It was a wise and gracious man who said, “I want a feeling religion, not a religion of feelings,” and Joseph Hart sang the truth when he wrote,
True religion’s more than notion,
Something must be known and felt.
True Christianity has as its foundation the great unalterable doctrines of Biblical revelation, the undeniable facts of history and,
preeminently, the real living Lord Jesus Christ whose life, death, and resurrection is infallibly recorded under the direction of the Holy Spirit. This is the varied panorama of objective truth to which the humbled spirit of a believer always looks with the utmost confidence as he says, “I believe this is absolutely true and reliable”. Yet the same believer can say more. He can speak of the subjective side of his religion, his experience and his experiences; and this is an essential and vital part of true Christianity. Jesus Christ is the Saviour of sinners whether men believe it or not, but only the believer knows Him as his own Saviour; he alone may say “I know whom I have believed”, and he alone can express this subjective experience by saying, “He is the Son of God and I trust in Him for my salvation”.
It is evident to the reader of Acts 17.30 that God commands all men everywhere to repent; but equally evident is the fact that all men do not repent. The objective truth is plainly written, the subjective experience is plainly essential, for Jesus said, “Except ye repent ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13.3, 5).
The Bible further teaches us that both faith and repentance are gracious gifts from God, “For by grace are ye saved through faith;
and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2.8, 9). “Him hath God exalted with His right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5.31). Yet it needs to be emphasized that it is the sinner who repents and believes; he has no proxy in this vital subjective experience. In the precious atonement made for his sin he has a Substitute, a divine Proxy, who lived and died on his behalf, ensuring that he would one day receive the gifts of repentance and faith; but the time must come when, by the Spirit’s power, he does most truly repent of his own sin and believe for himself on the Lord Jesus Christ, and these are two things in which the sinner is not entirely spiritually passive, as in regeneration, but most definitely spiritually active.
Such a believer’s life is a continuing experience of the power and grace of God. Many are the changes, trials, temptations, joys and blessings he passes through. Constantly he has to repent and continue in the life of faith, though with many variations in the intensity of his feelings and in the confidence of his heart. Repeatedly he sees the way the Lord his God has led him and taught him. Times of confession and times of praise, times of sorrow and times of joy follow in a divinely ordered pattern of true experience.
However, in any thoughts about Christian experience there is need of caution. Believers are all the same in regard to their standing in Christ, they are all saved by grace and taught by the same Holy Spirit but they are all different in their emotional and natural constitution. Some are deeply sensitive and easily moved to emotional heights and depths; others are more placid, even, and quiet in their reactions to life’s experiences. Some have a deeply introspective nature prone to severe self-examination and self-condemnation; others have a happy, extrovert, active nature which enjoys company but shuns long and lonely thought. From this wonderful variety of human nature God has chosen His own to make up His church in which these natural characteristics are retained but sanctified to His glory and the balanced life of the church.
Since there is such a variety of natural characteristics in the church there will be necessarily a variety of experiences and a wide variation in how these experiences are felt and expressed. “Something” must indeed “be known and felt”, but the extent of the knowledge and the intensity of the feeling will vary widely. One believer may be quite unable to express clearly the true experience of his soul and yet be a true Christian; another believer may be able to describe vividly and in minute detail the moving of God’s Spirit in his life; one may speak of such matters quietly and display little emotion, yet others will hardly begin to speak before being overwhelmed with tears.
Those who are called to preach the gospel and to be pastors of churches face many problems in this area. A living ministry must emphasize the need for a true experience of the grace of God but, on the other hand, it must not set up such a minutely detailed and extreme standard of feelings in experience as to “quench the smoking flax and break the bruised reed” with the overwhelming fear that this high standard has not been attained. The preacher is called to “preach the word”, and certainly not to set up his own detailed experiences as a standard by which to measure and even censure others. Sadly some proud spirits have gone to such extremes that the final result is nothing less than a pharisaic insistence on their own experience as the only possible acceptable
standard. This almost inevitably leads to a most sinful and divisive spiritual dictatorship in which tender hearts are wounded and the church sadly grieved. This erroneous preaching of “experience” has sometimes degenerated into the mere relation of personal anecdotes instead of the true gospel, and at other times it has produced a crop of “spiritualisations” of scripture entirely .unwarranted by the context of the words they are supposedly based upon. Such disasters must never be mistaken for the faithful preaching of the whole counsel of God.
Mr. Stanley Delves, late pastor at Forest Fold, Crowborough, once wisely said, “A minister’s experience should be behind the preaching to give it authority, not in front of his ministry to call mention to himself”.
True experience is the experience of the word of God and its
gracious effects and influences in the life of the believer; its practical
consequences will then be evident to all. The weak and unexperienced believer will be built up by a faithful and heartwarming preaching of the whole truth. Such a babe in Christ will .then be encouraged to leave behind him the discouraging and constant search within for feelings and experiences he cannot discern or produce. He will be pointed to the Lord Jesus and will then be “looking unto Jesus” for all his salvation instead of trying to produce something from within himself, or even sinking down into a dull fatalism as he waits for some imagined experience in the uncertain future which he hopes will suddenly solve all his problems. Such a “looking unto Jesus” is the heart of real Christian experience.
“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16.31).
“Trust ye in the Lord for ever: for in the Lord JEHOVAH is everlasting strength” (Is. 26.4).