Why the Emphasis on Experimental and Experiential?
Some may wonder what I mean by, or why I emphasize so much, the words Experimental and Experiential (the two being synonymous) when speaking of the Christian’s walk.The answer is simple, anything found in the Bible that is not experimentally applied to the Christian at some point in His walk, is not yet truly believed by that Christian and is not yet of any real value to him/her subjectively. These things remain notional, theoretic, something to talk about like one talks about politics or the weather, but with no real effect on the life and walk of the Christian.
Take, for example, total depravity; this doctrine is taught throughout Scripture and is an essential aspect of true Gospel teaching and understanding. This precept declares that mankind by nature is fallen, corrupt, enslaved to self, sin, and satan, and inherently incapable of doing anything good in the sight of God. This doctrine declares that we cannot initiate any good work in an unregenerate state, including the good work of truly turning to God, seeking Him, believing upon Him and His word, worshiping Him in Spirit and in Truth, repenting from sin, dead works, and idolatry, etc.
Now many within Calvinistic, Predestinarian, Sovereign Grace, and similar circles will affirm that these doctrines are true. They will often not only affirm it, but proclaim it, write extensively about it, debate it, and so on. Some will believe it because God revealed it to them. Others will believe it because they either learned it of men or else they logically deduced it from the Scriptures. The question arises, how can we tell the difference?
To the regenerate child of God, this doctrine is brought home to them via life experience. They do not believe it simply because they read the words below or other passages similar to them:
“But we are all as an unclean [thing], and all our righteousnesses [are] as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away (Isaiah 64:6);”
The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, [and] seek God. They are all gone aside, they are [all] together become filthy: [there is] none that doeth good, no, not one. Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge? who eat up my people [as] they eat bread, and call not upon the LORD (Psalm 14:2-3, Psalm 51:1-3, Romans 3:10-18);”
For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23);
The heart [is] deceitful above all [things], and desperately wicked: who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9);
For God, it is not enough that His children “learn” these truths by reading them, accepting them as right, logical, and true, and proceeding forth satisfied with mere intellectual assent alone. God makes His people to learn His truth by experiencing the reality of it (albeit never to the fullest extent possible). The Christian is glad to believe what the written word says, but he too wants to know the truths of them in power, that is, with spiritual application and efficacy. For the believer, we want truth to be real in our everyday life and experience and not just real in our head as mere propositions and theory to be ‘accepted.’ We see these precepts declared clearly in such verses as:
“For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost…(I Thessalonians 1:5);”
“But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will, and will know, not the speech of them which are puffed up, but the power. For the kingdom of God [is] not in word, but in power (I Corinthians 4:19-20).
“Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency [is] of God; Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. (II Corinthians 3:5-6 )”
The mere notionalist, the dead Calvinist, can read truth, agree with it, and be content therewith. His Gospel is often a formula to be believed, like an equation in algebra or calculus. He may say “the Gospel is [this]… All who believe [this] are saved… You believe [this]… therefore you are saved too…. if you ever doubt that you are saved, it means that you don’t believe [this] and thus you are not saved.” It’s all in the realm of the carnal mind; God has worked nothing in them spiritually, he leaves them to lean unto their own understanding and they are glad to have it so.
Such a one often declares right doctrine, sometimes articulating it better than many a true Christian. Yet, this too is all heady… mere talk, mere notion. He may as well be speaking of nuclear physics or reading his multiplication tables. His preaching will be dry, lifeless, void of any real shared experience or spiritual application. When challenged, or when viewing a potential challenge, he may become impassioned concerning doctrinal truths; he may speak out against the Romanist and the Arminian, and their doctrines, better than many a believer. Yet his passion over doctrinal debate will only result in carnal warring, fighting, arguing, debating; it is simply all a point to be won — another conquest to achieve. It is earthy battle after the verbal and intellectual warring, contentiousness, and tactics of men. None of it is of God.
They may live morally, wax pharisaically in their speech and actions, and yet there is no real sense of spiritual need; there is no real hungering and thirsting after God. They [are] not in trouble [as other] men; neither are they plagued like [other] men (Psalm 73:5). They have been at ease from their religious youth, lacking a true sight of both the holiness and righteousness of God and their own wretched sin in light of it. They have settled on their lees, trusting in their own natural legalism, head-knowledge, traditions, and commandments of men. Thus, they know nothing of being emptied from vessel to vessel, neither have they gone into captivity. Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God (Psalm 55:19); what fear they may appear to have is nothing more than a fear toward God taught by the precept of men (Isaiah 29:13). God has taught them nothing savingly, nothing experientially. They are not Christians walking out the truth of God’s word in their lives, but rather false professors working out the folly of their notions with their lips.
What do they do when they knowingly encounter a true believer? They hate him, pure and simple. They hate His true religion as much as they hate the God whom He worships. When they see the true Christian being emptied from vessel to vessel, they say ‘see, he is a navel-gazer, an emotionalist, an enthusiast, and thus, a heretic and god hater.’ When they come across a bruised reed, they seek to snap him, break him, uproot him and say ‘see you have doubts, concerns, fears — if you were of God you would be like me. You would have no troubles, no plagues, no changes, you would be as stable as I.’ The notionalist is stable because he is in the grip of Satan and, being in such, Satan has no need to trouble him. He has not been convicted of sin beyond the notional, so he has no stirrings, no fears, no cries or pleadings as a result. He is simply dry, dead, chaff that is blown about by the wind of his own hot air.
What troubles he has are the troubles common to all in the world naturally, but he never has those troubles exclusive to those experienced by the true children of God. He may be troubled by sickness, death, family members outside of his religion, temporal/material loss and struggles, etc. — but what man on this planet is free from those things? What he lacks is soul trouble; what he lacks is the trouble of his own sin. Not the prideful sin of the Pharisee which but troubles him slightly (though he may nonetheless shed a crocodile’s tear), but the sin of the believer who laments his natural woeful state before God (not their objective state before God which is blessed forever, but the subjective state that he/she experiences when the joy of their salvation is hid from them for a season). He laments his inward inclinations and pronenesses, his giving into temptations, his failures that seemingly give the enemies of God leave to mock and blaspheme, and himself. He knows himself to be full of sin naturally; he sees himself as totally depraved by nature, and knows that but for the effectual working of the Spirit of God, he would be no different, manifestly, than the vilest of reprobates.
Nonetheless, the experimental walk is by no means focused only on the negatives of this life. True Christian experience is full of beauty and joy. When the Spirit of God works effectually in our hearts, we experience all sorts of wonders. We experience:
The blessing of His word; that is, the benefit of a passage being opened up to us with power, even a passage that we have read many times before without much benefit. Such a passage no longer speaks to our intellects alone, it isn’t merely academic; no, it speaks to our hearts and causes us to pour forth praises to the Lord for His mercies in teaching us that which He would have us to know.
True repentance, wherein we cease to mouth “I’m sorry God” and instead pour out our hearts to him in true sorrow over sin — but it is sorrow that leads to joy because His forgiveness soon follows, even a felt sense of it, which overwhelms the grief and guilt generated by the sin and takes it away;
True thankfulness; when He causes us to be thankful, we are thankful indeed. We do not just say grace, or give thanks. We do not simply have the thankfulness of heart that the religionist has towards his perceived god (for whatever perceived benefits or blessings they think that they have received from it); we have a God-wrought thankfulness that fills us with a true, God-given love towards Him and desire to show forth our appreciation towards Him through praise, worship, and obedience. Sometimes we are amazed by this outpouring, or better yet in-pouring. This is an inward thing; a heart thing. We are not going to make a show of it; there will be no hooping and hollering and “thank you Jesus’s” shouted out for others to see and hear and say “wow, look how holy he is in thanking his god” — they have their reward. No, the God-wrought thankfulness of the Christian is unto God, utterly Godward, and is not there to be seen of men (though there is no sin in decently sharing your thankfulness with others; it’s all about the motivation);
True communion with Him; in that He gives us seasons of a rich sense of His love, guidance, and presence. Not presence in some charismatic sense, but presence in the enjoyment of a felt sense of His residency in our hearts as He causes us to see His beauty, His love, His union with us, and our union with and in Him; and, amongst other things as well,
True communion with the brethren; in that we love them, want to be around them, and help them. We may have disagreements over doctrine, traditions, etc. but where there is oneness in Christ, He grants us longings for fellowship with His people, and a desire to forsake former, earthy, friendships in favour of godly, familial, relationships with those who are likewise in Him.
As to the question of why I stress the experimental aspect of Christianity so heavily, I stress it because there is no true Christianity without it. Without the word of God, the presence of God, the love of God, and union with God worked out in our everyday lives, any notion of Christianity is just that — notion. The true Christian journey is one of experience; we live out, walking out, the truths He would have us to know. We do not just write about it and talk about it; we live it. The Gospel truth is made manifest in us, and through us, as we both preach the truth and live in light of it. The word of God has a real effect on our life because it is our life (being yoked with the WORD of God, through the Holy Spirit of God); it translates beyond the head and into the heart; from there it is worked out in our deeper thoughts, intentions, words, actions, and inactions (abstainings).
When we “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling,” we are walking experimentally; we are doing so because His truths are wrought in us as He “works in us both to will and to do of [His] good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).” It is the LORD who ordains peace for us because He has wrought all of our works in us; it is the manifesting of these works (in our hearts, minds, affections, and actions) that make up true, Christian experience — which is precisely what Christian experimental religion is.
To those who know nothing of these things, or who reject it as mere emotion, fancy, or enthusiasm, I feel sorry for you. You will go on trusting in your knowledge, and in your ‘right understanding’ of doctrine, but you will miss Christ; ever learning, but never coming to a knowledge of Truth — even the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Nonetheless, we can wax confident that God will save His own; He will deliver them from mere notionalism/formalism and will bring them down that experimental path that He would have them go. It will not be easy for them; it will be full of joys and troubles, highs and lows, hungerings and fulness. However, He will lead them, guide them, protect them, and remain right there with them; He will never leave them nor forsake them. He will preserve them through to the end and they will be thankful for all of His leadings.
To God alone be the glory,