THERE is no subject more important, and perhaps none less understood, than a just and scriptural method of speaking, or writing, on "Christian Experience". The author has seen good and excellent men, so intent on making it clear, that all true Christians are not merely enlightened in judgment, but grounded in heart, in the truth of God's word, that they have, unintentionally, made it appear as though their experience were the ground of their hope, and the foundation of their salvation: others, perhaps to avoid this error, have rushed to an opposite extreme, and declared that experience is nothing, that Christ is all; and this is a blessed truth if taken aright, but very capable of being perverted by the heady, and high-minded professor of godliness. Again, a particular line of experience has been sometimes so strongly insisted upon, as to make it seem as if a certain standard was set up by which a man might ascertain the fact of his being one of the Lord's people or not; this is to make individual feelings the rule of the Christian life.
When any Christian man has any subject clear to his own mind, particularly a subject of great importance to the family of God, it cannot be amiss for him to endeavor to present it in the same light to his fellow Christians, and it is with this intent that the writer is induced to offer some observations to the Church on this subject. It is often said of preachers, that they are experimental preachers; some books are also said to be experimental writings, by which the writer understands that these preachers, or books, set forth the doctrines of God's word in such a way as shows the effects of their reception in the heart. If any thing more than this be meant by the word experimental, the writer utterly rejects it, but with this meaning he hopes to show that all preaching, to be really useful, must be experimental. We hear of some who set forth the doctrines of God's holy word in a clear, consistent, and connected manner, and yet never allude to any of those certain fruits which follow upon a believing reception of them, never speaking of their own state, or the exercise of their own minds, by which many a weak brother might be encouraged to hope on, and follow after the Lord Jesus. In some cases this arises, it is believed, from a dislike to speak of themselves, and a fear lest they should be found to preach themselves, instead of the Lord Jesus; but it will be found that the inspired apostles, frequently referred to their own feelings, and those portions of God's word such as Romans chapter 7 throughout and Galatians 5:16 to the end, have been most remarkably blessed to the comfort of many of the Lord's dear people.
Let it then be borne in mind, that the true doctrines of God's holy word, of the gracious actings of Jehovah in his Trinity of persons, is contended for in this little work, and that, therefore, as the Father's love in Election, and the Son's love in Redemption, is the source of all our blessedness, and the ground of all our confidence, so the work of the Holy Ghost in our souls, is the springing up of all our joy and consolation within. To ridicule Christian experience is therefore to despise and contemn the gracious operations of the Holy Ghost just as much as an undue dwelling on his gracious acts, apart from the object he has in view, is a despising the gracious and blessed, full, free, and complete salvation of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Christian Experience may be considered as either general or particular; by general, I mean that which the whole family of God must partake of while here on earth: by particular, I mean that varied mode of dealing with individuals which Jehovah sees fit to adopt in carrying out, and carrying on his great design in making all to share in his bounties and rejoice in his love. Again there is the experience of the babe in Christ, the young man, the old man, or aged sire, and all these differ in degree, though equally beloved of Jehovah, and equally interested in the covenant of grace, and in the blessings treasured up in the Lord Jesus.
By nature man is not only guilty, under curse, condemnation, and wrath, but blind, helpless, and dead, and the first perception, or feeling, of the gracious operations of Him who is the author and giver of life, and who, as a living Spirit, has entered the soul, to abide with that soul, is a feeling of guilt and fear, blindness, helplessness, and deadness, mingled with a desire to be delivered out of this pit, this helpless, dead state; with strong crying, supplications, and groans; and yet, most frequently, with a strange sort of endeavor to produce some good thing, to make some exertion or effort to do that which is right in the sight of God, and the half-cleared eye is directed towards the blessed Redeemer more as one who is to help the sinner to work out a righteousness of his own, than as one who hath brought salvation by his own arm. In the work of grace, however, the soul is made to feel his position and to see the suitability of the Lord Jesus to save to the uttermost, generally speaking, by slow degrees, and if there be an intensive feeling of his own lost state, without a corresponding view of his completeness in Christ, the soul endures a misery hardly to be described but in the figurative language of Scripture: "an horrible dread hath overwhelmed me, my sins are more in number than the hairs of my head, and my heart faileth me"; if, on the other hand, the mind is led into an enlarged acquaintance with the plan of salvation, the glories of Christ and his complete righteousness, while the heart hath not as yet felt much of its own bitterness, and is comparatively ignorant of its great plague, the joy and rejoicing which thence ensues is often followed by a deep and bitter pang, while the manifestation of the evil of the heart is taking place.
The experience of an individual in this stage of the divine life is often very variable; hoping to live upon the knowledge he has attained, and the bright seasons he has enjoyed, he is inclined to rank himself with the highest of the Lord's people, and when deprived of these enjoyments, he seems ready to cut himself off from all the privileges of God's children, to write himself down a hypocrite, and to dishonor God by his petulance. This is a babe in grace, and we must bear in mind that in divine things we are not to calculate as we do in earthly matters by days, months, or years, for some who have long been reckoned amongst "the living in Jerusalem," are yet in the state above described.
The young man in Christ, is one in whom the word of God abides, who is accustomed to conflict, who understands the Christian warfare, and who hath again and again "overcome the wicked one" "by the blood of the Lamb, and the word of his testimony." The experience of such an one is generally a continued feeling of his own baseness and worthlessness exhibited in the pure light of God's truth residing in his soul; a full, and firm persuasion of the all-sufficiency of Christ, to save even him from the hell and destruction which his sins have merited, and which his constant feeling of his state in Adam makes him sometimes dread. The enemy of his soul, though often repulsed, as often returns, and has to be conquered again and again; in every faculty of the soul, his mind, and his memory are assailed by the prince of darkness, conjuring up thoughts and enquiries suitable to his intellectual capacity and to that vanity of the human mind whereby he desires to be wise though "born like a wild ass's colt"; his natural skepticism and unbelief is stirred up continually, to say "how can these things be?" while his fleshly desires and his angry passions, are often worked up to such a pitch, as would necessarily accomplish Satan's design of bringing him to despair of salvation were it not for the continued testimony of the Holy Ghost to the preciousness of Christ, the efficacy of his blood, the unchangeableness of his love and covenant grace, the ever present throne of grace and prayer hearing Jehovah, whereby he is brought again and again to humble himself under the mighty hand of God, that he may be raised up again in his own due time. It is not often that the Christian in this stage of the divine life has such extraordinary feelings of joy as he once had (which indeed were of a mixed character, having much that was merely natural blended with them,) nor is he often so depressed as to cut himself off from the privileges of the redeemed, no, when he cries out "oh, wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" he corrects himself and says, "I thank God through our Lord Jesus Christ."
The father in Christ is one who is blessedly conversant with the Lord Jesus, in all his relationships, engagements, performances, offices and characters, who has drawn largely on him as his never-failing Banker; who has realized, and does daily realize the suitability of the Lord Jesus as his advocate with the Father, his counselor, his strength, and his life, and who yet prays with the apostle that he "may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings." Such an one is not greatly moved by any device of Satan, or desperate working of iniquity within; he has seen an end of all earthly perfection and his heart is fixed, trusting in the Lord.
Christian experience as regards particular individuals, refers to those various trials and difficulties by which the Lord leads them to an acquaintance with their diseased state, and their only remedy; the calling on Abraham to offer up Isaac; Jacob's personification of Esau — his dream — his treatment by Laban; the envy of Joseph's brethren — his being sold for a slave — tempted by his mistress and cast into prison; David's fall into adultery and murder; Peter's denial of his Master; Paul and Barnabas' dispute; were all in the arrangement and purposes of God, ordained and appointed, as so many means of exposing the weakness, and emptiness, and vanity of all earthly good, of all created strength, and of the helplessness of the most excellent men when left to themselves, while at the same time, refreshing and strengthening grace in its beauty, energy, power, and efficiency, were displayed to the souls of these servants of God, each in his peculiar manner and time, and to us, through them, as our ensamples.
For lack of experimental religion, men who have been sound and clear in the doctrines of God's blessed word, have become like wandering stars of darkness, embracing and promulgating the wildest notions, declaring that "the resurrection is past already," that there is no such place as hell, no future second coming of the Redeemer, no unbelief in the hearts of called sinners; Satan will tempt God's children to believe all sorts of lies, but those who have the truth in their hearts, and have tasted the power of it, are not suffered to wander far, but the Shepherd's rod and crook will restore their wandering souls.
May the Lord grant that both writer and reader may constantly experience all that there is in Jesus for them, which will make their experience like that of Paul, "dying, and behold we live; chastened, but not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing all things."