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A Discourse of Self-Examination, pt. 4
by Stephen Charnock (1628-1680)
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? (II Cor. 13:5, NIV).
I shall, lastly, give you some directions about this duty of self-examination:
1. Acquaint yourselves with those marks that are proper only to a true Christian. Overlook all those that are common with the hypocrite, such as outward profession, constant attendances, some affections in duties. Let us not judge ourselves by outward acts: An actor is not a prince, because he acts the part of a prince. But we must judge ourselves by what we are in our retirements, in our hearts. He only is a good man, and doth good, that doth it from a principle of goodness within, and not from fear of laws, or to gain a good opinion in the world. Grace is of that nature, that it cannot possibly have any by-end. As it is the immediate birth of God, so it doth immediately respect God in its actings. In the very nature of it, it aims at God, as to love Him, believe in Him. The great accusation the devil brings against Job was that he served not God for nought, that his service was not sincere, that he acted a righteous part for his own end, and to preserve his worldly prosperity (see Job 1:9-10). But if our ends be right, and our actions in the course of them according to His rule, if our hearts in them respect God’s Law and His glory, how will the devil’s arrows drop down as shot against a brazen wall? The inward bent, and the habitual delight and affection of our hearts, is chiefly to be eyed, whether they are in God, or in other things. This was the apostle’s way of trial: “I delight in the Law of God after the inward man” (Rom. 7:22). Begin self-examination at the lowest step of true and sincere grace; inquire not at first into the marks of an high and towering faith, of the eminent degrees of it: this would be to put a giant’s suit upon an infant’s back, and judge ourselves not men, because the garments fit us not. A small beam will manifest that the sun doth peep out of a cloud; but larger ones, and more spread, evidence that it hath got a full victory. Have a right notion of true grace; and though grace be little, yet you may know it: as if a man hath a true notion of a diamond, though never so small, he can truly say that is a diamond, as well as if it were bigger. Though a gracious spirit may not have grace enough to satisfy its desires, yet it may find grace enough to settle its soul. There may be grace enough to give a man an interest in Christ, though there be not a full strength to answer all the obligations of the Gospel. Let us examine first the truth of grace, and afterwards the height of grace. A little of the coursest gold is more valuable than much of the finest brass. See how the habitual frame and inclination of the heart stands. A heart set upon heaven discovers the treasures of the heart to be there. See whether we have David’s temper, to hate every false way; or Paul’s, to have a conscience void of offense towards God, in regard of his service, as well as towards man, in regard of his converse; not to neglect anything towards God, that conscience tells us is our duty to Him. One found and undeniable mark is better than a thousand disputable ones.
2. Let us make the word of God only our rule in trials. This is the only impartial friend we can stick to, and therefore it ought to be made our main counselor. The Word is the principle whereby grace is wrought, and it is the medium whereby grace is known. The Word is that whereby we must judge of doctrine, to the Law, and to the testimony: If an angel from heaven speaks any other thing than what God hath delivered, he is not to be heard. ’Tis also the rule whereby we must judge of graces. If conscience speak anything for a man’s comfort that is not according to the Word, ’tis to be silenced. If conscience presents us with anything as a grace that will not hold water before God, ’tis to be rejected in that case. Bring it to the touchstone to see if it be current coin. As we are to try other men’s spirits, so our own, by this rule. ’Tis a part of man’s sinful ambition to be his own judge, and so to make his own fancy his rule. The scripture-beam is like a sun-beam, it will discover the most inward, and the most minute thing (see Heb. 4:12). It will reveal the deceitful contrivances and sophistry of the heart. This Word must try us at last, ’tis to be the rule of the last judgment, to salvation or condemnation; let it be the rule of our self-judgment. ’Tis safe for us to take that rule, which God Himself will take, and take in good part whatsoever the Word saith: If it show us our evil, let us change our course; if it speak good, let us be thankful to God, and give Him the rent charge and tribute due to Him for it.
3. Take not the first dictates of conscience. “He that trusts his own heart, is a fool” (Prov. 28:26), i.e. without a diligent inquisition, ’tis not wisdom to do so; “but he that walks wisely, shall be delivered”: he that makes a strict inquiry into it, shall be delivered from its snares and his own fears. ’Tis a searching, examining; proving our hearts, that is required, not taking them at the first word. There may be gold at the top, and dross at the bottom. We are naturally quick of belief of those things we would have, and desire. We should be jealous of these hearts which have so often deceived us, as we are of those who have often broken their word. Whatsoever it speaks, suspend your belief of its sentence, till you have well examined the ground and reasons why it gives in such a report. If it tells you, you are in a good state, that you are penitents, believers, have a choice love to God, an eye fixing on the glory of God as your end, bring it to the test, examine why it saith so; we have here to do with the greatest impostor, and in other things we will not give credit to a cheater. Therefore our searching often in scripture is joined with trying. We must not only search out our graces, but try whether they be of the right stamp, and have the mark of God upon them. Examination and proof must go together in this act, as they do in the text.
4. In all implore the assistance of the Spirit of God. Natural conscience is not enough in this case, there must be the influence of the Spirit. ’Tis God’s interpreter that can only “show unto a man his righteousness” (Job 33:23). The sun must give light, before the glass can reflect the beams. Grace cannot be discerned, if the Spirit obscure and hide itself. In the night the beautiful colours in a room are by the darkness as it were buried from the sight; but when the sun discharges its beams into the chamber, they are enlivened, and affect our sense. There may be graces in the soul which appear not, if the Spirit withdraws His light; but when He displays Himself, they will appear in their true luster. In all our trials of ourselves, let us beg of God to try us. When David had been ransacking his heart, he would not rest in his own endeavours, but begs of God to open his heart more fully to his knowledge, and bless him with a perfect discovery of it: “Do not I hate them which hate thee? I hate them with a perfect hatred” (Ps. 139:21,23). I think, I conclude I do; but lest my conclusions may be wrong, do you, O God, “search me and know my heart, try me and know my thoughts”, i.e., make my heart and thoughts visible and fully discernable to me.
5. Let us take heed that while we examine our graces and find them, our hearts be not carried out to a resting upon them. We may draw some comfort from them, but must check the least inclination of founding our justification upon them. Graces are signs, not causes of justification. Christ’s righteousness only is our wedding garment, our graces are but as the fringes of it. Liberty is a sign the malefactor is pardoned, but it is not the cause of his pardon, but the king’s merciful grant. God is a jealous God, and is likely thereto withdraw His hand, where the glory of His works shall be attributed to anything below Him, and His gifts made equal with His son: and therefore as one saith, “In our trials of ourselves we should do as men with a pair of compasses, fix one foot in the center while they move the other about the circumference”; so let our souls rest in Christ, and hold Him with one hand, while with the other we turn over the leaves of our hearts, and be inquisitive after our evidences. Our justification is not by any inherent grace, but our justification is known to us by the grace we find in ourselves.
6. In case we find ourselves not in such a condition as we desire, let us exercise direct acts of faith. Let us not deject ourselves, and make so bad a conclusion, as Peter did, and say to Christ, “Lord, depart from me, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8); but let us cast ourselves upon the Truth and faithfulness of God in the promise of life in Christ. Lay hold on the promise of life, as if you had not laid hold of it before. When comfort is not fetch in by reflex acts, let faith be exercised in direct acts. When there is darkness and no light, “trusting in the name of the Lord, and staying upon God”, is the proper business of the soul (see Isa. 50:10). We should then drink of the waters of life, groan under our sin, and go to a Savior; “forget,” (as Paul), “the things that are behind, and press forward to the things which are before” (Phil. 3:13,14). We naturally would believe God upon His deed, and trust in Him, because we find something wrought in our own souls; God therefore sometimes hides a man’s own graces from him, to draw out the soul in acts of faith, which indeed gives the most glory to God. God will be believed upon His Word, and God turns it often to the great advantage of the soul, and puts it upon the exercise of faith, when He denies it the comfortable sight of faith. In this case, we should make use of such scriptures which may foment and nourish faith, and put us upon the casting out that filth and mud in our souls which we discerned. When we can find no grace to present Christ with, we should fetch grace from him. A city of refuge is for a malefactor, a physician for the sick, and a Christ for those that groan under the burden of sin; a Christ lifted up and dying for those that are stung by the serpent.
To conclude, Let us be frequent in this work. Let us not neglect a privilege God hath invested us with above other creatures below us. There is nothing can reflect upon itself, inquire into the nature of its own being, but man; and shall we only resemble the beasts, to see those things which are without us, and not turn our eyes inward, and see what workmanship of God there is in our souls, and what conformity there is between us and our Creator, between us and our Redeemer? Shall we put such an affront upon ourselves, as to banish the noblest part of our souls from its proper operation? A frequent examination of ourselves would ballast our Life, keep faith and repentance fresh and vigorous. Let us take heed of a spiritual laziness, which says, “There is a lion in the way” (Prov. 26:13); let us remember it is necessary, and though it be difficult, it is not so in itself, but by reason of our averseness to it. The difficult may be cured by diligence; the necessity of it, and the advantages of it, should both enflame our desires to it, and increase our pains in it. Certainly there can be no more dreadful sign of no grace at all, than a neglect of trial whether we have grace or no. If we examine not ourselves, prove not ourselves whether we be in the faith, we are reprobates, i.e., unfound, insincere, not in a state of true Christianity.