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Test Yourselves to See If You Are in the Faith:

Assurance Based on Our Works?
2 Corinthians 13:5

By Bob Wilkin


Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Prove yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?--unless you are disqualified.

John Calvin taught that one should not look to his works for assurance of salvation. He said we should look to Christ, the object of our faith. However, his followers departed from him on this point, calling people to look to their works for assurance. One of the verses often cited in this discussion is 2 Corinthians 13:5.

According to some Paul taught in 2 Corinthians 13:5 that believers are regularly to examine their lives for the purpose of finding out if they are truly believers or not. One recent author cited this passage to prove his point that "Doubts about one's salvation are not wrong so long as they are not nursed and allowed to become an obsession. Scripture encourages self-examination. Doubts must be confronted and dealt with honestly and biblically." Then, after quoting 2 Corinthians 13:5 he concludes, "That admonition is largely ignored--and often explained away--in the contemporary church." (John F. MacArthur, Jr., The Gospel According to Jesus, p.190).

What evidence is there that such an interpretation is correct? The verse indicates that the Corinthian believers were to test themselves for the purpose of seeing if they are in the faith and if Christ is in them. At first glance this seems clearly to be talking about assurance by self-examination. However, when the exact nature of the purpose of this self-examination is carefully considered, we find that assurance of salvation is not in view at all. Several observations support this conclusion.

First, Paul was writing to believers, not to unbelievers. All through the letter of 2 Corinthians Paul asserted this. Notice the following examples. "To the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in Achaia" (1:1). "Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a deposit" (1:21-22). "You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; you are manifestly an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but the Spirit of the living God" (3:2-3). "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers" (6:14). "You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ" (8:9). "Finally, brethren, farewell. . . . The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (13:11, 14).

Paul did not question the salvation of his readers. He repeatedly affirmed it. Whatever understanding we adopt for 2 Corinthians 13:5 must take this into account.

Second, the church at Corinth had been filled with divisions, strife, envy, drunkenness, and immorality(1 Cor. 1:11; 3:1-3; 5:9-6:20; 11:21, 30) when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. And yet he affirmed rather than questioned their salvation in 1 Corinthians as well (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2; 3:1; 6:11,19-20). In 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 and 6:19-20 Paul referred to their carnality and yet called them "babes in Christ" and those whose "body is the temple of the Holy Spirit." First Corinthians 3:1-3 and 6:19-20 cannot be reconciled with the view that in 2 Corinthians 13:5 Paul taught believers to look to their works for assurance.

Third, Paul taught in Romans that believers can be sure that they are saved (Rom. 5:1; 8:31-39). However, if one looks to his works for assurance, he can never have absolute assurance since no one's works are flawless.

My final objections to the Reformed understanding of our verse concern the actual wording of the verse and those which follow.

Paul does not tell the Corinthian believers to examine their works in order to see if they are saved, or to see if they are a part of God's family. He has in mind another purpose for their self-examination. Let's carefully consider the two phrases Paul uses to indicate what looking to one's works is to show.

In the faith. While this could refer to salvation, it could equally as well refer to sanctification. Paul could be asking the Corinthian believers to see if they are abiding in the faith in their experience. If not, they would be backsliders, out-of-fellowship believers. In this context and in light of the objections already raised, it is certain that "in the faith" refers to sanctification, not salvation.

Christ in you. This, too, could refer to salvation. Christ lives in all believers. However, it could also refer to sanctification. As Munger's booklet "My Heart Christ's Home" points out, Christ is only at home in the lives of believers to the degree we obey Him. In light of the context and above-stated objections, it is clear that Paul is asking the Corinthian believers to examine their works to see if Christ is in them experientially. Are their works Christlike? If so, the Lord Jesus is indeed active in their experience. If not, they are not in Christ in their experience.

There is a key piece of contextual evidence which confirms the sanctification interpretation I have laid out. It is a term which occurs in verses 5,6, and 7. The term is disqualified (adokimos in Greek). This is a term which elsewhere in Paul's writings and in the NT is used exclusively of believers. Indeed, Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:27 used this exact term in reference to himself. He said that he buffeted his body and pressed on in his service for Christ so that he might not be disqualified from the rewards which will go to faithful believers. God will only approve of the deeds of faithful believers. Those who fail the test Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 13:5 will be disapproved for rewards. However, they will be saved, yet so as through fire (1 Cor. 3:15).

A related noun and verb of the just cited term further support the sanctification view. In verse 3 Paul indicates that some of the Corinthians were seeking proof (dokim�n) that Christ was speaking in Paul. Then in verse 5 Paul turns the tables on them and challenges them to prove themselves (dokimaz�). What some of the Corinthians questioned was not Paul's salvation. It was his sanctification. They questioned whether he was a true spokesman and apostle of Christ. Likewise, when he turned the tables he questioned their sanctification, not their salvation.

Nowhere do the Scriptures call believers to look to their works for assurance. We are called to look to Christ and find our assurance in Him. However, repeatedly in the Scriptures believers are called to look to their works to find out how they are doing in their walk with Christ. Second Corinthians 13:5 is one such verse. Yes, as believers we are to examine ourselves regularly. The purpose is to ensure that we are doing our best in our service for Christ.


Bob Wilkin is the Executive Director of Grace Evangelical Society.



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