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.