The Role of Experience in the Life of the Christian

The people called Methodists have always recognized the importance of experience in the Christian life. It is the common privilege of the children of God to personally and authentically appropriate the loving forgiveness of God in Christ and the redemptive embrace of God’s own Holy Spirit. The authentic experience of being rightly related to God brings the truth of God revealed in scripture to life in each of us. At our best, we Methodists have understood this and made it a priority in our preaching and teaching.
As with many things, we must exercise caution to avoid allowing experience to do more than it was ever intended. Unfortunately, experience is sometimes granted ultimate authority over reason, tradition, and, at times, even scripture. We are tempted to think that if something feels right, then it must be right. We Methodists are reminded, though, that we must “interpret experience in light of scriptural norms” (2008 Book of Discipline, para. 104). Experience is not always a reliable guide, and it is an ongoing necessity to discern between personal preference and the genuine experience of being led by the Spirit. This is why the scriptures must be the norm. When experience and the Bible contradict, experience must surrender to scripture. The Holy Spirit who inspired the scriptures will never lead anyone in a manner that contradicts those scriptures.
Experience is not an authority above or even on par with the Bible; rather, experience functions to make the truth of scripture a real factor in our lives as disciples of Christ. Experience is that authentic knowledge that God affirms our faith and obedience. It is Wesley’s warm heart. It is the feeling of forgiveness and the assurance of God’s love for us. Experience is not to be granted authority to contradict or trump the Bible; rather, it is the conviction of the Spirit when we stray from truth. An authentic experience of God’s love and grace are essential to the Christian life, but like every aspect of life, experience needs to be conformed to the image of God in Christ as revealed in the scriptures.

8 thoughts on “The Role of Experience in the Life of the Christian

  1. Matt, whether we appear to agree or not, I respect your opinion as a shepherd of the flock, an Israelite of the new covenant, and a brother in Christ. I always see your opinion as gracious. However, if your disagree with my position because you believe it misrepresents the self-understanding of many of the Reformers, be at ease. I am not the least bit interested in how the Reformers saw themselves, nor did I make arguments about it. I seek no debate on Reformers self-understanding and concede anything you might say say on the matter because the reformation was more about the efficacy of the Holy Spirit than Reformers' self-understanding.

    I agree with your 1st argument, which is an excellent one. We are using 'tradition' in slightly different ways. Also, I agree that communion is a 'tradition' that Jesus Himself instituted, but one underwritten by gospel truth. We are commanded to acknowledge the sacrifice of Christ's blood for the remission of sins.

    About 2, because I don't address Reformer's self-understanding or their perceptions, it's not being misrepresented. This point has been conceded already. However, I don't think it matters how the Reformers perceived themselves to look at the reformation perceiving the Holy Spirit's work and understand His purpose (since their actions were a consequence of His). Even if the Reformers understood themselves to be recovering something that was rooted in the apostolic church, that perception does not merit credit for the reformation's success. That credit rightfully belongs to the Holy Spirit.

    Regardless of what they thought they were doing, the Holy Spirit had them contending for truth against the false ideas of this world. This struggle never ended and was never lost. It seems this is what you are calling the 'more faithful tradition' they were attempting to recover, except that it didn't need to be recovered, it needed to be continued. That God blessed them greatly (with success), that did not mean that others were not struggling along with them beforehand (for example, look to John Wycliffe). The Philosophies of this world, and the teachings of men, always wage war against the gospel. This, they knew. Despite a tradition that misplaced authority into the hands of men, the Holy Spirit compelled them with a Holy respect for the righteous authority of God which started off as a private conviction (in every case).

    However, it is very interesting you mention liturgy in your response. That you raise it implies you saw my comments as touching upon it. I have no problem with liturgy save when it becomes divisive or unbiblical. My argument from the beginning has been that every man is to be convinced in his own mind [Rom 14:5-12] (where conviction is a function of the Holy Spirit). This is why I've been defending personal and private conviction above tradition. I agree with you that sola scriptura doesn't mean scripture alone is authoritative. The Holy Spirit, who created, inspired, and still reveals scripture, is also authoritative except that believers today frequently fail to recognize and believe Him.

    Tradition has NO authority at all. It is always subordinate to scripture and conviction. Isn't this even true of communion, which the Lord commanded? Doesn't your church teach that participation or abstention in communion is a function of conviction according to [1 Cor 11:27-28] which says “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord bin an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”?


  2. Two things:

    1. I suspect we may be working off two different definitions of the word “tradition”. The communioin liturgy that I make use of as a pastor affirms that Christ made a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for sins. It's in the liturgy; so its a part of the tradition. It's also biblical. So, tradition and scripture are not necessarily antagonistic to one another. Tradition simply means carrying on or preserving what had gone before. That can be done with rightly with faithfulness or wrongly without.

    2. I don't think you are fairly representing the self-understanding of many of the Reformers. I think that they understood themselves as recovering something that was rooted in the apostolic church and then passed on, which was distorted in medieval Catholicism, but then recovered in the Reformation. And liturgies that affirm the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice of Christ come to us straight out of what the Reformers thought they were recovering. That doesn't mean it's not spiritual or biblical. No one reads scripture in a vacuum or in isolation. Sure the Reformers were going up against a tradition, but that doesn't meant they didn't see themselves as part of another more faithful tradition, which they did. Now you can say they were wrong about that, if you so desire, but that is a different debate. I'm simply saying that I think they (the Reformers) saw themselves as part of the apostolic tradition that was grounded in the gospel and maintained by the faithful. That's what they thought they were doing. And sola scriptura doesn't mean that scripture alone is authoritative. It means that scripture alone has normative authority. Tradition is good and right as long as it conforms to scripture, and when it doesn't, it needs to be corrected by scripture.

    Also, though, we may have to, once again, disagree.

    Still graciously,


  3. Ok. I suppose it depends on what one believes the reformers were contending for, or what the apostolic congregations possessed that the reformers so admired. I believe the reformers were not contending for tradition, but something else.

    What tradition exactly, do you believe the apostolic church possessed? Was it a tradition Jesus presented to the Temple, one that was so vehemently opposed, ultimately ending with His death? Was there a tradition in Jesus' day? Was it the one bequeathed to the assemblies in Asia minor that resulted in abundant persecution [2 Thess 1:4]? Had the gospel become a tradition then? Perhaps it was the one Rome so willingly accepted. [Rom 8:35][Rom 12:14]. Did Rome have a tradition?

    Even you have written articles about how absent the Gospel is in seminaries, churches, and assemblies today. So would you say the Gospel is preserved because of modern tradition? Matt, the doctrine that Jesus presented, the sayings He spoke, and the Gospel he gave, have not lived on because of some tradition he established yet while he lived, nor any tradition, in any age, in any sense of the word. The world wages a war against it. Even the traditions of the faithful participate because they are also of this world. The only tradition to speak of, is the one that persecutes those who believe the Holy Spirit. So we're talking something else.

    The gospel Jesus gave us is not preserved (or even propagated) by tradition; but by the Holy Spirit. It is timeless and has always been something set apart. [John 14:26] says “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” Likewise [John 16:13] says “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

    A proper biblical understanding is spiritual, not traditional. It was this 'living' Holy Spirit that the Apostolic church was trying to recover. They had to fight tradition to recover it. It was not tradition motivating Luther, but the Holy Spirit moving within him in a private and personal way. Surely you don't deny that Holy Spirit acts in a very personal and private way? If so, allowing the Holy Spirit to illuminate our private interactions with scripture, and personal reflections on meaning, is hardly a caricature, or simple inaccuracy (if you want simple, and inaccurate, consult tradition for meaning, or wikipedia for truth). Indeed it proves the point, that simply looking to tradition rather than individually reflecting on the bible through faith, denies us access to the real power of the Holy Spirit (as was suggested above).

    I can personally attest there is absolutely nothing more stunning than being surprised by the Spirit, at the wonder of one's own words. Being astonished, by faith, at what the Holy Spirit inspires you to write or say proves that the Holy spirit frequently makes bricks without straw [Exo 5:16]. Perhaps this is why the Spirit is so absent, in so many congregations today. Christian's do not recognize Him when they encounter Him; they have the 'Reformation' to look to instead.


  4. I am resistant to the idea that private understanding was the fuel that lit the fire of the Reformation. The Reformers were well schooled in the writings of the early church fathers. Calvin could recite extended portions of the fathers from memory. And we all know the importance of Augustine for Luther. I think a credible case can be made that the Reformers understood themselves to be regaining the tradition of the apostolic church that had been marred and distorted by medieval Roman Catholicism. Thus, to suggest that the Reformers were simply working of their own personal and private understanding of things is a caricature at best and simply inaccurate at worst.



  5. Daniel wrote “I would argue that, in addition to the obvious supremacy of Scripture over all other sources that our Discipline explicitly affirms, there is a 'built in' primacy of Tradition over any individual reasoning or experience, since Tradition represents the community's reasoning and experience.”

    Daniel, this one is doubled-edged.

    I presume you're thinking something along the lines of [2 Peter 1:20] which says “…knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation.”

    Clearly, it was tradition that led the Pharisees, Sadducee, and Herodians astray. Sometimes community reasoning and experience doesn't get it right, and that serves to make it difficult for true believers to remain 'biblical'. (I must point out that I have a vested reason for saying this; as Matt can attest, my understanding of doctrine (as my arguments suggest) is hardly traditional, often falling outside of Christian convention (but I would add are precisely biblical). The primacy of Tradition is only valid if the tradition itself is valid. If people put faith in tradition but tradition itself is invalid, tradition represents the problem.

    WRT to the [2 Peter 1:20] quote which cites personal interpretation, that verse does not speak to understanding scripture individually, but instead speaks to the production of it (individually).

    The KJV rendering confuses what Peter was saying. [2 Peter 1:20] was not saying that we are NOT to understand the bible individually, but that prophecy itself was not the result of (a prophet's) private (uninfluenced) interpretation. The very next verse makes this clear, saying that prophecy was the result of the Holy Ghost (showing that the verse is about the speaking and not about the hearing).

    The doctrine that we are not to understand the bible individually is a dangerous one because it leads to a denial of the power of the Holy Spirit. By denying the Holy Spirit the right to illuminate our understanding of the word, we deny the Holy Spirit the ability to fulfil part of it's role, which is to influence out thoughts. This stifles God's power in reasoning and experience.

    In the reformation, it was precisely the power if private understanding illuminated by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the reformers that lead to the reformation and the restoration of God's word. It was Martin Luther's private understanding (inspired and amplified by the Holy Spirit) that stood up against the tradition and power of Rome. Thus being able to think apart from tradition is our only defence against the power of corrupt tradition. (The irony is that when this happens, when an individual's experience with the word triumphs over tradition, we actually see evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work.


  6. Experience is one of those funny things because there are so many sides to it (when it comes to theology). One side is receptive – the great truths taught by Scripture and Tradition are to be experienced first hand in our own hearts (thus, the Discipline notes that, for Wesley, experience primarily means experiencing justification and sanctification by God's grace – para. 104/pg.77). In this sense, experience itself doesn't teach us anything until we begin reflecting on our experiences (and that reflection might itself involve reasoning – though the act of logical reasoning is itself experienced as it happens, isn't it?).
    At any rate, when Methodists talk about appealing to experience to help us understand God, or better yet (if I'm reading the Discipline rightly) experience is to help us understand Scripture, this appeal is usually not to bare experience itself but to our interpretation of our experience after our reflection upon that experience. Thus “X happened to me and that has caused me to come to beleive Y about how God works.” There is a process of reflection and interpretation in there that often goes un-examined.

    The most important thing I would point out though, about our understanding of experience in the United Methodist Church is that it is “both individual and corporate” (para. 104/pg. 81). We all naturally have immediate access to our own individual experience, but where do we gain access to the corporate experience of the Church? Surely it is primarily (maybe exclusively) given to us in the Tradition: in fact the Tradition is nothing other than the corporate experiences (and reasonings) of the Church as they have been handed down in writing, ritual, and practice.

    I would argue that, in addition to the obvious supremacy of Scripture over all other sources that our Discipline explicitly affirms, there is a “built in” primacy of Tradition over any individual reasoning or experience, since Tradition represents the community's reasoning and experience.

    And yet, so many of the pastors and teachers I know are less familiar with the great Christian Tradition than they should be, preferring to read contemporary spiritual writers, and often ignoring much of our liturgical heritage as well.


  7. You wrote “Unfortunately, experience is sometimes granted ultimate authority over reason, tradition, and, at times, even scripture.”

    Well said. It is also sometimes granted ultimate authority over “faith”.

    It is my experience, (pardon the pun .. or was it irony?), that experience is also subjective; which is why, as relational creatures, we are to talk to each other about it (so that it can be normalized against the experience of others and the Holy Spirit).


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