Chapter 7: We Believe in Christian Experience
It is the privilege of every redeemed soul to know his sins are forgiven and to be assured, through the co-operating witness of the Holy Spirit with his spirit, that he is a child of God. Reason, like the Law, may be the schoolmaster leading us to Christ. Yet our deepest assurance is not the result of reason but of repentance and faith. Our faith is often and unashamedly suffused with intense feeling. Yet our assurance arises not out of emotion but out of the radiant certainty of an indwelling Christ, whose mercy has cleansed us, whose love has saved us, and whose presence within our hearts has given us power and victory. The experience of the whole man, evaluating Scripture, tradition, and reason, through the vital action of the Holy Spirit, becomes the ultimate authority in religious certainty.
Do We Know We are Saved?
In modern times people tend to recoil from the evangelism of an earlier day in which individuals were encouraged to accost others -- sometimes even complete strangers -- with the blunt question, "Are you saved?" Even modern forms of mass evangelism in which this same question is put very pointedly by the evangelist and great stress is laid upon the assurance of salvation are under suspicion by many.
The reasons for feeling this way are partly legitimate and partly not so justifiable. As the previous chapter has indicated, to experience Christian salvation is not a human achievement. It is the unmerited gift of God to the penitent sinner, and the mood of humble awareness of our own shortcomings introduces an understandable reticence about claiming too much or announcing it too publicly. A person often feels that it is more appropriate to say modestly, "I am trying with God’s help to be a Christian." Furthermore, to be a Christian is no "single-track" or simple matter to be settled by going forward or signing a card in an evangelistic meeting. It is not a matter that can be settled even by taking the public step of joining the church. Instead, it relates to the whole of life and its reorientation. Who, then, is bold enough -- if he is thoroughly honest with himself -- to affirm without any qualification:
‘Tis done: the great transaction’s done!
I am my Lord’s, and He is mine. (From "O Happy Day That Fixed My Choice," by Philip Doddridge)
Yet these considerations, which are legitimate and Christian, are not the whole story. It was in the mood of humble awareness of imperfection and lack of full achievement in Christian experience that Paul wrote, "Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3 :13-14.) Yet Paul had not the slightest doubt that God had wrought a great transformation in his life. The verse immediately preceding the one just quoted affirms this unequivocally with the reason for his pressing forward: "I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own." (Philippians 3:12.) (The "it" in these verses refers specifically to "the resurrection from the dead" [verse 11]. Yet the whole context of the passage indicates that Paul is not speaking primarily about the resurrection after death but to new life in the present through knowing Christ as Savior.)
It is a paradox of our faith -- but one that Christian living validates -- that we should feel assured of our salvation when our lives have been committed to God in Christ; yet at the same time we should "press on," in humility and continuing penitence, leaving it to God to judge our status before him. It is wrong to boast of being a Christian or to assume that all our moral struggle is over. It is right to feel confident that a new power has come into our lives through Christ, for which we give him all the glory and the praise of a grateful heart.
How Do We Know?
It is the privilege of every redeemed soul to know his sins are forgiven and to be assured, through the co-operating witness of the Holy Spirit with his spirit, that he is a child of God. Reason, like the Law, may be the schoolmaster leading us to Christ. Yet our deepest assurance is not the result of reason but of repentance and faith.
This passage calls our attention to four grounds of assurance: the witness of the Holy Spirit, reason, repentance, and faith. All four are needed, and each needs the others to avoid distortion.
The Holy Spirit, as we saw in chapter 3, is God present and God active within our lives. To say, then, that the Holy Spirit gives assurance of salvation is to say that God himself gives us this assurance. And against this there can be no contention. The real question -- and a very difficult one indeed -- is whether what we take to be the voice of the Holy Spirit is in reality the voice of God or is simply the upcropping of our own self-centered impulses. People have been known to slander and slaughter each other and even in religious matters to display a self-righteousness that is more diabolical than godlike on the assumption that they were being directed by the voice of the Holy Spirit. What then?
This very crucial question has been discussed in chapter 3 and some suggestions are given there for helping us decide when the Spirit speaks. The most basic one is to remember that the Holy Spirit is the living Christ, and that we must bring all our feelings and impulses under the light of his judgment and his great assurances. It was in dealing with this matter or one closely related to it that Paul wrote, "For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ." (2 Corinthians 4:6.)
The term "reason" is perhaps a surprising one to use in reference to our assurance of salvation. We do not reason ourselves into a conviction that God has forgiven our sins unless we are "rationalizing" our behavior! Yet in reference to Christian experience as a whole, reason has a large part to play. In deciding what we ought to do in the many daily decisions that make up life, we must always think ahead, look at the situation as clearly and wisely as possible, and take the decisive step. We do this in faith, for we can never wholly read the future. But to take it in faith without using our heads is to court disaster. To cite a common but very important example, consider what happens when persons rush into marriages without using their reason! And just as surely as there is need to think as clearly as possible concerning this crucial step, so the matter of becoming a Christian is "not to be entered into unadvisedly, but reverently, discreetly, and in the fear of God."
Yet marriages based wholly on reason and not on faith and love are far from ideal. Unless reason leads the persons involved on to faith and love, such marriages are doomed. To carry the analogy into Christian experience, reason may be the schoolmaster leading us to Christ. But only in repentance, faith, and love of God is Christian experience firmly grounded. These are matters of feeling rather than reasoned demonstration. They come to a focus in our loyalty to Christ as we attempt to be his followers, and loyalty is a commitment of will which is based on deep feeling. This leads us accordingly to examine the rightful place of feeling in Christian experience.
Feeling in Christian Experience
Our faith is often and unashamedly suffused with intense feeling. Yet our assurance arises not out of emotion but out of the radiant certainty of an indwelling Christ, whose mercy has cleansed us, whose love has saved us, and whose presence within our hearts has given us power and victory.
It is out of feeling that the motive power of life is generated. Reason can sometimes settle for us what we ought to do, but only feeling can make us do it. This feeling may take the positive form of desire, interest, gratitude, or love. It may take the negative form of apprehension and the compulsion of "I must do this, or else. . . ." Often it takes the form of duty, which may be gladly accepted or done from a feeling of stern necessity. These feelings can become so firmly established that they are habitual and we no longer feel either an emotional glow or a great struggle within us. Yet the feeling is there, directing the currents of the subconscious. To cite the famous analogy of William James, which has been reinforced since his time by much more knowledge of depth psychology than was then available, personality is like an iceberg of which about one tenth is visible while the rest lies beneath the surface. It is in these great subconscious areas, more than of the surface, that feeling plays the dominant role in our behavior and living.
Yet often we are rightfully aware of intense feeling. If these are positive emotions directed toward right persons, causes, or goals of action, we ought not to be ashamed of them or try to stifle them. Probably no one can generate an emotion simply by deciding that he would like to have it. Indeed this fact is at the root of the common affirmation that love cannot be commanded. But we can choose either to give free reign to an emotion or to suppress it. There are some emotions such as hate and envy which ought to be suppressed. Others, like the love, joy, and peace of which Paul speaks and which he calls the "fruit of the Spirit," ought to be gratefully accepted and fittingly expressed.
So we come again to the question of what feelings God desires us to have in Christian experience. Not the mere force of emotion but its quality is the true test of our Christian experience. And here we are led again to Christ as our standard. It is not because we feel a great emotional glow or a tremendous lift of spirit under eloquent preaching that makes us sure of salvation. These may be the temporary product of crowd psychology or may be similar to the emotions a person experiences when he gets carried away by the cheering around him at a ball game. Rather, the ground of our real transformation and the assurance of it is "the radiant certainty of an indwelling Christ, whose mercy has cleansed us, whose love has saved us, and whose presence within our hearts has given us power and victory."
Two questions then emerge. How shall we be witnesses to this saving, transforming, and strengthening faith in Christ? How shall we keep it among the daily demands of living? Both are very large questions on which there is space to say little, but the direction the answers take may be briefly suggested.
Christian experience normally emerges and is nourished within a fellowship -- the fellowship of the church. It is important, therefore, for individuals to be connected with the worship, the sustaining companionship, and the service of the church if they are to become mature Christians.
Asking a person to join the church is not the same thing as asking him to become a Christian. But it may be the natural and necessary step he needs to take toward a personal decision for Christ. Increase in church membership is therefore closely related to evangelism, although it ought never to be supposed that the two are identical.
From the first century onward, Christian experience has been spread by means of personal witness and testimony. It is by telling the "good news" that the gospel is spread. And in this process, the spoken word -- whether from pulpits or in a personal conversation -- has had a large place. But it has never had the only place, and perhaps not the largest. How Christians have lived, whether in going to the lions under Nero’s sadistic mania or in being Christian in the ordinary events of ordinary living, has been an indisputable witness.
Both laymen and ministers have a great opportunity and obligation to provide such a witness. As a person expresses his convictions in the activities of the church, in the family, in business, and in every kind of personal relations, he demonstrates beyond doubt what the Lord has done for him. Sometimes he demonstrates this in words, but always he shows it in acts and attitudes. Unless he expresses his Christian life by the kind of man he is, the world has legitimate reason to doubt whether the experience has either reality or depth.
Gaining a faith that is deep and real is no easy matter. If one is to succeed even partially, he must find a power greater than his own. In short, Christian experience must be nourished in prayer. This means both public worship and private prayer. Worship in church is familiar enough, but do we know how to pray?
For adult Christians most prayers learned in childhood do not express mature religious experience. The Lord’s Prayer is an exception, but mechanical repetition and its very familiarity dull its force. The pulpit prayers one hears on Sunday are in behalf of a congregation and often sound unreal when transferred to one’s private devotions. Printed prayers, however devout or beautiful, seldom seem quite personal enough. Because of these difficulties and also the pressures, strains, and competing interests of modern existence, many persons rarely pray.
There is no blueprint by which we can tell another person how to pray. There is no substitute for experience. The only way to learn to pray vitally is to resolve to pray and then keep at it. Yet we shall do better if we are clear concerning our aims.
"Prayer," as The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it in matchless simplicity, "is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will. . . ." (Question 98) It is the attempt to become consciously aware of God’s presence, to discover his will for our lives, to surrender our vagrant thoughts and self-centered desires to his controlling purpose, and to find in him power for living.
Although prayer may -- and usually does -- involve words, meditation, emotion, and action, it is no one of these by itself. Repetition of words -- even great words like those of the Lord’s Prayer -- is mere muscular exercise, and our Lord himself warned against supposing that we could be heard for our much speaking. There are plenty of high thoughts that are not thoughts of the Most High. There are other good feelings which are not the lifting, life-changing feeling of the consciousness of God’s presence. Prayer involves effort and should always bear fruit in action. But prayer itself centers in relaxed quietness -- in the interruption of our own feverish activity that God may have a chance to act in us. From the human side, not to do but to become is its primary object.
Prayer has its human side, and its effects in us are not to be discounted. In reacting from the too simple idea that with sufficient faith prayer can change anything, we rightly emphasize the new power that we receive from it. But this, too, needs correction, for it is a mistake to suppose that the effectiveness of our praying depends mainly on what happens in us. We need the corrective of the psalmist who said, "I have set the Lord always before me." What happens in us is incidental to our praise and thanksgiving to God, our confession to God, the bringing of our desires before God, the commitment to God of our loved ones and of all we hold most dear. If God is the center of our praying, we do not need to worry about its effects in us. No prayer is ever futile which "sets the Lord before us."
The Experience of the Whole Man
The experience of the whole man, evaluating Scripture, tradition, and reason, through the vital action of the Holy Spirit, becomes the ultimate authority in religious certainty.
This brings us to the final section in this chapter, which, in view of all that has been said, will not require many words.
Christian experience in depth and fullness can never be fragmentary. It is not to transformation or renewal in this or that aspect of our being that God calls us to accept salvation through Christ. It is to new faith, new loves, new joys, and new moral directions for the whole personality that he summons us. This does not mean we shall not have to work harder on some temptations than on others; we doubtless shall. But it is life as a whole, not life here or there, that is involved. "Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come." (2 Corinthians 5 :17.)
Parallel with this great fact concerning the wholeness of Christian experience in its essential nature is our approach to it and our certainty of it. We do not know God in Christ through one channel only; we know him through the Bible, through the great Christian heritage of the Church, and through the best possible use of our minds. Our experiences in all of these areas are made real, personal, and vital through the Holy Spirit. One channel taken by itself may be deceptive. We have seen that we can even misunderstand the Holy Spirit. Taken together, our knowledge of God gained from all these sources is all the certainty we need. In this assurance we may serve God and rest in his peace.
But we must serve God as we must rest in him, or our Christian experience is fleeting. But can we do this? If so, how perfectly can we? We shall turn to a discussion of these questions in the next chapter.