Over at the Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax has warned us against what he calls the Puritan paralysis: that crippling, morbid self-analysis – what Mr Wax calls hyper-introspection – that directs all our spiritual attention toward self and our efforts rather than toward Christ as the object of saving faith, and so cuts the nerve of Christian service as assured saints. He writes:
We can avoid this type of introspection by avoiding the pitfalls of some of the Puritans. Though the Reformers sought to emphasize the assurance we can have because of God’s grace in election and salvation, their descendants sometimes undercut the beauty of assurance by stressing the fruit of sanctification more than the fact of justification. Self-examination was a “descending into our own hearts” to root out every possible sinful tendency and desire.Beware the paralysis that comes from this type of introspection. If our goal is to discover, analyze, and root out every aspect of sinfulness in our hearts, then we will never come to the end of the task.
Of course, Mr Wax is correct to say that there can be a morbid introspection that turns our eyes upon self for the evidences and away from Christ for the foundation, and that some Puritans and others in the Puritan tradition opened a door for those so inclined to head in that direction. Some readers may know of the treatment by Thomas Shepard (1605-1649) of the parable of the ten virgins, in which he compares at length those without oil and those with oil in their lamps, emphasising how positively and creditably like one another they were outwardly, and yet some were lost when the Bridegroom arrived, prompting the lament from one wounded soul, “Oh, to be one of Shepard’s hypocrites!” While there is much of value in the book, the suggestion is that the realities of faith were so parsed down that the tender conscience might look at genuine marks of salvation in the life and explain them away, so losing assurance. And, of course, we should not forget that these same charges have been laid against Jonathan Edwards book on The Religious Affections, which takes a similar approach of analysing those things which are and are not genuine indicators of the saving work of the Spirit. As the good advice goes, “For every one look at yourself, take ten looks to Jesus Christ.”Mark Jones has gone helpfully into bat in the comments to provide something of a balance. Mr Jones points back to the historic Puritan position, summarised, for example, in the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith:
This certainty is not a bare conjectural, and probable persuasion, grounded upon a fallible hope; but an infallible assurance of faith founded on the blood and righteousness of Christ revealed in the Gospel; and also upon the inward evidence of those graces of the Spirit unto which promises are made, and on the testimony of the Spirit of adoption, witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God; and as a fruit thereof keeping the heart both humble and holy.
Here there is a clear and balanced statement about the nature and foundation of the assurance of salvation, because the root of saving faith always produces in its season the fruit of good works. One of the evidences that we are in Christ is that, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, we become more like Christ. If there is no fruit in the life – and, of course, that statement itself needs to be explained and qualified – then we have no grounds for concluding that a man is walking with God. Healthy saints are holy saints, not forgetting that the grounds on which their good deeds are accepted in the sight of God remains their relationship with his beloved Son.Indeed, Mr Wax is operating on precisely this principle in his post. Again, he says,
To be clear, in warning against the Puritan paralysis, I am not saying we should never engage in self-examination. Self-examination in light of the Scriptures is appropriate and necessary for every believer. The Apostle Paul calls us to this discipline (2 Cor. 13:5).But our self-examination needs to take place in light of Romans 8: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
But what is his premise, in terms of his post? Healthy saints are not overly introspective but properly missional, having a Biblically balanced perspective on Christ and themselves, a Scripturally informed understanding of the grounds of their relationship with God in Christ. So, are you too introspective? Have you allowed your missiological effectiveness to be thwarted by this? Are you looking too much to yourself and not enough to Christ?The trouble is that a tender conscience might take these very questions and make them the grounds of the self-same problem that Mr Wax contends against. If “Satan loves to take the tender conscience and stir up doubt of salvation, doubt of sanctification, and doubt of progression in holiness,” then he can do so as well with these things as anything else.John Owen – a Puritan, you know – somewhere says that it is the trouble of the preacher that when the terrors of the law are proclaimed, they too often seem to wash over those who ought to tremble under them while those who have no cause to fear are deeply troubled; by the same token, when the preacher ministers comforts to believers they are swiftly embraced by those who have no right to them and rejected by the very saints who most need them, as outside their entitlement. This is the battle that every shepherd of the sheep faces: to explain and apply the truth with that proper discrimination that brings needful truth to bear on needy souls, with prayer that the Holy Spirit will so make it plain as to accomplish the purposes of almighty God in his proper time.