As we approach the end of another year, it would do us good to step back and engage in a bit of self-examination. To borrow and adapt a saying of Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The Apostle Paul, charged believers with the following admonitions to self-examination: “Let a man examine himself” (1 Cor. 11:28), “examine yourselves whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves” (2 Cor. 13:5) and “let each one examine his own work” (Gal. 6:4). The reality is that most are fairly proficient when it comes to examining their jobs, life-situations, bank accounts and the actions of others and quite negligent when it comes to examining their own hearts and lives. Far from succumbing to the fallacious insistence that we are too introspective, believers need to give a more serious reflection to our spiritual condition. It is altogether possible for men and women to be severely backslidden and yet willingly ignorant to a sense of urgency concerning the spiritual condition of their souls. Backsliding, no less than apostasy, is an ever present danger. The severity of backsliding (i.e. temporal departure from Christ) is heightened by the fact that it often looks like the beginning of apostasy (i.e. ultimate departure from Christ). As Sinclair Ferguson has rightly observed, “the solemn fact is that none of us can tell the difference between the beginning of backsliding and the beginning of apostasy.” With that sobering reality in mind, what can be done as we set out to begin the process of self examination?
When we undertake this all-important work, we need to keep a few things in perspective. First, self-examination must take place before the searching light of the word of God. No self-examination will be accurate apart from that light. Imagine a doctor trying to operate on a patient in the darkness. Professing believers need the light of God’s word to expose the sin in the deep recesses of our hearts. The most dangerous thing in the world to do is to shut the ears of our hearts to God’s word. This starts to happen when we neglect weekly Lord’s Day worship. It may seem imperceptible at first. We may convince ourselves that we have not shut our ears; but the first mark that we have begun to do so is that we begin to make a practice of “forsaking the assembly” (Heb. 10:24-15). Shutting our hearts to the light of God’s word also happens on a day to day basis as we allow “the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches and the desire for other things” to choke out the word. These are the “thorns” that choke out spiritual life wrought by the word of God in our hearts. These three powerful enemies of spiritual life and growth constantly compete for the driver’s seat of our hearts. Rather than meditating on God’s word day and night, the heart that has been taken captive by the love of the world foolishly keeps its “eyes on the ends of the earth” (Prov. 17:24).
Second, self-examination takes place within the context of life in the covenant community. No one can live the Christian life on his or her own. God never intended for His people to live in isolation. The “one another” commands are meant to be observed within the context of life in a local church. We need the spiritual care of other believers and they need our spiritual care. The command not to forsake the assembly (Heb. 10;24-25) is couched between the exhortation to “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works” and the charge to “exhort one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” Surely this means listening to the Christian spouse God has given you. No one will see your sin and shortcomings so clearly as your spouse. A godly spouse who will lovingly help point out areas of deficiency or backsliding is one of the greatest gifts of God’s grace. But, it also means listening to godly friends who know how to graciously and lovingly point out areas of spiritual decline. This often proves to be one of the best aids to self-examination. The wise man or woman acknowledges that “faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful” (Prov. 27:6).
Third, self-examination should result in fixing the eyes of our hearts on Christ. The end goal is not to fix our eyes on ourselves. Robert Murray McCheyne memorably said, “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely. Such infinite majesty, and yet such meekness and grace, and all for sinners, even the chief!” When we begin to see areas of decline and sin in our hearts, we are to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares, and…run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” We are not called to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” or to seek personal, moral renovation out of sense of sheer determination or desire to avoid unwanted consequences. Rather, we are to fix the eyes of our hearts on Jesus. This is more than mere intellectual assent. It is a trust that results in the confidence that we will finish our race victorious because of Christ. It is an absolute impossibility for us to keep our eyes on the world and on the cross. As we actively seek to put sin to death in our lives by the Spirit (Rom. 8:13) we turn the eyes of our hearts off of the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life and on to Christ. Additionally, the context seems to carry with it the idea that we are to turn our eyes off of any number of other things that divert them from Christ. John Owen, the prince of the Puritan theologians, helpfully explained this in the following way:
“The word expresses a looking unto Jesus, as to include a looking off from all other things which might be discouragements unto us…oppositions, persecutions, mockings, evil examples of apostates, contempt of all these things by the most. Nothing will divert and draw off our minds from discouraging views of these things but faith and trust in Christ. Look not unto these things in times of suffering, but look unto Christ.”1
Fourth, the biblical call to self-examination is a call to remember that there is a Day of Judgment in which every thought and intent of the heart will be laid bare. As the writer of Hebrews notes, “there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:12-13). There is a day coming when there will be no more time for us to engage in self-examination. This is perhaps the most potent reason why we must apply ourselves to a diligent examination of our spiritual condition. Jesus said that every thought, word and action would be accounted for on Judgment Day (Matt. 12:36; Luke 8:17). No one will be able to escape the “all seeing eye” of the One to whom we must give account. There will be no more self-deception in that day. There will be no more excuses. “Every mouth will be stopped and all the world will be held guilty before God” (Rom. 3:19). Of course, it is not our works that are the basis of our being able to stand on Judgment Day. It is the Person and Work of Christ which serves as the grounds of God’s people passing through judgment (John 5:24; Rev. 6:17; 7:9). Jesus was silent when judged so that we, who are guilty by nature, may open our mouths in praise in that day. John Calvin explained this so well when he wrote:
“Our Lord Jesus so offered Himself of His own will as a sacrifice to make reparation for all our iniquities by His obedience and He was willing to be condemned to wipe them out. That is why it is said that He did not answer at all the accusations that were raised against Him. He had enough wherewith to answer, but He was silent…That was not only to show his patience, but in order to acquire for us liberty to be able today to glory in being righteous and innocent before God (indeed, notwithstanding that our conscience accuses us and condemns us), knowing that God has received us in mercy, and that all our faults are abolished by the perfection which was found in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
As we give ourselves to a year-end self-evaluation, we do so longing to be conformed more and more to the image of Christ. We do so in order to do those things that are pleasing to our Father in Heaven and to be a blessing to His people; and, we do so knowing that God has given us a never failing treasury of grace and mercy in Christ to whom we must flee when we acknowledge our many failings and spiritual short-comings. May He teach us to love the grace of self-examination now and every day of our lives until we are finally and fully “saved to sin no more.”
- John Owen The Works of John Owen, vol. 24 (Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1862) p. 237