There are many factors that make evangelism difficult. There is the internal spiritual alienation from God that renders the unbeliever unimpressed by God and therefore unresponsive to him in worship (Col. 1:21; 2 Cor. 4:4-6). Then there is the fog of worldliness that reinforces the heart’s unsubmissiveness to God and his Word (1 Jn. 2:16-17). We see this with the ongoing marketing of personal autonomy, self-discovery, and satisfaction in created things.
But there is another contributor to the fog that is very unhelpful. I am talking about the authority of personal experience. Today our personal experience and personal interpretation of that experience is the unquestionable authority that all must submit to.
Earlier this week I was talking to a number of unbelievers about Jesus. In the midst of the conversation one told me that he can see the future. He said that he has, on a few occasions, been able to see what was going to happen. He pointed to his buddy for confirmation and, as you’d expect, got the requisite head nod. I know that in this conversation I cannot slash the tires of his experience. If I even pull out the knife of reason or testing he will shut me down. Personal experience and our interpretation of it is the authority. We might call it Sola Experiencia.
After this talk with my new friends I thought about what we as Christians could be doing better to communicate the authority of the Bible. Within an hour I was reading about the new movie to be released this weekend about the runaway bestseller, Heaven is for Real. In this book, as I’m sure you are aware, a 6-year-old boy reportedly went to heaven and then came back to tell us all about it. Our supernaturalist society gobbled up the book. The family is a professing Christian family from small-town Nebraska. I am sure they are nice and truly believe all of what they wrote and say. However, what they are doing is unwittingly contributing to the fog that reinforces the heart’s unsubmissiveness to God and his word.
To make matters worse, and prove my point further, shortly after seeing this I noticed that a large evangelical church in Omaha (Christ Community Church) is hosting the boy to tell his story. Of course there are costs associated (tickets are $5 and $10 in advance, $20 for skip-the-line VIP seating, $15 at the door.)
I am sure you can see the problem here. We have a culture awash in a neo-gnosticism that gobbles up personal experience like samples at Costco. We cannot resist them. Then we have people everywhere telling their own stories and then interpreting them with authority. And of course we have a church that goes right along with it to reinforce sola experiencia to the thousands who attend each Sunday morning.
There was a time when experience saluted Scripture. In Second Peter 1:16-18 the apostle Peter recounts the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. “We were with him,” Peter says. This is the stuff bestsellers are made of! However, Peter doesn’t stop there. In a culture where the buds of gnosticism were already growing and the sola experiencia was taking shape he says this:
“So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (2 Peter 1:19–21)
Peter had the greatest story. He could have trumped anyone. Instead of pushing sola experiencia he pushes Sola Scriptura. Pay attention to the Bible he says. It is not subject to our bound by personal experience and autonomy–it is the direct result of God speaking it! According to Peter, experience salutes Scripture, not the other way around. I love what my friend Burk Parsons tweeted along these lines:
Heaven is for real, not because someone claims to have been there, but because the one who came from heaven said it was.
Evangelism is hard work for a number of reasons but we are making it even harder when we carry around our own personal fog machines to obscure people’s view of the Bible. After all, remember that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of….experience? No. Faith comes by hearing the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). People need to hear the Bible or they will not become Christians. Far from being helpful for people this type of thing only hinders evangelism while impeding sanctification.