Christian Doctrine and Experience (Machen)

God Transcendent Sometimes Christians get doctrine and experience mixed up.  For example, suppose a person came to faith by experiencing the kindness of Jesus.   Then suppose the same person started teaching that the essence of conversion is experiencing Jesus’ kindness.   It is biblically true and wonderful that Jesus is kind.  But it isn’t helpful – or 100% biblical – to make one’s experience of this truth the center of a doctrinal definition.  J. G. Machen talked about this from a slightly different angle in a radio address he gave just under 100 years ago.  The title of the written manuscript is “The Creeds and Doctrinal Advance.”

In this address he said,

“…Christian doctrine is just a setting forth of what the Bible teaches.  At the foundation of Christian doctrine is the acceptance of the full truthfulness of the Bible as the Word of God.”

Here’s how he explains the statement:

That is often forgotten by those who today undertake to write confessional statements. Let us give expression to our Christian experience, they say, in forms better suited to the times in which we are living than are the older creeds of the church. So they sit down and concoct various forms of words, which they represent as being on a plane with the great creeds of Christendom.

When they do that, they are simply forgetting what the creeds of Christendom are. The creeds of Christendom are not expressions of Christian experience. They are summary statements of what God has told us in His Word. Far from the subject matter of the creeds being derived from Christian experience, it is Christian experience which is based upon the truth contained in the creeds; and the truth contained in the creeds is derived from the Bible, which is the Word of God. Groups of people that undertake to write a creed without believing in the full truthfulness of the Bible, and without taking the subject matter of their creed from that inspired Word of God, are not at all taking an additional step on the pathway on which the great Christian creeds moved; rather, they are moving in an exactly opposite direction. What they are doing has nothing whatever to do with that grand progress of Christian doctrine of which I spoke last Sunday. Far from continuing the advance of Christian doctrine they are starting something entirely different, and that something different, we may add, is doomed to failure from the start.

The first prerequisite, then, for any advance in Christian doctrine is that those who would engage in it should believe in the full truthfulness of the Bible and should endeavor to make their doctrine simply a presentation of what the Bible teaches.

These are very helpful statements to keep in mind when thinking doctrinally and writing doctrinally.  We need to be sure don’t let our experiences in the Christian faith lead the way in defining biblical truths.   Our experiences – as valid as they may be – are subjective.  But God’s word is objective and foundational.  So let’s be careful when we define biblical truths.  If we’re only giving a partial definition, it’s good to state it so we don’t mislead people.  And if our definition has a subjective aspect to it, we should state that as well – or perhaps get rid of it altogether and save it for one  example of application.

Speaking of confessions, one reason I very much appreciate the Reformed/Presbyterian standards is because they do typically give an objective, well rounded summary of Christian truths.

You can read Machen’s entire address in chapter 16 of God Transcendant (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

One Of The Great Mistakes Of Pietism

Product Details These are great words from a great book by Louis Berkhof: Assurance of Faith.

“It was one of the great mistakes of the Pietism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that, in seeking the assurance of faith, or of salvation, it divorced itself too much from the Word of God.  The basis of assurance was sought, not in the objective promises of the gospel, but in the subjective experiences of believers.  The knowledge of the experiences that were made the touch-stone of faith, was not not gathered from the Word of God, but was obtained by an inductive study of the subjective states and affections of believers.”

“In many cases these were not even put to the test of Scripture, so that the true was not always distinguished from the counterfeit.  Moreover, there were unwarranted generalizations.  Individual experiences and experiences of a very dubious character were often made normative, were set forth as the necessary marks of true faith.  The result was that they who were concerned about the welfare of their soul turned attention to themselves rather than to the Word of God, and spent their life in morbid introspection.”

“It is no wonder this method did not promote the assurance of faith that fills the heart with heavenly joy, but rather engendered doubt and uncertainty and caused the soul to grope about in a labyrinth of anxious questionings, without and Ariadne-thread (string) to lead it out.  This method of seeking assurance by looking within rather than by looking without, to Jesus Christ as he is presented in Scripture, and by making the experiences of others, especially of those who are regarded as ‘oaks of righteousness’ normative, has not yet been abandoned entirely in our circles.  Yet it [this method] is a most disappointing one.”

“If we would have the assurance of faith, the first great requisite is that we make a diligent study of the Bible, and more particularly of the glorious promises of forgiveness and salvation.  After all it is only in the Word of God and in the living Christ, as he is mirrored in the Word, that we find the objective basis for the assurance of grace and perseverance to the end.  The free promises of God are the foundation of our faith, and it is only on the strength of these that we place our trust in Christ as our Savor.  These promises are absolutely reliable and have their confirmation in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).  These promises are not only sure, but also unconditional, i.e. they are not conditioned by any work of man.”

Well said.  If you don’t have all the feelings, emotions, and spiritual experiences of other Christians, don’t despair.  Feelings, emotions, and spiritual experiences didn’t die on the cross for us; they cannot save us – Jesus did, he can and does.  If you truly trust in him you are saved, even if you don’t always feel it.  In other words, solid assurance has to do with an empty tomb, not an emotional fervor. 

shane lems

Evangelism and Experience

  If it is OK to say that the church is on a mission, the mission is surely to glorify God by proclaiming the gospel to Christians (to build them up) and to unbelievers (to rescue them from darkness).  J. Gresham Machen has a good word on evangelism and experience. 

“Let us not deceive ourselves, my friends – Christian experience is necessary to evangelism, but evangelism does not consist merely in the rehearsal of what has happened in the evangelist’s own soul.  We shall, indeed, be but poor witnesses for Christ if we can tell only what Christ has done for the world or the church and cannot tell what he has done personally for us.”

“But we shall also be poor witnesses if we recount only the experiences of our own lives.  Christian evangelism does not consist merely in a man’s going about the word saying, ‘Look at me, what a wonderful experience I have, how happy I am, what wonderful Christian virtues I exhibit; you can all be as good and happy as I am if you will just make a complete surrender of your wills in obedience to what I say.’  That is what many religious workers seem to think evangelism is.  We can preach the gospel, they tell us, by our lives, and do not need to preach it by our words.”

“But they are wrong.  Men are not saved by the exhibition of our glorious Christian virtues; they are not saved by the contagion of our experiences.  We cannot be the instruments of God in saving them if we preach to them thus only ourselves.  No, we must preach to them the Lord Jesus Christ, for it is only through the gospel which sets him forth that they can be saved.”

Great way to put it…here’s more:

“If you want health for your souls, and if you want to be the instruments of bringing health to others, do not turn your gaze forever within, as though you could find Christ there.  No, turn your gaze away from your own miserable experiences, away from your own sin, to the Lord Jesus Christ as he is offered to us in the gospel.  ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.’  Only when we turn away from ourselves to that uplifted Savior shall we have healing for our deadly hurt.”

Later Machen expresses an awesome cry:

“Oh, that men would turn for salvation from their own experience to the cross of Christ; oh, that they would turn from the phenomena of religion to the living God! …Let us above all things know the Word.  Let us study it with all our minds and cherish it with all our hearts.  Then let us try, very humbly, to bring it to the unsaved.  Let us pray that God may honor not the messengers but the message, that despite our unworthiness he may make his Word upon our unworthy lips to be a message of life.”

Let us pray and think that way indeed!

(Quotes from “Christian Scholarship and Evangelism” in Machen’s Shorter Writings)

shane lems

sunnyside wa

The Hollywood Conversion Experience?

I’m sure many of us have heard great accounts of how Jesus sought, found, and rescued a sinner who was tiptoeing on the edge of hell’s chasm – maybe some readers have such an amazing testimony.

While those who speak these testimonies are trophies of God’s grace, these extraordinary experiences should not be the standard or rule when it comes to conversion any more than a “slow” or ordinary conversion.  Of course, this has much to do with the Great Awakenings (I & II) here in the United States, and is still discussed in journals, books, and the blogosphere.

Here’s Bavinck’s level-headed approach to conversion experience (by way of a few quotes).

“Although true conversion is always the same in essence, yet in the manner and the time when it occurs, there are all sorts of differences.”

“When we take as our standard the way Paul, Augustine, and Luther came to conversion and apply it to the conversions of which our missions tell us, we are, aside from a few exceptions, sorely disappointed.  The motives for the conversions that come to our attention are frequently very different from what we would have expected or wished.”  Bavinck goes on and explains reasons why and ways in which people turn to Jesus.   He also explains that  there are differences in conversion experiences between those who have grown up in a Christian home and those who have not.  For those who have grown up in a solid Christian home, conversion may not consist of an “outward and visible change, but it always includes a heartfelt sorrow over sin and a sincere love for God and his commandments.”

“Sin is so multiform that everyone has their pet sin of which they above all experience the power and from which they need deliverance.  And the gospel is so full of riches that one moment it can enlighten and comfort a seeker-of-salvation with one truth and the next with another.  This diversity in conversion is something we need to respect.  We may not simply make one type the standard and apply it to all others.  We must accept the varied hidden and amazing leadings of the Holy Spirit. We may no more demand from everyone a ‘penitential struggle’ and ‘breakthrough’ period of dread and despair and a sudden subsequent surge of peace and joy, than we may at once infer the authenticity or inauthenticity of conversion from a variety of intense feelings and odd incidents.”

Here’s the key: “What matters more than anything else in the case of these most necessary and important changes in a person’s life is not the form and the manner, but the substance.  And about that substance no human can judge but only God, who knows the hearts of people.  All we can say is that true conversion always consists both in hating sin and fleeing from sin, and in a sincere love of God and his service.”

This is pretty important stuff to ponder.  I’ve heard of new Christians with radical (and great!) conversion experiences who float from church to church, holding their conversion experiences and attitudes as the norm and standard.  The reason they floated around from church to church is because they couldn’t find a church full of experiences and attitudes like thiers.  Instead, many of the churches were “cold” because most of the people grew up in that church and couldn’t explain their conversion well.

Sometimes that critique is a point well taken, but at the same time, Bavinck’s words should make us a bit more “accepting” when it comes to conversion experience.  It’s not the intense feelings or odd incidents that prove our conversion, but the internal and sometimes slow, quiet work of the Spirit making a person hate sin and love righteousness.  Sometimes that takes 20 years!  Grace, says Bavinck, restores nature; it works with, not against it.  In my own pastoral experience, I’ve had to counsel Christians who had no huge conversion experiences to not worry so much.  It certainly doesn’t help when churches make people who have had radical conversions “stars” or “celebrities.”

Since this is already longer than our usual posts, let me put one more quote of Bavinck out there: those who focus “completely on a sudden crisis, an intense wave of emotion, a conscious turnaround,” make it “appear as if one were saved ‘by conversion rather than by Christ.'”  Amen.

Quotes taken from Vol IV of Bavinck’s Dogmatics, section 463 on pages 153-158.  Be sure to also check out Scott Clark’s Recovering the Reformed Confession, chapter 3, for more similar info.

shane lems

sunnyside wa