Are we Christians supposed to examine ourselves for evidences of conversion? Some very prominent pastors, preachers, and writers would answer yes. They say that we’re to take stock of whether we’re producing works of conversion. These works show that we are really saved. They base this on 2 Corinthians 13:5, in which Paul tells his readers to examine themselves and test themselves. But how does such a teaching square with the biblical assertion that our salvation is entirely by grace through faith? If we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, why should we look to our works as evidences of conversion? Are we to examine ourselves or not?
2 Corinthians 13:5: The Verse
The verse in question is 2 Corinthians 13:5:
Examine your own selves, whether you are in the faith. Test your own selves. Or don’t you know as to your own selves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified.
2 Corinthians 13:5
Paul is certainly telling the Corinthian Christians to do something. It would be a big mistake to think that Paul means that the congregation is to collectively examine themselves. That is, he does not mean that the brothers and sisters are to examine and test each other. That’s called judging one another, and it is certainly not what Paul has in mind. (Recommended article: “Judge Not”.)
Without doubt, Paul is saying that each person is to examine and test him- or herself. But to what end? What kind of testing is this? And what result did Paul expect?
Paul tells them to examine themselves, and he tells them to test themselves. These two words—“examine” and “test”—are from two different Greek words. “Examine” is from the Greek word, peirazō. This word usually means to “tempt” or “try.” The word “test” is from dokimazō. It means to test with a positive expectation, to recognize something as genuine, to approve.
Paul’s use of dokimazō tells us that Paul wasn’t expecting the Corinthians to conclude that they were not converted. We should also see that he never once tells them to look at their works. What are they to look for? To find out, let’s look at the context.
2 Corinthians 13:5: The Context
Now that we’ve looked at the verse itself, we need to examine its context. The context reveals an often-overlooked reason why Paul told the Corinthians to examine and test themselves. When we do this, we see that the real focus of the larger context is not the Corinthians. The focus is Paul.
As far back as chapter 10, Paul starts to defend himself against those who were slandering him and his ministry. It would be too lengthy for me to go into the details, but you can read this for yourself. He continues the theme in chapter 11, where he chastens the Corinthians for despising him while they put up with false apostles bringing a different gospel. He then speaks of the suffering he’s gone through for the sake of spreading the Good News. In chapter 12, he speaks of the visions and revelations he’s received. He also tells the Corinthians that he is concerned that if he were to come to them, he would not find them behaving the way he would want.
Now we come to chapter 13. Paul is still addressing the accusation that his ministry is weak, that maybe Christ doesn’t really speak through him. He’s already admitted that in appearance and speech, he may be physically weak. This weakness has apparently caused the Corinthians to “seek a proof of Christ speaking in me” (verse 3, LITV). Paul, however, explains that the weakness that comes from the flesh isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What really counts is the spiritual power of God. Even Jesus Christ “was crucified through weakness, yet he lives through the power of God” (verse 4a).
Paul is saying that the Corinthians should not be concerned about Paul’s weakness: “For we also are weak in him, but we will live with him through the power of God towards you” (verse 4b). They will see God’s power in Paul as he exercises his apostolic authority towards them. But what is the proof that Paul has this authority? The proof is in themselves.
2 Corinthians 13:5: The Focus
In 2 Corinthians 13:5, Paul is saying that to find the proof of Paul’s authority—that Christ is in him and speaks through him—the Corinthians need only look at themselves. In other words, it is as if Paul is saying, “Look at yourselves and see that you are true believers. You believe and Christ is in you (unless you are disqualified or reprobate [which was an outcome he did not expect]). How did that happen? Didn’t you hear the Gospel from me? Your own conversion, which you can know by the faith that you have, is proof that I am a true preacher of the Gospel.”
Contrary to what is so often preached, Paul isn’t telling the Corinthians to examine and test themselves by looking at their works. He isn’t telling them to reflect on their works and consider that they might be falling short. He isn’t telling them to stop doubting him and instead look at their own shortcomings. This isn’t even close to what Paul is saying. And Paul is not even saying that, while the evidence of his apostleship is in their conversion, the evidence of their conversion lies in their works.
In part 2, we’ll see excellent proof about what Paul’s intent is and is not. We’ll also see how we can apply this verse today, and why misapplying it can hinder our spiritual growth.
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