“It is not God’s design that men should obtain assurance in any other way than by mortifying corruption, and increasing in grace, and obtaining lively exercises of it. Although self-examination be a duty of great importance, and by no means to be neglected, yet it is not the principle means by which saints do get satisfaction of their good estate. Assurance is not obtained so much by self-examination as by action“1
Jonathan Edwards wrote this in one of his works (reference given at the end of the quotation). I think it is a good point especially in the context in which he gives it. I think he does a most excellent job in expounding it, thus I will be providing no commentary. The following is the context:
“Indeed, persons’ doubting of their good state may in several respects arise from unbelief. It may be from unbelief, or because they have so little faith that they have so little evidence of their good estate: if they had more experience of the actings of faith, and so more experience of the exercise of grace, they would have clearer evidence that their state is good; and so their doubts [about their salvation] would be removed. And then their doubting of their state may be from unbelief thus, when, though there be many that are good evidences of a work of grace in them, yet they doubt very much whether they are in a state of favour with God, because it is they, those that are so unworthy, and have done so much to provoke God to anger against them. Their doubts in such a case arise from unbelief, as they arise from want of a sufficient sense of, and reliance on, the infinite riches of God’s grace, and the sufficiency of Christ for the chief of sinners. They may also be from unbelief, when they doubt of their state, because of the mystery of God’s dealings with them; they are not able to reconcile such dispensations with God’s favour to them; or when they doubt whether they have any interest [ that is, part in] in the promises, because they promises from the aspect of Providence appear so unlikely to be fulfilled; the difficulties that are in the way are so many and great. Such doubting arises from want of dependence upon God’s almighty power, and His knowledge and wisdom, as infinitely above theirs.
But yet, in such persons, their unbelief, and their doubting of their state, are not the same, though one arises from the other. Persons may be greatly to blame for doubting of their state on such grounds as these last mentioned; and they may be to blame that they have no more grace, and no more present exercises and experiences of it, to be an evidence to them of the goodness of their state: men are doubtless to blame for being in a dead, carnal frame; but when they are in such a frame, and have no sensible experience of the exercise of grace, but on the contrary, are much under the prevalence of their lusts and an unchristian spirit, they are not to blame for doubting of their state. It is impossible in the nature of things, that a holy and Christian hope should be kept alive in its clearness and strength in such circumstances, as it is to keep the light in the room when the candle is put out; or to maintain the brightness of the sunshine in the air when the sun is gone down. Distant experiences, when darkened by present prevailing lust and corruption, will never keep alive a gracious confidence and assurance, but one that sickens and decays upon it, as necessarily as a little child by repeated blows on the head with a hammer. Nor is it at all to be lamented that persons doubt of their state in such circumstances: on the contrary, it is desirable and every way best that they should. It is agreeable to that wise and merciful constitution of things, which God hath established, that it should be so. For so hath God contrived and constituted things, in His dispensations towards His own people, that when their love decays, and the exercises of it fail or become weak, fear should arise; for then they need it to restrain them from sin, and to excite them to care for the good of their souls, and so to stir them up up to watchfulness and diligence in religion. But God hath so ordered, that when love rises and in vigorous exercise, then should fear vanish and be driven away; for they need it not, having a higher and more excellent principle in exercise, to restrain them from sin and stir them up to duty. There are no other principles which human nature is under the influence of, that will ever make men conscientious , but one of these two, fear or love; and therefore , if one of these should not prevail as the other decays, God’s people, when fallen into dead and carnal frames when love is asleep. would be lamentably exposed indeed: and therefore God has wisely ordained, that these two opposite principles of love and fear should arise and fall, like the two opposite scales of a balance; when one rises the other sinks. Light and darkness necessarily and unavoidably succeed each other; if light prevails, so much does darkness cease, and no more; and if light decays, so much does darkness prevail. So it is in the heart of a child of God: if divine love decays and falls asleep, and lust prevails, the light and joy of hope go out, and dark fear and doubting arises; and if, on the contrary, divine love prevails and come into lively exercise, this brings in the brightness of hope, and drives away black lust and fear with it. Love is the spirit of adoption, or the childlike principle; if that slumbers, men fall under fear, which is the spirit of bondage or the servile principle; and so the contrary. And if it be so, that love, or the spirit of adoption, be carried to a great height, it quite drives away all fear and gives full assurance; agreeable to that of the apostle, I John iv. 18, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” These two opposite principles of lust and holy love bring hope and fear into the hearts of God’s children in the proportion as they prevail…
…Fear is cast out by the Spirit of God no other way than by the prevailing of love; nor is fear ever maintained but when love is asleep. At such time, in vain is all the saint’s self-examinations, and poring on past experience, in order to establish his peace and assurance. For it is contrary to the nature of things, as God hath constituted them”2
Jonathan Edwards, “Religious Affections”, pg. 123