I keep finding myself in conversation with people about the practice of self-examination - that is, reflecting inwardly about the godliness or ungodliness of our thoughts, motives, attitudes, actions and so on. Much of what I hear is good and encouraging, but there are a couple of cautions that need to be thrown into the mix to prevent problems arising.

It's important to consider the purpose of self-examination. There are several possible reasons to examine oneself, and not all are equally healthy.

Self-examination has great value as a means of stamping out sin. To my mind, it is an unqualifiedly good thing to reflect on our lives and thoughts with the aim of growing in godliness in the future. For example, just run through the last couple of conversations you've had with your parents. Then reflect a little on Ephesians 6:1-3, and do something about it for the rest of the day. And the rest of the week, for that matter.

However, self-examination is often conducted for a quite different purpose: namely, as a way of seeking assurance that our faith is genuine. This practice can perhaps claim some biblical support, though not as much as some people seem to think. For example, it is often wrongly assumed that 1 Corinthians 11:28 or 2 Corinthians 13:5 encourage this kind of self-examination, but the context in each case demonstrates that the word "examine" (dokimazo) refers not to introspective self-examination but to an outward demonstration of one's commitment to Christ by means of how we treat other members of his body.

However, let's assume for the sake of argument that there is at least some biblical basis for self-examination as a means to seek assurance about the genuineness of our own faith. This being the case, there are three cautions to bear in mind.

First, it's striking that some of the passages that are used to support the practice of self-examination are actually about our commitment to Christ being observed by others. For example, it was Paul who observed that the the gospel had come to the Thessalonian Christians "in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction," and it was the Macedonian and Achaian believers who reported to him that the Thessalonians had "turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (1 Thess 1:5, 9). The Thessalonians did not receive this assurance by gazing into their own hearts, but by listening to what others (specifically their leaders) said about them. This passage provides no support for the practise of seeking to discern these evidences of God's work in ourselves. If anything, such texts encourage us to ask our elders what they think of our Christian commitment.
Secondly, I've noticed that it's often the most godly Christians who are most concerned about their (alleged) lack of godliness. This is understandable, for a certain degree of concern about our own sinfulness is itself a good thing, and an evidence of God's work in us. I don't notice many unbelievers wandering around the streets of London racked with guilt about their rebellion against their Creator. But many thoughtful and godly Christians - perhaps particularly those who are temperamentally inclined towards introspection - worry endlessly (andcompletely needlessly) whether they "truly saved."

Finally - and perhaps most importantly of all - the results of our self-examination must be kept in perspective alongside other biblical indications of genuine Christian faith. For example, as you sit reading this, do you believe that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead? If so, Romans 10:9 says that you will be saved. Are you a baptised member in good standing in a Bible-believing Christian church? If so, you have died with Christ and will "certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his" (Rom 6:5). Death has no dominion over you, and you must therefore consider yourself "dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus" (v. 11).
These are the criteria which the Bible encourages us to "examine" in order to find assurance of our salvation. It's time to put an end to introspection - to trust less in our feelings and more in the word of God.

By Dr Jeffery, pastor of Emmanuel Evangelical Church 

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