A Plea for Experimental Christianity
Presidents address to the Liverpool District Ministers Association, Oct 1901
Transcription an Article in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by John B. Buglass
It is well that we as ministers of the WORD should give experimental Christianity a very prominent place in our preaching. Other forms of Christianity are no doubt attracting much attention at the present time. Historical and doctrinal Christianity was never more to the fore than now. Historical criticism which, has been long busy on the Old Testament, is now turning its attention to the New. And as we have had to modify our views of the literature of the Old Testament, it is more than likely that we shall have to do the same with respect to the New. Be this as it may, there is one thing of which we are confident, and it is this — no criticism, however rationalistic, will be able to remove the granite foundation upon which our glorious Christianity is built. Doctrinal Christianity is also receiving much attention from able thinkers belonging to the various Christian churches. One feature is especially gratifying, and that is – the increasing interest taken in the study of Old and New Testament theology. This is a hopeful sign In our Church life; for prize systematic theology as we may, it must be conceded that Biblical theology is of vital importance to all who would be successful expounders of the Scriptures. Granting the immense value of these two forms of religion, we yet submit that the experimental form is of most importance to us as preachers of the Gospel. We feel very much like Paul when he compared the graces faith, hope and love. He said “Now abideth faith, hope, love, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” So say we — Now abideth the historical form of Christianity, the doctrinal form, and the experimental form, these three, but the greatest of these is experimental. In emphasising the last form we do not wish to be understood as in any way belittling the other forms mentioned. On the contrary, we look upon experimental Christianity as having its basis in the historical and doctrinal form, If we had never known that Jesus lived, died, and rose again; had no Christian truth come down to us through the ages — and alongside this truth the Christian consciousness — we should have had nothing Christian to experiment upon. We feel rather inclined to link the three forms together, but at the same time hold that the experimental is the most important form that Christianity can possibly assume. By experimental Christianity, we mean acquaintance with Christ by personal trial; putting the Christian religion to the test to see what it can do for us, and in us. In Bible phraseology, it is to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” “To know whom we have believed.” It is to be able to say, “One thing I know, whereas I was blind, now I see.” The question for us ministers is what ought to be our attitude to this form of Christianity? In our opinion it ought to be made very prominent in our preaching. Nor need there be any reluctance on our part in bringing this form of religion before our congregations. In doing so we are proceeding strictly on scientific lines. From the time of Bacon to the present, scientists have insisted upon experiment as the true scientific method. So that we are in good company. In fact, preachers that insist upon experimental religion are true Christian scientists. Experimental Christianity can be shown to be the condition of spiritual discovery. As in the natural, so in the spiritual world — experiment is the condition of discovery. We all know that the Nineteenth Century was rich in discovery. It has given us the telephone, phonograph, and X Rays. But it must be remembered that it was rich in discovery because it was rich in experiment. Now, if the members of our congregations have to discover spiritual realities, there is only one course open to them, and that is to experiment upon Christian truth. It is necessary that each person should discover for himself two things — his moral weakness and the need of Divine help. This discovery, however, is impossible until he take the first step in experimental religion, which means turning his back on sin and moving towards Christ. Till this is done a consciousness of moral weakness will be next to impossible. The man that has been bedridden for months does not fully realise his weakness while in bed. It is when he attempts to walk across the floor that he discovers his weakness in all its intensity. So is it with the man who is living without God. When he makes the first attempt to walk towards Christ by repentance and faith — then, and only then, does he realise to the full how morally weak he is, and is led to cry out, “Lord, save me, or I perish!” This consideration, we think, supplies a strong reason why we, as ministers, ought to enforce experimental Christianity.
Another thing my be said In praise of this form of religion. It is calculated to render unbelief-proof all who experiment. The Rev. Dr. Clifford, of London, last June celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his baptism. He said in his address that in his diary he found what he called the day of his conversion. Four years after his baptism he went out into a new world, meeting new ideas and thoughts, and for a time was overwhelmed by doubt. He wished to add that he now believed that his four years of Christian experience were of the most vital assistance to him in this period of doubt.
Some of us, no doubt, can bear a similar testimony. Speaking for myself, I may say that I hold my faith in the fundamental verities of the Christian religion, principally through my Christian experience for the last forty years. When doubts have arisen I have at once brought them to the bar of my Christian consciousness, and invariably they have disappeared. It is well that we, as ministers, should fully appreciate the fact that the congregations which we have the honour of addressing are largely made up of young persons who are on the eve of passing into a new world. It goes without saying that new ideas will present themselves. Rationalist, infidel socialist, and agnostic will cross their path. If it happen that they pass into the struggle of life without an experimental knowledge of the Christian faith, without having formed an acquaintance with Jesus Christ, their removal from a mere intellectual religion may easily be effected. But if, on the other hand, they have tasted that the Lord is good; if, having heard the voice of Jesus, they have responded and found rest in Him, they will have become unbelief-proof, and, like Dr. Clifford, will find experimental religion of vital assistance to them in the struggle of life.
Again, experimental Christianity generates an enthusiasm which is necessary to sustain aggressive Church Work. To get on our Churches, aggressive Christian work will have to be attended to. But who are the persons upon whom we can rely to aid us in this kind of toil? Are they those who have merely an intellectual hold of religion? Are they those who are always debating as to how sin came into the world and yet never lift so much as a finger to get it out? Is our hope as ministers to he found in those individuals who are content with one service on the Sunday, and who evince no love for the prayer meeting or open-air missions? We emphatically answer, No. The persons to render us assistance in aggressive work are those who feel religion; those whose hearts God has touched; persons in whose souls God has kindled the fire of His love; in other Words, those who have a Christian experience. Power for service comes from Christian feeling; but Christian feeling is generated by Christian experience. It is when we feel the truth that we become enthusiastic about it, and not till then. If, therefore, aggressive Church work has to be carried on, we will have to make Christian enthusiasts – persons who have a passion for humanity. But the stuff out of which such persons are made is experimental religion. It is experimental religion that has given us the men that have moved the world religiously. Men like Wesley, Whitfield, Bourne, Clowes, Spurgeon, and Moody were Christian enthusiasts. They moved men because religion had moved them: so that if we would consult our own interests as ministers, and consider the weal of our respective Churches and the world at large, we shall leave no stone unturned to induce our hearers to try religion for themselves, and thus secure for the Church enthusiastic workers.
Yet another thing may be said in favour of experimental religion. It is within the reach of all the members of our congregations. This can scarcely be said of historical and doctrinal Christianity. It is questionable whether the mastery of these forms of religion is within the reach of the majority of our hearers. Many have neither the ability nor disposition to tackle historical criticism and theological discussions. But they may all experiment upon repentance, faith, and holy living. It is not necessary to know astronomy to know that the sun warms. To find this out, we have merely to put ourselves in the way of the sun’s rays. Nor is it necessary to know all about the person of Jesus to know that He saves. We have simply to put ourselves in religious position and the consciousness that Christ saves will come into the soul.
Professor Drummond in his Changed Life puts this point in at very beautiful manner. He describes the astronomer photographing a star. The instrument is put in position, the light blown out and the star is allowed to photograph itself. It is likewise in the religious life. What is required of us is to put ourselves in religious position by prayer, faith and holy living, and Christ will photograph His image on our heart and life, by which we shall know that we are His. Seeing that this form of religion is within the reach of all the members of our congregations and that it is of such vital importance to both young and old, we contend that as ministers we should insist that our hearers put Christianity to the test by personal experience. Other forms of religion will come in for treatment, but this experimental form, possessing such high importance, we believe should have additional emphasis put upon it from the pulpit.
From Wesley’s days down to the present Methodists have considered this form of religion as worthy of the greatest possible emphasis. And we think we do not exaggerate when we say that the vigour of Methodism today is largely attributable to the stress that its ministers and laymen have put upon experimental Christianity.
The Simultaneous Mission of last February was an emphatic declaration by the Free Churches of this country that experimental religion must be insisted upon if ever our nation is to be truly evangelised. The one cry throughout the Mission was — “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand; repent ye, and believe the Gospel”. This cry will have to be repeated again and again if the great end of our ministry is to be attained.
It is also well in this critical age, to remind ourselves that between experimental religion and devout criticism there need be no antagonism. Nor have those persons whom we know to be sound believers to be unchristianised because they express uncertainty as to the authorship and dates of certain books of both Old and New Testaments.
Such uncertainty is by no means a proof that their faith is declining. Uncertainty in points of literature is, in our opinion, quite compatible with strong faith in Jesus. Happily it is possible to distinguish between questions of literature and questions of faith. The certainty that Christianity is a reality depends upon living it. Doing God’s will is the condition of knowing it. “If any man willeth to do His will he shall know of the teaching.”
The man who enjoys daily communion with Christ, and who is conscious that by virtue of this intercourse he has become spiritually transformed, will not be the subject of distressing doubts. He will rather be the possessor of an exultant faith. Starting from this fact of conscious salvation, he is in a position to conclude that the religion which transforms a sinner into a saint, which gives a power to successfully resist both inward and outward evil, which inspires a good hope through grace, is no delusion, but rests upon the bedrock of reality against which the gates of a sceptical philosophy shall never prevail.
Primitive Methodist Magazine 1902/267