The Scripture frequently exhorts those who profess faith in Jesus Christ to examine themselves. This examination is for the purpose of discerning the credibility of their profession.
“Whoever says I know him but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him.” (1 John 2:4-5)
“Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not know this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? – unless you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5)
“Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.” (2 Peter 1:10)
We are to examine our hearts to see if our lives and conduct are in conformity with the doctrines of the gospel and righteousness of our Savior. It is a biblical truth that a person who has come to experience the new birth and the regenerating grace of God is going to live a different kind of life. This is because they are now a different kind of person.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Yet when Christian self-evaluation is not tethered to an appreciation of the gospel mercies that we find in Christ, we will inevitably be tempted to despair. This is because we will never find in ourselves, alone, the righteousness necessary for bringing pleasure to God’s heart. We will never find a sufficient streak of good works or holy living that convinces us that we are beyond the reaches of just condemnation. Our spiritual track record is full of potholes. Everyday is somehow tainted. Who among us would dare ask God to give us a list of how many sinless hours we have spent upon the face of the earth?
The result, then, of focusing solely on ourselves, is despair. When self-scrutiny is the exclusive preoccupation of the Christian, it will convolute our thinking. It will place us in a sad, doubting condition.
Thomas Brooks (1608-1680) has an entire chapter in his book Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, entitled, “Satan’s Devices to Keep Saints in a Sad, Doubting, Questioning, & Uncomfortable Condition.” He poses what he describes as a satanic tactic in this way:
“Though he can never rob a believer of his crown, yet such is malice and envy, that he will leave no stone unturned, no means unattempted, to rob them of their comfort and peace, to make their life a burden and a hell unto them, to cause them to spend their days in sorrow and mourning, in sighing and complaining, in doubting and questioning. Surely we have no interest in Christ; our graces are not true, our hopes are the hopes of hypocrites; our confidence is our presumption, our enjoyments are our delusions.” p. 142.
Brooks gives the example of John Bradford (1510-1555) who was both an English reformer and a martyr. While watching a criminal on his way to execution, Bradford is reported to have said, “There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.” Brooks goes on to say,
“Blessed John Bradford (the martyr), in one of his epistles, saith thus, ‘O Lord, sometime methinks I feel it so with me, as if there were no difference between my heart and the wicked. I have a blind mind as they, a stout, stubborn, rebellious heart as they,’ and so he goes on.” p. 142.
Like a spiritual physician, Brooks diagnoses the malady.
“By causing them to be still poring and musing upon sin, to mind their sins more than their Savior; yea, so to mind their sins as to forget, yea, to neglect their Savior; that, as the Psalmist speaks, ‘The Lord is not at all in their thoughts’ (Ps. 10.4). Their eyes are so fixed upon their disease that they cannot see the remedy, though it be near; and they do so muse upon their debts, that they have neither mind nor heart to think of their Surety.” p. 142-43.
There are times when mourning and weeping are the appropriate thing in the Christian life (James 4:9-10). A life lived without heart-felt repentance is a life that presumes grace rather than experiences grace. But the Christian must also be encouraged to remember that “whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart” (1 John 3:20) and our Savior is greater than our sin.