SELF-EXAMINATION(last chapter from the book THE TRUE CHRISTIAN)
By John Angell James, 1846
My dear friends,
This address will reach you at the close of one year, or the beginning of anotherin either case its congratulations and directions, its admonitions and cautions, will be in season. Bless the God of your mercies that he has guided, protected, sustained, and supplied you during another year of your pilgrimage in the wilderness state! Raise your Ebenezer, and inscribe upon it, "Hitherto the Lord has helped me!" and having given utterance to the fullness of a grateful heart, that you are "the living, the living to praise God," proceed to the work of self-examination. One use we should make of the end of our years, is to consider them as resting places on the hill of life, or stages in its journey, where we should pause, turn round, take out our map, and inquire whether we are on the right road, and what progress we are making.
Another year is opening before you with all its unknown unimagined scenes; it may be your last; and will be to some of you. Could you read the book of destiny, you would find, perhaps, written opposite your name"This year you shall die!" It is, therefore, a suitable admonition to address to you, "Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live." "For he who will die well and happily, must dress his soul by a diligent and frequent scrutiny; he must in this worldlove tears, humility, solitude, and repentance."
SELF-EXAMINATION is a duty enjoined upon us both by reason and Scripture. Observe with what vehemence the apostle enforces it, "Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you--unless, of course, you fail the test?" 2 Cor. 13:5. This, recollect, was addressed to professing Christians, and is an exercise in which all true believers have ever practiced themselves. No one can be really in earnest about the salvation of his soul, who never looks with solicitude into his spiritual state.
There are two ends for which this duty is to be performedfirst, to ascertain the sincerity and reality of our religion; and, secondly, its condition. In other words, to inquire whether we be in the faith, and also in what degree we are bringing forth, or neglecting to bring forth, its fruits. Somewhat analogous to what takes place in the conduct of the careful tradesman, who inspects his affairs to find out, in the first place, whether he is solvent; and in the next, what is the amount of his profits, and how, by avoiding past errors, or making up discovered deficiencies, he can increase his prosperity.
So a diligent, watchful, careful professor, is anxious to know not only that he is a Christian, but how his religion can be improved and increased. It is true, some are happily partakers of so large a measure of the well-founded assurance of faith and hope, as to have few doubts about their state; and, indeed, little cause for doubts. They have so much of the spirit of adoption, as constantly to enjoy the witness of the Spirit of God, that they are his children. It is not so, however, with all Christians; and even those with whom it is, may occasionally examine with profit, the state of their souls, if it be only to increase their confidence in the reasons of the hope that is in them.
How momentous is the question, "Am I really a child of God!" What consequences hang upon the decision of such a matter! The very possibility of self-deception here, is truly horrifying. To wake up from the sleep of death in hell instead of heaven, and find that we have made a mistake which requires an eternity fully to understand, and an eternity adequately to deplore! Such a mistake is made, it is to be feared, by multitudes in every age. And when we consider the deceitfulness of our hearts, our proneness to self-love, and the easiness of making a profession in this tranquil age of the church, there is such imminent peril of a fatal error in our own case, as should send us all to our closets, our hearts, our Bible, and our Godto examine whether we "are in the faith." It is a matter which none should take for granted.
If we examine ourselves, it must be by some rule, and the only one of any authority in this case, is the word of God. The Holy Scriptures are the only touchstone which God will acknowledge. These are the balances of the sanctuary; the legal standard in the assay office of heaven; all that will not stand this test must be thrown aside, as reprobate silver. To the law and the testimony, then, must be our appeal. Our faith must be tested by the gospel; our practice by the law; and our spirit and disposition by the mind of Christ. He is the model, the pattern, the measure by which all his followers are to be examined, for both law and gospel are embodied in him.
I will now lay down some RULES and CONSIDERATIONS and CAUTIONS by which this important business must be carried on.
1. Do not examine yourselves only by your own notion of what a Christian is and should be, and be satisfied if you come up to that, because that notion may itself be wrong. Many frame to themselves an exceedingly inaccurate idea of what is included in religion; and yet if they possess this, are quite contented. This is what the apostle calls, "comparing themselves with themselves," and has led in innumerable cases to self-delusion and self-destruction. Before you are satisfied, then, with the conclusion that you answer to your own idea of a Christian, take good care to examine by the Bible whether that idea itself be a scriptural one.
2. Do not examine yourselves merely by the creeds and catechisms, the formularies, rites, and ceremonies of any particular church; or by the sentiments, opinions, and criteria, of any individual uninspired writer; nor be satisfied if you imagine you come up to these standards. Such tests need themselves to be tried, for they are all fallible. The Bible, the Bible alone is the religion of Christians. Uninspired works may be used with advantage, as helps, but not as infallible standards. (I here recommend an exceedingly valuable little work, entitled, "Am I a Christian, or Aids to Self-Examination," by the Rev. Hubbard Winslow. It contains the celebrated "resolutions" of Jonathan Edwards, and rules for "Growth in Grace.")
3. Do not be satisfied with the good opinion of others upon your spiritual state. Some people are too prone to get rid of their fears and take refuge in the favorable estimate formed of their piety, by those who rank high in their view for judgment and experience. It is more safe, in some cases, to regard the sentiments of those who are prejudiced against us. Your friends cannot see your heart. Their kindness to you and affection for you, may lead them to form the best opinion they can, and their love to you may make them blind to defects which are incompatible with sincere piety, or at any rate, with that which is eminent. Besides, their own religion may be so defective and inconsistent, as to give easy credence, for their own sakes, to the reality of yours. Do not be flattered into self-deception. Let not their ignorant and injudicious adulation, stand between you and the Bible. It is what Scripture saysand not what your friends saythat must determine your state.
4. Do not consider that all is right because you are admitted to church membership upon the examination of a minister, or of a churchand conclude that your Christianity is sincere because your profession has been admitted to be credible. There is a path leading from the sacramental table, trodden by thousands, to the bottomless pit!
5. Beware of judging of yourselves, by partial and detached views of your conduct. To this we are extremely prone. Ever ready to depart from universal regard to the ways of God, we are disposed to rest on some one action or set of actions, as an evidence that all is well with us, and flatter ourselves on this ground, that we are the servants of Jehovah. It is conceivable that many may be prone from taste, situation, interest, or other circumstances to some one branch of Christian duty, who are lamentably remiss in others, the obligations of which though equally strong and plain, are unfelt and resisted. Self-examination must embrace the whole of the divine law, and the whole of our character. We must examine whether we possess that love to God and holiness which is the principle of all right obedience, and which if it be possessed, makes us willing and anxious to do the whole will of God.
6. Do not in default of present evidence, go back to past experience, and coupling this with perverted views of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, conclude that you are Christians, although there be no satisfactory existing proofs of faith and godliness. When the conclusion is drawn from past, instead of prevent evidence, and the awakened conscience is hushed again to slumber by the opiate of such a sentiment as, "once a child of God, a child of God forever." The delusion is dreadful, and the consequences are likely to be horrendous and eternal.
7. Do not take up the business of self-examination in order to quiet a conscience, feeling the burden of its guilt, and to free the soul from painful apprehensions of the wrath of God. If you have not known the gospel scheme of salvation by grace, and justification by faith; or having known it, have fallen into sin, and thus lost the peace and comfort of your mind; your duty, and the way to quietness and assurance, is not to set about looking into your heart, and back upon your past conduct, to find out evidences of a state of grace; nor to seek the judgment of others, who in ignorance or in kindness, may endeavor to lull your solicitude and flatter you into a good opinion of your state, by reminding you of former zeal, and telling you that God often in sovereignty withdraws from his people because they cannot bear uninterrupted comfort. But instead of this, to apply at once by faith to the blood of Christ, which cleanses from all sin. You are to be directed to the cross, and to be required to believe the testimony that Christ will cast out none who come unto him. If this does not relieve you, God has provided no other ground of comfort, and you ought to beware of seeking any other comfort, either from yourselves or from your friends. Self-examination is never to be put in place of the exercise of faith; nor is it intended or calculated to give relief to the burdened sinner, or to restore the comfort of a trembling backslider. A person in either of these states of mind, may gain a short and fitful repose from the supposition that self-scrutiny has disclosed something in their favor, but it is a delusive, and will be likely to be a transient quietude, and like that produced by opiates for the body, it will soon pass off, and leave the spirit more restless and wretched than ever.
8. Do not be satisfied with a conclusion that rests upon the lowest possible degree of evidence in your favor. Our faith is susceptible of various degrees of strength, and its fruits may be brought forth in greater or less abundance. It is a fearful problem for any man to attempt to solve, to try with how little religion he may be a real Christian, and go to heaven. Do not compose yourselves to sleep with the idea, that though you are not so eminent as some others, and even have many glaring defects and inconsistencies, you are right in the main. It may be so; for weak faith, is sincere faith; and little grace, real grace. But how difficult is it for us to determine, when faith is so weak, and grace is so feeble, that they exist at all!
Christ has said, "Herein is my Father glorified that you bear much fruit. So shall you be my disciples." John 15:8. If then the test of discipleship be much fruit, it is unsafe to rest our conclusion upon a little. The more we are conformed to the image of Christ, and the more we have of the mind that was in him, the more decisive is the evidence that we are in the faith. O who that is in any degree alive to the importance of salvation, and to the blessedness of an assured hope of it, will be content with those low degrees of evidence, which leave their possessors ever fluctuating between hope and fear?
9. Enter upon the work of examination with the double purpose of increasing both your joy, and your holiness. Religious comfort, joy, and peace in believing, are of immense consequence, not only to your happiness, but your safety. "The joy of the Lord is your strength." Neh. 8:10. "The peace of God which passes all understanding keeps your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ." Phil. 4:7. Scriptural joy makes duty cheerful, trials light, temptations powerless, and worldly amusements insipid. It is of importance therefore to increase it; and the self-examination of real Christians, by revealing the evidence of their sincere belief, produces this increase of the joy of faith.
He who examines the state of his heart and life at the conclusion of one year, ought to do it with a view to correct what is wrong, and supply what is lacking, during the next.
10. No one should be satisfied with his own self-inspection, but by earnest and believing prayer, should entreat of GOD to search him also, and to make known to him his real condition. That man knows not the deceitfulness of his heart, nor is he duly impressed with the danger and consequences of self-deception, who does not occasionally with intense solicitude, present the prayer of the Psalmist, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." Psalm 139:23, 24.
Ask, then, afresh, and with deep solemnity at the close of the present, or at the beginning of the next year, the momentous question, "Am I a sincere Christianor only a professor?" Set apart an additional hour, to inquire into this great subject. O what are all other questions compared with this, but as the small dust of the balance? By all the value you bear for your soul, or your soul's salvation, I entreat you in the most solemn manner, to take up this matter, and spread it before the Lord in prayer. Take the following questions as a test
Have you a consciousness that you really believe in Jesus Christ, and are depending upon him, and him alone, for salvation? 1 John 5:10.
Do you bring forth the fruits of faith, which are the fruits of the Spirit, as set before us by the apostle? Gal. 5:6, 22-25. Acts 15:9. 1 John 2:15; 5:4.
Do you love God supremely, practically, habitually? 1 John 5:1-3.
Do you love the children of God, for God's sake? 1 John 3:14.
Are you complying with the apostle's direction in 2 Peter 1:5-10? On what principles do you actthose of the world or of the Bible? What is your predominant object, time or eternitythe world or salvation? 1 Cor. 4:18. Do you deny yourself for Christ's sake, or are you seeking only self-gratification? Matt. 16:25, 26.
How do you employ your talents of property, intellect, influence? For God or self? Rom. 14:7-9. 1 Cor. 6:20. Phil. 1:21.
How do you bear your afflictions? With submission or repining? Rom. 5:3.
For a more minute and lengthened test of religious character, I refer you to my work, entitled, "The Christian Professor," where, in the chapter on "The Self-deceived Professor," you will find much to direct and caution you.
But I will now suppose the great question settled, and that you have no serious reason to doubt that you are "in the faith;" still you have to examine into the degree and state of your religionfor it may be very defective, where it is real. In what condition then are you come to the close of the year? You were exhorted at the commencement of it, to make it a year of improvement, and great increase of holiness. Have you done so? Has the exhortation of your pastor been complied with? Have you sought and obtained an increased effusion of divine influence? Has the heavenly shower come down in its season? Have the dispensations of Providence, both in a way of judgment and mercy, been sanctified? Have you improved well your sabbaths, fifty-two more of which have been numbered to you? Where is the fruit of all the sermons you have heard? What are you the better for the renewed culture you have enjoyed? I dare challenge you, and ask you if I have remitted anything of my labor, fidelity, and anxiety for your welfare. Yes, have I not added to it? Have I sought to please you or to PROFIT you? Have I shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God? Am I not clear from the blood of all of you, if unhappily you should perish?
Well, my dear friends, examine your conduct during the past year. Inquire how you have sustained your various relations, and have discharged your various duties. Masters and mistresses, have you been kind to your servants, just as to their wages, watchful over their souls? Servants, have you been honest, diligent, obedient, respectful, devoted? Fathers, have you kept up family religion with punctuality, seriousness, and affection, being careful of the spiritual welfare of your children? Children, have you been obedient, loving, dutiful? Tradesmen, have you been just, generous, true, faithful to your covenants, and considerate of your work-people? You rich, have you been liberal, humble, heavenly? You poor, have you been contented, submissive, trustful? You aged, have you been cheerful, weaned from the world, a godly example to the young? You young, have you been modest, active, useful? As professors, have you been careful to avoid little sins, to maintain a tender and enlightened conscience, a brotherly feeling, and a spirit of charity? All these topics should become matter of self-examinationhere is a wide field of inquiry; traverse it all. You must come behind in no duty, but go on unto perfection.
Do not think, however, that self-examination is only an occasional duty. It should precede every approach to the Lord's table, "Let a man examine himself," says the apostle, "and so let him eat." It should be interwoven with all our reading of the Scriptures, and hearing of the gospel; and, indeed, with the whole series of our actions. It should be a nightly exercise at the close of each day. Pythagoras, a heathen philosopher, said to his disciples, "Let not sleep seize upon your senses before you have three times recalled the conversation and accidents of the day." Seneca, another pagan, said, "At night, when the light is removed, and all is hushed and still, I make a scrutiny into the day, and hide nothing from myself." And now hear the language of a Christian bishop, on the necessity of this evening exercise, "If we consider the disorders of every daythe multitude of idle worlds; the great portions of time spent in vanity; the daily omissions of duty; the coldness of our prayers; the indifferences of our spirit in holy things; the uncertainty of our secret purposes; our deceptions and hypocrisies sometimes not known, very often not observed by ourselves; our lack of charity; our not knowing in how many degrees of action and purpose every virtue is to be exercised; the secret adherances of pride, and too forward complacency in our best actions; our failings in all our relations; the niceties of difference between some virtues and some vices; the secret indiscernible passages from lawful to unlawful in the first instances of change; the perpetual mistakings of permission for duty, and licentious practices for permission; our daily abusing the liberty God gives us; our unsuspected sins in managing a life certainly lawful; our little greedinesses in eating, and surprises in the proportions of our drinkings; our too great freedoms and fondnesses in lawful loves; our aptness for things sensual, and our deadness and weariness of spirit in spiritual employments; beside an infinite variety of cases of conscience that do occur in the life of every man, and in all communions of every lifethen shall we find that the productions of sin are incredibly numerous and increasing, and the computations of a man's life intricate and almost inexplicable; and, therefore, it is but reason we should sum up our accounts at the foot of every pageI mean that we call ourselves to scrutiny every night, when we compose ourselves to the little images of death."
By this frequent examination, we shall prevent little sins from growing into great ones, and acts from becoming habits; we shall stop the accumulation of those minor transgressions, which, if they do not become greater ones, diminish the luster of our profession, interrupt our peace, and prey upon our spiritual strength; we shall increase the tenderness of our conscience, promote our watchfulness, make our confession minute, our repentance particular, and greatly advance our holiness.
And now, dear brethren, "yield yourselves to God" afresh at the commencement of another year, "as those who are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God." "I beseech you by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service; and be not conformed to this world , but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good, that acceptable and perfect will of God." Rom. 12:1, 2. "As strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul." 1 Pet. 2:12. "Pass the time of your sojourning here in fear, forasmuch as you know you were not redeemed with corruptible things as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot." 1 Pet, 1:17-19.
Resolve, by God's grace, this shall be the holiest year, and the most useful one, of your whole life; then will it be the happiest; and even though it should be the last, it will be to your emancipated spirit as the year of release, of jubilee, and eternal salvation!