Examine Yourselves


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“Examine Yourselves”
2 Corinthians 12:11-13:14
August 3, 2003
Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn

This morning we conclude Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Paul, remember, has been recounting his ministry, both its troubles and its privileges, as a way of exposing the claims of the false teachers in Corinth for the bogus self-promotion that they are. He has been “commending” himself, and has felt foolish for doing so, but had no choice. He’s fighting fire with fire, so to speak.

v.13 That is, he worked for a living while he was among the Corinthians, refusing to accept their financial support. The false teachers, of course, were happy to accept it.

v.14 The second visit is not mentioned in Acts, but is apparently the “painful visit” that Paul alludes to in 2:1. It was probably a brief visit made necessary by reports he had received of problems in the church, a visit probably made during his three-year ministry in Ephesus.

v.16 Almost certainly Paul’s way of speaking stems from the fact that he was being accused of trickery, perhaps with respect to the collection for the church in Jerusalem. Perhaps it was being whispered about that he planned to keep much of the money for himself.

v.18 In point of fact, however, Paul’s entire history of dealings with the Corinthians believers has been one of probity and self-denial. He has never taken advantage of them in any way.

v.19 Paul is still worried that the defense of himself and his ministry which he has mounted in these last chapters of the letter would be misunderstood. His worry is a measure of his concern for these people.

v.21 The early Christian preacher John Chrysostom long ago observed that the sting of the Apostle’s remarks is lessened by his manner of making them. Instead of direct accusation he expresses his misgivings lest he should find certain things to be true when he arrives in Corinth. He fears he is going to find professing Christians living worldly lives.

13:3 If the accusation has been that Paul lacks true apostolic authority, his conduct when he arrives, especially in regard to those living in rebellion against the law of God, will prove the contrary. But, of course, it is not Paul’s authority, but Christ’s being exercised through Paul.

v.4 There is a kind of “weakness” in Paul’s ministry, as there was in Christ’s – the compassion and patience of love, the bearing of reproach for the sake of others, the sacrifice of himself for others – but there is also power, the sort of power by which Christ was raised from the dead; the power of God to grant new life to those dead in their sins, the power to speak the truth with convicting power. Paul will exercise that power on Christ’s behalf. Sinners in the church will find him a stern judge not a helpless bystander. [Hughes, 481]

v.7 The sense seems to be that if they respond as he hopes they will, when he comes to Corinth he will not have to demonstrate his apostolic authority by dealing severely with them. He may seem to have failed to prove his authority but it will be only because they have proved it for him.

v.9 There is to be nothing overbearing in the exercise of authority in the church. It is always for the sake of God’s people and his holiness in their lives.

Now, as you remember, the troublemakers in the Corinthian church have been inciting the church to demand proof that Christ is really speaking and working through Paul, that he has the authority of a real apostle. They have wanted to diminish Paul so as to exalt themselves. The false teachers have argued that Paul is a poseur, an impostor, and have convinced some others of this fact. But Paul, in 13:5 turns the tables. He says that they must in fact examine themselves to put themselves to the test. If such self-examination reveals that they have the experience of God’s grace then that alone is proof of his apostolic authority, for they all came to faith in and through the ministry of Paul; he is their father in the faith, if indeed they have true faith. In other words, Paul appeals to their self-knowledge, their own knowledge of Christ and his work in their hearts and lives. [Hughes, 480]

This is one of a number of texts in the Bible and in the New Testament that commend to us the practice of self-examination, the inspection of ourselves to detect the presence of true faith and eternal life. Now, it is interesting that most such texts, texts urging self-examination upon us, are found in contexts like this one. Things have gone seriously wrong in the Corinthian church. Some of the people have been swayed by false teachers and some of them and perhaps others are living in ways that are plainly inappropriate for Christians. So there is an objective need to answer the question whether such a person or persons are real Christians. After all, the Bible makes no bones about the fact that many people think that they are Christians when they are not, that many profess faith whose lives are the disproof of their profession.

In 1 John, where we have another similar call to self-examination, the context is the same. That letter was written to a community of Christians that had just been rocked by the defection of a number of those whom they had all taken to be brothers in Christ. Naturally, they wanted to know how to be sure that they would not do the same thing or prove to have the same merely temporary and hypocritical faith.

There is no escaping the necessity of this self-examination. When the Lord tells us that not everyone who says to him “Lord, Lord” will inherit the kingdom of God but only those who do the will of his Father in heaven, or when in the Gospels we are treated over and over again to the sight of people secure in their own religious righteousness utterly failing to recognize their own unbelief and failing to obtain eternal life, or when we meet along the way men such as Judas or Demas, whom everyone took to be faithful men but who proved at the last to be spiritual impostors, no one can argue that the question does not need to be asked and answered: am I a true a genuine believer in Jesus Christ? Am I in possession of eternal life? Has Christ really come into my life? Am I going to heaven when I die? The assurance of salvation is a matter of real importance in the Bible. No one can doubt it.

However, the burden of this question is very often missed by Christian people and assurance becomes for them a matter that is both confusing and distressing. Questions like these – am I really a Christian? Have I been fooling myself about my relationship to Christ? – can bedevil real Christians and often have. I know how much such questions have troubled some of you. These problems are so severe and so commonplace that some have tried to argue that there is no need for believers in Christ ever to worry about their spiritual state or to conduct such self-examination to see if they are in the faith. This position, it may surprise you to learn, has become quite common over the past generation in even some segments of Reformed theology. There are men who, for example, argue that even Calvin, the prince of the Reformation theologians, denied that people should look into the matter of their own salvation. That claim, so far as it concerns Calvin’s views, has been debunked, but the suspicion remains in many minds that the search for assurance does more harm than good. It is a case of pulling up the roots of our faith to see if it is growing. It fuels doubt, it generates unhelpful introspection, it even draws the mind away from Christ and his work to the believer’s own work. If you profess faith in Christ, we are being told, that is enough, nothing more need be said.

However, we cannot deny the need for this self-examination, for the Bible addresses us plainly in regard to it. We have to follow the Bible where it leads even if doing so complicates our lives and even if some will find it difficult to keep the commandment without falling into imbalance. And, surely, taking the Bible together, it is important to have an assurance of salvation that is sound and based on the right things. If, as the Bible clearly teaches us and warns us, not all in the church are saved, then assurance of salvation and resting that assurance upon solid reasons are matters of serious importance. Nevertheless, the concern to be sure is often misplaced and the Bible’s teaching is often misunderstood. I think it is misunderstood and becomes an unnecessary problem for two reasons in particular.

1. First, for certain personalities the issue as Paul frames it here and the command to examine oneself to see whether one is in the faith inevitably leads to doubt and spiritual disquiet. Certain types of people are more prone than others to doubt, to a lack of confidence, to suspecting the worst about themselves. Certain types of people are so analytical it is hard for them ever to stop analyzing, calculating, and inquiring. And the result is that real Christians, genuine believers, people in whom Christ is very definitely present, never are sure that they are saved, are constantly worried about it, spend huge amounts of their spiritual energy going over the same ground time and time again. Have I closed with Christ? Has my life really been changed? Can I see the fruit of the Spirit in my behavior? What about all my sins? Have I overcome the world as Christ says true believers will? Have I died to sin as the Bible says Christians, real Christians have?

I have dealt with many Christians through the years who have been, at one time or another in their lives, or chronically, tortured by these questions and their inability to settle the matter in their own mind. I’m reading a book on mathematics and came across this story about mathematicians and about how they are such sticklers when it comes to proving things.

“An astronomer, a physicist and a mathematician (it is said) were holidaying in Scotland. Glancing from a train window, they observed a black sheep in the middle of the field. ‘How interesting,’ observed the astronomer, ‘all Scottish sheep are black!’ To which the physicist responded, ‘No, no! Some Scottish sheep are black!’ The mathematician gazed heavenward [in disgust], and then [said], ‘In Scotland there exists at least one field, containing at least one sheep, at least one side of which is black.’” [S. Singh, Fermat’s Enigma, 134]

Well, so it is with some Christians and assurance. Some Christians have that mathematician’s spirit and viewpoint. They are sticklers for proof and have a great deal of difficulty being satisfied. I might challenge them: Do you know yourself a sinner, are you aware that you cannot satisfy the justice of God by your own effort, do you believe in Christ for your peace with God? And they will say, “Yes, with all my heart, but…” But what of my life, I am still so sinful! Or, but the Lord seems very distant from me just now and I’m not sure that he has accepted me. Perhaps my faith in him is not genuine; maybe I’m simply fooling myself when I say that I believe. There is much within me that if you knew you would doubt my salvation also. As Mr. Tait used to say, it is one thing to take the light of God’s Word down into the cellar of our heart; it is another thing to take a camp bed down there with us; but that is what some Christians do and can’t seem to help doing.

And, of course, as anyone knows who reads at all widely in the literature of the church’s past, the same has been a problem for many notable Christians. When you read that Jonathan Edwards went through a time of doubting whether he was a real Christian, or that John Duncan, Scotland’s Rabbi Duncan, that devout and godly man and that perceptive theologian, struggled with sometimes paralyzing doubts about his own salvation through most of his Christian life, you realize that this is a struggle for some Christians and cannot be dispensed with as simply a lack of understanding or sound teaching. Some personalities are given to problems at this point, others are not. Duncan thought a great deal about assurance because it was a real problem for him and what he has to say is very wise. But that wisdom did not keep him from struggling himself at just this point. His knowledge couldn’t protect him from his doubts. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon knew about self-examination and the assurance of salvation. He knew the teaching of the Bible regarding salvation by grace backwards and forwards, he had enjoyed powerful experiences of God’s grace, he knew all these things, but that did not prevent him from sometimes struggling with doubts about his own salvation. There were times when Paul’s summons to “examine yourselves” was a knife cutting right through his heart. There is a very interesting instance of this in Spurgeon’s life which he recounts in his autobiography [ii, 365-366]

“I once learnt something in a way one does not often get a lesson. I felt at that time very weary, and very sad, and very heavy at heart; and I began to doubt in my own mind whether I really enjoyed the things which I preached to others. It seemed to be a dreadful thing for me to be only a waiter, and not a guest, at the gospel feast. I went to a certain country town, and on the Sabbath day entered a Methodist Chapel. The man who conducted the service was an engineer; he read the Scriptures, and prayed, and preached. The tears flowed freely from my eyes; I was moved to the deepest emotion by every sentence of the sermon, and I felt all my difficulty removed, for the gospel, I saw, was very clear to me, and had a wonderful effect upon my own heart. I went to the preacher, and said, ‘I thank you very much for that sermon.’ He asked me who I was, and when I told him, he looked as red as possible, and he said, ‘Why, it was one of your sermons that I preached this morning!’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I know it was; but that was the very message that I wanted to hear, because I then saw that I did enjoy the very Word I myself preached.’ It was happily so arranged in the good providence of God. Had it been his own sermon, it would not have answered the purpose nearly so well as when it turned out to be one of mine.’”

But, get my point. Spurgeon’s struggle to be sure of his own interest in Christ did not result from his not knowing the truth or not knowing it well enough. He knew it well enough to preach it powerfully to others. But, at that time the truth had deserted him. The problem was rather a type of personality that lent him to doubts about himself, to a melancholy kind of pessimism that other Christians would have found more than faintly ridiculous for such a man. I know many Christians, fine Christians who never struggle with assurance; and I know some fine Christians who have struggled to know for sure that they are saved all their lives.

So there is a problem with the assurance of salvation that comes from a person’s makeup, his personality, her characteristic way of looking at things. Just as some Christians find certain parts of Christian obedience particularly difficult and other Christians do not, just as some find certain parts of the Bible’s teaching more difficult to believe and others do not, so some Christians find Christian assurance more difficult to obtain than others.

2. But there is a second problem frequently encountered by Christians as they encounter Paul here in 2 Cor. 13:5. It is that they mistake the examination of their faith for the examination of their holiness. They turn the relative into the absolute. This is not so much a problem of one’s personality or make-up as it is a problem of one’s conviction and understanding. The Bible is always and in a variety of ways urging upon us the consideration of our ways. We are to press forward in the things that pertain to God. We are not to be content with what we have so far attained in devotion, in worship, in obedience, in service, in the fruits of the Holy Spirit, love, joy, peace and the like. We are often rebuked in the Bible for living laxly and for failing to put on the full armor of God and to fight the good fight of faith. We are often encouraged or summoned to higher things. We are to take heed to our ways as Christians. But it is a very different thing to examine the faithfulness and the maturity and the progress of your Christian life than to examine whether or not you are a Christian at all. Yet many Christians seem to think that the one question is the same as the other.

I will tell them that the fact that they continue to fail at this or that is no evidence that Christ is not with them, but they are not convinced. I will remind them that every Christian, every true believer in the Bible had feet of clay and struggled with a sense of failure to live up to the
Christian life, but they remain unimpressed. They are disappointed in their Christian life as, indeed, they have a right to be. I remind them that only a real Christian would be so disappointed about a failure to love God as he deserves to be loved or so fearful about a failure to obey God as he deserves to be obeyed, but that argument does not weigh with them because they are quite sure that their failures are greater than those of others. For, the fact is, they know very well what Christians ought to be and do and they know how far short they fall. ‘If Christ were in me,’ they say, ‘truly, genuinely, would I not pray better than I do, would I not be more obedient in every way, would I not manifest his love in all manner of ways all the time.’ And wouldn’t the Lord draw nearer to me and wouldn’t I feel his presence more than I do. Did he not say that if I delighted in him he would give me the desires of my heart? Well, I haven’t received the desires of my heart, so I must not be one who delights in God. So the argument runs and so the doubts remain. In this case, it is not so much a personality trait, a tendency to a melancholy pessimism. In this case – and it is usually only for a time that people struggle in this way – it is a matter of taking holy things so seriously that they lose perspective.

John Bunyan is but one great Christian who passed through a period not only doubting that he was a Christian but pretty sure that he had committed the unforgivable sin. Whenever you have many Christians caring deeply about spiritual things you are going to find believing people struggling to believe that they are saved. It is not surprising that no one thought more deeply or wrote more wisely about assurance than the 17th century Puritans. Theirs was a time of great spiritual advance, of many coming to faith, of deep godliness. So, predictably, it was a time of people worrying about their state, concerned to know for sure that they were in Christ. Take heaven and hell seriously and suddenly nothing is more important than to know your peace with God. And one of the wisest of those Puritan pastors and writers, William Gurnall, wrote, in his spiritual classic The Christian in Complete Armour:

Many Christians possess assurance without knowing it, just as it is
Possible for a man to walk around the house, looking for his hat when it is upon his head all the time.”

I can do better than that. Back when I wore glasses, I once looked and looked for my glasses, which I had misplaced, until, leaning down to look under my bed, I knocked them with my arm and found I was wearing them the entire time. Get the point. I could only see to search for my glasses by having them on. But, for some reason, that did not occur to me at the time. For some reason I was sure I had misplaced my glasses and so I went looking for them. I had lost perspective. And the questions Christians ask of themselves are often like that: the very questions they ask are the evidence of their faith, but they cannot see it at the time, because they are seeing their sins and failures so clearly. They are looking for what they cannot see in their lives, unaware that it is only because of faith that they look for those things at all.

Now, we return to Paul’s statement. Because what is clear here is that Paul fully expects that most, if not all of the Corinthian Christians will pass the test and will be proved genuine Christians. That has been his expectation throughout the letter and is here as well. That, for example, is the thought of v. 6. They will find the proof of Paul’s apostolic authority in their own saving relationship to Christ, for it was Paul who led them into that relationship. That is why he has been so confidently “boasting” these last chapters. He knows his converts in Corinth will be the proof of his apostleship. So he asks them to examine themselves.

But, they will know they are in Christ not because they have not done wrong, for they have. Some have persisted in sexual misbehavior, as we read at the end of chapter 12, some have given an ear to the false teachers and to another gospel. But Paul knows these people and Titus has confirmed how well they responded to Paul’s first letter. He calls them his “brothers” in 13:11. He urges them on to higher things in the Christian life. Paul urges self-examination upon these people, but he expects them to pass the test, or most all of them to.

And how will they know they have passed? Because they truly do embrace Paul’s gospel of salvation in Christ. The great issue, Paul says, is whether Christ is in you! Whether you are united to Christ by faith in him. And how do you know that? How do you examine yourself in regard to that?

Well, the chief thing is always this: do you look to him and count on him for the forgiveness of your sins and your peace with God? If you really do that many other things will be true about you to be sure, but it is in believing that Christ is the Son of God, that he died for sinners, that he rose again, that he is coming again to judge the world, that those who trust in him have life and life forever, that because you know all this to be true you yourself confess Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior, it is in this conviction in mind and in heart that one finds himself and knows himself a Christian. Other things may help, may add their evidence, but assurance begins and ends here: in the conviction that you belong to Jesus Christ, that he and he alone can save you from your sins and give you eternal life, and so you will stick fast to him.

Paul was sure these folk knew that and believed that. And so he was sure they would take his counsel and, as he says in v. 8, live according to the truth. And, it is my privilege and pleasure to say that, as the Lord is my witness, I have the same confidence concerning you!