Many people make claims of having very profound and religious experiences. As a reader, you may have something in your past that is extremely meaningful to you. It may be that you were about to have a terrible accident and disaster was averted in some way you couldn’t explain. Maybe you were looking at a sunset and felt a great calm and peace come over you. Or perhaps you had a dream that was so vivid that you are convinced must be real.
In studying with people, these experiences are often recited as a way of explaining why they believe, the moment they knew they were saved, or as a proof that they were right with God. Is this right? Should we turn to these sorts of experiences to be the source of our hope of salvation?
In order to answer this question, we must establish some basic truths.
First, God reveals himself in a limited way outside of his Word. He reveals his existence through creation (Rom 1:20-21). He reveals his existence through our sense of morality (Rom 2:15). He reveals himself in the order that we can observe (Acts 17:26).
It is important to recognize that God has not revealed his will for man, or the plan of salvation in any of these means. He has simply revealed his own existence in these areas so that we would “seek God” (Acts 17:27), and so that we have “no excuse” for being disobedient (Rom 1:20).
Second, God has revealed himself in other ways than the written word in different periods of time. Hebrews 1:1-2 says “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”
There is no doubt that God communicated his will by all sorts of interesting means in a different time. He spoke through dreams, he spoke through animals, he spoke directly from the heavens, he spoke through angels, he spoke by writing on walls, and the list goes on. But the Hebrews writer points to a change in the Christian age. “But in these last days” God has changed how we can hear his word, and he has closed the doors on receiving our own personal revelation. Jesus is the one who speaks, and he has spoken.
Jesus told his apostles that they would be responsible for giving his word to the world by virtue of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26, 16:13, 17:8, 20). And then when they went and preached that message. The people who obeyed it, obeyed the word of Christ (Matt 28:18-20).
While it is true that other individuals were given the privilege of receiving revelatory gifts of the Holy Spirit during the first century, there are three important points to remember. First, these gifts were passed on by virtue of the apostles laying their hands upon individuals (Acts 8:18). Second, they were given the same message that apostles would preach. Third, those gifts were lesser temporary tools that served a purpose until the perfect word of God was completed (1 Cor 13:10). As the Apostles died out and the 27 books were distributed among the churches of Christ the ability to receive direct revelation from the Holy Spirit went away.
Getting messages in dreams, modern day prophets, tongue speaking, and the like is simply not an option. They are unnecessary as we have the scriptures that have been once and for all delivered (Jude 3), possess all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3), and can make a man complete (2 Tim 3:16-17).
Faith comes by hearing the word of God. We don’t hear the word of God unless it comes out of the Bible. It may be a tough pill to swallow because people hold their own experiences in such high regard but it is a matter of fact. While it may be the case that God has worked providentially so that you would be interested in hearing his word, those experiences have no bearing on the question of whether you are saved and your standing with God.
As a proof of this, take the conversion of Saul of Tarsus as an example. In Acts 9 and 22 we have the account of what happened to him on the road to Damascus.
First Jesus appears to him and speaks to him (Acts 9:35). Many people would say that Saul was saved right then. But Jesus does not leave him thinking that everything is ok. He tells him that he needs to go to the city to “be told thee what thou must do”.
When Ananias gets to Saul, Saul had been praying (9:11). But his experience and prayer did not make him right with God. Ananias still had not told him what he needed to do. In Acts 22:16 Ananias says “arise and be baptized and wash away your sins”.
One of the major takeaways of Sauls experience is that his experience led him to become completely dedicated to the word of Christ. On the other hand, most people who have their “experiences” use those experiences to usurp the word of God. If someone truly had a vision from Jesus, the reaction would be to be fully obedient to His Word in a way that is similar to Paul.
Most people who I talk to who cling to their religious experience, reject what Jesus actually said they need to do to be saved. He said “he that believes and is baptized shall be saved”. Most people reject that they need to do that to be saved. Proving by their own fruits that whatever they experienced was not from God.