Some people take a Friday off to enjoy a 3-day weekend or go somewhere interesting. I used a vacation day this past Friday to spend Friday and Saturday taking a 16-hour long “practice exam”. Am I just a glutton for punishment? Too nerdy for my own good? Extremely bored with poor taste in recreational activities? Those may be distinct possibilities, but I also have a real test like that coming up in a couple of months, and the practice exam showed me areas where I was deficient and need to focus my studies. I think there’s a spiritual lesson here for Christians and non-Christians alike, so let’s work through that today.
The apostle Paul had instructed his Thessalonian readers to “test everything; hold fast to that which is good.” [1Th 5:21] when it came to doctrine they were hearing. But when he wrote to the Corinthian church, he urged the Christians there to not just examine truth claims critically, but themselves as well. “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?” [2Co 13:5] Why should they be so concerned with self-examination?
- The stakes are high. Albert Barnes wrote in his 19th century commentary on this passage: “So important are the interests at stake, and so liable are the best to deceive themselves, that all Christians should be often induced to examine the foundation of their hope of eternal salvation.” Eternity makes for high stakes indeed. As the author of Hebrews writes, “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” [Heb 9:27]. Just like with my upcoming test, it is far better to examine yourself ahead of time and find out that you are not meeting the standard while there is still time to do something about it.
- We won’t be the ones doing the grading on Judgment Day. On my practice exam, I did better in areas like steel and wood design that I have more experience in, and worse in masonry and concrete that I have less experience in. But passing the SE exam is not based on my subjective standard, but rather on an independent standard. I can’t appeal a failing grade by saying “but look at how well I did on steel design!” I have to make sure I’m meeting the test standard, not my own. Sadly, many assume they will be able to justify themselves before God because they met their own standard rather than His.
- t’s not a team event. Studying together is good, and encouraging each other is good, but the choices I make in the engineering exam are on me, so I need to understand what I’m doing. My colleagues can’t help me there. Likewise, it doesn’t matter if your parents were Christians, or that you have a friend “on the other side that can vouch for you”.
- No retakes. With my test, as much as I would rather not, I can retake it next year if I don’t pass it this year. But failing the ultimate exam, with God as your examiner, will not be something you can afford to fail; all grades are final – no retakes or appeals. You can hopefully see why Paul urged believers to examine themselves.
How do we examine ourselves? Obviously, if you don’t believe God exists and/or have never trusted Jesus Christ for your salvation, then you are not “in the faith” as Paul would say, and you will not pass that final exam on Judgment Day. But perhaps you’re not that type, and you’ve actually grown up in the church and attended your whole life. Does that count? Not for salvation. Many have gone through the motions of the Christian religion without the saving benefit of Christ. One of the more sobering passages in the Bible is where Jesus says that many will say to Him “Lord, Lord…” and His response will be “I never knew you.” [Matt 7:22-23] It seems there is more to being a Christian than simply self-identifying as one. In fact, Jesus said we could differentiate between the “wolves in sheep’s clothing” and genuine followers by their actions: “you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” [Matt 7:20-21] Similarly, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” [Jn 14:15].
So is it in doing good works that we earn our salvation, like every man-made religion? Hardly, for it is “by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” [Eph 2:8-9] But notice the very next verse: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” [Eph 2:10] We aren’t saved by our good works, but rather for them. Ellicott, in his commentary on this verse, describes good works as “an inseparable characteristic of the regenerate life”, which dovetails well with James’ statement about the relationship of works and faith: “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? … faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” [Jam 2:14,17] Passages like John 15:8, 1 Peter 2:12, and Matthew 5:16 all highlight that our conduct as Christ followers should cause other people to glorify God, whether here on earth or at the final judgment.
That conduct – our actions – flows from our thoughts. And the Bible informs us that “those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” [Rom 8:5], and that the Christian is to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind” [Rom 12:2], for we are a “new creation” in Christ [2 Co 5:17]. In fact, without God’s Holy Spirit indwelling us, our minds are “hostile toward God” and we “cannot please God” [Rom 8:7-8]. This contrast between the inclination of our old unredeemed nature and our new nature in Christ then provides a “practice test” for examining ourselves. Do I yearn for God, and to be conformed to the image of His Son [Rom 8:29], or are the things of God a chore and a drudgery to be endured? The answer to that question is telling. Of course, desire doesn’t always translate into action. Christians may still fail, even grievously, as King David, the “man after God’s heart” [Ac 13:22] still managed to do. But, as John MacArthur says in his commentary on Romans 8, “their basic orientation and innermost concerns have to do with the things of the Spirit”. He continues, “A test of saving faith is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. ‘You can be certain of your salvation,’ Paul is saying, ‘if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you'”. Whether I’m celebrating when I get my results back, roughly 3 months after my exam, or gearing up to retake it next year, the fact that “I know whom I have believed” [2Ti 1:12] is something to celebrate every day from here into eternity! Blessings, y’all.
 John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Romans 1-8 (Chicago: Moody, 1991), p.417.
 ibid., p.420.