The ancient Greek maxim “Know thyself” is elevated to unprecedented heights in this narcissistic age. Numerous social media platforms aid fallen human beings’ self-absorption by advertising their vain self-worth. Sin turns them inward, exalting them to heights reminiscent of Satan’s ploy to become like gods (Gen. 3:5; Isa. 14:12-23). Sadly, this man-centered spirit also infects the church, as seen in man-centered preaching and music asserting human greatness. We must regularly ensure that we are looking to the Lord – our obedience to His commands demonstrating our love for Him (Jn. 14:15). Yet self-examination requires caution: it must be balanced by the believers’ position in Christ, while not degenerating into obsessive introspection. In contrast, careful self-scrutiny will produce humility and greater dependence on the Lord.
Gazing On The Lord In Glory
The Scottish preacher, Robert Murray M’Cheyne wisely advised: “Learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely.”1 John Newton of “Amazing Grace” fame agreed, writing: “One glance of Jesus will convey more effectual assistance than poring upon our own heart for a month.”2 They understood that “our life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-4); accordingly, they knew that maintaining a balanced view of themselves required a looking unto the glorified Lord Jesus. Another historic writer counselled:
“Cultivate the habit of fixing your eye more simply on Jesus Christ, and try to know more of the fulness there is laid up in Him for every one of His believing people. Do not be always poring down over the imperfections of your own heart, and dissecting your own besetting sins. Look up. Look more to your risen Head in heaven, and try to realize more than you do that the Lord Jesus not only died for you, but that He also rose again, and that He is ever living at God’s right hand as your Priest, your Advocate, and your Almighty Friend.”3
God is well-aware of our fallen condition. Psalm 139 affirms His omniscience, while at the same time, resting in the fact that He accepts believers because of His gracious work in Christ. Consequently, David calls on His Maker to search, cleanse, and guide him, saying: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23–24). His saving work through Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension assures that believers are received by God; in fact, positionally He considers them already seated in heaven (Eph. 2:4-7).
The saints’ attention must be on Christ, who justified them, thereby giving them a righteous standing before God (Rom. 3:23-26). Romans intentionally teaches justification first, followed by sanctification, for our position empowers our practice (3:19-5:11; 6-8). Those who are born again through faith in Christ are new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17) and are perpetually viewed as “accepted in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6). God’s love, therefore, never wavers towards His people. He sees us “in Christ” (1 Pet. 5:14; Gal. 3:26-28) and we are encircled by His perfect love. As a classic hymn avers:
“So near, so very near to God,
I cannot nearer be;
Yet in the person of His Son
I am as near as He.
So dear, so very dear to God,
More dear I cannot be;
The love where with He loves the Son:
Such is His love to me!”4
Living in this “circle of God’s favor, circle of the Father’s love,”5 frees us from slavish fear. We are not serving in order to justify ourselves; instead, our new life flows out of our standing in Christ.
The Bible teaches self-examination, but one must do it biblically. Some principles will help safeguard our spiritual scrutiny:
Self-examination in View of the Lord’s Supper
The injunction to examine oneself is most clearly expressed in connection with the Lord’s supper (1 Cor. 11:28). Believers must approach the breaking of bread knowing that Jesus is their Lord and they are coming in obedience to Him. They are remembering Him in His person and work, while also proclaiming His death. He purchased them by shedding His blood to be His people and serve Him forever. Meanwhile, they also declare their submission to His ongoing work to write His commands on their hearts and minds. He is God and they are His forgiven people (compare Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; and Heb. 8:8-13). As David Gooding once said: “We must be free in mind, undistracted by any extraneous thing, so that we can have business with the Lord and say, ‘Yes, Lord, even as you died to forgive me, and rose to empower me, as I take this cup, I stand with you. Please carry on and write your laws on my heart, Lord, and write your laws on my mind.’ We can’t afford to be distracted by all sorts of irrelevances in those sacred moments, because that would be to go counter to the very basis, and the whole point of, the gospel.”6 The Christian life is God-centered, not human-focused.
Self-examination in View of Christ’s Continuing Work
We remember that we approach God through the only Mediator, His Son (1 Tim. 2:5). When we discover sins that we have committed we flee to our Advocate, who cleanses our consciences – what Christ pictured in the feet-washing of John 13 – and restores unimpeded fellowship with God (1 Jn. 2:1-2). Our prayers, praises, and worship are offered through Christ as the High Priest (Heb. 4-7). Approaching the Almighty is entirely dependent on His person and ongoing heavenly work. Looking at ourselves apart from Him is a recipe for alternating depression and self-deceiving pride (Rom. 12:16).
Self-examination in View of Christ’s Work in Me
As we discover sin and failure in ourselves, we repentantly seek the Lord’s restorative help (1 Jn. 1:5-10). We realize that without Him we are – and can do – nothing (Jn. 15:5). We walk in His Spirit as we read the Word, pray, and let Him work on us through the gifts and fellowship of the local church.
Proper self-examination produces humility, because we discover that we have not yet arrived at perfection; rather we are completely dependent on the Lord’s grace (Prov. 26:12; Phil. 3:12-16). It also changes our attitudes toward others, impelling us to selfless service like our Savior (Phil. 2). By looking at ourselves in Christ we will be free to enjoy and serve the Almighty in ways that please Him. May God help readers to examine themselves before the Lord, so that they might enjoy His work in them more and more.
R. M. M’Cheyne, Works, Vol. 1. (New York: Robert Carter, 1848), 220.
2 John Newton, Works, Vol. 1. (London: Hamilton, Adams &Co., 1824), 696.
3 J. C. Ryle, The Upper Room. (London: William Hunt and Company, 1888), 229–230.
4 Horatius Bonar, “A mind at perfect peace with God.”
5 J. Denham Smith, “Rise, my soul, behold ‘tis Jesus.”
6 David Gooding, Major Themes in 1 Corinthians. (Belfast, NI, UK: Myrtelfield House, 2019), 6; electronic version: https://www.myrtlefieldhouse.com/cmsfiles/transcripts/Major-Themes-in-1-Corinthians.pdf