How Much Can 'Religious Experiences' Testify to the Truth of the Gospel?

Joan, the Maid of Orleans (1412-1431)

Joan of Arc had all the "experiences" it is possible to have. At times she really did seem to have "visions," but how much did these 'visions' and 'experiences' teach about God?

Nevertheless, we don't judge this very sincere woman; God alone knows Joan's true standing with Him.

A Modern Idea: Religion and "Religious Belief" Should Be Restricted to our "Inner Lives"

We live in an age in which increasing numbers believe that 'religious experiences' alone can testify to the truth of the Gospel. There are many people out there who appear to be driven by emotions, feelings and 'experiences' and an alarming number of such people can mistake feelings in the area of the emotions with Christian conversion. This stems from the whole modern idea that religion should be restricted to the private areas of one's personality and life and that things like learning, study and evidence just do not belong to the world of religion. But this is a truly malevolent concept which would have been unknown to the writers of the New Testament. If you or I state that our religion only belongs to our inner emotions, feelings and to a 'religious experience' we once had, we have reduced our beliefs to almost nothing! If it is nothing more than this, why did the first Apostles travel through many lands and experience many hardships, constantly risking their lives, just to get the vital message of Jesus Christ to many nations?

Our testimonies and 'conversion experiences' remain an important part of the lives of most Christians - and so they should, but the message of the Gospel always understood that these experiences needed to be followed by actions and life changes, not something just to be cosily tucked away into our 'inner lives,' rarely to be seriously disturbed thereafter. This is the subjective approach to belief in which - for sure - testimonies and "conversion experiences" play an important role, but it can be dangerous to put too much store on such inward and personal matters, especially with insufficient store on solid Bible teaching. Yes, basic teaching on the Gospel does need to be approached and God expects us to put in just a little effort to do so. (2 Timothy 2:15), if genuninely being guided and led by the Holy Spirit we will have much assistance in coming to understand all the main points.

Experiences Can Be Deceptive

The truth is that no particular experience, as such, is either necessarily true or false. An experience is something we have, it is something we may 'feel,' it is part of us, yet we cannot measure such things; these things belong in the realm of the feelings and emotions; this is our more subjective side, but to tap into the truth about any spirit or new teaching we need to tap into our more objective side. That is to study the matter more honestly, purposely reducing or even ruling out the influence of emotions.

What did Jesus actually say? Just as importantly, in many cases, what did He not say? We all know that Jesus preached the main points of the Gospel, but he left it to the New Testament epistle writers to fill in many of the details: how familar are we with these epistles; these epistles start to reveal how the grand sweep of the glorious Gospel can be applied in our everyday lives, that is, in the everyday lives of Christians - yes, us. Yet, many years ago, when I mentioned to somebody that he needed to check out his longing for "new experiences" with the solid teaching within the epistles, he looked at me as though I had suddenly come out with a most incredible facial rash, and uttered, "Oh, no, I don't think I need to do that." It did not surprise me when I discovered - years later - that this man no longer considered himself a Christian. That is very sad.

Separating Experiences From Facts, Evidence and Knowledge

Let us all know that experiences - all on their own - are not logically connected with the mechanics or philosophy of any truth or worldview. Please allow me to repeat that statement: Experiences - all on their own - are not logically connected with the mechanics or philosophy of any truth or worldview. Why? Well, every body has 'experiences,' including liberals, probably atheists, the Buddhist, mystic, Sikh and follower of Mohammed too. So a subjective experience cannot be used to prove the truth of any particular experience. The only truth established by an experience is the truth that one has had that experience - yet that will remain a 'truth' only to oneself - not to others! Therefore, an experience cannot be used to prove the truth of any worldview or way of life. If you happen to be one of those kind and well-meaning Christians who continually talk about their 'incredible experiences' as some proof of God, let me warn you that they are not. After all, no 'experience' ever came with an "ultimate truth" label attached to it, and the same experience is always capable of different interpretations.

Picture of Richard Wurmbrand

Richard Wurmbrand (1909-2001)

Richard Wurmbrand, the Lutheran pastor who courageously underwent 14 years of persecution for his Christian beliefs in iron curtain Romania. Even while imprisoned, this worthy man experienced 'fillings of the Spirit' and other spiritual experiences as his Lord allowed him to be comforted in his very trying situation; however, those experiences were wedded to a thorough knowledge and understanding of the Christian Gospel. Richard would not have advocated an 'experiences-alone' approach to Christianity.

We Need Balance and Understanding

Now, the reader should not misunderstand: spiritual experiences can indeed be wonderful aspects of our faith lives - nothing I write here means that they are not. But we must understand that - all on their own - they belong to our subjective and emotional side.

Looking solely to an experience as some test of truth is very dangerous, now one might think that that is obvious enough but I think we all know that certain people do appear to find it difficult to separate these areas. Again, it is important because of several New Testament Scriptures which reveal how Satan can influence sincere people and frequently he does it through the emotional and subjective areas of their lives:

The Danger of Lying Wonders...

God has warned us that some spirits are evil. They are happy to masquerade as true spirits from God, but will teach false Christs and false gospels, they will slant things so that, in the end, the Gospel is of no effect.

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1).

This means that praying and - apparently - receiving an answer or 'witness' should not be seen as sufficient to demonstrate that a church, book, or preacher are in fact true to the word, for such a "witness" could emanate from a false spirit. We need to test the spirit more exhaustively than this. We need to be cautious of allowing subjective feelings and emotions ruling where solid Bible knowledge should be ruling. We need to continually take note of the warnings given to us about false, deceiving teachers:

And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve. (2 Corinthians 11: 12-15).

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15).

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. (1 Timothy 4:1-2)

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. (2 Timothy 4:3).

To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good. (Titus 1:15-15).

Additional Point: Should We Expect Dynamic and Dramatic Occurrences?

Some others continue to believe that dramatic and powerful 'evidences' should occur in their church-attending life. Many years ago a lady said to me, "I would not go to a church where spirits and miracles are not occurring regularly." I told her that if miracles occurred regularly they would not be miracles, moreover, many would then seek to become "Christians" for all the wrong reasons. I think I concluded my chat with her by quoting this:

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, "Teacher, we want to see a sign from you." He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." (Matthew 12:38-40).

Jesus Himself said that his crucifixion and resurrection over three days and three nights was not only sufficient sign, but the only sign which has been given to the world - expect no other. Now, one may well experience answered prayers too - of course - but apart from that nobody has any right to demand a 'sign,' or have an expectation of seeing or receiving such a thing. Without question, a few certainly have received additional signs, usually people of outstanding faith, George Muller, several of the major 19th century missionaries, probably Richard Wurmbrand, unquestionably others too, but there is no specific promise of that. We are given enough in the Scriptures, especially when those Scriptures are fully opened to our understanding through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Robin A. Brace, December 20th, 2015.