Last week, I wrote about the tendency of some in the gospel-centered movement to engage in “hyper-introspection,” a practice that leaves us paralyzed rather than empowered for the mission God has called us too. I gave the post a provocative title: “Beware the Puritan Paralysis.”

Over the holiday weekend, several scholars responded, most notably R. Scott Clark, Carl Trueman, and Jeremy Walker. I’m grateful for the vigorous response to my original post, especially from leaders and thinkers I respect.

In the interest of carrying on the discussion, I thought it might be helpful to elaborate on a few of the relevant points.

1. The Value of Generalization

Most of the responses to my post acknowledged and agreed with the larger point I was making. Some went so far as to quote specific examples of excessive introspection in Puritan writings.

Their critique centered on my treatment of the Puritans as a monolithic group. I did not distinguish between Puritans from different eras, different continents, etc.

Granted.

The point of the post was admittedly a generalization.  That’s why I said sometimes, some of the Puritans. Not all Puritans. Not all the time.

Had I been writing an academic paper about the Puritans, I would have cited examples, pointed out contrary evidence, and given a much more nuanced assessment of the situation. But I was writing as pastor, not professor.

Generalizations have shortcomings. It is important for certain statements to be qualified, nuanced, and put into detailed historical context.

But generalizations have value as well. Not everything must be said every time.

Pastors don’t have time to write five-paged reviews of every book they recommend. That’s why we commend books and authors generally and we critique books and authors generally. As long as we make it clear we are generalizing, this activity can be a helpful way of making sure a point doesn’t get lost in the weeds.

The people I am discipling are not going to read up on all the history of the Puritans. But when they pick up a book by Bunyan, or Baxter, or Sibbes, or Owen, I believe I have a duty as a pastor to say, “Enjoy this; you will see the benefit of that; see how beautifully he puts this; watch out though for that.”

2. The Difference Between Confession and Culture

Some commenters mentioned the grace-saturated language of Reformed confessions in regard to sanctification. I agree. In fact, one of the best ways to critique some of the Puritan excesses is by appealing to their own confessions (and writings!).

My post was not intended to question the helpfulness of much of the Puritans’ teaching. Neither did I intend to ignore the theological precision of the Westminster Confession of Faith. My concern was related to the kind of culture that developed in some Puritan circles, not the confession of faith they held.

A church can hold a confession that affirms the necessity of evangelism, and yet harbor a culture of evangelistic apathy. Likewise, the confessions of the Puritans may be solid (and I think they are when it comes to assurance), and yet problems can still appear in practice among some Puritans and among some of their descendants today.

The gospel-centered movement is rightly concerned about getting the gospel right, our doctrine right, and holding to our confessions. It is imperative that we do so.

At the same time, we ought to keep an eye out on the kind of culture we are creating in our churches. It is possible to dot the I’s and cross the T’s and yet miss the point. (Just ask the Pharisees.)

It is also possible to be so focused on getting the gospel right we fail to get the gospel out. (This, from the author of Counterfeit Gospels. Irony, I know.)

3. The Question of Motivation

I suppose what most surprised me about the responses is the idea that it has become “cool” and something of a trend to bash the Puritans nowadays. Really?

A month or two ago, I remember seeing the online conversations about Propaganda’s song, “Precious Puritans.” I chose not to engage that conversation, because I had already written something for Desiring God last year that deals with the Puritans and the issue of slavery.

Aside from the conversation on slavery and my post last week, I can’t think of a single blog, article or book written by anyone in the gospel-centered movement offering anything but unqualified praise for the Puritans.

A Puritan-bashing bandwagon? Hardly. And I hope I would be the last person who would try to appear “cool” by slighting our forebears.

Final Thoughts

Once again, the purpose of my post was to respond in a public forum the way I’ve counseled several people privately over the last year. Men who know the Scriptures and love Jesus, and who – through their inordinate reading of some Puritan literature – have been paralyzed by doubt of their fruitfulness and salvation.

I believe the readers of this blog would shudder at some of the emails I’ve received in the past week, emails from people who know first hand the kind of paralysis I was talking about in the post. I’ve heard from other pastors who have witnessed the same phenomenon.

Should we blame the Puritans for this unfortunate tendency? Perhaps not.

Instead, as church leaders, we should make sure we don’t enthusiastically hand out books and resources to Christians with sensitive, tender consciences without clearly assessing the needs of each individual.

It is not healthy to praise the Puritans and never point out the flaws you find here and there. Flaws that fester and sometimes lead to missional paralysis.

That said, I couldn’t agree more with the pastoral counsel Jeremy Walker gave in his response:

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.

May it be so. My caution was given with that same pastoral heart and aim.

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11 thoughts on “Puritan Paralysis: Take 2”

  1. Brian says:

    I know exactly what you meant Trevin. I have used that exact word (paralysis) for years and one doesn’t need to know anything about the Puritans to experience it. There are times when I can crawl so far into myself that I start to think that my beef with God is psychological rather than theological. For me, they are the moments when I lack the ability to “muster up” my faith in God’s sovereignty particularly in light of my current circumstances. I forget my freedom in Christ and start circling the drain from there.

    Glad I found your blog. Thanks.

  2. Seth Fuller says:

    Trevin, you have far greater experience than I do. What kind of paralysis exactly are you talking about? What are people being paralyzed by? This is a very vague term.

    Someone who is paralyzed by doubting their salvation is almost always dealing with some serious ongoing sin issue and has never defeated it. The paralysis and doubt is caused by the sin, not the introspection of the sin. Stop the sin, stop the doubt. There is absolutely no reason for true Christians to be paralyzed by this. We are new creations in Christ. Our nature is according to the Spirit, not the flesh. We are no longer slaves to sin, but to Christ. We have the ability to stop these big paralyzing sins, so let’s DO IT. To say otherwise is to diminish the REAL spiritual power of the transformation that we have undergone as believers.

    1. Todd Christensen says:

      With all due respect Seth, that is an oversimplification. We all have serious sin issues to deal with by the way. People concerned with their salvation are already aware that sin is evil and they agree with God that their sin is a serious problem. If that were not the case they would not be concerned. What these peopled need to hear is the unqualified pronouncement of the grace of God in Christ. Which by the way, you and I don’t deserve either and haven’t merited by our working with the Spirit to eliminate sin. Someone who is stricken with conviction of sin is a perfect candidate for the Gospel. They don’t need to hear that unless they can have a certain level of victory they have no right to the Gospel promises.

      1. Seth Fuller says:

        Hi Todd, I certainly agree that we all have serious sin issues in the sense that we all have a serious and daily battle against it. In fact Paul spoke of how he buffeted his body constantly lest he be found disqualified in his preaching. If that’s what you are referring to, then I wholeheartedly agree.

        The ongoing sin I was referring to is continual sins of commission that we willingly and knowingly commit–sins like pornography addiction, lust, coveting, sinful anger, etc. Christians must always be on guard against these, but they can absolutely conquer these sins permanently as slaves of Christ and freed from bondage.

        In terms of sin as a paralyzing factor, I do not feel my statement is an oversimplification. There is a very strong link between obedience to God and confidence in our salvation. For example, John says, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. (1 John)

        So our experiential and relational knowledge of Christ grows as we keep His commandments. This attested in many places throughout Scripture.

        For His glory,

        Seth Fuller

        1. Todd Christensen says:

          Christians struggle with real sins, and while I agree that in Christ we can conquer all things I feel very strongly that we need to acknowledge that fact that the Holy Spirit has a different agenda in how he works in each persons life and certain people may take longer to overcome there sins. I guess to be honest I tend towards a more free grace position and you probably do not. That is not to say that I think Christians can sin without a wounded conscience. However, the same passage you cited states very clearly that in the event of sin we have an advocate with the father. That does not specify certain sins and leave out others. Rod Rosenbladt’s sermon “Ther Gospel for those broken by the Church” spells out much more clearly what I am trying to say. His point and mine, and Luther’s, by the way, is that the grace of Christ and his work on the cross is enough for Christians too. We sometimes take the approach I fear that God will not forgive Christians for grevious sins, however scripture testifies abundantly that that is not the case. I would venture to say that if us Christians hated sin as much as we sometimes prat around we wouldn’t do it, period. The honest fact is that while Christians can and do have victories, there are some areas of weakness that a brother or sister may struggle with for many years, possibly even their whole life.

  3. Great response Trevin. Gracious and well interacted. Keep being bold and don’t worry about push back from those who refuse to recognize there is a danger of following heroes without graciously critiquing the apropos blind spots.

  4. dean says:

    Fear…paralysing fear, many of the prophets experienced it…Moses, Elijah, Jonah. The churches mission is to reach out to a lost world as much as caring for the flock. Put an over emphasis on outreach & the teaching side may be found lacking & vice versa.

    The ebb & flow of the gospel & church througout history seeking to please God has taken varying courses. The yeast of the Christians inadequacy is still able to give off a pleasing aroma & provide sustaining food through the power of the gospel.

    Personal growth & maturity in our calling is a lifelong exercise of faith. No denomination would have a monopoly on that i would expect

  5. Joe Buchanan says:

    I am glad that you have brought up this issue. You state that,”The gospel-centered movement is rightly concerned about getting the gospel right, our doctrine right, and holding to our confessions. It is imperative that we do so.

    At the same time, we ought to keep an eye out on the kind of culture we are creating in our churches. It is possible to dot the I’s and cross the T’s and yet miss the point. (Just ask the Pharisees.)”

    I applaud you for bringing up this issue because I have been guilty of this very thing and I fear that others are falling into the same trap. We cannot truly be gospel-centered if we do not carry out the imperatives that accompany the gospel. If reformed doctrine paralyzes us and keeps us from carrying the gospel to the nations, we have missed the point altogether.

    Joe Buchanan

  6. Kyle says:

    Trevin,
    I feel like you’re still missing the point of those who critiqued your original post. No one would disagree with you when you say, “It is not healthy to praise the Puritans and never point out the flaws you find here and there.” But the problem is (as it was with the Propaganda backlash), not only are you unable to cite any specific Puritans who were “hyper-introspective,” but you make such bold (and apparently noble) claims against careful and thorough people who have studied and analyzed the Puritans in-depth. Joel Beeke, Carl Trueman, and Mark Jones haven’t learned what they have by picking up a few Puritan Paperbacks. Simply, you get the Puritans wrong. Like Mark Jones said, “It just seems to me that a lot of posts are written on blogs that really shouldn’t be.”
    Cheers!

  7. Greg Gibson says:

    Trevin, well said. So far, the discussion has focused on Puritan introspectionism in sanctification. But did you know that some Puritans also erred in introspecitionism in justification, better known as Puritan preparationism?

    A few examples…

    The Method of Grace by George Whitefield (post-Puritan)

    “First, then, before you can speak peace to your hearts, you must be made to see, made to feel, made to weep over, made to bewail, your actual transgressions against the law of God.” (Must everyone cry before conversion?)

    “Before ever, therefore, you can speak peace to your hearts, conviction must go deeper; you must not only be convinced of your actual transgressions against the law of God, but likewise of the foundation of all your transgressions. And what is that? I mean original sin,” (The apostles didn’t always preach original sin in their gospel messages in Acts.)

    “Further: before you can speak peace to your hearts, you must not only be troubled for the sins of your life, the sin of your nature, but likewise for the sins of your best duties and performances.” (Chapter and verse?) http://www.biblebb.com/files/whitefield/gw058.htm

    “Self-righteousness will always find a lodging somewhere or other. Drive it, my brethren, out of the ground of our confidence; let the sinner see that he cannot rest on his good works, then, as foxes will have holes, this self-righteousness will find a refuge for itself in the warrant of our faith in Christ. It reasons thus: “You are not saved by what you do but by what Christ did; but then, you have no right to trust in Christ unless there is something good in you which shall entitle you to trust in him.” Now, this legal reasoning I oppose. I believe such teaching to contain in it the essence of Popish self-righteousness. The warrant for a sinner to believe in Christ is not in himself in any sense or in any manner, but in the fact that he is commanded there and then to believe on Jesus Christ. Some preachers in the Puritanic times, whose shoe latchets I am not worthy to unloose, erred much in this matter. I refer not merely to Alleyne and Baxter, who are far better preachers of the law than of the gospel, but I include men far sounder in the faith than they, such as Rogers of Dedham, Shepherd, the author of “The Sound Believer,” and especially the American, Thomas Hooker, who has written a book upon qualifications for coming to Christ. These excellent men had a fear of preaching the gospel to any except those whom they styled “sensible sinners,” and consequently kept hundreds of their hearers sitting in darkness when they might have rejoiced in the light. They preached repentance and hatred of sin as the warrant of a sinner’s trusting to Christ. According to them, a sinner might reason thus—”I possess such-and-such a degree of sensibility on account of sin, therefore I have a right to trust in Christ.” Now, I venture to affirm that such reasoning is seasoned with fatal error. Whoever preaches in this fashion may preach much of the gospel, but the whole gospel of the free grace of God in its fulness he has yet to learn. In our own day certain preachers assure us that a man must he regenerated before we may bid him believe in Jesus Christ; some degree of a work of grace in the heart being, in their judgment, the only warrant to believe. This also is false. It takes away a gospel for sinners and offers us a gospel for saints. It is anything hut a ministry of free grace.” The Warrant of Faith by Charles Spurgeon http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0531.htm

    An Alarm to the Unconverted by Jospeh Alleine (see Directions to the Unconverted, p. 46ff.)
    http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/An%20Alarm%20to%20the%20Unconverted.pdf

    The Notion of Preparatory Grace in the Puritans by Martyn McGeown
    http://www.cprf.co.uk/articles/preparationism.htm

    The Heart Prepared: Grace and Conversion in Puritan Spiritual Life by Norman Pettit
    http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1920848?uid=3738824&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21101491357017

    Evangelistic preparationism denies total depravity. It makes conversion too hard. And it makes assurance too hard. It demands sanctification before justification. The Puritan view of preparatory grace is ironically similar to the Arminian view of prevenient grace.

    The Puritans are a mixture of truth and error, like the church fathers, Anabaptists, Reformers, Evangelicals, etc. We should test their teaching by God’s Word, then swallow their truths but spit out their errors.

    The apostle’s answer to the simple question, “What must I do to be saved?” is the simple answer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:30-31)

    1. Todd Christensen says:

      AMEN GREG! Love that Spurgeon sermon by the way.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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