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The Necessity of Self-Enquiry

Category Announcements
Date July 21, 2023

One of the most outstanding ‌biblical commentators since the Reformation is John Brown (1784–1858), the grandson of John Brown of Haddington. Brown occupied the chair of exegetical theology in the United Secession Church and then in the United Presbyterian Church. His exegetical commentaries (The Trust has published his Discourses and Sayings of Our Lord, Galatians, Hebrews, and his exposition of 1 Peter 5:8–11, The Christian’s Great Enemy) are models of thoughtful exegesis and penetrating pastoral and ministerial application. Recently, while preparing to preach on Gal. 6:14, But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world, I was struck by the following comment in Brown’s Commentary on Galatians:

(Paul’s) declaration ought to be employed for the purpose of self-enquiry. Is the world crucified to us by the cross of Christ, and are we by that cross crucified to the world?…Men to whom the world is not crucified, are certainly not believers; and men professing Christianity, who are not ‘crucified to the world’—men whom the world loves and honours—have cause to stand in doubt of themselves. Where the cross holds the place in the heart which it did in the apostle’s, and exercises the influence over the character and conduct it did in him, it will be equally clear that the world is crucified to the individual, and he to the world.

Brown is not content, as Paul was not content, simply to state the doctrine that an authentic Christian boasts, glories, in the cross of Christ. If we truly boast alone in the cross of Christ, two things will of necessity follow: We will no longer pant after the praise, the plaudits, the rewards, the good favour of this world. And conversely, if we truly boast alone in the cross of Christ, the world will write us off as nobodies, just as it writes off the Son of God, the Lord of glory, the Lord Jesus Christ, as a nobody. Oh, the world is ever ready to say good things about Jesus, the teacher from Nazareth. But the moment you speak of his incarnate life, his virginal conception, his perfect Law keeping, his substitutionary, sin atoning, wrath quenching, death defeating, Satan conquering cross and resurrection, everything changes!

Brown is urging us to apply Paul’s words for the ‘purposes of self-enquiry’. Is there anything more likely to search out our hearts than what we read in Galatians 6:14, especially the latter half of the verse?

The present condition of evangelical Christianity should give us cause for concern. The thought that a believer should seriously take to heart Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 13:5, ‘Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!’, is rarely heard from pulpits. It is true, sadly true, that the grace and duty of self-examination can become an overly introspective, even demoralizing exercise. The moment we forget that all our hope and assurance lies outside of ourselves in our Saviour, that moment the life of faith becomes clinical, even sterile. Faith, to use John Murray’s striking word, is essentially ‘extraspective’. The glory of faith is not its quality but its object, the glorious Person and saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ. That said, self-enquiry is a duty and grace the word of God encourages us to take seriously.

With this in mind, ask yourself these two questions:

How do I view this world? Do I see it as my God sees it, lost, in darkness, heading for his righteous judgement? Do I see it as an object of my pity, not of my delight? Am I secretly longing for this world to recognize me, think well of me, embrace me in its friendship? (remember, ‘friendship with the world is enmity with God’, James 4:4). Am I persuaded that this world and its desires are ‘passing away’, but that he who does the will of God lives forever? (1 John 2:17).

How does this world view me? Is it happy to acknowledge me? Is it content to let me live out my faith because I say and do nothing to offend its values and convictions? Does this world find me inoffensive, undemanding, someone who turns a blind eye to its smutty jokes, its misogyny, its twisted sexuality, its blasphemies?

Self-enquiry can be deeply unsettling. Christians need regularly to place their lives alongside the life of the Lord Jesus Christ and ask if the perfect template of godliness that was first etched in his humanity by the Holy Spirit is in any way, however dimly, being etched in their lives. Our Father’s grand design is to conform us to the likeness of his Son (Rom. 8:29). He had no sin, but we do. He had no need to mortify the deeds of the body, but we do. But like us, he was tempted in every way just as we are (Heb. 4:15), and needed the help of the Holy Spirit to stand and go on faithfully to the last. It is alone with the gracious help of the Holy Spirit that we can put the sin that yet remains to trouble us to death (Rom. 8:13).

If Christians truly are what the Lord Jesus says they are, light and salt in a dark and putrefying world (Matt. 5:13-16), then self-enquiry should be a regular discipline in their lives. However, let me say again, self-enquiry that is not done in union with Christ, that is done rather in a spirit of self-beating or self-preening, is soul-killing and gospel-denying.

I often think of these words of Robert Murray M‘Cheyne: ‘For every one look at yourself, take ten looks at Jesus Christ’. That is healthy spiritual advice.


Ian Hamilton is Associate Minister at Smithton Church, Inverness, and President of Westminster Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.

This article first appeared in the December 2020 issue of the Banner of Truth magazine.

Featured Photo by Landis Brown on Unsplash

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