The Pride and Deception of

Experience-Based Religion

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The preacher is in the middle of a sermon on indwelling sin. "I'm just a poor, depraved sinner," he says. "My heart is desperately wicked, my flesh is in rebellion to God, and I continually struggle with my old totally depraved nature that hates God and wants self on the throne and wants salvation to be conditioned on my works. I'm self-righteous to the core of my being, and without the mercy of God, I'd be headed for hell."

The audience nods in approval. Many close their eyes and some cry as they contemplate their own wickedness. After the sermon, there is a conversation about their thankfulness that they have a preacher who is such a humble a man of God. Although they don't say it out loud, they say to themselves that they, too, are humble, because they realize that they, too, are totally depraved.

It is a scenario that is played out week after week, year after year, to some degree or another, in assemblies all over the world.

Among these are those who call themselves "experiential Calvinists" (or "experimental Calvinists"). They love to read the experiences of those who have gone before, especially those "low times" in which these people have a special "feeling" of their total depravity and the wickedness of their hearts before they "look again to Jesus" (usually through an emotional reaction to something such as a sermon) and then have a special "feeling" of elation for a time because of their "feeling" of a special "closeness to Christ." This "feeling" eventually fades as the "cares of the world" and "the total depravity of the heart" once again take over, and the roller-coaster ride starts again. This is seen as true humility and holiness, the true experience of every true saint.

For example, here is what we find in an article entitled "The Lord's Dealings With Paul Avril" that was republished in an experiential Calvinist magazine:

"On Friday morning, November 24th, 1775, as I was reading in my bedroom, and praying over the Bible as usual, as I was reading and pondering over Revelation chapter 21, I had an amazing sight of the freeness of the grace of Christ from the verses 5,6 & 7; also from chapter 22, verses 16 & 17. ...

"I was frequently visited with the above passages for many days before, and others like them. They were as honey to my palate. Such were sweet portions of Scripture to my soul ...

"But after two or three weeks I began to have some fears that it was perhaps a delusion, that it might be the effects of imagination. These suspicions gave me much uneasiness, trouble, and anguish of soul; but I was enabled to pray so much the more, and to cry louder and louder, as it were, that I might know if it were real or not. ...

"On December 27th, 1775, on a Tuesday morning, I heard Mr. Romaine at the Lock Chapel ... The greatness of this Saviour shined amazingly into my understanding, particularly when he quoted in his sermon Rom. 9 verse 5 ...

"I was here again most sweetly enabled to cast my soul into the arms of Christ and to find his promised rest, in the pardoning love of God, through atoning blood (Heb. 9:14,15; with 1 Jn. 1:7).

"These words Mr. Romaine spake from the Word of God, and others I do not now recollect. O how did my heart burn within me while Christ, by the mouth of the minister, talked with me and opened to me the Scriptures (cf. Luke 24:32). I was set more at liberty, I think, now than before, into the glorious liberty of the children of God; or, rather, I had a stronger manifestation. This is a sermon much remembered by me. ...

"For the first two months of this year, 1781, I enjoyed great and sweet manifestations of my Redeemer's love to my soul, but though then I was on the mount, yet at the beginning of March I was brought into the valley of humiliation, for I was sadly beset with my inward corruptions. They were very violent and strong, especially my stubborn besetting sin, which was ready to break out outwardly ... These inward temptations cause me to see, more and more, in the light of the Holy Spirit, the wickedness of my heart, and of my weakness to resist any outward sin, proceeding from a filthy fountain, that I am always afraid of bringing a reproach upon the gospel by my outward conduct. ...

"On Lord's Day morning, March 18th, I heard Mr. Romaine, from Titus 3:4-8. ... He observed, 'The more you believe, the more peace and love you will have. ...' ... I had sweet and precious meltings of soul under this sermon. It was a sweet, refreshing season to me. "On Sunday evening, the 24th, [Nov. 1782] I heard Mr. Romaine on Romans 1:16. It proved the power of God unto me, as it did that day seven years [ago] for this was the anniversary of the day when my soul was set at liberty. It was not my spiritual birthday; that I look upon to be January 20th, 1771, when, being dead in trespasses and sins, without seeking I was found and unsought for by me, when the Lord first laid hold of my heart in effectual calling; but I was not set at liberty till November 1775. ...

"From the beginning of 1771, when I was first under convictions, I would sometimes go to hear legal (moral) preachers, both French and English, but found no comfort at all; on the contrary, only enough to make me quite despair. ...

"... Now if I had hearkened to the accusing devil, and my own legal temper and good or bad frames, I should have dropped my shield of faith, and got into the spirit of bondage again to fear, as I pharisaically formerly did; yea, I have much too great legality even now. I would fain go about to establish a little of my own righteousness if I could. God grant that the love of sin and of my own righteousness may be taken out of my heart, that Jesus alone may be exalted."

Oh how humble that all sounds to the spiritually deaf ear! Yet it is full of heresy. First, it promotes the heresy that Christians remain totally depraved in their hearts, contrary to Ezekiel 36:26 and 2 Corinthians 5:17. (See the article "Is A Christian's Heart Deceitful and Desperately Wicked?" in this issue.) Second, it promotes the heresy that Christians can doubt their salvation, contrary to Hebrews 11:1 and Romans 8:16. (See the article "Faith Is Assurance" in Vol. 9, No. 3 of this newsletter.) Third, it promotes the heresy that there is a time-lapse between regeneration and being "set at liberty." (See the article "The Irrelevant Gospel" in Vol. 5, No. 2 of this newsletter.) Related to this are the "Holy Spirit conviction" and "preparationism" heresies in which the Holy Spirit graciously works in or on a person who is still unregenerate to make him "feel" the depth of his sin and depravity and give him a knowledge that he deserves hell, yet not giving him belief in salvation conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ alone. (A future article on "Holy Spirit Conviction" will be written in the pages of this newsletter, the Lord willing.)

As we can see, this unregenerate man, Paul Avril, was constantly going through a roller-coaster of feelings. For a period of time he feels good based on what he reads in the Bible; during the next period of time he feels bad because he has doubts as to what is reality; during the next period he feels good again because he heard an uplifting sermon; during the next period he feels bad again because of indwelling sin that caused him to see the wickedness of his heart; during the next period he feels good after another sermon in which Mr. Romaine said that the more one believes, the more peace and love he will have; and on and on he goes, up and down and up and down, basing his assurance on his feelings. He even says that he has "much too great legality even now" and that he would "fain go about to establish a little of my own righteousness if I could." He admits that he still has a heart full of legalism and self-righteousness. Oh, how humble-sounding to his fellow feelings-oriented brothers! What he is actually admitting is that he has not been made a new creation and been given a new heart!

There are points of great pride among the experience-based religionists. One of these points is the feeling of vileness. How can feeling vile be a point of pride? In this way: They pride themselves in feeling vile and in telling others how vile they are, and they believe that if one does not feel as vile as he should feel, then that person's salvation should be questioned. They actually think they are better off than others who do not express their feelings of vileness to the same degree. They take pride in feeling more vile than the next person. (See the quote from Jonathan Edwards in the article entitled "Is A Christian's Heart Deceitful and Desperately Wicked?" in this issue.) They think that the more vile one feels he is, the more humble he is, and those who do not feel they are as vile as they need to think are "dead-letterists" and "Pharisees."

Another point of pride is in the nature of their experiences. They love to tell and read stories about their and others' experiences, and these experiences validate their spiritual state. These experiences consist of long periods of time in which the person feels like he is the lowest of the low and does not deserve salvation because he is too sinful. The more extreme the experience, the more validation they have. We hear stories about people who have cried endlessly, who have stayed up night after night, who have not eaten for long periods of time, who have contemplated suicide, etc., etc., because they were so distressed about their souls. And some stories get bizarre to the point of being mystical or charismatic, with visions and the like. Many will say that if a person has not had such an "experience," (either during the regeneration/conversion "process" or at some point), then his salvation should be questioned. They take pride that they are not as those who have not had such experiences.

In this heretical scheme, belief of doctrine is secondary to experience; thus, as long as one has had an experience, then this is evidence of the Spirit's gracious work, even if the person did not believe the gospel. This is clearly seen in people who say that they remained Arminians after they were saved. To what do they point as evidence that God saved them? Many times, it is an experience involving a "conviction of sin" and a change in morality. They look back to a time when they changed from being immoral to being moral when they first believed the Arminian false gospel of universal atonement and renounced irreligion. This change is sometimes very dramatic, especially if people were formerly extremely outwardly immoral. Then, when these former Arminians "come into" Calvinism, they are not able to discount that previous experience. Thus, their experience - including an experience of being under some kind of "conviction" in which they despised themselves and their sin and knew they deserved to be punished for their sin - trumps belief in the gospel.

There is pride itself in believing that one does not deserve salvation because one is too sinful. Some even believe that doubt of one's salvation is a sign of one's salvation!

How many times have we heard about the person who just felt too sinful to pray, feeling that God would never accept his prayers because he is so filthy? That will bring out the tears of the false religionists. They will come up to him and hug him and say that they understand and that everything is okay.

Yet what self-righteous religionists call humility, God calls pride. What does this person who thinks he is too filthy to pray believe that his acceptance before God is based on? He believes that it is based on his own righteousness. And since he believes that he cannot come to God because he is unrighteous, what does he believe will gain him acceptance before God? His own righteousness. What a proud, haughty man it is who would say that he believes in Jesus but who is too sinful to have access to God. Think of this: Once this person is over his depression and starts praying again, why has he begun to pray again? Because he feels that he is not so sinful anymore! He has somehow washed himself up to the point that he now can be accepted before God! Yet the Bible says this:

"For by one offering He has perfected in perpetuity the ones being sanctified. And the Holy Spirit witnesses to us also. For after having said before, This [is] the covenant which I will covenant to them after those days, says [the] Lord: Giving My Laws on their hearts, and I will write them on their minds; also [He adds], I will not at all still remember their sins and their lawlessnesses. But where remission of these [is], there [is] no longer offering concerning sins. Therefore, brothers, having confidence for the entering of the [Holy of] Holies by the blood of Jesus, which He consecrated for us, a new and living way through the veil; that is, His flesh; and [having] a Great Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, our hearts having been sprinkled from an evil conscience, and [our] body having been washed in pure water; let us hold fast the confession of the hope unyielding, for He who has promised is faithful" (Heb. 10:14-23). "Therefore, let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and we may find grace for timely help" (Heb. 4:16). "in whom we have boldness and access in confidence through His faith" (Eph. 3:12).

Upon what basis do God's people have boldness and confidence for entering the Holy of Holies and drawing near the throne of grace in full assurance? Through their own works and cleanness? No - it is through the blood of Jesus, through His faith, the Great High Priest who intercedes for His people. The false religionist sees a person who doubts his salvation and says, "humble." God says, "proud." The false religionist sees a person who is fully assured of his salvation and says, "proud." God says, "humble." A truly humble person acknowledges and repents of his sin and says that he is not sufficient in and of himself to be accepted before God, and, at the same time, he is fully confident that he is accepted before God because of the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone:

"And we have such confidence through Christ toward God; not that we are sufficient of ourselves to reason out anything as [being] out of ourselves, but our sufficiency [is] of God" (2Co. 3:4-5).

The Puritans are the greatest examples of feelings-based navel-gazing religion. Although one of their own (Isaac Ambrose) wrote a book entitled Looking Unto Jesus, the grand theme of the Puritans was Looking Unto Self. Joel Beeke's book lauding such religion, entitled Puritan Reformed Spirituality, gives ample evidence of this. Just look for words like "feel," "heartfelt," "inflame," "affections," "head knowledge" vs. "heart experience," and the like. In a chapter entitled "Anthony Burgess on Assurance," Beeke writes: "Burgess acknowledged that many believers lack full assurance. Though most believers have some degree of assurance, few attain a comfortable degree of assurance. Full assurance is difficult for most believers to attain" (p. 177) And how, according to Beeke and Burgess, does a believer "attain" assurance? "The mystical syllogism was based largely on the believer's internal exercises and progress in sanctification. It focused on the inward man ... 'Sometimes Fear of God is a sign, sometimes Poverty of Spirit, sometimes Hungering and thirsting after Righteousness, sometimes Repentance, sometimes Love, and sometimes Patience,' Burgess wrote. 'So that if a godly man can find any one of these in himself, he may conclude of his Salvation and Justification" (pp. 180-181).

Burgess contrasted what he considered the evidences of true and false believers. He said that true believers are distinguished by "'the Manner and Method [by which] the Spirit of God doth usually work Assurance,' which involves 'serious Humiliation for sin, feeling the burden of it ... conflicts and doubts, and opposition of unbelief ...,'" while false believers have "no real inflaming of 'the heart with love to God'" (p. 175).

Here we see in this heretical scheme that doubts and unbelief are actual signs of the Holy Spirit's working! "God uses conflicts, doubts, and trials to mature the believer's faith" (p. 187). God certainly uses conflicts and trials, but the Puritans believed that He also uses doubts! And if there have not been such doubts, then this is evidence that the Holy Spirit has not been working!

"[Burgess] then offered five reasons God might withhold assurance from His people: 'First, That hereby we may taste and see how bitter sin is. ... Secondly, Hereby God would keep us low and humble in ourselves" (p. 190). If God withholds assurance to keep us low and humble, what does that say about those who have full assurance?

Then there is the "inflaming of the 'heart with love to God,'" without which there is false religion. What did the Puritans think this "inflaming" was?

"Edmund Calamy wrote, 'A true meditation is when a man doth so meditate of Christ as to get his heart inflamed with the love of Christ ... He went on to say that, in order to do good meditation must enter three doors: the door of understanding, the door of the heart and affections, and the door of practical living. ... [T]he Puritans serve as mentors on how we can use sanctified imagination. ... Such meditation will kindle our affections and love for God. ... Watson wrote, '... meditation is like the shining of the sun, it operates upon the affections, it warms the heart and makes it more holy. ...' Bates said that meditating is like trying to build a fire from wet wood. Those who persevere will produce a flame. When we begin to meditate, we may first garner only a bit of smoke, then perhaps a few sparks, 'but at last there is a flame of holy affection that goes up toward God.' Persevere 'till the flame doth so ascend,' Bates said. ... Thomas White suggested, 'considering the parts of Meditation are so many, viz. Preparation, Considerations, Affections, Resolutions, etc. and none of them are to be past [sic] slightly over, for Affections are not so quickly raised, nor are we to cease blowing the fire as soon as ever it beginneth to flame, until it be well kindled, half an hour [each day] may be thought to be the least for beginners, and an hour for those that are versed in this duty. ... Manton wrote, 'Do not bridle up the free spirit by the rules of method. That which God calleth for is religion, not logic. ...' ... Next, stir up affections ... Paul Baynes, in discussing meditations as a 'private meanes' [sic] of grace, compared it first with the power of sight to affect the heart, then with the process of conception and birth: 'Now look as after conception, there is a travail to bring forth and a birth in due season: so when the soul by thought hath conceived, presently the affections are tickled and excited, for the affections kindle on a thought, as tinder doth, when a spark lighteth on it. The affections moved, the will is stirred and inclined.' ... Meditation augments one's affections. Watson called meditation 'the bellows of the affections.' He said, 'Meditation hatcheth good affections, as the hen her young ones by sitting on them; we light affection at this fire of meditation'" (pp. 74-92).

Does any of this sound like a modern-day heresy? Of course it does. It is called the Charismatic Movement. It is based on feelings - "inflaming, kindling, warming, tickling, exciting, moving, stirring, fanning the flame of" the emotions. These feelings then become the basis of worship and assurance. After all, as Manton said, "That which God calleth for is religion, not logic"! That is an astounding statement if you think about it. This statement implies that true religion and logic are mutually exclusive - that the true Christian Faith is not logical! Doctrine becomes secondary or even tertiary, and those who emphasize doctrine rather than feelings are seen as teaching "dry orthodoxy" (as Beeke put it).

Beeke writes, "Even in conservative evangelical churches, head knowledge of scriptural truths is often a substitute for heart experience" (p. 151). "... Puritan preaching wooed the heart passionately. ... Puritan preachers did not just reason with the mind and confront the conscience; they appealed to the heart" (p. 159). He speaks of "heartfelt piety," contrasting it with mere "scriptural knowledge" (vii).

This kind of language does not have its basis in Scripture but in mysticism and romanticism. The heart includes the mind or the intellect, which many call the "head." Everyone who knows something knows it in his heart. What an unregenerate person knows, he knows in his heart. What a regenerate person knows, he knows in his heart. Read the following passages to see what the heart does: Gen. 6:5; 24:45; 27:41; Exo. 35:35; 36:2; Deut. 15:9; 1Ki. 3:9; Psa. 14:1; 15:2; 49:3; Prov. 14:10; Ecc. 7:22; Isa. 33:18; Matt. 13:15; Luke 2:19; Acts 8:22; Rom. 10:9-10; Heb. 4:12. These verses clearly show that the heart is what thinks, understands, knows, and believes, in both believers and unbelievers. To say that someone has a "head" knowledge with no "heart" knowledge is a false distinction. All knowledge comes from the intellect, which is included in the heart. True faith is a matter of the intellect, just as false faith is a matter of the intellect.

Do we who are true Christians meditate? Of course we do. But we do not do it to "stir up our affections" to have an emotional experience that makes us feel closer to God. That is just Puritan Charismatic superstitious pseudo-pious nonsense.

Are we who are true Christians just "believers in doctrine" with no "experience of godliness" in our daily lives? This is impossible. A true Christian - someone who has a true understanding, a true knowledge, a true belief, of gospel doctrine - will pursue godliness and live a life of obedience. There is no such straw man as a person who "believes right gospel doctrine in his head" but who "lacks godly living." All Christians do not live in sin, do not serve sin, and do not walk according to the flesh; all Christians bear fruit unto God, serve in newness of spirit, hate sin, walk according to Spirit, are slaves of obedience to righteousness, have their fruit unto sanctification, are created in Christ Jesus unto good works, and are zealous of good works (Rom. 6:2,6;7:4,6,15;8:1,4, 9,16, 18,22; Eph. 2:10; Titus 2: 14).

Are we who are true Christians emotionless or unfeeling intellectuals, or do we experience emotions? We most certainly do experience emotions. We, like David and Jeremiah, have experienced the weight of our sin, crying out to God for forgiveness. We, like Paul, have wept real tears over the horrible spiritual state of our brothers according to the flesh and have cried out about our own indwelling sin and about deliverance from the body of this death through Jesus Christ. We have experienced times of intense joy when in fellowship with other believers or when meditating on the work of Christ, even to the point of crying. We have cried when we have meditated on the love with which Christ loves us, that He has saved us, who were guilty, defiled, hell-deserving sinners, by enduring the full fury of the wrath of the Father that we deserved. Our zeal for the purity of the house of God consumes us. When we see self-righteous religionists who come in the name of sovereign grace blaspheme our God and make Him into a liar, we are sometimes overcome with anger. Those who would accuse us of being emotionless, who would say that we have no deep sorrow for our own sin, who would say that we have no love for the lost, have not spent time with us.

But we are not "experiential religionists" who come in the name of sovereign grace but who base their hope and their assurance and their fellowship with God and their holiness of life on their emotions. We certainly do get emotional, but our emotions do not tell us or anyone else that we are saved. The "experiential religionists" will see a man crying all night on his bed over sin and say that this man must be saved, or at least undergoing "holy spirit conviction." But we who are true believers know that the wicked can cry all night on their bed over their sin and still be just as wicked when they rise from their bed in the morning.

Display of emotion does not tell anything about a person's spiritual state in and of itself. The wicked can show outward compassion. They can have zeal and outward joy. They can be angry at the murderers and child molesters and homosexuals. They can believe that there is one God and tremble. They can be depressed over their sinful state. It matters not what emotions they have. What matters is this: what DOCTRINE do they believe? An "experiential religionist" can read the diary of a person who wrote that he felt enraptured by a particular sermon or a particular passage of Scripture and say that this is proof that this person is saved, no matter what doctrine he believes. We who are believers know that it is the DOCTRINE that tells us whether or not he is saved.

The Jews had a zeal for God (their affections were inflamed, kindled, warmed, tickled, excited, moved, stirred) but it was not according to KNOWLEDGE (Romans 10:2) - that specific doctrinal knowledge of the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel (Romans 10:3-4).

Faith is not a feeling or an emotion. It is not based on feelings or emotions. It is a belief in God's promise of salvation conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ alone. Will this belief sometimes elicit certain emotions? Yes. But our assurance and our religion are not based on our experiences or emotions. They are based on the work of Jesus Christ alone.