Is the Christian life about Biblical truth and doctrine or spiritual experience? Is Christianity intellectual or experiential? My answer is, “Yes!”. In my thirty-two years of being a believer, I have visited many churches, and— when it comes to this issue— the pendulum seems to swing wholly to one side or the other: you have some churches that are doctrinally rich but seem to fear—or even renounce— any spiritual “experience,” then you have others that are driven by eminently emotional experiences, but are often lacking doctrinal depth.
Tim Keller, in his book on prayer, writes, “We are not called to choose between a Christian life based on truth and doctrine or a life filled with spiritual power and experience.”1 I couldn’t agree more! I have attended Christian gatherings where I leave very intellectually stimulated and yet, emotionally indifferent. On other occasions, I have left really moved, yet having a hunger that only the Word can satisfy. I am convinced that we can have both sound doctrine and an incredible sense of God’s presence as part of the normal Christian life.
The Teaching of the Word
Expositional, Biblical preaching, is essential to a healthy church. A pastor must be well-studied and preach the Word faithfully. Believers should savor the Bible and walk in its teachings (Psalm 1, James1:22). Albert Mohler rightly points out that “A major portion of Christendom is spiritually starved—and sound, biblical preaching has become an extremely rare commodity.”2 This shouldn’t be!
An emotional experience, void of the Word, will leave us incredibly empty. I was a youth pastor for years, and one of the highlights for our students was always youth camp. I am a huge advocate of this event, but I noticed a trend: after a week of incredible spiritual experiences, our students would be hyped and ready to win the world for Jesus, only to see it fizzle out within a few days. The problem? In my experience, these meetings are bent towards spiritually-charged times at the altar (which I am not opposed to), but void of discipleship and deep Biblical teaching. This makes it tough, at best, to bear lasting spiritual fruit.
Emotional experiences and spiritual power don’t replace the necessity of the need for Bible teaching. I love how most Charismatic churches prioritize worship, but it is important to remember that the Bible calls us to worship “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). The Scriptures teach us about the God we serve, making doctrinal teaching essential to true worship.
Christians need to grow in the understanding of the Triune God, His Holiness, the Gospel, the preeminence of Christ, and all the other glorious truths found within the Scriptures; for this to happen, Biblical preaching is essential!
Communion with God
Those who have great theological insight without the emotional experiences of God’s presence are missing out on one of the great joys of the Christian life. Thomas Schreiner writes, we must not, “… underemphasize the emotional ground” of experience. “Some veer away from the idea because of its subjectivity, but the abuse of the subjective in some circles cannot exclude the ‘mystical’ and emotional dimensions of Christian experience.” 3
In my early adult years, I remember attending a “charismatic” meeting for the first time. After encountering the Holy Spirit in a way that was foreign to me, I began going to as many revivals as I could to bask in the Lord’s presence. Since then, I have certainly seen spiritual experiences and emotions abused, but I refuse to throw the baby out with the bath water. In God’s presence, there is a fullness of joy! Communing with Him should cause some level of an emotional response, as we are emotional beings. Read through the Psalms (e.g. 16, 27, 63, 119), and you are sure to have an appetite to enjoy His presence. I know that Christianity is more than a feeling, but I am thankful that I serve a God I can feel!
Within the confines of a Biblical framework (this is vital), we should enjoy the Lord’s presence and respond accordingly. I would rather be accused of being “overly emotional” than dry and stagnant towards the presence of a mighty, loving God!
My Unique Experience
I am passionate about this subject because I have had the unique opportunity of experiencing the best of both worlds. I grew up under some of the best preaching and teaching around, and have since enjoyed the immense pleasure of God’s presence and the freedom of responding emotionally to His presence, in God-glorifying ways.
As a pastor, I am still trying to find the balance of doctrine and spiritual experience within our church. At times, I have been accused of “putting my thumb on Holy Spirit,” and at other times of being “too Pentecostal.” Finding this balance is not easy, but it is an aim I will continue to pursue by God’s grace. I encourage you to do the same
Chris May (Guest Blogger
Keller, T. (2014) Prayer. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Schreiner, T.R. (1998) Romans: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Marietta, GA: Baker Books.
Mohler, R. A. (2008). He Is Not Silent. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.