Recovering Experimental Religion
Experimental religion, which once was a vital part of the Reformed tradition of preaching and spirituality, has in a large measure been lost sight of in our day. Even use of the term experimental in connection with religion is no longer customary, it being more commonly associated with the natural sciences, where a method of probing and investigation leads to an understanding of reality. The older Reformed writers used the word to indicate that we not only read and confess what Scripture teaches, but also are enabled by the Holy Spirit in our own experience to prove and enter into those truths. The propositions of Scripture are true regardless of our experience of them. But in those who belong to Christ, there is a work of the Holy Spirit to persuade them of those truths, so that they taste and feel the power of them in their own souls. To tremble when we discern our guilt before God, and to be driven to seek covering in the blood of Christ, is to gain an experimental knowledge of realities revealed in Scripture. Such experiences are not like the groping of the heathen, who reflect on the mystery of their own hearts, trying to understand themselves, and pondering what God might be like and how he might relate to the world. Experimental religion in the Reformed tradition entails an experience which arises from being confronted with the testimony of Scripture, and in which the prime mover is God the Holy Spirit, driving home to heart and conscience the truths of the Word of God. John Elias, preaching in Wales in the early nineteenth century, describes such experiences of biblical truth: “To have an experimental knowledge of something means to try it, to possess it, and to enjoy it ourselves. You must not merely read or hear about it. . . . You may read many a sweet chapter about Christ, and no doubt you have heard many a faithful sermon about Him, and yet, you may be without a saving knowledge of Christ. But an experimental knowledge of Him is to prove, see, and feel what you have read and heard about Him.”
Anthony Burgess, a member of the Westminster Assembly, speaks of the knowledge that a man may acquire about foreign countries by looking at a map. But map knowledge cannot compare with actually going to the country, climbing its mountains, swimming in its rivers, and walking the streets of its towns. “Or as the Queen of Sheba, who had heard rumors of Solomon’s wisdom, when she came to have an experimental knowledge of it, then she was astonished, and said, All that she had heard was nothing to that which she saw. . . .But how is it to be feared, that many have seen godliness but in the map only, they never had experience of the thing itself. How many are there that talk of conversion or repentance, as men do of bringing forth a child, who never had the experience of the throbs and pains that then are endured. Paul, what a long time did he live in a road of religious duties, but when he came to have an experimental work upon him, he died, whereas he was alive before, that is, he became sensible of the
damnable and dangerous estate he was in, whereas he had great confidence of his good life and salvation before. And thus it is with every man that hath gotten experimental knowledge; alas (saith he) I was alive once, I thought myself somebody, when I could pray, write sermons, dispute so understandingly, but now I see I did not know what that faith was, or godliness was, that I did argue so much about, I never knew anything of God, or of his gracious works till now, will that soul say.”
There is a memorable passage in which J.C. Ryle presses on his readers the distance between belief that there is forgiveness and the believing reception of that forgiveness. “You believe perhaps, there is forgiveness of sins. You believe that Christ died for sinners, and that he offers a pardon to the most ungodly. But are you forgiven yourself? . . . What does it avail the sick man that the doctor offers him a medicine, if he only looks at it, and does not swallow it down? Except you lay hold for your own soul, you will be as surely lost as if there was no forgiveness at all. . . . There must be actual business between you and Christ.”
Therefore we preach not only what Christ once did in his death and resurrection to accomplish our redemption, namely what he did outside of us, but also how Christ now works within our hearts by his Holy Spirit to apply that redemption. The Spirit brings us to appreciate Christ as the pearl of great price. He puts down the opposition of our hearts and carries us forward in repentance. In the resulting conflict, struggle and upheaval in our experience, the Spirit progressively conforms us to Christ. All of this touches the realm of our conscience, our desires and choices, our affections, joys and sorrows, and things felt and experientially known.
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Thomas Boston's Human Nature In its Fourfold State, for the record, is a classic work of experiential doctrine.