The Role of Experience
by R.C. Sproul
We’re living in a day when personal experience has been elevated above everything else as the final criterion of right and wrong. Just think of all of the people who try to justify themselves on the basis of what they feel. Divorce is routinely excused on the basis of a married couple’s no longer feeling like they are in love. We are told that homosexuality should be embraced as a moral good because some homosexuals report having felt an attraction to the same sex from a young age. Even many professing Christians make their decisions about right and wrong based on what they feel.
It’s hard to have a discussion with someone who makes their experience the final arbiter of reality. Many people embrace the old adage that “a person with an experience is never at the mercy of a person with an argument.” Ultimately, we have to disagree with this assertion, but not because experience is not a valuable tutor. It can help us connect theory to practice and abstract concepts to concrete situations. It assists us in sifting through the nuances of living in this complex world. There are even some experiences that seem to prove that experience trumps argumentation. I think of the example of Roger Bannister. Before 1954, many people argued that no human being could run a mile in under four minutes. Bannister broke that record, proving by experience that the argument was invalid.
The problem is not that experience can never outweigh an argument; we know from the history of science that the experience of empirical investigation has often overturned prevailing arguments. The problem is the idea that the person with an experience is never at the mercy of a person with an argument. In many cases, sound argument trumps experience. This is particularly true when the debate concerns personal experience versus a sound understanding of the Word of God.
I remember one occasion on which a lady approached me and said, “Dr. Sproul, for thirty years I have been married to a kind man and a good provider who is not a Christian. Finally, I could no longer stand not having in common with him the most important thing in my life-my faith. So, I left him. But he’s been calling me daily and begging me to come back. What do you think God wants me to do?”
“That’s easy,” I said. “Your husband’s lack of Christian faith is no grounds for a divorce according to 1 Corinthians 7. So, God’s will is that you return to him.”
The woman did not like my answer and said it wasn’t a good one because I didn’t know what it was like to live with her husband. I responded, “Ma’am, you did not ask me what I would do if I were in your shoes. Perhaps I would have backed out long before you did, but that’s irrelevant to the matter. You asked me about the will of God, and that is clear in this situation. Your experience is not a license to disobey God.” I’m thankful to report that when the woman saw that she was asking God to make an exception just for her, she repented and returned to her husband.
That woman’s argument is duplicated every day among many Christians who subject the Word of God to their experience. Too often, when our experience conflicts with the Word of God, we set aside the Scriptures. We might take refuge in public opinion or the most recent psychological studies. We allow the common experience of people around us to become normative, denying the wisdom and authority of God in favor of the collective experience of fallen human beings.
Truthfully, we all know that experience is often a good teacher. But experience is never the best teacher. God, of course, is the best teacher. Why? Because He instructs us from the perspective of eternity and from the riches of His omniscience.
Sometimes we try to cover up our reliance on experience with more orthodox-sounding language. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard Christians tell me that the Holy Spirit led them to do things Scripture clearly forbids or that God gave them peace about their decision to act in a way that is clearly contrary to the law of God. But that’s blasphemous slander against the Spirit, as if He would ever countenance sin. It’s bad enough to blame the devil for our own decisions, but we put ourselves in grave danger when we appeal to the Spirit to justify our transgressions.
One of the most powerful devices of manipulation we’ve ever designed is to claim that we have experienced the Spirit’s approval of our actions. How can anyone dare contradict us if we claim divine authority for what we want to do? The result is that we end up silencing any questions about our behavior. But Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit leads us to holiness, not to sin, and if the Spirit inspired the Scriptures, any experience we have that suggests we can go against biblical teaching cannot be from Him.
As long as we live on this side of heaven, we must deal with the fallenness of our bodies and souls. Seeking to make our experience determinative of right and wrong means repeating Adam and Eve’s sin. Why did they disobey the Lord? Because they trusted their experience that told them “the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gen. 3:6). They ignored the promises and warnings God revealed to them regarding the fruit of the forbidden tree. Experience can and should teach us, but it can never be the final arbiter of right and wrong. That role belongs to our Creator alone, and His Word gives us the standards by which we must live.