Jonathan Edwards and self-examination

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Jonathan Edwards saw self-examination as an important part of life. Not only did he want unbelievers to examine themselves and realize their need to come to Christ for salvation, but he wanted Christians to examine themselves and see where they fell short, to be brought to humility, repentance, and dependence upon God. And this wasn't just something he wanted for others -- he himself regularly set aside times of self-examination, to see where he fell short and be brought to humility. He saw these as an important part of his Christian life.

A hint of Edwards' focus on self-examination pops up in the sermon I recently blogged about, on the Preciousness of Time. I think if you read the sermon, or even my notes on it, with any degree of honesty, you'll begin to realize how much we have failed to value time, and how much of it we have wasted. I know I was greatly challenged by this. Edwards' application points seem aimed to incite self-examination, and probably spring from his own self-examination. For instance, he asks, "Have you not wasted your precious moments, your precious days, yea, your precious years? ... What is become of them all? What can you show of any improvement made, or good done, or benefit obtained, answerable to all this time which you have lived?"

Edwards biographer Iain Murray discusses some of Edwards' thoughts on self-examination. He writes:

The year before he settled in Northampton he had resolved in his Diary, 'To set apart days of meditation of particular subjects; as, sometimes, to set apart a day for the consideration of the greatness of my sins.' The lesson, however, became the subject not for days but years. In Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan relates how Christiana and her children were led 'down the hill into the Valley of Humiliation.' Edwards was now taken down the same path:

Often, since I lived in this town, I have had very affecting views of my own sin and vileness; very frequently to such a degree as to hold me in a kind of loud weeping, sometimes for a considerable time together; so that I have often been forced to shut myself up. I have had a vastly greater sense of my own wickedness, and the badness of my heart, then ever I had before my conversion. ... And it is affecting to think, how ignorant I was, when a young Christian, of the bottomless, infinite depths of wickedness, pride, hypocrisy and deceit, left in my heart.

Sixty years before Edwards wrote these words, Bunyan had described the Valley of Humiliation as rich and green: 'I have known many labouring men that have got good estates in this Valley of Humiliation (for "God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble"); for indeed it is a very fruitful soil, and doth bring forth by handfuls.'

Murray goes on to point out that this experience and recognition of his own sin had great effects on Edwards theology. He quotes Edwards again:

The very thought of any joy arising in me, on any consideration of my own amiableness, performances, or experiences, or any goodness of heart or life, is nauseous and detestable to me. ...of late years, I have had a more full and constant sense of the absolute sovereignty of God, and a delight in that sovereignty; and have had more a sense of the glory of Christ, as a Mediator revealed in the gospel.

What I'd like to briefly consider here is whether or not Edwards (and Murray) are off base in their view that self-examination is important. Edwards' application questions, as I mentioned, are pointed. I think we don't often ask ourselves these sorts of questions, nor do we hear them in sermons. Is this a good thing? Have we become somehow more enlightened and moved past asking unpleasant questions like these? Or ought we, generally speaking, spend more time in self-examination than we do?

I'll be interested to hear your comments, but I think the answer is that, generally speaking, Edwards was right. Some people are more prone to introspection than others, and it is indeed possible to become too introspective. But generally speaking, I think we tend to be busy all the time, and spend little time really considering much of anything, and especially not considering where we fall short. When we have spare time, we want to be entertained or otherwise kept busy, or even just relax. I think we rarely take time to stop and examine ourselves and ask ourselves difficult questions: Have our lives been in line with Scripture? Where have we fallen short? How does the sermon we recently heard apply to us?

I think the Bible speaks extensively of the need for self-examination. I won't compile an exhaustive list here, but one notable place is in 2 Cor. 13:5, which says, "Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves." (ESV) And in 1 Cor. 11 we read about those who took the Lord's supper (communion) in an unworthy manner (and suffered as a result) because they failed to recognize and repent of their sin before coming to partake, highlighting the need for self-examination prior to communion. And in Matthew 7, Jesus spoke of the need to examine ourselves when he wrote of the tendency to judge others hypocritically, trying to take the speck out of another's eye while leaving the plank in our own.

There are other passages which don't speak as directly to self-examination, but help explain why it's necessary. For example, Matthew 18 speaks of the unmerciful servant, who was forgiven a tremendous debt by a king, then goes and demands that a fellow servant repay him the tiny amount of money he is owed. From this passage, we learn that we need to understand how great a debt of sin we have been forgiven by Christ, so that we also forgive others. To see how much we've been forgiven, we need to examine ourselves and see our own sin.

Jesus also told his disciples that at best, we are unworthy servants if we have done everything God has commanded. Certainly we haven't, so we are to recognize we have been, to some degree, rebellious servants. If we recognize this, we will be more grateful for what God has done in providing reconciliation and forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ, and it will bring us to worship God more.

A further reason for self-examination is to recognize our need of God's grace in our lives, because without God's help, we are weak. Without self-examination, however, we tend to lose sight of this. The Bible says that God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. And unfortunately, without self-examination, we have a tendency to become proud, as the Edwards quotes above highlight.

Most of us probably have a tendency to focus on the good things we've done, and comparing ourselves with others. We naturally like to think we've done well, rather than operating by the Biblical realization that we are at best "unworthy servants". Self-examination can help us see that, in reality, we've fallen short. For a Christian, this is a good realization, because we are not to find our satisfaction in looking at ourselves and our own merits, but by looking to Christ and what he has done for us, and in serving him. And we need to rely on God, not on our own strength. A realization of our own sin brings us to realize how much we lack strength, and brings us to a greater reliance on God.

In all, I think Edwards, Bunyan, and Murray, were on to something important and Biblical in pointing to the need for self-examination. I want to put this idea into practice more in my own life, and I think we all ought to. Furthermore, this points out that practical, personal application of sermons is a good thing, something desirable when we're choosing a church. Sure, it's not comfortable, and we may be upset at first when we see our faults. But Biblically, we need to see our faults. After all, David prayed in the psalms, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. 24 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." (Ps. 139:23-25) We need to see where we offend God, so that we can repent and do right.

3 Comments

I'm curious why you think "practical, personal application of sermons" has to do with choosing a church. It seems to me that we can only truly do practical and personal application of sermons through self-examination when we consider the truths conveyed in the sermon and our life in light of them. How can something that we do in our own self-examination be relevant to choosing a church? I would consider it important that the word of God is taught, particularly that it's taught in a way that you can see how the various parts of the Bible connect, with the whole Bible treated in the sermons, and a great deal of effort connecting everything back to Christ and the Christian context. I wouldn't think the personal, practical application could really be done in a sermon directed to a diverse audience, though, except as mere suggestions for some ways it might apply. Or do you mean that we should look to how congregations as a whole seek to discuss sermons and apply them to their lives in tandem?

Jeremy,
Sorry it took me so long to get back to you; I just got back from out of town.
Probably I just didn't explain myself clearly enough, but what I'm saying is this: It is a GOOD thing when a pastor talks (as Edwards often did) about application points that we can take away from a certain passage. Unfortunately, most of the churches I attend when I'm traveling seem to somehow avoid saying anything about practical application of the Scripture. I'm not saying that a church should say, "This is how this passage applies to you..." But I do like it when a pastor points out something like, "If you are continuing in any sin that you know about, then this passage means..." (for example).

Let me give one example, which sort of illustrates what I'm talking about. While traveling, I visited a church which had Sunday school on Isaiah 5, or at least the beginning part. This passage compares Israel to a vineyard, which God had provided for abundantly, and which then failed to bear good fruit. God there says something like, "What more could I have done for my vineyard than I have done for it?" and goes on to detail how he will essentially decimate his vineyard because it failed to bear good fruit.

Almost the entire Sunday school was spent on discussing what a vineyard in those times was like, and details of what the images of the vineyard would have meant to Israel. The man leading the Sunday school also mentioned briefly that if one fails to prune a grapevine, it tends to bear bad fruit -- fruit that is utterly useless for anything.

He also went on to add, in passing, that "I'll leave it up to the Holy Spirit to apply this to you."

I really disagree with that. Yes, the Holy Spirit can work and apply the Word, but it's also better to explain how it MIGHT apply to us. I had read this passage recently, for example, and thought a lot about the quote I mentioned above: "What more could I have done for my vineyard than I have done for it?" This was God's accusation against Israel when they failed to bear "good fruit". But key to understanding the passage, I think, is a discussion of what "good fruit" means. The good fruit God wanted from Israel was obedience and true worship, and he wants similar fruit to us. And for us, like for Israel, he has done a huge amount. I can look back at my past life and agree, "What more could God have done for me than he has done?" So my proper response should be to obey God, in gratitude for what he has done. The practical application of the passage, in my view, is that we ought to consider what God has done for us, and therefore bear "good fruit" -- obedience and love to God. If we are failing to do so, then we ought to be alarmed by God's statement to Israel, and take warning, lest we find God asking us the same question.

I hope that helps illustrate the point. We must examine ourselves to determine if or where we are failing to obey God, but I think the preacher ought to be a bit more specific about how the passage might apply practically (in this case, an exhortation to obey God in gratitude for what he has done for us).

Perhaps some of the confusion comes from my choice of the word "personal". I didn't mean that I think churches should try and list all possible applications of the message for a diverse audience -- but that the obvious applications of the text should be clearly explained (even if briefly) and in a way that will assist people to examine themselves. I'm concerned that many churches today seem to explain the text only generally, and avoid touching on anything that might seem too personal or might point out a specific sin.

To answer your question about why I connect this with choosing a church, I'm just saying that we ought to pick a church which explains the Word of God in a manner that we can see how it applies to us, and even points out our own sin to us. I've heard people say that what they want in a church is a place where they feel comfortable. To some degree, I agree with this. But I also want a church that makes me UNCOMFORTABLE at times, when I see sin I haven't recognized before as a result of a sermon or other ministry of the church.

Again, maybe it's just my choice of the word "personal". I think I'm saying something more along the lines of "suggestions how it might apply"; I certainly don't expect the pastor to read off a list of people and give each of them their own application point. :) But what I'm saying is that there SHOULD be application; application that may even (occasionally) offend people. And I don't find this very many places anymore.

I guess I've more often seen the opposite problem. Preaching is equated with listing application points, and hardly any work is ever done to explain the text itself in its context, how it fits with the overall context of the book and the corpus that book belongs to, how it hangs together with the entire Bible, and most importantly how it ties to Christ if it's an Old Testament passage. Someone who simply does all that and then does what you're calling application is normally accused of not being practical enough, and people go find some church that will spend most of the sermon on three or five points of application without explaining the basis of any of it. The problem isn't that the sermons they find dry aren't full of application, in my experience. It's that they don't know how to see it as application. I haven't encountered what you have, but it may be a denominational thing. I've only ever been to one Presbyterian church in my life, and I'm guessing that's where you're finding this sort of thing.

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