Monday, August 29, 2011

Experience vs. Doctrine in Relationship with Christ

Image retrieved from Creationswap.

One of the current trends in Christendom today is a vocal exaltation of doctrine over experience. This general phrase can be applied on numerous levels within numerous contexts. I've heard numerous reformed believers espousing it as a general principle and using it to rebuke and challenge pentecostal and charismatic doctrine and experience. I've also heard charismatic brothers espouse the principle generally and specifically in instances such as believing that you are healed in spite of experiencing symptoms. Some apply the principle as a compass or a litmus test, evaluating themselves to determine whether their beliefs are truly scriptural or merely based on their understanding as defined by life experiences, while others apply it to others exalting the word and the word alone  as the beginning and end of Christian life even decrying stalwart figures of the Reformed movement such as John Macarthur and Paul Washer as mystics because they speak of emotional experiences or encounters with grace. At some general level, almost every christian believes that doctrine trumps experience, our faith in the Word is what overcomes the world and what we see (1 John 5:4), but in the sometimes heated debate, we risk rhetorically undermining our own salvation.

One of the hardest challenges in scripture comes in 1 John 3:6: "No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him." It is an emphatic declaration that a believer's life is identified by holiness, but the phrasing John uses to make the point is significant. It doesn't say that no one who keeps on sinning doesn't believe, or that no one who keeps on sinning has false doctrine. It says that no one who keeps on sinning has either seen Him or known Him. One paraphrase could be, no one who keeps on sinning has had an experience with Jesus. We are not saved by affirmation to the correct doctrine. We are saved by grace through faith, by a revelation God provided in His grace which we grasp by faith and which leads us to Jesus and the Father. The Bible does not exalt itself as the highest revelation. It exalts Christ Jesus as the Highest revelation (Hebrews 1, Colossians 2:8-10, 1 Timothy 3:16, John 1:1-3).

The Christian life is not a mental assent, trust or even belief in the correct doctrine. It is a relationship with Jesus himself: "that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete" (1 John 1:3-4). The purpose of John's letter, the divine scripture of 1 John and the sound doctrine we esteem was that the readers would have fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. Doctrine is meant to lead us into fellowship with God, not just future fellowship in heaven, but current fellowship. John uses the present tense (indeed our fellowship IS with the Father. . .). The Christian life is a relationship and relationships are made of experience. You cannot have fellowship with someone and not experience their person on some level. Our relationship is not with the Bible, but with Jesus, and He is a person with a character and nature that is expressed and that we will experience. Our acknowledgement of that experience leads us into saving faith and onward into greater things in Jesus. Doctrine is meant to lead us into this experience by opening the door for us to believe and receive Jesus for all that He is, in all the ways that He expresses Himself. Doctrine is meant to keep us safe in this experience, guarding us from lies, mistakes, deceptions and the things of this world that don't align themselves with the truth of what Christ has done.

The Bible is not our primary revelation of God, and it is not our primary experience as Christians. It is meant to lead us into greater experience with Christ, guide us into more of Him and protect us from false experience and lies.

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