Doctrine Matters: Chapter Three – Doctrine and Experience

by David Prior

(click to see foreword, chapter one, chapter two, chapter four)

The longest journey in the world is from the head to the heart. This maxim, much beloved of preachers and others, is often quoted to draw a distinction between what we believe in our minds and what we feel in our hearts. Clearly there can be a wide gulf between the two. Our convictions and our knowledge about God may lead us to say one thing; our experience of God may tell us and others something entirely different. For example, many know that God is love, but their experience (or sometimes their lack of experience) appears to contradict what they believe in their minds.

I think of a woman, brought up in a strongly Christian family, who cannot remember a time when she has not wanted to follow Christ and do his will. This desire has, over the years, made her - and her husband -punctilious to the point of punishing herself for not doing as much as she can to please God. She is aware, in her head, of God's accepting love whatever she does or fails to do for him. But she has been operating for years on the 'heart' belief that, because none of us deserves God's goodness and blessing, she cannot expect God to bless her with anything she, deep down, longs to experience. Instead of striving to do things for God, she actually needs to let God do things for her - and in her.

This distinction between head and heart is frequently transposed into a distinction between doctrine and experience. With our heads, so it is said, we grasp what we are taught about God; in our hearts we grasp the reality of God in personal experience. There are also many who affirm that it is to the heart that God reveals himself in a personal way, but that the mind - with all its queries, provisos and rationalisations - often presents a blockage to this revelation.

There are many variations on this theme, but a closer inspection of the scriptures would indicate that all these distinctions - or rather this cluster of distinctions - are barely sustainable in any biblical sense. One of the main reasons for this is that in biblical terminology the 'heart' does not normally exclude the mind, but describes a person in all their capacities and functions. Biblically, therefore, the heart includes the mind and is rarely depicted as distinct from the mind.

When distinctions are made, it is in contexts which stress the whole person - for example, when God gives the command to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30; cf. Deut. 6:5). The distinction, in this case, falls away in the experience of being freed into glad obedience as a person made whole.

When biblical writers are concerned with experience, they describe the whole person experiencing God. The most pervasive and powerful word for this experience of God is to know God. The interaction of doctrine and experience is, I believe, best understood by following this particular word and word-group through both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Doctrine and experience are both, after all, pathways to knowledge. Otherwise, we end up forming definitions both of doctrine and of experience based on our own world-view, only to find that these two neat categories are either non-existent in the scriptures, or are incapable of holding the full richness of scriptural truth.

The Garden of Eden

Let us start at the beginning. In the book of Genesis we are introduced to 'the tree of the knowledge of good and evil'. The Lord God instructs Adam, 'you must not eat from' this tree (Gen. 2:17). To do so - as the serpent understood - would produce human beings who would become 'like one of us, knowing good and evil' (Gen. 3:22). A perfect relationship between human beings and their creator did not involve that kind of knowledge. Our fallen condition does include such knowledge, but is excluded from that intimate personal relationship which is at the heart of God's purpose in making us in his image. In the language of Genesis 3, fallen human beings now have access to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but are excluded from access to the tree of life. We know a lot of things, but we do not know life as God intended: we do not know God.

The next use of the word in the Genesis account is equally significant. In Genesis 4:1 we read that 'Adam lay with [knew] his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain.' The word occurs twice more in Genesis 4. This is probably the most significant and seminal use of the word 'know' in the Old Testament. It is both very evocative and very direct, describing the most intimate personal relationship possible between human beings. It is this sense of the word 'know' which captures the heart of the relationship between God and his people. This is stressed most powerfully by prophets such as Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea. All three men liken the relationship between God and his people to the relationship between husband and wife. To know God and to be known by God is like a marriage. The people of Israel constantly corrupted this married relationship by committing adultery with other gods. The results are devastating. In Jeremiah 4:22, the Lord declares, My people ... do not know me.' In Hosea 5:3-4, the Lord says, 'I know all about Ephraim . . . They do not acknowledge the Lord.

Betrothed to the Lord

The importance of this language becomes clear when God's intention of setting up a new covenant with his people comes into focus. For example, in Hosea 2:19-20 God promises, 'I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge [know] the Lord.' And in Jeremiah 31:31-4 the prophet proclaims the Lord's intention to make a new covenant with his people:

'not. . . like the covenant I made with their forefathers . . . because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them ... I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, "Know the Lord," because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,' declares the Lord. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.'

It is important to recognise that there were individuals under the old covenant who knew God in this way. It was spasmodic, fleeting and limited. Abraham, God's friend (cf. Isa. 41:8; Jas. 2:23), enjoyed such a personal relationship. David was probably the person who most dramatically scaled the heights and plumbed the depths in thus knowing God. Certainly we have a fuller written record of his experience than of most others, especially in his psalms. The possibility of such knowledge of God was available to all who would set themselves to know him. Those who did so surely found him - and the reality of their experience was expressed in behaviour which demonstrated the character of God. For example, King Josiah 'did what was right and just ... Is that not what it means to know me?' (Jer. 22:15-16). The best and highest desires of God's people are expressed in the words of Hosea, 'Let us acknowledge [know] the Lord; let us press on to acknowledge [know] him' (Hos. 6:3).

The book of the law

The book of the law The touchstone for knowing God under the old covenant was the book of the law given through Moses. The whole book of Deuteronomy is presented as what Moses taught Israel (e.g., Deut. 4:1, 5, 14). The scribes, those who studied and taught the book of the law, had a crucial part to play in keeping the requirements of the law before the people. Jehoshaphat, for example, 'sent his officials . . . to teach in the towns of Judah . . . taking with them the Book of the Law of the Lord' (2 Chron. 17:7-9). Ezra is portrayed to us as a teacher of the law (see especially Ezra 7). The single most eloquent testimony to the attractive power of the law remains Psalm 119, an acrostic poem based on the Hebrew alphabet and containing such passionate declarations as 'Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long' (v. 97) and 'Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path' (v. 105). A similar declaration is made by the author of Psalm 71, who in old age testifies: 'Since my youth, O God, you have taught me' (v. 17).

Nevertheless, however important and esteemed the role of such teachers, and however precious at times the book of the law became to certain people, it is steadily acknowledged in the Old Testament that such 'external' teaching can only last so long and go so far. The problem is classically expressed in Isaiah 29:13 - 'These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.' In the prophecy of Jeremiah the Lord makes the same lament: They turned their backs to me and not their faces; though I taught them again and again, they would not listen or respond to discipline' (Jer. 32:33).

It is left to that mighty man of the Old Testament scriptures, the apostle Paul, to summarise both the inadequacy of the old covenant and the real heart of it. In Romans 2:17ff. Paul is speaking to all Jews in their insistence on the permanence of the old covenant. He says:

... if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth - you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? . . . A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly . . . a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. (Rom. 2:17-21, 28-9)

Paul then summarises the only true knowledge which the law can bring, in this devastating statement - 'through the law we become conscious of sin' (Rom 3:20). The fact that the law leads to knowledge of sin, not knowledge of God in the true sense, brings Paul to say later of his fellow Jews -'they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge . . . they did not know the righteousness that comes from God' (Rom. 10:2-3).

Learning to Walk

Learning to walk None of these perspectives on the old covenant, the law of the Lord, should allow us to forget that God was continuously teaching his people, in daily experience, what was meant by knowing him and what was involved in knowing him - 'It was I who taught Ephraim to walk' , (Hos. 11:3). Moses explained to the people (Deut. 8:3) that God had 'humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna ... to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord'. In Isaiah 48:17 we read, 'This is what the Lord says - your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: "I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who leads you in the way you should go.'"

In the Old Testament we often read of a time that is coming when God's teaching and his people's knowledge will come together in a wholly new way. For example, in Isaiah 30:20 we read,

Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, 'This is the way; walk in it.'

The people of God encouraged one another in Isaiah 2:3, 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord . . . He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.'

The Lord even uses an ass to make this reality come alive to Balaam, who describes himself (Num. 24:16) as 'one who hears the words of God, and has knowledge from the Most High, who sees a vision from the Almighty, who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened'. This is the knowledge, this is the teaching, this is the vision of God to which the old covenant could only allude, but which has been made gloriously and universally available in the new covenant.

Forgiveness for deliberate sin

When we come to consider the new covenant, it is clear that an entirely new relationship between God and his people is now made possible, a one-to-one relationship. The old covenant did not clearly provide for the forgiveness of sin committed deliberately and with premeditation. When David deliberately committed adultery with Bathsheba and organised the murder of her husband, Uriah, he was eventually brought to a place of repentance and an experience of forgiveness. This gracious act of God was fully in line with his revealed character, but not part of his actual covenant with his people. This is spelled out in Numbers 15:31, for example, where it is made plain that such iniquity is a deliberate rejection of the covenant-love of God: 'his guilt remains on him'. Forgiveness of sin is therefore the bottom line of the new covenant, on the basis of which anyone may know God in personal experience as Father, Teacher and Redeemer.

The basis of this new, personal relationship with God is the atoning death of God's own and only Son, Jesus Christ. The relationship is created and kept alive by the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit who dwelt in Jesus and who sustained his own relationship with God the Father. Because for us forgiveness of sin is the critical issue of our relationship with God through this new covenant, we must make sure it remains firmly in place in all the ways in which this relationship is worked out - in our own lives and in ministry to others.

How do we do this? At this stage it is necessary to face up honestly to the necessary element of mystery in the outworkings of the new covenant. The way that God works within an individual by his Spirit is inevitably and properly unique, hidden, and to that extent mysterious. Because it is all these things, there are endless possibilities for wandering off course into secret and special avenues of purported enlightenment.

It is not surprising, therefore, to find that the earliest and most pervasive heresy in the Christian church arose from claims to such special knowledge of God. These claims could be tested only with great difficulty. Because they revolved around personal, private experiences of knowing God, the umbrella-word for such teachings and tendencies was Gnosticism, which is taken from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis.

Early forms of Gnosticism, which has always had its contemporary examples (not least in ideas current in the mishmash of New Age teachings), would never have had any credibility unless they had been fairly approximate to the truth of the gospel. It is arguable that, except in certain way-out elements, the core of Gnostic teaching was so close to the true gospel that relatively uninstructed believers would have had difficulty drawing any significant distinction between them.

Taught by God

Jesus himself stated unequivocally (John 6:44-5), 'No-one can come to me unless the Father. . . draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets: "They will all be taught by God." Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me.' This personal experience of being drawn by the Father, of hearing and learning from the Father, is clearly seen by Jesus to be normal and necessary in the way individuals come to him as Saviour and Lord. Four crisp statements encapsulate this personal relationship with Jesus as Lord and God: 'you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free' (John 8:32); 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me' (John 14:6); 'if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed' (John 8:36); 'the truth ... is in Jesus' (Eph. 4:21).

All the Johannine writings (i.e., Gospel, Epistles and Apocalypse) make full use of the cluster of Greek words for know and knowledge. In an important passage where he is appealing to his readers not to be drawn aside into false doctrine, John stresses with some passion that they have already been enlightened to the point where further teaching appears less than imperative. John is obviously not downgrading a ministry which he himself is, at that very time, strongly and clearly pursuing with them; but he does say, 'I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is true, not counterfeit - just as it has taught you, remain in him' (1 John 2:26-7). In a previous verse in the same chapter (v. 20) John appears - on one reading of the text - to say that, as a result of having been thus anointed by the Holy One, 'you know everything'. A more likely rendering is 'all of you know', as foretold in Jeremiah (31:34) when explaining the new covenant, 'No longer will a man teach his neighbour . . . saying, "Know the Lord," because they will all know me.'

This remarkable assertion by John is presumably based on the promises made by Jesus to his disciples just before his death, that 'the Holy Spirit. . . will teach you all things . . . When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth' (John 14:26; 16:13). This essential and distinctive activity of God under the new covenant is noted, almost in passing, by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:9, when he says: 'Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.' This love for one another in the body of Christ is at the heart of the new covenant; it is, in fact, the 'new commandment' given by Jesus to his disciples (John 13:34-5) - a new and challenging application, modelled by Jesus himself, of the old commandment to love God and our neighbour (cf. 1 John 2:7-8). Christians in Thessalonica had been taught by God to walk in such mutual love - clear evidence that they knew God.

It must be significant that Paul, having acknowledged that God himself had taught the Christians in Thessalonica to love one another, still urges them to do so 'more and more'. Exhortation has its rightful place; but no human being can engender such mutual love in a church by teaching people about love, let alone by beating them over the heads with the new commandment. It is easy for an over-conscientious pastor to lay a guilt-trip on people, with a plethora of 'oughts' and 'ought nots'. When God teaches a church to love one another, it is manifest, beautiful and supernatural. It does not need much urging to do so more and more: instead of being a burden and a problem, the new commandment has become a delight - we cannot have too much of it. It is not surprising, therefore, that Paul explains that insisting on the letter of the law is to deal in death and to revert to the old covenant: we are called to be competent ministers of the new covenant of life in the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:6).

At this stage we need to remind ourselves that John insists that all claims to know God in personal experience must be properly tested. This is particularly important in a climate like the one prevalent today in the West. Thirty years ago, Francis Schaeffer warned that 'The end of the twentieth century will be a time of contentless mysticism.' All spiritual experiences need to be evaluated. John's touchstone was clear:

Dear Friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. (1 John 4:1-3)

In the language of Paul, the test of anyone's spiritual experience is whether a person is willing and able to say 'Jesus is Lord' (1 Cor. 12:3) - and give evidence for it, not least in the face of persecution.

Among the questions set in the logic paper in my final examinations at university, I found the following gem: 'Is it possible for me to have your chicken-pox?' Forty-five minutes were allowed to write an answer. A correct answer would have been something like this, suitably padded out: your chicken-pox is yours and my chicken-pox is mine; I do not have yours and you do not have mine; but what we have in common is chicken-pox. Without reducing experience of God to logical absurdity, I cannot have your experience of God and you cannot have mine; but what you and I have in common is Jesus Christ as Lord -we are one in him. If either you or I actually do not have Jesus Christ as Lord, whatever either of us may claim, we cannot know that oneness.

All in all, both John and Paul place immense confidence in the radical and fundamental transformation brought about in a person who is born again by God's Spirit, becomes a child of God and a new creation in Christ, is forgiven all their sin, and experiences the indwelling work of God's Spirit.

Teaching and learning

It can be seen that Christian teaching/doctrine is clearly for disciples of Jesus Christ, those 'taught by God'. The words doctrine and disciple both come from Latin roots, the first meaning teaching and the second meaning learner. The aim of teaching or doctrine, therefore, must be to increase the learning of the disciple - not learning in a cerebral vacuum, but learning which deepens discipleship.

Recently, a person experienced in Christian education discussed with our staff-team priorities for equipping potential leadership teams for more substantial ministry. One particular observation struck home: 'You are clearly a teaching church, but are you a learning church?' It was a searching question. It probably exposes the wide gap between what is taught and what is learned, between doctrine and discipleship.

This principle Jesus himself enunciated when he noted that 'A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master: it is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master' (Matt. 10:24-5). In Luke 6:40 Jesus says in similar vein - 'everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.' Thus, the purpose of such teaching is to make disciples like Jesus.

The net implications of these perspectives are reasonably clear: Christian doctrine is for Christian disciples. Christian disciples are those who know what it is to be forgiven, what it is to have received the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and what it is to be daily led by the Spirit. Christian teaching must always give high profile to - and never silently assume - this firm foundation of assured forgiveness and the internal operation of the Spirit. As Christian disciples daily seek to follow Jesus Christ as Lord, it is essential to do so with the goal and intention of being made like him. As Christian disciples thus become like Jesus Christ, being changed into his likeness through the work of the Spirit from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18), so we come to know God more and more. We come to know that love which surpasses knowledge (Eph. 3:19); we come to know Christ himself in the power of his resurrection and in the fellowship of his sufferings (Phil. 3:10).

Paul looks forward to the time when 'I shall know fully, even as I am fully known' (1 Cor. 13:12). What it means to be 'fully known' by God is beautifully expressed by David in Psalm 139:1-6:

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord. You hem me in - behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

Paul expects one day to attain such knowledge - the process has already begun: 'God . . . made his light shine in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ' (2 Cor. 4:6). Indeed, all the great prayers of Paul for his readers emphasise his concern that they should come to and increase in the knowledge of God and of his Son Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:15-21; 3:14-19; Phil. 1:9-11; Col. 1:9-14; cf. Eph. 4:13; Col. 3:10). All this is precisely what Zechariah prophesied over his son John (the Baptist), saying 'and you, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God' (Luke 1:76-8).

A deposit of truth

It becomes very clear, in the light of the above, why the first Christian disciples found it impossible to grow up as disciples of Christ and to become like Christ without being grounded in certain fundamentals. Luke describes these fundamentals in Acts 2:42 - 'They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.' Having received the forgiveness of sins, having been filled with the Holy Spirit, having been baptised in the name of Jesus Christ, these first Christian disciples were completely committed to this interwoven pattern of discipleship. The teaching needed the fellowship, and the fellowship needed the teaching. The teaching and the fellowship needed the worship, the worship needed the teaching and the fellowship. The teaching, the fellowship and the worship needed a rhythm and discipline of prayer together: prayer together needed the context of teaching, fellowship, and worship. This balanced and rounded experience of Christian community-life led to growing maturity in Christian disciples, a growth which included sharing Christ with outsiders.

The teaching of the apostles inevitably became a coherent deposit of truth, which was consistently applied into the life of the emerging Christian churches throughout the Mediterranean. To this the Pastoral Epistles give eloquent testimony, not least in their strong distinction between sound doctrine and false doctrine.

Writing to a relatively young leader, Timothy, Paul stresses the fundamental importance of this teaching: 'What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you - guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us' (2 Tim. 1:13). Paul's emphasis on faith, love and the help of the Holy Spirit roots this guardianship of doctrine deeply in the new covenant. We may compare Paul's gratitude, as he reflects on the experience of Christians in Rome, when he says: Thanks be to God that . . . you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted' (Rom. 6:17).

Holy and healthy lives

Paul's insistence on such wholehearted obedience is another feature of the Pastoral Epistles, with their emphasis on sheer quality of behaviour. There is, in these epistles, no such thing as sound teaching without healthy living. If teaching does not lead to healthy living, then the teaching is not truly sound, nor is it distinctively Christian. God the Holy Spirit is the only truly Christian teacher (i.e., teacher of Christ). If we relegate the Holy Spirit to the sidelines, either by neglect or by taking him for granted instead of directly and continuously inviting him to be the teacher, we have slipped back under the old covenant.

Perhaps this is why Jesus warned his own disciples against trends prevalent among the Pharisees, those fierce guardians of the old covenant. He said: 'You are not to be called "Rabbi", for you have only one Master and you are all brothers' (Matt. 23:8). It is all too easy to replace a rabbi with a Christian guru.

This is not merely a matter of the methods we use, or even of ensuring that what and when we teach is rooted in daily life and in a worshipping community. We have not been involved in Christian teaching if we have merely passed on information. Information was an essential part - and a fatal limitation - of the old covenant. The new covenant is concerned with and actively contributes to the formation of disciples.

We need to add that it is only as Christians live lives which are consistent with their faith in Christ, being formed as disciples of Christ, that they are competent to teach others. Paul makes that plain in writing to the Romans (15:14) - 'you ... are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another'.

Such consistency in daily behaviour, as the fruit of true knowledge of God, includes the readiness to be taught, even or especially if we are called to teach. There are many who are, frankly, unteachable - not because of incompetence on the part of those teaching, but because the person refuses to learn or even to listen.

I recently heard about the impact of one such man on a whole church where he was a member of staff. Time after time he treated others with insensitivity and arrogance. Though presented, gently but firmly, over a long period of time with the impact of his behaviour, he refused to acknowledge that any fault lay with him, or that he needed to change and be changed. Neither confrontation nor exhortation cut any ice. He left that church with a trail of heartbreak, if not havoc, behind him.

Moving from unbelief

What about Christian doctrine and teaching for those who are outside the church and the faith? Is it impossible for an unbeliever truly to understand Christian teaching, if there needs to be experience of new birth and new life in Christ before Christian teaching can be taken on board? Jesus gives us an important perspective on this problem when he says, in debate with questioning Jews, 'If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own' (John 7:17). Mere curiosity or passing whim will not bring a person to know God. Unbelievers need a full-blooded, challenging and compassionate apologetic for the Christian faith, but there also needs to be a deliberate choice by an unbeliever to seek out the will of God in order to do it. This is the principle, valid for actual as well as for possible disciples of Christ, spelled out by James: 'humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you' (Jas. 1:21).

This is also the challenge of parables in the public teaching of Jesus. Only if individuals or groups (as exemplified by 'the disciples') pursued him privately, did Jesus lead them into personal encounter with and experience of God. When the disciples asked, 'Why do you speak to the people in parables?', he replied, 'The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them' (Matt. 13:10-11).

Paul writes on one occasion (2 Cor. 10:4-5): 'The weapons we fight with . . . have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.' We must, then, mobilise these resources - what Paul calls elsewhere 'the full armour of God' (Eph. 6:13-17) - in discussing Jesus Christ with unbelievers. Unless we do use these special resources, or 'weapons', people remain safe -but lost - within the sturdy walls of their own theories and convictions, by which they buttress their chosen lifestyle.

We are also called to demonstrate the distinctive attractiveness of an alternative daily lifestyle - one which gives the answer to corruption, cynicism and self-centredness. The beauty of such holiness is a part (an essential part) of Christian apologetics. As Paul again puts it - 'God . . . always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him' (2 Cor. 2:14). In fact, Paul maintains that this is the authentic ministry of those who know God personally through Christ under the terms of the new covenant (cf. 2 Cor. 3:Iff.). That is why such fragrance is, at one and the same time, both irresistible and repugnant: it attracts the serious seeker and repels the superficial sceptic.

It is important that we are under no illusions concerning the blindness, both in scale and in intensity, experienced by unbelievers. Paul puts it this way: 'although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened' (Rom. 1:21). It needs a miracle, therefore, if light is to shine into such darkness, so that individuals experience a second birth.

It is self-evident that nobody comes to know God through their own wisdom or knowledge (cf. 1 Cor. 1:21). Nevertheless, we as believers are commissioned with the task and the privilege of being the Lord's servants to unbelievers. But, as Paul reminded Timothy, 'the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will' (2 Tim. 2:24-6). The grip of Satan on the minds and lives of unbelievers underlines the importance of their experiencing the reality of God in Christ in a way which affects them as persons - in their thinking, feeling and doing - not only challenging the way they think or simply touching their emotions.

Thinking and feeling

It can now be seen that doctrine and experience are not two parts or halves of what it is to be Christian. Experience cannot be limited to what our emotions or our feelings tell us. Experience includes both the thinking contents of our minds and the feeling contents of our emotions. It also includes what is subconscious, intuitive, repressed, forgotten, unacknowledged or unexplained. We should never, therefore, allow any dichotomy between what we are taught/learn through our minds and what our feelings/instincts teach us. They should, rather, be allowed to interact with each other under the scrutiny of the scriptures, so that we gradually think as God thinks and . feel as God feels.

In ministry to others we must not attempt to play God. It is his work to bring people to assurance of forgiveness. We must not railroad the creative work of his indwelling Holy Spirit in individuals. A person can, under the influence of strong personalities or the pressure of circumstances, be presented with a package of right beliefs, to which they then subscribe verbally in a series of correct statements. It is crucial not to assume that such mental assent necessarily indicates the work of the Spirit in a person. Rather, we must pray for discernment to recognise God at work; we must pray for sensitivity in bringing relevant teaching to bear on the daily experience of Christian disciples; we must pray for appropriate wisdom concerning unbelievers in their actual situation and their deep-down attitudes towards God. Yes, we must pray. When not sure what or how to teach, we must pray. When we are sure, we must pray. The very act of prayer is a statement that we depend on God's Holy Spirit.

If this is a correct understanding of the interaction between doctrine and experience, we all need to master the scriptures and to be mastered by the Holy Spirit -not to presume the first, or to assume the second: but to apply ourselves to both. This is the way to know God - or, in the self-adjustment made by Paul, to be known by God (Gal. 4:9). This is the way to help others to know God and be known by God. This is the way for us all to grow in knowing God and in being known by God.

Questions for Discussion

1. How can my church more effectively integrate the four key ingredients mentioned in Acts 2:42 (i.e., teaching, fellowship, worship and prayer)?

2. A member of my church announces a personal decision with the remark, The Lord has told me that . . . ' How do I react to this? Is it right to question the decision? What biblical insights and perspectives might be relevant?

3. What signs indicate that a person is being drawn by the Father? How can scriptural teaching be best brought and applied to a person's life when God is thus at work?

4. Is there a place for teaching doctrine simply as information? Is it valuable to store up a body of knowledge about God? What are the dangers in so doing? Is it right to take such risks? Is it worth it?

5. Why is it important to establish in each situation that a person is firmly assured of forgiveness from God? What happens when someone, even a clear believer, is not sure of God's forgiveness?

6. What practical steps can I take (a) to respect the supreme work of the Holy Spirit as Teacher, (b) to help others recognise and respond to the Holy Spirit?

For further reading

Gerard Hughes, God of Surprises (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1985)

J. I. Packer, Knowing God (London: Hodder & Stoughton 1973)

Brother Ramon, Deeper into God (London: Marshall Pickering, 1991)

Brother Ramon, Heaven on Earth (London: Marshall Pickering, 1991)

T. A. Smail, Reflected Glory (London: Hodder & Stoughton 1975)

David Prior. After a curacy in the diocese of Southwark, he spent seven years in a multiracial parish in Cape Town. Five years as Vicar of St Aldate's, Oxford, were followed by a year's sabbatical in the USA. In 1985 he moved to London as Vicar of St Michael's Chester Square and priest-in-charge of Christ Church Mayfair. From 1995 to 2000 he concentrated on the London business marketplace in the West End and the City. After several spells in Washington DC as a consultant to two Episcopal churches, in 2002 he took up his current winter ministry as Rector of Christ Memorial Chapel in Hobe Sound, Florida. David and Rosemary spend the summers in West Sussex. He retains close links with Africa and Latin America. He has written several books, including The Message of 1 Corinthians, The Bible Speaks Today Series (Leicester: IVP, 1985), Jesus and Power, The Jesus Library (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1986) and The Message of Joel, Habakkuk and Micah, The Bible Speaks Today Series (Leicester: IVP, 1998).

Leave a comment