Call it melancholy, call it spiritual depression, call it excessive introspection: Bible-believing Christians have always recognized the category of the tender-hearted soul. This is the true believer who is nonetheless overly anxious, almost obsessive, about their spiritual state. Everybody around them will quickly identify them as a godly Christian, but for whatever reason, they can’t see it. Often they live in crippling fear that they are among the self-deceived, the ‘tares’, to whom Jesus will one day say, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matt 7:23). In the curious providence of God, I have several individuals in my congregation who fit this description. And on not a few occasions, I have found myself in this category.
In helping such persons enjoy assurance of salvation, it is necessary to be as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove. Conventional counsel encouraging believers to look for the fruit of the Spirit in their lives rarely helps, as tender-hearted souls are often more attuned to their insincere motives than most Christians. Since even our best works are tainted with insincere motives, this approach can easily make things worse: it can plunge the melancholic believer into a painful whirlpool of endless self-examination and despair.
If you are a pastor, almost certainly you have at least a few of these individuals in your congregation. So, as you prepare to shepherd your tender-hearted souls through their struggles with assurance, let me recommend a few resources. Books, articles, and lectures on assurance of salvation are legion, but here are a few that I’ve found particular helpful in ministering to the more introspective believer:
- ‘The Assurance of Faith’: An essay by Peter Jensen, and a must-read for everybody, especially misguided souls seeking assurance in an experience.
- ‘The Pastoral Heart of the Reformation’ and ‘Knowing God: The Importance of Grace’: Lectures by Carl Trueman that rely heavily on Luther’s theology of knowing a gracious God.
- Don Carson on Assurance: A collection of resources complied by Andy Naselli. What could I possibly say to commend Carson?
- Safe? How We Can be Sure of God’s Love: A very tenderhearted book by Frank Retief that sounds like a conversation with a loving and godly grandfather. It challenges feelings-enslaved Christians to “dare to believe God loves you in Christ”.
- ‘Thoughts on The Assurance of Faith’: Augustus Toplady was an instrumental Anglican preacher in the American Evangelical Revival (also known as the Great Awakening); this is short but speaks powerfully to those excessively concerned with the strength of their faith.
- Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health: A little book by Donald Whitney that the Lord used profoundly in my own life to help me biblically evaluate the state of my soul. Unless you’re living in open, egregious sin, it’s likely that after reading it you’ll find yourself quite encouraged and refreshed.
- The Bruised Reed: A wonderful spiritual tonic by Richard Sibbes for the weak, doubting Christian.
- The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel (theses IX, XI, XVII, and XXII): The author CFW Walther is a conservative, confessional Lutheran, so his understanding of regeneration is different from historic Reformed theology, but he has some incredibly helpful things to say to those of us who are overly introspective and subjective.
- Thoughts on Religious Experience: This book by specialist in theological soul-care Archibald Alexander is especially helpful for ministering to those with chronic melancholy or spiritual depression.
I’d be interested in your experiences. Would any of you describe yourselves as tender-hearted souls? If so, what have you found helpful for enjoying assurance of salvation?