Making Room for Experience

Over at Jake Belder’s blog, I read this passage written by Graeme Goldsworthy’s Goldsworthy Trilogy:

Failure to grasp this truth – largely because the proper study of the Old Testament has been neglected, has aided and abetted one of the most unfortunate reversals in evangelical theology. The core of the gospel, the historical facts of what God did in Christ, is often down-graded today in favour of a more mystical emphasis on the private spiritual experience of the individual. Whereas faith in the gospel is essentially acceptance of, and commitment to, the declaration that God acted in Christ some two thousand years ago on our behalf, saving faith is often portrayed nowadays more as trust in what God is doing in us now. Biblical ideas such as ‘the forgiveness of sins’ or ‘salvation’ are interpreted as primarily describing a Christian’s personal experience. But when we allow the whole Bible – Old and New Testaments – to speak to us, we find that those subjective aspects of the Christian life which are undoubtedly important – the new birth, faith and sanctification – are fruits of the gospel. This gospel, while still relating to individual people at their point of need, is rooted and grounded in the history of redemption. It is the good news aboutJesus, before it can become good news for sinful men and women. Indeed, it is only as the objective(redemptive-historical) facts are grasped that the subjective experience of the individual Christian can be understood.

I was a little taken aback and troubled by the quote for a few reasons.

1. While Evangelicals profess to be firmly rooted in Scripture and adhere to sola scriptura, one of the basic trends of evangelical theology is the teaching that each person must come to a place of experiencing the salvation of God in Jesus Christ the Saviour.  In other words, evagelicals have always emphasized a personal experience. Yes, the experience is made possible by the work of Christ which is the pivotal moment in God’s redemptive work in humanity, each person must experience the salvation- salvation is personal. Experience of the life in Christ is hardly fruit of the gospel. David Bebbington points to the “quadrilateral of priorities” that make up evangelicalism- conversion experience, biblical authority, cross centred, and evangelism (Bebbington, Evangelicals in Modern Britain, London: Unwin, 2008).

2. The idea that “Whereas faith in the gospel is essentially acceptance of, and commitment to, the declaration that God acted in Christ some two thousand years ago on our behalf, saving faith is often portrayed nowadays more as trust in what God is doing in us now.” actually frustrates me. Is salvation an intellectual issue? Is it an issue of believing the right things? James suggested that the demons have proper theology, but have no hope of salvation. What do we say for the people who don’t have the cognitive abilities to understand atonement and justification by faith, etc. Are the cognitively disabled unsavable? I fear that the logical conclusion from Goldsworthy’s statement is that they aren’t. The gospel cannot be so narrow. I may not be an expert in disability ministry, but with my toe in that door I already see that our intellectual approach to salvation in inadequate. There are many in our world who have no chance of intellectual assent to doctrine, but who I nevertheless call friends and brethren in Christ, never doubting for a moment the fact that they can, and do fulfill the command to love God and neighbour.

3. What then is salvation and what is the gospel? 1 John is so helpful-

 1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our joy complete.

 5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

Yes, salvation is possible through the purifying work of the blood of Jesus. But here, John proclaims that salvation is fellowship with God, walking with him who we have seen and heard and touched. The life comes to us, and we are to embrace it first and foremost. There is room for mystery, and unknowing- “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). The gospel is Jesus- the Word of Life.

Goldsworthy writes, “it is only as the objective(redemptive-historical) facts are grasped that the subjective experience of the individual Christian can be understood”. But the opposite is also true. Only when we have the experience does the death and resurrection of Christ make sense. John professes not what he has come to understand about the facts, but what he has experienced. Walking and talking with the Word is what makes the crucifixion and resurrection make sense.

When we downplay one side and elevate the other we create a restricted gospel; we put fences around God and how he does and does not redeem his people. We fall into the same trap as the Pharisees whose self righteousness could not allow others to be considered part of God’s people.

This of course is not to say we shouldn’t study a proclaim Scripture. We should. But God is infinitely creative and innovative, always redeeming, but not just the mind.

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