Against Being Too Scrupulous: Richard Baxter / by Shane Anderson


Can a person seek to be obedient in all things in a way that actually ends up undermining obedience in all things?

Baxter says yes, and that being overly scrupulous about small practical details (what many call legalistic) is a particular way of tripping ourselves up as Christians.

I’m working back and forth through Baxter’s monumental “Christian Directory”, and found this advice quite helpful:

Another temptation to confound you in your religion, is, by filling your heads with practical scrupulosity; so that you cannot go on for doubting every step whether you go right; and when you should cheerfully serve your Master, you will do nothing but disquiet your minds with scruples, whether this or that be right or wrong.

Baxter seems to be referring to the sort of person who stumbles over every small detail in their obedience, not able to see that such a negative and worrisome focus on these small details is a hindrance to what God calls them to do. They are sidetracked from the more important “cheerful obedience” to which they are called by thinking of God’s Law as tedious and condemning, by fixating on this small gnat, that small splinter.

He then provides a remedy, obedience that pursues pleasing God while always resting in our free justification in Christ:

Your remedy here, is not by casting away all care of pleasing God, or fear of sinning, or by debauching conscience; but by a cheerful and quiet obedience to God, so far as you know his will, and an upright willingness and endeavour to understand it better; and a thankful receiving the gospel pardon for your failings and infirmities.

Be faithful in your obedience; but live still upon Christ, and think not of reaching to any such obedience, as shall set you above the need of his merits, and a daily pardon of your sins. Do the best you can to know the will of God and do it: but when you know the essentials of religion, and obey sincerely, let no remaining wants deprive you of the comfort of that so great a mercy, as proves your right to life eternal. In your seeking further for more knowledge and obedience, let your care be such as tendeth to your profiting, and furthering you to your end, and as doth not hinder your joy and thanks for what you have received: but that which destroyeth your joy and thankfulness, and doth but perplex you, and not further you in your way, is but hurtful scrupulosity, and to be laid by.

When you are right in the main, thank God for that, and be further solicitous so far as to help you on, but not to hinder you. If you send your servant on your message, you had rather he went on his way as well as he can, than stand scrupling every step whether he should set the right or left foot forward; and whether he should step so far, or so far at a time, &c.

Hindering scruples please not God.