4.i) Preaching experience

There is one word which describes the stated and sought after style of preaching in the Gospel Standard churches, and that is experimental. Experimental preaching is that which describes the experience, feelings and trials of the child of God when the gospel comes to him, and in God’s dealings with his soul. As these experiences are being described it is hoped that the man in the pew will be drawn into faith by hearing of things which happen to him.

To use a simplistic example: If the preacher says that the child of God has many doubts and fears regarding whether or not he is saved then the hearer, if he too experiences these things, is encouraged to hope that he may very well be a child of God himself; thus he may go away ‘raised up to a little hope’ that perhaps Christ died for him. Now this can go on all his life: doubts and fears which rise up periodically are at length subdued by a word or ‘token’ that perhaps they are unfounded; and a lot of the preaching is designed to alleviate such worries. Even though there is very little, if any, direct exhortation from the pulpit, nevertheless the ‘exercised’ hearer is trained to listen out for a word which might ‘touch his case’ and gain him, if not assurance, then at least a little comfort.

And when the man comes to be laid in the grave he will likely be buried ‘in sure and certain hope’ for, although he was never brought to such a measure of assurance so as to be baptised and join the church (or rather, the denomination), still, the minister will usually manage to find some evidences that it was indeed well with his soul, based on one or two blessings he may have spoken of, answers to prayer he thought he received, providential leadings he experienced, and faithful lifelong attendance at chapel. (So much for manifest repentance toward God, and confessed faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, Acts 20:21.)[1] That, basically, is the style, and the average fruit, of experimental preaching.

Now I am not saying that this describes every GS sermon, or that every GS minister preaches to this end all the time, but it is typical of the style. Neither am I saying that when the gospel is preached no reference to the experience of the child of God should be made – it certainly should, for true salvation is experimental. Also this style is necessary, to a degree, to counter the abundance of easy-believism, presumption, and legal gospel preaching which is so prevalent elsewhere. But experimental preaching, in and of itself, cannot really be said to be ‘preaching the gospel’, for when you examine it closely you begin to discover that it actually contains very little exposition of what the scripture calls ‘the doctrine of Christ’, which is the gospel.

The reason I say this is because to preach experience is to keep the message essentially on the subjective level – it is all about me; whereas the true gospel message – as before stated – is a declaration of wonderful objective truths regarding Christ, of his Person and accomplished work, and of his people’s union with him. But, again, I cannot survive by being fed constant descriptions of my experience, I need Christ! I need to hear his gospel. Even Isaac Watts – in their hymnbook! – professed the same: ‘The gospel bears my spirit up; a faithful and unchanging God lays the foundation of my hope in oaths, and promises and blood’, hymn 83. Therefore we conclude that experimental preaching, in and of itself, can barely be called preaching the gospel at all.

But, as I said, an element of preaching experience is needed to counter most of what is preached elsewhere. For example, in many churches, especially where Arminianism holds sway, so much ‘gospel’ preaching is little more than a free will interpretation of John 3:16, where salvation is ‘offered’ freely to anyone who might be interested, and if you ‘simply believe’ and ‘accept Jesus’ then, basically, you are saved and can be fully assured of going to heaven when you die. As a Christian cannot lose his salvation there is then little need to worry about sin, doubts and fears for, because you have at one time in the past ‘believed’, then it is all washed away in the blood of Jesus, and all you have to do at such times is say a prayer for forgiveness, open your Bible, claim the promises, and go on your way rejoicing. That was my state before Matthew 7:21-23 came.

On the other hand experimental preaching exists to counter the dry, dead – how ‘the letter killeth’! – legalistic ‘reformed’ preaching of those churches where mental assent to gospel doctrines is just about everything; where the law is raised up to be the rule of life of the believer, and where, although lip-service might sometimes be paid to ‘something felt’, it is not over-emphasised; the fruit being a people who look upon those seeking something deeper or real in their experience as being perhaps a little too subjective; for after all, they reason, the truth is written on the page, and if we sincerely exercise our minds to embrace it and believe it, then surely that is evidence enough that we are born of the Spirit.[2] I was speaking once with a minister regarding these things, and as I was contending for the need to experience something of Romans 8:16, he said, with a condescending smile, ‘Well, the witness of the Spirit would be nice to have, but it’s not essential for assurance.’ But that is the high road to the left hand on the day of judgment, for sure.

Thus in these gospels, which are evidently other gospels, rarely, if ever, is the experience of the child of God, who is being saved, described – indeed, how can it be when the emphasis is so much on works; in fact one is so often warned against feelings, as they can be far too fluctuating and potentially deceiving – and there is an element of truth in that. But, no, in the end it is a simple case of ‘believing’ without too many feelings, emotions or experiences – so much for the Psalms! So to counter these views, and these gospels, which actually describe a ‘broad way’ profession, Matt. 7:13, preaching experience is introduced. And thus far I am in agreement with it; for it is evident from scripture and experience that one is led to a knowledge of salvation through experiencing in your feelings that you are lost, and that you need saving. If these words mean anything then surely they must be accompanied in the working of them by some feelings.

Take the word ‘lost’ for example. If you wander off the way and find yourself in an unfamiliar place, presently realising that you have no idea how you got into the situation and, more worryingly, how you are going to get out, will you not start to be filled with the feelings of fear, panic, dread and even of doom? In other words, will you not actually feel lost? Coupled with this you will have a feeling that you cannot save yourself out of it. Yes, a lost person needs someone else to come and rescue him, if he is going to be saved; otherwise, if one still has a hope of rescuing himself – the above experience not being, as yet, fully realised – then he cannot be said to be totally lost. But when this point has been reached, where rescue is surely needed, the lost will start to cry out in the hope of being heard. And this cry will not be a polite clearing of the throat, and a calling politely for someone to mind awfully if they might be so kind as to come and give you a hand; it will be a shout, a cry, a yell, a HELP! Come quickly, come now, PLEASE somebody save me!

Well the gospel message begins with the declaration that man in sin is lost, and that the lost cry unto the Lord for salvation, and it is something felt in experience, and not just a mental assent to the relevant doctrines on the page of scripture, while remaining relatively detached and unfeeling. How many people that ‘gave their hearts to Jesus’ at a Holiday Bible Club when they were ten have ever cried Psalm 51 with David? How many ‘reformed’ people have? The very idea among those who believe ‘it is not about feelings, but just simple believing’ dismisses Psalm 51 as merely something written three thousand years ago, which has no real relevance to ‘today’s gospel.’ Well they are right; it has no relevance to their gospel, because their ‘gospel’, ‘lost’ state and ‘salvation’ is not akin to anything David experienced.

Then take the word salvation. Has there ever been a person on the face of this earth that has been saved out of imminent danger who has not then felt elation, relief, joy, thanksgiving and a great sense of debt to the rescuer? Salvation, in any realm, without feeling, is not salvation worthy the name. So likewise in spiritual things. The soul is lost, and is under the wrath of an offended God; his holy law has been broken, condemnation is sounding in his soul, and all that remains is a fearful looking for judgment. Every attempt has been made to amend the life, to keep the law, and relieve oneself of the sense of dread. Repentance has been tried – or rather, resolutions have been made to ‘become better’ – but to no avail; faith and believing in Jesus has been attempted to give oneself a feeling of forgiveness, pardon and peace, which likewise have failed (although the easy-believers seem to succeed in these quite easily); Bible-reading and study have intensified; promises have been claimed; more prayers and cries have gone up to God; but no change has occurred within. All is hopeless, and all is lost: experimentally the sinner is taught that salvation is indeed ‘not of works’; but he already believed that because it was written in his Bible! But now he knows it to be true; and from here he starts to cry for mercy.

Then Christ and his doctrine is preached, the Spirit reveals the Saviour, opens the truth to the soul that Jesus’ blood was shed upon the cross for sinners, for sinners who cry to him out of their lost state, who cry for mercy and pardon, yea, for salvation! Presently faith is granted, the soul believes, and calls upon the name of the Lord, Rom. 10:14a; Christ hears the cries, and comes, and by his power, with his word, and by his witness actually rescues! Now, is that a salvation without feelings?!

It is ‘a gospel without feelings’ that experimental preaching is designed to counter. And rightly so. But my contention is that in the GS the counter has gone too far to the other extreme, and that preaching experience and a felt salvation to such a degree has very subtly replaced the true gospel – or at least, the gospel in anything close to its fulness. And scripture bears this out: Paul wrote of himself and Timothy that, ‘We preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord’, 2 Cor. 4:5; that is, they were not in the habit of speaking of themselves and their own experience when declaring the truth of Christ’s gospel; that was kept for times of forced testimony before rulers, or in self-defence of their calling. No, but out of necessity they preached ‘Jesus Christ, and him crucified’, 1 Cor. 2:2; Paul’s only desire was to preach ‘him’, Gal. 1:16. In fact there is nothing else that can establish the people of God than what the apostle called ‘my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ’, Rom. 16:25. To preach experience almost exclusively is to keep the preaching on the level of man; indeed, as we have said, it is to preach the effects of the gospel, and not the gospel itself. And this is more or less the present day Gospel Standard gospel, which can be proved by examining some of the phraseology used both in their preaching and publications, with its necessary fruit.

Although I am not against all preaching of experience it does worry me when phraseology is used which is not scriptural. The main reason for this is that the hymnbook is greatly employed in the preaching. Often you will hear the minister say, ‘The hymnwriter puts it better here than I can…’ and then he’ll quote from a hymn. But it is my contention that a lot of the language the poets used is not scriptural – and I ask the reader to test this assertion for yourself.

As an example of this we can go to one of the favourite quotes from the hymnbook; in fact this is the phrase which really underpins a lot of the preaching, and I wonder sometimes why some ministers cannot just be honest and go ahead and announce it as their text: ‘True religion’s more than notion; something must be known and felt’, 237. Again, if words mean anything, then the hymnwriter, Joseph Hart, is actually misapplying the scriptural word ‘religion’, and is introducing another word, ‘felt’, which is barely used at all in the New Testament in this context.

Again, this may sound picky to some but it is important. Also some might be thinking at this point that I am about to contradict what I have just been writing regarding feeling lost and feeling saved; but, although it may be a fine line of distinction, I am not. I have not doubted for one moment – and in this, the principle of Hart’s assertion is true – that to experience salvation is more than just mental ascent to doctrines on the page – ‘notion’ – something must be known and felt in experience. My problem is with his use of language which does not match the scriptures’ use of the same words. If the Spirit has inspired a word to be written then it behoves us to understand what he is saying in the context of the use of that word, and be careful only to apply it as he does. If this is not made a hard and fast principle of the use of words, then we’d might as well throw the old Bible away – for after all, isn’t the Tyndale/AV used for its accuracy and faithfulness of translation? – and use one of the modern versions which love to employ paraphrase or dynamic equivalence, caring nothing for the inspired words but rather for their supposed meanings.

The word ‘religion’ in the above quote from the hymnbook is meant to mean ‘spirituality’, spiritual life, a Christian’s experience of God’s work upon his soul; and that is how the word is used in the denomination, as well as by others. But the word only appears about half a dozen times in the New Testament and always refers to a life of outward ‘religious’ performances. So Saul of Tarsus lived ‘after the most straitest sect of our religion… a Pharisee’, Acts 26:5. ‘For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion’, he wrote as Paul to the Galatians, ‘how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: and profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous ‘a much more fervent maintainer’ [Tyndale] of the traditions of my fathers’, Gal. 1:13,14: notice here how Paul equated his religion with the traditions of men!

James also uses the word at the end of the first chapter of his epistle, where he gives us the true definition: after warning the ‘religious’ that their ‘religion’ can be nothing more than vanity and self-deception, verse 26, as Saul’s had turned out to be, cp. Phil. 3:4-7, he says that ‘Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.’ (Here the word ‘visit’ could better have been translated, ‘care for’.)

Therefore the scriptural definition of the word ‘religion’ pertains primarily to outward forms and actions, like going to chapel, performing religious duties, assuming religious postures, doing ‘good works’, etc., but that all these things can spring – and often do spring – from an unregenerate heart. But it is interesting to note that James places religion on a much ‘purer’ level. The second part of his definition can only come as a fruit of having received a new heart, as it is ‘before God and the Father’, and therefore hints, at least, at Christ’s ‘Follow me’, of taking up the cross daily, and of the walk of faith; while the former part can be justifiably interpreted in a way which says nothing in support of the legitimacy of denominational Homes for the elderly, as a reading of 1 Timothy 5 also bears out – note particularly in that chapter the phrase, ‘worse than an infidel.’ By the way, it is the ministers that should be teaching, exhorting and upholding that last point – as it is Paul writing to Timothy and not to the church – instead of actually forming Committees to run and administer their Homes!

As to the hymnwriter’s use of the word ‘felt’, and thus of feelings, the scriptural use of this word is even sparser than that of ‘religion’. One of the plagues of Egypt was darkness, ‘even darkness which may be felt’, Ex. 10:21; in Paul’s answer on Mars’ Hill, Acts 17, we have ‘if haply they might feel after him’; in Hebrews 4:15 we have Christ, the great high priest, ‘touched with the feeling of our infirmities’; Ephesians 4:17-19 speaks of the Gentiles that walk in the vanity of their minds, etc., who are ‘past feeling’, or more literally, have ‘become apathetic’; and in Mark 5 we have the woman with the issue of blood who, when healed, ‘felt in her body that she was healed of that plague.’ And those are just about all the references to ‘feelings.’

Now, if we have a mind to be generous, then perhaps one or two of the above could be made to apply to Hart’s assertion, and to the vast amount of application in experimental preaching which is based upon the ‘text’ in hymn 237 verse 1. But I contend that with the evidence of the scripture’s definition and use of these two words the phrase ‘a felt religion’ begins to look a bit unscriptural. Again, I am not decrying experimental preaching; but if we are desiring the Spirit ‘apply the word with power’, then his words should be handled honestly, taught faithfully, and shouldn’t be substituted for phrases that he never used.

Looking once again at Hart’s lines, the word ‘known’ – as in ‘something known and felt’, is very properly used: it is a definite and oft-used scriptural word which Hart and the GS apply correctly; see John’s first epistle, for example. Yet the irony is that relatively few in the denomination will stand up and say with some assurance, ‘I know’!

But this issue of feelings must be investigated further. Yes, the child of God experiences – he must experience – in the way of salvation much that is felt; but so often when this word is used in the preaching the hearer will be understanding that it pertains to some feeling which is manifested primarily physically, whereas the real ‘feelings’ of the child of God, as we have already asserted, are really more spiritual. After all, the Lord Jesus did say that the words that he spoke were ‘spirit and life’, as opposed to being merely for the carnal mind. God’s people are a spiritual people, and in life in the Spirit ‘the flesh profiteth nothing.’ Therefore I think it is a mistake to emphasise too much any physical manifestation, like tears for example, when God deals in the spirit of a man, cp. again Romans 8:16.

Take the prophet Jeremiah. Now although this man is known as ‘the weeping prophet’, his weeping was not always physical. In 13:17 of his book he mentions two types of weeping, one with the eye, that is, with literal tears, but the other is a weeping of the soul: ‘my soul shall weep in secret places for your pride.’ Also in 9:1 he says, ‘Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people.’ Now he is not actually weeping here, his eyes are yet dry; but can we not rightly assume that when he thus spoke he was already weeping in his heart, and that to such a degree that only a physical manifestation of real tears could help release him of those inmost emotions? (For what it is worth, writing much of this treatise has caused my ‘eyes’ to flow with tears: yet my cheeks have remained dry.)

There are times, many times, when the child of God is so moved by a revelation of the truth to his soul: be it a revelation of some glorious attribute of the Godhead; of a further realisation in his own experience of the grace of God in Christ, when he is reminded of the corruption of his own flesh when it rises up to destroy him, or when cast down for the spiritual bareness of the professing church, cp. 2 Cor. 11:28, that no physical action, emotion, or reaction is sufficient to express what he feels in his very soul. Indeed, there is abundant evidence, especially in the Psalms, that he experiences many ‘felt’ things in the very depths of his being. Was David’s ‘roaring all the day long’ of Psalm 32 only with his natural voice? Surely his very heart was crying. Indeed, there are countless references to the soul of the psalmist, how ‘my soul’ is engaged, troubled and sought out by his enemies, etc., as in Psalm 35, for instance.

But for a supreme example of things ‘known and felt’ above and beyond merely the physical, of course, we need only go to the cross: none can possibly see into those three eternal hours of darkness and view what took place in the soul of the Son of man…  Isaiah 53:10-12.  (Selah.)

The point I am trying to make is this: I fear that with an emphasis on physical manifestations, like tears, many people in the pews are given to understand that they ‘cannot have any religion’ unless they have, at least once, shed physical tears in relation to their ‘experience.’ I have heard on more than one occasion ministers asserting from the pulpit that the child of God must have shed tears from time to time if they have been wrought upon by God. But I believe that to be, potentially, a dangerous thing to say; for that statement, in and of itself, is a very subtle transferring of the object of our faith away from Christ to some ‘evidence.’ Whereas I do not deny that physical eyes do flow with tears in many varied circumstances experienced by the child of God on the narrow way – it being a way of constant self-sacrifice, which hurts – we must always be wary of anything fleshly, especially when we cite it as a proof of spiritual life; for tears can be produced in certain people as a result of many things that are purely carnal, and a great danger lies in situations where carnal reactions are triggered in a spiritual, or religious context; for there can arise deception.

Take music for example. How many of us have felt moved to the depths of our very being while singing a hymn, thinking that the words have touched us deeply, when in fact it has been the tune which has ‘hit the spot’ (for me, Baca was one such tune). In carnal religion this is very common. When I was in the General Baptist church we used to raise the roof with ‘And can it be’! What tingles ran up and down the spine when we sang at the top of our voices, ‘My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed thee!’ But looking back now I wonder how many out of the fifty or sixty taken up with the elevated tune could, in their closet, confess with an honest heart and clear conscience before an all-seeing God, that they had experienced, ‘Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night’: I know I couldn’t have done so then.[3]

But if we turn to the language of the New Testament we see that the ‘singing and making melody – and with grace – to the Lord’ actually occurs ‘in the heart’ – the place God observes – and if that is absent then any sounds which emanate from lips or organ, be they never so beautiful and moving, are only vanity, Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16.

Then take poetry. Many are moved by the beauty of language, the turn of a phrase, and feel something deep within, yet it be nothing but a fleshly reaction: perhaps it was ‘mother’s favourite hymn’, or ‘Grandfather’s favourite psalm’. Again, put it in the context of ‘chapel’ and you are potentially in danger of being wrought upon by some spirit other than the Spirit of truth.

So feelings are important, but great caution is needed.

 

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[1] In this I confess to have some sympathy with the ministers. Nowhere in the New Testament is a minister expected to go through this ordeal of ‘burying’ someone, and having to utter words at the graveside which are designed to inform the mourners whether or not he thinks the deceased has gone to glory. In scripture the dead were buried, and that was that: no taking the body into the synagogue or temple; no priest, no sentences, just the grieving laying the body of their loved one into the tomb. No minister should be under this pressure of worrying about offending the family of the dead by not saying ‘in sure and certain hope’. It makes no difference whatsoever to the deceased what a minister or anyone else says at the funeral service or graveside, and I am sure that some do feel this burden of trying to find some evidence in the life of the departed to justify these words of assurance, when evidently there hadn’t been much at all.

[2] When I first discovered the doctrine of election I thought that because I now saw it and believed it, that made me one of the elect! How blind I was.

[3] As an aside here: music, whether it be found in chapel or ‘in the world’, is purely carnal. Nowhere in the New Testament is music alluded to as being spiritual or able to aid in the worship of God (Psalm 150 being under the Old Covenant); for music – or the playing of instruments – is not once mentioned in either ‘the gifts’ or ‘the fruit’ of the Spirit. This, of course, is something totally forgotten in the ‘modern’ church, as is the gospel itself, for music now seems to be one of the numerous amusements that have replaced preaching as the means whereby people – especially the young – are attracted into the churches and, presumably, kept. But music used in this context is an insidious ‘other gospel’ – which is not another – the Lord is not glorified by its use, and neither is it a means by which he can be approached. The Lord Jesus is and remains the only way to the Father, as the oft-repeated but, really, little believed John 14:6 shows.

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