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An Improper Use of Self-Examination

Taken from Incidents in a Pastor’s Life by William Wisner, D.D.
(New York: Charles Scribner), 1851

The following article was submitted to this ministry by Reese Currie as a follow-up to the e-mail exchange Does God Trick People about their Election?

A well-educated, intelligent, and amiable female member of my church, was for years subject to the most perplexing doubts respecting her own religious character, and the most distressing fears of finally failing of the great salvation. While her friends were confident of her piety she was constantly writing bitter things against herself, and was tormented with the most bitter apprehensions of being found at last on the left hand of her Judge and Saviour. The anguish of her soul was sometimes so great, that while I have been conversing with her about her spiritual state, her whole frame has become agitated to such a degree that her teeth would chatter like those of a person in a violent paroxysm of ague.

At first I endeavored to comfort her by calling her attention to the consolation that there is in Christ. But this did not afford her any relief. She prized these blessings very highly, but feared they were not for her. She appreciated the fullness that there was in Christ, but would constantly discover something in her own heart or life which made her afraid to rely on that fullness.

After several interviews, in all of which I had failed to communicate comfort, or to satisfy myself as to the real difficulty in the case, I endeavored to get her to open her mind unreservedly to me, as her pastor, keeping nothing back. Though I could not get her to unbosom herself as fully as I desired, yet I thought I could discover that she was spending her time, and exerting her energies in trying to satisfy herself whether the hope she had been resting on would prove an anchor to her soul in the final storm. To decide this question she was constantly comparing her own feelings with the feelings of other Christians; and her own heart and life, with the standard furnished in the word of God. She would always arise from this kind of examination with her hope well-nigh destroyed, and her mental anguish greatly aggravated.

I felt deeply distressed for her, and one day said to her, “I think you had better look off from yourself and give up examining your old hopes. It is comparatively of small importance whether you have ever been a Christian or not, if you will now close in with the offers of mercy. The Holy Scriptures inform you that ‘now is the accepted time, and to-day is the day of salvation.’ If this is Christ’s accepted time make it yours.”

“But must I not look at myself to know truly whether my heart is right with God, and whether I do really love my Saviour?”

“Your heart will never be made right by the contemplation of yourself, nor will you ever find any love to Christ, by searching for it in your own bosom. It is only when we behold, as in a glass, the glory of God, as it shines in the face of Jesus Christ, that we are changed into his image, from glory to glory; and it is only when we are engaged in the contemplation of THAT IMAGE that our affections are enkindled, and flow out spontaneously in emotions of love.”

“But are we not required in the Holy Scriptures to examine ourselves, whether we be in the faith?”

“Certainly we are. We are bound to know whether we believe the record which God has given us respecting his Son. But this examination will take us out of ourselves; and will bring us to contemplate the glorious doctrines of the Cross of Christ, and while it inflames our love will confirm our hope. If you will confine yourself to this kind of self-examination it will not involve you in darkness; it will be looking off from yourself to Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith. Do you not see the difference between this sort of examination and that which you have been pursuing?”

“I think I can. But is there not another kind of self-examination spoken of in the Holy Scriptures?”

“Yes, there is. We must examine ourselves to see if we are living in any sinful practice. David not only did this, but he was so desirous of forsaking every way of sin, that he besought the Searcher of hearts to help to search him. He prayed, ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts; and see if there be any evil way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’ He wanted God to search and show him whether there was any evil way in him.”

“This is the way that I examine myself. I look into my heart and look back upon my life to see what manner of person I am.”

“Here is the difference my child, between the two kinds of examination; you examine yourself to see whether you are a child of God. David and Paul examined themselves to see what there was in them that was wrong, that they might put it away; you look at your heart and life to see if you had not better give up your hope. They looked at theirs to see if they could not find some sins from which they might purify themselves. The tendency of their self-examination was the death of their sins; the tendency of yours is the death of your hope.”

“But ought I not, when I examine myself and find that I am full of sin, to give up my hopes?”

“By no means. You should give up your sins. What good would your self-examination do you if it only led you to give up your hope? The Christian hope leads to the purifying of our heart and life. The Scriptures do not say that he who giveth up his hope purifieth himself, but, ‘He who hath this hope in him purifieth himself even as He is pure.’ Satan would have the Christian give up his hope, because he knows that without it he will make no progress in holiness.”

“But how can we hope when we see nothing but sin in ourselves?”

“By coming out from ourselves, and putting our trust in the Lord our righteousness. If your heart was as holy as Gabriel's, you could not put your trust there, or build up your hope on such a foundation. The Christian does not purify himself that he may have hope, but because he has hope; it is the anchor of his soul, and when Christ, who is his hope, shall appear, then he shall appear with him in glory. Fix your eye on Christ, throw yourself at his feet, and contemplate his love, and see if a flame will not kindle up in your own heart, which, like the light on the path of the just, will shine more and more to the perfect day.”

It was about four o'clock P.M., when this distressed female left my study, and that evening I received from her a note informing me that she was full of joy and peace in believing. She was so clear in her mind and so happy in Christ, that she doubted whether she had ever known what the Christian hope was before.

Multitudes of God's people, like this female, spend their lives in darkness and doubt, because they let their frames and feelings, their shortcomings and misdoings, get between themselves and Christ. They forget that He bore their sins in his own body on the tree; and that if they are his, they were constructively crucified with him. It was this view of our relation to Christ which led the apostle, in the eighth chapter of Romans, exultingly to inquire, “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth: who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea, rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us?"

Reader, permit me to detain you a short time, to contemplate this precious apostolic amplification of the ground of our hope.

In the preceding chapter, Paul shows the hopeless wickedness of the man who should strive to obtain justification by the law. In the first thirty-two verses of this eighth chapter, he expatiates upon the blessedness of the individual who had taken refuge under the blood of atonement. From the 14th to the 17th verses, inclusive, we are told that “as many as are led by the Spirit of God, are the sons of God;” and that such have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but the spirit of adoption, whereby they cry, “Abba, Father.” These are the adopted children of God; they are not only heirs, but are the “joint-heirs with Jesus Christ.”

Pause here, dear reader, and lift up your heart in adoration and praise. Here is the broad foundation of the Christian hope, and the climax of his blessedness. The moment a sinner believes, he becomes by adoption the heir of God, and the joint-heir with Jesus Christ. He holds his inheritance to that kingdom which was prepared for him before the foundation of the world, by the same deed by which the Saviour holds his. We are heirs in common with Christ, to an “inheritance which is incorruptible, and undefiled, eternal in the heavens.” If his title is sure, ours cannot fail.

The Apostle having thus laid the foundation Christian hope, by showing that those that are in Christ must stand or fall with him, exultingly inquires, “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect” or chosen ones? This question after what he had said, of the manner in which they were related to the Saviour as joint-heirs with him, would seem sufficient to silence every doubt that might have entered the Christian bosom; but the Apostle wrote by the inspiration of that Spirit who knew our slowness of heart to believe, and therefore he amplifies, and unfolds more minutely the grounds of our safety.

He begins this amplification by laying down an axiom in Christian theology, viz.: “That it is God that justifleth,” and then asks, “who is he that condemneth?” Here let us repeat this soul-comforting question, and sound it through the ranks of God's people, and through the ranks of caviling sinners, and through the ranks of those fallen spirits, who are the accusers of the brethren, “It is God that justifieth; who is he that condemneth?”

Trembling believer, It is God who justifieth thy guilty soul, who shall dare to condemn one whom the Almighty has justified?

Caviling sinner, thou who art always finding fault with the Christian, “It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth?” Accusing spirits, “It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth?”

But wicked men, and fallen spirits, and weak consciences, may still say, look what a vile imperfect creature you are, and then say how you dare hope that a God of eternal purity and immutable justice will ever justify you?

Well, we are not afraid to answer our own accusing consciences, or accusing sinners, or accusing devils, on this subject. But we will not do this as Satan would have us, and as wicked men expect, and as self-righteous unbelief will sometimes suggest, by apologizing for our sins, or by denying them, nor yet by bringing up any good works, or right feelings, to set off against them. If we should do either of these things, our own heart would join with wicked men and devils in condemning us.

No, ye accusers of God's people, it is not by works of righteousness which our own hands have wrought, nor by any holy emotions which our own hearts have felt, that we would meet your argument for our condemnation. We would lay our hands on our mouths and our mouths in the dust, and acknowledge that we are in our own persons unclean. We have no controversy with you on this score. But still we have a plan which none of you dare gainsay; That Christ hath died and arose again, and is now at the right hand of God, making intercession for us.” These three facts constitute our defence, sustain our hope, and fill us with joy and peace. And,

First, Christ has died. But he did not die for himself. He was crucified for our offences.

He bore our sins in his own body on the tree. We were constructively crucified with him and in him. The apostle says, “I am crucified with Christ, yet nevertheless I live; yet, not I, but Christ, who liveth in me." Here is the glorious mystery of man's redemption. We were crucified with Christ, and now Christ lives in us. So far as our personal justification is concerned it is as if we had in our own persons been tried and found guilty of some offence against the State and had been executed to satisfy the penalty of the law and afterwards had been raised by Christ from the dead. As in that supposed case, the law of man could have no farther demands upon us; so, in this case, the law of God can have no further demand. It was satisfied by our death on the cross with Christ.

Secondly, Christ has risen again. But as he did not die for himself, so he did not rise for himself. As he was put to death for our offences, so he was raised again for our justification; and as we were constructively crucified with him, so we have been constructively raised with him. As we were partakers with him in his death, so also we are partakers with him in his resurrection. The Apostle saith, “It is not I who live, but Christ who liveth in me.” But,

Thirdly, and lastly; Christ is now at the right hand of the Father, to make intercession for his people. And what does he plead for us before the throne of the Righteous Judge? Our merits? No. Our good works? No. Our good frames and feelings? No. What then? His own atoning death, in which we were by a gracious construction united with him, and his own perfect and spotless righteousness.

Will this plea be availing? If it is, then let us away with all our unbelief. He was crucified for our offences, and raised again for our justification. “We are complete in him.” “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, hath made all such free from the law of sin and death.” 

The above article was posted on this Web site July 10, 2001.

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