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An Open Letter to a Morbid Introspectionist

This article by Steve Schlissel pinpoints one of the premier errors of the modern church. As he so incisively shows, not only does the pietistic spirit detract from the Christian's true calling in the earth, it does not even reflect genuine piety. Before the church can be recalled to its world-conquering vision, it must jettison the Morbid Introspectionism Schlissel so deftly refutes.

  • Steve M. Schlissel,
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This article by Steve Schlissel pinpoints one of the premier errors of the modern church. As he so incisively shows, not only does the pietistic spirit detract from the Christian's true calling in the earth, it does not even reflect genuine piety. Before the church can be recalled to its world-conquering vision, it must jettison the Morbid Introspectionism Schlissel so deftly refutes.

Steve Schlissel is one of the most profound and poignant ministers in the Reformed church today, and his message deserves careful attention.

"Because with lies you have made the heart of the righteous sad, whom I have not made sad." (Ezekiel 13:22)

The event which occasioned this letter was my discovery, some years ago, that many members of my congregation had received tracts (of the "Are You Truly Born Again?" variety) from a former member who, though a lover of the Lord, was deeply affected by that pietistic current in Christian thought which I will call "Morbid Introspectionism." The people to whom the tracts were sent were/are outstanding Christians who devote their lives daily to the service of the King. Apparently, their zeal and righteous walk were not enough to convince our friend that he should regard them as co-laborers on par with himself. Since this "-ism" remains with us today, we thought it appropriate to revisit its arguments. This is an appeal for a return to the objective standards of Scripture, rather than shifting human sentiment, when we seek to understand the nature of truly Biblical piety in contrast to pietism.

My Dear Brother:

Greetings in our Messiah. It is obvious that you love and fear God and seek to please him in every way. Thank you also for the tracts which you sent to me and many of the congregation which, if not meant to imply that we weren't truly saved, at least suggested that one more close look within wouldn't hurt. You explained that you meant the tracts to be an encouragement to the brethren. It appears to me that you are faced with a twofold problem: one, what is encouragement? and two, who are the brethren? These are no mean questions for one who devotes so much time and effort in calling people to self-examination! I believe your difficulty stems from a somewhat truncated notion of the system of doctrine taught in Scripture. Allow me to explain.

Very early in the life of the church, false teaching appeared. Jesus had predicted this would happen (Mt. 24:9-11). Similarly, in Acts 20 we find Paul warning the Ephesian elders against those who would distort the truth (v. 30). To counter such distortions of the truth, the Acts passage exhorts us to proclaim the whole counsel of God. Truly, this is the strongest weapon against error, since error is parasitical by nature, feeding on truth, and then twisting it.

But alas, sinful creatures that we are, we soon forget the desirability — the necessity — of balance, and we often find ourselves giving undue emphasis to one particular doctrine of Scripture. For example, many (oh so many!) today live their Christian lives as if they were on an eschatological egg-hunt. They scan the newspapers daily for more clues that might help them become the first to infallibly identify the triple-sixer. Others concentrate on the gifts of the Spirit (as they understand them), not only missing the significance of the place of these gifts in redemptive history (see Richard Gaffin's, Perspectives on Pentecost for a good treatment of the subject), but often living as if there were no other manifestations or ethical demands of a consistent Christian walk. Still others are virtual Satanists, speaking incessantly about demons being the cause of this, that, and of the other thing (some might even say, this letter). Now, to be sure, the Bible does discuss last things, spiritual gifts, and demonology; but none of these constitute the whole (or even the main) teaching of Scripture, and further, none can be truly understood unless properly seen in relation to Jesus Christ himself, his person and work.

Severing Creation from Redemption

Getting down to specifics, I believe your approach to "the test for spiritual life," while to a certain extent supported by Scripture, suffers from an imbalance which reveals a misunderstanding of the whole will of God. Getting "The Big Picture" may help you see this imbalance. The Bible reveals a three-fold relation which the self-existent God sustains to that which is not himself (i.e., economic relations). These may be expressed as a three-fold covenant, understanding "covenant" to mean "relationship": The Covenant of Creation (the most basic distinction, Creator/creature, is protected in this covenant); the Covenant of Redemption (which distinguishes the church from the world), and the Covenant of Consummation (which distinguishes the elect from the non-elect forever). Jesus Christ is Lord in each of these relations.

The characteristic error of those who are commonly called "pietists" is that they sever the Covenant of Creation from the Covenant of Redemption. Christ's Lordship over God's "relation to creation" is either denied, minimized, or trivialized. By disconnecting redemption from creation, pietists deny the validity or applicability of the creation commission, i.e., the creation mandate to exercise dominion over the earth, throughout the redemptive (post-Fall) era.

The result of this severing is that the period in which we live and move and have our being is seen exclusively (and herein lies the disproportion) as a "training school" for the Covenant of Consummation. God is now doing nothing with the world beyond gathering his elect and preparing them for eternity. With one stroke, most of life on earth has become irrelevant! Against this, Scripture asserts that the "usefulness of spirituality is unlimited, since it holds out the reward of life here and now and of the future life as well: that is a saying you can rely on. . ." (1 Tim. 4: 8, 9 —JB).

Preserving the Truths of Pietism

We must be careful, however, to distinguish that which is lopsided in
the teaching of pietists from that which is true and valuable.
Pietists often exhibit an admirable eagerness to please the Master.
No one can doubt that they firmly believe the aspects of truth which
they press so vigorously as the ones which will determine, not merely
whether one will be called least or greatest within the kingdom, but
whether one is to be reckoned as being in the kingdom at all! (Alas,
eagerness and sincerity are not the measure of truth — Rom. 10:2.)

The clear devotion of pietists to our Lord, their selflessness in giving, and their willingness to be despised for the gospel's sake marvelously manifest God's grace working in and through them. This is what we are all called to, following his example: the daily taking of the cross, despising the shame, keeping our eyes on the reward now unseen but not uncertain, bearing our momentary and light afflictions in view of the eternal weight of glory, counting ourselves blessed when men revile and persecute us for the Lord's sake, caring little if we are judged by men so long as we might receive praise from God. This is all most Biblical and admirable (1 Pet. 2:21; Mt. 16:24; Heb. 12:2; 11:26; 2 Cor. 4:17; Mt. 5:11; 2 Cor. 4:3).

Furthermore, only the ignorant could deny that many introspectionists are concerned about real problems that are all too common in the church today: smug complacency, coldness toward God, hypocritical professions, faith in faith rather than faith in Christ. To whatever extent the church can rid herself of these vexatious rashes on the body, she must lift up her voice in harmonious praise!

But to have identified actual problems is not necessarily to have offered appropriate solutions. Rather than a sword (or better, a surgical knife), pietistic preachers often aim a sawed off shotgun at gathered worshipers, wounding many who are truly loved of the Lord. And I often have a nagging suspicion that these bombardiers think they alone have passed all the tests of humility and have thus assumed their seat in the Sanhedrin of the spiritual aristocracy. One friend remarked that introspectionists seem to believe more in an "elite" than an "elect."

This "overkill" response of pietists to spiritual lethargy is both significant and alarming. As Berkhof explains, early in church history, "increasing worldliness and corruption of the Church gradually led to reaction and gave rise to the tendency of various sects, such as Montanismin, the middle of the second, Novationism in the middle of the third, and Donatism at the beginning of the fourth century, to make the holiness of its members the mark of the true Church." Surely, this is cause for pause.

With these issues in mind, let me briefly analyze what I believe to be wrong with the position you seem to hold, a brand of pietism (or "piosity," as Professor Murray used to call it) which could well bear the label "Morbid Introspectionism." I will restrict myself to four areas of concern.

Pietism Denigrates Assurance

First, pietists generally do not give proper place to the grace of assurance (see Larger Catechism, Q&A 80; Confession of Faith, Chapter XVII; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Days I & XXIII), at least not a solid Biblical assurance, which is built on a Spirit-given confidence in the finished work of Christ and evidenced by a lawful walk, not a passing grade on one's own self-exam.

Morbid Introspectionists seemingly advocate penetrating self-examination for the goal of perennial self-examination. In a sad twist, Morbid Introspectionists appear to dread assurance! If one is confident of one's salvation, you make it appear that this is a sign that one is on the broad road leading to destruction. Or, to put it another way, the only way to be sure that you are saved is never to be sure. If you are very insecure, then you may rest assured—perhaps.

We are all well aware that God's people commonly marvel at the very thought of their sins being washed away. One writer has noted that there is nothing easier for the unregenerate to imagine than that God will forgive his sins; and there is nothing more difficult for the regenerate soul, under conviction by the Holy Spirit, to imagine, than that God could forgive his sins! Yet, that is exactly what God has done in Christ. May not such a forgiven sinner take God at his word and proceed with the matters of life?

Moreover, I find it interesting that the Scriptures simply do not contain as many calls for self-examination to those living an orderly and godly life, as you and many others would have us believe. 2 Corinthians 13:5 is the Morbid Introspectionist's natural locus classicus, but its point seems to have eluded you: "Examine yourselves, whether ye are in the faith: prove [test] your ownselves. Know ye not yourselves, how that Jesus Christ is in you except ye be reprobates?" R.V.G. Tasker's comments on this passage ought to be required memory work at pietist deprogramming sessions: "The Apostle seems to be reminding them that, after all, they are Christians, for in the appeal, 'know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?' He is in effect dismissing the idea that they will in fact fail to stand the test . . . If each Corinthian Christian puts himself to the test, he will conclude, Paul is convinced, that Jesus Christ is in him."

In other words, dear brother, according to the Bible, yea, according to the Morbid Introspectionist's favorite text, there is a decided presumption in favor of the sincerity of a person who confesses Christ. But in the writing and practices of Introspectionists, there appears a presumption against him. With such a regulating suspicion of professing Christians, it's a wonder that a Morbid Introspectionist minister can pronounce a benediction at the end of a worship service, without a string of qualifiers! As inconsistent as the Corinthians were, Paul accepts their profession as one that entitles them to be called "brothers" (see 13:11). Let me repeat, while presumption may be mistaken for assurance, doubt may also be mistaken for reprobation. We need a better test than mere "self-examination."

Pietism Invokes Unbiblical Criteria

Second, pietism does not give proper place to the objective criteria given to us in Scripture. What, indeed, does form a valid test of an individual's faith commitment, according to the Bible? In the pietistic view, as we have seen, part of the test of whether you're in the Faith is whether you're testing whether you're in the Faith. Sound confusing? I agree. There seems to be no room for a quiet and abiding confidence in one's salvation. "Presumptuousness" is the charge frequently brought against those who have committed the terrible trespass of simply taking God at his word
and who enjoy an assurance of his love, feeling no compulsion to take a never-ending inward look. Other criteria for judging the validity of Christian profession encountered over and again in the
literature of Morbid Introspectionism are:

Intensity in prayer: But how intense is intense enough, according to the Bible?

Attending upon sermons with tears: But how often must one cry at services to be truly spiritual? Weekly, monthly, or seasonally? If I haven't cried at the preached word in two or three years, ought I begin to seriously doubt my salvation? Or do I just need a more "Biblical" preacher?

Unending mournfulness over sins: One must wonder if some of these brothers have rightly heard the Good News? (Lk. 24:47; Heb. 10:17, 18; 1 Jn. 2:12; Ac. 10:43; and please see 2 Cor. 7:10).

A doctrine of separation that is often more pagan than Christian. Now I believe with all my heart that Christians ought to pray without ceasing; that we ought to pay close heed to the word preached; that we ought never to be glib about our sins, past or present; and that we ought to practice Biblical separation. But the fact of the matter is that while we may personally demand a great degree of piety from ourselves before we'd think of ourselves as coming close to being worthy of the name "Christian," the Bible indicates that we may question the genuineness of a profession of faith only of those living in open and/or flagrant violation of the law of God, as revealed in the Old and New Testaments. Please note that in the Bible, even false teachers are described according to their own profession and the judgment of charity. They gave themselves out as redeemed men and were considered such in the judgment of the church while they still remained in fellowship.

A man who calls himself "a brother" but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler, may — indeed must — be confronted and, if necessary, excommunicated. But where, pray tell, in Scripture, has God given us the right to call into question the faith of someone who professes to love Christ and is living a decent, orderly, and lawful life? Where does Paul challenge the faith of those who aren't praying intensely? Does he not rather exhort them to greater fidelity in terms of grace received, in terms of their high calling?

The folks who are cast out by our Lord in the chilling scene described in Matthew 7:21-23 passed their own self-examinations. But note well, that according to Jesus Christ, the difference between mere professors and true possessors is something tangible, measurable and objective: obedience to the law of God. Jesus taught that true believing always results in doing the will of God. The will of God, of course, includes our sanctification (1 Thes. 4:3). Our sanctification is by the word, every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God (Jn. 17:17). As we do God's word, we find that we are strengthened in our faith (Jn. 7:17).

"I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies" (Ps. 119:59). Self-examination has a goal, and that goal is increased conformity to the image of God as revealed in his Christ, his word, his law. Obedience to God's commands brings confidence, a sense of freedom, and answers to prayer (1 Jn. 3:21-23). No one is saved who does not confess the true Christ. No one is sincere in his confession of the Christ if he "keepeth not his commandments" (1 Jn. 2:4). Here, by the grace of God, is an objective referent that keeps us from Morbid Introspectionism, from frustration and unproductivity. Jesus said, "By their fruits ye shall know them." The subjective criteria by which Morbid Introspectionists measure professing Christians is too arbitrary and prone to great abuse. "The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep his commandments, because this applies to every person" (Ec. 12:13, NASB).

Pietism is Dualistic

Third, proper place is not accorded to externalization of the Spirit's power. In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul tells us that the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power (v. 20). He says in another place that we have incomparably great power in Christ, power like that which raised him from the dead and enthroned him above every other power. What do pietists do with all this incredible power? They take it and turn it in only on themselves, instead of moving it out into earth-changing, world-sanctifying action. That is the moral equivalent of the apostlestaking the bread which Jesus broke and, instead of distributing it to the 5,000, hoarding it for their own use! What a travesty of true piety!

And here we discover one of pietism's most serious problems: It has no earthly goal. To be sure, the ultimate goal of all Christians is eternal heaven with Christ, to actively glorify and enjoy God forever. But if we keep in mind the fact that God is the Creator, as well as the Redeemer and Consummator, we will see that just as it is wrong to expect to participate in the glorious Consummation while bypassing God's only redemption, so it is wrong to bask in redemption without seeking to have its benefits rebound to creation. We have a cultural mandate given to us in Genesis (1:26-28; 2:15; 9:1-3:7) which has not been rescinded. If we would not incur God's displeasure, we must take our place and his power and seek to fulfill that mandate. "The men of Ephraim, though armed with bows, turned back on the day of battle" (Ps. 78:9). We must not be like them.

The newness we enjoy in the gospel, we must remember, is largely re-newness. It is this old sinner, Steve Martin Schlissel, who is being made new. God did not grind me to powder to save a cell for a clone. He saved me and is making me new. Similarly, it is this world that is in the process of being redeemed, this cosmos. The creation waits in eager expectation for the consummation, just as we do. Personal and universal sanctification proceed concurrently. Because neither will be perfected until the final glory doesn't mean that we sit idly by, self-absorbed. The pietist's rejection of his God-assigned role in creation necessarily carries with it a rejection of history. But we need not denigrate the temporal in order to appreciate the eternal. Both are created.

If Liberals overemphasize "this world," paying no mind to the next, pietists commit the opposite error. They identify themselves strictly in terms of themselves, failing to understand that we have been enmeshed, in the design and decree of God, in a complex history of the redemption of the world. This history is now; it is rich; it is exciting.

Pietists, unable to see that the Spirit's power is to be externally manifested through Christ's people in this world, bringing God's word to bear upon this world unto judgment and salvation, pray for revival only, not restoration. If we recognize God as the Creator as well as the Redeemer, we will not attempt to sever man from the realm of nature. Bavinck describes this tendency well:

Outside of and apart from God there is no existence. This truth has been disregarded again and again. Plato's dualism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, and Manichaenism, limited God's revelation, and posited a material substance, represented as existing independently of and in hostile relation to God. In various ways this dualism influenced theology; the same dualistic principle is evident when ... the seat of religion is confined to the heart or conscience, mind or will. In this way the realm of nature with its forces and energies, man in his social and political life, and also science and art, are given a place outside of the sphere of God's revelation. They become neutral spheres and are viewed as existing apart from God.... Religion, altogether confined to the inner chamber and to the innermost recesses of the heart, forfeits every claim to respect.

Thus we see that Morbid Introspectionism is based on dualism. The Introspectionist can never (on his principles) really know God, because he views creation as hiding God rather than revealing him. But if we recognize that creation and providence, i.e., all of life in all its vast array, reveal God, then we must  conclude that what obscures the beatific vision is not matter, but sin. And if we are to act redemptively,  well then, we ought to go a'redeeming! That means redeeming all of life, putting sin to death by the Spirit in accordance with God's perfect word, so that God might be more clearly seen, more closely felt in all activities, until that great revelation, to be made in his own time, at the Consummation.

Pietism Encourages Impiety

Fourth, pietism actually encourages impiety. Like all disproportionate interpretations of Scripture, pietism ends up promoting what it sought to relieve. As women’s lib resulted In women’s bondage, as humanism dehumanizes, so pietism “de-pietizes.”To put it plainly, pietists are often among the most obnoxious hypocrites we encounter on earth. B y failing to see the cultural obligations of God’s word, pietists make a wrong turn onto the endless highway of self-examination. They turn within and never leave. This is where the road to frustration begins for too many Christians who fail to understand that the value of self-examination can only be discovered when it is part of the broader program of God. Tragically, what God gave as a means to an end becomes an end in itself and sinful traits emerge. The life of the church becomes an ugly struggle over meaningless trifles in which the sole purpose is sinful power.

All too often this sinful urge to dominion is masked with hypocritical meekness. The Morbid Introspectionist’s “big picture” extends only to personal sins—finding them, discussing them, bemoaning them. His obsession with his own sins is soon unsatisfactory. He now moves on to carefully examine the behavior and attitudes of his fellow-travelers. While continuing to give lip-service to his own sins, he finds much greater pleasure in picking out and magnifying those of others. Eventually, he cannot utter a kind word about another Christian without adding a remark about this or that sin or defect. Everyone is regarded with suspicion except those who will join him in barbecuing fellow-believers. This is “I-thank-you-that-you-have-not-made-me-like-that publican” with a vengeance.

The church and the Christian must have a task as big as the gospel. Christ is bringing all God’s enemies under his feet. The war is fought on all fronts, wherever God gives us opportunity. The standard is the entire word of God. The power is the Spirit’s. The Commander is Christ. Other Christians are our fellow-soldiers, not our enemies. If they wear our uniform, swear allegiance to our Commander, and abide by his rules, we accept them. We love them. We make every effort to build all our brothers up in the Lord, not tear them down. We may not call their loyalty into question without solid, Biblical warrant. To do so is to undermine the morale of the troops and might he considered a crime against the Commander. Rather than question their faith, we encourage their faithfulness.

Our fight against sin begins within, hut it does not end there. My dear, Morbidly Introspective brother, we have a world to conquer for Christ. We cannot do it riding high horses. I beg you, please get off yours. You’d make a great infantryman If you’d only recognize the enemy. Ask God to help you learn which way to point your gun.

Yours and His,

Steve Schlissel

  • Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

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