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 Balancing the Word and Experience

John Hoole July 06, 2008


Matthew, a 4-year-old boy, was eating an apple with his father. He asked, "Daddy, why does my apple turn brown after I bite it?" His father answered, "Because after you have eaten the skin off, the meat of the apple comes into contact with the air which causes it to oxidize, thus changing its molecular structure and turning it to a different color." There was a long silence. Then Matthew asked softly, "Daddy, are you talking to me?"

Every scholastic and occupational discipline has its own jargon. That is, they have a specialized vocabulary that helps professionals within the discipline to communicate. This is true whether we are talking about engineering, accounting or medicine. But it is also true of theologians.

While I am no theologian, I have studied hundreds, maybe thousands of articles and books written by theologians. Theologians pepper their writings with words like pneumatology, exegesis, charismata, soteriology, Noahic, Johanine, hypostatic, prevenient and pseudapigrapha. I am not implying that preachers should avoid biblical topics because of their depth or profundity. A good sermon is not necessarily a string of cute stories held together by a biblical text. And the messenger of God is, after all, called to "Preach the Word" (2 Timothy 4:2). I hope that as we study our lesson today, that it is totally understandable.

Most of us were born hearing well, but all of us must learn to LISTEN well. Listening is a skill, an art that is in need of being cultivated. Paula often wonders if I am really listening to her, or just hearing her.

Dr. Ralph Nichols, considered by many to be an authority on the subject, believes that we think four, perhaps five times faster than we talk. That means that if a speaker utters one hundred twenty words a minute, the audience thinks at about five hundred word a minute. That difference offers a strong temptation to listeners to take mental excursions to think about last night's ball game, or tomorrow's sales report that is due, or about the time mom had with her daughter a couple of days ago, or about getting the car tuned before next week's vacation and then phase back into what the speaker is saying -- without missing too many words, but probably not assimilating all the speaker meant you to understand.

Research at the University of Minnesota reveals that in listening to a ten-minute talk, hearers, as a general rule, operate at only a 28% efficiency. And the longer the talk, the less we understand - the less we track with our ears what somebody's mouth is saying. This could be downright frightening to guys like me who teach from 30 to 40 minutes at a crack. That also explains why someone once described preaching as "the fine art of talking into someone else's sleep."

Good communication is tricky business. I have no guarantee that what you thought you heard me say was what I meant to convey. We are all busy people with heavy mental anchors dragging across our brains at every waking moment.

This brings up the seldom-mentioned secret of a good sermon (or lesson). Aside from God's vital part in the whole thing, there are two crucial ingredients to make it happen. First, the one who speaks must speak well. Second, the one who listens must listen well. Neither is automatic. Both are hard work. I should also add that just because a Bible is open and religious words are being tossed around, there is no magical spell of sustained interest guaranteed. And as difficult as it may be for us teachers to accept this, sincerity in the heart is no excuse for being dry, dull, and boring at the podium.

I have said all this because I want us to understand the topic we are tackling today. It is a topic that has at times divided people in the family of God. And, we must always recognize that our enemy is never another member of the body of Christ. Satan is our enemy.

Let me introduce our topic by starting with a Scripture.

James 4:17 NKJV

17 Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.

This verse speaks of two very important entities in the life of a Christian. It speaks first about knowing. Then it instructs us to do what we know.

HOW DO WE KNOW WHAT IS GOOD?

We don't learn it from each other - for among us there is none good, no not one (Romans 3:12). Only God is good - so we learn that which is good from Him. And He has communicated to us all about what is good in the Bible. The Psalmist says that the Word of God is righteous altogether.

ONCE WE KNOW WHAT IS GOOD, HOW DO WE DO IT?

We must obey and live it. It must become the center of our lives and experiences. The changes God makes in each person's life are all demonstrated in how they live - that is, in their experiences. James also tells us not to be hearers of the Word only, but doers of the Word as well.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE DOERS OF THE WORD?

As we have stated earlier, I say again - this verse says the Word of God should become a vital part of our life. The truth of the Word should not only be in our head. It must affect how we live.

Today, I want to examine how to balance the Word of God with our living. I have mentioned a number of times that all of our living - our life's experiences - must be measured by the Word of God. The Word of God must always be the sole rule for our faith and practice (living).

The reason I want to discuss this topic of the Word of God and our experience is this. Charismatics and Pentecostals are sometime accused of putting too much emphasis on our experiences. Sometimes we are said to have developed our beliefs or doctrines from our experiences. We have probably been guilty of that at times. Sometimes we have sought an experience at the expense of the Word. So, what role do our experiences have in our growth as Christians?

Pentecostals are sometimes challenged to understand that authentic experiences must happen in response to truth. I don't think we have a problem with that - we agree. Our experiences should be an obedient response to what the Word of God tells us.

Here is a scenario. People read about tongues in the Bible, and note in the Book of Acts and 1 Corinthians that many spoke in tongues, and they hear the apostle Paul speak about tongues and notices Paul's desire that all speak in tongues. Thus when people speak in tongues, is it a matter of putting experience first, or are they acting on biblical truth? In this example, the Pentecostal did not begin with experience. Rather, their experience is the outworking of Scriptural truth.

I do agree that experience is not a valid test of truth. But it surely does serve to confirm the teachings of the Bible. The Bible over and over again tells us that once we know the truth (the Word), we must live it. And living it is part and parcel of our experiences. The whole thought of "obedience to the Word" is experiential. Obedience can only be demonstrated by experience - whether action or thought.

Let's look a just a few of the Scriptures that show the link between God's Word and our experiences.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 NKJV

16 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,
17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

All of the Bible is profitable to us. Why? For what purpose? So the believer can be "thoroughly equipped for every good work." Experiencing good works is an natural outgrowth of the Word of God.

1 Thessalonians 2:13 NKJV

13 For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe.

The believers in the city of Thessaloniki had heard and received the Word of God, and because of that, the Word effectively worked in their lives. They had the Word of God and experienced its effect in their life.

Luke 4:4 NKJV

4 But Jesus answered him, saying, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.'"

What does the word "live" indicate here? It is speaking of our experiences of daily living. Christ is telling us that the Word is what we are to experience life by.

You may wonder what all this has to do with the series we are in. That is, "the ministry of the Holy Spirit." When Jesus was about to leave and return to His Father, He tells his disciples that He would send the promise of the Father. That is, the Holy Spirit would come to earth. In John 14 - 16, Jesus tells us some of what the Holy Spirit would do once He arrived. In 16:13, He says the Spirit will guide us into all truth - that is the Word of God. In 14:16-17, Christ told them that the Holy Spirit would be the Spirit of Truth and would live in them to be their Helper in every issue - experience - of life. The Holy Spirit would give the Christian power to live a godly life. To summarize, the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth and help us understand it. Then He would give us power to live the Word daily.

The Bible is our instruction manual for the Christian life. It was given to us to teach us how to live in relationship with God. And the people we read about in the Bible are examples of how to walk with God. They were people who actually experienced God. They didn't just know about God - they interacted with Him.

In fact, the only model the Bible gives us for walking with God is an experiential model. A large part of the Bible is a record of experiences people had with God. The Bible describes men and women who placed great importance on spiritual experiences and often made crucial decisions on the basis of those experiences.

For instance, Joseph made the decision to take Mary as his wife based solely on his experience of the visitation of an angel in his dream. One of the most important theological decisions in the history of the church, the inclusion of Gentiles in the Church, was made on the basis of a spiritual experience, when the Holy Spirit fell on a group of Gentiles, causing them to speak in tongues.

Acts 15:7-8 NKJV

7 And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: "Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.
8 So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us,

Peter based his approval of Gentiles in the church, based on the fact they had an experience just like the 120 in the Upper Room.

Truth without experience produces intellectualism or legalism. But experience without truth produces fanaticism or heresy. We want our church to be both grounded in the knowledge of the Truth of God's Word, and experience that Word in their daily lives, with the help of the Holy Spirit. Truth without experience is truth without life. If we preach the doctrines of holiness, fellowship, unity of the body of Christ, ministry of the Holy Spirit, the Christian family, etc., then we must also obey and live those doctrines or we become like a modern day Pharisee. It is truly a dangerous thing to know more truth than you are living.

I have a couple of books by Donald Gee. He was one of the early leaders of Pentecost in England, and he chronicled the story of the Pentecostal explosion in Europe at about the time it happened in the United States. He was called the "Apostle of Balance." Speaking to the Fifth World Pentecostal Conference in 1953, Donald Gee said "the Spirit was not…the subject of theological dogma, but a burning experience." He points out that when Paul dealt with problems in Galatia, he appealed to their experience.

Galatians 3:1-3 NKJV

1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified?
2 This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?
3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?

Paul speaks to the Galatians about not obeying the truth. Then he asks them - "did you receive the Spirit by faith or by the law?" He is appealing to their earlier experiences as indicators of how they should now live. The Holy Spirit was God in earthly activity, just as Jesus had been.

The Baptism in the Spirit is not meant to be a single emotional event. It envelops believers permanently. The Holy Spirit is their environment - the air they breathe - moment by moment which provides the vitality of their Christian faith and experience. When we take the gospel to the world, our ammunition is the explosive power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit takes God's Word, then animates the believers in their teachings, their preaching, their prayer, their service and their very lives. The Word of God is preeminent and comes first, but then we are to live it and take it to the world. The Holy Spirit, with His power, causes us or leads us into action. The life of a Christian is hugely experiential.

The tendency of some within the church today to reject or downplay spiritual experiences is a fairly recent development in the church. In the late 19th century, D. L. Moody, one of the greatest evangelical leaders of his day, attributed the success of his ministry to a dramatic spiritual experience he called his "baptism of the Holy Spirit." Moody wrote that he had been crying out to God for the power of the Spirit. In response to his persistent prayer the Holy Spirit fell upon him - and he wrote: "One day, in the city of New York - oh, what a day! I cannot describe it, I seldom refer to it; it is almost too sacred an experience to name. I can only say that God revealed Himself to me, and I had such an experience of His love that I had to ask Him to stay His hand. I went to preaching again. The sermons were not different; I did not present any new truths, and yet hundreds were converted. I would not now be placed back where I was before that blessed experience if you should give me all the world." It was common during the era of Moody for evangelical leaders to urge their followers to seek a deeper experience with the Spirit.

Another early evangelical leader was Adoniram Judson Gordon. Gordon was a Baptist Pastor and named after Adoniram Judson, a Baptist missionary. He was a friend of D. L. Moody and of A. B. Simpson - founder of Christian & Missionary Alliance churches. Gordon College was founded by him. Gordon Divinity School and Conwell School of Theology became Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Gordon held healing services in his church, resulting in many testimonies of experiences of miraculous healing.

Merrill Unger, professor of Old Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary from 1948 to 1967, and editor of Unger's Bible Dictionary, also believed in divine healing. He expressed his views on the spiritual gift of healing this way.

"Such endowments of the Holy Spirit…were meant to continue in use throughout the Church age and to be in use today…..When rightly used, gifts of healing produce one of life's greatest blessings. Healing of the believer's body is divinely designed to crown confession of sin and honor the life dedicated to the Lord….The Lord waits to touch the weak bodies of His redeemed ones and quicken them to fulfill all His purpose for them in this life."

While none of these men were charismatic or Pentecostal, they strongly believed that the experience of the Spirit was a vital element in the Christian life.

Many people get very uncomfortable when we talk about experiences with God. Some Christians are even taught to fear or avoid an emphasis on experiences. But David and the other psalmists longed to experience God's presence (See Ps 42 & 61). The Bible consistently teaches that the empowering of the Spirit is experiential. When the power and presence of the Holy Spirit are manifested in the life of a believer, discernible changes take place - they experience something.

While the evidence of the Spirit's presence may vary from one occasion to another, I believe the empowering is always experiential. One reason many Christian never experience God's power is that they never seek it. We are told to earnestly desire the gifts and power of God.

Let me ask you two related questions.

o What are you content with?

o What are you discontented with?

One of the best indicators of the depth and vitality of your relationship with Christ is found in how one answers each of these questions. We are to be content with the gifts God has given you and me. Be gratefully satisfied with any and every gift that our sovereign God has chosen to give you. One of those gifts is the gift of salvation. We have been beneficiaries of His grace and blessings.

But we are to be discontent with the current state of our spiritual life. Be dissatisfied with our knowledge and experience of God. The intensity with which I worship His majesty can always improve. The depth and breadth of my understanding of the truth revealed in Scripture, and the purity and holiness with which I seek his righteousness, is always found with much room for improvement.

We are to be thankful for our standing as redeemed before Him. But we should never think we have finally arrived, with no further levels to pursue. This holy discontent will lead us to a true humility and brokenness before a holy God. Our thirst and desire to know and experience more of our God will never fully be quenched.

True humility and brokenness before a holy God only comes by looking at ourselves. We recognize how imperfect we are. And we have the desire to become more like our Lord and Savior.

But, far more important than the way we look at ourselves, is the way we look at Christ. Paul said that looking at Christ gave him a goal to pursue in his life (Philippians 3). For Paul, and it should be the same for us, finding Christ did not mean there was no more need to seek Him. I press on to make Christ my own because Jesus Christ made me His own.

There is always more of Christ to know and experience. He is infinite! His wonder and his glory are inexhaustible for all eternity.

Charles H. Spurgeon, in a sermon on the subject of knowing God, which, by the way, was delivered in 1855, when he was only 20 years old, said: "It is a subject ["Knowing God"] so vast that all of our thoughts are lost in its immensity, so deep that all of our pride is drowned in its infinity."

Do you remember how Paul prayed for the Ephesians in Ephesians 3:18-19?

He prayed that they "may have power to comprehend with the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled will all the fullness of God."

There is always more of the Love of God to be experienced by us. There is much more of the fullness of god for us to be filled with. Even the most mature and godly among us must acknowledge that. One thing I have noticed about the presence of God is this: Once you experience it, it whets your appetite for more. Spend a little time in the presence of God, and soon you won't be satisfied with just a little taste now and then.

Getting back to the source

If you hike up into the wilderness area of Northern Minnesota, you could stop at Lake Itasca. This lake is sometimes called the source of the Mississippi River. But there are several streams that feed Lake Itasca, Nicollet being the longest of them. Therefore, it has been dubbed the headwater of the 2,340 mile long Mississippi River. Nicollet stream is the result of a spring gurgling out of the ground. The pure water is cold enough to hurt your teeth as you get down on your hands and knees to drink from it. Although it is so small at the source that you can actually step over it, the further it goes towards the ocean, and the wider it become, the muddier it becomes. You wouldn't want to drink from it down-river.

This is very much like the church through its long history. At its source, one hundred and twenty people had an encounter with the Holy Spirit. It was pure and holy - a beautiful thing to witness. As Christianity grew and got farther away from the source, it gradually became muddier, and in some ways, more shallow.

By the year 170 A.D., the Church had already become ritualistic and formal. It would have been difficult recognizing it as the church we read about in the book of Acts. The church became governed by rules and traditions of men, rather than the Spirit of Christ. Those who tried to move in the Spirit, or spoke in tongues or prophesied were considered strange or cultish. The Church became more and more top-heavy and less spontaneous.

But in each generation, there have been those who have tried to get back to the source, back to the headwaters of the river called Christianity. In 170 A.D., there were the group known as the Montanists, so named after their leader Montanus. They didn't call themselves by that name - but took the name Cataphrygians, after the area of Turkey - Phrygia - where they were located. One giant among the early church fathers - Tertullian - defended the Montanists movement. But because this movement had some questionable practices, much of the church threw out all that they taught - even the good was discarded.

Down throughout the history of the church, there have been those who greatly desired getting back to the source. And that means getting back to the teachings of the Bible. This is the primary reason for the great number of church organizations in the world today.

We must continually keep in focus that the Word of God is the pattern for our lives. The Word of God is the rule by which we measure all else. The Bible is the means today by which to evaluate phenomena purporting to be of the Holy Spirit. We Pentecostals do not need the Bible less because of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. We need it more.

Jim Cymbala, pastor of Brooklyn Tabernacle, in his book, Fresh Power, wrote: "What we need is that unique merger of divine truth, human personality, and Holy Spirit gifting that produces effective ministry for Christ."

When I was a student at Northwest University in the spring of 1972, I remember what a speaker at the chapel service said. Daniel Pecota was a professor at Northwest University, but he had taken a leave of absence during the 1971-72 school year. He was finishing his PHd at a southern university. It was a non-Pentecostal school. He visited home that spring and was asked to speak at chapel. I remember how he began his sermon. He said, "Whereas I once believed in the inspiration of the Bible, (long pause) I now believe it more than ever. Whereas I once believed in the Pentecostal experience and speaking in tongues, (long pause) I now believe it more than ever before." Professor Pecota said, "experiences are great. The experiences of God are a marvelous thing. But when it come to truth, experience only illuminates truth." And holding up his Bible, he said, "This is the grounds for Truth. The Word of God."

We who have greater openness toward utterances by the power of the Holy Spirit need the standard of the Bible even more than others who shy away from such phenomena. The Bible is indispensible to us. It is the means by which we can discern the genuine from the spurious. We cannot use the presence of the charismatic works of the Holy Spirit as an excuse to be less devoted to a thorough knowledge of the Bible. It is absolutely essential for Pentecostals to excel in Bible study. We need to make it known that we do not revere the Bible less because of our spiritual experiences. We prize the Bible as our authoritative guide for the experiences we have.

   
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