William S. Plumer
Jonathan Edwards says, "A gracious experience arises from operations and influences which are spiritual, from an inward principle which is divine, a communication of God, a participation of the divine nature: Christ living in the heart, the Holy Spirit dwelling there in union with the faculties of the soul as an internal vital principle, exerting his own proper nature in the exercise of those faculties. Now it is no wonder that that which is divine is powerful and effectual, for it has omnipotence on its side."
Rarely do we find able men turning their attention to the work of God in the soul. It was not always so. In the seventeenth century the ablest productions of the greatest minds were on experimental religion. The exceeding popularity of a few books, first published in our own age, shows that so far as there is piety, such reading is in great demand. This will be more and more so as true religion shall prevail. It is admitted that the subject of experimental religion is not free from difficulties. But most of these are theoretical, rather than practical.
But more than anything else, we always need in the church a copious outpouring of God's Spirit on the hearts of his people, giving them a zest for spiritual things and a great desire for a full assurance of understanding, of faith and of hope. Many real Christians have made but low attainments, and are too little dissatisfied with their present state. One who should speak and act with the zeal and ardor of Paul, of Knox, of Welsh, of Whitefield, or of Henry Martyn—would by the thoughtless world, be esteemed mad. But wisdom is justified of her children. The truly regenerate and growing Christian will not be offended at sound views on this subject. It may encourage us to study this subject, to remember that, though in unessential particulars there is an endless diversity in the experience of men—yet in all that necessarily belongs to vital piety, there is a substantial agreement.
"The head may be strengthened—until the heart is starved." Indeed, infidelity itself will be sure to gain a footing in a community where vital godliness is not experienced. John Owen truly says, "The owning of the Scripture to be the word of God bespeaks a divine majesty, authority, and power to be present in it and with it. Therefore, after men who have for a long time so professed, do find that they never had any real experience of such a divine presence in it by any effects upon their own minds, they grow insensibly regardless of it, or to allow it a very common place in their thoughts. When they have worn off the impressions that were on their minds from tradition, education, and custom, they do for the future rather not oppose it than in any way believe it. And when once a reverence unto the word of God on account of its authority is lost, an assent unto it on account of its truth will not long abide. And all such people, under a concurrence of temptations and outward "occasions, will either reject it or prefer other guides before it."
If men dead in sin are ever to be restored to spiritual life, they must be the subjects of a mighty work of grace; they must be taught of God; they must be born from above; they must be called out of darkness into God's marvelous light; they must be renewed in the inner man. The advantages of experience are felt in all the affairs of life. The truths we know by experience are worth more to a wise man than all he can learn from the demonstrative sciences or the reasonings of others. In all the departments of life, he who has experience has qualifications denied to the mere theorist or scholar. Religious experience puts us on our guard against the snares of the world, the flesh, and the devil. It teaches us sincerity, self-distrust, and humility. It causes us to abound in all prudence. It gives us a delightful confirmation in the truth. It fits us for doing good to an extent far beyond what we could ever attain by instruction in the letter of God's word.
All the friends of true religion ought carefully to guard against the abuses of religious experience. They should be very careful to avoid all vain boasting, a sin into which men easily fall. They should learn wisely to discriminate between the genuine and the spurious, between effects produced by divine truth on the one hand and by nervous temperament on the other. They should be especially careful not to rely on any past attainments which do not produce present good fruit. Any exercise of the mind which leads us to dullness in devotion, to carelessness about holy living, to lack of zeal for the salvation of men, is not gracious.
Table of Contents
1. General remarks on religious experience
2. Early religious impressions--Awakening
3. Early religious impressions--Inquiry
4. Further strivings of the Spirit
5. A sense of wretchedness
6. Conviction – Conversion
7. Cases of religious distress
8. Spiritual darkness
13. The fear of God
15. Love to God
16. Love to Christ
17. Love to our neighbor
18. Love to the brethren
25. Concluding observations