A Classic Study by Richard Baxter (1615Ė1691)
Settled Doubts of Sincerity and Salvation;
Temptations to Despair, pt. 1
But it is yet a heavier affliction when a soul is in a settled doubtfulness of its sincerity, justification, and salvation, yea, and strongly persuaded that he hath no grace, nor ever shall have, and hath little hope left of mercy and salvation; and the more he examines and thinks of it, the more he believeth this sad conclusion.
For an ungodly man to know that he is ungodly is the most hopeful preparation to his recovery, and not to be stifled or made light of; but if it be a sincere person,
1. Before I tell you how far patience is useful in this case, I must tell you that on pretence of patience, the cure must not be neglected, nor contempt or senselessness indulged. Sin is it that bringeth men into this dark, uncomfortable state; and it is present sin in which it doth consist: search therefore what guilt of former sin was the cause, and see that it be truly repented of; and then search how much present sin doth cherish it. Usually there is much ignorance in it of the covenant of grace; and a great defectiveness in our sense of the infinite goodness of God, and of the wonders of His love in Christ, and of the ocean of mercy continued in the work of manís redemption. And there is much unbelief or distrust of God and our Redeemer, and of the promises of grace and salvation; and too little trust to the strengthening ond comforting help of the Holy Ghost. And there is too little care to cure menís sinful fears and passions; and sometimes too little care to forbear renewing the wounds of conscience by yielding to temptations, and renewing guily. And where these are the causes, they must first be resisted, and partly overcome.
2. And while the soul sincerely repenteth and striveth against that sin, (especially distrust of God and Christ), it must be considered that God giveth not all His grace at once. Infants are not strong: faith, hope, love, and comfort are weak before they are strong, and usually are long in getting strength: and weak faith hath always unbelief joined with it; and every weak grace is clogged and clouded by its contrary sin. And while grace is weak, and sin thus cloudeth it, it cannot be expected that the soul should have certainty of sincerity and salvation, or be free from grief, and fears, and doubting. But patient waiting upon Christ in the use of His appointed means, may in time bring faith and every grace to greater strength, and so the soul to more assurance.
3. A man that hath not attained to a certainty of salvation, may yet have more cause of hope and joy, than of fear and sorrow, upon the mere improbability of his damnation. I have oft instanced thus: It would torment a good Christian, if he believed he should ever commit but such sins as David and Peter did (to pass by Solomon); and no Christian ordinarily is sure that he shall not commit as great a sin: and no wise man that by Godís grace is resolved against it, should torment himself with such a fear.
No wife is certain, but she may hate or forsake her husband, or he may hate and murder her; nor any child, but that the father or mother may murder it. And yet it is so unlikely, that it is folly to be sad with such a fear. The old fathers, who thought that no ordinary Christian (but a few confirmed ones) can be certain of perseverance or salvation, and those Lutherans and Arminians that are of the same mind, did not yet live in terror for fear of apostasy and damnation, but rejoiced in the comfort of probable hope.
4. If your fears be questioning whether you are true Christians, then become a true Christian, and so end those fears. It may be it is too hard for you to know whether you have been such till now; but you may presently resolve it for the time to come: do but understand the baptismal covenant, and consent to it, and that work is done. Present consent, that is unfeigned, is true Christianity. If you can say that now you are truly willing that Christ with His grace and glory be yours, and you His on His gospel terms, that is, your Priest, Prophet, and King, you are true Christians.
Your concluding that the day of grace is past, and God will never give you grace, nor pardon you, while he is daily entreating you to be reconciled to him, and accept His grace, is an abusive suspicion that God is not sincere, and a contradiction to the tenor of His word and instituted ministry. When He bids us go to the highways and hedges, and compel (even the basest) to come in, for a willing soul to suspect that God is unwilling, is abusively to give Him the lie; but if you are unwilling yourselves, why complain you? It is an odd sight, to see a beggar in the cold entreated to come to the fire, or a man in the sea entreated to come into the ship, and he will not come, and yet cry and complain that he shall never be taken in; that is, because he will not.
5. It is a great mercy of God that you have hearts so far awakened, as to be troubled with care and fear of our everlasting state, which you see the stupid, dreaming world so little regard. And here are two comfortable evidences appear in most Christians in these troubles. First, your fear of punishment hereafter showeth that you have some belief of the word of God, for you believe His threatenings; else why do you fear them? And if you believe that His threatenings are true, it is scarce possible that you should believe that His promises are false; therefore your defect is in the application of these promises to yourself; and to doubt of our own faith or sincerity, is not to doubt of the truth or word of God, and is not damning unbelief (though some mistakingly have written so). Secondly, and you have so much of the applying act, as consisteth in consent and desire. You would fain have Christ, and grace, and glory; and you consent to be His as He consenteth to be yours: else why do your complaints and troubles signify so much? And desire signifieth love and willingness as really as joy doth, though not so pleasingly. So that here is faith, or consent, or willingness, and love to that which you mourn for want of; and those are evidences of grace.
Objection. But may not a wicked man be terrified with the fear of damnation?
Answer. Yes, but if this fear were joined with a willingness to be a true Christian, and to be justified, sanctified, and ruled by Christ, he should be saved.
Objection. But may he not be willing of Christ and holiness, as a means to his salvation, though else he had rather be ungodly and live in sin?
Answer. 1. He cannot truly desire salvation itself, as indeed it is salvation: not to be tormented in hell he may desire; but salvation is to be saved from sin and separation from God, and to live in perfect holiness, love, and joy in the heavenly society, praising God among the blessed forever. The heart of the ungodly is against this holy life. 2. And every man hath some end: if this be not the end intended by any man, it must be some sinful pleasure that he must intend or desire. And to make perfect holiness (which mortifieth all such desires and pleasures) to be desired as a means to attain those pleasures, (which it destroyeth), is a contradiction. So that a wicked man cannot truly desire perfect holiness more than sinful pleasure, neither as his end, nor as the means thereto. Yet I will not deny but that while he hateth it, he may consent that God should make him holy as a minus malum, a lesser evil than the pains of hell, which he hateth more. But God hath not promised to give men Christ and holiness, because they hate hell more than it, and desire it not for itself.
Objection. I fear that this is my case; for I have a great unwillingness to prayer, meditation, and every holy duty.
Answer. 1. Is your unwillingness to believe and trust God, and love Him perfectly, and to live in His thankful, joyful praises, and to love His word, and ways, and servants, and that forever, greater than your willingness and desire? It is these inward acts that are the holiness of the soul, and to be willing of these, is to be willing to be holy. 2. As to outward exercises, by praying and such like, there may be some such disturbance of the spirits raised by them, through temptations and false thoughts and fears, as put the mind into renewed trouble: and it is that disturbance and trouble in the duty, that many are against, rather than the duty itself. And such may find, that at the same time they would fain have that calmness, confidence, and delight in God, which they would be glad to express by holy prayer. 3. And we must distinguish between a degree of unwillingness or backwardness, which is predominant and effectual, and a degree which doth but strive against holiness, but not overcome. Every Christian hath flesh, which lusteth against the Spirit, and would draw back; and therefore hath some degree of backwardness to his duty: but if this did prevail, he would give it over, which he doth not. 4. And yet for a time, in temptation and melancholy, he may be deterred from some outward duty, and give it over, and yet not lose a holy state of soul. Many a true Christian is many years affrighted from the Lordís supper: and some such persons in deep melancholy and temptations, have given over outward prayer, and hearing sermons and reading, and yet have not given over a desire of holiness, which is heart prayer, nor a desire to love and obey Godís word. Sick men cease outward duty in their beds, when they cease not inward piety.
6. It may be God seeth that you were grown dull and sluggish, and he useth this trouble to awake you to a greater care of your duty and salvation: or he saw you in danger of overloving some worldly vanity, and he useth this to embitter and divert you, that you may know better what to mind and desire.
7. The effects of a melancholy disease, or of a natural timorousness of the weak and passionate, are much different from rational, well-grounded doubts of sincerity and salvation. A melancholy person can think of nothing with confidence and comfort: there is nothing but trouble, confusion, fears, and despair in his apprehension. He still seems to himself undone and hopeless. A person naturally timorous, cannot choose but fear, if you show him the clearest resons of assurance. These are like pain in sickness, which faith and reason will not cure; but should help us to strive against and bear. God will not impute our diseased misery to us as our damning sin.
(This study will continue in the next issue.)