how Christians die

I’ve just been reading a blog post which struck me as brave and realistic. It’s about how Christians die: ‘Illness and death beautiful?

Theologically, we know that Christians go to heaven when they die, leaving behind all their disappointments, regrets, sins, and sorrows for ever. Theologically, we know that death for the Christian is a defeated enemy, and the Christian is more than a conqueror through Christ. Because Christ lives, the Christian lives too.

But this does not mean that all Christians die triumphant deaths, sailing into glory on the crest of an exultant wave of spiritual success.

There are stories of martyrs, whose last words went something like this. “Farewell, father and mother, friends and relations! Farewell, the world and all delights! Farewell meat and drink! Farewell, sun, moon and stars! Welcome, God and Father! Welcome, sweet Lord Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant! Welcome, blessed Spirit of grace, God of all consolation! Welcome glory! Welcome eternal life! Welcome death!”

But most Christians do not die the death of a martyr.

In death, as in life, it is likely that the majority of Christians, the majority of the time, neither float on clouds of assurance nor wallow in ditches of despair. For most people most of the time, they have a quiet, stable sense running along in the background of their lives that they are Christ’s and Christ is theirs. This fades in and out of conscious prominence from time to time, and slowly and surely shapes their outlook on life, their responses to life’s events, their acceptance of providence, and their likeness to Christ. But most people’s highs are not especially high, and their lows are not especially low, in spiritual things.

When they come to die, it is unusual for this picture to change much. I have only very limited close-up experience of the actual deathbeds of godly individuals. I also have only limited in-depth second-hand knowledge from listening to other people’s experiences. But it would seem that even the eminently godly do not normally have strikingly glorious entrances into glory.

It would seem that very godly people even at the end of long lives do not look forward to dying. They do not seem to relish the obvious fact that they will soon have the chance to leave this sad sinful world to go to glory. This fact may not even be obvious to them, as they instead engage with their care plans and look forward to getting home from hospital. They seem to take as much interest as ever in the lives and activities of their family and friends. Their conversations may revolve as much around their current medication as around the blessings of union and communion with the Saviour.

This is not a criticism. Neither is it aspirational. But it seems to be more common than not, and it is worth acknowledging. Our expectations of other people’s deathbeds are better informed by the norm than the exception. There is no need to be disappointed or doubtful about someone if they go to glory quietly and unremarkably. Similarly, it is probably unwise to expect that our own deathbeds will be scenes of blissful triumph any more than our lives are.

The continuity between life as a whole and death as an event is no doubt a useful guide to help manage expectations. Although there is plenty reason for the Christian to rejoice with thanksgiving at every moment in their lives, there are also plenty reasons why the end-point of their life on earth is not naturally conducive to suddenly starting to rejoice in a newly conspicuous way. Christians are frail and sinful in any case, and coming to the point of death typically makes people more frail than ever before. They may well be in discomfort or pain, or sedated or exhausted, or otherwise more constrained by their physical needs than luxuriating in their spiritual blessings. They may be worried about how their spouse will manage without them, or who will be left in the family to pray for their unsaved children and grandchildren. Some of them understand, although I don’t, the genuinely pinching dilemma between departing to be with Christ, and abiding in the flesh to serve the needs of others (you would think the choice would be obvious, but Paul couldn’t decide). And perhaps a bit like an expectant mother looks forward to meeting the baby but not to actual childbirth, you can understand why people don’t want to die even knowing that there is something better beyond. Our only experience of existence is as integrated souls and bodies. The forcible disintegration of soul and body in death is both unknown and dreadful.

And yet, and yet, for the Christian, death has had its sting removed. Theologically, we know this.

So to align our theology of death more closely with the case histories of how Christians die, we need to remember the contrast between how things look and feel now, and how they are in reality. When a Christian dies, it is actually a victory. It is a victory for their Saviour and consequently for themselves. It may look underwhelming and anticlimactic, but so do all the victories of the Christian life from regeneration onwards. Yet it remains a fact, however much or little we sense the gloriousness of it. When a Christian dies, it means that they have been successfully saved, out of sin, through this life, into heaven. This is amazing. When a Christian dies, they immediately pass into glory, to be made perfectly blessed in the full enjoyment of God to all eternity. This is wonderful. When a Christian dies, it is another bit of the answer to Christ’s prayer, ‘Father, I will that they whom thou hast given me be with me where I am.’ This is stupendous.

Illness and death are not beautiful. What is beautiful is to be saved from them – from illness and death and sin and ourselves. There is something visibly beautiful if it happens that when the Lord is saving his people out of these things he gives them the grace to rejoice triumphantly in the process. But it is also beautiful that he saves them at all, even by the skin of their teeth, because what the eye doesn’t always see here and now is the bigger reality that we are thoroughly theologically convinced of – that those who believe in Christ will never perish, but have everlasting life.

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God is a Spirit

20170504_082315Our almost-two year old suddenly started saying the word “God”. All his words started off as sequences of a consonant followed by a vowel, before he started adding word-final consonants. It was a proud day when I ceased to be “ma” and became “mum”. But it didn’t seem right for him to wander around seeming to casually break the Third Commandment. So I racked my brains for a sensible thing to give him to say about God.

Naturally the first thing that came to mind was the wording of the Shorter Catechism. “What is God?” asks one of the early questions, with the reply, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable…”

So I told the boy, “God is a Spirit” and he now knows to say “God Spirit” [gɔd bi:t]. The answer continues, “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth,” but I thought we could leave that bit until he’s slightly older.

But then I had a qualm about the usefulness of what I’d just done. Does this statement only refer to his immateriality? Is that the most useful concept to offer a child as a starting point for thinking about God? Maybe it was really both too basic and too complex? Don’t you just skip over these first few words to get to the meat of the definition in the bit he’s too young to start on yet?

Around the same time I started catching up with some new books that had recently arrived in the house. Among them was the five-volume set of Reformed Dogmatics by Geerhardus Vos, now translated from Dutch into English for the first time. These volumes consist of lectures Vos gave in systematic theology, structured in a question and answer format.

There on page 14 of the first volume was a section headed, “What does Scripture mean when it calls God Spirit?”

The Hebrew and Greek words that mean ‘spirit’ are both ‘wind’. From this starting point we discover the following:

  • Wind is that power among material powers that seems to be the most immaterial and invisible. We feel it but we do not see it. When God is called Spirit, it therefore means his immateriality.
  • Wind or breath is the mark of life and thus stands for life or in place of enlivening power. Thus it is the case that God’s spirituality also means his living activity. As Spirit God is distinguished from man, indeed all that is created, that is flesh, that is powerless and inert in itself. Spirit is thus what lives and moves of itself.
  • Wind as the spirit of life or the breath of life belongs with something else enlivened or activated by it. God can also in this sense be called Spirit insofar as he is the enlivener and source of life for the creature. That is so both in a natural sense as well as in a spiritual sense. That agrees with the fact that man can be called flesh in a twofold sense, both insofar as he naturally has no power of life in himself and insofar as he is spiritually dead and cut off from God. …
  • The spirituality of God implies that He is a rational being, with understanding, will, and power.

What else does God’s spirituality involve?

That God’s being also exists as personal. However, we should consider that God’s being may not be called personal in the abstract but only in his threefold existence as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In God personality is not one but three. There are not four but only three persons in the Godhead.

This was immensely reassuring to read. The statement, “God is a Spirit” encapsulates not only the idea that God is immaterial but also that he has life of himself, is the source of life for the creature, is rational, and exists as three persons. The statement is meaty in its own right, and the rest of the Shorter Catechism’s answer only builds on it. Clearly, a 22-month old isn’t going to grasp much of what even this basic statement references, but it provides him with a vocabulary now which he will be able to fill with increasing meaning over time.

I’ve since read further into volume 1 and dipped in and out of the other four volumes of Reformed Dogmatics, and I’m happy to report that there is much more to Geerhardus Vos than a pageful of unwitting encouragement in navigating the parenthood jungle.

In fact I was pleasantly surprised at how fresh Vos’s treatment of familiar doctrines was. He is also admirably clear (something I wouldn’t have expected from my previous few attempts to tackle his other writings) and concise. The question and answer format works as well as can be expected – there are the odd questions of the type “What belongs to the first category?” and “Where have we now arrived in our treatment?” which make sense only in their contexts – but largely the questions are used adeptly as tools for developing arguments and announcing new topics (e.g., “How does the work of the Holy Spirit relate to that of the Son?” “In what differing respects does the Holy Spirit carry out his distinguishing work?” “Which attributes are particularly ascribed to God the Holy Spirit as a result of this distinguishing work?” and, “What is the relationship of God’s decree to his reason and his will?”)

It might not be best to recommend these volumes to an absolute beginner as a very first introduction to systematic theology, but for anyone who has a basic familiarity with the doctrines of the Catechism or Confession, say from regular church attendance, these would be an excellent, non-threatening way to start sharpening up their theological understanding. The individual volumes are not hefty tomes, only a couple of hundred pages each. They are the only multi-volume systematic theology I know of that someone could sit down and read from cover to cover in the space of a couple of weeks, as a pleasurable experience. But each would work as a stand-alone book on the topic it covers. (Volume 1 is Theology Proper, covering the doctrine of God, God’s decrees, and creation and providence. Volume 2, Anthropology, covers human nature, sin, and the covenant of grace. Volume 3, Christology, is about Christ. Volume 4, Soteriology, covers the order of salvation, regeneration and effectual calling, conversion, faith, justification and sanctification. Volume 5, Ecclesiology, The Means of Grace, Eschatology, covers the doctrine of the church, the Word and sacraments, and the doctrine of the last things.) So pick your topic and dive in.

on the covenant of redemption

The Trinity And the Covenant of Redemption

Compared with Fesko’s recent volume on imputation, I didn’t come away quite so satisfied with his The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, although there are several significant points in its favour.

Like the work on imputation, this treatment of the covenant of redemption provides a helpful synthesis of the three facets of the doctrine – history, exegesis, and dogmatics.

The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption also successfully demonstrates that a covenant was made between the persons of the Trinity before the beginning of time – a pre-temporal intra-trinitarian agreement to save sinners.

At various places Fesko takes the opportunity to emphasise that this agreement was an effect of God’s love (the love of the triune God). Obedience, he points out, is entirely consistent with love. So indeed is the very concept of covenanting. These sections are a welcome reminder that no matter how technical your treatment of any of God’s truths might become, and however dispiriting it must be to engage so thoroughly with influential scholars whose widely accepted views are so wildly off the mark, the truth itself is revealed in love by the God who is love, and the scheme of redemption in its plan and its execution is steeped (or as Fesko says, bathed) in love at every point.

Fesko also deals well with the allegation that the idea of a discussion and agreement between the persons of the Godhead somehow leads to tritheism. He shows that while all three persons of the Godhead share the same will and act on it, yet each person of the Trinity acts according to his person, the Father sending the Son and the Spirit, and the Son and the Spirit being sent by the Father.

Fesko also sees a role for the Spirit in the covenant of redemption. His role is not just subsequent to the covenant as the one who applies the saving benefits purchased by Christ, but according to the terms of the covenant, the Holy Spirit agrees to be sent by the Father, and he anoints and equips Christ to carry out his work as the covenant surety.

Another plus point to The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption is that it interacts seriously with recent scholarship and emerges with Reformed credentials intact. Fesko reviews the thinking of Barth, more recent narrative theologians, and a Roman Catholic theologian, not only to show what is argued in these alternative paradigms but to carefully expose their limitations and flaws. Even for readers who have never encountered these theological positions, the outcome of Fesko’s discussion is a clear sense of the great gulf between them and the Reformed position.

But the source of my dissatisfaction has to do with how the concept of the covenant of redemption itself is presented. The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption takes the view that in addition to the covenant of works there is not one but two covenants which take to do with the salvation of sinners – the covenant of redemption as well as the covenant of grace. The preface to this book explains that it is the first in a series of three, with subsequent volumes due to appear on the covenant of works and the covenant of grace in turn. The drawback of this approach is that very little work is done in this volume itself to motivate the distinction between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace.

It is certainly the case that some older Reformed theologians identified three covenants. David Dickson (1583-1662), James Durham (1622-1658), and Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) distinguished between the covenant of redemption, made between the Father and the Son, and the covenant of grace, made between the Father and the elect sinner. However, it is not the case that this view persisted until the twentieth century, as implied in the preface to The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption. The discussion in the preface jumps directly from the “classic Reformed covenant theology” of Dickson and Durham to “twentieth century Reformed theologians such as Murray, Schilder, and Hoeksema,” giving the reader to infer that it was not until the advent of Murray and others that the covenant of redemption was “either rejected or redefined” (p.xviii).

In fact, almost as soon as the three-covenant view was articulated, Reformed theologians respectfully expressed reticence about pushing the idea too far. They preferred to see only two true covenants, the one of works with Adam and the one of redemption/grace with Christ. This was to preserve the idea of Christ as the head of one covenant, not two, and to avoid positing a covenant with the elect sinner which either has a condition attached for the sinner to perform (therefore turning it back into a covenant of works all over again) or no condition attached (and therefore not technically a covenant at all).

For reasons such as these, theologians as close (in time and in thinking) to Dickson and Durham as Thomas Boston and Adam Gib declined to posit both a covenant of redemption and a covenant of grace. Thereafter in systematic theologies whenever the covenant of redemption is mentioned, it tends to be only to deny that it is truly a distinct covenant from the covenant of grace.

  • Thomas Boston (1676-1732): “The covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace are but two names of one and the same second covenant, under different considerations” (View of the Covenant of Grace, Vol 8 of Complete Works, p396).
  • Adam Gib (1714 – 1788): “The covenant of grace is a covenant of redemption. … There is only one covenant of God’s making, the covenant of grace and redemption, for the eternal salvation of mankind sinners. The Scripture reveals but one for that purpose, ‘the new covenant,’ ‘the everlasting covenant.’ As man’s ruin is by one covenant, his recovery is likewise by one” (Sacred Contemplations, p141-142).
  • John Brown of Haddington (1722-1787): “it is manifest that it [the covenant of grace] ought never to be splitted into two, as if one covenant of redemption had been made with Christ, and another of grace were made with the elect in their own persons” (A Compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion, p242).
  • John Dick (1764–1833): “there does not appear to be any ground in Scripture for the notion of two covenants. … The truth is that what those divines call the covenant of grace is merely the administration of what they call the covenant of redemption, for the purpose of communicating its blessings to those for whom they were intended; and cannot properly be called considered as a covenant…” (Lectures on Theology, p496).
  • As I’ve happened to be looking at Hugh Martin (1822-1885) on the atonement recently, I also noticed that when he relates atonement to federal concepts he makes no mention of a covenant of redemption, but relies heavily on the contrasts between only the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. My impression is that this was the mainstream understanding of the covenant theology for nineteenth century Reformed theologians (Hugh Martin, The Atonement: In Its Relations to the Covenant, the Priesthood, the Intercession of our Lord, first published 1877).

Incidentally it may be worth adding that Thomas Boston wrote a treatise specifically tackling the covenant of works (A View of the Covenant of Works from the Sacred Records (1775), and Adam Gib devotes the first part of his Sacred Contemplations (1788) to this topic too (again titled A View of the Covenant of Works, running to 120-odd pages).

Clearly, whether or not Boston and other subsequent Reformed theologians were correct to move away from Dickson and Durham’s proposal of three instead of two covenants is a question worthy of discussion in its own right. But this discussion does not appear in The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, so far as I could see. It is worthy of discussion on at least two counts – one that the two-not-three covenant position was perceived as entirely consistent with the Westminster Confession to at least the same extent as Fesko says the three-not-two covenant position is, and it would therefore would have been useful for this difference of opinion to have been handled as something within the Westminster tradition itself. And the other is that, to the extent that John Murray of the twentieth century was shaped by a Scottish theological tradition stretching from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, it would be interesting to know in detail how far he perpetuated rather than diverged from this tradition. A section in Part III of The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption is titled, ‘Relationship [of the covenant of redemption] to the covenants of works and grace’ (p138-140), but although this sounded promising, it reads as something inadequately edited beyond draft stage, and only lists points of difference between the putative covenants of redemption and grace without demonstrating why the two are better than the one. As the ‘one covenant (of redemption/grace)’ formulations preferred by theologians such as Boston are careful to include all the features which Fesko attributes to the covenant of redemption – the love and activity of the triune God, election, imputation, and the precedence of eschatology over soteriology – it remains to be seen what the positing of a second distinct covenant of grace really adds.

All of this adds up to make me keen to see Fesko’s forthcoming volumes on the covenant of works and of grace. In the meantime, my overall impression of The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption is that it is a worthwhile and useful presentation of key historical, exegetical and dogmatic considerations relating to the triune God’s eternal scheme for the salvation of sinners, chosen and beloved in Christ before the foundation of the world.

Death in Adam, Life in Christ

Death in Adam, Life in ChristI was impressed with this new book by JV Fesko, Death in Adam, Life in Christ. It is a calm and careful study of the doctrine of imputation. Imputation is a concept and a fact which is critically important in the story of how humans became sinners and how they can be saved. Yet it is rarely given a thorough treatment as a topic in its own right. This book goes a long way to redressing that. By approaching imputation first in terms of the history of the doctrine, then by looking at the scripture data, and then how it has been systematised in creedal statements, Fesko is able to bring light from three valuable angles to help understand imputation.

Fesko identifies three ‘assignments’ or imputations – the imputation of Adam’s sin to mankind, the imputation of the sinner’s sin to Christ, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner. As he discusses these imputations, he tackles various controversial issues such as the nature of the relationship between Adam and his posterity (concluding that it is not so much biological, moral, physical, or exemplary as covenantal), how sin and guilt are transmitted (not physically but legally or covenantally), and whether both the active and passive righteousness of Christ are imputed to the elect sinner (yes).

His conclusions are demonstrated to follow from an array of scripture passages from both the Old Testament (including the passages on the day of atonement and the sin of Achan as well as Isaiah 53) and the New Testament (Romans 4, Romans 5, and 2 Corinthians 5). Fesko’s reading of the passage in 2 Corinthians 5 incidentally matches with how Hugh Martin takes it, although Fesko provides a more detailed justification for this conclusion. Martin sees this passage as directly affirming the exchange of places and the counter-imputations of sin and righteousness. He says, “It is as if it read thus:

He hath made Him that knew no sin
To be sin for us:
That we (who knew no righteousness)
Might be made the righteousness of God in Him.”

The exegetical section is a great strength of the book, although in reality I’d be hard pushed to say which of the three sections was the best.

Death in Adam, Life in Christ is a very helpful resource for understanding how God deals with humankind, both before and after the fall. Greater clarity on how Christ is the ‘second Adam’ goes a long way to focusing our thoughts on how we can be saved. To reject the thought that we are implicated in what fallible, peccable Adam did on our behalf is to cut ourselves off from the possibility that we can be implicated in what impeccable, righteous Christ does on behalf of his people. But if we acknowledge the mess that Adam has landed us in, the way is open for us to associate ourselves instead with the salvation which Christ has accomplished for his people. It is fundamentally a kindness on God’s part (his voluntary condescension) that he chooses to deal with humankind on the basis of covenantal representation at all. It is mercy beyond all his other works that he is pleased to accept sinners because of what their surety substitute has done for them. If it wasn’t for imputation, Bonar’s eternity would not be at all secured:

Upon a life I did not live
Upon a death I did not die –
Another’s life, Another’s death –
I stake my whole eternity.

This is apparently the first of a new series by Christian Focus which combines history, exegesis, and dogmatics in this way, and if the rest of the series lives up to the standard of Death in Adam, Life in Christ, subsequent volumes will be well worth reading.

(Meanwhile, although I’d originally wanted to add a review of one of Fesko’s other recent publications, The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, for brevity’s sake this will follow in a separate post.)

new baby

2017-03-22 15.02.59-1 (2)Nearly four months ago we had another baby boy. He is at least partly responsible for the lack of activity on this blog, but we love him all the same.

 

 

Seeking a Better Country

maclean_better_country_eb_thumbnail

A new collection of sermons by Donald MacLean is now available from Reformation Press.

Seeking A Better Country works systematically through the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11 from Abel to Joseph. The focus is on the necessity of faith, and the necessity for faith to be active in laying hold of Christ in the promises of God’s Word.

You can get it in:

maclean_better_country_hb_thumbnailDonald MacLean (1915-2010) was minister of the St Jude’s (Glasgow) congregation of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland for forty years, from 1960 to his retirement in 2000. His preaching ministry is remembered for his clear and authoritative declaration of the doctrines of Scripture, his ability to trace out the spiritual experiences of those who are effectually called, and his compassionate directness in appealing to sinners to believe in Christ for salvation.

Reformation Press has already published a previous volume of Donald MacLean’s sermons, Unsearchable Riches.

experience isn’t enough

sunset

Religious experience is necessary for salvation. If religion isn’t something that arrests us personally and brings about a personal change, it’s pretty worthless as far as salvation is concerned. We have to be clear that salvation and the experience of salvation goes beyond participating in ritual and/or intellectual acquaintance with doctrine.

There is a problem, however, when we focus only on experience, or when we place such a high premium on experience that other weighty matters of the truth are treated in only a cursory way.

That is because experience is not a standalone thing. If you talk about experience, it raises two questions.

The first is, experience of what? Christian experience, the experience of salvation, does not occur in a vacuum. ‘Genuine religious experience,’ says Archibald Alexander, is ‘the impression of divine truth on the mind by the energy of the Holy Spirit.’

Whether it’s a miserable experience of feeling guilty and ashamed, or an uplifting experience of feeling peace and comfort, the experience as such doesn’t count as genuine unless it is an effect of the truth of Scripture (applied by the Holy Spirit). Unless it’s God’s own Word that induces us to feel ashamed or that grants us a sense of comfort, our experience is only on the same level as something that can be shared by any non-Christian. Atheists, heretics, and adherents of false religions all testify to deep, intense feelings, both profoundly bleak and wonderfully comforting.

What distinguishes Christian experience, or makes it qualify as Christian at all, is that it is a response to the truth.* Clearly, for example, it’s only real Christians who know what conviction of sin is, or a sense of pardon and acceptance with God. But a Christian’s conviction of sin and a Christian’s sense of pardon don’t occur in a vacuum. These experiences can only come from the Holy Spirit’s application of the truth of Scripture. Only from Scripture do we know what sin is defined as, and how sinful sin is. Only from Scripture do we know that God forgives sinners and how he blots out their transgressions. Only when the Holy Spirit applies the truth of God’s Word to my own individual personal case can I therefore really experience what real Christians experience. There has to be the authority of God speaking in his Word behind the exposure I painfully feel of my sin and the administration I sweetly feel of forgiveness, otherwise both the pain and the sweetness remain sub-Christian experiences. Deep inner turmoil and fervent emotions of any sort are not at all unique to Christians, and are therefore barely relevant when evaluating the reality or the wellbeing of our Christianity – unless these experiences are demonstrably a response to the threatenings or promises of God’s Word.

* (This of course means something more than simply a response to providence. Circumstances and life events prompt all sorts of people to consider their frailties and flaws and to make their peace with themselves and their situation. Even acknowledging that it’s God’s providence and not just random chance doesn’t in and of itself turn the anxiety or the calmness we feel when viewing our situation into a Christian experience. Providence happens to everyone, and believers and unbelievers alike can tell amazing stories of astonishing chains of events with remarkable twists and turns. Obviously it’s a good thing to recognise that God is managing it all in every detail, but if I only have that recognition without also knowing God as the one who saves sinners, it doesn’t count as a Christian response.)

Experience divorced from the truth, or experience abstracted from the context of God’s revelation of salvation in his Word, is not only valueless but risky – it leaves us prone to mysticism and superstition. As Alexander further said, ‘a knowledge of the truth is essential to genuine piety.’ If it’s not the truth that’s informing our feelings and emotions, we’re left to the mercy of our own imagination or the wrongheaded expectations of other people. We’re familiar with the saying that any amount of head knowledge won’t save us without heart knowledge, and this is perfectly true. But what’s also true is that any amount of heart turmoil won’t save us without head knowledge. We need head knowledge. We need doctrine. The Holy Spirit reaches into the heart via the mind – if we’re hazy on what Scripture teaches (about God, sin, salvation…) then our experience cannot fail to be defective.

The other question is: given experience, so what? The experience of salvation is not an end in itself. It is meant to lead on to other things, and specifically, a holy life.

The experience of conviction of sin, for example, is not intended to leave us wallowing in a puddle of despair and self-loathing. It meant to show us our need of God’s appointed Saviour in such a way that we entrust ourselves to him for salvation from our sin and ourselves.

The experience of forgiveness, meanwhile, is not intended to grant us some relief and otherwise consign us to a lifetime of chasing renewed emotional confirmations that we’re saved. It is supposed to have practical effects – to make us thankful and worshipful towards God, and keen to act with integrity towards everyone we encounter, from family and friends and colleagues and neighbours onwards. ‘What shall I render to the Lord for all his gifts to me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord.’ ‘The half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.’ If hungering and thirsting after righteousness is a mark of grace, let’s focus more on the objective righteousness we’re supposed to pursue (both imputed and infused) than on our subjective sensations of hungering and thirsting. If the grace of God has indeed appeared to us, personally, in our experience, then the main thing we should learn is to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world.

It is a mistake to pursue experiences for their own sake – as if the only good a sermon (for example) will do us is if it brings us to weep tears of penitence or joy, or makes us feel we’ve been turned inside out, or sends us into transports of delight as we recall some blessed experience we had in the past. If these are really our experiences, it’s only to prompt us to keep moving in the Christian life – to bless the Lord more comprehensively, to devote ourselves more entirely to honouring him, to make it evident by our commitment to loving God and our neighbour that the truth of God actually matters to us.

There’s even a sense in which, instead of such dramatic inner exercises being a sign of a better Christian, it’s almost reason to be slightly disappointed with ourselves that we need to be so thoroughly emotionally shaken before we’ll listen to God’s Word and act on it. Why are we such slow learners? Why won’t we just take a telling? The Christian life is a life of faith, not a life of sense – we need to believe that God is true, whatever we feel, and believe that God doesn’t abandon his people, whatever we feel, and that God is always working things together for the good of his people, whatever we feel. Needing constant reassurance in the form of emotional upheavals is a form of putting our confidence in something other than God’s bare Word – saying in effect that while of course we know the Bible is true we also need something on top of that before we can rest easy about the safety of our souls – something for individual me, as I won’t be satisfied with what God has put on public record until I get something special for myself. (God does, of course, grant seals to confirm the truth of his Word, but they come primarily in the form of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper, and only secondarily in the form of subjective religious experiences.)

Far more important than experience as such is the fruit of what we experience. The fruit of the Spirit is not merely emotional, but must also manifest itself in the practical outworkings of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If we find ourselves trembling and astonished when God reveals himself to us, the obvious response is, ‘Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?’ If a poor man cries and the Lord hears and delivers him, the appropriate response is, ‘Depart from evil, and do good, seek peace, and pursue it.’

So, to summarise: if my experience is really worth anything (if it’s saving experience), it must come from somewhere and it must lead to something. Christian experience is just one component of a healthy faith. It is the pivot between the truth we need to believe and the holiness we need to evidence, but its critical, pivotal importance can only be grasped if we also understand that truth of Scripture and the imperative to live that holy life.