Many years ago, Bro. Thomas and Bro. John B. Campbell were visiting a religious campground and fell into conversation with an older gentleman who had been caretaker there for some years. In the course of their conversation the man said something that Bro. Thomas has repeated a number of times since. He said, as well as I can remember, “There will be three great surprises in heaven.” Of course, Bro. Thomas and Bro. John wondered what was coming next.
He went on to say, “The first surprise is that there will be people you expected to see who won’t be there. The second surprise is that there will be those you didn’t expect to see who will be there.” He concluded by saying, “And the greatest surprise of all will be that you are there yourself!”
There is a lot of truth in what the man said! There are so many religious ideas abroad in our day as to what it takes to go to heaven it is no wonder that heaven will be full of surprises. I have no doubt that the man meant to convey a touch of humor in the third surprise yet there is an element of truth there as well. Here we are as God’s people, living by faith in the midst of this present evil world. Suddenly we are transported to realms beyond our power to imagine. Faith becomes sight! Whatever doubts and fears we may have battled are now swallowed up in glorious victory. This world is forever behind us. Surely it will require divine love and wisdom to help us make such a transition!
I believe we have established the need for the kind of self-examination of which Paul speaks. It is our responsibility before God, and no one else’s, to make sure we are ready to stand before the Lord on that great day. There is no greater folly than to be careless in this area, to take salvation for granted, to embrace some form of Christian religion and assume that everything is therefore OK.
The precise means God uses to call people to surrender and to embrace the hope of the gospel may vary. However, one thing is constant: that call is very personal. It often takes place in some public setting yet it remains personal. The gospel call is an unseen communication from Almighty God directly to the heart of the one called. It convicts of need and then lifts the eyes to behold a perfect salvation through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. It calls upon that one to repent and believe from the heart.
Being part a certain group, following a certain preacher, or embracing certain doctrines are no substitute for a personal call from God to your heart and a personal response from you. And that is why self-examination is also a personal responsibility.
First, I believe it is very important to convey some things that we do NOT mean by self-examination. The devil has used false ideas in this area over the years to bring God’s children into great bondage and distress. Clearly, we are to examine ourselves, yet how we go about it makes all the difference in the world if we are to arrive at a true and honest result.
The devil’s design is always to hinder, to discourage, and to destroy if he can. God’s design is always to bring us to a place of confidence and rest in Him. The devil wants to destroy hope. God seeks to establish it upon a solid foundation. No one is more interested in bringing you and me to that place than our Heavenly Father!
When we hear someone speak of “examining ourselves” in a spiritual sense, our first inclination as human beings is usually some form of introspection. That is, we attempt somehow to look inside ourselves to see if we can determine what is there. We try to put our thoughts, conscious motives, and especially our feelings under a sort of “microscope.”
This seems to us to be an appropriate and reasonable course of action yet I can think of no worse way possible by which to examine ourselves. Introspection virtually guarantees a negative result. Even the great apostle Paul was forced to confess, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.” Romans 7:19. If we attempt to put ourselves under a “spiritual microscope” all we will discover is the reason we needed a savior in the first place! Nothing that originates in us is any good.
Satan loves to point out all the bad things, all the areas where we come short, and then oppress us with doubt. “How could you be a Christian? Look at what you did! If you were a Christian you wouldn’t have such bad thoughts; you wouldn’t feel as you do. Just look at Bro. So-and So: he’s full of peace and victory and you struggle and fail all the time. You’re just a hypocrite.” And on and on his wicked lies go.
What Satan often does is to take advantage of our ignorance. He encourages false ideas and expectations regarding salvation and then condemns us for every shortcoming, real or imagined. I include “imagined” because one of his favorite tricks is to give us a wicked thought and then condemn us for having it!
One simple illustration I’ve heard Bro. Thomas and others use over the years is this. We can’t stop a bird from lighting on our heads. But we CAN stop him from building a nest on our heads and raising a family. It’s that way with thoughts. Satan loves to inject evil thoughts into our minds. What Christians need to learn to do is to recognize where they come from and to cast them down. Simply having a bad thought is no sign of anything.
There are several things that real salvation does NOT do and if we do not understand this Satan has much room to work. Salvation does not cause our flesh to stop loving sin. Flesh is flesh. It loves the things God hates. There is no magic experience that will suddenly transform our flesh from its sinful inclinations and cause it to desire to please God.
What salvation DOES do is to give us a brand new life on the inside. That new life has a heart that loves God and His kingdom. Salvation gives us the means to progressively overcome sin, to gain the rule over our earthly vessels so that we are able to serve God in spite of our flesh. Salvation opens the door to our becoming the master over our flesh instead of its slave. Even so this is a lifelong process, an ongoing conflict in which we often find ourselves in need of God’s forgiveness and cleansing—and always, His grace and strength.
If you try to examine yourself by looking deep inside it won’t take you long to discover that your flesh still loves sin. By itself this doesn’t prove a thing. The most “spiritual” saint on the planet has exactly the same kind of flesh that you do! Nowhere does the Bible promise that in this life our flesh will be changed from loving sin to loving God. Rather, we are encouraged through both precept and promise to draw strength from God’s grace that we might “put to death” the deeds of our flesh. Colossians 3:1-17.
The hope of the believer is not that his flesh will be changed and made holy in this life but rather that when Christ returns he will receive the same kind of “glorious” body that Christ had when he was raised from the dead. Then the war will be over! In this present world we are engaged in a “fight of faith.” I Timothy 6:12. Our fleshly desires will always be at odds with serving God. If we somehow expect something different all we do is to open the door for Satan to keep us in a state of confusion and even despair.
Another thing that salvation does not do is to suddenly transform all of our thought life. There is much about our thinking that needs changing and that is at the heart of what the Christian life is all about. Read what Paul said in Romans 12:1, 2: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
This was written to Christians! Paul was well aware—from his own experience—that learning to think and see as God would have us is the work of a lifetime. Again, Satan would focus our attention on all of our shortcomings to discourage us. He loves to point out other Christians and paint a rosy—and undoubtedly unrealistic!—picture of their spiritual state in order to compare us negatively in our own minds with them. What we don’t realize is that often he is telling them the same thing about us! What a wicked game he plays. I’m glad his day of reckoning is coming.
It is very true that our mind is a real battleground. Satan plants his evil thoughts and we don’t always cast them down as we should. I’m glad that Christians have a throne of grace where they can find help in time of need. I’m also glad that there is a place of forgiveness and cleansing for every believer! We don’t have to wallow in defeat. The moment we are aware of sin and failure we can at that very moment come to Christ in repentance and faith, confident of being received and forgiven. I John 1:9.
It is easy for any honest heart to look into the scriptures and to see the difference between us and God when it comes to our thinking. After all, did not the Lord say through the prophet, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts”? Isaiah 55:9. Those differences do not by themselves prove anything.
In salvation, our flesh does not change at all and our thinking only changes progressively. And another factor that comes into play is the quality of the ministry of God’s word available to the individual Christian. Satan has filled the earth with corrupted and false religion. Through their religious exposure he “spoils” many Christians, that is, he brings them into spiritual captivity through false doctrine.
God gave us His Word that it might be a means of setting us free but all too often the scriptures are used to bind and hinder. Multitudes of false believers have resulted from this but there is also a remnant of genuine believers that have been scattered and rendered ineffective. The cry of our hearts ought to be that God will raise up ministers of His Word, anointed, and capable of giving out real “sheep food.” The hour is late and God would deliver His people from such houses of bondage.
I know of no greater source of trouble for Christians than their feelings. We know through the Word that we are called to live by faith, yet we continually allow our feelings to get in the way. Often, the first reaction of someone who hears that they ought to examine themselves is to look inside to see if they “feel” saved! While it seems natural to us in reality it is sheer nonsense. Nothing will tend more to spiritual instability than for us to go by our feelings.
It should go without saying but our feelings and emotions are a very changeable, reactive part of our earthly makeup. They can change from moment to moment. They are affected by virtually everything: what we eat or don’t eat; the weather; how much rest we’ve had; what our circumstances are; what we’re thinking about; what someone said to us, or about us; and on and on. Yet somehow we instinctively tend to rely on them as a kind of spiritual “barometer.” If we feel good then God loves us and all is right. If we feel bad then God is displeased with us and everything is wrong!
Our emotions are a barometer of exactly nothing when it comes to the things of God! Faith in God is not a feeling but a choice we make to rely on the promise of God when He makes it known to us. Nor are feelings an indicator of faith. We think that if we have truly believed God and that He has recognized our faith that we ought to feel a certain way. If we don’t then we despair and think that God has not heard us.
Overcoming our feelings is one of the great battles in Christian living. It is true that sometimes our feelings do seem to coincide with our spiritual experience. We may at times feel the joy of the Lord or His peace, but there is no Christian on the planet who lives like that all the time. Nowhere are we told to wait for feelings of joy, but rather to “rejoice.” Phil. 4:4. Nowhere are we told to wait for some kind of inner feeling of “faith,” but rather to “believe.” Everywhere we look in the Word we can see that what God desires of us is not feelings but choices. Choices are not matters of feeling but of will. Our wills usually must be exercised towards God in spite of our feelings and not because of them.
One of Satan’s greatest tactics—as we indicated earlier— is to promote religion that exalts feelings and conveys the idea that one’s relationship with God is to be gauged by one’s emotional state: that is, that being right with God means having feelings of love, joy, peace, and even exhilaration. When those feelings evaporate—and they will—something is wrong and the spiritual priority is get them back somehow. Needless to say, people in that type of religious environment will be, at best, unstable. And any genuine Christians who happen to be there will be greatly hindered in their walk with the Lord.
We need to learn to rise above our changeable emotions and go by God’s Word. It doesn’t change! Nor does the Author. His promises are the same no matter how we feel. Living for God is based on choices we make to believe God’s Word and to rely on His saving grace whether our feelings cooperate or not. The moment we begin to rely on our feelings rather than faith, we get on shaky ground and give Satan a great weapon against us. So do not make the mistake of trying to look inside to see if you “feel saved.” Believe God’s promises.
Earlier we spoke of the tendency of some to base their hope of salvation on their adherence to certain doctrines, certain religious lifestyles, a certain religious movement, or a certain preacher. If you fall into this category then your tendency will be simply to look at your life and compare what you believe and how you live with your particular religious standard. Unfortunately, that will not do the job. Everything depends on the standard. If it is false, where does that leave you? And you are relying on what someone else says and not taking personal responsibility for your relationship to God. Being in good standing with a religious movement is not the same thing as being right with God and having a true hope of heaven.
If we don’t determine our spiritual state by looking inside, then how? Here is a simple illustration. Most of us, when we get up in the morning and are preparing for the activities of the day are concerned as to what we look like. We naturally want others to think well of us—or at least not to be too shocked!—and so we take certain steps relating to our appearance. What do we do? Do we carefully feel our face and hair, trying to see that everything is at it should be? Of course not! Self-examination by introspection would be something like that. Imagine what we would look like to others if we relied only on what our hands were able to tell us!
We all know what we do: we use a mirror. A good mirror accurately reflects back our image as it is seen by others. It is an objective witness, not dependent upon feelings, wishes, and personal prejudice. Then we are able to properly wash our faces, comb our hair, and whatever else is needed. Few of us would dare to venture out without first getting a good look at ourselves in a mirror.
There are really two things at work here. The first, of course, is the mirror. Without a good quality mirror we will not see ourselves properly. However, we also need the ability to see properly! The best mirror in the world wouldn’t help if we had terrible eyesight and refused to wear our glasses. It also wouldn’t help if we lived in some sort of fantasy-world and saw only what we wanted to see and not what actually was. Nor would it help if we had some kind of special glasses that altered our true image before it reached our eyes.
This is essentially, in the spiritual realm, what we need for spiritual self-examination. The only true mirror is, of course, the Word of God. In the first chapter of the book of James, the writer speaks of the tendency of some to be hearers of the word but not doers. He says, “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.” James 1:22-24.
The Word of God has the power to show us what we are spiritually. No other standard will do. Religion tends to place a kind of filter over the Word. It filters out some things and magnifies others out of proper proportion. Just as we must take an honest and clear look at a natural mirror, so must we be willing to take an honest and clear look at God’s Word.
God will not disappoint any honest seeking heart that looks to Him. But we must be open and honest. We cannot come to God with the attitude, “I already know everything I need to know,” and expect to learn anything. What folly it is for you to assume that you are right and everyone else is wrong. How do you know? What does it hurt for us to honestly seek God with a childlike attitude that says, “Lord, I don’t know anything as I ought to know it but I’m looking to you; please open my eyes to the truth and help me”? That is exactly the kind of person to whom the Lord will be drawn!
Remember, the Bible is not just a book. That book has a living Author. Earlier I stressed the point that salvation is a very personal thing. It is a very real transaction that takes place between you and God. If it were just us and a book we could—and almost certainly would—deceive ourselves. We would read selectively, twisting and bending what we read to our liking. But that is no good. We must deal face to face, not only with the Bible itself, but also with its divine Author. There is no deceiving Him. He sees to the deepest recesses of our very souls.
In Romans 8:16, Paul says, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” Here we see another dimension to the whole issue. When one is truly God’s child, there will be a joint testimony of the two who are involved in the salvation transaction in the first place. Until that takes place there is a war between God and our inner man. We try to run, to hide, to resist, to deny, anything to dodge the issue. But when surrender comes, peace with God comes with it.
Now, when God’s truth is revealed through the Word by His Spirit, there is something deep on the inside that has the capacity to respond and agree. The enmity, the natural hostility we have against God’s truth, is gone. There is no more need to run and hide. Even when the truth confronts us in ways that are unpleasant to our fleshly nature and we struggle, yet deep on the inside we know that He loves us and that there is no other way to go. That bridge has been crossed—and burned behind us! We are His, come what may.
I must confess that beginning this chapter of “Examine Yourselves” has been very difficult. I have a great desire to help real Christians to come to a greater rest and understanding. I also have a great desire that some who don’t know the Lord will be awakened and brought to faith while there is yet time. I know only the Lord can help me to do an honest and effective job. My desire is for truth that is as balanced as it can be. I have no desire to cause distress and needless doubt to true believers nor to give false hope to the lost.
I’ve seen the Word of God used in all kinds of ways in my time. Many times I’ve seen it used in the wrong way to bring people into great bondage. I’ve heard preachers who, without any real understanding of the heart of God that lies behind the Word, have seized on verses of scripture and turned them into legalistic clubs with which to try to beat the sheep into submission and to cause needless distress. My desire is to use the scriptures wisely, under the Spirit’s direction, to shine a true light that will help and deliver.
I’ve also met all kinds of professing Christians. I’ve met quite a number who, for varying periods of time, seemingly gave every outward evidence of being genuine Christians, yet who finally rebelled and went out. I’ve met others whose lives were in many ways a mess, yet gave me reason to believe they were genuine.
I remember one lady who has been with the Lord a number of years now. Our people will know who I mean. I don’t believe she’ll mind my telling you about her. She was a very emotionally sensitive soul who also had a drinking problem. There was a tenderheartedness about her but she was also prone to being hurt and easily offended. This served to make it specially difficult to talk to her and try to help her with her problems.
Because of the weakness for alcohol, periodically she would get started drinking and just not stop, often for weeks at a time. When her “drunk” would finally run its course she would naturally feel very condemned and beat down. The devil is merciless. Someone would reach out to her and back she would come, humbled, sheepish, yet you had to be very careful what you said to her and how you said it. It wasn’t that she wanted to be that way. It was more weakness than real rebellion. She was always genuinely sorry afterwards. To say the least, she didn’t have a very happy life nor was she a particularly effective Christian.
Towards the end of her life the Lord allowed some physical infirmities to take her through a period of intense physical suffering, yet she did not react in bitterness or anger but in humbleness and submission. The Lord gave grace and brought her through and there was a real measure of deliverance. I’m sure she thought she deserved what she was experiencing and that the Lord was punishing her but I believe the Lord in many ways sought to reassure her of His love. What she experienced was necessary for her deliverance.
Near the very end of her earthly life she was a changed woman. There was a sweetness and humbleness that blossomed. She showed every evidence that, indeed, she truly had come to know the Lord through the new birth so many years before. The foundation was there. It is that foundation we need to know about.
She was confined to bed at the end and our ladies shared the job of taking care of her. Sometimes she lay there more in the other realm than in this one. It was at this time that the Lord did something very special. As our ladies watched her she suddenly became animated and entered into a conversation with someone unseen. They heard only her end of the conversation but it quickly became apparent that she was talking with a sister in the Lord she had known in past years but who had gone on to be with the Lord. From the things she said it was very evident that the Lord had sent this sister on a special errand to minister comfort and assurance shortly before she was finally called home. She knew what her life had been like. No one had to tell her. But the Lord wanted her to know how much He loved her and that she had exactly the same hope of heaven as any other believer. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking and writing about it. How great is the love and grace of our Lord! Shortly afterward she passed peacefully into the presence of the Lord.
I was thinking about her and also about how some preachers would have reacted to her. I have no doubt that there are many who would have zealously pointed to this scripture and that one and just written her off. And yet I believe that many of the preachers who would be so quick to write off someone like that will find themselves shut out on that day as workers of iniquity. Yet there she will be, a shining, eternally grateful trophy of the grace of God!
Truly, there is a great need to rightly understand and apply God’s Word. My desire is to present from the scriptures a picture of Biblical salvation in such a way that as you read with an open heart, the Lord, as it were, looking over your shoulder, you will be able to see yourself in a true light. And no one is more interested in you being truly “in the faith” than the Lord!