Adams' Competent to Counsel (Baker 1970, 278 pages). The following should make its error and danger quite clear, as something to be assiduously avoided.

Covenantism erroneously applies to the Church that which belongs primarily to Israel. All that they [Adams and MacArthur] touch becomes law-bound, under the name of Covenant grace. Dr. Adams leaves no question as to that:

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).

Nouthetic counselors frequently hand out individual portions of the book of Proverbs. One reason why they have found Proverbs so useful in counseling is that essentially it is a book of good counsel given to covenant youth. Proverbs was written primarily to promote divine wisdom among God's covenant people (pp. 97,98) [emphases ours].

In nouthetic counseling the book of Proverbs play 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's commandments in order to change behavior for one's benefit (p. 99).

As the neophyte tends to exceed the bounds of his new theological sphere, Dr. MacArthur often out-covenants Covenantism. In the Introduction of his non-dispensational book The Gospel According to Jesus (p. 15), he goes so far as to establish the Church upon Judaism:

Several years ago I began to study and preach through the gospel of Matthew. As I worked through the life and ministry of our Lord, a clear understanding of the message He proclaimed and the evangelistic method He used crystallized in my thinking. I came to see Jesus' gospel as the foundation upon which all NT doctrine stands. Many difficult passages in the Epistles became clearer when I understood them in that light.

Have you ever known a dispensationalist to make such a bizarre claim as that?  Or any other doctrinally sound believer, for that matter! Dr. MacArthur interprets Paul in the light of Jesus' Kingdom Gospel to Israel. He fails to read Paul in light of the glorified Lord Jesus Christ's exclusive doctrine for His heavenly Body.

The way of life that Dr. MacArthur points to via Jesus' Kingdom Gospel results in "the law as the rule of life," whereas the ascended Lord Jesus' present "Gospel of the grace of God" results in "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:3).

MOSAIC LAW -- Similarly, Dr. Adams leaves no question as to the orientation of his counseling:

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).

Structured, or disciplined living is living that conforms to God's commandments. Clients and counselors alike should be satisfied with nothing less than the goal of total structuring according to God's law (p. 155).

The Bible teaches [to whom?] that a peace of mind which leads to longer and happier living comes from keeping God's commandments. Thus the goal of nouthetic counseling is set forth plainly in the Scriptures: to bring men into loving conformity to the law of God (pp. 113,55).

The Covenantists' lust for law blinds them to Pauline grace for the Christian life. They stop short of heavenly position and grace for sanctification; hence they are blinded by the very law they would have as their "rule of life."

The law is a rule of death (2 Cor. 3:7). It is meant to bring one to Christ--Christ glorified, as Saviour and heavenly Head of the heavenly Body--rather than to Jesus and His pre-Cross Kingdom Gospel to Israel. On that basis the law blinds and binds the members of the Body of Christ.

"But now we are delivered from the law, having died to that in which we were held, that we should serve in newness of spirit and not in the oldness of the letter." "For the law killeth, but the Spirit giveth life (Rom. 7:6; 2 Cor. 3:6).

Dr. MacArthur is not to be outdone law-wise when it comes to Dr. Adams' legality:

The law is pertinent for those who believe in Christ because of its own character, and because of the consequences of obeying and disobeying, and because its demands are clarified and enforced throughout the rest of the NT. Its commands are not suggestions to be considered but requirements to be followed. Those in Christ are no longer under the ultimate penalty, but are not free of its requirements of righteousness.

The second principle is that the law is positive as well as negative. Its purpose not only is to prevent both inward and outward sin, but to promote both inward and outward righteousness (pp. 268,272,287).

Dr. MacArthur promotes the precept rather than the Person, for the Christian life. The Christian has died to the precept in order that he may live in, and to, the Person.

"The strength of sin is the law" (1 Cor. 15:56), hence it is not meant to prevent either inward or outward sin. That is the exclusive work of the Spirit of Christ. Hear Paul: "This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh." "For sin shall not have dominion over you, for ye are not under law but under grace" (Gal. 5:16; Rom. 6:14).

Christ is both our inward and outward righteousness! "But of Him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us ... righteousness."  " ... that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him" (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21). For the Covenant victim, law precepts dominate over the new-creation Person.

HABITUATION -- When it comes to the Christian life, all Covenant theology has to offer is common ever-day behaviorism, Do, in order to be, i.e., law.   Covenantism seems to miss or avoid the source (two Adams) factor.   Righteousness for them is developed via good behavior, good habits, by means of keeping the law. All to them is outside in!

Concerning the importance of habits in his nouthetic counseling, Dr. Adams writes:

One client spoke of having only "reservoirs of inadequacy."  He was correct, because he has been living inadequately. His past provided little more than a record of inadequate solutions to fall back upon and draw upon. But the solution to his problem was to begin drawing upon God's resources of grace.

In this way alone could he begin to fill his own reservoirs with adequate living. Action based upon faith was his need. As he begins to live adequately, i.e., according to the commands and promises of God, he would begin to fill his own reservoirs with adequacy and a sense of humble confidence would grow (p.134).

By its very nature most discipline is unpleasant. The chipping away of imperfections is a painful process. "All discipline for a moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who are trained by it..."  (Heb. 12:11).

The word translated "trained" comes from the same root as our English term "gymnastics."   The Greek, like the English, means to practice regular, systematic, habitual practice which makes the work of the Lord natural.

Just as the athlete practices until his training makes him expert and his athletic accomplishments are "second nature" to him, so the Christian by practice must become expert in holiness, so expert that his "second nature" (wrought by the work of the Holy Spirit) is dominant, natural, easy. As he continues to practice, the habit is etched in more permanently, holiness becomes easier and he becomes more naturally a Christian (pp. 164,165).

Dr. MacArthur works on the same nouthetic habituation principle:

Since you are a new man--act like it. Leave the old habits and old selfishness that belonged [sic] to the old man, and take on the new man's new habits of selflessness (Tape GC 2146).

Being alive unto God in Christ, we are not to attempt to "act like it." The Christian life is "for me to live is Christ."  "... for we who live are always bearing about in the body the dying [not habits] of the Lord Jesus, that the life [not habits] of Jesus might be made manifest in our body" (Phil. 1:21; 2 Cor. 4: 10).

Nor is it a matter of leaving "the old habits" and "the old selfishness that belonged to the old man."   We are, by faith, to put off the source, the old Adamic man, not simply his activities. This is based upon the fact that we died positionally to the old man. And of course we are not to take on the "new habits of selflessness which belong to the new man." Christ, our life, is selfless because that is His life and nature--hence our new-creation life and nature is the same.

PATTERNS -- "Manufactured in U.S.A!"  Dr. Adams' nouthetic counseling would construct the Christian life via Israel's law. This is attempted by means of diligently working and practicing until habits are formed into patterns. The following statement by Dr. Adams is especially saddening:

Holy living involves habit. Patterns of holiness can be established only by regular, constant practice. Just as Christ learned obedience, we too must learn obedience by actual practice (p. 162).

Dr. Wm. R. Newell made a statement concerning Christ's obedience:

Though being a Son, He learned from the things He suffered, obedience" (Heb. 5:8). As the Eternal Son, the Second Person of the Deity, One in the counsels of creation itself, the Executor thereof, He needed not to learn anything!

"He counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, yea, even the death of the Cross!" (Phil. 2:6-8) (Hebrews, Verse by Verse, p. 162).

As Eternal Son in the Godhead, there was no need for obedience. As the Son of Man He learned obedience in that it was an altogether new issue. But He did not have to learn to obey! "Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of Me) to do Thy will, O God" (Heb. 10:7).

That was but a hint in comparison to this:

Jesus learned God's will from God's Word which He applied to life. He had to learn how to develop biblical patterns by actual practice in responding to life's problems (p. 162).

One must learn to do God's will which he has discovered in Scripture. He must practice the good so faithfully that whenever the occasion to sin arises, naturally, and without deliberation, he knows what to do and does it with ease and expertise (p. 163).

The image in man was distorted by the fall. Believers are being renewed in the spirit of their minds. The mind because of sin had become futile, the understanding had been darkened, the heart had become hard and callous.

All of these conditions, now, are in the process of being changed by the Spirit of God. He renews the spirit of the believer's mind so that the former manner of life, with all its corrupt habits, patterns, and ways of living, "the old self" or "the old man," may be shed like a tattered, worn, filthy old garment that one throws away. Christians are called upon to "put on" instead the new biblical patterns, new ways that truly reflect the God who created them (P. 218). [Emphases ours].

Sin is pictured as a cruel master who rules over the sinner. Proverbs says "he died," destroyed by his own sin. He dies for lack of discipline, because he does not have the kind of structure that only God's commandments provide. Your only hope is to rule over sin by breaking out of the pattern that is developed through repentance and a subsequent change of behavior (p. 147).

The client must be shown the need to replace the old by new patterns. He must be shown that God speaks of sanctification not only in terms of being "separated from" but also "separated unto." The old man is "put off," partly, by establishing the "new man." Old habit patterns are crowded out by new ones (p. 151).

Though habit patterns are hard to change, change is not impossible. Nouthetic counselors regularly see patterns of 30-40 years' duration altered. What was learned can be unlearned. An old dog can learn new tricks (p.75).

But, the issue is concerned with the old Adamic life and nature, not animals.  And Dr. MacArthur is not better off in the Christian growth realm than Dr. Adams:

So, Christians are new creations, but sin is still a problem because of the old coat of humanness [!]. Ephesians 4:24 tells us to "put on the new man."  The "new man" is a new kind of human behavior, a new humanness which we must put on to accommodate and fit our new nature. We must put off our old patterns and practices--all the things of our old life that hang on us--and put on the clothes of the new man (Tape GC 1928) [Emphasis ours].

The new man is not a "new kind of behavior"; rather, it is our new-creation life, that naturally manifests a new kind of behavior. All behavior has a life-source: the indwelling first Adam for that which is sinful, the Last Adam for that which is righteous.

By reckoning upon our death to the old, and our life in the New (Rom. 6:11), the old man is practically "put off," and the new Man is practically "put on''--both, as we "walk in the Spirit."

NOUTHETIC CHILD-TRAINING -- It would seem that Dr. Adams is no more competent at counseling children than he is adults:

What must be done when a child lies, talks back, or fails to come home on time? One good way to determine fair consistent answers to such questions is to draw up a code of conduct. On a sheet, consisting of four columns, each column is headed by the words "Crime," Punishment," By whom", "When."

Each box in the code of conduct chart may be filled in according to the specific problem of individual situations. For example, lying is a crime that can be punished by washing the mouth out with soap, apologizing, and rectifying the situation by telling the truth! (When soap is used, if the child is old enough, he is first required to do research on soaps by writing to the manufacturing company to make sure that the use of the chosen soap is harmless [even Lifebuoy?!] (p. 188,189).

SEXUAL IMMORALITY -- Nor does Dr. Adams do any better counseling in the realm of sexual sin:

In all Scripture there is only one God-given solution to the problem of sexual desire: "It is better to marry than to burn" (1 Cor. 7:9). Marriage is God's answer to immorality: "because of immoralities let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband" (1 Cor. 7:2). The old sinful pattern must be broken and replaced by the new godly one (p. 35).

The good doctor should heed the context, instead of forcing his point. Heed Paul: "Now I say unto the unmarried and to the widows, it is good for them that they remain as I. But if they have not control over themselves let them marry ..." (1 Cor. 7:8).

God's answer to sin, whether sexual or otherwise, as a single or otherwise, is to reckon oneself to have died unto sin, and to be alive unto God in Christ. On that basis one is to "walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16).

PSEUDO COUNSELING -- There are a number of predominant types of Christian counseling today, none of which deal with the true source of sin in the believer's life. They are subjective, seeking to work from the outside in--and hence are ineffective.

1 -- Psychotherapy -- This method mixes three parts secular psychology with one part Scripture, seeking to "adjust" and Christianize the old Adamic life.

2 -- 12-STEP -- This extensive and never-ending program centers upon the Adamic life, i.e., self dealing with self.

3 -- Biblical Counseling -- This counseling seeks to center in the Scriptures, but is primarily non-dispensational, and Covenant-oriented. It "legalizes" the client, and does not deal with the Adamic life, which Covenantism "eradicates."

4 -- Charismatic -- This mode is totally subjective. It deals with Satan and alleged indwelling "demons," instead of the old Adamic man--the true source of sin in the counselee.

None of the above function on the basis of the believer's position--that of being dead to sin and alive unto God in Christ Jesus. Be warned, all ye Biblical counselors: to minister other than the truth of one's position in the glorified Lord Jesus Christ, is to be incompetent to counsel!

Biblical Discernment Ministries - 1/99