Examine Yourself! Test Yourself! (2 Cor. 13:5-10)
One of the greatest problems we face in the church today is the number of truly born again believers who struggle with the assurance of their salvation. They are burdened with fears that they may have committed the unpardonable sin or that their daily failures indicate the absence of saving grace. Their consciences are tormented by the lingering memory of a tainted past. Anxiety eats away at their hearts like a corrosive acid. They are desperate for some word that will bring assurance to their disquieted souls.
Although it is not my purpose here to provide counsel to those who struggle with assurance, one thing should be noted. Most often people who live in fear that they aren't saved are the ones who need worry about it the least. Unregenerate people couldn't care less about their sin or salvation. They are spiritually "dead" (Eph. 2:1), "darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them" and suffer from "hardness of heart" (Eph. 4:18). They have become "callous and have given themselves up to sensuality" (Eph. 4:19). They are, therefore, insensible to the beauty of Christ and indifferent towards the countless ways in which they violate his will and fail to honor him as God.
That you should be painfully concerned over your sin and distressed by your failure to love and obey Christ as you know you should is precisely why I would feel free to encourage you and reassure your heart that you do, indeed, truly know him as Lord and Savior. It is the stinging conviction of sin that testifies to the Spirit's saving presence in your heart! But I must move on.
If there are many who are saved but think they aren't, even greater is the number who aren't saved but think they are. Having walked an aisle when they were seven or prayed a prayer at the age of twelve, or perhaps on the assumption that living in the U.S. and being raised in a church necessarily entails salvation, these folk presumptuously believe themselves to be Christians whose eternal destiny is set and secured.
D. A. Carson has articulated what we know all too well, that "there are millions of professing believers in North America today (to say nothing of elsewhere) who at some point entered into a shallow commitment to Christianity, but who, if pushed, would be forced to admit they do not love holiness, do not pray, do not hate sin, do not walk humbly with God. They stand in the same danger as the Corinthians; and Paul's warning applies to them no less than to the Corinthian readers of this epistle" (178).
Here in 2 Corinthians 13:5-10, we find the apostle Paul issuing a pointed and passionate call to the Corinthian church. "Examine yourselves," says Paul, "to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? - unless indeed you fail to meet the test!" (2 Cor. 13:5).
I have a two-fold aim in this meditation and it centers on this statement in v. 5. Although the broader paragraph (vv. 5-10) is important, my focus will be on this single passage. First, we need to understand how this call for self-examination related to the Corinthians to whom it was originally addressed. Second, I want us to consider how it applies today, to you and to me.
Paul's exhortation is that they both "examine" and "test" themselves. What is important to note is that "the means by which the test is performed is Paul himself. Allegiance to him as their apostle is the criterion that determines whether Christ is present in their lives, since Paul is confident that he himself has already passed the test (13:6). To accept Paul's message of reconciliation is to accept God's message of reconciliation" (Hafemann, 493).
In other words, the test is the degree to which they respond positively to Paul's claim to apostleship and especially to his proclamation of the gospel. He is operating on the assumption that "those in whom God is at work by his Spirit will recognize that Paul's holiness, sincerity, and way of life all derive from the same grace of God that Paul is now calling them to accept (cf. 1:12 with 6:1-2)" (493). This assumption also means that "those in whom Christ is present will not continue in the lifestyles of rebellion characterized in 12:21. Where Christ is, there is a life of growing holiness" (493).
In 1 Corinthians 16:13 Paul urged them to "stand firm in the faith." Now he urges them to examine themselves to see "whether" they "are in the faith" (v. 5). In both cases, "faith" probably refers not to their subjective trust in Christ but to the Christian faith, i.e., those objective truths which constitute the Christian religion, what Jude referred to as "the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (v. 3). As I said, although this is not a direct reference to saving faith in Christ, to be "in" the faith certainly has in view one's theological convictions as well as ethical behavior.
To "fail" the test is to discover, after self-examination, that Jesus is not, in point of fact, in them. Paul is not talking about the possibility of someone having Jesus in him, only then to apostatize and discover that Jesus is no longer there. His point is this: if the Corinthians are truly Christians, they will realize that Jesus is in them. And if Jesus is in them, they should be led to acknowledge that he is also in Paul, for it was through him that they came to saving faith. Surely there must be some merit to the claims of one who led so many to faith in Christ! In other words, "he will show them that their verdict about themselves will likewise be their verdict about him. That is, however they fare in their self-examination is how he also fares, because they owe their existence in Christ to him" (Barnett, 607).
Certainly Paul believed that the majority of those in Corinth were true believers (see 3:1-3; 6:13). However, although confident that they will "pass the test," the possibility always exists that some may discover that they have "failed." In other words, the reality of self-delusion and false assurance must be faced.
This is where we must turn our focus from the first century to the twenty-first, from the Corinthians and their spiritual state to us and ours. How should we today examine and test ourselves?
Perhaps we should begin where Paul did, with the objective revelatory truths found in God's Word, "the faith" (v. 5), as he put it. Are we "in" it? Are my beliefs governed by Scripture or by personal likes and dislikes? Do I elevate my opinions above God's? Most important of all, who is Jesus to me? Do I accept Scripture's claim that he is God incarnate, that he lived a sinless life and died a substitutionary death, absorbing in himself the wrath of God I deserved, and that he rose again bodily from the dead? Do I set my hope in personal effort and sincerity and the confidence that my good deeds will outweigh or somehow trump my bad ones?
What is my response to the apostolic message? Does it resonate in my heart? Do I relish the revelation of Christ about whom Paul and Peter and John and others wrote and for whose name's sake they gave their lives? Am I submissive to their teaching? Do I shape my life and recast my beliefs and formulate my choices to conform with the theological and ethical principles they defend?
I must also test and examine myself by determining not whether I sin, because I most certainly do, but how I feel and respond when I sin. Am I unmoved and indifferent and cold toward my failures? Do I find ways to rationalize what I know is inconsistent with Scripture? Do I simply acquiesce to my sinful desires and lusts and illicit longings by saying, "Well, that's how God made me so it can't be wrong. I'm just being me. Surely God can't argue with that!"
In short, writes Carson, "when a person is broken in spirit and contrite before the God of all justice, grace comes and pronounces absolution and grants confidence. But when a person is haughty and arrogant, the product of well-cultivated triumphalism, unconscious of grace or of any need for it, then grace flees and a stern apostle warns, ‘Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves'" (178).
The last thing I want to endorse is a morbid, introspective obsession with the state of our souls, as if we are called upon each moment to take our spiritual pulse, oblivious and blind to the hurts and needs and desperate condition of those around us. But we must also avoid the opposite extreme that is characterized by presumptuous self-delusion and a proud indifference to the ethical demands of the gospel.
In conclusion, and most important of all, when I realize that nothing in my life is perfect and that all my beliefs are to some extent flawed and that every effort I make is tainted by selfishness and sin, do I look to Jesus and to him alone, whose life and death and resurrection are my only hope? That is the ultimate test.