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Communion Sunday
Discources: I. An Act of Self Examination


Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith/—

2 Cor. xiii. 5.

ALL searching inquiries are anxious things, to the people whose doings and character be inquired into. There are many persons, and in the main, who have an uneasy feeling that might not come very well out of a really search-investigation. Of course, if all your doings are fit and fair, you have no need to be afraid as all the world knows what you are doing. It would be to some a very startling discovery, if for the last six weeks there had been a detective doging their steps, they being unaware of it.

It is in human nature, in average human nature, to shrink from examinations. Not many middle-aged folk would like to go to a skilful doctor, and have their bodily state thoroughly looked into, to see if heart, and brain, and lungs, and nerves, were sound. Many people fear that such an examination might bring out something seriously amiss; and so they would rather evade it. This may be cowardly, but it is common. There are human beings who would rather shut their eyes, if they fear that on opening them they would see what they would rather not see.

There are places, and there are persons, in whose case the mention of an examination suggests something quite different. The word comes with »ts special University sense. You think of a number of young men, with anxious hearts, seated, pretty far apart from one another, at an uninviting table, each man with his writing materials: and each man, too,  taking his first look at a printed paper of questions; some unexpectedly easy, and some of heart-sinking difficulty: very much perhaps depending on the result of that examination. Those who have passed through many such, will not cease to remember that :hey were very anxious, and sometimes very humbling occasions. Sometimes a depth of unsuspected ignorance is brought out, that makes one fear that little good has come of past hard work,—that makes one tremble for the future. And where only through such testing times can entrance be found to one's profession, we can remember the thankful elation with which one thought, when the last was fairly over, that one would never need to be examined any more.

This is an age of examination: and of advancement through examination. Friendless talent and industry have fair play at last. Patronage, happily, goes for very little now, at least in this country, whether in Church or State. Happily, that is, for the hard-working and deserving: for patronage means, broadly, that a man be advanced not because he deserves it, but because he has influential friends. And examination, rightly conducted, is a very testing thing. It may not test everything, but it tests what it meddles with. Those who object to it are for the most part people who know that they themselves, or their relations, could not stand any examination at all.

Now, looking at my text, and thinking of that grave examination to which it invites us, we are made to feel what a special examination that is: special in various respects. It is easy work to examine in intellectual attainment. It is easy to find out whether or not a man has got a history, or a language, into his mind. You can discover, to entire certainty whether he possesses that attainment or not,— confesses it for the time: though it may decay, it's attainment: it does not follow that because a man has it now, he will have it after ten years: and it is difficult to ascertain by any test you can bring, whether he have mastered it in that deliberate and thorough way which shall ensure its lasting. But no examination of that sort is possible in moral attainment, or in spiritual. You cannot seta man a paper in unselfishness: in magnanimity: in modesty: in truthfulness: in purity of heart: in sweetness and reasonableness of temper. You cannot examine a man in these, and give him so many marks, and place him according to his merit. It is quite certain, indeed, that most of our friends have, as concerns all these things, some working estimate of us: but it is not got from one examination, but from our general Avalk and life. Those around us, seeing much of us, will in time see how our light shines, or fails to shine: and, without any of that judging which Christ condemned, they cannot choose but think of us accordingly. But when, at some tuming-point in your pilgrimage; in the prospect of the recurring Communion ; at the entering on a fresh season of work, of public or of private duty; it becomes fit that we should examine and estimate ourselves,—only ourselves, by God's grace indeed, and with such help as we can derive from the experience of some who are better and wiser,—only ourselves can do it. No other, under Him Who searches the heart, can examine us in single-mindedness, in devoutness, in love to God, in love to man, in nearness to Christ, in earnestness in prayer: No other, in brief, for it sums and includes all, can ‘examine us, whether we be in the faith.'

There can be no doubt what my text means: nor any doubt, either, that each of us, to-day, ought to feel as though it were said to himself, just as really as to those to whom St Paul first said it. The text means, that we ought, to-day, to ask ourselves, with just that real earnestness which cannot be put into words, whether we are Christians at all. 'Whether we be in the faith' is, Whether we have any spiritual life,—Whether we are indeed believers. And the text implies that we may not be so. We may fancy we are right, when in truth we are wrong. One feels as though it were somewhat discouraging to think that most of us, at this time of day, should need to examine ourselves whether we be in the faith. We have long made a Christian profession : we have many times, at the holy table, declared ourselves to be Christ's. Can it all have been a miserable deception: and after all these good purposes, and serious thoughts, and earnest prayers, and solemn sacraments, may we not be Christians at all? Why, it is like asking an old and ripe scholar, if he knows his English alphabet. Not that, not quite that. It is rather like asking a man who lives in a house whose foundations are washed by a stormy sea, whether he have of late been looking to his foundations, and making sure they are trustworthy. That which is good in us, my Christian brethren, is apt to crumble away, unless continually seen to and kept in thorough repair. We have not got rid finally of a besetting sin, when we have put it down for once. We have not attained some good grace, because we felt ever so sure we had it for one hour or for many: Though we were, for the time, ever so humble, penitent, believing, kindly, resigned, it does not follow we shall be always so. And no one can so need to look to the enduring of God's grace in him, as he who believes in the perseverance of the saints: for that means that if we are now wrong, this proves we never were right at all. He who has the best € good hope through grace/—yea, the strongest assurance of salvation, may well be asked, to-day, to examine himself, once more, if he be in the faith. That is never done too often: as the dweller in the lighthouse that stands on the rock amid wild waves can never too often make sure that its foundations are untouched and unyielding.

Neither is the examination into our spiritual condition like that into our bodily health,—from which we have known some so shrink. For in the physical case, we may perhaps be told that there is something vitally wrong, that never can be set right: that we have come too late : that we must die: or that we must just bear it, the pain or the disability, and never hope to feel hale or well or hopeful any more. God be thanked, it is not thus with the soul, and what concerns the soul! It may be sad, indeed, and humbling, to find that we have been all wrong till now: or to find that we have lost ground woefully in grace, and are not as we were in happier days. But the feeble flame may be revived: and if we have been wrong till now, we may begin anew and be right henceforward. This is the place of hope 1 All evil is yet remediable. So let us seriously and gravely look into this matter, and find how we really stand: God help us by His searching yet healing Spirit while we 6 examine ourselves whether we be in the faith/

It is not wise, or safe, we know, to found much on our own spiritual history : oh what has been within ourselves, on feelings or convictions : specially if these have not lasted on, but rather faded out and died away. Yet we can look back, some of us, not without a hopefulness if likewise not without a misgiving, on times when we came under very deep impressions as to our souls : what we may humbly call a season of conversion. We felt our sinfulness: saw how we had wasted our life, a short life, and neglected what most concerned us; and with great earnestness cried to Christ for mercy and salvation. We repented of the past: really sought to believe on Him : felt some impulse, within, moving towards what is good, which was not our own, which was thankfully recognized as the work of the Holy Spirit. There was great earnestness in prayer: a new meaning was discerned in the Bible: there was a clear conviction that this world is not our rest; and true delight in the worship of God. There was some measure of humility: of kindliness towards all: signally appearing in the wish that all were sharers in the same comfortable experience. And though we know that often, since, the heart has been very dead and cold, and that for long times together: and the soul was led into captivity to old sins : and there was a general falling away, in which the Bible was little cared for, and prayer was heartless and formal and restrained: yet we cannot but think, even yet, Surely then we entered by the Strait Gate: Surely that was a turning-point. Many persons, looking back, have said, If I had died then, I am sure I should have gone to Christ. It is hard to think that all that was nothing, and will go for nothing: Such times of visitation leave a permanent trace upon the soul. Perhaps, in such a stage, undue importance is attached to warm feeling. The comfort, and the profit, of a communion-time, was estimated by thalt unduly. Now, not setting too much store by an experience which many will recognize as their own, and the retrospect on which will bring many humbling thoughts, yet those who have passed through it, we may venture to say, will in all ordinary cases be thankful for it.

But it will not do to rest on a past, which may perhaps contrast sadly with our present state. After all, seeking to judge how we stand, it is not the former, but the actual condition of our souls, we must look to. For that is not the right fruit of the Spirit, which decays and goes : and there are those who had their days, most decided days, of deep religious impression and feeling, who as years went on, passed quite away from these, and grew worldly and hardened. And though it be a blessed truth that Christ's salvation is sufficient for all, and offered to all, yet something is needed in us too: We must receive it. No doubt He is all-sufficient: and there is a sense in which He has done everything for us : yet we must work out our own salvation in a very real truth, by doing what is needed on our part that we may receive His. Now, have we done this? Are we doing it daily?

It is not a good sign of us if we wish to know what is the very least thing that may enable us to hope we are in Christ: that is, if we wish to know it with the intention of trying for that and no more. But it may be of comfort and help to some contrite and weary one, to begin at the lower end of the scale, and before thinking of higher attainments which have brought assurance to some, to think of lowly beginnings which may bring a good, if humble hope. For there are some, by their make desponding and down-hearted, ready to write hard things against themselves, who can find little comfort or hope now, in these heavy days, but in falling back upon the very foundations, the very elements and principles of the better life, and holding tightly by these; as perhaps on our dying-bed we may all be thankful to do. Such may say, Well, I hope I see sin as a very evil thing: I hope I have real sorrow in my heart for it: Not merely for the pains that come of it,—though sometimes I am not the least sure even of that: I hope I have really committed my soul to Christ for salvation,—that I have really believed on Him in the way wherein he that believes is saved: I try to do that anew, every day: Coming, with nothing in my hand, I try daily to cling to His cross: I wish to do it again this moment, by a fresh act of faith: I look to Him anew, I believe on Him anew, —God help my unbelief. Surely we are on the right foundation, doing even so. For, as the Larger Catechism says, in solemn words which have cheered many anxious, One who doubteth of his being in Christ—may have the interest in Christ though he be not yet assured thereof: and in God’s account hath it, if he be duly affected with the apprehension of the want of it, and unfeignedly desires to be found in Christ, and to depart from iniquity/ God give to each of us that apprehension, and that desire, for our Redeemer’s sake!

But it ought not to suffice any of us, who have long known Christ’s name, to abide where the penitent thief perhaps abode, cleaving to Him at the very last. Have we a true desire to be like Christ,—pure, good, kind, and true? Having named His name, are we departing from all iniquity? I would not wish at all to make this seem like a sort of Mystery into which one must be initiated. But there is nothing of that in asking ourselves this: Have we felt the constraining power of Christ's love and character and suffering in our heart? Are we in any degree devout? Are we prayerful: Not driven, not always driven, to prayer by fear, using prayer to keep off harm from us, but praying because it is pleasant, and natural? Then, are we getting over our special besetting sins? Dear friends, let us each remember, with whatever humiliation it may bring to many, that here is a very searching test of the presence of God's grace in us. If we are getting over these, it is a very hopeful thing. It is a good sign that we are in the faith. For it is not natural, to get over our besetting sins; at least, till physical nature fails. Naturally, as we get older, we get worse: we grow harder, more selfish, more worldly, less amiable, more suspicious, less kindly and generous, through years. Any special bad feature in us tends always to be aggravated. We may be in the faith, though we are not putting down our besetting sins: we must be, if we are.

It was said in my hearing, more than once, by one of the best Christian men I ever knew,—one who maintained the highest level of duty and devotion through an honoured ministry of nearly sixty years, and who, in the veneration of all men, passed to his rest,—it was said by him that he did not see any warrant in the New Testament for Christian people cherishing, as concerns their soul’s condition, any confidence higher than a good hope through grace/ But let us suppose you have reached that great attainment which seems to be at least possible, an entire assurance that you are numbered among the redeemed. If you have reached, or even approached to that, what a life yours should be! Christ tells us that all inner frames are to be tried by their outcome,—by their visible fruits. How does your Christian principle stand the test of actual life? Do such as see you take knowledge of you that you have been with Jesus? How does the life of grace within, bear you up in duty ? Are you more faithful in that than other men: diligent when no eye is upon you but the Master's above: never content just to get your work through in some kind of way: doing it all truly as for Christ? How do you stand provocation? All earnest men, all finely-strung men, meet a great deal of that. You cannot get people to see things as you see them. You cannot get your own way, however sure you are it is right; however pure and unselfish your purposes and motives. Well, under all such irritating and stinging influences, how is it with you? Are you mild, are you patient even with the pig-headed and the dishonest, do you bear contradiction as Christ bore it? Or do you say, That is too much for poor humanity, with its inherited guilt and its tingling nervous system. These are counsels of perfection, and we must in practice be content with far humbler things. Ah, but we are self-examination, bidden to be perfect, bidden to be like Christ (and what more can there be?): and when you speak of assurance, you are (so to say it) going in for a severe examination; and you ought to be able to pass it triumphantly if you offer yourself for it at all: you are aiming at a high degree. Then business, with its temptations, which are many: how do you come out of that? Are you incapable of taking an unfair, though permissible, advantage: does the buyer never need to be on his guard when you are the seller: In all bargains, do you look as sharply to another's interest as to your own? There cannot be a doubt what Christ would have done: and there is our rule. As to affliction, testing affliction, from the blankness of a little disappointment up to the unspeakable heart-break of a great bereavement: how do you bear that? Have you attained, I say not to the Redeemer's manner of enduring sorrow, but to the sincere utterance of the blind Galileo, 'It has pleased God that it should be so, and it must please me too?' Then, how does your Christian principle manifest itself in the behalf of zeal for Christ's cause: zeal for Christ's cause as distinguished from standing up for our own Church or sect or parish, and from the magnifying and glorifying of ourselves? Are we content, are we thankful, if the good work is done, if not by ourselves then by others: that Christ increase and we decrease? Can we find it in our heart sincerely to say, Well, we have worked our best and hardest for Him, spending and being spent: our work has come to nothing; we are mortified, beaten, set aside: but the great cause thrives without us: wherefore, glory to God's Name! Show me the zealous and eager-hearted man who has attained to this, that I may reverence a new Baptist, come in the spirit of Elijah! Great is the grace, undoubted the divine fire within, which has made them of poor self-seeking human nature! By such force we know such a one as assuredly of Christ’s own.

And it may be said, with confidence, that the Christian principle is sound and sincere, which will show outwardly the kindly fruits of the Spirit, though climate and soil and all outward surroundings be unfavourable. Genuine is the zeal for Christ, which will bear up to work steadfastly for Christ under long discouragement. We are not so sure of that, which finds its reward in what is quite appreciable by the natural man, the shining success of its plans and pains. Genuine is the spark of a higher life, which makes a man or woman pass through mortifications and disappointments unsoured, though subdued: which accepts heavy trial with a submissive and teachable heart: which holds him scrupulously honest in word and deed who could make gain of untruthfulness : which prompts to self-denial, sustained self-denial, in act and in feeling,—for self presses on us steadily as gravitation: which fills the soul, at the first alienated from God, with a real love and enjoyment of communion with Him in prayer. In brief: Does our religion do what Christ meant it to do? Then it is the right thing. Does it fail? Then it is the wrong,—or at best, we have great reason to fear it may be so. Or, does our religion only do its work, when it is bolstered up by factitious help? Can we only pray and worship heartily, with all the surroundings in our favour: when the sublime church and the magnificent ritual lift up, and thrill nerve and heart, and sweep away? Are we only kind to others when they are very interesting and very grateful: Can we only be thankful when there is a great deal to be thankful for: Can we only be honest when we are not tempted to be other: only be trustful of God’s providing when there is no load of care, no hedging temptation of weary worry? We are not so clear as to the result of our examination of the life within us which suffices with everything in its favour: the devotion which must be helped by all hearty accessories,—and the crowded, cordial congregation in the plain Scotch church is just as little a spiritual accessory as is the great cathedral: the zeal and fervent toil of the minister when the hearty warmth and interest and affection of a loving and working flock lift him above himself: the philanthropy which goes about doing good amid all that can encourage,—amid beaming looks and tear-bringing blessings,—but is chilled and checked when those who take its favours are uninteresting, coarse-grained, unthankful. I do not say but we should be thankful should our way be made smooth for us: better to be kept afloat anyhow than not kept afloat at all. I do not say but we should be thankful if our better life is made easy and natural: only in that case we have less confident hope that it is there at all. It may be no more than an excitement of a most earthly origin; and not the fire of God's own kindling. The true life of grace ought to be like a hardy tree, and not like a petted exotic.

Well,—but perhaps these last thoughts are away from us. We do not even fancy that we have already attained any other than a lowly, if a good degree. We have been seeking to examine ourselves, whether we be in the faith. If we be, all praise to God. If we be not, God help us to begin now. If we are in doubt, let us ask Him to search and try us. And be it howsoever, we turn anew, each one of us, to Christ this day, praying Him to receive us. The kind Face that drew’ the little ones to Him, is not here: we cannot see it till we die. But He promised, most Faithful and most Merciful, to be present in the gathering of two or three met in His Name: and we may be sure He hears us now, as we ask Him to take us in all unworthiness, to pardon, sanctify, comfort, and save.


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