These are strange words to most Christians today. Paul is admonishing the Corinthian church to “examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.”
The idea among most Christians today that they ought to personally examine their lives to test themselves as to whether or not they are in the faith seems preposterous. Still, that is what the apostle tells these believers they ought to do.
Why do we have difficulty with these words? It is due, in part, to the fact we have been told we ought to judge our lives by faith; that is, our past confession. In other words, since we once accepted Jesus and were saved in the past, we can be assured we are in Christ, and all is well. Based on the fact God forgave our past sins, we can have the assurance we will go to heaven when we die. Our past confession of faith guarantees our future inheritance with God.
But in between our past confession and our future inheritance is the present. And that’s where, to use the proverbial saying, the “rubber hits the road.” For you see, we are not saved based on a past confession but only on present fruitfulness. Regardless of what we did in the past, what we are before God at any time rests on the present, not the past. We may have trusted Christ in the past and had the assurance of God’s forgiveness. But what about our present fruitfulness? Is there an abundant evidence through present fruitfulness that we have been regenerated and belong to Christ?
Even though Paul is sure that God had done a powerful work in the lives of the Corinthians (I Corinthians 1:4-8), he still exhorts them to “Take the Test.” Why? It is because only present fruitfulness can determine our real standing before God. Jesus tells the same message in his parable commonly known as ‘The Sower’ (Mark 4:1-20). The seed falls into four fields, but only one produces fruit. One is lost immediately (4:14-15) while the other two at first give the appearance they are growing, but eventually fall away (4:16-19). Both started well but eventually did not continue. Jesus is not teaching these people had salvation who then subsequently backslid, but that, while at first given appearance they were growing, eventually revealed that the seed had never taken root. No matter what their experience in the past, it is only in their continued perseverance, they are saved. “He that endures to the end shall be saved.”
That is why the continued personal examination of our lives before God, as Paul exhorts, is so critical. Women are often told the importance of continual breast examinations to detect cancer. Past examinations may not have yielded anything, but only an up-to-date account can ensure no current problems exist. In the same way, only those who regularly examine themselves before God, taking stock of their heart condition can have ultimate assurance that they are not merely relying on a past confession but rather on present evidence of fruitfulness.
Some would suggest that such advice that one should examine himself or herself is a sure way to produce insecurity since it suggests that ‘works’ rather than ‘faith’ is the basis of assurance. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is only as the heart continues through “works of faith” a believer gains true assurance. This recognizes that though we are not saved by ‘works,’ true faith always is accompanied by genuine ‘works.’ As James has said, “faith without works is dead.” We have no basis for believing we are converted unless our faith is accompanied by such works.
We must be careful when we speak of ‘works’ that we are not simply speaking of outward acts (I Corinthians 13 makes it clear that it is possible to be devoted to good deeds without love). Even though inward grace will always express itself outwardly, it is possible to be committed to religious acts without corresponding inward grace. The ultimate evidence that one is converted and belongs to God is ever and always a growing love for God and others. This is one of the primary themes of the first letter of John. In fact, John says that love for God and others is the basis of our assurance (I John 3:19-22). We should ask ourselves in God’s presence, “Does my life demonstrate that I have a deepening love for God and his Son?” And has that resulted in an increasing love for others, especially those of the household of faith?
We must avoid two extremes. One, we must guard against the enemy’s attempts to condemn us of our failures. Since sanctification means we are dealing with our on-going sin, we should not expect perfection when it comes to personal examination. On the other hand, we should not be reluctant to deal with ourselves as honestly as possible. Honesty must be the best policy when it comes to gaining assurance that we belong to him.