Beware the Puritan Paralysis
I spoke at a leadership conference recently, and one of the points I made was The ministry is not about you. In the Q&A, there was some discussion about how pastors can focus attention making sure it’s not about them. At that point, I said, ”If you focus all your energy on making sure it’s not about you, then it is still about you.”
The key for a gospel-driven leader is this: remember to forget yourself.
Too many times, we dress up our introspection with flowery terms like “accountability” and “mortification” and “gospel-centered change.” Even if all these terms and concepts are good and needed, if our gaze is constantly inward-focused, then we are as self-centered as the Christian who is consumed with seeking personal pleasure apart from God.
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.
Satan loves to take the tender conscience and stir up doubt of salvation, doubt of sanctification, and doubt of progression in holiness. Then, he turns the gaze of the introspective person inward, where the dark recesses of our hearts continue to lead to darker recesses still. Instead of living in the shining light of gospel truth, the gospel that dispels all this darkness and grants us a new heart, we travel deeper and deeper into the cavernous rooms of our remaining sin.
Meanwhile, our missiological effectiveness is thwarted. We talk about grace, sing about grace, read about grace, and hear sermons about grace, but at the end of the day, we are paralyzed, not free. We see ourselves only as sinners, not saints. Constant self-doubt and introspection haunt our efforts to be on mission.
We will never be effective missiologically if the main source of our energy is spent rooting out every sinful tendency we have in our hearts. There is no end to discovering our depravity. The paradoxical truth is that the more we rest in the goodness of our Savior, the more progress we make in our fight against sin.
I’d love to see Martin Luther come in and bust up our accountability groups. After slapping us around a little, he would say, “Get on with the work of the ministry and rest in Your sovereign Savior.” Luther wrote:
Even if I am feeble in faith, I still have the same treasure and the same Christ that others have. There is no difference; through faith in Him (not works) we are all perfect.
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.
The gospel roots out species of pride that our morbid introspection could never reach.