It has been said that the self-examined life is not worth living.
The latter statement needs to be made because the over-examined life may leave some in a place that the Lord has not intended self-examination to take them. For some, self-examination is a good thing. The believer considers his life, recognizes his failures, weaknesses, and sins, confess, repents, and continues his walk toward Christlikeness.
Others consider their lives, see their failures, weaknesses, and sins, and being overcome by guilt and discouragement, they despair of ever gaining victory over sin and they become weary and prone to giving up in their walk with Christ. (And obviously there are many points of variation on a continuum between these two extremes.)
A couple of passages are helpful here.
To begin, self-examination is important for the believer. One passage that makes this especially clear is 2 Cor. 13:5 —
Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you — unless indeed you fail the test?
While the obvious observation is that Paul says that testing and self-examination is needful for all believers, there are some other things that should also be noticed. For instance, the idea contained in the word is not only “examination,” but examination with the intention of approving or affirming. That is, the test is akin to biting a gold coin to determine authenticity. The exam is not fundamentally to determine failure but to affirm genuineness. That same sense is also what Paul has in mind in passages like Rom. 2:18, 1 Tim. 3:10, and Eph. 5:10.
And that sense is also given in the next statement — “do you not recognize this about yourselves — that Christ is in you?” Certainly some will fail the test, but Paul’s intention is that his readers would be affirmed with the reality that Christ is living and working in their lives; having saved them, Christ is now sanctifying them.
Some read “examine yourselves,” and they immediately think, “I’ll fail. I never do anything right. I know I sin too much. I guess I’m not saved…” And that is not what Paul has in mind for his readers.
Some will read the book of 1 John in the same way. Reading sections like 3:6-7, they assume, “I sin too often and more than I want, so I guess I’m not saved.” Yet, like Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, that is not John’s intention. In his first letter, John does affirm that those who live in perpetual sin have no reason to be assured of their salvation. But he also affirms that believers still sin — “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1:8). In fact the believer in Christ will still sin, sometimes he will sin significantly and repeatedly, but John’s point is that his life is not a life of perpetual and unrepentant sin (he “practices sin” and “practices lawlessness” — 3:4). And John also notes that the believer in Christ (the believer who still will sin) can be bold and confident before the throne of God (2:28; 3:19; 4:17). The reason for that boldness is because of the work of Christ to forgive and redeem Him (2:12-14).
And there is where the balance for self-examination may be found.
Paul says the following in Romans —
For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. (12:3)
So here is more instruction on self-examination. Consider your life, Paul says, and in that consideration, do not develop an over-inflated opinion of yourself. In other words, recognize the sin and failures of your life and let them lead you to humble repentance so that you are kept from self-exaltation and pride. On the other hand, as the believer considers himself, he is also to think of himself with sound judgment. He is to consider his spiritual life as it really is — he should see the salvation Christ has worked and the gifting the Spirit has given. Despite the presence of sin, he should see the progress of faith, as God has allotted it to him. His self-examination should not lead him to despair but to an honest recognition of the progress of his faith. He is saved not because of his obedience, but he is saved because of the amazing grace of Christ’s work on the cross and he is sanctified by the eternal power of the Spirit of God living in him.
In summary, here are four principles for examining yourselves:
- Examine yourself spiritually. Are you a genuine believer (what is the object of your faith — on whom are you relying for your salvation? And is there any remaining sin in your life as a believer?
- Whatever sin you find, confess it and repent of it. Seek God’s forgiveness for it and seek His power to be transformed from it.
- Thank God for areas of growing transformation in your life. While there is never perfection in the believer’s life, there will be obedience and evidences of growing conformity to Christ — areas in his life that God has obviously changed.
- Rest confidently in God’s sanctifying work.