One of the great dangers of the Christian life is presumption. Specifically, it is always dangerous to presume that one is in fact a genuine believer, or that one is actually right with God. Many people who think they are may in fact not be, and are simply deceiving themselves.
That is a very scary place indeed to be in. Jesus certainly spoke to this in various places. Consider Matthew 7:21-23, which contains some of the most frightening words in all of Scripture: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
That should give every single one of us cause for concern. But the text I wish to focus on here comes from my morning reading in 2 Corinthians. In the last chapter of this epistle Paul offers further warnings to those who have been rebellious and sinful.
In 13:5-6 he gives this admonition: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test.”
This is a sober challenge for the Corinthians to examine themselves closely and to discern whether they in fact are really true followers of Jesus Christ. This advice is something all believers should take to heart. We simply cannot assume that because we have grown up in a religious family, or have gone to church for a long time, or have raised our hands at a revival meeting some years ago, that we are therefore definitely a Christian.
D. A. Carson speaks to the twin issues of doubt and assurance here. How can we have full assurance of saving faith, yet not lapse into smug and dangerous presumption? How does doubt fit into the Christian life? How can we rejoice in the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith and yet not lapse into a works-based faith?
These are important and complex questions, and we need to get the correct Biblical balance here. I believe Carson does just this as he very capably teases out these issues. Thus he is worth quoting at length here:
“The truth is that doubt regarding one’s status before the sovereign Lord can stem from many different causes. If doubt springs from uncertainty regarding the sufficiency of Christ’s cross-work, then the doubting believer must be led back to the many passages that attest its perfection. But if doubt springs from suppressed sin, the proper course for removal of the doubt is repentance of the sin, confession, and, where possible, restitution.
“Similarly, if a believer is very confident he is accepted in the beloved and is written in the Lamb’s book of life, not because he feels morally superior, but because he thoughtfully joins the Lord’s people in singing
Nothing in my hands I bring
Only to Thy cross I cling
-then self-examination is superfluous. If, however, this alleged believer is puffed up with unrestrained self-importance, unqualified self-love, moral laxness or major doctrinal deviation, then the apostle John (to go no further) has a set of three tests to impose (1 John): doctrinal commitment, love for the brothers, and moral obedience to Jesus Christ.
“If someone fails any one of these tests, John declares that person is no Christian at all (e.g., 1 John 2:1–9). At this point the emphasis of the reformers is seen to be a trifle simplistic; for in the appropriate situations, the Scriptures focus on subjective grounds of assurance (i.e., transformed lives), just as in other contexts they focus on the objective ground (the cross-work of Christ).
“In short, 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.’
“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.”
Quite so. In a somewhat different approach to this passage, the words of Tom Wright are also worth repeating: “The Corinthians had been asking Paul for proof that the Messiah really was living and speaking in and through him (13:3). Paul has assured them that plenty of proof will be forthcoming if they are so bold as to challenge him in person. But now he turns the tables on them and suggests that they, too, should submit to a self test. Before he arrives, they would be well advised to run through a checklist of the signs that indicate whether Messiah’s life, his crucified and risen life, is present. For Paul, that is the very centre of what it means to be a Christian (see Romans 8.9-10 and Gal 2.20).
“When you look at yourself in the mirror, do you see someone in whom King Jesus is living and active, or someone who once knew him but now seems not to? When you listen to the sort of things you yourself say, does it sound like words that might have come from King Jesus himself, or are you simply talking the same way everyone else does? When you find yourself with your brother and sister Christians, do you respond to them as brothers and sisters, as people in whom you see King Jesus also living, or are they just ‘other people’? And when you settle down and quieten your mind and heart, to pray and wait for God, do you know and sense the presence, the life and the love of King Jesus close to you, within you, warming and sustaining, guarding and guiding, checking and directing you?
“These are searching tests, but they are the kind of thing Paul has in mind. And he longs to find that they have passed the test. In fact, he longs for this so much that he declares, as he does on one or two other occasions (like Romans 9:3), that he would rather he failed the test and they passed it than that he would pass it and they would all fail (verse 7).”
Thus the Christian life must avoid the extremes of presumption on one hand and constant doubt and lack of faith on the other. Humility requires of all believers that they follow the instructions of Paul and test themselves. This is not mere good advice but a divine command.
It is of course far better to submit oneself to searching self-examination with the help of the Holy Spirit, than to discover one day that you have fallen into the category of those Jesus warned about in Matthew 7. What we all want to hear on that day is this: “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your master.”