By John Angell James, 1846
My dear friends,
This address will reach you at the close of one year, or the beginning of
another—in either case its congratulations and directions, its admonitions
and cautions, will be in season. Bless the God of your mercies that he
has guided, protected, sustained, and supplied you during another year of
your pilgrimage in the wilderness state! Raise your Ebenezer, and
inscribe upon it, "Hitherto the Lord has helped me!" and having given
utterance to the fullness of a grateful heart, that you are "the living, the
living to praise God," proceed to the work of self-examination. One use we
should make of the end of our years, is to consider them as resting places
on the hill of life, or stages in its journey, where we should pause, turn
round, take out our map, and inquire whether we are on the right road, and
what progress we are making.
Another year is opening before you with all its unknown
unimagined scenes; it may be your last; and will be to some of you.
Could you read the book of destiny, you would find, perhaps, written
opposite your name—"This year you shall die!" It is, therefore, a
suitable admonition to address to you, "Set your house in order, for you
shall die and not live." "For he who will die well and happily, must
dress his soul by a diligent and frequent scrutiny; he must in this
world—love tears, humility, solitude, and repentance."
SELF-EXAMINATION is a duty enjoined upon us both by
reason and Scripture. Observe with what vehemence the apostle enforces it,
"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?" 2 Cor. 13:5. This, recollect, was addressed to professing Christians,
and is an exercise in which all true believers have ever practiced
themselves. No one can be really in earnest about the salvation of his soul,
who never looks with solicitude into his spiritual state.
There are two ends for which this duty is to be
performed—first, to ascertain the sincerity and reality of our
religion; and, secondly, its condition. In other words, to inquire
whether we be in the faith, and also in what degree we are bringing
forth, or neglecting to bring forth, its fruits. Somewhat analogous
to what takes place in the conduct of the careful tradesman, who inspects
his affairs to find out, in the first place, whether he is solvent; and in
the next, what is the amount of his profits, and how, by avoiding past
errors, or making up discovered deficiencies, he can increase his
So a diligent, watchful, careful professor, is anxious to
know not only that he is a Christian, but how his religion can be
improved and increased. It is true, some are happily partakers of so large a
measure of the well-founded assurance of faith and hope, as to have few
doubts about their state; and, indeed, little cause for doubts. They have so
much of the spirit of adoption, as constantly to enjoy the witness of the
Spirit of God, that they are his children. It is not so, however, with
all Christians; and even those with whom it is, may occasionally examine
with profit, the state of their souls, if it be only to increase their
confidence in the reasons of the hope that is in them.
How momentous is the question, "Am I really a child of
God!" What consequences hang upon the decision of such a matter! The very
possibility of self-deception here, is truly horrifying. To wake up from the
sleep of death in hell instead of heaven, and find that we have made a
mistake which requires an eternity fully to understand, and an eternity
adequately to deplore! Such a mistake is made, it is to be feared, by
multitudes in every age. And when we consider the deceitfulness of our
hearts, our proneness to self-love, and the easiness of making a profession
in this tranquil age of the church, there is such imminent peril of a fatal
error in our own case, as should send us all to our closets, our hearts, our
Bible, and our God—to examine whether we "are in the faith." It is a matter
which none should take for granted.
If we examine ourselves, it must be by some rule, and the
only one of any authority in this case, is the word of God. The Holy
Scriptures are the only touchstone which God will acknowledge. These are the
balances of the sanctuary; the legal standard in the assay office of heaven;
all that will not stand this test must be thrown aside, as reprobate silver.
To the law and the testimony, then, must be our appeal. Our faith must be
tested by the gospel; our practice by the law; and our spirit and
disposition by the mind of Christ. He is the model, the pattern, the measure
by which all his followers are to be examined, for both law and gospel are
embodied in him.
I will now lay down some RULES and CONSIDERATIONS and
CAUTIONS by which this important business must be carried on.
1. Do not examine yourselves only by your own notion of
what a Christian is and should be, and be
satisfied if you come up to that, because that notion may itself be wrong.
Many frame to themselves an exceedingly inaccurate idea of what is included
in religion; and yet if they possess this, are quite contented. This is what
the apostle calls, "comparing themselves with themselves," and has led in
innumerable cases to self-delusion and self-destruction. Before you are
satisfied, then, with the conclusion that you answer to your own idea of a
Christian, take good care to examine by the Bible whether that idea itself
be a scriptural one.
2. Do not examine yourselves merely by the creeds and
catechisms, the formularies, rites, and ceremonies of any particular church;
or by the sentiments, opinions, and criteria, of any individual uninspired
writer; nor be satisfied if you imagine you come up to these standards. Such
tests need themselves to be tried, for they are all fallible. The Bible, the
Bible alone is the religion of Christians. Uninspired works may be used with
advantage, as helps, but not as infallible standards. (I here recommend an
exceedingly valuable little work, entitled, "Am I a Christian, or Aids to
Self-Examination," by the Rev. Hubbard Winslow. It contains the celebrated
"resolutions" of Jonathan Edwards, and rules for "Growth in Grace.")
3. Do not be satisfied with the good opinion of others
upon your spiritual state. Some people are
too prone to get rid of their fears and take refuge in the favorable
estimate formed of their piety, by those who rank high in their view for
judgment and experience. It is more safe, in some cases, to regard the
sentiments of those who are prejudiced against us. Your friends cannot see
your heart. Their kindness to you and affection for you, may lead them to
form the best opinion they can, and their love to you may make them blind to
defects which are incompatible with sincere piety, or at any rate, with that
which is eminent. Besides, their own religion may be so defective and
inconsistent, as to give easy credence, for their own sakes, to the reality
of yours. Do not be flattered into self-deception. Let not their ignorant
and injudicious adulation, stand between you and the Bible. It is what
Scripture says—and not what your friends say—that must determine your state.
4. Do not consider that all is right because you are
admitted to church membership upon the
examination of a minister, or of a church—and conclude that your
Christianity is sincere because your profession has been admitted to be
credible. There is a path leading from the sacramental table, trodden
by thousands, to the bottomless pit!
5. Beware of judging of yourselves, by partial and
detached views of your conduct. To this we
are extremely prone. Ever ready to depart from universal regard to the ways
of God, we are disposed to rest on some one action or set of actions, as an
evidence that all is well with us, and flatter ourselves on this ground,
that we are the servants of Jehovah. It is conceivable that many may be
prone from taste, situation, interest, or other circumstances to some one
branch of Christian duty, who are lamentably remiss in others, the
obligations of which though equally strong and plain, are unfelt and
resisted. Self-examination must embrace the whole of the divine law, and the
whole of our character. We must examine whether we possess that love to God
and holiness which is the principle of all right obedience, and which if it
be possessed, makes us willing and anxious to do the whole will of
6. Do not in default of present evidence, go back to past
experience, and coupling this with perverted
views of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, conclude that you
are Christians, although there be no satisfactory existing proofs of faith
and godliness. When the conclusion is drawn from past, instead of prevent
evidence, and the awakened conscience is hushed again to slumber by the
opiate of such a sentiment as, "once a child of God, a child of God
forever." The delusion is dreadful, and the consequences are likely to be
horrendous and eternal.
7. Do not take up the business of self-examination in
order to quiet a conscience, feeling the
burden of its guilt, and to free the soul from painful apprehensions of the
wrath of God. If you have not known the gospel scheme of salvation by grace,
and justification by faith; or having known it, have fallen into sin, and
thus lost the peace and comfort of your mind; your duty, and the way to
quietness and assurance, is not to set about looking into your heart, and
back upon your past conduct, to find out evidences of a state of grace; nor
to seek the judgment of others, who in ignorance or in kindness, may
endeavor to lull your solicitude and flatter you into a good opinion of your
state, by reminding you of former zeal, and telling you that God often in
sovereignty withdraws from his people because they cannot bear uninterrupted
comfort. But instead of this, to apply at once by faith to the blood of
Christ, which cleanses from all sin. You are to be directed to the cross,
and to be required to believe the testimony that Christ will cast out none
who come unto him. If this does not relieve you, God has provided no other
ground of comfort, and you ought to beware of seeking any other comfort,
either from yourselves or from your friends. Self-examination is never to be
put in place of the exercise of faith; nor is it intended or calculated to
give relief to the burdened sinner, or to restore the comfort of a trembling
backslider. A person in either of these states of mind, may gain a short and
fitful repose from the supposition that self-scrutiny has disclosed
something in their favor, but it is a delusive, and will be likely to be a
transient quietude, and like that produced by opiates for the body, it will
soon pass off, and leave the spirit more restless and wretched than ever.
8. Do not be satisfied with a conclusion that rests upon
the lowest possible degree of evidence in your favor.
Our faith is susceptible of various degrees of
strength, and its fruits may be brought forth in greater or less abundance.
It is a fearful problem for any man to attempt to solve, to try with how
little religion he may be a real Christian, and go to heaven. Do not compose
yourselves to sleep with the idea, that though you are not so eminent as
some others, and even have many glaring defects and inconsistencies, you are
right in the main. It may be so; for weak faith, is sincere faith; and
little grace, real grace. But how difficult is it for us to determine, when
faith is so weak, and grace is so feeble, that they exist at all!
Christ has said, "Herein is my Father glorified that you
bear much fruit. So shall you be my disciples." John 15:8. If then the test
of discipleship be much fruit, it is unsafe to rest our conclusion
upon a little. The more we are conformed to the image of Christ, and
the more we have of the mind that was in him, the more decisive is the
evidence that we are in the faith. O who that is in any degree alive to the
importance of salvation, and to the blessedness of an assured hope of it,
will be content with those low degrees of evidence, which leave their
possessors ever fluctuating between hope and fear?
9. Enter upon the work of examination with the double
purpose of increasing both your joy, and your holiness.
Religious comfort, joy, and peace in believing, are of
immense consequence, not only to your happiness, but your safety. "The joy
of the Lord is your strength." Neh. 8:10. "The peace of God which passes all
understanding keeps your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ." Phil. 4:7.
Scriptural joy makes duty cheerful, trials light, temptations powerless,
and worldly amusements insipid. It is of importance therefore to
increase it; and the self-examination of real Christians, by revealing the
evidence of their sincere belief, produces this increase of the joy of
He who examines the state of his heart and life at the
conclusion of one year, ought to do it with a view to correct what is wrong,
and supply what is lacking, during the next.
10. No one should be satisfied with his own
self-inspection, but by earnest and believing prayer, should entreat of
GOD to search him also, and to make known to him his real condition.
That man knows not the deceitfulness of his
heart, nor is he duly impressed with the danger and consequences of
self-deception, who does not occasionally with intense solicitude, present
the prayer of the Psalmist, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and
know my thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in
the way everlasting." Psalm 139:23, 24.
Ask, then, afresh, and with deep solemnity at the close
of the present, or at the beginning of the next year, the momentous question,
"Am I a sincere Christian—or only a professor?" Set apart an additional
hour, to inquire into this great subject. O what are all other questions
compared with this, but as the small dust of the balance? By all the value
you bear for your soul, or your soul's salvation, I entreat you in the most
solemn manner, to take up this matter, and spread it before the Lord in
prayer. Take the following questions as a test—
Have you a consciousness that you really believe in Jesus
Christ, and are depending upon him, and him alone, for salvation? 1 John
Do you bring forth the fruits of faith, which are the
fruits of the Spirit, as set before us by the apostle? Gal. 5:6, 22-25. Acts
15:9. 1 John 2:15; 5:4.
Do you love God supremely, practically, habitually? 1
Do you love the children of God, for God's sake? 1 John
Are you complying with the apostle's direction in 2 Peter
1:5-10? On what principles do you act—those of the world or of the Bible?
What is your predominant object, time or eternity—the world or salvation? 1
Cor. 4:18. Do you deny yourself for Christ's sake, or are you seeking only
self-gratification? Matt. 16:25, 26.
How do you employ your talents of property, intellect,
influence? For God or self? Rom. 14:7-9. 1 Cor. 6:20. Phil. 1:21.
How do you bear your afflictions? With submission or
repining? Rom. 5:3.
For a more minute and lengthened test of religious
character, I refer you to my work, entitled, "The Christian Professor,"
where, in the chapter on "The Self-deceived Professor," you will find much
to direct and caution you.
But I will now suppose the great question settled,
and that you have no serious reason to doubt that you are "in the faith;"
still you have to examine into the degree and state of your religion—for it
may be very defective, where it is real. In what condition
then are you come to the close of the year? You were exhorted at the
commencement of it, to make it a year of improvement, and great increase of
holiness. Have you done so? Has the exhortation of your pastor been complied
with? Have you sought and obtained an increased effusion of divine
influence? Has the heavenly shower come down in its season? Have the
dispensations of Providence, both in a way of judgment and mercy, been
sanctified? Have you improved well your sabbaths, fifty-two more of which
have been numbered to you? Where is the fruit of all the sermons you have
heard? What are you the better for the renewed culture you have enjoyed? I
dare challenge you, and ask you if I have remitted anything of my labor,
fidelity, and anxiety for your welfare. Yes, have I not added to it? Have I
sought to please you or to PROFIT you? Have I shunned to declare to you the
whole counsel of God? Am I not clear from the blood of all of you, if
unhappily you should perish?
Well, my dear friends, examine your conduct during the
past year. Inquire how you have sustained your various relations, and have
discharged your various duties. Masters and mistresses, have you been kind
to your servants, just as to their wages, watchful over their souls?
Servants, have you been honest, diligent, obedient, respectful, devoted?
Fathers, have you kept up family religion with punctuality, seriousness, and
affection, being careful of the spiritual welfare of your children?
Children, have you been obedient, loving, dutiful? Tradesmen, have you been
just, generous, true, faithful to your covenants, and considerate of your
work-people? You rich, have you been liberal, humble, heavenly? You poor,
have you been contented, submissive, trustful? You aged, have you been
cheerful, weaned from the world, a godly example to the young? You young,
have you been modest, active, useful? As professors, have you been careful
to avoid little sins, to maintain a tender and enlightened conscience, a
brotherly feeling, and a spirit of charity? All these topics should become
matter of self-examination—here is a wide field of inquiry; traverse it all.
You must come behind in no duty, but go on unto perfection.
Do not think, however, that self-examination is only an
occasional duty. It should precede every approach to the Lord's
table, "Let a man examine himself," says the apostle, "and so let him eat."
It should be interwoven with all our reading of the Scriptures, and hearing
of the gospel; and, indeed, with the whole series of our actions. It should
be a nightly exercise at the close of each day. Pythagoras, a heathen
philosopher, said to his disciples, "Let not sleep seize upon your senses
before you have three times recalled the conversation and accidents of the
day." Seneca, another pagan, said, "At night, when the light is removed, and
all is hushed and still, I make a scrutiny into the day, and hide nothing
from myself." And now hear the language of a Christian bishop, on the
necessity of this evening exercise, "If we consider the disorders of every
day—the multitude of idle worlds; the great portions of time spent in
vanity; the daily omissions of duty; the coldness of our prayers; the
indifferences of our spirit in holy things; the uncertainty of our secret
purposes; our deceptions and hypocrisies sometimes not known, very often not
observed by ourselves; our lack of charity; our not knowing in how many
degrees of action and purpose every virtue is to be exercised; the secret
adherances of pride, and too forward complacency in our best actions; our
failings in all our relations; the niceties of difference between some
virtues and some vices; the secret indiscernible passages from lawful to
unlawful in the first instances of change; the perpetual mistakings of
permission for duty, and licentious practices for permission; our daily
abusing the liberty God gives us; our unsuspected sins in managing a life
certainly lawful; our little greedinesses in eating, and surprises in the
proportions of our drinkings; our too great freedoms and fondnesses in
lawful loves; our aptness for things sensual, and our deadness and weariness
of spirit in spiritual employments; beside an infinite variety of cases of
conscience that do occur in the life of every man, and in all communions of
every life—then shall we find that the productions of sin are incredibly
numerous and increasing, and the computations of a man's life intricate and
almost inexplicable; and, therefore, it is but reason we should sum up our
accounts at the foot of every page—I mean that we call ourselves to scrutiny
every night, when we compose ourselves to the little images of death."
By this frequent examination, we shall prevent little
sins from growing into great ones, and acts from becoming habits; we shall
stop the accumulation of those minor transgressions, which, if they do not
become greater ones, diminish the luster of our profession, interrupt our
peace, and prey upon our spiritual strength; we shall increase the
tenderness of our conscience, promote our watchfulness, make our confession
minute, our repentance particular, and greatly advance our holiness.
And now, dear brethren, "yield yourselves to God" afresh
at the commencement of another year, "as those who are alive from the dead,
and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God." "I beseech you
by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice,
holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service; and be not
conformed to this world , but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,
that you may prove what is that good, that acceptable and perfect will of
God." Rom. 12:1, 2. "As strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts,
which war against the soul." 1 Pet. 2:12. "Pass the time of your sojourning
here in fear, forasmuch as you know you were not redeemed with corruptible
things as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a
lamb without blemish and without spot." 1 Pet, 1:17-19.
Resolve, by God's grace, this shall be the holiest year,
and the most useful one, of your whole life; then will it be the happiest;
and even though it should be the last, it will be to your emancipated spirit
as the year of release, of jubilee, and eternal salvation!