2007 SGM LC: David Powlison

Friday morning (4/13/07)
General Session #3
David Powlison: “‘In the Last Analysis…’ Look out for Introspection”

GAITHERSBURG, MD – Reformed and always reforming. This sentence encapsulates the desire of the reformed church. Our confessions and doctrine should be structured by biblically accurate reformed theology. And — without taking our eyes off these doctrines — the church continues pressing on in diligent reformation.

From my personal perspective, no aspect of the reformed church has more reformed over the past 20 years than its handling of biblical counseling. And in this modern reformation of the church, away from secular psychology and superficial proof-texting towards a community of believers that are God-centered, heart-conscious and biblically-informed; few have played a more important role than Dr. David Powlison, professor at Westminster Theological Seminary.

As an aside, I recall reading Powlison’s excellent book, Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture (P&R; 2003). On a red-eye flight I read these words,

“You will not go wrong if you plunge into Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Master it. Be mastered by it. Work Ephesians into your thinking, your living, your prayers, and your conversation. The Bible is vast and deep, and human life is diverse and perplexing. But in a pinch you could do all counseling from Ephesians. It’s all there: the big picture that organizes a myriad of details” (p. 17).

Powlision is not just talking about the later chapters of Ephesians and how they relate to marriage. He is arguing that God’s electing grace of the early chapters is essential to understanding marriage. This is why Powlison has, in another place, said that the solas of the reformation and the doctrines of Calvinism “will prove to be the redemption of counseling” (The Practical Calvinist, p. 504). Powlison’s reforms have been seen in moving away from proof-texting “biblical” counseling that has prevailed for so many years in the church. Large biblical contexts are essential for biblical care towards one another. This is why I love Powlison. Now, back to the introduction…

Powlison serves as editor of The Journal of Biblical Counseling (a quarterly publication no care group leader or pastor should be without). Justin Taylor has written more on Powlison’s impact on to the church (see his blog).

“Excessive introspection”

Sovereign Grace Ministries is a family of churches marked by excellence in ministering within care groups and equipping their congregations to handle many of the counseling sessions previously thought could only be handled by pastors. In a show of great leadership, C.J. Mahaney invited Powlison to address the family of churches over a potential emphasis on “excessive introspection,” of trying to find the root-of-the-root-of-the-root of every sin in one’s heart without moving beyond this.

Powlison began by restating the potential problem: an overemphasis on the cravings of the heart (idols and lusts) rather than on identifying the sin and moving on to simple obedience. The danger is “getting caught into a vortex of self-introspection.” Instead, analysis should be the doorway to obedience, repentance, and joy.

“Self-analysis leads to paralysis.” The goal of biblical self-knowledge is to push us outside ourselves into prayer and action (love, forgive, etc). Contemporary counseling emphasizes the idea that our actions are determined by the way others have hurt us in the past. Endless introspection — or “idol hunts” — are just as dangerous as the secular “hurt hunts.”

We know that the heart is filled with a deep darkness. In the corporate world there is a glass ceiling. We look up and see there is more without the ability to reach it. In the human heart there is a glass floor. We can see a darkness that goes deep, but without Scripture there is no way of discovering the depths. Hebrews 4:12-13 is the true MRI of the heart. But nowhere in Scripture does this understanding of the heart lead to an endless self-analysis. So the problem is a danger towards “excessive introspection.” An idol hunt in the heart is not the end goal. I know, Powlison said humbly, that at my death there will remain sin that has not been completely removed. I will die as a sinner in need of further purification/glorification.

Scripture helps us to see evil in relationship to our rebellion towards God Himself. Every sin is related to a turning away from God and turning inward to ourselves. In our sinful nature we have a centripetal force (pulling us back into ourselves) rather than a centrifugal force (pushing us outside ourselves). Biblical self-knowledge points us outside of ourselves and away from the “excessive introspection.”

“An accurate description of my sin is the doorway to God’s revelation of who He is.” This was incredibly helpful. Every sin leads us to understand God. If I seek to control things and become overwhelmed or nervous this shows a lack in my understanding of God’s sovereignty. If I struggle with idolatry, it shows a failure to see God’s preciousness. Powlison demonstrated this in two primary texts.

1 Timothy 6:9-16 and Jeremiah 17:1-14

So how do we avoid this “excessive introspection?” Starting from a biblically informed self-knowledge, we take those sins, “drown them” in God’s glory, and then act. This paradigm is shown in 1 Timothy 6.

9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. 11 But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, 14 to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will display at the proper time — he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

Biblically informed knowledge leads us to acknowledge the idol of money (v. 10: “love of money”). This idolatry is drowned in the glory of God (cf. vv. 15-16 “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen”). This picture of God’s glory leads to action (vv. 11-12: “flee these things, pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life”). The sinful temptation to “love money” is drowned by the glory of God! The affections set on money are now affections turned to the beauty of God’s majesty. Biblical self-knowledge leads us to drown our sins in the glory of God and this leads towards God-centered action. Be a man of God not a man of money.

The “love of money” here can be replaced with the love for any sinful lust. The love of entertainment, pleasures, excitement, food, good health, status, power, self-agenda, self-righteousness or a love of other’s affirmation, approval, love and worship.

Sin points us away from ourselves. As M’Cheyne reminds us, for every one look at our own sin, we ought to take 10 looks at the Cross!

In other words, let introspection lead into the depths of God. See Jeremiah 17:1-14. The heart is desperately wicked (v. 9), but specific sins are recognizable (vv. 1-6). Jeremiah rests in the majestic God for the change (vv. 7-8, 14). This is a picture of a faith that is not excessively introspective and one that leads to a joyous faith.


This session was very powerful to me personally. In addressing this potential problem and choosing the right man for the task, it showed the tremendous sensitivity of leadership by C.J. Mahaney over his family of churches. It’s also a testimony to how well this family of churches has taught their people to identify sinful cravings, an evidence of God’s grace. Powlison has helped me to view my own sinful cravings as having the potential — like that of a systematic theology — to open a doorway into the character of God. There is a distinct connection between my sin and my misunderstanding of God. It’s a great reminder that when I see my sin, I need to take that sin, drown it in God and His glorious Cross, and then act in love, repentance, pursuit, fight and joy.

Again, this is another session from the 2007 Sovereign Grace Leader’s Conference worth sacrificing a venti Americano.


Related 2007 SGM LC sessions:


1. 2007 Sovereign Grace Ministries Leadership Conference

2. R.C. Sproul: “The Holiness of God”

3. Rick Gamache: “Watch Your Devotional Life”

4. Mark Dever: “Watch the Past: Living Lessons from Dead Theologians”

5. David Powlison: “‘In the Last Analysis…’ Look out for Introspection”

6. C.J. Mahaney: “Trinitarian Pastoral Ministry”

7. 2007 Conference photographs

7 thoughts on “2007 SGM LC: David Powlison

  1. Awesome post my dear brother. i love the Glory of GOD drowning out the power of sin. thanks for sharing these precious truths. love you tony> HALLELUJAH WHAT A SAVIOR!!!!!! flu

  2. Great Article! This leads to “As sin increases, grace increases all the more.” Would it not be great to name the sin and then discover how much more sufficient is the grace that completely covers and extinguishes that sin. ” And of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace” Thank God — that Jesus is God and He has more grace that any of us would think possible. Keep them coming!

  3. Wow. That was incredible. Folks have told me several times to avoid overthinking when dealing with my sin. Now I get it. I knew before not to overthink the thing. I knew that before I was told, really. Now I know in practical terms what to do instead.

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