From Religious Cases of Conscience (1755), by Samuel Pike and Samuel Hayward, ministers at London, England.
Sir, “I have attended your Wednesday evening lectures, and have heard you frequently exhorting the people to attend to the duty of self examination. I acknowledge it as a very important duty, and I doubt not but it is often very useful; but I find it very difficult to go through it with any advantage to my soul. My heart is so averse to everything that is serious, especially to a duty so close and interesting as this, that I know not how to go about it. I should be glad therefore to have it set in a proper light; how I must perform it; what are the fittest seasons for it; how I must view it, and what use I must make of it. In thus obliging me, you may be useful to others.”
That self-examination is a duty, appears evident from scripture. “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves; know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” II Cor. 13:5. A duty, you will easily see at first view to be of peculiar importance, as it tends to lay open the heart, and bring us to the knowledge of our state towards God. It is necessary, and esteemed an act of prudence, for the merchant to look into his accounts, to see what condition his worldly concerns are in, that so he may not deceive himself, or injure others: certainly much more is it necessary for us all to examine into the state of our souls, as these are concerns of infinite moment; as we are all hastening to an eternal world; and a mistake here, when death has discharged its solemn office, can never be rectified.
The subject I am called to consider is weighty indeed. It concerns you all; and therefore let me entreat your serious attention, whilst I endeavor to answer the following questions,
I. What must we examine into?
II. In what manner must we do it?
III, What are the fittest reasons for it? And,
IV. In what light must we view it, and what use should we endeavor to make of it?
May the answer to these questions strike our minds, and engage us diligently and frequently to attend to this duty, so as may be for the advantage of our souls.
I. What must we examine into? It will be easy to determine what must be the matter of our inquiry, viz. the state of our souls, or things relating to our experience as Christians, in which the glory of God, and the peace and welfare of our souls are concerned. Particularly, when we set apart some time for this duty, we should chiefly be concerned to inquire into one or both of these things:
1. Whether we are real Christians or not? And, 2. Whether we are growing or declining Christians?
1. We should inquire whether we are real Christians or not. This is a point of the greatest importance. If we are Christians indeed, all things shall go well with us, both in life, and at death, in time and eternity. But if we have only the name, however we may live in earthly pleasure, it will be awful dying. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; but he that believeth not the Son, shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him,” John 3:36. How many have been, and are still in the melancholy state of the foolish virgins, have the form of godliness, but know nothing of the power of it? We read of the hope of the hypocrite, which shall perish, Job 8:13. What will become of his hope and him, when God taketh away his soul? Job 27:8. As this is the case then, sure we should all be concerned to make a strict and solemn inquiry, what character we fall under, what state we are in. Would you know whether you are passed from death unto life, look back to the time when you think the change was made, and inquire into the circumstances attending it. What view had you of yourself, of sin, of Christ? Did you see your lost, miserable, and wretched condition, and were you made willing to renounce all that stood in competition with the Redeemer, and to receive him in all his Mediatorial characters? Many cannot remember when the change was made; therefore do you inquire what evidences you can produce of the grace of God in you. Do you have sin? Do you desire therefore above all things to be delivered from it? Is it your daily burden? And does heaven appear peculiarly amiable, because there sin will be no more? What is your faith? He that believeth shall be saved, Matt. 16:16. Is Christ the object of your faith; Christ, as he is represented in the gospel? Do you go to him for righteousness to justify you, his Spirit to sanctify you, and his whole salvation to be bestowed upon you? What is your humility? Do you appear vile in your own eyes? Are you filled with self-abhorrence? Do you see nothing in yourself, nothing in your services, and are you willing to receive salvation as the free gift of God, and to admire his rich distinguishing grace in the bestowment of it? Do you seek after a submission to the dispensations of his providence, not dictating to infinite Wisdom, or censuring his conduct, but thinking honorably of all his ways, and desiring to say always, Father, not my will, but thine be done? What is your hope? Does it lull you to security, and encourage you to take your ease, for all is well? Or does it put you upon duty, enliven you in it, reconcile you to afflictions, animate you with zeal, and put you upon seeking after purity of heart and life? What is your love? Can you say, Whom have I in heaven but thee, and there is none upon earth I desire besides thee? When Christ is present, do you rejoice? When he withdraws, are your souls grieved? When he is dishonored, do you mourn? Do you long after clearer views and fuller enjoyments of Christ? These and such like questions put to your soul, when inquiring into your state.
2. Another subject of inquiry is, whether we are growing or declining Christians. Inquire, Do you see more of the odiousness of sin? Do you grow more confirmed in this great truth, that you are nothing? Are your views clearer of your weakness and poverty, of the glory and suitableness of Christ, and of the excellency of the gospel? How are your corruptions? Are they as prevalent as usual? Are not your affections more mortified to the world? Does pride possess your breast as much as ever? Does passion still boil in you, and lead you aside as often as before? Are you as much entangled with lust, as easily conquered? Have you got no victories over sin, got no steps forward in your journey, added no cubits to your spiritual stature? Are you not in some measure more like your Lord? Have you more of his divine temper? Are you therefore more meek and lowly in heart; more patient and submissive to your Father’s pleasure, more active and diligent in promoting his glory, and more concerned to live usefully and profitably? In what condition is your faith? Does it grow stronger? Do you feel more of its purifying influences? Do you have Jesus and his people more than you did? Are you more afraid of offending your Redeemer, more desirous of honoring him, more humble under a sense of the little you do for him, and longing more after a better world, where you shall love and praise him forever? Finally, Are you become more spiritual, more heavenly in your temper, your duties, your conversation; more circumspect in your walk; and more concerned to fill up every relation and character in such a manner, as you may adorn the doctrine of God your Savior in all things? Thus inquire into these two important points, whether you are Christians, and what progress you have made; whether you have reason to say, Oh, that it was with me as in months past, and so to be humbled under a conviction of a decline; or whether you have reason to admire distinguishing grace, for any advances in holiness, any growth in experience?
II. In what manner must we examine ourselves? or how must we perform this duty? If we do not attend to it in a proper manner, it will be of no real advantage. That the ends of it may be answered therefore, let us,
1. Look up to the Spirit by prayer for his assistance. If you have set apart some time for this duty, begin with prayer. You will have but little satisfaction, if the Spirit is not with you. You will be ready either to draw a shade over the work of God in your heart, and so come from the duty under discouragements, or else you will perhaps take that for real saving experience which is not so, and so run into presumption. Be earnest with God therefore to be with you; to impress you with a deep sense of the great importance of the duty you are entering upon, that you may not trifle with God, and your own soul; to enable you to examine your heart thoroughly, and as in his presence; and if he has given you an experience of renewing grace, that he would shine upon his work, that your evidence of the Christian may clearly appear; or if you have been deceiving yourself with false hopes, that he would convince you of it. Wrestle with God for his presence, if you would succeed in the duty.
2. Do not make marks yourself, but observe and try yourself by those which God has given you in his word. Some make marks of the Christian themselves, just as their fancy leads them, and are either deceiving themselves by them, or else drawing uncomfortable conclusions concerning their state. The hypocrite thinks it is enough to attend ordinances, and to go through a round of duties, and so is resting upon a sandy foundation. The Christian is ready to make a comfortable frame, lively affections, a warm heart, etc., marks of grace, and therefore is often ready to look upon himself as an hypocrite. Look into scripture, and see what God has made marks of the Christian, and do not let fancy be your guide in a matter of such importance. Distinguish between marks of grace, and marks of growth in grace, and apply each to their proper subjects in your inquiries. For instance, if you would know whether you are a Christian, do not inquire in the measures or degrees of faith, love, etc., but into the reality of them. A weak faith renders the Christian as safe as a strong faith; and a spark of real love, is an evidence of a saving change, though it is not blown up into a flame.
3. Be impartial in this duty of self-examination. The Christian and the hypocrite are both ready to be too partial; the last in his own favor, the other against himself. The hypocrite can see every thing that is encouraging; he doubts not but all is well: whereas the Christian can see nothing in himself that is good. As the woman of Canaan by faith turned every discouragement into an argument; so the Christian, on the other hand, too often through the power of unbelief turns every appearance of grace into an objection. Give everything its due weight. Do not stop, as you are ready to do, at a view of your imperfections. Do not say, I need go no farther, here is evidence enough of my hypocrisy; but go farther, and see what of the Christian you can observe, and weigh both impartially.
4. If you can find but one mark, you may draw a favorable conclusion. A real mark of grace is the actings of grace; and therefore, whenever you can see but one mark, you may comfortably conclude that God has begun a good work in your heart. Should you have reason to conclude that you love the brethren, love them for the image of Christ in them, you need not hesitate about your state: for this love is the exercise, or goings-out of that grace God has implanted. Sometimes one mark appears visible, and sometimes another. If you have but one, be thankful, and give God all the glory. I might add some other directions, but I pass on to the third question.
III. What are the fittest seasons for self-examination? It is a duty that should be frequently attended to. Every day we should be looking within, and taking a view of our hearts. At the conclusion of the day, we should be concerned to ask our souls such questions as these — How have I spent the day? — What sins have I fallen into? — What frame have I been in? — What advantage have I gained in my way to Zion? When we have been reading the word, it will be proper to examine ourselves by it, what we have seen in it, what have we experienced of it, and how we may improve it. After prayer, we may inquire into our frame, our views, and our experience in prayer. These and many other opportunities God in his providence is giving us to look into ourselves. But there are seasons more peculiarly set apart for self-examination, when we should look back upon many years, compare the frames and experiences of one year with those of another, see how God has been dealing with us, that we may come to some conclusion concerning our state. I shall only mention here these three hints, as they will be some direction to us as to proper seasons.
1. When we have most time to go through this duty. It should not be hurried over, but attended to with the greatest deliberation, because it relates to the state of our souls. We should therefore endeavor to set apart as much time as we can, that our minds may be composed, that we may not trifle with God or our own souls, but may attend with that solidarity and seriousness which the subject requires, and may take a thorough view of things. Let not this lead you to a constant neglect of the duty, pleading as an excuse, that you have not proper time for it; but let it rather put you upon striving to order your affairs so, that you may have these opportunities frequently returning.
2. When our thoughts are like to be most disengaged from this world, and we freest from interruption. As the week days do not afford us many opportunities for this duty, we should often fix upon the Lord’s day. Now we are free from business, we hear the word, and engage in spiritual duties, all which tend to bring us into a serious and composed frame. When you have been at God’s house, then retire into your closet in the afternoon, shut the door about you, and there not only call over the word you have heard, and look into your present frame, but set yourself upon this solemn work, look back and take an impartial view of things, and try to come at a knowledge of your state and experience. Any other day likewise, when you find yourself in a serious frame, separate an hour for this important purpose.
3. When any thing in providence more peculiarly calls us to this work. Here I would mention three seasons that seem to invite you to this duty — When you are going to wait upon Christ at his supper. For this you have the direction of the Holy Ghost, I Cor. 11:28. This is a public surrender to God, and therefore you should inquire whether you are heartily willing to give up yourself wholly to Christ. This ordinance is designed peculiarly for the people of God. It is necessary therefore that you should inquire whether you are one or not, lest you should take that which God has designed for his own children. Another season is afflictions. This duty seems proper to be attended to, when God’s hand is upon us. Many are ready to think afflictions inconsistent with God’s love. Inquire therefore whether you are a Christian or not; it may be a means of supporting your soul, whilst you see a rod in a Father’s hand. Inquire into your sins. Perhaps you may hereby see the cause of your afflictions, and see matter for humiliation, as well as be made sensible of the ends God has in view in afflicting you, and so be directed in the way of your duty. Lastly, Another season proper for this duty is, when eternity is approaching. Then, as good old Jacob, you should view the conduct of divine providence towards you, and see what appears in your whole life as an evidence of the Christian. How happy will it be, if, upon a diligent examination, you should be enabled through grace to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness!” How pleasant will it be to die! How will your soul long to hear the chariot wheels of your Redeemer coming! And, on the other hand, if you are not a Christian, to die in this state will be inconceivably awful. And how happy to be made sensible of it, and find your soul willing to fly to Jesus, if it be but at the last hour! Thus these appear to be all fit seasons for this important duty. Let us now consider the last question.
IV. In what light must we view this duty, and what use should we endeavor to make of it? Some look upon, and represent self-examination as legal, and that comfort that arises from marks and evidences as not truly evangelical: but objections of this kind will fall to the ground, when we consider the following particulars.
1. Self-examination is not designed to make us proud, but to fill us with admiration. This use we are to make of it. If in this duty any marks and evidences of the Christian appear, we must not be lifted up, as if we were something; but be humble, giving God all the glory. This is the improvement which the Christian desires to make of this duty; this is the frame it leads him into. Has he any reason to conclude that he is a child of God? See how his soul is melted with a view of the grace of God. “Oh, why should God look upon a creature so unworthy? Am I indeed a Christian? Need I not dispute it? Is there a change made in my heart? Oh, what grace, what grace that which God has manifested to me! What grace to pluck me as a brand out of the fire! View it, my soul, and ever adore and admire.”
2. Self-examination is not to lull us to security, but to quicken us. Do any marks of the Christian appear? We must not say, ‘Soul, take thine ease, eat, drink and be merry. Thou art a child of God, and nothing can ever cast thee out of his favor.’ They that draw such conclusions, have never yet received the grace of God. A view of God’s love to us should, and will quicken and enliven us in duty. “Oh, what shall I render unto the Lord for such distinguishing grace? O love the Lord, O my soul, and never loiter in the service of him, who has laid thee under such peculiar obligations to love and honor him for ever.” If no marks appear, and we have reason to conclude that we are not Christians, this should rouse and alarm us, and stir us up to seek after an acquaintance with the divine life.
3. We must not depend upon this duty for justification, but use it as a means to promote our comfort and sanctification. If we can see any traces of the image of God in us, we have reason to rejoice. For this purpose it is that the Spirit comes, and lets the soul see his interest in the Redeemer; it is that we may rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory. And who cannot, who does not, at such a discovery? As this view fills the soul with joy, so it gives him a hatred of sin, melts him into godly sorrow, subdues the power of sin more and more in him, and so promotes his sanctification. If we have not these ends in view in this duty; if we think we have now enough to justify us before God, and so depend upon our own righteousness for eternal life, we have no evidence that we have experienced a saving work in our souls.
4. After all therefore, we should keep close to Christ, looking to him for all righteousness for justification, and all strength and grace for sanctification. If all is dark within, and we can see nothing to encourage us to conclude that we are the children of God, yet be not dejected, but look to Christ. Our salvation does not depend upon seeing ourselves Christians, but upon our being united to Christ. Do not be discouraged, this is not the ground of your hope, but only the means of your comfort. If we find what we seek after, viz. the marks of the Christian; yet, whilst we are rejoicing that we are the heirs of God, let us depend upon Christ for righteousness to justify us, for all grace and strength to enable us to persevere in faith and holiness, till we come to the full and everlasting enjoyment of him in heaven. Thus we are to improve this duty. Hence,
Let me ask you concerning this duty, Are there not some of you, who have never yet examined how the case stands with you? Do not your consciences upbraid you with negligence? Do you not blush at your folly? Do you please yourselves with the thoughts that man sees you not in your closets, that your friends know not but you are engaged in duty? But, alas, alas, what a poor comfort is this! when God knows and sees your neglect, you yourselves are conscious of it, your souls are starving, eternity is drawing near, and yet you know not how it is with you. You are careful as to outward things, pursuing pleasure, wealth; but have never yet sat down and asked, Am I fit to die? How is it with my soul? Oh, my friends, if ye have any regard for your peace, your happiness in life, at death, make the inquiry how it is with you? It is a reasonable request I ask. It is with a desire after your salvation. Tomorrow you may be in eternity. There is much to be done before you are fit to die; and yet, you have not asked a single question seriously about it! It is time to awake. Thinkest thou to sleep on so till death approaches? Was it not for thy soul, sleep on: but to see an immortal creature in danger of falling into everlasting fire, is enough to raise my compassion, and calls loudly upon me to endeavor to rouse thee. Awake, O soul, get up and examine thyself. Some of you may be afraid to look within, afraid to see what is there. You are suspicious that things are bad, and you would avoid the sight, you would fly from it; but, oh, you cannot. Should you stifle conscience, and lull it asleep for the present; yet the time is coming when you can no longer withstand the force of conviction; when conscience will awake, and fill you with everlasting sorrows, if found strangers to Christ. Oh, inquire then what is the state of your souls!
As God has now brought us to the close of this lecture, so it may not be improper for each of us to examine into our views, frames in it, and improvements of it. Let us, my dear brother, inquire, what ends we have had in view in engaging in it? How have we attended to it? with seriousness, with an affectionate concern for souls, with earnest prayer for assistance and success? Do you examine, who have attended this lecture? What frame have you attended in? What were your views, only to gratify a vain curiosity, or to meet with Jesus, to have your doubts resolved, and your souls brought nearer to God? What benefit have you received? Have you seen more of your own hearts, more of the suitableness and glory of Christ; and been more and more established and grounded in the faith? Thus let us all be examining into the state and frame of our souls. Let this be our frequent employment; and let us rejoice more in the prospect of that world, where all our cases of conscience will be fully answered, every dark cloud for ever scattered; where every fear will vanish, and our souls be possessed of complete and uninterrupted happiness in the everlasting enjoyment of God. Amen.