Thoughts on Religious Experience

Archibald Alexander, 1844


There are two kinds of religious knowledge which, though intimately connected as cause and effect, may nevertheless be distinguished. These are the knowledge of the truth as it is revealed in the Holy Scriptures; and the impression which that truth makes on the human mind when rightly apprehended. The first may be compared to the inscription or image on a seal, the other to the impression made by the seal on the wax. When that impression is clearly and distinctly made, we can understand, by contemplating it, the true inscription on the seal more satisfactorily, than by a direct view of the seal itself. Thus it is found that nothing tends more to confirm and elucidate the truths contained in the Word, than an inward experience of their efficacy on the heart. It cannot, therefore, be uninteresting to the Christian to have these effects, as they consist in the various views and affections of the mind, traced out and exhibited in their connection with the truth, and in their relation to each other.

There is, however, one manifest disadvantage under which we must labor in acquiring this kind of knowledge, whether by our own experience or that of others; which is, that we are obliged to follow a fallible guide; and the pathway to this knowledge is very intricate, and the light which shines upon it often obscure. All investigations of the exercises of the human mind are attended with difficulty, and never more so, than when we attempt to ascertain the religious or spiritual state of our hearts. If indeed the impression of the truth were perfect, there would exist little or no difficulty; but when it is a mere outline and the lineaments obscure, it becomes extremely difficult to determine whether it be the genuine impress of the truth: especially as in this case, there will be much darkness and confusion in the mind, and much that is of a nature directly opposite to the effects of the engrafted word. There is, moreover, so great a variety in the constitution of human minds, so much diversity in the strength of the natural passions, so wide a difference in the temperament of Christians, and so many different degrees of piety—that the study of this department of religious truth is exceedingly difficult. In many cases the most experienced and skillful theologian will feel himself at a loss, or may utterly mistake, in regard to the true nature of a case submitted to his consideration.

The complete and perfect knowledge of the deceitful heart of man is a prerogative of the omniscient God. "I the Lord search the hearts and try the reins of the children of men." (Psalm 7:9; Rev 2:23) But we are not on this account forbidden to search into this subject. So far is this from being true, that we are repeatedly exhorted to examine ourselves in relation to this very point, and Paul expresses astonishment that the Corinthian Christians should have made so little progress in self-knowledge. "Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!" (2 Cor 13:5)

In judging of religious experience it is all-important to keep steadily in view the system of divine truth contained in the Holy Scriptures; otherwise, our experience, as is too often the case, will degenerate into wild enthusiasm. Many ardent professors seem too readily to take it for granted that all religious feelings must be good. They therefore take no care to discriminate between the genuine and the spurious, the pure gold and the tinsel. Their only concern is about the ardor of their feelings; not considering that if they are spurious, the more intense they are, the further will they lead them astray. In our day there is nothing more necessary than to distinguish carefully between true and false experiences in religion; to "test the spirits—whether they are from God." (1 John 4:1) And in making this discrimination, there is no other test but the infallible Word of God; let every thought, motive, impulse and emotion be brought to this touchstone. "To the law and the testimony; if they speak not according to these, it is because there is no light in them." (Isa 8:20)

If genuine religious experience is nothing but the impression of divine truth on the mind, by the energy of the Holy Spirit, then it is evident that a knowledge of the truth is essential to genuine piety. Error never can under any circumstances produce the effects of truth. This is now generally acknowledged. But it is not so clearly understood by all, that any defect in our knowledge of the truth must, just so far as the error extends, mar the symmetry of the impression produced. The error, in this case, is of course not supposed to relate to fundamental truths, for then there can be no genuine piety; but where a true impression is made, it may be rendered very defective, for lack of a complete knowledge of the whole system of revealed truth; or its beauty marred by the existence of some errors mingled with the truth, which may be well illustrated by returning again to the seal. Suppose that some part of the image inscribed on it has been defaced, or that some of the letters have been obliterated, it is evident that when the impression is made on the wax, there will be a corresponding deficiency or deformity, although in the main the impress may be correct.

There is reason to believe, therefore, that all ignorance of revealed truth, or error respecting it, must be attended with a corresponding defect in the religious exercises of the person. This consideration teaches us the importance of truth, and the duty of increasing daily in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is the true and only method of growing in grace. There may be much correct theoretical knowledge, I admit, where there is no impression corresponding with it on the heart; but still, all good impressions on the heart are from the truth, and from the truth alone. Hence we find, that those denominations of Christians which receive the system of evangelical truth only in part, have a defective experience; and their Christian character, as a body, is so far defective; and even where true piety exists, we often find a sad mixture of wild enthusiasm, self-righteousness, or superstition. And even where the theory of doctrinal truth is complete, yet if there be an error respecting the terms of Christian communion, by narrowing the entrance into Christ's fold to a degree which His Word does not authorize, this single error, whatever professions may be made to the contrary with the lips, always generates a narrow spirit of bigotry, which greatly obstructs the free exercise of that brotherly love which Christ made the badge of discipleship.

If these things be so, then let all Christians use unceasing diligence in acquiring a correct knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus; and let them pray without ceasing for the influence of the Holy Spirit to render the truth effectual in the sanctification of the whole man, soul, body, and spirit. "Sanctify them through your truth; your word is truth", (John 17:17) was a prayer offered up by Christ in behalf of all whom the Father had given Him.