2 Corinthians 13:5 – Examine Ourselves, or Not? | Pt 2

Instead of examining our own works, we should be focusing on Jesus only. Picture of a boy laughing with an open Bible on his lap. Photo by Ben White on Unsplash.
Instead of examining our own works, we should be focusing on Jesus only. It is then that we can have the joy of the full assurance of our salvation. Ben White / Unsplash

Peter Ditzel

In part 1, we saw that many interpret 2 Corinthians 13:5 to mean that we should examine our works for evidences of conversion. We also saw that the context shows that Paul’s focus was himself. He expected the Corinthians to see that the fact that they were believers proved that God had worked through him to bring about their conversion. They were to stop listening to people who were maligning him. Now, let’s look at another proof that this verse isn’t teaching us to examine ourselves for evidence of conversion.

2 Corinthians 13:5: Faith and Not Works

There is excellent proof that Paul’s intent is not that the Corinthians should look to their works for evidences of conversion or that we should examine ourselves this way today. That proof is that this understanding is directly opposed to the very heart of the Christian message—the Gospel. If we’re to examine ourselves by looking at our lives, at our works, at our walk, to see whether we’re in the faith, we’re looking in the wrong direction. If we’re judging our conversion by our works, what are we basing our conversion on? Works! To say that we’re to examine whether we’re in the faith by looking at our works is another way of saying that our salvation depends on our works.

To answer what I’ve just said, many would give this rebuttal: While it’s certainly true that we are saved by grace through faith alone, our salvation should then result in works. And we should then be able to look at these works to see that we’ve been saved.

For the sake of argument, let’s say this is true, and we’re to judge our salvation by our works. This merely leads to further questions: What kind of works? What counts as a good work, and what doesn’t? Big works or little works? How many works a year, a month, a day? And what about when we slip and do bad works? Do they count against our score so that we have to start building up more good works? What’s the score we’re trying to achieve, anyway? Hey, can I up my score if I use the Rosary and say Hail Marys? Oops, that’s Roman Catholicism, isn’t it? But, you know, it’s really the same principle. It’s legalism and a works salvation.

2 Corinthians 13:5: Works Are Like Shifting Sand

Certainly, the Holy Spirit living in us causes us to do good works. But these come naturally as God sees fit. If we’re forcing ourselves to do works to bring up our examination scores, we’re fudging. You might be familiar with Ephesians 2:8-10, but it won’t hurt to read it again:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, that no one would boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we would walk in them.
Ephesians 2:8-10

Wouldn’t seeing if we’re in the faith by looking at our works create a basis to boast if we think we’ve succeeded? Of course it would.

Determining whether we’re in the faith by examining our works is like trying to base our assurance on shifting sand. All believers have some good works and some bad works. How can we possibly base the assurance of our conversion on something so tenuous? To do so would be foolish!

2 Corinthians 13:5: Intended for the Corinthians

We’ve seen that Paul’s intent wasn’t to get the Corinthians to determine from their works whether they were converted. His intent was to get the Corinthians to see this: The fact that they were believers was proof that Paul was a true preacher of the Gospel by the power of God. He wanted them to stop listening to malicious talk about him and see that Jesus Christ was in and spoke through him.

This should then lead us today to a very obvious conclusion. Paul’s instructions in 2 Corinthians 13:5 were for the Corinthian assembly of believers. That assembly owed its very existence to the fact that Paul went on a missionary journey to Corinth and evangelized people there. Paul wanted them to ask, “Do I believe?” And he wanted them to answer, “Of course I do.” And then he wanted them to ask, “How did I come to believe?” And he wanted them to answer, “I heard the Gospel from Paul.” And he wanted them to conclude, “Therefore, Paul must be God’s servant, and Jesus Christ must be speaking through him.”

You’re not a first-century Corinthian who doubted Paul’s apostleship. Therefore, 2 Corinthians 13:5 doesn’t contain Paul’s instructions for you. Pulpit instructions that 2 Corinthians 13:5 teaches us that we’re to examine our lives to determine our conversion are dangerous nonsense. Nevertheless, we can all learn something from the verse.

2 Corinthians 13:5: Modern Application

What we today can take away from this verse is simple and direct: There’s only one place to look for the assurance of our conversion. We’re to look to the author and finisher of our faith, Jesus Christ.

Therefore let us also, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:1-2

If we look to ourselves, as some famous preachers wrongly teach that 2 Corinthians 13:5 tells us to do, we will either be disappointed and discouraged, or we’ll deceive ourselves into thinking that our works somehow measure up. Either way, we become mired in subjectivity, self-examination, self-doubt, and self-righteousness. We lose our assurance in the complete salvation Jesus Christ has earned for us by His works, we lose sight of our first love, and we lose the freedom from bondage to works that Christ gave us. This is no small matter.

The Wrong Teaching Can Hamstring Our Spiritual Growth

The teaching that 2 Corinthians 13:5 orders us to examine our works to see whether we’re converted can hamstring our spiritual growth and progress toward maturity. If you’ve been examining yourself for evidences of conversion, then I tell you to repent. Turn from yourself and set your eyes on Jesus Christ alone!

Jesus Christ has perfectly completed our salvation. If we’re looking to Him, there’s nothing more we need to examine. We must stop listening to these troublers in God’s spiritual Israel who would have us take our eyes off Christ and look to our weak works for the assurance of our salvation.

Further reading:

How can I know that I am saved?

The Resting Place of Faith

How to Obtain Certain Knowledge of Forgiveness of Sins

Christ alone

Why does James say, ‘Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only’? (James 2:24)

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