The Young Lady's Guide to the Harmonious
Development of Christian Character
by Harvey Newcomb, 1843
In view of the positive injunctions of Scripture, no argument is necessary to show that self-examination is a duty. Paul says, "Examine yourselves, whether you be in the faith; prove your own selves." But, if the word of God had been silent upon the subject, the importance of self-knowledge would have been a sufficient motive for searching into the secret springs of action which influence our conduct. A person ignorant of his own heart is like a merchant who knows nothing the state of his accounts, while every day liable to become a bankrupt; or like the crew of a leaky vessel, who are insensible to their danger. The professed follower of Christ, who knows not whether he is a true or false disciple, is in a condition no less dangerous.
Although we may be Christians without the assurance of our adoption, yet we are taught in the Holy Scriptures that such assurance is to be attained. Job, in the midst of his affliction, experienced its comforting support: "I know," says he, "that my Redeemer lives." David says, with confidence, "I shall be satisfied when I awake with your likeness." Paul expresses the like assurance: "I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day." All Christians are taught to expect the same, and exhorted to strive after it: "And we desire that everyone of you do show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope, unto the end." "Let us draw near with a true heart, in full assurance of faith." "Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, then have we confidence toward God." "He who believes on the Son of God has the witness in himself." "For you have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but you have received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God." "Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby you are sealed unto the day of redemption."
But, as gold dust is sometimes concealed in the sand, so grace in the heart may be so mingled with remaining corruption, that we cannot clearly distinguish its motions. It might not be for the benefit of a person of such low attainments in the divine life to receive an assurance of God's favor until these corruptions have been so far subdued as to give the principle of grace the ascendency. Hence God has wisely directed that the sure evidence of adoption can be possessed only by those who have made such progress in holiness as to be able to discern the fruits of the Spirit in their hearts and lives. The witness of the Spirit must not be sought in any sudden impulses upon the mind—but in the real work of grace in the heart, conforming it to the image of God. Even if God should indulge us with such impulses or impressions, they would not be certain evidence of our adoption, because Satan can counterfeit experiences of this kind. Hence we may account for the strong confidence which is sometimes expressed by young converts who afterwards fall away.
But when the image of God can be seen in our hearts and lives, we may be certain that we are his children. That this is the true witness of the Spirit, may be inferred from the passage last quoted. When this Epistle was written, it was the custom of princes to have their names and images stamped upon their seals. These seals, when used, would leave the impression of the name and image of their owners upon the wax. So, when God sets his seal upon the hearts of his children, it leaves an impression of his name and image. The same thing may be intended in Revelation, where Jesus promises to give him that overcomes "a white stone, and in the stone a new name written."
A figure somewhat similar is also used in the third chapter of Malachi. Speaking of the Messiah, the prophet says, "He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver." A refiner of silver sits over the fire, with his eye steadily fixed upon the precious metal in the crucible, until he sees his own image in it, as we see our faces in the mirror. So the Lord will carry on his purifying work in the hearts of his children, until he sees his own image there. When this image is so plain and clear as to be distinctly discerned by us, then the Spirit of God bears witness with our spirits that we are his children.
As love is the most prominent and abiding fruit of the Spirit, it may be the medium through which the union between God and the soul is seen, and by which the child of God is assured of his adoption. A strong and lively exercise of a childlike, humble love may give a clear evidence of the soul's relation to God as his child. "Love is of God; and everyone that loves is born of God, and knows God. He that loves not, knows not God; for God is love." As God is love, the exercise of that holy principle in the heart of the believer shows the impression of the divine image. "God is love; and he who dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him." Hence the apostle John says, "We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren." But, if this love is genuine, it will regulate the emotions of the heart, and its effects will be visible in the lives of those who possess it. The same apostle says, "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep his commandments." So that, in order to have certain evidence of our adoption into the blessed family of which Jesus is the Elder Brother, all the fruits of the Spirit must have grown up to some degree of maturity.
From the foregoing remarks, we see the great importance of self-examination. We must have an intimate acquaintance with the operations of our own minds, to enable us to distinguish between the exercise of gracious affections, and the selfish workings of our own hearts. And, unless we are in the constant habit of diligent inquiry into the character of our emotions, and the motives of our actions, this will be an exceedingly difficult matter. The Scriptures specify several objects for which this inquiry should be instituted, namely—
I. To discover our SINS, that we may come to Christ for pardon, and for grace to subdue them.David prays, "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." The prophet Jeremiah says, "Let us search and try our ways, and turn again unto the Lord." This examination should be a constant work. We should search into the motives of our actions, and examine our pious feelings, to know, if possible, whether they come from the Spirit of God, or whether they are a fire of our own kindling. We must be cautious, however, lest, by diverting our attention from the truth, to examine the nature of the emotions produced by it, we should lose them altogether. This can better be determined afterwards, by recalling to recollection these emotions, and the causes which produced them. If they were called forth by correct views of truth, and if they correspond, in their nature, with the descriptions of gracious affections contained in the Bible, we may safely conclude them to be genuine.
But, as we are often under the necessity of acting without much deliberation; as we are so liable to neglect duty; and as every duty is marred by so much imperfection—it is not only proper, but highly necessary, that we should have stated seasons for retiring into our closets, and calmly and deliberately reviewing our conduct, our pious exercises, and the prevailing state of our hearts, and comparing them with the word of God. There are two very important reasons why this work should be performed at the close of every day. 1. If neglected for a longer period, we may forget both our actions and our motives. It will be very difficult for us afterwards to recall them, so as to subject them to a thorough examination. 2. There is a great propriety in closing up the accounts of every day. "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." Every day will bring with it work enough for repentance. Again, when we lie down—we may awaken in eternity! What, then, will become of those sins which we have laid by for the consideration of another day? Let us, then, never give sleep to our eyes until we have searched out every sin of the past day, and made fresh application to the blood of Christ for pardon.
This is, indeed, a very difficult work; but, by frequent practice, it will become less so. By sitting down in your closet, after finishing the duties of the day, and seriously and prayerfully engaging in this exercise, you may try your conduct and feelings by the rules laid down in the word of God. You may thus bring to remembrance the exercises of your heart, as well as your actions, and be reminded of neglected duty, and of those great practical truths which ought ever to be kept before your mind. You may bring up your sins, and set them in order before you, and discover your besetting sins. You may be led to the exercise of penitence, and be driven anew to the cross of Christ for pardon, and for strength to subdue indwelling corruption. Whenever you discover that you have exercised any correct feeling, or that your conduct has in any respect been conformed to the word of God, acknowledge with gratitude his grace in it, and give him the glory. Wherein you find you have been deficient, confess your sin before God, and apply afresh to the blood of Christ, which "CLEANSES from all sin." But be cautious that you do not put your feelings of regret, your tears and sorrows, in the place of the great sacrifice of Christ. Remember that no degree of sorrow can atone for sin; and that only is godly sorrow which leads to the blood of Jesus. Any peace of conscience obtained from any other source must be false peace. It is in believing, only, that we can have joy and peace.
You will find advantage from varying this exercise. When we frequently repeat anything in the same form, we are in danger of acquiring a careless habit, so that it will lose its effect. Sometimes take the ten commandments, and examine your actions and motives by them. And, in doing this, you will find great help from the explanation of the commandments, contained in the "Assembly's Shorter Catechism." This shows their spirituality, and brings them home to the heart. Again, you may take some portion of Scripture which contains precepts for the regulation of the conduct, and compare the actions of the day with them. Or you may take the life of Christ as a pattern, compare your conduct and motives with it, and see whether in all things you have manifested his spirit. But do not be satisfied until the exercise, however performed, has taken hold of the heart, and led to penitence for sin, and a sense of pardon through the blood of Christ, which accompanies true contrition; for "the Lord is near unto those who are of a broken heart, and saves such as are of a contrite spirit."
II. Another object of self-examination may be, to ascertain the reason why the Lord does not answer our PRAYERS.This reason may generally be found in ourselves. I know of but two exceptions. One is, when the thing we ask is not agreeable to the will of God. The other is, when the Lord delays to answer our prayers for the trial of our faith.
The obstacles which exist in ourselves, to prevent his granting our requests, are generally some of the following:
1. We may be living in the practice of some sin, or the neglect of some duty. "If I regard iniquity in my heart," says the Psalmist, "the Lord will not hear me." "He who turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be abomination." We may weep day and night on our knees before God; yet, if we are living in the habitual neglect of duty, or if any sin cleaves to us for which we have not exercised repentance and faith in the atoning blood of Christ, we have no reason to expect that he will hear our prayers.
2. We may not be sufficiently humble before God. "Though the Lord is high, yet has he respect unto the lowly; but the proud he knows afar off." "God resists the proud, but gives grace unto the humble." "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up." "Whoever exalts himself shall be abased; and he who humble himself shall be exalted." Hence, if our hearts are proud, and we refuse to humble ourselves before God, he will not answer our prayers.
3. We may not desire the things we ask that God may be glorified, but that it may serve our own selfish gratification. "You ask, and receive not, because you ask amiss, that you may consume it upon your lusts." When we ask with such motives, we have no right to expect that God will hear our prayers.
4. We may not be asking in faith. "But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavers is like a wave of the sea, driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord." "Without faith, it is impossible to please God."
5. We may be exercising an unforgiving temper; and if so, the Lord has declared that he will not hear our prayers. (Matt. 18:35; Mark 11:25, 26.)
When, therefore, you have been for some time praying for any particular object, without receiving an answer, carefully examine yourself with reference to these points, and wherein you find yourself deficient, endeavor, in the strength of Christ, immediately to reform. If your circumstances will permit, set apart a day of fasting and prayer for this object. And, if the answer is still delayed, repeat the examination, until you are certain that you have complied with all the conditions of the promises.
III. Another object of self-examination is, to ascertain the cause of AFFLICTIONS, whether spiritual or temporal.If the Lord sends distress upon us, or hides from us the light of his countenance—he has some good reason for it. By reading the book of Haggai, you will discover the principles upon which God deals with his people; and there he says, "In the day of adversity consider." If, therefore, the work of your hands does not prosper, or if the Lord has withdrawn from you his special presence, be sure that something is wrong: it is time for you to "consider your ways." In the book referred to, the Lord informs the Jews of the cause of their poverty and distress. They had not built the house of God. He also tells them that the silver and the gold are his, and that he will bless them as soon as they do their duty. We are as dependent upon God's blessing now—as his people were then. If we withhold from him what he requires of us for advancing the interests of his kingdom, can we expect temporal prosperity? If we refuse to do our duty, can we expect his presence? These, then, should be the subjects of inquiry, in such circumstances. In such cases, also, it may be very proper to observe a day of fasting and prayer.
IV. Another object of self-examination is, to know whether we are true Christians."Examine yourselves whether you be in the faith." This is a very important inquiry. It is intimately connected with every other, and should enter more or less into all. In order to prosecute this inquiry, you must make yourself acquainted with the evidences of Christian character. These are clearly exhibited in the Holy Scriptures. Study the Bible diligently and prayerfully, for the purpose of ascertaining the genuine marks of saving grace. You may also find benefit from the writings of men of great personal experience, who have had much opportunity of observing the effects of true and false religion. In particular, I would recommend to you the careful study of President Edwards's "Treatise on Religious Affections." He was a man of great piety, who had attained to the full assurance of hope. He had also passed through a number of revivals of religion. The work of which I speak contains a scriptural view of the evidences of the new birth; and also points out, with great clearness and discrimination, the marks of false religion. He distinguishes between those things which may be common both to true and false religion, and those which are the certain marks of true conversion. But, in reading this work, especially the first part of it, you need, perhaps, to be cautioned against discouragement. While you allow the truth its most searching effect upon your heart, do not allow it to drive you to despair. You will, however, find the latter part of the book more encouraging. In the former part, where he is pointing out the marks of false religion, of selfishness, and of spiritual pride—it would seem as if none could escape being stripped of all their claims to true religion; but, in the latter part, where he describes the effects of true piety, the marks of humility, etc., the reading of it will be likely to discover to you the marks of a saving change, if you have any.
Self-examination, for this object, should be habitual. In reading the Bible, in meditation, in hearing the word—wherever you see an evidence of Christian character, inquire whether you possess it. But you ought, also, frequently to set apart seasons for the solemn and prayerful consideration of the important question, "Am I a Christian?" A portion of the Sabbath may be very properly spent in this way. You should enter upon this work with the solemnities of the judgment day before you. The Scriptures furnish abundant matter for self-examination. Bring the exercises of your heart, and the conduct of your life, to this unerring standard. You will also find much assistance in this exercise by the use of the following tracts, published by the American Tract Society: No. 21, entitled "A Closet Companion;" No. 146, entitled "Helps to Self-Examination;" and No. 165, entitled "True and False Conversions distinguished." You have likewise probably noticed several chapters in Doddridge's "Rise and Progress" admirably adapted to this object. I mention these because it is advantageous frequently to vary the exercise. Take time to perform the work of self-examination thoroughly, bringing to your aid all the information you can obtain from these and other sources—varying the exercise at different times, that it may not become superficial and formal.
I have prepared some questions, in my little work entitled "The Closet," both for the general purpose of inquiring as to the main question whether we are Christians, and also for particular occasions, as the close of the day, Sabbath evening, before communion, etc., to which I must refer you, instead of pursuing this part of the subject further, in this place.
Should you, at any time, come to the deliberate conclusion that you are resting upon a false hope, give it up, but do not abandon yourself to despair. Go immediately to the cross of Christ! Give up your heart to him, as though you had never come before. There is no other way. This is the only refuge, and Jesus never sent a soul empty away. "The one who comes to me I will never cast out." Persevere, even though you find scarce evidence enough to give a faint glimmering of hope. Continually renew your repentance and faith in Christ. Diligence in self-examination may be a means of growth in grace; and if you are really a child of God, your evidences will increase and brighten, until you will be able to indulge "a good hope through grace." "For, in due time, we shall reap, if we faint not." And "The path of the just is as the shining light, that shines more and more unto the perfect day."
V. Another object of self-examination is, to ascertain whether we are prepared to approach the Lord's table."But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup." Here the duty of self-examination, before partaking of the Lord's supper, is evidently taught. And, in the next verse, we are told what is requisite to enable us to partake of this ordinance in an acceptable manner. It is, that we have faith to discern the Lord's body. A backslider in heart, even though a real Christian, is not prepared to partake of this spiritual feast, without renewing his repentance and faith. In this examination, two subjects of inquiry present themselves. 1. "Am I a Christian?" 2. "Am I growing in grace?" In regard to the first of these inquiries, enough has already been said. To answer the second, you will need consider, 1. Whether you were living in the exercise of gracious affections at the last communion; 2. Whether you have since made any progress in the divine life. For questions, I must again refer you to "The Closet."
If you have time to keep a journal, you may find some advantage from reviewing it on such occasions. It will aid your memory, and help you to give your past life a more thorough examination. You will thereby be the better able to judge whether you are making progress. It should, however, be written solely for your own private use, without the remotest idea of having it ever seen by others; or else it may become a snare to you. But, however unfit this examination may find you, do not let Satan tempt you to stay away from the Lord's table. It is your duty to commemorate his dying love. It is your duty, also, to do it with a suitable preparation of heart. Both these duties you will neglect by staying away. In doing so, you cannot expect God's blessing. But set immediately about the work of repentance. Come to the cross of Christ, and renew your application to his atoning blood. Give yourself away to God anew, and renew your covenant with him. In doing this, he will bless your soul; and the Lord's table will be a season of refreshing. But, if this preparation be heartfelt and sincere, its fruits will be seen in your subsequent life. Remember who has said, "be faithful unto death—and I will give you the crown of life!"
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