Experience and the Authority of Scripture


A Facebook conversation yesterday discussed the problem of experiences in the Christian life and how those experiences must be made to conform to Scriptural authority. In other words, Scripture must determine our understanding of experiences.

Now I’m going to write something controversial: That previous sentence is not entirely accurate.

Certainly, Scripture must be a bedrock for understanding experiences, but there’s a weakness inherent in that fact: Us. Because we are human, our understanding is not always complete. While we may think we understand the depths of a Scriptural injunction, it may only be through experience that we can understand it more completely. And in understanding it more completely, our understanding may flip 180 degrees.

An example of how one apostle got his understanding of Scripture altered by experience:

The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood at the gate and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.”
—Acts 10:9-20 ESV

'Peter's Vision' by Doug JaquesPeter knew the Scriptures and was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then he experienced this vision.

Notice how Peter answers, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” He was responding using the Scriptures as he understood them and practiced them.

Notice too how God makes it clear that there is a deeper meaning to the Scriptures that Peter must understand. God uses an experience to alter and expand Peter’s understanding.

This led to a problem:

Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
—Acts 11:1-3 ESV

The circumcision party had the same understanding of the Scriptures that Peter had. They accused Peter based on that understanding.

Peter explained his experience of the vision and replied:

And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”
—Acts 11:11-17 ESV

Peter experienced a vision.

Peter experienced the Holy Spirit speaking to Him.

Peter experienced that same Holy Spirit falling on the Gentiles.

Peter had his understanding of the Scriptures altered by those experiences.

And so did others:

When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
—Acts 11:18 ESV

Sometimes, experience expands our understanding of the Scriptures and alters everything.

Anyone who has had a loved one die will tell you the experience of death alters their understanding of the Scriptures. In fact, it is almost impossible for it not to.

Anyone who has been taught the Bible has had an experience in that very act of teaching and learning that will alter understanding. Raise your hand if you were instructed in a Scriptural truth that altered how you understood it. Does everyone have a hand up? You should.

Every day, our experiences modify our understanding of  the Scriptures. And sometimes those modifications flip everything.

And while those flips may be the work of God in our lives to deepen our understanding of Him and this wild life we live, sometimes the flips aren’t of God. Sometimes, we go off the path.

This is why we must also learn to live by the Spirit.

But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”–these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
—1 Corinthians 2:7-14 ESV

If we live by the Spirit with the Scriptures as our counsel, we will not fall into error. Indeed, our experiences will only serve to help us grow deeper in both.

Knowing Jesus and the Death of Self-Help


12 ApostlesIt was turning out to be the worst meeting Matthias had attended.

Yes, the worship had been exemplary, as usual. No doubt the Lord was present in their midst. But then, so it seemed was a spirit of bureaucracy—and Matthias hated bureaucracy. Hadn’t he been chosen by a casting of lots? How much easier could it have been?

And why DID the Gentiles have to receive the Gospel? Why couldn’t it have stayed among the Jews only? What a bureaucratic nightmare.

So there he sat, hoping against hope that Peter was not going to chime in again.

Oh, heavens no. Here we go.

Peter stood up.

“Brothers,” the apostle announced in his bass voice that shook the flimsy meeting room furniture, “having weighed this question in my soul after much placement before the Lord, I conclude that there are actually only seven steps to a God-honoring sex life.”

“We weren’t talking about sex, Peter,” Silas said. “Were you asleep—again?”

“The question was the title of Levi’s preaching series,” Barnabas reminded, “The 10 Principles of Financial Success.”

He had a gift for reading lips, and Matthias swore that James mouthed,  It’s a baker’s dozen, not 10. That James’s little brother then punched him in the arm meant the youngest attendee at the meeting had heard him too.

A man with a pained expression on his face stood and asked, “How are the Gentiles going to live a life of fullness in our Lord if we who are appointed their leaders can’t decide these simple issues?”

Matthias shook his head. Thomas again. Always stirring the pot.

“Everything depends on our hammering down what is necessary for the Gentiles to live,” Peter agreed.

“You remember that our Lord said I was an Israelite without deceit—” Nathanael started.

Matthias rolled his eyes. Always the same prelude from Nathanael.

“—and I think that we never settled on the take-away points of my series, Raising Godly Children in an Ungodly World.”

“Hey, Mr. Honesty,” someone yelled from across the dimly lit room, “why not be truthful with the Gentiles and tell them you don’t have any children?”

Matthias thought that was worth a good chuckle. He wasn’t alone.

“Now listen here—” Nathanael began, before he was cut off again.

Five Biblical Ways to Reach Your Neighbors for Christ,” Philip said. “I mean, c’mon, guys. Isn’t that what we’re all about? I used those five when I spoke to that eunuch, and you all know how effective that was. Shouldn’t the Gentiles know them? Just five simple ways?”

Andrew leaned over to Matthias and said, “I tuned out after they kicked out Martha. I kind of liked her Beat Busyness the Bible Way.” He then turned pensive and asked, “Do you remember how many steps her method had?”

“I think it was five,” Matthias answered.

Andrew glowered. “No, I think you’re thinking about Philip’s five ways.”

“Maybe I am,” Matthias said. “Maybe I am.”


That meeting in Jerusalem among the leaders of the young Church actually happened. It just didn’t happen that way. The question of how to live a godly life wasn’t found in principles or spiritual To-Do lists. Here’s that meeting’s conclusion:

After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins,  and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,  says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’ Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.”
—Acts 15:13-21 ESV

In short, don’t load up the Gentiles with stuff to do. Stuff wasn’t the point of the Gospel.

Here’s how Paul saw living the Christian life:

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
—1 Corinthians 2:2 ESV

Jesus summed it up nicely:

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
—John 17:3 ESV

How is it then that we sit still on Sunday and have someone tell us all these things we should be doing so as to be good Christians? How is it that we say we embrace grace, yet we load ourselves up with lists of necessities and principles and ways and means of living like Christians, when it all begins and ends with knowing Christ?

What if we just knew Christ and knew Him a little more each day? Can’t anyone tell us how to know Christ more?

Or do we not believe this Scripture?

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
—Philippians 1:6 ESV

If we know Christ more deeply, isn’t it the work of the Father to make us perfect in His Son? Why then do we trouble ourselves with endless self-help sermons?

Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
—2 Corinthians 3:7-18 ESV