People sometimes challenge the claim that you must believe in Jesus for an eternal salvation to be saved by appealing to spiritual experience. They will say, “I know you don’t need to believe in Jesus for everlasting life to be saved, because I was born again years before I understood that salvation is everlasting. I know I was born again because something happened to me. I changed.”
In other words, they evaluate the content of the saving message in light of their experience, instead of evaluating their experience in light of the saving message.
I have had a handful of powerful spiritual experiences, and I have spoken with many believers who can say the same. I believe in them. But what do they signify? Does having such an experience mean you were born-again at that moment?
I was reminded of a different option by Phil Baisley, a Quaker pastor. Unlike other traditions, Quakers do not assume that people have had no experience of God at all prior to coming to faith in Jesus. On the contrary, they assume that people probably have had many profound and genuine spiritual experiences. It might help to remember that Quakerism was a reaction to Puritanism, including it’s doctrine of double predestination. The Puritans believed that God predestined some people for hell, and so passed them over. By contrast, the Quakers believed that God loved all, wanted everyone to be saved, and so was actively drawing everyone to Himself. That signaled a different approach to evangelism. “Quakerism does not attempt to introduce the unbeliever to God but to bring the unbeliever to recognition of the work of the Holy Spirit already calling and working in their lives” (Baisley, The Same, But Different, p. 55).
Is that a Biblical assumption?
I think it is.
We know from Scripture that God is drawing everyone to Himself (Luke 19:10; John 6:44; 12:32). The Lord loves the world far more than you and I can understand, and He is active in every single person’s life. And His drawing can include giving people profound spiritual experiences before regeneration.
For example, think of an atheist or a pagan who is contemplating the world and suddenly realizes that it must have come from an almighty and eternal power (Rom 1:20; cf. Ps 19:1). That might come as a worldview-shattering realization that impacts how you live, but are you born-again the moment you realize there is a Creator? No. But that can be another step toward God.
A rich young ruler came to Jesus asking questions about eternal life, but after receiving some answers, he “went away sorrowful” (Mark 10:22). Jesus’ words shook him emotionally, perhaps more than he had ever been before. But does that mean he was born-again? Again, no. But God could have been using that experience to work in his life.
Or lastly, think of Cornelius, who already believed in God, and had a vision and an angelic visitation (Acts 10:1-8). Those experiences must have profoundly impressed him. He could have reasoned, “I must be saved because God gave me a vision, and an angel visited me!” If so, Cornelius would have been wrong. Instead, God meant the experience to lead him to faith.
When Baisley taught evangelism, instead of taking a “put the truth into them” approach, he learned to expect that many people already knew “the feeling of multiple contact points with God along the spiritual journey.” So his class explored “how we can help people recognize the work of God in their lives and respond in joyful participation to whatever that work is” (Baisley, The Same, But Different, p. 57).
I think sharing the grace message can require a similar approach.
On the one hand, when we talk to other people about Jesus’ promise of eternal life, we don’t have to assume they don’t know anything about God or Jesus. Nor should we discount the reality of their spiritual experiences as if they were “reprobates” in the Calvinist sense. Of course, not all of their experiences are genuine. But we should have a robust doctrine of God’s universal drawing, and use those experiences as a stepping stone to communicating the grace message.
On the other hand, if someone claims to have been born before believing in Jesus for eternal life on the basis of an experience, we should challenge them. They need to ask themselves the question, “Was this when I was born again or when I was being drawn to God?”
In sum, while it’s far from shameful to recognize the hand of God drawing you towards Jesus through your experiences, it would be shameful to change the saving message to fit those experiences.