Thoughts on Religious Experience

Archibald Alexander, 1844

Religious conversation—Stress laid by some on the knowledge of the time and place of conversion—Religious experience of Halyburton

It is often a question among serious people, whether every person who is a real Christian knows not only that he is such—but the time and place of his conversion. This subject has already been partially discussed in these essays—but demands a more particular and extended consideration.

It is well known to all, that the Christian denominations which exist in this country differ from one another in their views of various doctrines and rites of religion; but the fact is not so well known, that the religious experience of the individuals of the several denominations is as various as their doctrines and external forms of worship. To those who view these things at a distance, and superficially, all religious people appear alike; and many, when they hear of a number converted, take it for granted that they have all passed through the same train of exercises, to whatever sect they belong. There are some serious people, well indoctrinated in the Scriptures, who, while they hold a sound theory respecting the nature of regeneration, never speak of their own religious exercises; believing that such exposures are not for edification, as they tend to foster spiritual pride and vain glory, and afford a temptation to hypocrisy, which is commonly too strong for the deceitful heart. Among such professors, you hear nothing of conviction and conversion; and when any of this class fall into a distressing case of conscience which urges them to seek spiritual counsel, they always propose the case in the third person. They will talk to you by the hour and the day about the doctrines of religion, and show that they are more conversant with their Bibles than many who talk much of their religious feelings.

There are two objections to this practice. The first is, that it has the effect of keeping out of view the necessity of a change of heart. The second is, that it is a neglect of one effectual means of grace. Religious conversation, in which Christians freely tell of the dealings of God with their own souls, has been often a powerful means of quickening the sluggish soul, and communicating comfort. It is in many cases a great consolation to the desponding believer to know that his case is not entirely singular; and if a traveler can meet with one who has been over the difficult parts of the road before him, he may surely derive from his experience some beneficial counsel and warning. The Scriptures are favorable to such communications. "Come and hear," says David, "all you who fear God, and I will declare what he has done for my soul." (Psalm 66:16) "Then those who feared the Lord spoke often one to another, and the Lord hearkened and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for those who feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name." (Mal 3:16) Paul seldom makes a speech or writes a letter, in which he does not freely speak of his own religious joys and sorrows, hopes and fears.

There is, no doubt, an abuse of this means of grace, as of others; but this is no argument against its legitimate use—but only teaches that prudence should govern such religious fellowship. The opposite extreme is not uncommon in some denominations; as where professors are publicly called upon, and that periodically, for their experience; or where, when professors are met, it is agreed that everyone, in turn, shall give a narrative of his or her experience in religion. Such practices are not for edification.

There are, however, cases in which it may be expedient—it may be delightful—for a few select friends to enter into a full detail of the dealings of God with their souls. The writer, in another place, published an account of such a conference in Holland, which he received from the late Dr. Livingston of New Brunswick. A company of pious friends having met for religious conversation, the subject which came up was the striking similarity of the experience of God's people in all ages and in all countries; when someone observed that there were present four people from the four quarters of the world respectively, and who had embraced religion in their native country. One was from the Dutch settlements in the East Indies, a second from the Cape of Good Hope, the third a young nobleman of Holland, and the fourth Dr. Livingston himself, from the United States of America. It was then proposed, as an illustration of the subject of conversation, that each should give a narrative of his Christian experience. The company in attendance expressed the highest gratification, and were no doubt greatly edified.

It is much to be lamented that many people who are fond of religious conversation deal so much in cant phrases, and assume an air so affected and sanctimonious. This is the thing which disgusts grave and intelligent Christians, and often occasions the wicked to ridicule or blaspheme. "Let not your good be evil spoken of." (Rom 14:16) Be not public nor indiscriminate in your communications of this kind. "Take heed that you cast not your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and then turn again and rend you." (Matt 7:6)

It is a fact, that what passes for conversion in one sect will be condemned as altogether insufficient in another. A few years since there was what was called a great revival in a Presbyterian congregation in New Jersey. The Presiding Elder of the Methodist Society for that district, having classes of his church mingled with the people of that congregation, so that he had the opportunity of conversing with a number of the subjects of this work, gave it as his opinion to a person who communicated the fact to me, that none with whom he spoke were converted, for he did not meet with one who would say that he knew his sins were pardoned. On the other hand, many of the conversions which take place at camp meetings, and other meetings where there is much excitement, though the subjects do profess to know that their sins are pardoned, are not believed to be cases of sound conversion by Presbyterians; and they are often confirmed in this opinion by the transitory nature of the reformation produced. We have known instances of people professing conversion at a camp meeting, and filling the camp with their rejoicing, who relapsed into their old habits of sin before reaching their own dwellings. In these strong excitements of the animal sensibilities there is great danger of deception. When feelings of distress are wound up to a very high pitch, there often occurs a natural reaction in the nervous system by which the bodily sensations are suddenly changed, and this, attended with some text of Scripture impressed on the mind, leads the person to believe that he was in that moment converted, when in reality no permanent change has been effected. It is one thing to be persuaded of the truth of the gospel, and quite another to be certain that I have believed, and that my sins are pardoned.

John Wesley was for several years in the ministry, and a missionary to America, before he had this joyful sense of the forgiveness of sins, and he seems to intimate that until this time he was an unconverted man; and most of his followers make this joyful sense of pardoned sin the principal evidence of conversion, and one which all must experience. Most serious, intelligent readers, however, will be of opinion that Wesley was as humble and sincere a penitent before this joyful experience, as afterwards; and that it is a dangerous principle to make a man's opinion of his own state, the criterion by which to judge of its safety. Certainly, we would greatly prefer to stand in the place of some brokenhearted contrite ones, who can scarcely be induced to entertain a hope respecting their acceptance, to that of many who boast that they never feel a doubt of their own safety. Men will not be judged in the last day by the opinion which they had of themselves. For this confidence, it would seem, never forsakes some to the last, who nevertheless will be cast into outer darkness. "Not everyone that says unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven—but he that does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say unto me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name, and in your name have cast out devils, and in your name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you, depart from me you workers of iniquity." (Matt 7:22-23; Psalm 6:8)

In early life the writer knew some high professors of his own denomination who could tell the day and hour when God had mercy on them. One of these, a fair-spoken, plausible man, who had spent the former part of his life in pleasure and dissipation, gave such an account of his conversion as was adapted to produce envy and discouragement in professors who had been less favored; and not only could he designate the month and day of the month—but the hour of the day, when he obtained reconciliation with God. No one doubted of his piety—but mark the event. This high professor, a few years afterwards, was excommunicated from the church for manifest perjury! Another, whose experience was remarkable and his conversion sudden, became a preacher, then a fanatic—and finally an infidel. This man told me, that though often in great spiritual distress, he never doubted of the goodness of his state. They who believe that a man may be a saint today and a devil tomorrow, not in appearance only—but in reality, easily account for these apostasies. But we are inclined to hold fast by what the beloved disciple says about such, in his time. "They went out from us—but they were not of us, for if they had been of us they would no doubt have continued with us; but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us." (1 John 2:19)

Few men in later times appear to have arisen to greater eminence in piety than Henry Martyn the missionary. The strength of the principle of holiness in his case was manifested in his habitual spirituality of mind, and constant exercise of self-denial; yet, as far as is related, his incipient exercises of religion were by no means strongly marked—but seem to have been rather obscure and feeble. The same is the fact respecting those two distinguished men of God, Philip and Matthew Henry, the father and the son. The early exercises of these men were not in any respect remarkable. Indeed, they both became pious when very young; and we rarely get a very distinct and accurate account of the commencement of piety in early life. But no one who is acquainted with the lives of these eminent ministers will deny that they grew up to an uncommon degree of piety, which in the experience of both, though characterized by genuine humility, was free from any mixture of gloom or austerity. True religion can rarely be found exhibiting so cheerful a deportment and so amiable an aspect, and yet, with these men everything became a part of their religion; to this one object their whole lives were devoted.

I have derived much satisfaction and, I hope, profit from the account which Thomas Halyburton, 1674-1712, gives of his religious experience; especially, because the account was given when the writer was advanced in years, and when his judgment was fully matured. Many youthful narratives of pious exercises are very fervent—but they are frothy, and marked with that kind of ignorance and self-confidence which arise from inexperience.

Halyburton is an example of a person brought up under religious discipline and instruction, and under constant restraint, whose convictions of sin were nevertheless exceedingly pungent and solemn. His conversion too was sudden, and his first exercises of faith clear and strong. "I cannot," says he, "be very positive about the day or the hour of this deliverance; nor can I satisfy many other questions about the way and manner of it. As to these things I may say with the blind man, 'One thing I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see.' (John 9:25)

"It was towards the close of January, or the beginning of February, 1698, that this seasonable relief came; and, so far as I can remember, I was at secret prayer, in very great extremity, not far from despair, when the Lord seasonably stepped in and gave this merciful turn to affairs. When I said there was none to save, then 'His arm brought salvation'. (Isa 59:16) God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, 'shined into my mind', to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. That which afforded me relief was a discovery of the Lord as manifested in His Word. He said to me, 'You have destroyed yourself—but in me is your help.' (Hos 13:9) He let me see that there are forgivenesses with Him, that with Him is mercy and plenteous redemption. He made all His goodness pass before me, and proclaimed His name, 'The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin'; who will be gracious to whom He will be gracious, and will show mercy to whom He will show mercy.'

"This was a strange sight to one who before looked on God only as a 'consuming fire' (Deut 4:24; Heb 12:29) which I could not see and live. He brought me from Sinai and its thunderings, to Mount Zion, and to the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that cleanses from all sin, and speaks better things than the blood of Abel. He revealed Christ in His glory. I now with wonder beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. And I was made, by this sight, to say, 'You are fairer than the sons of men.' (Psalm 45:2) ... And I was hereby further satisfied, that not only was there forgiveness of sins and justification by free grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God has set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God—but I saw moreover, with wonder and delight, how God by this means might be just even in justifying the ungodly who believe in Jesus. How was I ravished with delight when made to see that the God in whom, a little before, I thought there was no help for me, or any sinner in my case—if indeed there were any such—notwithstanding His spotless purity, His deep hatred of sin, His inflexible justice and righteousness, and His unimpeachable faithfulness pledged in the threatenings of the law, might not only pardon—but without prejudice to His justice or His other attributes, might be just, even in justifying the ungodly. ... And the Lord further opened the Gospel-call to me, and let me see that even to me, was 'the word of this salvation sent'. (Acts 13:26) All this was offered unto me, and I was invited to come and freely take of the waters of life, and to come in my distress unto the blessed rest. ... He, to my great satisfaction, gave me a pleasing discovery of His design in the whole, that it was, 'that no flesh might glory in his sight', (1 Cor 1:29) but that he who glories should glory only in the Lord; and that he might manifest the riches of His grace, and be exalted in showing mercy, and that we in the end might be saved. The Lord revealed to my soul the full and suitable provision made in this way against the power of sin—that as there is righteousness in Him, so there is strength, even 'everlasting strength' (Isa 26:4) in the Lord Jehovah, to secure us against all enemies. ... When this strange discovery was made of a relief, wherein full provision was made for all the concerns of God's glory, and my salvation in subordination thereto, my soul was, by a sweet and glorious power, carried out to rest in it, as worthy of God, and every way suitable and satisfying in my case. 'Those who know your name will put their trust in you.' (Psalm 9:10) All these discoveries were conveyed to me by the Scriptures only. It was not indeed by one particular promise or testimony of Scripture—but by the concurring light of a great many, seasonably set home, and most plainly expressing the truths above mentioned. The promises and truths of the Bible, in great abundance and variety, were brought to remembrance, and the wonders contained in them were set before my eyes in the light of the Word. 'He sent his word and healed me.' (Psalm 107:20) ...

"But it was not the Bible alone that conveyed the discovery; for most of these passages whereby I was relieved I had formerly, in my distress, read and thought upon, without finding any relief in them. But now the Lord shined into my mind by them. Formerly I was acquainted only with the letter, which profits not—but now the Lord's words were spirit and life, and in His light I saw light. God opened my eyes to see wonders out of His law. There was light in His words; a burning light by them shone into my mind, not merely some doctrinal knowledge—but 'the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ'. (2 Cor 4:6)

"The light that I now had shone from heaven; it was not a spark kindled by my own endeavors—but it shone suddenly about me; it came by the Word of God, a heavenly means. It opened heaven and discovered heavenly things, even the glory of God; and it led me up as it were to heaven. Its whole tendency was heavenward. It was a true light, giving manifestations of God, even the one true God, and the one Mediator between God and man; and giving a true view of my state with respect to God. ... It was a pleasant and a sweet light: it had a heavenly satisfaction in God attending it. It led to a pleasure in the fountain whence it came. It was a distinct and clear light, not only representing spiritual things—but manifesting them in their glory. It put all things in their proper place, in due subordination to God, and gave distinct views of their genuine tendency. It was a satisfying light. The soul rested in the discoveries that it made and was satisfied; it could not doubt of what it saw, and that things were as they were represented. It was a quickening, refreshing and healing light; when 'the Sun of Righteousness' (Mal 4:2) arose, there was 'healing under his wings'. It was a great light: it made discoveries which were easily distinguished from any former discoveries I had ever made. And it was a powerful light; it dissipated that thick darkness which had overspread my mind, and made all those frightful temptations, which had formerly disturbed me, fly before it. It was composing: not like a sudden flash of lightning, which fills the soul with fear and amazement—but it composed and quieted my soul and put all my faculties, as it were, in their due posture, and gave me the exercise of them. It destroyed not—but improved my former knowledge. But as the true idea of light is not conveyed by the ear, so no words can convey the idea of light to the blind. And he who has eyes will need no words to describe it. It is like the new name that none knows, but he who has it.

"The first discernible effect of this light was an approbation of God's way of saving sinners by Jesus Christ, to the glory of His grace. And this I take to be the true Scriptural notion of justifying faith; for it not only answers the Scripture descriptions of it, by receiving, coming, looking, trusting, believing, etc.—but it really gives God that glory which He designed by all this contrivance—the glory of His wisdom, grace, mercy, and truth. Now this discovery of the Lord's name brought me to trust in Him, and glory only in the Lord. I found my soul fully satisfied in these discoveries, as pointing out a way of relief, altogether and in all respects suitable to the need of a poor, guilty, self-condemned, self-destroyed sinner, driven from all other reliefs. In this I rested, as in a way of full peace, comfort, security, and satisfaction, and as providing abundantly for all those ends I desired to have secured. And this approbation was not merely for a time; but ever after in all temptations it discovered itself, by keeping in me a fixed assent and adherence of mind to this truth, and full persuasion of it, that God has granted unto us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.

"The next remarkable effect of this discovery was that it set me right as to my chief end, and made me look to the glory of God, for which formerly I had no real concern. Now my eye was made, in some measure, single in eyeing the Lord's honor. It manifested itself in frequent desires that the Lord might be honored and glorified in my life, or by my death. It kept my soul fixed in the persuasion that it was every way fit that I should take shame and confusion to myself as what truly and only belonged to me; and that the glory of my salvation was only and entirely the Lord's due.

"A third discernible effect was, that I was led to look upon His yoke to be easy and His burden light; and to count that His commandments were not grievous—but 'right concerning all things'. (Psalm 119:128) This was very contrary to my former temper. I now came to a fixed persuasion that the law was not only just, such as I could make no reasonable exception against—but holy, and such as became God; and good, such as was every way suited to my true interest and peace and advantage, which I could never think before. The duties to which my heart was most averse had now become agreeable and refreshing.

"A fourth remarkable effect of this discovery was the exercise of evangelical repentance, which was very different, in many respects, from that sorrow with which I was before acquainted. It differed in its rise. Sorrow before flowed from the discovery of sin as it brings on wrath; now it flowed from a sense of sin as containing wretched unkindness to One who was Himself astonishingly kind to an unworthy wretch. I looked on Him whom I had pierced, and did mourn. Sorrow formerly wrought death, alienated my heart from God, and thus dispirited me for duty, and made me fear hurt from Him; but this sorrow filled my heart with kindness to God and to His ways, sweetened my soul, and endeared God to it. It flowed from a sense of His favor to an unworthy wretch that deserved none, and was thus a godly sorrow leading to kindness to God, and a drawing near Him—but with much humble sense of my own unworthiness, like the returning prodigal. The more God manifested of His kindness, the more still did this feeling increase: when He was pacified, then was I ashamed and confounded. The sorrow I had before I looked on as a burden: it was nothing but selfish concern for my own safety, and a fear of the righteous resentment of God. But this sorrow was sweet and pleasant, as being the exercise of filial gratitude; and I took pleasure in the surprising manifestations of God's favor to one so unworthy, and in acknowledging my own unworthiness. This sorrow was a spring of activity, and I was glad to be employed in the meanest errand that might give opportunity to evidence how deeply I was grieved for my former disobedience. It resulted in a return to the way of life, and to such a course as upon a review I did not repent of—but delighted in, and in which I desired continually to advance. It wrought carefulness to avoid sin, concern to please God, indignation against sin, fear of offending God again, vehement desire of having sin removed, the Lord glorified, and obedience promoted.

"A fifth discernible effect was an humble—but sweet and comfortable hope and persuasion of my own salvation, answerable to the clearness of the discovery. When the Lord gave me this view of the way of salvation, He satisfied me that it was a way full of peace and security, the only way which I might safely venture. Hereby I was freed from the disquieting fear that the ground of my trust would fail. I was satisfied I could not fail, otherwise than by missing this way. While I held fast and reposed with satisfaction on what I was convinced was safe, I could not but be quiet and composed about the result. This shows how nearly allied faith and assurance are, though they are not the same, and therefore, no wonder the one should be taken for the other. This discovery manifested that salvation was in the way of self-denial, and trust in the Lord alone; for nothing so soon marred this hope as the least appearance of self and stirring of pride. Whenever the glory of the Lord appeared and He spoke peace, I was filled with shame, and the deeper this humiliation was, the more the humble confidence of my safety increased.

"A sixth discernible difference was with respect to the ordinances of the Lord's appointment. I was drawn to follow them as the Lord's institutions, and His appointed means of our obtaining discoveries of His beauty. I desired 'to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple'. (Psalm 27:4) I was brought to exercise more liveliness; when the Lord revealed Himself, 'my soul then followed hard after Him'. (Psalm 63:8) When the Lord enlarged me and caused me to approach to Him and see His glory, He still humbled me, discovered self, and put me in opposition to it. I was now acquainted, in some measure, with that boldness and freedom of access, with humble confidence, to God as on a throne of grace, manifesting Himself in Christ. In a word, I was in some measure sensible of the Lord's hiding or manifesting Himself, according as I performed my duty, and of the necessity of the exercise of grace, particularly faith, in all approaches to God."

Although in the preceding authentic narrative of religious experience we have entered more into detail than usual, yet we are persuaded that the serious reader will not think the account too long or too particular. I have not met with any account of Christian experience which is so full and satisfactory as this; and when it is known to have been written by a man of sound understanding and most exemplary piety, at a late period of life, when his judgment was matured by much experience, it cannot but furnish a decisive proof of the reality of experimental religion, which cannot be gainsaid. In these exercises there is not a tincture of enthusiasm. Indeed, holy affections thus produced by the contemplation of truth are the very opposite of enthusiasm, which always substitutes human fancies or impulses for the truths of God, which it uniformly undervalues. In this case we see also how high the exercises of Scriptural piety may rise, without degenerating into any extravagance.

Many Christians seem not to know or believe that such spiritual discoveries of the beauty of holiness and the glory of the Lord are now attainable: but still there are some, and often those of the humbler class of society, who are privileged with these spiritual discoveries, and prize them above all price. The language of such is, "One day in your courts is better than a thousand. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God, than dwell in the tents of sin." (Psalm 84:10) "Return unto your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you." (Psalm 116:7)

It is delightful to trace the effects of God's truth in producing every holy affection, when it is discerned by the light of the Holy Spirit. Faith is almost identified with this view; love flows out sweetly and spontaneously; evangelical repentance is enkindled; the soul is clothed with humility; zeal for God's glory is predominant; His ordinances are sought with desire, and found to be channels which freely communicate with the rich fountain of grace beneath the throne of God. So far are right views of free grace from leading those who entertain them to indulge in indolence, or be careless about holy living, that they impart the only true cause of activity and diligence in the work of the Lord.

In the foregoing account, the reader may learn the nature of true religion more clearly than from many sermons and long treatises; but the humble, doubting Christian must not make the measure of grace which this favored saint enjoyed, the standard by which to judge of the reality of his own religious experience. The same light may shine with vastly different degrees of clearness, from the meridian blaze down to the faint dusky dawn—but the rays come from the same source; and that which is now but just discernible in the midst of shades of departing night, will go on to increase, until it shines more and more to the perfect day. Let not the extraordinary clearness and distinctness discourage those who are sincerely desirous to see "the beauty of the Lord", (Psalm 45:11) but let them rather take fresh courage in a pursuit, which from this example, they find may be crowned with glorious success. "Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles—they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint." (Isa 40:31)