I feel the impression to say that there is more to experience than “charismatic gifts”. This is one of the many problems with our modern thinking in evangelicalism. Yet, even this serves as an example of experience. Why do we associate the word “experience” with the Pentecostals? Is it not because our experience has been that they often rely upon experience to base their theology? And another question should be quickly asked: is that wrong? Is it wrong to base your theology off of your experience? The Pentecostals and Charismatics base their understanding of spiritual gifts off of their experience. Of course, the Scripture also has much to say about it. Yet, the other side also bases much of their belief regarding spiritual gifts off of their lack of experience, and their experiences dealing with certain Charismatic leaders or friends.
Think about your salvation. What did you experience? For me, I came to Christ as an atheist. Of course, once I was converted I was no longer atheist. There is a certain amount of change that I experienced in that moment – both mentally and spiritually. It was the first time that I cried in almost a decade. I woke up the next morning with a new wisdom – a wisdom that told me I was in the midst of a battle between light and darkness. I had a desire for holy living and pleasing God. I had a desire to memorize Scripture and to know everything that theology has to teach. I had a desire to pray for the first time in my life. I enjoyed church for the first time in my life. I enjoyed worship, and sang from my heart when worship meant singing. These are experiences that define the way that I view salvation.
Because I have felt the power of God to bring freedom from my sin, I believe fully in the freedom of the Holy Spirit. I don’t believe that we are to continually be struggling and overcoming our whole lives. There is a moment – usually one defining moment – in which we say, “Enough is enough”. We wrestle against sin to the point of shedding blood – our own blood. For some reason, with myself and also with others I’ve spoken to, it is often in the cold of night that we have this Gethsemane experience. Once we’ve had it, we’re free. That doesn’t mean that there is no more temptation, nor does it mean that we don’t have to continue to emphasize to ourselves and to others the importance of holiness and denying the sinful habits. But, when the moment of freedom comes, it is only about overcoming temptation, and not about putting to death old habits.
Experience is not limited to personal experience, either. The closer that you are to my heart, and the more that I trust your testimony, the more I am going to put faith into your words and experience. There are some who are close to my heart, and yet I know they have little discernment. When they say that they “heard from God”, or “had a dream/vision”, I will listen, but I will put it before the Lord before accepting it. I don’t trust everything that I experience, nor everything that any other person experiences. We can see quite plainly from the Scripture that the false prophets often prophesied from their own imaginations. What makes me so sure that I am not speaking from my own imagination? How can I discern the difference?
Obviously, if I were to hear a man on television say that he visited the third heaven, I would turn off the television. Actually, I would probably leave the meeting, because I don’t own a television. I would weep over him. How can you be so casual about such an event? Is it possible to see the third heaven and then live so cheaply? I have not seen it, and yet I have too much respect for God to even listen to, read, or watch mere entertainment. How much more if I beheld the very glory of heaven itself? How much more if I beheld the angels singing, “Holy, holy, holy”? How much more if I saw the throne room? And yet, some claim they have been multiple times, only to turn around with the audacity to ask for money.
Yet, when I read Paul mention that he knew a man, whether it was Paul or someone else I do not know, who visited the third heaven, I believe that. It does not bother me to think that maybe someone other than Paul – maybe they weren’t even an apostle – got to visit the third heaven. The difference is the source. I trust the words of Paul because I know the character of Paul. I do not trust the words of the televangelist, because I know the character of the televangelist.
In relation to our interpretation of Scripture, experience does not specifically dictate. It does, however, at least play a vital role in our interpretation. Some will put that role higher than others. Some will go so far as to blatantly distrust their own experiences. However we respond to experience, it will indeed affect the way that we read the Bible. We put Scripture at the forefront, and if the Bible does indeed teach and affirm something, we need to take the Scripture’s opinion and not our own. Telling Jesus, “No one else did” won’t be enough if He were to ask why we didn’t believe Him at His word. There is a way to embrace our experience, but at the same time embrace the Scripture. That kind of symbiotic relationship between the two can only take place when we conform to His Word instead of our own preconceived notions. Discernment is necessary, not just in discerning doctrine, but also in discerning practice. A high degree of knowledge with nonexistent discernment is dangerous. At the same time, a low degree of knowledge necessitates nonexistent discernment. It is precisely at the communion table with God that we find the two marry. When we have climbed the mount, not simply in intellectual ascent of Scripture knowledge, but also in holy intercession, we find the face of the Father shining upon our hearts to give us understanding beyond the words upon a page. This is true experience. To practice the presence of God is the true source of theology.