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The Peril of Self-Deception

The Peril of Self-Deception poster

For though He was crucified through weakness, yet He liveth by the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you. Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?”—2 Corinthians 13:4, 5

In our studies of 2 Corinthians we have purposely made no attempt to analyze it. As a matter of fact, in a very real sense, this letter more than any other of Paul’s, I think, defies analysis, because it is simply the outpouring of a man’s heart, and that runs away from analysis. It is like the breaking up of a fountain. Whereas 1 Corinthians was an objective and practical letter, this one has been subjective and personal. First Corinthians was a deliberate approach to a subject; Second Corinthians is a passionate appeal.

My concern in preaching from it has been to catch all that we can of the fire that burns in Paul’s heart, and to learn his spiritual secret. It was in the midst of so much buffeting that he became a channel of blessing. As we come to the close of the letter, I remind you of some background facts against which Paul makes this final appeal.

In the first place, Corinth was a city which was a Roman colony. It was located on Grecian soil and was founded by Julius Caesar, I believe, some fifty years before Christ. It had a very mixed population: Jews, Greeks, Romans, Asiatics [sic], Phoenicians, to mention a few. A greater expositor of Scripture, Farrar, has called it the “Vanity Fair” of the Roman Empire. It was famous for its wisdom and its wealth. It was also famous for its luxury and its license. In a very real sense, Corinth in the first century has its equivalent in the twentieth century in New York, Chicago, London, or Paris, where you have great centers of population, areas of people from different kinds of situations and backgrounds.

The church at Corinth, as you would read in Acts 18, was established by Paul, and it was composed mainly of the poorer and more unlearned people in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). It was not by accident that God had done this. It was the purpose of God, and He had chosen such people in order that through them might be demonstrated a principle of life in the midst of all the philosophy and learning and wisdom of Corinth, that no flesh might glory in His presence. These were the people who had received Paul’s two letters.

The first letter to the church at Corinth gives an indication of the condition and the character of the church, but Paul’s second letter was a tremendous revelation of the life and character of Paul himself. The first letter exposed the wounds of sin, but the second letter tells us what it cost a man of God when he sets about trying to heal the wounds. That is the distinction.

There is one outstanding thing that you cannot escape if you read this letter through carefully, and it is the tremendous change in the tone between the first nine chapters and the last four chapters. In the first nine chapters Paul is writing with a wonderful sense of warmth, comfort, thanksgiving, and a sort of conciliatory attitude; but in the last four chapters, he is sad and severe again. Many reasons are suggested for this but I think the exact one would be that in this church, as in most churches anywhere, there is a majority party and a minority party.

Titus had brought the message of the condition of the church that gave Paul much gladness: “Nevertheless God, that comforteth those that are cast down, comforted us by the coming of Titus; and not by his coming only, but by the consolation wherewith he was comforted in you, when he told us your earnest desire, your mourning, your fervent mind toward me; so that I rejoiced the more. For though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season. Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:6-9). And so Paul was made glad because of the majority of the church at Corinth had been chastened by his first letter, had responded to his message, had truly repented and turned to the Lord.

But there were some who hadn’t, and they were showing it by attacking Paul’s ministry. “For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom ye have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him. For I suppose I was not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:4-5).

There was a minority group in the church, from which Paul had suffered severe buffeting, for they had never truly taken his message to their own hearts, and now they spent their time attacking him. It seems to me that the first nine chapters of this letter were written to the majority, and the last four were written to the minority who were accusing him.

Notice some of the things of which they were accusing him—They said that “his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (10:10). “Though I be rude in speech, yet not in knowledge” (11:6)—they were accusing him of being rough and uncultured in his speech. They even accuse him of being insane: “I say again, Let no man think me a fool; if otherwise, yet as a fool receive me, that I may boast myself a little” (11:16). They are accusing him of dishonesty: “But be it so, I did not burden you: nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you with guile” (12:16).

That is just a little of the buffeting this man of God had taken from the church at Corinth. He was accused of weakness, of roughness of speech, of insanity, of being contemptible in appearance, of being no apostle, and even of being dishonest. 

Therefore we come now to consider his final appeal and vindication of his own ministry. His appeal was “You who would examine me, examine yourselves whether you be in the faith; prove your own selves.” In verse 3 you see the context: “Ye seek a proof of Christ speaking in me”—all right, examine yourselves whether you be in the faith. Consider his vindication of his own ministry in verse 4: “For we also are weak in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you.”

I have taken time to say all that with a definite purpose, because I firmly believe that in this twentieth century counterpart of Corinth in which we live, we are in very serious danger of falling into the same trap and the same peril of self-deception which threatened disaster to the minority group in the church at Corinth. While we are very careful in criticizing and examining the viewpoint of others in theological and other matters, we very often fail to allow the searchlight of God’s Word to probe our own hearts, and we are greatly in need of this same injunction, “Examine yourselves whether you be in the faith.”

Furthermore, this objective criticism, which we direct anywhere except to our own heart, is apt to give us a completely false idea of the real standard of Christian discipleship by which Paul vindicated his own ministry. You want the evidence of reality and authority in me, he says; very well, we are weak in Christ but we shall live with Him in the power of God toward you. All thought that would avoid any possibility of self-deception is in this phrase: “Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” That is the standard: Jesus Christ is in you; and the vindication of his own ministry was in taking them right away back to the cross, when he reminds the Corinthian Christians that Jesus, though crucified in weakness, was raised by the power of God. Paul opened his heart to show them that through all the buffetings of his life, he had been made utterly weak, until he came to the point where he had no confidence in the flesh, for no flesh shall glory in the presence of God. He had accepted that principle, and therefore found that he had been raised up in the power of God. “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (12:9).

We have this great appeal now for self-examination, in order that we might avoid the peril of self-deception and at the same time demonstrate the reality of our testimony. I realize that this is an unpopular subject, but I come to it with a deep conviction of its necessity, so I would elaborate upon the need for self-examination. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul spoke about the Lord’s table and preparing for the breaking of bread: “But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup…For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged” (vs. 28, 31).

Therefore before breaking bread together, it is appropriate that we spend time in what the Book calls self-examination, because I am sure that a great number of professing Christians are living in self-deception, assuming that because externally things are more or less all right with them in their lives, then everything else can be taken for granted. They have a sound doctrinal basis of faith, their lives are lived more or less righteously, they are not conscious of anything particularly wrong, but as Paul says here, if Christ is not in you, then there is nothing in you whereby you will be approved of God.

You see, the kind of thing that I am concerned about is not simply outward conduct but inward life. The question I ask my own heart in the presence of God is, am I in the faith? Is Christ living in me? Is there any evidence of reality? How important that is!

A ship is very carefully examined before it is put out to sea, both before and after launching. After launching it goes through trials, and it has quite a period before it is entrusted with passengers and cargo. So Paul says, examine yourselves, but not only that, prove yourselves. That is a stronger word still.

Some people’s religion will stand a bit of examination, but when it comes into daily life, it fails to pass the test, it doesn’t prove itself adequate, and the objective test of matters of doctrine with which so many are satisfied these days is just inadequate. Now no one would give second place to me concerning the necessity for correctness of creed, for a sound fundamental scriptural approach to all matters in life; but I would say that an objective test which merely submits myself to a statement of creed is not adequate, because I am not saved by a statement of creed. I am saved by a step and commitment of my life to Jesus Christ as Lord. Therefore it behooves me to examine myself.

I remind you that the Puritans recognized the need of this, and made provision for it. They believed in being much alone with God and surveying their lives in His presence with an unsparing scrutiny. I was reading of the members of the Holy Club in Oxford in John Wesley’s day, who examined themselves every Sunday on the love of God and the simplicity of their faith; on Monday, they examined themselves on their love toward their fellowmen, and submitted themselves to twenty-seven questions; and so on throughout the week. Here are some of the questions, which I use in my own life, at least once a week, often every day.

  • Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am a better man than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
  • Am I honest in all my acts or words, or do I exaggerate?
  • Do I confidentially pass on to another what was told to me in confidence?
  • Can I be trusted?
  • Am I a slave to dress, friends, work, or habits?
  • Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
  • Did the Bible live to me today?
  • Do I give it time to speak to me every day?
  • Am I enjoying prayer?
  • When did I last speak to somebody else with the object of trying to win that person for Christ?
  • Am I making contacts with other people and using them for the Master’s glory?
  • Do I pray about the money I spend?
  • Do I get to bed in time and get up in time?
  • Do I disobey God in anything?
  • Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
  • Am I defeated in any part of my life, jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy, or distrustful?
  • How do I spend my spare time?
  • Am I proud?
  • Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?
  • Is there anybody whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it? 
  • Do I grumble or complain constantly?
  • Is Christ real to me?

Do these questions find you out, and make you angry or resentful? They come straight to you, via the preacher at The Moody Church, from John Wesley and the Puritans of two hundred years ago. That kind of thing has gone right out of our Christian living. I use these in my own heart because I find them necessary, and those who are most neglectful to use them are the people who are always the most quick to criticize others. That was the trouble at Corinth. They criticized Paul and failed to examine themselves.

The great question for us to settle today is, Am I in the faith? Is Christ in me? Have I come to Him as a sinner and pleaded for His mercy through the blood of His cross? Am I living by faith in Him? Am I receiving from His fullness grace after grace? Does my life prove it? As I have said before, an unholy life is merely the evidence of an unchanged heart, and an unchanged heart is the evidence of an unsaved soul. What value is there in the kind of grace which makes us no different from what we were before? None at all.

I would be glad if everybody were to take a copy of these questions and use them personally in your own life. I think you would find prayer would be an uncomfortable thing until your heart was made tender.

Someone will say to me, “This is awfully morbid! Surely as a Christian, I must never look into myself, but I must look up.” True! The statement is made, “For every look within, take ten long looks at Christ.” But let me say a further word about the secret of self-examination in case you get me wrong. This is given to us in Psalm 139:23, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me.” In other words, this self-examination is not something that I can do myself, but something which only God can do, and to attempt it without the Holy Spirit guiding and enabling is indeed to lead to a morbid introspection and ultimately to psychological necessities for care and treatment. This is what happens to so many people, simply because of morbid introspection, but this is totally different. In the kind of thing I am talking to you about a man is not looking for sin, he is looking for Jesus. He is not looking for evil—he doesn’t have to look far for that for he knows that in the flesh dwelleth no good thing—but he is searching within his heart for evidences of indwelling Holy Spirit life. Ah, there are tokens within that He is present by His Spirit as a living power, and because He is there He is dealing with all these things.

To examine yourself, in fact, is to submit to the examination and scrutiny of Jesus Christ the Lord, and this is never to fix attention on sin but on Christ, and to ask Him to reveal that in you which grieves His Spirit, and to ask Him to give you grace that it might be put away and cleansed in His precious blood. It is to search within your heart for the sense of His peace, His forgiveness, His cleansing, His presence. When they are lacking and you cannot find them, you ask Him to point out where you have gone wrong, where the cloud has come between yourself and your Saviour, and to show it to you so that fellowship might be restored.

It is this that keeps the heart tender. It is this which keeps the will submissive. It is this which keeps the mind open to the leading of the Spirit of God. Spurgeon once said about another preacher, who was known for his freshness and life, his power and authority, “Do you know, that man lives so near the gate of heaven that he hears a great many things that we don’t get to hear because we don’t live near enough.” May I say that is exactly what self-examination does. It takes the chill away from your soul, it takes the hardness away from your heart, it takes the shadows away from your life, it sets the prisoner free.

Have you submitted yourself in the presence of God to this lately? That is how to come to the Lord’s table, before you ever come into the house of God early in the morning. Set your heart open before God and ask Him to search your heart. Have you done that recently? That is how revival breaks out in the church. That is how it broke out in Ruanda, and how it has been maintained all through the years. There must be an openness in my dealings with Him and in my dealings with fellow Christians, that is the secret of self-examination.

What is our goal in this, what is the standard of this self-examination? Paul goes right back to the cross to prove the reality of his apostleship. “Though He was crucified through weakness, yet He liveth by the power of God: For we also are weak in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you” (v. 4). Here is the apostle vindicating his own apostleship, testifying to the reality of his own witness and his own Christian life, here he is summing up all that it has meant to him to seek to heal the wounds. He goes back to Calvary. That is where you should want to be.

Paul says concerning the Lord Jesus, “He was crucified through weakness.” Ah, yes indeed, and such was the extremity of His weakness that He died under it. He made no use of His divine strength at all. He gave Himself over to His enemies to be crucified and slain and His crucifixion was the greatest display of weakness that this world has ever witnessed. Yet He was raised again from the dead by the power of God. Here is the principle: in the absolute extremity of the weakness of our Saviour, power came to Him from another quarter altogether. So Paul says the ultimate standard of reality is at Calvary, at the place of human weakness, of utter submission, but it is also the place where that is all met by the mighty power of God. That was the standard and reality of Paul’s testimony. It seemed he had been overcome by his enemies, and had been powerless in their hands, yet in that weakness he too revealed the power of God, “for we also are weak in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you.” This ties up with the first chapter of his first letter, in which Paul reminds them that there were not many mighty, and not many wise, called, and so on. But you see, no flesh is to glory in His presence. This is the principle of the Christian life, the reality and evidence of it: verse 30: “But of Him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

You see Paul has told the story of buffeting to the Corinthian church, and to no one else. He did not tell it to Luke—if he had, Luke would have recorded it in the Acts of the Apostles—but he opened his heart to the people who challenged his authority at every point, in order to prove to them that in submission to all the buffeting he has demonstrated that the Spirit of God was in him, and because that was so, He had raised him up, and was working mightily through him. Just as in that human body Jesus became so weak and suffered and was buffeted to be raised by the power of God, so Paul in submission to all the buffeting has found exactly the same experience.

Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith. And here is the ultimate standard, the plumb line for every one of us. How have you reacted in your own immediate circle of witness? What happens when you have been buffeted? Is the procedure and growth of your Christian life marked by a progressively increasing sense of weakness in yourself, so emptied of every trace of self-esteem and self-confidence that you find yourself being raised up by the power of God? Do you seek to be a blessing in your area? Do you seek to heal the wounds in some circle of Christian witness, on a mission field, in a Sunday school, in a church, somewhere in your immediate situation?

The Christian, if he is real, will always seek to heal the wounds, but as he does so he discovers that they are healed by the acceptance of the buffetings to such a point that he is brought right back to the cross where he is able at last to know that the words of Galatians 2:20 are not a theory but they are real: “I have been crucified with Christ: nevertheless, I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me; and the life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

Examine yourselves. Prove yourselves. Know ye be reprobate? If He is in you, then His strength is being perfected when you come to that place where, in yourself, you are utterly weak. That is the whole principle of 1 and 2 Corinthians. That is the reason why Paul wrote to demonstrate this great principle of Christian life, so that the church for all its history might know that it is “not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit”; so the church may answer all the philosophy in any generation, all the wealth and all the wisdom, all the luxury and all of the license. It may combat these things not on that level, but by apparently being knocked down to a point of weakness only to discover that we are raised up by the power of God to demonstrate His indwelling life. Is that your experience? May God help us to submit ourselves to self-examination in the power of His Spirit.