The question of the place of doctrine versus the place of personal experience is a big one today in terms of both salvation and discipleship.
Many people say that simply being persuaded of certain doctrinal truths is not saving faith. Instead, a personal encounter with God is what saving faith really is.
Is faith propositional or personal? I’ve heard people put down Free Grace Theology because they say we believe in a proposition, not a Person.
Well, all truth is propositional.
The name Jesus is not a proposition. You can’t believe the word Jesus. You can believe something about Him. But the single word Jesus is without significance by itself.
I remember watching Eldridge Cleaver on the 700 Club say that he saw the face of Jesus on the moon. That was his testimony of how he became a Christian. He encountered Jesus. That was it. See here for more details.
That may sound odd and divorced from actual faith in Jesus. Indeed, nearly all Evangelicals would require at least some content to one’s faith in Christ. But most theologians are quick to denounce believing doctrine as insufficient and are quick to point to the efficacy of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Theologian Wayne Grudem quotes four evangelistic passages from John’s Gospel along with Matt 11:28-29, and then says, “All these passages affirm that trusting in Christ for salvation involves coming into his presence and interacting with him, trusting him personally. A personal encounter is in view” (Free Grace Theology: 5 Ways It Diminishes the Gospel, p. 108, italics added). Then he quotes John 1:11-12 and adds, “Not: To all who gave mental assent to facts about him but to all who received him. In the first century context, to ‘receive someone’ would have meant welcoming the person into fellowship, into a relationship, probably into one’s home, and certainly into one’s life. A personal encounter with Jesus Christ is in view” (p. 108, italics his).
Mormons have personal encounters with the Lord Jesus Christ. They can tell you about their burning in the bosom. So why is their encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ defective and Protestant or Catholic encounters effective? Most would say that saving faith is a combination of believing some minimum level of facts about Jesus plus having a personal encounter with Him whereby you pledge to serve Him for the rest of your life.
As Gordon Clark showed in his book Faith and Saving Faith, all faith is propositional. Here’s a proposition about the Lord: Jesus was born in Bethlehem. That is true. Here’s another: Jesus guarantees everlasting life that can never be lost to all who believe in Him for it. Also, true. Believing the first proposition won’t result in your regeneration. Believing the second proposition will.
One friend told me, “You don’t believe in a Person. You believe in a proposition.” That is ridiculous. If you believe a proposition about a promise that a person has made, then you are believing in that person. You can’t divorce the trustworthiness of the person from his promise.
We cannot be born again without believing the saving message, which is doctrine.
Nor can we grow in the Christian life without believing God’s Word, which is doctrine. We are transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2). Only with unveiled faces that behold the glory of the Lord in Scripture are our lives changed (2 Cor 3:18). There is no transformation without doctrine.
That is not to say that doctrine by itself transforms us. We must apply the doctrine that we receive in our local churches in order to be more like Christ (Jas 1:21; 2:14-17). That is true as well in terms of the new birth in the sense that we apply John 3:16 by believing what the Lord says there. To simply understand His promise is not enough. We must be persuaded that it is true.
I have friends who pastor what are called doctrinal churches. These are churches that emphasize the necessity of doctrine in justification and sanctification. It is easy today to get caught up in cool ideas like candles, incense, special lighting, silent retreats, prayer labyrinths, mind-clearing “meditation,” and the chanting of special words and phrases. Those things do result in people having experiences that they understand to be encounters with God. They feel closer to God. But such experiences are counterfeit spirituality. True spiritual growth requires the teaching of God’s Word to change one’s worldview.
We encounter God when we believe and apply His Word. The Spirit of God takes the Word of God and renews our minds, with the result that we become more like the Lord Jesus Christ. Believing and applying doctrine is encountering God. Christian growth is not either based on doctrine or encountering God. It is both. We encounter God through His Word.
I went to Europe for three months before I started college in 1970. It cost $9 a minute in 1970s dollars to call home. That would be equivalent to $68.76 per minute in today’s dollars. I don’t think I spoke with my parents for more than a total of five minutes in those three months. But I got letters from them in every major city. Lots of letters. I’d stand in line for hours in an American Express office just to get two or three letters from home. I encountered my parents when I read those letters. They often reminded me who I am, where I’m going, and what is important in life.
If you love someone, then you love that person’s words. Doctrine is what we call God’s words. If you love Him, then you love doctrine.